The Start of the Eel

M. L. Martinson



Only days after we moved into the new house on the Island, the eel lurked close by, lolling in the frigid surf.


The area was different then, before Seattle became Seattle. We’re talking early 1980s, before Grunge and Amazon and Microsoft, back when the city was known for very little beyond losing sports teams, rain, and Hendrix. The house, the property, all of it cost practically nothing. Two acres, a beautiful 1908 craftsman right on the Sound, with a clear, quiet view. The value went up, and eventually it skyrocketed. For a while there, the place was worth a fortune. Dad always said to invest in land if you wanted to use your money well, and he was right. Until he wasn’t.


When we first saw the eel, it was 1982.  We were eating dinner, surrounded by half-unpacked moving boxes, and my older daughter spied it slithering around in the yard. I’m no expert, but I thought it looked young and untested for an eel, foolish as it tried to deny its water-bound nature, spasming through the grass. Yet the eel carried itself with such confidence. It seemed to think it ruled all it touched. On first sight, you knew it—the eel was an arrogant little bastard. We stared out the patio windows as it slunk through the grass. It moved through flower beds, circled fence posts, rubbed against my car, and made its way back through the grass once again, as if all it wanted was for us to admire its hideous form.


Soon the eel slunk about our yard daily. It sure as hell was not pleasant to look at, but I’ll admit it was fascinating. Its unjustified confidence, its complete lack of self-awareness, no sense of its hideous appearance. It preened and postured, glowed in self-regard.


In the mornings, the eel wriggled through the grass with some bottom-feeder it had recently pulled from the Sound. More than once I noted these fish were diseased, deformed, or long-dead. If the eel noticed, it did not let on. It would slurp down its sustenance on our lawn and then begin its daily exercises. The creature would lift itself up onto its hind half and attempt to imitate a person. It was a horrifying pantomime: the eel moved its snarly mouth in a mockery of human speech while negotiating a serpent’s version of bipedal walking through the grass.


Even in this, the eel managed to seem haughty.


My kids couldn’t get enough of it. They’d stare out the windows for hours. My youngest drew pictures to hang on the fridge. My son—the middle child—started checking out books at school, trying to emulate the damn thing. He’d slide around the living room, gasping and slurring. But it’s so cool, he yelled when I told him becoming an eel is not a great aspiration.


Okay, I need to tell you a few things. First of all, I’m a vegan. I care about animals; I don’t want to eat them, use their byproducts, or see them forced to live in small cages. They do not deserve to die, nor to be enslaved for our food and clothing needs. For all we know, they are conscious and perhaps even have souls, if such things exist. Don’t get me started on the environmental impact of animal husbandry and hunting. And that’s not all.  I give money to the Sierra Club and have been jailed twice for my activism. I now have a rescue pit bull and, before we moved to the Island, I kept a decrepit horse.


My love for animals is above average, which is important to keep in mind when I say what I’m about to say: every time I saw the eel, I wanted to punch it directly in its god-damned, puffy, hideous, gnarly face. And then I wanted to continue punching and punching and punching and punching and punching until it stopped standing like the human it wasn’t, and then, in my fantasy, I would kick it where I imagine its guts should be and do that for a while before stomping on every inch of its floppy frame. I can’t really explain my revulsion, which, for those early days at least, seemed out of proportion considering what was actually happening, except to say that this eel, by its actions but also by its very being, seemed an absolute disgrace, a mockery of all things good. Every day I would act like I didn’t notice it, but when the kids weren’t around, I stared at that monstrous creature out in my yard and fantasized my violence.


My wife, who is better than me, remained level-headed. She started asking leading questions. Not sure if our children’s fascination was curiosity or something more troubling, she’d say things like Now, when you say you want to be an eel when you grow up, do you mean a literal eel or just eel-like? or When you say the eel is beautiful, you mean for what it is, right? or When you say the eel is a role model, am I correct in assuming you mean for like the worst vultures and maggots, who have no greater models?


The kids were cagey, their mother’s queries getting us nowhere. The kids grew older, and the eel grew, too, in both size and confidence. The kids moved up through grade school and into middle and high school with that nasty creature always nearby. The kids just took it in stride, even if we couldn’t.


The eel ate its foul meals, which, like it, had grown in size. It rarely went into its natural habitat—the Sound—and instead moved through the western Washington mud and muck as if it reveled in filth. Yet it seemed less eel-like by the year—nor human, even as it mastered mimicking the sound of English and a sort of imitation of walking that involved standing erect and, while sliding through the yard, bobbing its head up and down. No, it was now neither. It was non-human and non-eel, a sort of living non-life. It was a negation.


And still it ate its rotten fish. After all those years, it became disgustingly bloated, its black skin grown pale, sharp teeth dulled, fins limp, a grotesque mockery of the Platonic form of eel-ness.


The kids were fascinated, stopped watching TV or playing with friends, choosing to just stare instead. My eldest, now in college, came home on weekends just to join in. The other two neglected extra-curriculars and even saw their grades drop—they were too interested in the eel.


