I Had Been Feeding Leeches for a Month by Barrett Warner


The hardest part about my having tuberculosis was trying to write about it in a quotidian way. Illness can be so inherently inscrutable. In my memoir, My Thousand Year Old Disease, where this leach moment is drawn, I have tried to think about TB within a variety of poem fragments and conversations and mashing them all up to find the words. This essay began as a conversation with Jim Robison, but the less he became himself, the more I became me, the more I found what I was trying to describe. But yeah, the cellar is real. The anxious hiding.

And when you came by, I was downstairs, crouching behind the oil furnace. I heard you, or someone, walking around up there. Across the chestnut board flooring I stole out of a barn. To the kitchen. To the hearth. Then stood there looking around. Lifted the piano cover, trailed a finger over a few sharps. I thought, wow, 240 highway miles is a long way to track someone. I should have taken the river. But what is worse, to have someone walk freely into your home, or to listen to someone knocking on your latch as if to scold it for some vague offense—like existence.

It started with a few drops of magenta on my hand, and soon there was a whole clot, larger than a quail egg. This was outside a barn in West Virginia, at the mouth of Decker Creek, where it cheats into the Mon. I thought I’d be safe for a few days staring at racks on the Black Bear Saloon wall, wearing a false mustache, feeling the beat of the derby-hatted fiddle band. It sounded like a horse cantering a great distance. And then a hand on the back of my neck, scrubbing on it.

“I’m sick,” I tried to say.

“I know. I made you sick.”

“I’m bleeding,” I said.

“I know. I made you bleed.”

It’s good to get these issues out of the way early in a relationship, before the big cello of it, the bow, the finding your middle, the Gurdjieff of it all, his old whiskey, the two or three fantastic swallows.

The cellar’s tabby wall was behind me. Almost black, I loved the idea of it. How it was made by destruction, the ocean burned out of the oyster shells, the ash, the small flat stones of it. I knew if you flung back the hurricane door and dropped down you would see my shoes poking out. And then the satisfying sigh—Ahh hah

This is how it is: we go all the way down, and then we go up, up, up.

Barrett Warner is the author of Why Is It So Hard to Kill You? (Somondoco Press), My Friend Ken Harvey (Publishing Genius) and Until I’m Blue in the Face (Tropos Press). Contrary by nature, he spends his time living in South Carolina and is one of the editors at Free State Review. Less about him can be found at https://barrettwarner.com/

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