Taken from our Feb/Mar 2019 issue.
The river threaded all of Urdaibai together. From the eye of Guernica, it bled out, into the valley, sliding through the crease in the earth to the sea. It linked our towns too: the sprawling stunted apartment buildings of Forua on the western side, to the eastern Kortezubi, where the crumbling farmhouses seemed always on the verge of re-combining with the mountains.
It was where I learned to swim.
The way that the river curved sharply then opened at the mouth, had always reminded me of the crook of a seagull’s wing. In my earliest swimming days, when I stuck to the still, protected water on the backside of the sandbar beach, I first recognised the shape in the outline of the bay: I caught a flash of it through the rear window of my parent’s car at the end of the day, when we rose home into the hills. That afternoon, when I got tired of feeling like I was drowning, I had spent the remaining hours flinging myself over the sand, chasing after birds with wings of that same shape.
You had to leave at night to fish for eels. Not in the false darkness of early morning – you were not fishing for bass, or cod, or for sardines – but at the peak of the bowed spine of the night you would have to collect your keys, your net, your lantern, and leave. You wanted a whole pool of hours to spend down there in the darkness: the time to wade until the water hit your knees and the time to wait there, the long pole of your net extended before you as though it were a third arm. If you were patient, the eels would rise to the light from your lantern, and their slim transparent heads would prick the surface. Their helpless tails ploughed the water. I always wanted to hold them.
My father had a habit of going back to the river at night, I found out when I was thirteen. I wish I could say that it felt like anything besides betrayal. The first night that I caught him leaving, I had been lying folded up in my window frame because I could not sleep, and from up the hill, the water was black and slow-moving like mud. Like it was wild, or gross, or somehow at the same time, both. The engine of our car sent a murmur out below my window. A door clapped. Then our yellow coupé slid into the street and my father’s net, too unwieldy to rest in the backseat, extended out the passenger window, as he moved through the dark and away. As far as I understand now, at that point he was going every night.
Later, when I was older, I was once fumbling around with a boy in the bushes that bordered the back of our property, when I heard the familiar sounds of my father returning from a night of fishing. Up until then, what I had most feared was that the jabalí – the mountain boar that we sometimes heard mewing from above – might come down the mountain to us, but as the car neared and I heard the rattle of the motor and the rustle of gravel reshuffling itself under the weight of the tires, I saw already what would happen in several moments: his headlights carving through the bushes to bas-relief our panicked bodies.
But before I could even fit my shirt back over my head, the car came around the corner with its lights completely extinguished. We had sold our yellow coupé, at some point, for a used black sedan that my father preferred, and in the moments before he opened the door and dragged his net and lantern with him, the dark car sat there in our driveway like a misplaced shard of the sky, my father – that night – in it.
My father never brought any eels into the house, and so I had always assumed that he never followed through on the final step of fishing them: when their heads appeared at the surface, I assumed that he never swept his wide and shallow net beneath them, or, if he did, I imagined that he held them there only briefly before plunging them mercifully back into the water.
When I was a child my father explained to me that our eels are born in a small patch of ocean, far into the Atlantic, off the coast of Bermuda. He explained that they spend the subsequent years of their lives both fleeing and returning to that same spot; the first trek across the Atlantic to reach our rivers, the second, near the end of their lives, to leave them. When the caravan into the river begins in the spring, thousands of eels thread the currents of those shallow waters. If you lowered your lantern to the surface at night, you would find them there, coursing, like an endless, spectral fleet.
Of course, there was no way to know if you were always fishing in the same group of eels, but if you moved yourself several paces farther down the river each night, you could certainly trick yourself into the sensation that you remained among fish who you knew, and who knew you. Typically, you would fish them on their entrance into the river, when they were young, so small they were worm-like, and clear.
And so I was surprised, when I began following my father down to the river at night, to find him trailing them in the opposite direction. For nearly two years, we both accompanied the dying eels on their exodus, all the way from source of the river to the sea. Each night I made sure to stay hidden from view, always keeping a kilometre, maybe two, behind him. He trailed his own fleet, I trailed mine.
You could see all of Urdaibai this way. The river laced the whole region together. Past Kortezubi, you came to Kanala, and on its stony shoreline you might find a nude bather baring his body to the world. Farther down, the bank would bend to cup a mass of boats moored over a patch of rocks. You might hear improvised songs rise from tents that dot the campground cleaved to the chest of the mountain, and you might smell the scent of roasted chicken leaking from the campground’s mess hall.
Across the river, at Mundaka, you might be able to make out the old casino, hunched over the port. And the Church of Santa Catalina, too, which sits on a cliff above the water, might inevitably prick your vision: its grey stone walls the wind has scraped of all their colour.
Then, down there past Kanala, looking from my side of the river, you could see across to Bermeo, and the large commercial barges that swallow up the harbour. But at this point, the river, already several kilometres ago, will have released itself to the sea, your eels with it.
Moira McCavana’s fiction has previously appeared in The Harvard Review. At the moment, she is working on a collection of short stories set in the Spanish Basque Country, an extension of her thesis at Harvard University, which won the Thomas Temple Hoopes Prize for outstanding graduate research and fiction. She currently lives in Madrid, Spain.
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