A long journey of loving
Leaping Into Eel's Death Colors
A response to the poem "Home to the Sargasso Sea"
Oil on canvas
81 x 12”
by Maj Ragain
The summer of 1946 on my grandparents’ farm in southeastern Illinois. I was six years old. My grandpa Chet and half a dozen neighboring farmers had gathered to clean the well which was brick lined and filled with deep, cold, dark water fed by springs. One man was lowered down, a rope around his waist and shoulders, with a bucket and a corn knife to cut away the roots which had dislodged the bricks and muddied the well. I got as close as I could to watch him disappear into darkness before my father collared me and made me stand behind him. Bucket after bucket of broken brick and tree roots were hauled up by the men. Half an hour went by. Then deep in the well we all heard a terrified shout. Get me outta here, get me outta here. They hauled him up. He was shaken to the core. Something is down there and it’s alive. One man went to the barn for a big fish hook and a ball of twine. He baited it with meat and cast it down into the well. We all awaited a jerk of the line. I’ve got him, said the man quietly. He hauled it up. What came out of that darkness was an eel, about four long feet, thick as a man’s arm, held high in the air by the man who hooked it. The eel thrashed with fury and changed colors even as we watched, its pale body taking on a blue black sheen in the sunlight. How many years since this eel had seen the sun? The catcher man held it high for a long while, a trophy from another world, then dropped it to the grass, put a boot on the back of its head and cut it off with a hoe. The body was thrown to the hogs.
After the work was finished and the concrete slab was moved back over the well, Dad and I stood for a long while, after the others had left, talking about the snake-dragon creature who was so ugly and beautiful. Where did it come from? Dad said, It swam through the rivers underground. It came from the Sargasso Sea. I had never known there were rivers and lakes beneath us.
The Sargasso Sea is a strange neighborhood, mid Atlantic, a clockwise spinning eddy, a water clock bound not by shores but by currents, an area 2000 miles in length, 700 miles wide, with Bermuda in its southwest corner. The Sargasso is covered by kelp, often becalmed, regarded by sailors as a place of bewitchment with its legends of ships found drifting and crewless. This is the birth ground for all Atlantic eels. The larva, “glass eels,” ride the currents for up to a year before reaching the coast. By this time, they have grown into “elvers,” six inches in length. In the spring, the males find a home in the coastal estuaries, whereas the females, for reasons not known, begin a much longer journey that can extend into the upper Midwest, beyond the Mississippi. They are night travelers, midnight ramblers, swimming creeks and rivers, both above and below the earth, even belly walking across rainy backyards. It may be twenty years before the urge to return to the Sargasso Sea begins to throb. The signal to return home, to mate, to perish, cannot be denied. The males along the coast look west. The females stir, quicken and make their way to the Atlantic. Together, they strike out for the kelp beds of the Sargasso Sea. Though vast migrations have been observed, no one has ever seen an eel mate and die in the Sargasso.
The body of the eel still thrashes and churns in the ocean of memory, dancing like the condemned at the end of a rope. A life hardly contained by its form. A living beauty like nothing I’d ever seen. Her death colors came from a place deeper than the well. Her journey ended there in Illinois. She never made it home. The Totten farm has been abandoned for half a century. The well is still there, the walls a tangle of roots and broken bricks, but still open all the way to the Sargasso.
In the darkness, something turns.