Eerie eels

Oh eerie, eerie eels!

Neither fish, nor snakes, they have puzzled and frightened men for millenia -- since Aristotle at the very least. (He thought they self-generated in the miasma of mud). We still had no clue at the end of the 19th century when Sigmund Freud cut up thousands in order to find their gonads and failed. (Failed and moved on to other areas of science, where, no doubt, progress was easier to manufacture. And we have ever since wished he had not).

Eels live in fresh water; but then the time strikes to go and breed and they up and go to sea. They get there any way they can; over eel ladders, if they must; or burrowing through wet sand; or -- it makes my skin crawl when I think of it -- slithering on wet grass at night.

Yes. You heard it right: slithering on wet grass at night.

("Holy canole! What is that noise, Chuck?!" "Oh, it's nothin', baby. It's just them eels slithering past our tent on their way to the sea. Nothin' to worry about.")

Then they reach the sea and begin to swim; and swim and swim and swim. It takes them several hundred days to do so. And as they swim they transform: they lose their honey golden glow and turn metallic gray; they grow gaunt and trim and their eyes grow large to adapt to the limited light at the bottom of the sea. Their gut rots away -- they'll never eat a thing from now on.

And all the while they swim and swim and swim. When they reach the end of the continental shelf, they dive down along the precipice, thousands of meters down, into the murky depths; and, upon reaching its muddy bottom, they turn west again and go on; go on restlessly, ever westwards; home.


And then they reach the Sargasso sea; lay billions and billions of eggs in a frantic orgy of reproduction and -- die.


Though the European eel breed in the east of the Sargasso and the American eels in the west, it surely must happen sometime that a European eel and an American one run into each other. And when they do, what must they feel?

They look wholly identical, members of the same world-encompassing race of eel, you might think. But they aren't: they have different numbers of ribs; and -- more importantly -- chromosomes: they could never cross-breed. And nature has a way of telling us, by way of a supernatural shudder, when we meet something perverse, something unnatural. It looks like us yet - it stinks; it isn't like us. It mystifies and scares us.

Do they sense their fundamental incompatibility? Do they realize, with that very shudder, that they have just run into something unnatural, impossible, foreign, a denial of their own selves, their very opposites, their antimatter, their alter ego, their doppleganger, their death?


Reading English and the Japanese wikipedias on eels is most instructive: the English talks about the eel's anatomy, life-cycle, reproduction, risks of extinction, exploitation and costs; but the Japanese -- about the place of eel in the Japanese culture. It quotes poems from the Man'yōshu -- 1300 years old -- and discusses the beast's place in Heian culture (Sei Shonagon ate them); explains customs related to the eating of eels; some typical Japanese eel dishes; and festivals held in quaint little towns to celebrate the annual eel catch.

The Man'yōshu reference, by the way, is waka 3854. It reads:

痩々母 生有者将在乎 波多也波多 武奈伎乎漁取跡 河尓流勿

Which is


which is

yasu yasu ikeraba aramu wo hatayahata
munagi wo toru to kawani nagaru na

which is

If you're really thin, sit still;
don't imagine you can go catching eel in the river!


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