Gulper Eel by Sarah Schlesinger; for more information, visit https://www.etsy.com/shop/SESart

Old Woman and Eel

by Joyce Goldenstern

I am 80 years old.  If I were a river eel, my body would be yearning for salt water. I would be setting off on a long journey to the Sargasso Sea, the sea of my origins.  My body, at 80, for the first time, would be swollen, 10 million eggs to let loose before I expire in the ecstatic swirl of spawning.  I would dance that death dance of the eels, relentless—once one eel for every star in the sky (and yet, and yet, fewer come each year)—saltwater dance, dark water dance, spiral dance of fertility: egg and sperm. As it is, I am holding an estate sale tomorrow.  My grandmother’s cadenza will have to be sold. As it is, my ponderous legs seem to me, at times, dead eels, so too my arms (my limbs: their limbless bodies), my skin not the eel skin that thickens for migration but the shriveled skin of slaughtered eels, salted and brown sugared, hanging on a line, waiting to be grilled.  No, my limbs are not sheathed with the healthy skin of young eels: slimy, impossible to hold, nor sheathed with the transparent skin of glass fish, the larval eel, totally clear save two dark spots which mark its developing eyes — the glass fish whose frenzied darts of movement cause rivers to flow. If only my movements flowed.  I hobble along. I miss the moa bird, extinct now.  I miss my mother.

***

My mother’s table and hutch will also have to be sold. One hopes for continuity but learns it does not lie in furniture or even friends or children, but rather in holy space that enters one’s mind as one relinquishes resentments and contemplates the empty hand, the emptiness of the hand just lost hold of the eel. The house is too large, its furnishings too many, its stairs impossible to climb. The small apartment that awaits will seem spacious to me whose needs each day diminish: high toilet seat, shower to walk into, hot plate and microwave, a few books on the shelf, a comfortable chair in which to contemplate or from which to stare straight ahead.

***

I once knew an old woman who rescued river eels. The eels were yearning for salt water but dams obstructed their swim down the river current to the sea or mercilessly sucked them in, the path of least resistance as the eels instinctively saved energy for their long ocean trip.  I remember her hands: knotted like vines. They scooped up eels. They petted the heads of eels affectionately and carried the eels over the dam, safe from the turbines that maimed and killed them. Her work assured that the eels would not die out, though they no longer propagated in such great numbers as they did before the building of dams.

***

Have you ever eaten an eel?  How sweet its meat, how rich its oils, sizzling on the grill. Do not wantonly slaughter the eel or it will bark like a pup, will cry like a baby, will suddenly change its color. Do not horde. Such are the lessons of the eel. I will sell what I do not need and what I do not sell, I will give away. I will eat to satisfy my hunger, hoping the oil of eel will soften my skin, will nourish my limited wisdom.

***

At night, I dream of the glass eels, once so numerous and thick, they seemed a slick of oil floating on top of the water. Someone asks, “Have you ever seen an eel suck the meat from a fresh-water mussel? Have you ever seen it bite a sheep wading in a stream and rip off a piece of meat by holding on with its teeth and thrashing its body in mad circles, a dark whirl and smacking of air and water? Have you ever seen an eel walk on its tail, climb the vine of a tall tree to steal the eggs of a tern from its nest? Have you seen it hide in water cress or seen a school of eels disappear in a rush: inky black among white stones, a strange calligraphy?” And these are questions and images that haunt my dreams.

***

 Keep watch!  Do not sleep! You might miss the eel who hunts and eats in darkness! Listen to the river current run over smooth stones: oh, the eel must be gurgling as it swims.

***

See an eel knot itself with others into braids to climb a ladder over the dam on its journey from salt water to fresh water, up the river, against the river current, following the relentless call of destination.  Ask how it knows where to go, how it circulates among all the rivers of the land? I admire the eel which can swim with equal agility and speed backward and forward. How countless its numbers seemed once at the mouth of the St. Lawrence!  And yet its numbers there diminished to zero. I miss the passenger pigeon, extinct now. I miss my father.

