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Carol cannot sleep for the memory of eels. It’s 3am and she’s trapped on a train of lickety-split, slippery-slick remembrance, triggered off by the huge electric eel that captivated her nephews on their visit to the aquarium today. Not that Electrophorus electricus was really an eel at all, she had read aloud to the saucer-eyed boys, but a weirdly-evolved sort of knifefish. Still, it had certainly looked like an eel, lolling around thick-lipped and regally bored in the sterile soup of its own impotent power. A hot green line traced a madly erratic heartbeat on a monitor beside the tank. ‘A discharge of 500 Volts,’ read Carol, ‘is enough to kill a human.’ Her nephews, of an age to be transfixed by all things dangerous and ugly, had speculated ghoulishly about death by electrocution. The cute tribe of potbellied penguins posturing nearby could not compete with a man-killing knifefish.

It is midnight now and the boys have been sated on ice-cream and returned, sugar-high, to parental barracks. Carol lies alone and awake in bed with her thoughts pulsing out in an eel-green streak over the steady blue hum of the refrigerator. It must be decades since she has thought about eels. In her mind they are far removed from that exotic beast corralled at the aquarium: eels are simply seafood. Unfortunately, it seems they are also memories, sinuous associative trails snaking away from a smoking grill on a moonlit terrace beside an Italian lake one distant summer. Snaking inside a vacation during which she learned, in a single heady day, both how to love and how to strip the spine from the smoky flesh of a barbequed eel.

Carol’s parents, like herself, had been going through an adolescent phase that long-ago summer, though their daughter could scarcely have recognized this at the time. They were one of those quietly golden middle-aged couples who fall in love with each other repeatedly and often; who are mutually obsessed to the point where any spawn they might produce are merely a fond distraction. Carol is convinced that she and her sister, who arrived an unconventional twelve years later, were both conceived by accident. In adulthood, she envies her parents vividly. Back then, she simply accepted her peripheral status as the natural order of things, much as she accepted the expensive sailing lessons her father chose for her that summer. Carol was a habitually pliant child. She had noticed early on that her obedience elicited… if not exactly love, then at least the vague warmth of approval. So, while her parents passed their days canoodling on the narrow lakeside beaches, Carol found herself wrestling a sailing dingy - diligently if without natural talent - back and forth across the cerulean expanse of Lake Garda.

It was during their third and final week at the lake that Carol’s father laid his book face down and gazed out at the fleet of bright sails stippling the far horizon. His mind alit, unusually and casually, upon his daughter. ‘I think that sailing school was a fine idea,’ he murmered, nudging his wife with a sandy elbow. ‘She seems to be enjoying it, doncha think?’

Carol’s mother marked the page in her own book with a tube of tanning lotion and rolled over languidly to face her husband. (The book was an early Hemingway: she had never understood why other women on summer beaches always guzzled soppy romance novels.) ‘Absolutely, darling,’ she assured him, ‘it was a fine idea. She does seem happy, or as near as I can ever tell, with Carol. In fact, I wonder if she hasn’t started a bit of crush on that young Robert - you know, the sailing coach? He’s such a nice-looking boy.’

Mrs. Harris had not, in fact, wondered anything of the sort until she spoke the words. She seldom wondered much about her daughter. But it suddenly occurred to her that if she was Carol’s age, she might indeed be rather smitten with young Robert. The boy wore tight black Speedos over a deep olive tan, an athlete’s grace and a charming manner of well-raised courtesy. He was going up to Cambridge in the autumn, he had told her, making small talk when she visited the sailing school. He rather hoped that he might row for college. ‘How marvelous,’ Mrs Harris had simpered. Now, enchanted by the novelty of a maternal insight, she dropped a shower of heavy hints about young Robert during lunch and Carol met them with polite confusion over a slice of perspiring watermelon. Her mother deflated meekly. The child could be very odd, she reflected, so opaque and strangely secretive. One really couldn’t hope to understand her.

Carol, meanwhile, had laid her towel at its usual tactful distance from her parents’ impenetrable postprandial personal space and was faking an expedient siesta. Her mother could be very odd, she thought, so unpredictable and girlish. One really couldn’t hope to understand her. Despite this, Carol could help but yearn to please her mother – to respond correctly to sudden maternal moods and erratic attempts at kindness. Apparently, her mother thought she ought to be in love with Robert? Well of course, he was certainly handsome, everybody saw that. Saw too the curvy Italian girls with their bright cascades of fire-black hair who hung around the jetty, eyes down, breasts jutting, throwing birdlike glances up at Robert. Carol mimicked their poses in her mind’s eye, tossing a mane of imaginary hair and casting hopeful eyes towards their quarry. They came to rest appraisingly on the curious concave muscles which encircled Robert’s waist and plunged obliquely into the black band of his Speedos. Carol had seen those same shadows on the waists of naked men in the Florence art museum. She prodded at her own belly pensively. She didn’t seem to have those muscles.

