In partnership with the Commonwealth Writers, Granta is publishing the regional winners of the 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Stefanie Seddon’s ‘Eel’ is the winner from Canada and Europe.
That was the day I learned you should never try to pull your fingers out of an eel’s mouth, not a live one or a dead one. Not if you want to have any skin left to carry him home with, and especially not if it’s a twenty-pound silver-belly.
I swear it was me, and me alone, who got him caught. We’d gone down to the bridge to cut manuka for the eeling poles. I’d begged to tag along with Ted and the twins, and Ma said I could if Ted watched out for me. She packed me up a basket of dripping sandwiches and I raced off down the track, yelling for them all to hold up. I must have been about seven years old. Certainly no more than eight.
Ted was just back from the spring shearing in Hokitika and full of it. He’d come out of the sheds all lean and muscled and saying the Maori words a different way to the rest of us. He said we’d catch our eels the Maori way too, twisting long strips of flax into twine and tying the fibres tight around the end of each pole. We found a good spot on a mossy bank, about twenty yards upstream from the bridge. There was barely a sound in the bush that day; just a bellbird singing to the river and the warble of four boys fiddling with sticks and string. Ted lit a cigarette with a match and sucked long and hard.
‘Ma’ll murder you for that,’ I said.
He blew the smoke into a cloud of black sandflies and winked at me.
‘What she don’t know, eh Arch.’
When we were done, I made it plain that I deserved more than just a good view of the proceedings, seeing as how I was the one who’d been elbow-deep in mud all morning, digging bait to thread on the bobs.
‘I’ve just the job for you, Archie,’ Ted said, sending me down the bank with an empty sugar bag wrapped around my arm.
Here was Ted’s bright idea. The big boys would stand on the bank, dangling their lines into the water. When an eel snapped on the bob, I would race to its wriggling body, reach my hessian-covered hand under its belly and flick it onto the shore. If I’d been older, I’d have seen reasons why this might not work. I’d have noticed glances exchanged back and forth between Ted and the twins. But the way he explained it, I was the keystone to the whole arrangement, so I rolled up my shorts and plunged into the icy water. The riverbed was wide and shallow and covered in a slippery mix of flat stone and shingle that had washed downstream from the gold mine sluicings. I slid about on the balls of my feet and knocked my ankles on boulders, yelping and hopping as sharp edges jabbed into my skin. It was a relief to get to the middle, where I planted my legs hard against the current. Water swirled around my waist and it was straight off the glacier so my legs numbed fast. But I held my balance. I was ready.
It didn’t take long for an eel to take a bob. Now, if you’ve ever seen the jaw of an eel, with its cage of backward sloping needles, you’d know it wasn’t getting off that flax in a hurry. Once entangled in a knot of fibres, those teeth stick fast. Ted knew this. I did not. So when the first gaping mouth snapped shut on the line, I sprang across the water, arms outstretched to heave it sideways. At the same time, Ted jerked back his pole. Caught on the bob, the wriggling creature catapulted off the surface, landing high on the bank beside the bucket, right where Ted wanted it. I finished face down in the river, on top of a waterlogged sack in the space where my catch should have been. Burning with shame, I staggered upright and shouted blue murder at the boys, who lay on their backs next to a writhing silver-belly, shaking with laughter.
The funny thing was, if I hadn’t been given a dunking that morning, I’d never have seen him. Since I was already in, I figured it would be easier to paddle downstream to the bridge than fight the current, barefoot and frozen, to the mossy bank. I drifted on my stomach and clambered ashore between the old wooden piers, swearing revenge on Ted and weighing up telling Ma. I wrung out my clothes on the shingle beach downstream of the pier and in the path of the sun, I felt like I was warming from the inside out. A tui pecked away at some fuchsia berries and I remembered Ma’s sandwiches up on the bank. I thought about the boys and how they were probably eating them without me. I was hard up against it with the brothers, I really was. I was struggling.
