Published in Overland Issue 246 Autumn 2022 · Prizes / Neilma Sidney Prize / Fiction Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize Runner-Up, New directions in anthropomorphism Miriam Webster WEST Animal voices are annoying, says my writer friend, spinning her spoon on the table. We have met over coffee to discuss writing, something we do periodically though I have no innate sense of direction and am always late to our meetings. We speak hurriedly in a café west of the city, rain falling against the glass eleven days after it started, La Nina having been declared for the second year in a row. The month is November. My friend refers to the acclaimed novel of an acquaintance which has recently taken out the major prizes, in which an apocalypse results in some humans’ ability to hear animals speak. I laugh at her timing, which I find odd. Perhaps it’s an effect of the rain. Cool weather this close to summer makes everything incongruous, as if not only the climate, but our words and feelings, are out of step with the season. I ask her what she finds annoying about the book. ‘It’s a problem with the industry,’ she says. ‘Eco-fiction is trending, but that doesn’t mean it’s good.’ We joke that one or both of us could write an anthropomorphic story about a particularly unattractive animal – a snail or some other invertebrate – and have it published by the end of the month. ‘I couldn’t bring myself to do it’, says my writer friend, laughing as she kisses me goodbye. NORTH My remedy for writer’s block is to imagine a string of random associations starting with an object on my desk. On an afternoon in December (it is still raining, La Nina etc.) I begin with a lightning cable. The braided wire, serpentine in its shiny Kevlar casing, makes me think of: scales snake slipperiness eel Years ago I underwent a spell of psychoanalysis during which I began having a recurring dream of blindness. Either my eyes wouldn’t open due to some illness or impairment, or it would be imperative for me to perform difficult tasks with them closed. I remember telling my analyst the dreams made me feel like an eel, and the feeling of eelness was connected somehow to knowledge, to a sense of longing. This is important, said my analyst. This question of desire. I open my browser and search eels, turning up an article which claims that in 2015, marine biologists observed hyperactivity in London eels due to trace cocaine in the river Thames. The scientists are concerned about the amphetamine having negative effects on the eels’ sympathetic nervous system, which could disturb the complex hormonal processes by which juvenile eels reach sexual maturity, endangering the species. Cocaine as accelerating extinction. I think I will write a story about these coked-up eels, so funny and sad. Outside my house the gutters burst, disappearing the road, Northern suburbs flooding dishwater brown. SOUTH A short-finned eel is discovered in a south-facing water feature at Melbourne University, where I attend classes. I hear the story in a roundabout way and am unsure whether it is fiction, for it has the magic and strangeness of myth. A professor of Architecture becomes obsessed with the sighting, learning from Wurundjeri elders that migrating eels once used the billabongs and freshwater streams which existed where the campus was built. As the campus grew, these ancient waterways were pushed underground, redirected, contained in stormwater drains. But the water still flows. EAST To: firstname.lastname@example.org From: email@example.com Dear Frances, Thank you for pitching your idea for a short fiction piece titled ‘The Slip’. We think it would be a great fit for The Eastern Review’s forthcoming Issue, ‘New Directions in Anthropomorphism’. Please send your final draft by Friday 14th January, and we will begin the editorial process. THE SLIP A woman comes to my clinic in Brunswick after the death of her sister. I ask how she passes her time; she says she works in zoological research at the University, developing a breeding program for short-finned eels. I have never seen a short-finned eel and am not sure I’d like to. I ask when her sister died; she says last autumn. I note that it’s early March, almost a year. I ask her sister’s name; she says Anna. Like all good hysterics she is expressive, but there is no form to her narrative. Before the woman leaves she recounts a recurring dream in which she is, herself, an eel. This piques my interest. How does it feel to be an eel? It feels like a question without an answer, and I wake thinking there’s something I should know. The analyst is a formidable woman in her mid-60s with a gentle manner, a severe bob. I speak about the glass eels I’m raising, each only as long as my little finger and completely transparent, flickering in the green water of the hatchling tanks, catching light like flashing jewels. The night before my second session I dream again of brown water, secret. Pale shimmers of light. Did you know: The river in this city’s a narcotic mist. And all the eels are getting high. I used to be a nice eel but now I’m a poet I’m hysterical I writhe and glimmer and speed through the river like gossip. Not much I can do with all this pent-up libidinal energy, here where the water tastes like city and cigarettes, and the other eels I know spend their time getting blind. I’m longing for salt water, feeling more slippery than ever. If you’re worried about a speaking eel rest assured you won’t be reading any passages in different fonts or maybe only here and there. Reckon it’s annoying? Reckon you’re the only one having trouble dealing with grief? It’s not an uncomplicated process, I say. Now, go on. I explain that eels only spawn once in their lifetime and then they die. There’s something literary about it, no? Something about coming full circle, about birth as an encounter with death, and death with birth; something about a life’s purpose, something about a quest. But perhaps I’m anthropomorphising. After all I’m a scientist, not a writer. I wonder why you stopped yourself there. What is it about storying you see as antithetical to science? How does this relate to your feelings about your sister? I don’t know, but all the eels are disappearing. I’m inclined to think the eels are leaving because we’ve done something to make them go away. