Aristotle believed the eel was spontaneously generated from the guts of wet soil. It is not. First its stomach dissolves and then it migrates 6000 km back to its spawning grounds. Catadromous: down-running, it lives in fresh water estuaries, but is born, breeds, and dies in the sea.
I thought of the eel while leaving a sexually and emotionally abusive relationship. I gathered my resolve with difficulty, like parts of a body I had to bury that’d been scattered in a marsh
I believed I had a built-in grain of indestructibility, searching for models of survival in the natural world. I thought of the transformations of those fleeing rape in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, who turn into trees, water, birds—anything other than what they are.
I turned to Montale: «…The eel, torch, whip/ Love’s arrow on earth..//..twin/ to the glance mounted within your lashes/ which you keep sparkling and untouched/ in the midst of the sons/ of Man, sunk in mire./ Can’t you see that she is your sister?»
…Untouched? He had the submerged-in-filth part right. But the gleam in my eye was the first thing to go. I heard one in four. I heard the subordinate condition of women is maintained by the hidden violence of men. I heard there’s a war between the sexes and the raped and abused are its casualties. I heard all of that from women.
On the one hand, many women are strong or become that way. On the other, a fantasy anima projection of the feminine as invulnerable is not helpful. Children, at a certain stage of growth, realize that their parents are flawed, mortal beings. We should realize and honor the same in women.
An eel pulls itself across grass, climbs over boulders, digs through sand in search of the estuary it will pass most of its life in. It has a geomagnetic sense of direction. Its gender is decided during its development, depending on how many eels are around. Females climb higher for some reason.
If you cut off the back third of an eel it will regenerate everything, including its spinal cord and its second heart. This gives rise to the saying, «Who has a woman has an eel by the tail.» But it would be wrong to attribute some inviolable spirit to it: the eel has to do what it does. Otherwise it would die.
A body barters itself for what it needs, or believes it needs. Violence is heritable and like inheritance it often falls on the wrong person. Like any other extortion, that of the body may be made in a single violent act, or covertly, persuasively, masked and furtive. It’s hard to bite the hand that feeds you.
There is no regulation. One violation is exchanged for another. Everything is permitted but the tax on each action is high. Living is a bloody ceremony. A woman is no stranger to blood; she loses about 56 liters over her fertile years.
An eel writhes after being severed, can wrap around your arm while being filleted. Its blood is toxic. If you cut off the head and leave it in a bowl, it will continue to breathe in its vital fluids; the carnivorous jaw working, bubbles emerging from the back.
I’ve heard the act of expression can help heal a person.
Before speaking of violence, prepare the table.
Eel is a rejuvenating food.
When I was young and cruel, I wanted glory. I needed love but I thought it was impossible so I wanted glory. I took my defiance and held it up to the indifferent sun, sweating and silent, a gulf between us.
I suffered. I waited. Nothing happened.
Glory is like salt in the sea. There’s enough already.
And love is like fresh headwater: precious and hard to find.
If a woman has a vital spark it springs from her heart.
It is her freedom.
In the cataract of loss, I learned late. It was after I realized I’d’ve died if I’d stayed.
I grew tender when I saw my heart beating in the mud like that, with still so far to go.
It was the only one I had. I observed it with care.
I can speak of it now that time has passed.
I grew another one.
Andrea Applebee is an editor and art writer living in Athens, Greece. She collaborates at Pyxida Intercultural Council to lead a writing workshop for refugees focused on expression, mindfulness, and growth. Andrea received her MFA in nonfiction and poetry from the University of Pittsburgh in 2010.