By Octavia Cade
17 June 2013
Three sisters lived next to an eel pond.
The oldest sister fed the eels each morning, just before dawn. She fed them chicken pieces and crooned, felt them wind long bodies about her legs, bare skin against scales, skirts tucked high about her waist.
(The oldest had always been a nature girl, filling the house with ice-cream containers stuffed with sea urchins and starfish, stick insects and caterpillars from the gum tree outside her bedroom.)
The middle sister baked bread fresh every day, and tore it into pieces with her own teeth. She scattered it about the pond on summer afternoons and floated with her hair unbound, and the eels, fat from chicken and the torpor of heat, sifted lazily through the strands for crumbs.
(The middle girl had knitting needles and silk, coloured strips of fabric hanging like bunting in her bedroom, cottons and cross-stitch and cloaks that caught at her flesh like cats—her painted nails streaking the soft velvet, leaving shadows in the fibre behind her fingers.)
The youngest sister didn’t visit the eel pond at all. Not in the early morning, nor in the afternoon. And at night, when she heard the eels hunting in the stream, heard them singing and slinging themselves along the mud banks, she put her pillow over her head and pretended to be asleep. Pretended not to hear her sisters pad from their beds, shucking nightgowns and slippers, to swim in the creek.
She preferred the shed to the stream, the smoke and the salt and the long quiet fillets that bought chicken feed and flour and cords of manuka, cut to size and smelling of turpentine.
(The youngest girl, a theorist even as a child, stuck to her solar system models and telescope; regarded her sisters’ collections with benign, remote interest. She preferred crisp paper and the clean shapes patterns made in her mind to worm farms and silk shifts and interrupted water.)
“You should come to the pond,” said the oldest sister, curling wire into a deadly, looping hook. “The pretty pets, so soft and wet.”
“You should come to the pond,” said the middle sister, sewing hessian into sacks. “The lovely darlings... The feel of their fins against you—there’s nothing like it.”
“I don’t want to,” said the youngest sister, and bound her hair up tightly, wore trousers even when she could not see the pool, stuffed her ears at night.
She hadn’t wanted anything to do with the eels. With any eel. They repelled her—the long, sinuous bodies, the chaotic wriggling. She could never tell which way they would lunge—had nightmares of swimming in the creek and having those blind, greedy mouths suction onto her foot and never letting go. So when her sisters laid the eels before her with the casual tenderness of old lovers, she was clear in her mind that she would not be fondling the long black bodies, would not be feeding on them after the smoking. Their flesh was not her flesh.
One summer, the two older sisters began to share their nights with more than the eels, and came back with flushed faces and their slippers danced through. “The eels called for you,” said the youngest sister. “They were hungry, and they called.”
“We are all hungry sometimes,” said the oldest sister.
(Her slippers were the colour of mother-of-pearl and oyster; tiny sea shells appliquéd in swirls along the edge of the vamp. When she slid them off they left ridged impressions like scales in her skin.)
“You can feed them too if you like,” said the middle sister.
(Long embroidered ribbons shot through with gold wrapped around her slippers as if she were a ballet dancer; bound her ankles until they were swollen and pink beneath the silk.)
“But I am the youngest, and it’s my job to be different,” said the youngest sister, trying to make a joke of it.
(Her feet were flat and torn with salt from the smoking shed, and slippers rubbed the raw flesh to bleeding. She stayed home, shoes kicked under the bed, and bathed her sore feet in milk and peppermint.)
“It’s your job to be difficult,” said her sisters, and went to cool their feet in the eel pond.
The next night, the youngest sister woke to her name—a breathy, splashy call from the eel pond. (Sophie.) She was again alone in the house, and the singing would not stop. (Sophie, Sophie...) When her sisters came home, their slippers once more danced through, they found the youngest in her bed, but though her head was hidden under the pillow as usual, her hair was wet and there were bites on her thighs and a new eel for smoking.