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference between the grief I feel for my sister and my grief over the idea that eels will be extinct before we’ve learned anything more. Sometimes I feel I’m chasing after ghosts. It would be easier to be uncaring, but that would be a waste of good feelings are for humans and other social animals. I’m a loner/ I like it that way. Or something. So I’m apprehensive about the mass spawning event I’m headed for, where every eel on the continent will meet under a golden rainforest of seaweed, and spill themselves with abandon through the salty, burning blue. The Naturalists worked out long ago that eels only spawn once in their lives and then they die. The Naturalists got a lot out of this and wrote many books, but all I got was a tender promise which happened also to be a death sentence. But fuck it, you know, you only spawn once in the Spring of 1876, a young Sigmund Freud spent a month in Trieste dissecting eels. I mention this to the woman, who is unfamiliar with the story. Freud wished to locate the eel’s gonads and thereby solve the question of its nativity; but the eel proved slippery, unsolvable, and Freud turned his mind to psychoanalysis, the other sliding thing. The woman tells me he did not manage to locate the gonads because they weren’t there to find: it is only during the long migration to sea that the eel’s stomach dissolves, and sex organs grow in its place. I’m attracted to eels because of their secrets, because of our failure to know them. Even if my research comes to nothing I will be a witness to their extinction. I think this is important. I did not see my sister die, which I experience as a failure. Anna’s death could have been many things – a sense of an ending, a spiritual requirement, a moment of peace. I will never know. I think my dream about the eel is related to this longing. Life is short! I’m swimming faster and faster into the arms of fate and it’s kind of funny because I know I’m headed for my own funeral. At the start of my journey I felt pretty toxic, like, fucked up. Being in clear water for the first time made me feel worse than before. (Contrast, the great illuminator). Feeling like a butcher’s arsehole probably had a lot to do with getting clean. I don’t just mean the improvement in water quality, but com in g down from all that coke. Sorry about the eel voice but it’s like the further I get from humans the less oppressive their diction feels. If you wanted a story in which the animals speak perfect fucking English then you’re reading the wrong stories are never benign enunciations. This is what the woman must understand. She tells me that the eel-dream feels like longing; but for what, she is uncertain. This is important, I say. This question of desire. Her latest symptom is a preoccupation with arranging sexual encounters via dating apps. When I press her, she changes the subject, tells me about another dream in which she is the young Freud in Trieste. In the dream I see shimmering dead tissue, his hands stained by the white and red blood of the sea creatures. Black bodies, writhing. His hands, writing. Taking notes. The room is dim, the inside smells of the sea and death and I work at a desk in the corner, slicing my charges. Their writhing disturbs me. Like an hysteric, the eel refuses to be managed, refuses to be known. I am the young scientist in a foreign country in a strange city in a dark room. I am the hunter, prowling the creature for meaning but it does not come. I flee into the thick night. I watch women taking the air, strolling, fixing their dresses, their hair. Beauties, all of them, beguiling and strange, more intriguing than my eels. I see my hands, bloody. My hands, writing. On the desk there is a letter, addressed to my friend. I open it to see what I have written. Trieste is a very beautiful city, I’ve written, its beasts are very beautiful beasts! I slip the letter into my pocket. At sunset the wind drops and a bloody sky is reflected in the ocean, sealing the mysteries of sea creatures beneath the perfect glass of the water. The fishermen go out for the evening catch and shadows disfigure ladies’ faces. There is something disquieting about this foreign twilight. I long to approach women in the streets, though what I desire I cannot say. On these evenings I scurry past, afraid of myself, and return to my eels. In my dark room all I think about are the big questions, the ones that go hand in hand with testicles and ovaries – the universal, pivotal questions. We try to interpret this dream about Freud. The woman says she has made a career of researching unusual creatures, but grief is an animal stranger than most. Sometimes her grief is tight and small and particular, and she feels it might disappear her entirely. At other times she suspects this mournfulness is shared by many, and there is consolation in knowing it’s not hers to bear alone. She asks: Could what we are doing here be a way to trace her survival? Our work together enters its second phase, I wonder how long it will last. With the men my reticence is never a problem; if you let them, most guys prefer to talk about themselves. But sex is a good distraction. I like the sweating writhing grinding. I like binding my body with others. Afterward, when my partner is sleeping and I am cool and quiet, my thoughts return to eels. They are growing now, losing their translucence, becoming creatures of substance. In the early hours