THE INSPIRATION FOR LEECH
Written by Hiron Ennes
I often tell people that there’s more of myself in my writing than there is in my body. This is not just because storytelling is in essence an externalization of my weirdest, most intimate thoughts (most of which should probably remain internal). In truth, I sometimes feel as if there really isn’t a whole lot of me in my body at all—or if there is, “me” is only a fractional component of a vast and vastly complex ecosystem. The cells of my consciousness are few, unique, and wholly dependent on an army of their differentiated sisters. They command much of the body, perhaps, but are strictly commanded in turn.
Much of this is evident in microscopy. It is a close cousin of stargazing for me and often induces the same introspective feeling of smallness. There’s something about staring down a glass tube into a hair-thin slice of the human body, witnessing the complexity and relationships between our smallest parts, that is at once fascinating and humbling. I am familiar with the shapes and functions of the cells pinched in the glass, but I am still always surprised—in an unnerving, existential way—that the most fundamental parts of our bodies are so utterly alien. When we look closely at our deepest, ciliated, flagellated, mitotic selves, we are unrecognizable as human. And even then, among these strange landscapes of otherworldly cells, there are even stranger things: usurpers, invaders, and imposters.
From the collective adaptivity of the body to the crystalline structures organisms form when offered the right conditions, the microscopic world is full of bizarre intelligences. The chemical chatter is constant; microorganisms always collect information about the world around them and, much like we do, change their behavior depending on how many of their friends or enemies are nearby. And much like us, they are permeable, observant, and always, always changing.
Leech draws from this wellspring of protoplasm, following the ecologies and wars and alliances and rivalries into the macroscopic world. Its protagonist—or cast of protagonists, perhaps—is a parasite, a hivemind whose consciousness spans across its many human hosts. It has colonized the brain in the same way many of its kin have colonized the gut or the skin. Its thoughts are composed of the same lightning-fast chemical gradients as our own. Its cells speak the same language. Much like the ecosystems of our microbiome, it changes our behavior. But unlike the ecosystems of our microbiome, which do not have access to the human cortex the same way it does, it can change behavior with conscious, logical intent.
Sometimes I wonder if something like that is not already working inside me, if a passing microbe or a wayward cell has altered the environment of my mind in an undetectable but consequential way. I will never know if the slight skew of some chemical gradient has made me say one word instead of another, has urged me to take the left path instead of the right. I’ll never know if the composition of my blood makes me kinder, or if the random over-expression of an ion channel makes me more foolish, or if I am writing only at the behest of something that lives inside this body and may, or may not, be “me.” After all, there is no way to find out. The most successful parasites are those who remain unseen.
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