It was the light that drew me to him. It was a rare day on the West Coast that we saw no rain, but this was one of them. Sunlight smoked through the top of the forest, filling the space beneath with hazy golden lines. My eye was caught by a bronze shape in a deep, slow-moving pool of water that formed a little basin at the edge of the river. When I looked closer, there he was, glinting like some lost treasure lying just below the surface. He must have been six feet long, from his thick black head to the tip of his tail, as wide as a grown man’s thigh. He seemed anchored to the spot; rimless, milky eyes fixed dead ahead while his body swished back and forth like the curve of a ribbon. I squatted just a few feet away, water dripping out of my shirt, as I tried to put to the back of my mind the Maori yarn Ted had told us about the Taniwha, the white monster eel that eats mothers and babies and puts a curse on those who harm it. Later, Dad set me straight on what he was doing there, so fat and so still. The old timers, he said, no longer have the instinct for the great migrations, the epic journeys from the streams and rivers to the sea. With nowhere to go, they just bask and eat, eat and grow, trapped in pools too small for their bodies. Monsters, lurking.
The bush hissed with cicadas. My chest felt tight.
I backed slowly away.
‘Hey, fellas,’ I said, in a loud whisper that disappeared into the river.
I dashed across the beach, plunged into a thick tangle of fern and manuka and fought my way up to our bank. It was a hard route back and when I burst out of the bush, I found a half-full bucket of lifeless black coils and a few spindly wrigglers being dispatched by the twins with a rock.
‘Fellas,’ I said, panting and breathless. ‘Listen.’
Ted sat near the edge, threading worms over Ma’s upturned basket. He flicked one over at me. I straightened up, still breathing hard, and found a voice I never knew I had.
‘Down there, fellas!’ I said, pointing. ‘C’mon. I found us a monster.’
Ted leapt to his feet with the pole and followed me back the way I came, trampling the ferns under his big shearer’s boots. He stopped when he got down to the beach and motioned to the others to stay back, while I scrambled lightly ahead. It felt like I had a special reason to be up close.
When Ted saw the monster, wallowing drowsily in the sun-drenched copper pool, I knew how it would end. With slow precision, he flicked his line to the water, landing the bait near the head. I held my breath and edged closer. The old boy’s eyes swivelled. The worms danced on the bob and the wide curve of his jaw began to part. In one powerful movement, he lunged to the surface, crunched his mouth around the bob and pulled hard away from Ted. The pole sprang from his hands. He hurtled across the beach and dived onto the shingle, getting one fist around the wood just as it slid into the river.
There followed a tug of war. Ted on one side, straining to hold the pole and using a range of descriptive curses he must have picked up from the shearers. The old eel on the other, churning up mud and slime with his thrashing and flicking and bewildering strength. The twins grabbed the end of the pole, behind Ted, and I reached into my pocket for a handkerchief. I wrapped it around my hand and squeezed tight on the line, about halfway between the end of the pole and the eel’s mouth. It wasn’t my weight that made the difference – I was light as a puff of cocoa – but I pulled down just at the right angle and with a decent tug from the boys he slid easily out of the water and onto the beach.
A few moments later we were hauling that writhing, twisting eel up the beach, me and the twins shouting and pulling the pole and trying to stop him getting back in the river or slithering off through the bush. It felt like we were fighting a grown man on the end of the line, that’s how heavy he was. Ted ran off to fetch the slasher and I reckon that eel would have had all three of us back in the water if he hadn’t scrambled down and chopped a blade right through the top of his head and out the other side. It was a horrible thing to see.
Ted held firm on the handle while the eel flapped about on the blade. After a minute or two, it stopped moving and we all stood back as Ted lay it out on the beach. The boys circled around making all sorts of admiring noises, fanning out the fins and running their hands along its taut, glistening carcass. Ted said it might have been fifty years old. Pat said maybe eighty and he poked his fingers through the hole where the slasher had been. I looked at its mangled face, the milky eyes turning dull grey and its gaping mouth pierced through. He’d certainly been a beauty, swishing in that pool. He’d been magnificent.
I thought I was going to be sick. I sat down on the lumpy shingle and put my head between my knees so the boys wouldn’t see me when I retched. Then I felt a slap on my back.
‘Nice one, Archie boy,’ said Pat.
Arthur heaved the eel into a straight line on the beach and lay down next to it.
‘A foot longer than me!’ he crowed. ‘Twice as big as you, Arch.’
‘Well done, mate,’ Ted said, squatting next to me. ‘You got yourself a whopper there.’
