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The Eel Question

by Mae Empson

2252 words

“Papa promised me an eel of my own if I can propose a sufficiently interesting experiment,” Janika explained to the boy who delivered their milk. He didn’t speak English or German, but she was so excited that she needed to tell someone.

“Si, signorine.” The boy smiled gently, as he did whenever she chattered at him. He placed the crate of bottles on the porch of their two-story rental house. Papa would not be home from his research fellowship at the Trieste Laboratory for Marine Zoology, the Zoologische Station, until well after six o’clock.

“Nothing that requires dissection or a microscope, of course,” she continued. “But I have an idea that I can test here at the house. Papa will be so proud.”

“Si, signorine.”

“Graciis.” She knew less than ten words of the language spoken in this part of the Habsburg Empire along the northern Adriatic Sea, but she could at least manage a thank you.

He left, and she was alone again in a city of strangers.

• • •

Excerpt from a letter from Sigmund Freud dated April 5, 1876:

“You know the eel. For a long time, only the females of this beast were known…  Throughout the Middle Ages and in modern times, too, there was a veritable hunt for male eels. In zoology, where there are no birth certificates, we cannot tell which is male and which is female, if the animals have no external sex distinctions. That certain of their characteristics are in fact sex distinctions is something that has first to be proved, and this only the anatomist can do (seeing that eels keep no diaries from whose orthography one can make inferences as to their sex); he dissects them and discovers either testicles or ovaries.”

• • •

Papa was late. Janika used the extra time to rehearse her proposal. He liked it when she played junior naturalist — the son he might have had. He did not seem very comfortable talking about anything else with her, especially since Mama’s passing.

When he opened the door, Janika was sitting on the staircase where she had been waiting since five o’clock, with her naturalist’s journal ready in her lap. “Papa!” She stood up and took a step towards him, but then remembered that he did not like to be touched before he had time to wash up after handling eels all day.

“Janika. And I see you have your notebook.”

“I have my eel question. I am ready.” Papa’s eel question was proving that eels were hermaphroditic and that one could be found with both male and female organs. He and Sigmund, who was simply looking for a male, dissected eels for the month-long fellowship. “It is something Gram used to say. About eels. She said if you rubbed your skin with an eel, then you would have the ability to see faeries. I do not believe in faeries, of course.” It was important to say that quickly before Papa became angry. “But, it is easily tested. I will apply oil from the eel to my skin on a daily basis and record whether I see anything extraordinary. I can vary the locations on the skin, and the dose will be cumulative.”

“Faeries. That sounds like her.” Papa thought most of Mama’s people were silly and gullible. He described them as “simple carnies” when he was in a good mood and “dangerously foolish and irresponsible” when he was grieving. It was too late to ask Gram for more information now. They had not spoken to anyone from Mama’s family since the accident.

“The topic is interesting. Such fanciful notions would benefit from occasional straight-forward testing. But, I am not sure about the rigor of your design. How will you know if you do see a faery? Have you ever seen one before?”

Janika knew a test when she heard it. “My hypothesis is that applying the eel oil will cause me to see something which I have never seen before, which I could then describe and sketch in my journal for comparison to known natural creatures. The null hypothesis is that I see nothing new. That much should be verifiable.”

“And will this prove if eel oil conveys the fabled fae-sight?”

“Yes. No. Definitely no. If I see nothing new, it will provide proof that this eel did not give one girl the ability to see anything extraordinary that was available to be seen in our house or elsewhere in this city where I chanced to look during the twenty-three days left in our stay here. It will not answer whether there was nothing here to be seen. Or whether there still exists something I could have seen had I been in some other location. Or if it would have worked if I was younger or older than twelve. Or, if I had used a different eel. All we can learn is if it works for me, now, in this place, with the eel you will provide me.”

“Agreed.” Papa shook her hand very formally, and hugged her only with his eyes.

• • •

Excerpt from a letter from Sigmund Freud dated April 5, 1876:

“Recently a Trieste zoologist claimed to have discovered testicles, and hence the male eel, but since he apparently doesn’t know what a microscope is, he failed to provide an accurate description of them. I have been tormenting myself and the eels in a vain effort to rediscover his male eels, but all the eels I cut open are of the gentler sex.”

• • •

Janika named her eel “Variable,” or “Vari” for short. She could not know if it was a boy or a girl eel, for all the reasons that funded her father’s research, and the name seemed suitably ambiguous. Vari did not seem to mind this name, nor being occasionally picked up. Janika rubbed eel oil over her arms and chest.

On the 6th day of the experiment, she started rubbing the eel oil into her eyes as well, assuming that the eyes ought to be involved with anything to do with seeing.

On the 13th day of the experiment, she caught her first glimpse of the shadow.

• • •

Excerpt from a letter from Sigmund Freud dated April 23, 1876:

“When I take a walk in the evening at 6:30, my hands stained from the white and red blood of the sea animals and in front of my eyes the glimmering debris of cells, which still disturb me in my dreams, and in my mind nothing but the big problems connected with the names of testicles and ovaries — universally significant names — so when I take my walk at night after work, I only see very little of the physiology of the Triestians.”