Tenderly, the oldest sister cleaned the bites with cotton wool and antiseptic, bandaged them up with soft rags and let her sister lean against her as she fed her brandy and willow bark. “I remember the first time I went eeling,” she said. “It was a shock for me too.”
(She remembered how her heart had pounded at the sight of the gleaming bodies, the fascination she had felt at the writhing, sinuous eels thick as her own calves—so different from the segmented insects and the fragile moth wings of her childhood.)
Carefully, so not to tug at the tangles, the middle sister combed out the wet hair, squeezed it with fluffy towels until it was dry, braided it gently with her own red ribbons. “I remember the first time I went eeling,” she said. “It will be better next time.”
(She remembered how her legs had trembled at the first brush of the wet skin against her flesh, how she had sunk to her knees in the dark water and rubbed her face against the warm flanks of the eels, her hair floating on the surface and covering their faces as well as her own.)
“I don’t remember anything,” said Sophie.
(Her memory was a sheet of blank paper, thin and crisp like apple skin and translucent enough to see shadows of writing beneath—equations and diagrams that wriggled and squirmed out of their neat lines and tidy arcs into chaos.)
The oldest sister cleaned Sophie’s eel with warm water and salt, scraped off the slime with strokes of her knife and an old tea towel. Brine-handed, she slid the blade along belly and spine, the eel’s body still rough and crusted with salt crystals for gripping. She left the head on. “Look,” she said to the youngest sister. “Look at how pretty it is, and how big! It must be so old, it would have died soon anyway.”
(She was quicker now, more practised and less curious than she had been with her own first eel. That she had slowly filleted and flayed, dissected until she had seen the stark shining bones of the skeleton, long and sinuous and so carefully articulated it had taken her days to reconstruct with wire so thin it was nearly invisible.)
The middle sister jammed her forearm down the eel’s gullet, dragging its guts back up through the dead mouth while her fist rippled the length of the its body. Her fingertips, wet with ichor and bile, gleamed white from between the gaping lips of the eel’s belly. “Look,” she said to the youngest sister. “Look at its pretty colours! See the blue and purple and silver in the black?”
(She had taken her sister’s skeleton eel and wrapped it round her neck like a feather boa. But the ribs scratched her skin, and she had tanned the velvet skin of her own first eel and sewn the leather into an embroidered scarf lined with silk.)
The youngest sister, vision blackening and dizzy with disgust, watched with whistling in her ears, clutched at a length of driftwood for balance. She saw how the body of the eel fitted her sister’s arm like a black satin glove, and how the other flicked gobbets of intestine from her fist and laughed. Though she tried to cover up her emerging memory with thoughts of books and paper and models, the dead eel swam beneath the surface of her thoughts, a lazy wriggling that left small round ripples in her dreams.
(Kicking in bed at night, the eel suctioned to her heel and the black, wicked mouth whispering against her skin: Remember me. Her foot, sucked dry and collapsing in on itself: numb, useless.)
The sisters stayed close to home the rest of the day, and Sophie felt their presence, felt them watching her with gentle concern while they busied themselves with chores.
The oldest sister watered the chickens and cleaned their coop, sprinkled corn and ground oyster shells, greens from the garden, kitchen scraps. Part of the run fence was loose—a long ragged palisade of driftwood, and the oldest sister strengthened it with wire till it stood straight again.
(She brought Sophie eggs that were still warm from the laying, and a shed tail feather from the rooster to cheer her.)
The middle sister kept to the kitchen, and danced between pantry and stove to scratchy gramophone music that swept through the open window, punctuated with the warm smell of baking bread and the sharp sizzle of hot oil.
(She brought Sophie whitebait fritters plump as pillows and garnished with lemon wedges, onion soup soft and rich as buttered silk, satiny custards to build up her strength.)
The youngest sister tidied the smoking shed, swept the floor clean of sawdust and ashes, admired the long lines of the eels as they hung in ordered rows, their straight and silent backbones. She moved to the house, tidying that as well. Sophie enjoyed housework—everything had a place and a function, and she dusted shelves and re-shelved books so that their spines showed in neat rows.