Was Carol, then, at all in love with Robert? Abandoned her invisible obliques, she prodded instead at her heart muscle. Nothing flexed responsively there either. If anything, it was the would-be girlfriends who provoked in Carol a certain troubling frisson. Was it envy? Or desire? Did this mean she might be gay? It seemed unlikely. Still, she’d give an awful lot to trade her skinny body for the fleshy form of one of those Italian temptresses. They seemed to be a higher species (knifefish, maybe, to a prosaic English pond-eel): compared to theirs, the pale limbs laid out like chicken sausages on Carol’s beach towel looked obscenely foetal. held no secrets; cast no subtle S-shaped shadows.

By now, the lake had turned to a sheet of shiftless sunset silver. Carol shook her ugly limbs and stood up crossly for a final swim before nightfall. Enough of stupid Robert with his Michelangelo muscle tone and his hourglass admirers.

Back in the present-day-night, a familiar imp of insomnia squats stubbornly on Carol’s sternum. The fridge shifts its hum with a dull click from ultramarine to indigo.

In retrospect, she would like to blame the accident that occurred the following day on a distracted state of adolescent mind and an interfering mother. In truth however, she knows that it was just her own nautical ineptitude: her fatal tendency to get distracted by an osprey overhead or a crested grebe in the far distance, allowing an unsecured boom to whip around and club her viciously overboard with a glancing blow to the shoulder.

Carol’s memory of the accident records no pain, presumably because raw shock precluded it. Nor does it record how Robert managed to arrive on the scene almost instantly, pulling her out of the water and deftly securing her empty dinghy to his own. What she remembers is her own mortification at having made such an elementary error. Robert’s comic impression of a dozy sailor struck by a loose boom never failed to slay the class and he performed it accordingly often. Carol felt her ribs shrink in against her lungs beneath her classmates’ scornful laughter and the warm, wet shell of her lifejacket.

Robert, however, wasn’t laughing now, he was holding her head in both hands like an unboiled egg and asking urgently if she might have got concussion. Was she nauseous or dizzy? Could she see straight? Robert’s eyes, up close, were huge and smudged with fear. Trembling and ashamed, Carol crushed a surge of tears and focused fiercely on the bruise already purpling her skinny bicep. Robert’s hands as he examined it looked dark against her skin, the hairs between his knuckles bleached by sunlight to an improbable peroxide blonde. This image, even now, retains a Kodak sharpness: it was Robert’s hands, in that tremulous, traumatized moment, which Carol fell in love with. Or, no… it was the tenderness expressed in them - a tenderness so chaste that it now seems comical, yet so intense that every man she ever fell for afterwards would fail her by failing to replicate it.

Later that day, up at the chalet, Carol played down the whole inglorious drama. Briefly shocked by her lurid bruise, Mrs. Harris applied an unnecessary bandage, losing interest before it was secured. Mr. Harris demanded to know if the sailing school had neglected proper safety training. ‘No!’ cried Carol vehemently, ‘It was my fault, daddy, I was stupid. But it’s nothing really. Someone rescued me as soon as I fell in,’ Carol blushed here, watermelon-scarlet, ‘and I still sailed my boat back afterwards.’

‘That’s my big brave girl,’ approved her father, patting her absently on the fast-unraveling bandage. ‘I think we should eat out tonight to celebrate your first-rate bravery. Would you like that, darling?’ Carol was already saying yes before she noticed that he had spoken over head to his wife, who smiled back indulgently. Then, as an afterthought, she smiled down at her heroic child as well.

All this, thinks Carol now, dog-tired in the pre-dawn half-light of insomniac adulthood, to arrive at that lakeside restaurant with its Proustian barbequed eel…

Reading the menu, her father had suggested eel in jest, knowing his daughter to be a conservative, disinterested eater. He had reckoned, however, without the invisible force that had been transforming Carol throughout the afternoon. Had he been so inclined, he might have noticed that his daughter looked even dreamier and more aloof than usual. But Mr. Harris wasn’t so inclined, and he could hardly have seen the invisible cushion of helium which Carol currently walked upon. He could hardly have felt the exquisite prickly newness of her skin or the radiant stigmata shaped like a man’s two hands pulsing darkly on her bruised left arm. As they strolled into town, Carol fully expected the streetlamps to blaze straight through her, casting dazzling stained-glass shadows on the cobbles. So when her father teased her lightly about what she would like to eat, Carol stooped down from starry heights and said politely that the eel would be lovely, thank you daddy.

