So I’ve alluded to the fact that I have a file with a LOT of rejection letters in it. I thought it might be interesting to pull one at random from time to time and post it, so everyone can experience the fun of reading what I like to call “you suck” letters (even though they don’t generally actually say “you suck”). So here’s one from 2000, for a short story called “Leech Field”.
I’m not sure what the legal implications might be of posting somebody’s name or e-mail address without permission, and I don’t really feel like bothering to find out, so in the interest of prudence I’ve pixellated out such information. Suffice to say, they didn’t buy the story.
I don’t have any real plans to try to find a home for “Leech Field”, so for those of you who are interested in making your own judgment, here it is. At just over 1,000 words, it almost but not quite qualifies as flash fiction (by my definition). Enjoy. Or not.
“Mind the leach field!”
The boy stops at the edge of the slope. The grass below is so green he thinks it might be glowing. The air smells bad; it was the smell that drew him at first. Usually he doesn’t go through the small hole in the fence around the strange old man’s property, but he wanted to see what stunk. He thought maybe he’d find a dead deer or something, but a leech field? That is totally weird, and exactly the sort of thing one would expect to find at the old man’s place.
The boy stands still, watching the slope, looking for telltale wriggling or squirming. There isn’t any. The scrawny old fart, rumpled and sweaty in pants and long sleeves and gloves on this hot day, walks quick and stiff down a narrow path to the left of the leech field. “Go on, get.” He waves a dirty shovel. “Ain’t nothing in here that’s any business of yours.”
“Where’s the leeches? I don’t see ’em.”
“Ha ho, the boy’s a comedian. Get lost, now, before I call your parents.”
The boy sticks his tongue out at the man and then goes back down the hill to the fence. He squirms through the opening and onto the path, then runs along it until it comes out on the street a hundred yards farther on.
Leech field. The other kids have got to see this.
They’re back that evening just before dark, the boy and five of his friends. They’ve got flashlights and plastic shopping bags; they’ve got trowels from their mothers’ gardens. The boy figures the leeches must be underground, since he couldn’t see them before. The six of them descend on the green grass and start digging. They find rich black muddy earth, soft and malodorous; heaping scoops of it go into the shopping bags for later inspection. They get filthy and smelly, but they don’t find any leeches.
One of them discovers that the dirt is easily compacted into projectiles, and a mudball fight ensues. They return home encrusted with reeky drying clods of earth, to the collective consternation of the parents who have to wash them.
By Saturday morning, three of the six children are in the emergency room. By the next evening, all of them are ill with diarrhea, fever, vomiting, cramps. The boy is diagnosed with shigellosis, probably from contact with fecal material. His parents remember the condition in which he came home the night before. They ask him what he’s been into. The boy tells them that the old man up the street said there were leeches in his backyard, so he had gone with his friends to try and find them.
His parents know their son is a good boy and always tells the truth. They try to find out why the man would say such a thing. They call him first but there’s no answer, so they hop in their car and drive up the block to his house. He lives at the top of the hill, at the end of a long dirt driveway. He has no cable television, no city water. Everybody knows he’s rich but he lives like a mountain recluse. Chickens strut around his front yard like possessive feather dusters.
They knock at his door. There’s no answer, so they go around to the back yard. They hear muttering noises through the trees and follow them. The old man is working on a grassy green slope, patching holes in the sod. The air smells just like the boy did when he came home, only not as bad. The old man sees them and stands up, looking at them with his usual borderline-paranoid suspicion. “What do you all want?”
The father says, “We want to know why you told our son there was leeches in your yard.”
“Oh, is that right? I told him that? He the one dug all these damn holes in my leach field?”
“Him and some friends did,” the father says. “They’re all sick now.”
“I ain’t surprised.” The gaunt geriatric squints at them. “Don’t you all know what a leach field is?
It’s where my septic tank lets out. My tank’s all backed up and the guy can’t get out until Monday to pump it, so I got a leach field full a shit. That’s what your boy been digging in. Shit.”
“How dare you let sewage out into the ground?” the mother says. “Children play up here!”
“That’s why I got fencing around it. To keep your brats from trespassing. They come through the fence it ain’t my problem. Now you all get out a here before I call the cops.”
“You haven’t heard the last of this, mister,” the father says as they leave. “Not by a long shot.”
Monday morning rolls around. Some of the children are feeling better, but three of them are still sick and one is in the hospital. The boy’s father gets on the phone with the city health department and finds out that the old man’s septic system is not licensed. There is no record of it in the city’s files. Inspectors descend on the grassy slope like larger versions of the children, only with better equipment. They probe and dig and analyze.
The boy’s father leaves work early so he can see the old fart get what’s coming to him. At the end of the long driveway he finds a couple of police cars and a big police wagon. There are five filthy, decomposing bodies arranged on a tarp in the front lawn. A cop is taking pictures of them. The father recalls that the old man has been married many times. Sometimes he gets drunk and hangs around the post office talking about his former wives. On such occasions he will proudly assert that those bloodsuckers didn’t get a penny from him.
The barricade prevents the boy’s father from approaching any closer, but the old man sees him as the police drag him in handcuffs to a waiting car. “Goddamn you!” he shouts as he passes. “I told you all to stay out of my leech field!”