Three Spokes to the Wheel by Christine Collinson

I can never tell when a leech bites because Ma doesn’t flinch. “’Tis no bother, Bridget. My old skin’s tough enough!” She laughs loudly then, but it’s not quite real. Hollow, like the little keg that swings at her waist as she wades through the rush-choked ponds.

I have a keg too, to be helpful. As I sit and watch, I’m careful not to get too close to the edge. “They can’t jump, my love,” she says when I peer into the murky water, then start backwards.

Ma’s skirt is hitched high, crumpled like washing, and her bare legs are the colour of curds. I love how she bats aside the rushes with her willow-wand. Swish-swish. And then, as her leg rises, I spot one. No; two, three, four. Little black squiggles stuck on Ma’s leg. As she moves, the ripples become endless circles before my eyes.

I remember the morning Pa left. Listening at the top of the stair, hidden and silent. Most of it low and mumbled, then louder, “Just decide who you want to cling to, Nell.” The tremble in his voice made the hairs on my arms prickle. The thud of the door, after.

“Will it be much longer, Ma?” The noonday sun is stinging my face. We’re always here in summer, just as the fetid stench swells. Cows graze beside us, the stink of new pats mixing with the boggy haze. I pinch my nose, but it does no good. “Keep hold of that keg!” Ma calls from the far side. I thought she wasn’t watching, but Ma always seems to know what I’m doing even when her back’s turned.

I looked really closely at Ma’s legs once, when we returned home and she was sponging the bloody streaks away. Three tiny red marks, like wheel-spoke patterns on her skin. The marks kept oozing long after. I stared at her, holding questions, but she just stroked my hair. “It doesn’t hurt, honestly.”

Ma unhooks the keg from her waist and gives it to me. A little bung seals it, but I’m still unsure; picture the leeches slithering inside, gorged on Ma’s blood. She takes the empty keg from my lap. We always fill more than one in high summer; she won’t hear of stopping before. “Good lass. Now run along to Dr. Palmer.”

Dr. Palmer gives us shiny coins for our leeches. For years now, always Dr. Palmer. I like going because his parlour’s filled with strange jars and urns. Seeing him makes me think of Pa. Dr. Palmer smiles at Ma and she laughs like she used to when Pa was around. Sometimes Ma delivers them on her own and it’s like she’s forgotten herself when she comes back. I wonder if Dr. Palmer has some secret magic; perhaps he turns leeches into gold. He has a grander house than us, after all.

I set off, my boots slurping through the spongy grass. But then I turn around, shield my eyes from the sun-glare bouncing off the water. “Ma, is Pa coming home one day?” I hesitantly call. Swish-swish. She faces the hills, her back towards me. It’s so still I hear flies darting passed my ears. I think she hasn’t heard me at all. “He’ll be back when all the leeches are gone.” There were fewer every summer, I’d spotted that.

“So, if the leeches were gone, we’d not go to Dr. Palmer for coins anymore?”

“Precisely, my love.” And Ma wipes her brow. Swish-swish. The ripples continue, and I know, the bites too. My heart swells at the thought of Pa’s return. I like kind Dr. Palmer, but he’s not a patch on my Pa.

I stride faster, the loaded keg tucked beneath my arm. “Hurry back, Bridget. I’ll fill the next while you’re gone!” Ma gives her blood willingly, as easily as Dr. Palmer’s coins land in our hands. And so we’ll gather, keg after keg, until we find no more.

Christine Collinson writes historical short fiction. Her first Novella-in-Flash was longlisted in the 2022 Bath Flash Fiction N-i-F Award. Over the past four years, her work has been published in a variety of online journals and print anthologies. Find her on Twitter @collinson26.