Short story




We have eels in the estuary at the bottom of our garden. The family want to smoke and eat them. I refuse to allow that.

Every afternoon at low tide, I make my way to the estuary. In one hand I carry the eel’s food in a plastic container. In the other I carry a silver teaspoon with eel teeth marks in it. As I get nearer I call and when I am within sight they are already swimming towards me.

Although eels are nocturnal they always come.

One in particular leads the way - Tipua Te Tuna. He rears out of the water and skims around the rocky face of the tiny bank, over the sloping ledge and across the mud like a skater. Weighing nearly two kilos and measuring almost one metre, he is the biggest of all the eels in this pool. His huge flat head sways from side to side and his mouth opens to reveal rows of white teeth top and bottom.

On the other side of the creek another eel looks out from under the knotted roots of a mangrove. It wriggles through the tangled woody web into the water. I hold out the spoon with the raw, aged meat on it. A light breeze catches the rotten smell and tosses it at me. Screwing up my nose, I turn my head away.

Eels glide around rocks and appear from under the mangroves. In their haste to get to me they scramble over each other, pushing the weaker ones under them.

As I hunker down the sun is behind me. It casts me as a squat shadow across the rippling water and over the rock in the middle of the pool. Tipua Te Tuna lives under that rock.

His eyes are on the spoon with the meat on it.

Eager, he lunges forward, grips the spoon and pulls away.  I try to hold on to the spoon. He gives a mighty tug and we engage in a tug of war. With a heave backwards the spoon slides out of my hand and he takes it with the meat down into the water. Dismayed, I watch the spoon fall from his mouth and catch the light as it swivels to the bottom of the pool. It becomes obscured by the 15 eels scrambling over each other. Tipua Te Tuna disappears beneath them.

They circle, lifting their heads above the water. They make bubbling and light tapping sounds as they open and shut their jaws. I wonder what I am to do. I need the spoon. Growing impatient they bang their bodies against the tiny ledge from which I feed them.

Back and forth the eels swim, agitating the water and kicking up muddy storms. Elver eels swim below them trying to squirm through the massive bodies that are their elders.

I want the spoon back because it is a heirloom and I need it to finish feeding the restless eels. But I am too afraid to put my hand into the swirling mass of slippery bodies to retrieve it. They become frenzied, pushing against and nipping each other. As the sharp teeth sink into their neighbour’s flesh the eel jolts as if from an electric shock, then spins, spirals and coils, revealing its white underbelly. Water splashes up against the ledge.

Through it all I catch flashes of the silver spoon and regret that I have made a habit of using that particular one to feed the eels.

Nearby in a still, untroubled pool I catch my reflection, a small woman with greying hair and age wrinkled face. The wind ruffles my hair in much the way a father would his daughter’s. There is a splash. It is Tipua Te Tuna rearing and smacking the water.

Splashing from further down the creek catches my attention. Late arrivals.

Eels from the harbour, alerted to my presence are making their way toward us. Arrows of water ripple away from them as they swim to the weir at the bottom of an incline leading to our pool. All late arrivals have to navigate this if they are to reach me and my other eels.

Their first attempt fails and they slide back into the pool where they circle. Then, as if gathering their strength, they prepare to make another run at it. The tide is particularly low today so they have to make a massive effort.

Normally I would call encouragement. On hearing my voice they always work harder to conquer the obstacle. But today I am silent. They keep circling. Two straighten out. Like missiles they cut through the water and launch themselves up onto the greasy sloping slide, struggling through the trickling water and disappearing behind a rock at the top. They appear on the other side in the channel leading to the pool where Tipua Te Tuna and his fellow eels are.

Their energy seems to double as their bodies wriggle along the trench, their mouths twisting from one side to the other in the hope of capturing food that might have escaped the big pool feeding frenzy. They join the others and look up at me, their rippling bodies like a swaying fan.

As I debate what to do Tipua Te Tuna reaches toward me. I duck away and he sinks back. But as he goes our eyes meet and I sense he wants me to follow. Shaking, I put my hand in the water and follow his body as it glides down into the water.

The spoon winks at me through a fog of swirling mud. I slide my hand under Tipua Te Tuna’s body and feel the other eels nudge and press my hand. I bite my lip to control the trembling. The head of an eel touches my hand. I jerk involuntarily and shudder but I keep my hand next to Tipua Te Tuna. The eel slides away and the others part with him as if under instruction. Resting his body over my hand Tipua Te Tuna guides it toward the spoon.

My fingers close over it and I draw it out of the water. As I exit the eels continue to keep their distance, allowing me safe passage. Once I hold the spoon poised above my container the eels are back, swarming over each other, heads rearing out of the water, swimming back and forth and clambering up the bank to me.

Behind me there is more splashing and new eels make their way up the watercourse. I dig my spoon into the meat then lower it to the water’s edge. They rise, curl their heads over the spoon and take the meat, leaving the spoon firm in my hand. From then on Tipua Te Tuna and all the other eels eat like this, never touching the spoon.

These manners make me wonder how I never saw this side of eels when I was a child.

My brother and I spent hours in the stream on our farm in the Hokianga, tiptoeing over smooth coloured pebbles and looking through crystalline water for eels. On seeing one curled around a rock dozing, I held a finger to my lips and we froze. I pulled a clump of grass from the bank, lowered my hands into the water and pounced wrapping my fingers around its belly and flinging it up onto the paddock. A dark curling shadow, it flew through the air and landed on the bank. Squealing, we clambered up to stop its frenzied bid to get back to the water. They rarely escaped and we triumphantly made our way home with the eel, covered with sticks and lumps of dirt, draped over my hand. We cleaned it up, rolled it in flour, fried it in butter and relished every bite.

Tipua te Tuna rises out of the water, our eyes meet and the memory fades. He sinks back down and I watch, mesmerised. I smile. I can’t imagine him on a plate.

In mythology Tuna-roa, the eel god was captured and cut up into many pieces. The head became a fish, the tail the conger eel and the pieces in between, eels. ‘Nga taonga tuku ihote tuna,’ eels, the ancient gift from the gods. They are a gift and the source of life giving sustenance.

Tipua Te Tuna rolls over and his white underbelly is exposed to the light. A late evening breeze ripples across the water and I glance to the sky where I see the moon coming over the horizon, a pale reproduction of itself in the early evening. On the other horizon the sun is going down in a blaze of bleeding light. The world balances on a fulcrum.

I have no more food for the eels. I rise to my feet, pull myself up the bank with arthritic fingers and make my way home. Tipua Te Tuna slides under the water set on fire by the sun’s last fiery burst.




This should be used as a template for all writers. Terrific, it makes me feel inadequate.