Yes, it is a miracle that I am still alive.
Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Working in a veterinary practice, I see plenty of animals, and none of them as a species particularly repels me. Snakes don’t bother me, naked mole rats are a snap, and lizards are a breeze. But if someone ever brings in an eel for treatment, I'll be out the door so fast it will make heads spin.
Eels are a terrible, terrible thing and I hate them.
Superman had kryptonite, the Death Star had that exhaust port, and I have eels. They make my skin crawl. I’ve made no secret of my aversion to eels over the years, but the origins of it are not well-known.
I grew up in a neighborhood that was literally a stone’s throw from a river. These days, that river is a pretty spot, busy with kayakers and people with fishing poles. However, when I was a kid in the 1970s, it was a black ribbon of liquid death. The town’s sewer runoff flowed directly into it, and all the snow removed from the streets in the winter was dumped into it as well. It wasn’t unusual to see tires, rusted bicycles, and old street signs on the shallow bottom. And it smelled like a toilet in a men’s room at the gas station, and the occasional wad of toilet paper that occasionally washed up on the banks added to that sensation. Of course no thinking person ever considered swimming in it, fishing in it, or even touching it. Even the greenery that grew on its banks had a sinister, foul look. It was a real life version of the River Styx.
So of course, my buddies and I loved to hang out near it. In hindsight, it was probably very dangerous for us to do so, on several levels. Not only was it one spent fuel rod away from being declared a toxic waste dump, but the only other people besides us kids who tended to go near it were drunks, drug dealers and the local crazies. The element of danger was all part of the appeal to us.
As if those things weren’t perilous enough, one of our favorite activities was going across the Upper Avenue Bridge underneath, in the rusty girders. It was probably 100 yards across and nearly fifty feet above that roiling brown water. Our hand and footholds were rife with pigeon feathers, dead insects, rat droppings and mold.
Yes, it is a miracle that I am still alive.
Yes, it is a miracle that I am still alive.
The year I was about nine, my best friend French and I decided to check the river out for the first time since the snow had melted. It was early April, and the spring floods had just subsided, which meant a high likelihood of finding interesting things washed up on the banks. In the past, we had found a battered tricycle, an armchair, and numerous articles of clothing. We’d often giggle at the thought of someone having lost a pair of pants we had found washed up on shore, and wonder what exactly the circumstances were to his losing them. And what he did next.
The river had a particularly rancid odor that day as I recall, which French eloquently and repeatedly compared to the smell of his sister’s feet. One of our more memorable finds that day was a dead muskrat, which was wedged under the cover to a sewer drain. It looked as though the muskrat had tried to squeeze through a space under the cover and gotten stuck. It was totally disgusting, and totally cool to a couple of nine-year-old boys. The ground around the sewer drains, which could be found every 30 yards or so, was littered with toilet paper that had flowed up and out of the drains during the spring floods. We shivered to think what actually being in that water must be like.
French had gone on ahead of me on the riverbank, and was nearly under the Upper Avenue Bridge when he called out to me that he had found something. I dropped the brick I had discovered with the date of 1920 carved into it, and ran ahead to check out his discovery.
He was holding a long stick in his hand and staring at the ground at the river’s edge.
“Look at this!”
Among the rocks and weeds was what looked like a snake, only slimy. It was about two feet long, had tiny fins on its side and a long one along its back, but no scales like a fish would have. Maybe my imagination has embellished it over the years since, but I swear it was gold in color. Not a shiny, attractive gold, but a first-pee-of-the-day, dull kind of gold. I remember beady little eyes and whisker-like things on its snout. It lay still on its back. There wasn’t a sign of motion.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s an eel, idiot!” French could be rather harsh for a best friend.
“An eel? Since when do eels live in this river?” I asked.
“Since now, I guess,” he replied.
“What’s it doing on the shore?”
“Not much,” French said, thinking he was funny. “I bet someone caught it and left it here. I saw some big kids down here fishing when I was crossing the bridge after school.”
The idea of someone pulling something out of the water and just leaving it on the shore to die bothered me, even when it came to something as hideous as this thing.
“Is it dead?”
“Sure looks like it,” French said. “I poked it a couple times with a stick and nothing.”
“Dare you to touch it with your finger!” I said.
“You touch it, asswipe!” Again, that oddly-harsh-for-a-best-friend thing French was so good at.
“No way!” The only reason I had dared him to do it was because I couldn’t imagine anything that I would want to do less.
We pondered this terrifying looking thing for several minutes. When I looked up at the bridge for a brief moment, French exclaimed “I saw it move!”
My eyes shot back to the eel. “No you didn’t!”
“I did! I swear! Just a little!”
“Isn’t it funny how you see it move only when I am not looking at it?” French was not above setting me up to look stupid, so I immediately suspected some crying of ‘wolf’ here.
“OK, don’t believe me! I know what I saw.”
“So what do we do with it?” I asked. We were both good parochial school boys at heart, and the idea of leaving a dead animal just lying there out in the open bothered both of us down deep.
“Let’s just pile some rocks over it. I’m not going back to find a shovel, and I sure as hell am not picking it up and tossing it back in the water.”
“Then you do it!”
That shut me right up. There was no way that was happening.
We began to pile stones on top of the eel. We didn’t want to squish it, so we picked small ones. It was about half-covered when it happened.
It twitched its tail, just slightly.
We both froze, and less than a second later, the eel thrashed and squirmed all over the bank.
“Holy shit!” French and I exclaimed at exactly the same time. I would have called ‘jinx’ and told French he owed me a Coke, but I was too busy trying not to lose control of my bladder. We scrambled up the bank, across the little access road, and ran up the hill to the top of the bridge. Even though we knew it was impossible, we didn’t want to take the chance that the newly resurrected eel had followed us.
French and I stood in the middle of the street, high above the river now on the Upper Avenue Bridge, trying desperately to catch our breaths and slow our pounding hearts. In all of my 42-plus years, I cannot remember ever being so startled at anything as I was at that eel that day on the riverbank.
French was the first to recover some semblance of speech. “What *gasp* the *gasp* hell?”
I shook my head. All I could get out was “Don’t know.” My eyes must have been as round as saucers. I know French’s were.
We walked to the edge of the bridge and peered over the railing at the spot on the riverbank far below where we had just been. There was no sign of the eel anywhere.
“Must have gone back into the water,” I said.
“Yeah, or it’s gone further up on land somewhere.”
The very notion of this creeped me right the hell out. Was it possible for eels to chase after people on dry land? Nah…of course not. Right?
French and I returned to that spot alongside the river the next day, armed with very large sticks, just in case. There was no sign of the dead eel come to life. Part of me wanted to find it dead (again), so we could be sure it wasn’t going to come after us, and another part of me was glad it was nowhere to be found. Neither of us wanted to find it alive and squirming around on the bank. We probably would have set land speed records out of there if we had.
Ever since that day, I’ve had a thing about eels and eely things. I have to admit that there’s actually a tingling, nervous feeling in my stomach even as I write this. I don’t even like to look at a picture of an eel. I’ve included some with this posting for the benefit of you the reader, but searching for said eel pictures was harrowing. (You’re welcome.) To this day you couldn’t pay me enough to touch an eel, and as far as dining on one goes, you’d have to hold a gun to my head. A big one.
And even then I’d make no guarantees.