Unexpectedly, the eel was lovely, though it paled beside the greater adventure concealed inside Carol’s bloodstream. This, then, was what it felt like?! This searing desire, this intimate comprehension of what had yesterday eluded her very best effort of imagination. How little it had to do with Robert’s handsomeness; how much with the luminous certainty that he cared about her! Carol parted blackened skin from juicy eel flesh with abstracted precision. The candlelit table, hanging wisteria and sun-soaked flagstones all harmonized in silent celebration of her secret. Even her parents, absorbed in their own private bibulous celebration of one another, were just a kind irrelevance tonight.

Back in the chalet after dinner, Carol lay awake, replaying the morning’s events in stop-motion detail. She squirmed and hugged herself inside a hot cocoon of bedsheets. Her skin felt newly fragile and her heart, too vast and vibrant to be safely held within it. Low-pitched adult voices drifted in through the bedroom wall, while outside, the cicadas wove their ceaseless web of screaming quietude. Carol’s bones buzzed back in sympathy.

At first, another timbre of rhythmic creaks blended easily with the general tapestry of nightsounds. Then all at once, there came a sound that tore the tapestry: a throaty sob of human pain. Carol stiffened. Her reveries of Robert all derailed as her senses re-attuned to a sharper frequency. The sound repeated itself, growing more drawn out and guttural. It was synchronized with the steady creak of the bed-frame in her parents’ adjoining room.

Thinking back, Carol marvels at the sheer egotism of her child-self. Back then, her parents did not sleep, they were simply awake when she went to bed and awake when she got up the following morning. Certainly, she had never considered what else they might get up to in the sleep-sealed hours of darkness. Even now, as she listened with growing horror to the noisy obscenity unfolding in the next-door bedroom, Carol couldn’t form a clear mental image. None of the cold facts of known biology interpreted this awful bestial moaning. Nor could she begin to reconcile it with her civilized and civic-minded parents. Hadn’t they taught her that loud and impulsive behaviour was frowned upon by grown-ups? Hadn’t they instilled in Carol self-control and unobtrusive manners? Was this what grown-ups did in filthy secret, under their flimsy sham of public rectitude? Was this what adults did to be in love?

The sobbing rose and blended now into a crude crescendo of complicit anguish. Carol cringed, transfixed between her bed-sheets. She had no place in whatever her parents were doing next door and for once, she absolutely did not want one. Nothing else they ever did excluded her as totally as her own sick fear excluded her from this.

That night, on the cusp of a lifetime’s insomnia, Carol lay wide-eyed and soul-scoured long hours after the creaking bed fell silent. Her pretty fantasies winked out and drifted down from the cool night air like shards of ash after a bonfire. Carol felt them brush against her face and shuddered bleakly with revulsion.

The following day on the sun-swept beach, Mrs. Harris closed her book with a satisfied sigh at a delectably sorrowful ending. Her husband dozed beside her in a dignified sunstruck coma. Some way off, her daughter slept as well, or appeared to, despite her fit of passion over breakfast. Carol had flatly refusing to go to her sailing lesson: she would never go back, she’d declared with an unprecedented fevour, and they couldn’t make her. It was most unlike the child to make a sulky scene, reflected Mrs. Harris. She must have been more shaken by that accident than she’d admitted yesterday. Well, inexplicable reverses could occur overnight, could they not, in the unconscious mind? The girl was still so young, after all, and tiny problems always did seem too intense to the very young: the great thing was that they evaporated equally rapidly. Nothing lasted long when you were Carol’s age, mused Mrs. Harris comfortably, rubbing the sand from one foot with the painted toenails of the other. That was the saving grace of childhood.

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The following comments are for "Memory of eels"
by MobiusSoul

I was hoping someone would read and comment on this before me. Unfortunately, no one did.

This piece is brilliant, and I loved it. I loved it so much that I'm featuring it in the newsletter.

And, by the way, the newsletter will be out in a few. Bare with me!


( Posted by: OchaniLele [Member] On: July 1, 2009 )

Thanks OchaniLele
Many thanks for reading this and leaving a positive comment. I know that not-so-short short stories don't get much traffic here, so I'm grateful that you took the time. I'll check out the newsletter now...

( Posted by: Mobiussoul [Member] On: July 8, 2009 )

You're quite welcome!
Lit has always been a haven for poets, and poets tend to read other poets' work. Bit-by-bit, we have more fiction writers joining. That's a good thing, because the more fiction writers we have, the more fiction readers we'll have. So be patient. We have to grow that part of the community, and growth takes time.

Most writers already have a personal fan base: family, friends, etc. If you like, let your personal fan base know about litdotorg. Let them know that they can find some of your writings here. It's a quick and easy way to grow the site.


( Posted by: OchaniLele [Member] On: July 9, 2009 )

a gem
I assume she dropped sailing lessons because she was in love and didn't want to do the wild thing with Robert. This story expresses on several levels. I don't know if I like the imagery better, or the feelings that are evoked when the girl encounters that impenetrable parental wall. You have done a masterful job.

( Posted by: brickhouse [Member] On: July 13, 2009 )

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