***

Who might believe an old woman sheds tears for a troubled father, 25 years dead, a perverse grandfather, 40 years dead? Who might believe that each year, she calculates their ages and is shocked when they reach a year (110, 120) beyond the reach of human longevity? My father traversed the mechanical world with grace and precision. He tried to teach me six steps to change a tire. He succeeded in teaching me to turn off a vacuum cleaner before unplugging it. He taught me not to yank its plug. He bought me a tool box and pegs to fit into proper holes and a toy car with a wrench and hammer and jack in its functional trunk. He could not teach me to measure accurately with a ruler, or turn a screw, or run a saw, or hammer a nail, or comprehend a motor, or hardly even to change a lightbulb, for I did not share, nor at the time appreciate, his love and tenderness for the pneumatic, the hydraulic, and the manual. He caressed the curves of his drills and drivers. He gently ran his hand over a freshly sawn board of hardwood as though it were an animal to pet tenderly. He respected the power of a circular saw, a tool he wisely stopped using when his old hands shook with palsy.  But when my father punished his daughters, he lost control, as his father lost control before him and punched his stomach, as he punched ours. All was chaos and frenzy, a return to turmoil, the revving engine, which the predictability of engineering usually held in check. Because my father did not know the way to love, he reliably fixed our bicycles and my mother’s toasters and kept our house in fine maintenance (though when he power mowed the long grass, he once accidentally chopped a snake to bits). See this brass level?  See this wooden molding plane?  See this antique sliding bevel? These are my father’s tools, which must be sold tomorrow. What price shall I mark them?

***

Who will believe an old woman grieves an eel? She weeps for the eel struck by a turbine – its gills hanging out of its mouth, emitted by the sharp blow of a blade. You might think an animal (a water monster, an ogre) so slimy and long might not deserve pity.

***

Once an old woman waded a stream. An eel slithered up her thigh and raped her. She pulled the eel by its tail from her body. She yanked off its head and threw it to the sea. This became the saltwater eel. She tugged its tail and tossed it to the land. This became the vines of a tree. Then, she threw the headless, tail-less creature to the stream. This became the freshwater eel and her guardian and her seducer for all time.

***

See these binoculars? They enlarge to the 14th power with no loss of clarity. They belonged to my dearly departed husband. I miss my husband. We once hiked off trail in Arkansas to search a rare sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which has now most certainly gone extinct. My husband had an excellent ear. He could identify a bird by its call and could call to it by it. Shall I sell the binoculars tomorrow at the sale? I wish to rid myself of belongings that I no longer need for they seem now only distractions, and yet as I rock in a rocking chair in a small room (a room, I imagine almost as dark at times as the river caverns where the eels linger) and as I stare straight ahead, waiting for death, the binoculars may be of some use. Birds of the fall migration might fly by or stop to rest in the parking lot outside the window. Surely, I will wish to witness them and take notes.

***

I have only imagined their spawning dance, the orgy of egg and sperm, but I have seen eels cling together in a tight ball and roll from an inland pond over sand and gravel to the ocean: the call of their origin, that strong. I have only imagined their long bodies in the ocean’s deep current, so deep that no light enters. But I have seen an old lady in trousers and tennis shoes hunting eels. Flicking the ash from a cigarette, throwing its butt to the ground, stamping it with her heel, she then followed a ferret on a leash which sniffed out eels in fields of stubble as they slithered from one puddle of water to another.  I thought then of the first eel who lived high in the sky. I thought of the sun eel, the eels who were stars.  I did not and do not wish the river eels to return to them, to aspire their great heights. They have been on earth too long: two hundred million years. They belong here: un-Platonic eels — slither and slime. I would miss them, as I miss the moa bird, the lost pigeon, the vanishing ivory bill of Arkansas.  I do not know why eels make such arduous trips to return from whence they came, but I feel their urgency too today as I ready myself to sell or give away all that keeps me here.

About Joyce Goldenstern

Joyce Goldenstern, a Chicago resident, writes and “lives by” fiction and folk wisdom. She is the author of a collection of short fiction The Story Ends—The Story Never Ends (ELJ Edition, 2015).  Among her garden plants are cat mint and catnip, much appreciated by Miss Smokey.

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