Unfortunately there was always more to stare at. The spectacle increased, and the Island’s decline became more obvious. It seems that, somehow, when I myself wasn’t paying enough attention, the eel gained a following. The vilest woodland creatures soon began to make themselves manifest, creatures I would not have expected to see here on our Island, either in such numbers or just here at all. The eel would place itself on our patio furniture and expound upon some indecipherable subject, spitting and spewing in its snake-ish language, full of gasps and sucking intakes of breath, and the crowds gathered. There were slugs, of course, though only the native, banana slugs; curiously enough, the brown, European variety were nowhere to be seen. And there were skunks—many, many skunks. Rats, mice, raccoons, porcupines, and possums arrived for these daily harangues, as did turkey vultures, crows, and magpies, who crowded into our trees and shat profusely. Feral cats soon prowled in numbers, along with badgers and wolverines, coyotes and wild dogs. Worms and earwigs came, as did flies, fleas, and swarms of mosquitoes. It was a motley crew to be sure, and in what felt like an instant, their foul gatherings were a part of our daily lives.


Now, every day, morning and night, I had to hear, smell, and look at that coarse eel and its followers. There was no avoiding them. The trees grew plastered with their droppings. Our lawn went from green grass to trail-covered muck to a dusty, lawn-shaped desert.


Meanwhile, the kids’ fascination increased. They were mesmerized by the eel’s pomposity, its uncouth, unnatural imitations of humanity. They skipped school when they could, were late on other days, never watched TV—they just sat at the front windows, watching, listening, awed by something I couldn’t comprehend. Need I say it was troubling?


The eel’s daily rallies had been going on for some time when, on a Tuesday afternoon, Bill Jenkins, our neighbor, came by with his son, Joey. The Jenkinses were raising money for the school walk-a-thon, but didn’t really get a chance. The eel bit Bill and then started to squirm-walk after Joey. They were able to outrun the ungainly creature, but a new, uglier chapter in our lives had begun.


Bill called me that evening, fuming. The hospital had given him twenty-four stitches and insisted on rabies shots. Do you understand what I’m saying, he yelled into the phone, that fucking thing attacked me and could have given me a life-threatening illness! It needs to be put down! It was going to bite my fucking kid! Jesus Christ, Tom—what the fuck is that thing even doing in your yard? I could sue you, and you know I’d win!


I’d gotten to know Bill quite well by this time, and I knew he was a reasonable guy. I talked him down, explained that it was not my pet, that I would love to see it go. I disassembled a bit, did not mention or engage with his talk of extermination. It only dawned on me later that I was trying to keep up my reputation as a good liberal animal lover despite the fact that I certainly wanted this hideous creature gone and, secretly, was fine with the thought of it dying. We agreed to figure out a plan at a later date and left it at that.


So I only learned this next part later. For a week, Bill stalked the eel, baiting it and following it around or sitting in a tree and watching it with binoculars until he discovered not only its patterns but also its home. Somehow, this sickly animal managed to wriggle-climb to the top of the island’s tallest madrone tree every evening. There it had set up a gaudy living area. Along with its followers, it had moved any shiny garbage it could find up to the top of the tree—mirrors, tin foil, baking sheets, especially aluminum cans. The twisted creature had become a weird amalgam of a human, a raccoon, and a sloth! The treetop, of course, was a nightmare of kitsch, a mockery of good taste, an attempt at extravagance or perhaps a debauched Christmas tree.


Bill came by late one night with a chainsaw and a plan of attack, but was mauled by a host of animals lying in wait, and, twenty minutes later, a defeated and bloody Bill limped back to his house.


Fifty stitches, a concussion, and two broken ribs later, Bill’s home went up for sale and, he and his family gone, the house left empty.


You know what happened next: The eel’s thugs took over the Jenkinses’ home.


The empire of ugliness expanded. They—the eel and its minions—commandeered the tallest trees, festooning them with hideous décor. The larger yards on the island received the same treatment, while homeowners’ complaints went unheeded. The eel had consolidated too much power.


And so it went. Every day the eel could be found somewhere on the island, extemporizing on its venomous hate, spitting its vile non-words to its acolytes, who, when not sitting at its feet, were busily degrading our island.


By the end of that first decade, the deer were gone, as was the small herd of elk that had always been our pride and joy. Where they went was a mystery—they simply disappeared. More folks moved off the Island, their unsellable homes quickly becoming new dens for miscreant creatures.


Maybe it’s because I’m a vegan, or because of my children’s fascination. For us, everything happened so gradually, by the time we noticed how far the Island had declined, things were too far gone to do anything about it. The eagles disappeared. Then the bees, squirrels, robins, blue jays. But it wasn’t just animals—ferns and evergreens were replaced with thorny brush and stumps, or just sand or mud.