(Bestiaries and Linnaeus, anatomies and taxidermy and Aesop.)
(Pattern books and cookbooks, catalogues and Beeton and the Arabian Nights.)
(And Sophie’s own favourites: apples and orbits and optics, plate tectonics and the solar system, science fiction. She built a small fort of books in the corner of the parlour, walled herself comfortingly behind them, and read with a feather in her hair and fingers sticky from custard.)
The oldest sister woke her, brushed back the hair from her forehead, and closed the book that had fallen open across her chest as she slept. “Bedtime for you,” she said. “Why don’t you take one of my books with you? You might get used to the eels if you knew more about them.”
(Classification, habitats and life cycles, the long trip back to the birthplace to breed. Drawings of skeletons neatly dissected with labels: pinned down, rigid and rigidly defined, skeletons quiescent at last and without that awful surface slick, that repulsive scale-skin patina over the stark purity of bone.)
The youngest sister was fascinated by the skulls in the anatomy books—the rows of tiny teeth. That they existed at all was a dim and silly shock. Despite her experiences in the smoking shed, she had deliberately fostered the impression—born from nightmares—that the longfins were toothless. Yet the eel the middle sister had gutted had fitted her perfectly. Sophie had watched her thrust her arm into the eel’s mouth until she could push it in no further, until the jaw had bulged around her—and had watched as she had pulled her arm back out, dripping and reeking, but unscraped, unpunctured.
The middle sister had gutted something toothless—something not an eel. The youngest sister had to run to the bathroom and throw herself on the cold floor in front of the toilet. She needed the solid geometry of the tiles beneath her knees to regain control, to block out the sight of wet black skin smoothed tight around a reaching arm.
(Around her own reluctant heel, kicking at bedclothes and bones and bare soft skin.)
Her middle sister heard her retching and came to hold her hair back, came to put a wet towel on the back of her neck. “Back to bed with you,” she said, when Sophie was feeling better. “Why don’t you take one of my books with you? You might grow to like the eels if you knew their stories.”
(Mystery and mythology, consumption and reproduction and folk tales. The river taniwha, the guardian spirits that took the form of strange longfins and took river women for wives, bred broods with them of taniwha and human children both. That cried when captured or speared, that changed colours and laid curses. That sent their killers mad.)
That night she kicked so hard she woke herself and thought she heard the echoes of crying. In the light of the bedside lamp her heel was pink and plain and plump, but when she turned off the lamp, the eel returned, weeping beneath her poor dead foot. She tried to beat it off, to crush its skull, but the eel thrashed on.
(My little girl, the eel mouthed beneath her skin. I remember you, Sophie, and how you stood and watched and saw what I wasn’t. My little pattern-girl. Do you remember what I am, what you are?)
Mid-river, in heavy gumboots and with loop-hooked spear in hand, the youngest sister stabbed at any eel that came her way. Her movements were clumsy; she was awkward with fright. She had spent her life avoiding the eels, and if one lonely night she had managed to kill one it was more by luck than skill—a frantic stabbing at the rippling surface of her memory, to quiet the voices in her head and still the eel that came to her hook. But in daylight, distracted by the eels who swarmed around her looking for food, her aim was off and the spear kept slipping its target.
The oldest sister took it from her, skirt tucked up into her panties. “Let me,” she said. “You’ll hurt yourself if you’re not careful.” Her thrusts were practised, smooth, and she never needed a second strike. The eels were attracted to the blood in the water, and she killed them as they came.
(Snatch and clutch and bite, the shock of red about her legs, staining her thighs. How she mirrored the eels so perfectly, mimicked their movements, the kinetic flex of muscle and bone and wire tendons cutting through the quiet water.)
“See how it’s done?” said the oldest sister, handing the spear back to her and retreating to the bank of the eel pond. “Now you try.”