The boys went off with a pocket knife to cut some flax for getting it home. I said I’d stay with the eel because whichever way you looked at it, he was my responsibility. In truth, my legs were a bit wobbly and I welcomed the sit-down.
I poked at its jaw with a stick. Before Ted’s trick with the sugar bag, I hadn’t given much consideration to the teeth of these things. I pushed back the lips with the stick but it snapped in two, so I clasped my hands around its head and opened the jaws like a puppet. Fierce spikes lined the top and bottom rows. I’d imagined something like a shark’s mouth, but these teeth were long and thin. Inside the mouth it was pink and fleshy and I wondered how far back it would go, whether it was hollow all the way down to its tail. I slipped my right hand inside, pressing my palm lightly over the spikes, tracing my fingers down into its body. I took care to keep steady.
I didn’t account for the sliminess of that old boy, though I should have known, seeing as how long he’d been wallowing in that pool. The head slid out of my grasp and thumped to the ground, puncturing the top of my right hand with its teeth as it went. I jerked my arm back, triggering a second painful needling, this time from the backward facing spikes at the front of the mouth. I was well and truly fish-hooked. Ted said later they must have heard my screams in Christchurch. The boys came tearing out of the bush to find me face down on the beach with my skinny arm up to its elbow in the monster’s snaggled jaw. It looked, they said, like it was eating me whole. A boa constrictor, said Arthur. Not much of a meal, said Pat.
Ted held me still while the twins opened the jaws, taking quite a bit more of my skin with it. The impression, once my arm was safely in my lap, was of a likeness to the butcher’s block in Ma’s kitchen, scored with ripped up flesh and crimson blobs. I slumped on the beach like one of those limp wrigglers I’d seen by the bucket. My legs were scratched, my ankles bruised. Wet clothes clung to my bony frame.
Arthur hooted. ‘You’re in big trouble, Archie,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t wanna be in your shoes when Ma sees the state of you.’
‘Ted’s in trouble, more like,’ said Patrick. ‘Ma’s gonna skin ‘im alive when we get home.’
Ted dipped me in the river to wash off my arm and wrapped it up in two handkerchiefs. I howled as my blood seeped away on the current and he told me not to be such a baby. I’ve seen worse in the sheds, he said. Then he lit another cigarette and held it up to my lips for a puff, after which I really did feel sick. The coughing hurt my hand a little more than it hurt my lungs, and he said that I couldn’t tell Ma, now that I’d had a smoke too.
Ted strapped the flax around the head of the eel, wrapping it through the slasher hole and twice around again by its fins. He strung it with four long lines and we dragged it up to the bridge, me and Ted on one side, the twins on the other, pulling a line each over our backs, me hauling with my good left arm.
When we got home, the girls crowded round asking who, where, how. Ma took a good look at my clothes, and at my wrapped up arm, and then at the bruises and the scratches from the swim and the bush. By the time she’d finished inspecting me, Ted had saddled up Betsy and was galloping off into town.
The twins helped Dad lift the eel to the meathook and hang it under the porch, then he slashed it with the carving knife right around the head.
‘Tuna Pahore,’ he said, putting his boot on the tail. ‘The skinned eel.’
Dad peeled back that skin like a long wet sock as the twins retold the story of its capture. I thought I’d stand a little taller when they got to my part, but they didn’t see fit to mention it was me who found it. They didn’t say much about me at all. The eel dangled limply from the hook; skinny now, all naked and light grey. Its tail left slimy traces on the floor.
I was tired of the whole thing by then and I went indoors to get my arm seen to properly. Ma got out the caster oil and when I fretted about leaving her basket behind, she sent Pat back to collect it.
Later, in the kitchen, she cut fat slices of pale, spongy flesh and threw them into a pan of frothing butter. They sizzled and spat, turning pink to golden under the twist of her spatula. The kerosene lamplight shone bronze over the butter and even though I was half-starved, I knew for sure I couldn’t manage a bite. I just couldn’t get that monster eel out of my head. It wasn’t the eel in the pan I was thinking of, or the one being skinned on a hook on the porch. It wasn’t the eel we hauled along the track, or even the one swallowing me whole for his tea. The eel I saw was the one lying deep and quiet and alone in his coppery pool in the bush.
Photograph © anoldent