The EelBy: Jill Koenigsdorf Tomoko Nishikawa left the men behind in her tent, all of them, by now engrossed in their bottles and pipes, chewing on the cud of their own despair. She was Den Mother, Wendy to their Lost Boys, each of the men at one time or another believing he was in love with her. The tent was perched on a cliff in front of the fire station, offering a panoramic view of the turbulent North Shore of the island. Tomoko was a highly skilled landscaper, meticulously putting the finishing touches on her topiary sculptures with nail scissors, if need be, striving for perfection. In exchange for these contributions, and also because the firemen appreciated the way she cared for her flock of misused war veterans, they had allowed her to pitch the big tent there for the past three decades. Tomoko made her way barefoot down the winding path to feed the eel, as she had done each evening at 6 o’clock since the day she had arrived in Hawaii from Japan. The winds whipped her graying hair across her mouth and she pressed her lips tightly together and proceeded. She was surefooted, even as she carried the weighty, sloshing bucket containing small sardines, squid, and hermit crabs to the water’s edge. This spit of worn away rocks and tide pools was like her Juliet’s balcony, a vantage point from which she could peer into the dark crevices of the reef below and wait for the eel, her eel, to emerge. “Utsubo,” she sang out, and almost immediately, the eel’s head popped up through the froth. She knelt, tossing it a sardine which the eel, with its double set of teeth, dispatched with impressive ferocity. She reached into the bucket, making little clicking noises with her tongue and saying: “Ah, you are hungry tonight. Special treat for you: squid.”Morays, she knew, could go a week or more without eating, but her eel never missed this evening feed. “No more,” Tomoko said. “You are getting too big. You will scare the surfers.” She stood, watching the waves, big as battleships, detonate onto shore. In Japan, Tomoko had made a career out of protest. The Vietnam War was the first cause that Tomoko threw herself into, writing letters, joining marches, publishing articles in the local newspaper. Even in Japan, the error of that war was impossible for her to ignore. But her true mission, and for so many years the symbol of her own impotence, was the Chisso Corporation. Tomoko first saw the William Eugene Smith photograph called: “Tomoko Uemura In Her Bath” in a “Life Magazine” that was on her mother’s dressing room table. It was 1971 and Tomoko Nishikawa had just turned nineteen. The photograph sprang at her from the page like a shark and sunk its teeth deep into her heart. It galvanized her to battle as nothing else had. The subject of the photo was a mother, her face suffused with love, tenderly bathing her daughter, this young girl who shared her name, the other Tomoko. The little girl’s body was ravaged by mercury poisoning, her stick-like arms bent at chicken-wing angles, the rigor of her stuck fingers, more like pincer or prong, hovering just above the water. But her eyes, as they rolled to look heavenward, had a grace that one could almost mistake for rapture. Chisso Corporation had been poisoning the fish and by extension, the people of the fishing village of Minamata since before Tomoko was born, but she truly believed, at first, that if she marched alongside the sickened people of the village, wrote the letters, fought the good fight, she could force the evil corporation to close down. After several years of devotion, with no results in sight, she had finally grown disgusted, dropped out of school, and fled. She sought nothing more than peace, to live off the grid, to somehow make the way she lived her own life, the only thing she could actually control, its own form of protest. * The hardest thing about the attacks was their utter unpredictability. There was absolutely no way to be prepared, though certainly, Gabe had tried. He had constructed booby traps around his bed so he would know if he had somehow wandered in his sleep. He had set his alarm for odd hours throughout the night, an attempt to intercept an assault. He had watched countless hours of mindless T.V. until dawn in hopes of avoiding sleep altogether. But no, the unease was pretty much constant since he’d returned. He was only twenty-two, but had dark circles under his shifty eyes and his jaw was clenched tight as a sprung trap. Even though Gabe had never experienced a panic attack until after the war in Iraq, it reminded him of the way he had felt hiking the slot canyons at dusk in the summer, roaming the red-rock labyrinths of his boyhood in Hurricane, Utah. It could be a time of whistling ease, or calm reflection, yet he knew it was also the time of day when all living things came out to hunt. Sometimes Gabe would round a corner, immersed in his own thoughts, and suddenly, he would come upon very large animal prints embedded in the sandy canyon floor, that he was hard-pressed to identify. On these occasions, he would hold his breath and strain to listen. Not to be ambushed, that was the goal. Always when he spotted these large prints, he felt their menace, and the hike was no longer a carefree ramble. “Son,” his father would scoff at him when he made it back and told of these deep prints. “If a creature plans on eating you, whether it’s a bear or a big cat, you won’t have time to be afraid. A