The current made their bodies drift around her—to the youngest sister they were just as repellent dead as alive, but she knew that if enough died and she could not hear crying, not find the taniwha in the mounds of fish-flesh around her, she could settle the ripple-motions disturbing her peace and sink back into the pleasant dreams of her own skin. But beneath the surface, hidden by the living and the dead, she could see another eel come, nosing beneath the dead bodies of its fellows.
“I can see it!” she said, wanting the driftwood fence to clutch, the solid earth beneath her feet. The hooked spear trembled in her hand. “I don’t think I can.”
The middle sister came to her then, Sophie’s eel caught up in her arms. The smell of the smoking shed still lingered on it, and the dried flesh was cracked and faded with old blue seeping through the black.
“Let me,” said the middle sister. “It will be all right.” She stood midstream with her hair free of ribbons, pulled from its braid and clouding in ringlets around her; began digging into the flesh of the eel with her fingers and stuffing it into her mouth.
(Salt and smoke and fragments of bone like sewing pins, blood combining and recombining with flesh. None of the clothes she had made had ever fit her as well as this—black scales beading her lips like sequins, running up to her temples, down to her throat, and the snug relief of water-skin, fins fringing down her back and rippling like silk.)
“See,” said the middle sister, garbled through new gills. “It will be all right. Come with me, Sophie.”
“No!” cried the youngest sister, backing away from her and the ragged remnants of the eel she held. “I don’t want to eat it!”
“There’s more than one way to make the change, darling,” said the middle sister. “You know what will work for you. Trust your instincts. It will be all right.”
“No!” cried the youngest sister again, looking towards the bank, towards the oldest sister standing forlorn and alone, her skin perfect and unscaled and shining like pearls. “I want to stay with you!”
“You can’t,” said the oldest sister, smiling through tears. “But we’ll see each other again. You’ll come home to breed your sons, and I’ll kill my best chickens and break bread with you both. We’ll all go night swimming together.”
Beneath the wreath of dead eels around her, the youngest sister could see flashes of colour: lavender and quartz against black flesh and the stones of the river bed. Could feel a thick body nudging hers below the water, nuzzling her thighs, the big blunt head slipping between her legs. Heard it cry as the spear scraped its side and ricocheted off into her foot, mixing her blood with that of the eels in the river. Thick as her waist, the second taniwha darted for her heel, its fins brushing against the inside of her knee as it sucked.
(The flesh of her foot ground inwards, her legs hollowing and collapsed. She felt herself being drawn into the taniwha, felt the wet skin settle over her own and the river slick over her eyes. Felt her body lengthen and thrash in the water, assuming new patterns with a new backbone, saw the refraction of light in the water and the shape of the pebbles, quartz and limestone and greywacke, with river-polished pounamu glinting green in sunlight.)
The oldest sister watched with salt eyes as they swam away, watched until it was too dark to see any longer, and then she went back to the house. It was quiet around her, and as she set the dough to proving, the kitchen—with its patchwork shelves of bright preserves so carefully laid in by the middle sister—was echoing and empty.
(The middle sister swam in ecstasy in the green currents, gorged herself on leather kelp and oysters, on small shining fish that flashed between the seaweeds and rocky crevices of the changing ocean.)
The oldest sister readied chicken pieces for the morning, checked the smoking shed and straightened the books on their shelves, carefully collected the loose pages and dusted the volumes of the youngest sister, dusted the lens of her telescope.
(The youngest sister swam carefully in the river, weaving between mangroves and willow roots and the shed leaves of cabbage trees, learning to see the patterns branches made in the water and how far the sunlight penetrated into the clear water.)
The oldest sister was lonely by herself, and hungry for company. The chickens and the eels and the night dancers were not enough for her, so one evening she slipped on her pretty shell shoes, raided her sister’s wardrobe, and went to the eel pond to do more than feed, more than dance.
(Nine months later, she would give birth to three daughters. The youngest of these would stare at the world in puzzlement, through bright wet river eyes, and her mother would smile and call her Sophie.)