It was somewhere down the Waikato, along an offshoot of the mighty river. The hand-painted signs on the side of the road said EELS HERE 11am.
Lee’s Dad said it was rip-off bullshit, but she and Paulie whined until he pulled off the road onto the crackling gravel. He paid the old man at the head of the track ten bucks to shut them up.
They tramped through dank bush, stumbling over contorted roots until they came out at a muddy clearing, where other sightseers were already waiting in a jostling cluster, cameras at the ready.
The air was foisty and close. A barefoot woman was standing on the wide, greasy bank, a battered grey homburg planted on her head. In her old black house- frock with big pockets and her buttoned-up- wrong cardy, she looked like someone’s scary aunty.
At 11am sharp, the woman walked to the edge of the white coffee creek, singing – or praying – low and in Maori, so most of it went over Lee’s head. But she sounded good. The eels must have thought so too, because gawping cry-baby Paulie was yanking on Lee’s sleeve, mouth wide open.
‘You’ll catch flies,’ hissed Lee.
Blunt, chiselled heads rose from the water, one…two…she lost count at seventeen. Black and leathery, the slimy monsters swarmed, surging up the banks, swaying like hypnotized cobras, surrounding the woman – and she was talking to them by name. Shining skin wrinkling, a couple stretched and rose to her hand, exposing their plump, silvery bellies. Still murmuring, she patted their slimy, flat necks.
That shut her father up.
The shutterbugs clicked and flashed and fervently wound on their films like paparazzi.
Then the eels vanished, slithering back into the creek, flicking their tails and powering downstream.
Lee wondered if she’d dreamed them, but she could see their slippery trails down the bank, and Paulie’s gob was still wide-open. Those eels were real. Lee thought the woman was most probably a priestess or a witch.
After their father dropped them off at home, Lee told her grandmother about the amazing woman who could sing eels right out of the water, like they were her pets. Her grandmother was not amazed, not in the slightest. She just laughed and reckoned she could do that too. Which was entirely possible, Lee thought, because her grandmother did know some really weird stuff.
But Lee had never seen her grandmother serenade eels, or any other sea creatures, for that matter. She only caught them, killed, skinned and gutted them, then fried them in butter.
‘You feed them,’ said her grandmother, ‘so they get used to you. Then at the same time, they turn up on the scrounge, looking for a feed, whether you’ve got any food or not. They like rotten corn. Pig liver. Anything rotten.’
One day, when Paulie was being extra-annoying, Lee told him the woman’s magic eel secret. When he cried, she knew the ten buck entry fee had been worth every cent.
Lee never told her father that he’d been right, not on his next access visit, not ever. She wished her grandmother didn’t always know everything about everything, because she’d spoiled the magic forever.
ALEX REECE ABBOTT is an award-winning emerging writer working across genres, forms and hemispheres. Her stories are upcoming and appear in London Journal of Fiction; the Katherine Mansfield Society: Creative Work; Headland Journal; Takahe Magazine; the Maine Review; Hypertext; Pure Slush; Spelk; Flash Frontier; Hysteria; Halo Magazine; FlashFlood; Bath Flash Fiction Anthology; the Furious Hope Anthology and Landmarks: the 2015 National Flash-Fiction Day Anthology, among others. Her short fiction has won the Northern Crime Competition and the Arvon Prize, and often shortlists, including for the Sunday Business Post/Penguin Short Story Prize, Bridport Prize, Fish, Mslexia, the Society of Authors Margot Manchester Award and Lorian Hemingway. Her literary historical novel, The Helpmeet, is a winner in the 2016 Greenbean Irish Novel Fair.
www.alexreeceabbott.info / t: @AlexReeceAbbott