Ashok wouldn’t say why leeches never bit him. The question would float for a bit, as he stared at one inching across the back of his hand. In the silence, your attention would fade and resettle on the leech as well.
I once picked up a leech. It started sawing through my finger before I could get a good look at it. I flicked it off with a snap of my wrist. My bowels loosened as I realized I had not seen where it went.
Little black, rubbery, slimy evil things are the leeches of India. You can’t hold a leech like a snake, grasping its neck directly behind its head and pointing it away from you. Leeches don’t really have heads, just mouths with sharp teeth and numbing saliva. The mouth can pivot 180 degrees, it seems, and bite whatever’s holding it.
Watching Ashok with a leech would bring a hush over any group of hikers. No matter how young, or old, all would stare. Ashok could pick up leeches and play with them. He did not get bitten. He simply let the leech inch around his hand and arm. He would stare intently at it. You would stare with him. All were mesmerized.
A strange boy, Ashok didn’t have any friends at school. He kept to himself. Ashok provoked thought and discussion.
“I think he uses neem oil. Maybe DEET.”
“No, he doesn’t put anything on. They just don’t bite him. I think there’s something in his blood that the leeches can smell, and don’t like. I think there was a study a few years ago about blood type and leeches, I believe out of Chennai…”
“No, no, it’s not the blood type. It’s an antigen of some sort, I’m pretty sure.”
“What’s an antigen?”
He is a very holy child, you know,” one teacher would offer. “The leeches can sense this, I think.”
“No, there’s some natural pheromone he has. Or maybe he just won’t tell us what his secret lotion is” another would correct.
“No, no, I’ve smelled his arms and hands. He wears nothing but natural sweat.”
“Perhaps he sweats so much the salt confuses the leeches?”
“How much sweat do you see on Ashok when he hikes? It’s cold out here.”
“I think it’s because he’s so calm with them. The way he just sits there quietly.”
“Are you saying leeches can sense fear, and only bite when they sense it?”
“Leeches don’t smell my fear before they bite, that’s for sure. They bite no matter what.”
“Maybe the leeches don’t bite when they sense fear. Maybe Ashok is so quiet because he’s terribly freaked out by the leech.”
“I’d be freaked out if I let leeches crawl on my hands.”
“I think he just likes them.”
“Well, duh, do you think he’d handle them if he didn’t?”
“He gets a lot of attention when he handles them. Maybe that’s his motivation.”
“Great way to get attention. Freaks me out when he does it.”
“No, Ashok doesn’t like attention. He prefers to be quiet.”
“How can you say that? Do you know him well?”
“Well no, but I can feel it in him.”
“I don’t see how his ability to hold leeches without being bitten is significant. It’s just one of those things.”
“Do you see the way he stares at them? Worse than a candle.”
“Oh, shut up.”
I stopped asking Ashok about his thing with leeches. But I didn’t stop watching him. On every hike he would gather a leech at some point, and let it crawl around his hands and arms. He would just stare at the leech, hypnotized by its odd movements. Leeches sit on their rear end, sort of a foot, then stretch out tall and wave their heads back and forth. To get places, they move like inch worms, holding with their head to move the foot closer. The leech that Ashok played with would move around, then wave, then move around, then wave.
At times it seemed that the leech thought Ashok was a branch, inert, part of the forest floor, and not a blood feast. Once, emboldened by Askoh, a girl picked up the leech from him. She was bitten almost instantly, shrieked loudly only partly from fear and disgust. We were all doubly impressed with Ashok.