warning is a luxury that just doesn’t much happen in the wild.” His father did not excel at comforting. Well past when he should have stopped, his father continued to trot out the story at parties, the one where he told everyone that his son’s first word was “don’t.” But now again, older and back from the war, and wrecked from it all, Gabe that sense of being watched, of being prey, was a constant. Sergeant Wiles had lectured his platoon that first day, saying: “Time to hone your aptitude for predator awareness.” Gabe had been at home in the natural world as a boy, endlessly curious about botany and entomology. Entire days were spent having no contact with any living creatures except birds and ground squirrels and stink bugs. He never felt lonely in the wilderness, the way he sometimes felt lonely around people. It boggled everyone’s mind when he up and enlisted in the army, albeit during peace time, simply trying to get his education paid for. Then came 9/11. Then, at the end of 2002, came his deployment. And finally, in 2003 came Shock and Awe, or “rapid dominance,” as Sergeant Wiles called it. None of the guys in his platoon knew what hit them. There was no time to process any “before” or “after.” There was only forty-eight hours of apocalyptic, teeth rattling, surrealistic displays of pyrotechnic magnitude. Everything was loud and molten and relentless. Earplugs and gas masks were useless, even from Gabe’s position on a hill a mile away from the epicenter of the obliteration in Baghdad. Flaming bodies ran from huts and high-rises like scorched moths, no longer human beings but “targets.” And afterwards, an ominous quiet, the earth making a hissing sound like an angry snake or a doused fire. Ironically, it was the first day of Spring, March 21st 2003, when the bombardment finally stopped, but there was certainly no rebirth that day, nothing rising from the ashes. In fact, Gabe recalled being so moved that he wept uncontrollably when he saw the miracle of a fly land on his canteen. He marveled that anything could have made it out alive. After his discharge, they told him that the familiarity of moving back in with his folks would “calm his nerves.” Yet Gabe would wake up, crouched and protecting his head, in the closet and have no idea how he had gotten there. Or the unrecognizable sound of the sprinkler water hitting against the window pane at night would trigger such bowel-loosening fear that he would grab the weapon he kept under his mattress and just run, willy-nilly, as fast and hard as he could, out the door, down the deserted streets of suburban Hurricane, his bathrobe flapping behind him like the tattered cape of a failed super hero. Finally, mortified, knowing that the whole town regarded him as a freak, he took off for the most distant place he could imagine, the North Shore of Hawaii.* Tomoko had left Japan in 1973 when she was 21 years old with only a vague sense of purpose, still wanting to “make a difference” and also to “live a life of absolute freedom.” She carried with her nothing but a backpack containing some essentials, and a plastic-lined, water-filled valise she had constructed to transport the eel. A dream had told her that she must move to this remote spot in Hawaii, to “do her work,” and that she should carry with her a young Dragon Eel to set free in this other Pacific. The powerful voice in the dream told her she was “Ambassador for the Ocean.” She chose a Dragon Moray, and back then, the creature had weighed only three pounds and was no more than a foot long. She named it Kibou, or Hope, and somehow, each day that passed with the eel still alive, gave her a deep sense of accomplishment, attachment to her new home. Now, all these years later, she looked down into the fizzing water below her and saw Kibou’s giant head break the surface again, his mouth perpetually agape and loosely flapping from the puppetry of the water, as if hinged. The eel looked oddly dog-like, its button eyes flat, black and white, unreadable like a doll’s. Kibou was now nine feet long and weighed over sixty pounds, and each evening at dusk, like a lovesick suitor or a well-trained pet, he waited for Tomoko to arrive. * In Tomoko’s tent, there was a delegation of damaged goods, soldiers who represented every war the United States had been involved in since Korea. There was Bob, the oldest, a Vietnam vet who would scare tourists who had wandered onto the cliff to watch the sunset. Bob would approach them, rattling off local lore interspersed with war stories at a dizzying clip. Suddenly , he would stop, insisting that they feel the shrapnel in his forehead, as if they were old friends and it was his usual party trick. If they hesitated, he would just grab their index fingers himself and press them insistently against his knotty forehead. There was Randy, veteran of both Wars on Terrorism. He too would saunter over to unsuspecting tourists, turn on his maniacal charm, and just when they were warming up to him, pop out his glass eye into the palm of his hand. There was Tommy from Tampa who had chronic diarrhea and lost his train of thought mid-sentence, chalking it up to Gulf War Syndrome, a disease the military refused to officially recognize after Operation Desert Storm. Ray from the uprising in El Salvador, Julio from the First Gulf War, Jimmy from Operation Iraqi Freedom and now here was young Gabe, joining their not-so-merry band. Word spread somehow, down in Honolulu, amongst the new arrivals, those running away, those wanting to start over, about Tomoko’s tent on the cliff. While the names and faces of her small tribe was continually changing, the overall condition of the men who showed up there remained a constant. The men felt comfortable around one another, able to joke about their nightmares, the outrageous things they had endured, or at least those they were willing to share. They had found one another, there on the cliff, and they were respectful of Tomoko, tried to help her anyway they could. “To my Lost Boys,” she would toast, raising her plastic glass at the long picnic table, her smile radiant despite two missing teeth. “And to Gabe, our newest Lost Boy. Welcome.”