of the morning I leave whatever bed I’m in and head to the lab, where I stand before the tanks and watch the eels swim in and out of my reflection, blurring my edges only to redraw each one again. Freud filled page after page with pictures of our reproductive systems, as if repetition might reveal something he had not yet intuited. I like to think of the Great Man peering through his microscope at one of my dissected ancestors, having a crisis of faith in science and his own apperception, the image blurred. Unlike me, streaming toward the sea with this sudden clarity of vision. I feel ethereal. Cosmic, I know. At first it really fucked with me, with my sense of having a soul or spirit – whatever you want to call it. I guess it’s normal for earthbound creatures to cling to feelings of embodiment. It is the strangest thing, to seek your own annihilation. After a while, my sense of narrative fatalism started feeling – and I’m wary of sounding overly redemptive here – like freedom. But sea here inside her I’m embarrassed to admit that for all my philosophical airs, I’m still like the sweating writhing grinding/stranger than most. you’re almost there. Hold tight want some. seafood not long now the woman begins arriving late, resistance to the new phase. I conceal my frustration. She surprises my by failing to appear for her last session before the Christmas break; I wonder why she’s given me the slip. I send her a text message – something I rarely do – anxious to make myself available to her over the break, worried what will happen if she’s left alone in my apartment, my analyst away. About a week ago I dreamed I was an eel again. As the migrating eel gets closer to the sea its eyes turn blue to absorb light underwater, but in the dream my eyes don’t clear, and I can’t find my way. Since then I’ve been losing sight in my left eye, like there’s an ink blot over my iris. A visit to an optometrist confirmed I have an ocular occlusion, probably due to psychic distress. (My analyst will have fun with this.) In the semi-darkness of my reduced vision, time’s texture is changed. I reflect on a past that seems both nearer and further away. I never intended to study eels, but fell in love with them like falling under a spell. Some eels take up to a year to migrate depending on currents, place of origin, vigour, inclination. They are blind for most of the way, getting by on feeling. Maybe this is a lesson. See feelingly, say the eels. I think about this for a few days, feeling like so many sensations!! salty warm blue delirious yellowbrown seaweed everywhere like a beautiful golden fuck-palace. Eels everywhere, fucking. Well, not fucking, spawning, but that’s how I have to put it so I’m speaking a language we all understand. So, we’re all here spawning/fucking every which way. Upside down around sideways lots of holes lots of places to enter lots of places to return. sea aha see inside her. All feelings of ethereality suddenly nullified. I’m a body in time! I have all these eggs! There were so many it was a shock when I first released them, like, millions! Who needs cocaine when you’re high off your own potency! I feel like I was born to be here. I fucking was! What a sublime joke it all is. I came here to find lose myself. Lose haha loose lost last haha spawn til I die oh my this place is fucking paradise. I guess that’s it for me. If you were hoping to read a story in which the eel triumphs, the creature doesn’t die, extinction is averted by a sudden communion between animals and people, then I must inform her that while I cannot predict when her vision will return, it seems her unconscious is telling her it’s time to look at how the light makes gold the edges of things. Grief, when I allow myself to feel it, makes everything seem unreal or hyperreal; how painful, how beautiful this can be. The sight in my left eye is slowly returning. I’ve held the box containing my sister’s ashes. They call them cremains. They call them larval, glass, silver, juvenile, mature, semelparous, extinct. My colleagues have been sending pictures; my eels are grown up, no longer transparent but a dark, secret brown. Soon they’ll be ready for the river and then the sea. I hope they get there, though I will never know. I could get upset about this, but I prefer to see the humour in it. The best laid plans of men and. . . awry rhymes with bye and best laid plans in new directions writhe and glimmer and speed through the Whatever, you get it. ~ EAST To: firstname.lastname@example.org From: email@example.com Dear Frances, Thank you for your story, which we think is intriguing. Edits to come. In response to your question, if you’re worried about writing from the perspective of SOUTH An eel? texts my writer friend, crying emoji. Didn’t we agree that ventriloquizing another species seemed ridiculous? WEST But I’ve been thinking, I tell her, the next time we have coffee: NORTH It is a great relief from the profundity of loss to admit that is it also, always, absurd. Read the rest of Overland 246 If you enjoyed this piece, buy the issue Or subscribe and receive four brilliant issues for a year Miriam Webster Miriam Webster lives in Naarm/Melbourne. She thinks and writes on what is funny and moving about love’s complications, millennial dread, and the sometimes unbearable torment of living. She has almost finished a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. More by Miriam Webster Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. Related articles & Essays 3 First published in Overland Issue 228 26 May 202326 May 2023 · Fiction Fiction | garramilla/Darwin Lulu Houdini We sit in East Point Reserve and look at how the gidjaas, green ants, make globe-like homes out of the leaves — connected edges with fibrous tissue that I later learn is faithful silk. Safe inside. Why isn’t it safe outside? 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