In the early 2000s, a group tried to resist, through beautification efforts and placards. The collection of hopefuls marched down the main highway singing “We Shall Overcome” and carrying seedlings they intended to plant. They were viciously attacked within minutes, ending any thoughts of outright resistance, and increasing the flow of human emigrants leaving the island. Their homes were taken over, torn down, or burned, and the trees and gardens on their property levelled so the bare ground could be spray-painted gold, the eel-entourage’s new passion.


A year after the resistance attempt, my family and I were the only humans left on the island. I have no idea why I stayed. Was it because I thought we’d overcome? I’d never been the most vocal or strident of the eel’s enemies. I was spineless. I knew we couldn’t sell the house, and I had no desire to battle the monsters. Why does anyone surrender to their apathy?


Our  kids moved back in, returning from colleges and careers in Seattle. They claimed it was solidarity, but it felt more like morbid curiosity, something I did not say aloud.


And though the creatures harassed us continually, we endured. Although for whatever reason none of the animals ever attacked us, they would fight and vomit and screech and fornicate in our yard, piss on our home, and make as much noise as they could at night.


About this time I realized the Island was sinking. I don’t know why I even thought to measure, but I discovered that high tide had increased ten feet. Another ten feet would envelope our low-lying property and much of the Island besides. With all the trees and plant life removed, I feared the Island would sink even quicker, and we’d lose our topsoil and ability to grow anything. I loved my plants, my garden—I’m vegan, after all—so I swallowed my fear and, that evening, as the eel stood before its daily rally crowd and improvised another nonsensical speech, I approached the mob.


I walked into the golden field where they had gathered. It was June, and in places on the glittering earth, a cold drizzle washed away flecks of gold paint, so I could see the earth beneath. But the mob seemed larger; the sheer number of creatures surprising. There were more animals than ever before, now including some bears and wolves. The flies, mosquitoes, and gnats moved over the proceedings in great clouds, oblivious to the rain. The majority of the animals in the crowd appeared unhealthy, with patchy fur, missing limbs and ears, other ailments. I was taken aback at how many were smoking, and I saw a gang of raccoons in the back passing around bottles in paper bags.


All the animals turned to look when I walked out of the sparse forest. At first there was silence. Even the eel was quiet for a moment. Then it hissed a stream of spittle-inducing invectives and pointed its snout in my direction, which led to a multitude of jeers, hisses, and flung objects pelting my person. Somehow, I found the courage to stand my ground.


When the attack, which unfortunately included skunk spray and the threat of porcupine quills, was finished and the noise partially subsided, I began to explain my reason for coming. I admit that I surprised myself with my eloquence. With trembling hands, I talked about the need for a diverse animal population on our island, why we need to preserve its wild elements, why the sinking was worthy of our concern, why we must work together for the common good. I used a healthy mix of anecdote, fact, and sentiment. My speech was extemporaneous, yet lasted for several minutes, and I felt as if it sounded rehearsed—but, you know, in the good way. I told them, in layman’s terms, about the social contract, recited some salient points from Peter Singer about human-animal relations, and ended with a brief explanation of my measurements and the fact of our sinking Island. But mostly I tried to make peace, to show how we could live in harmony, how we needed each other. We sink or swim together, I concluded, which I thought was clever in its literal applicability.


The creatures had mocked me throughout my short speech, but they were silent now. They looked from me to the eel and back again, as if waiting for direction. I held my breath, felt a clock ticking in my mind. Those few seconds were, to use the cliché, unbearable. For a moment I even imagined that I had gotten through to them, that they heard reason. But then the eel grimaced, bellowed to the crowd, and I found myself carried off by two black bears wearing eel emblazoned t-shirts and reeking of menthol and malt liquor.


We took the ferry to Seattle the next morning, searching out justice. Rebuffed at every turn, tired and discouraged, we came back to the docks that evening to see the Island’s ferry dock was gone and its shore resembled Normandy. There were turrets and blockades on the beaches, large boulders and trees systematically placed in the water. With the naked eye I could just make out large mammals guarding the shores. The Island was an impenetrable bulkhead. 


We went back to the city, looking for legal means to retake our home, even as we watched the Island decline. We didn’t win.

Today you can bring your binoculars, stand on the pier in Seattle, and watch the Island as it slowly sinks. It is treeless now, a denuded landscape, nothing to block from your view their horrific rallies, all the pageantry and vitriol. Some days you can even see the eel itself, now so bloated and sickly it has to be carried to its assemblies, though it always finds the energy to spew hate before collapsing back to its gilded throne. And then the orgy of destruction continues.


They love their island too much to ever leave, but not quite enough to save it.


It was heartbreaking to see the island destroyed, but it was absolutely crushing to see my kids go back and join the eel. Where’d we go wrong?




M. L. Martinson teaches literature, writing, humanities, and honors courses at Central Washington University, and his fiction appears in One Hand Clapping Magazine, Crab Creek Review, and Scablands Books’ Towers and Dungeons anthology.