* Tomoko enjoyed her private time. She was currently sculpting a mature Hibiscus at the far end of the cliff into the shape of a Monk Seal, making sure to leave two of the yellow flowers on the head portion, where they could serve as eyes. She missed female company, and sometimes, would just hitch a ride into town to go to market, maybe see a movie. She had a few rules, but everyone knew: no one fed the eel except Tomoko. No one was even allowed to join her when she walked down to Eel Rock. Yet ever since his arrival, Gabe had been secretly watching her when she headed down to the perch with her bucket. He could see her lips moving, addressing the water below. Gabe wanted badly to see the creature himself, had built it up in his own mind as something mythical, something with special powers, maybe even the power to cure him. One night, a torrential rain battered the tent and the men groaned in their sleep. There had been a brawl at dinner that night, offense taken, random threats and pummeling. Gabe couldn’t even remember what triggered it. The brawl had shaken his trust in their tribe. Tomoko had returned to her cot very late. Every time Gabe dozed, he jerked himself awake, instantly hyper vigilant, certain that the large tent was about to unmoor. The next thing he knew, he was soaking wet, lying naked on his stomach on Eel Rock. Gabe had not had an attack since he had arrived on the island, and was even allowing himself to hope that they were behind him at last. But no, here he was, all over again, sick from the let down and terrified. Then, Gabe heard something, a high-pitched creaking, like a rocking chair sawing back and forth under a heavy weight. He didn’t dare sit up, but crawled closer to the edge, his hands finding divots in the wet rock that allowed him to pull himself forward. Finally, his chin no longer touched the landing and his head and neck were jutting out beyond the rim. He dared to look below and saw a fantastical sight, an eel, gigantic and primordial, not just its head but its entire upper body writhing and moving with great speed, cutting across the water’s surface like a periscope. It was hunting, on the move. Gabe watched, mesmerized. The eel’s eyes never left Gabe’s and they seemed to be beckoning, a siren’s call. How easy it would be, Gabe thought, to join the creature in that other world, a safe hidden place of caves and endings, where all the rules stayed the same and there were no ambushes. How easy to just give one more good push, let himself fall the ten feet, surrender to the currents, or maybe even to that giant, friend or foe he could not tell. Slowly as a slug, Gabe began to crawl again. Below, the eel had stopped hunting and was facing him, stationary, the blank eyes offering him anything he wanted to read into them. Gabe’s shoulders were beyond the rim now, and the eel seemed to be encouraging him, daring him to push. That was the worst part, Gabe acknowledged as he considered his choices for one final time. The madness. He didn’t know what was real anymore and was sick to death of the shame. The eel seemed to have lost patience with Gabe and submerged. He strained to follow its dark shape under the surface, desperate not to lose contact. At the same instant that Gabe heard the crash of wave against rock, he was inside it, the decision about whether or not to join the darkness below being made for him. But instinctually, he fought, struggled against the suction, the tremendous power of the water, clawing at anything that might keep him on that ledge. Another wave hit, bouncing him against the rock like a toy, but this time, he had some help against the pull. He felt a hand on his ankle, and it yanked him away from the edge. It was Tomoko, her hand so strong. Once they had scrambled to a safer spot on the rock, Gabe sat up, spitting out water and trembling violently. He wanted to thank her, to explain somehow. Instead, he let his chin drop to his chest. “Please don’t…” “I won’t.” she said, her eyes clear, no judgment, her grey hair matted and wet. “I won’t tell a soul.” Once safely off Eel Rock, Tomoko wrapped a blanket over his shoulders, adding: “No one should be here but me. I know this eel. I see what’s really there.” “What do you see then?” Gabe asked, challenging. Tomoko thought about this before she answered. “Now? I see only an animal. Doing whatever it must do to survive. Now I am able to see only the eel. There is enough power in that.” The two of them made their way up to the tent, bent at first from the ordeal, but gradually straightening, more upright, even as the incline became steeper, as if the trial itself was the only real thing, propelling them forward, giving them strength.