• • •

It was not Janika’s shadow. Not her normal shadow anyway. But it followed her nonetheless. It had the rough silhouette of a young boy about her age. Sometimes it followed her closely, and sometimes it sat apart from her in another corner of the room.

Vari seemed always to re-position itself in its tank to face the shadow. Watching.

She rubbed the eel oil on every inch of her skin, eager to speed the experiment, and to reach a next phase where she could see more than a glimpsed shadow.

“Are you a faery?” she asked, but there was no response.

“Are you a boy?” Nothing. But she could see, at times, clear signs that its shape was unlike hers, and distinctly masculine.

“Are you really there?” Nothing.

Then, she would lose sight of the shadow, and even the eel could not find it.

Janika made up stories about the shadow and the eel. Sometimes the eel was her mother, because she drowned and maybe drowned people became fishes, even if they drowned in a human-sized fishbowl because they were too drunk to stay upright for their mermaid act.

Sometimes the shadow was the son she knew her father would have preferred. Sometimes the shadow was a brother she never knew she had. Sometimes it was just an imaginary friend that she could talk to all day long. It was better than talking to the milk boy. She could pretend that the shadow understood her.

• • •

Excerpt from a letter from Sigmund Freud dated April 5, 1876:

“Few small children appear on the streets. Those I have seen look very precocious, and already temper their beauty with face powder. Since it is not allowed to dissect human beings, I really have nothing to do with them.”

• • •

“Papa?” she asked on the night of the 18th day of the experiment. They were leaving Trieste for Vienna in less than a week. She would soon have to return her eel to the sea. She had begun to wonder if the shadow would disappear along with the eel, and if she wanted it to. It had never taken any clearer form, no matter how much eel oil she rubbed into her skin.

“Yes?” He was reading at his desk. She stood before him, journal tucked under one elbow.

“Would you have been happier if I had been a boy?”

He shut his book, but still looked down at it, avoiding eye contact. “I would have been happier if many things had been different, but I never wanted anything for you then that you be you.”

“What do you mean?”

“This is not a good time. Maybe when you are older. Go on to bed. It is late.”

“You never ask me what I have seen. If it worked. If I have seen a faery.”

“Have you?” His tone suggested he was sure she had not.

“I have begun seeing something. I do not know if it is a faery, but it is something. It looks like a shadow. The shadow of a boy. Almost my shadow. But not mine.”

“Do you have any idea how ridiculous that sounds? The point was to teach you reason, to teach you to test and reject folly, not to indulge your imagination.”

Janika saw the shadow move. It was slipping across the room, getting farther and farther from her. “There!” she cried. “It is almost to the door.”

Papa looked up and stared at the exact spot where she could see the shadow. It struck her that he handled eels day in and day out, from eight in the morning to six at night. Surely he had more eel oil on his skin then she did.

“What is it?” she asked him. “I know you can see it. Better even than I can.”

“Let it go.”

At go, the shadow fled from the room.

“What is it? What will I lose if I never see that shadow again?”

“There is no going back. She would have made a spectacle of you. A sideshow attraction. It was no life for a child.”

“Who? Mama?”

“She said it was a gift. Natural. But, she would have exposed you to a thousand prying eyes. It is a natural state. Particularly in fish. Sometimes sequential, sometimes simultaneous, but relatively common. It is my life’s work now to study it. But no animal gives its young to a barker to be a freak. I had to do something, so I took you to a doctor, and decided to make you my daughter when you were once so much more. I removed the choice, and your mother never forgave me for it.”

Janika felt like she was choking. She needed to get away from him. She needed to catch her shadow, and reclaim what she had lost. She caught sight of it at the top of the stairs and began to run.

• • •

Janika chased the shadow out of the house and down the street toward the shoreline. It was fleeing to the house of the eels, where she could not follow. The house of the drowned. The arms of her mother.

The water began to wick up her skirts as soon as she reached its edge. The shadow stretched out ahead of her on the surface of the waves, and then slipped under.

Her skirts grew heavier and heavier as she walked out into the sea.

She heard her father’s voice, calling her name.

She kept walking and let the water swallow her knees and thighs and scar and breasts.

• • •

“I found it. A hermaphrodite eel.” Janika’s father knew that the boy who delivered the milk would not understand him, but he was so equally excited and privately horrified that he needed to tell someone. “After dissecting hundreds, I finally found one.” It was not Janika, he told himself. It was just a dead fish. He had to believe that.

“Si, signor.” The boy who was not there to deliver milk smiled gently, and thought: Farewell, Papa. Janika would make her own life here, in the strange city so close to the sea. As whomever she wanted to be.

Mae Empson writes short fiction and poetry. Recent publications appear in print in anthologies from Prime Books, Innsmouth Free Press, and Dagan Books, and online in The Pedestal Magazine and Cabinet des Fees. Mae is a member of the Horror Writers Association, and of HorrorPNW — the Pacific Northwest chapter of HWA. Follow Mae on Twitter at @maeempson and read her blog at http://maeempson.wordpress.com.

Issue 22

October 2012

3LBE 22

Front & Back cover art by Rew X