The broad curve of the Waikato River encircled us. Deep brown, green and muscular- a macrocosmic reflection of the eels we hunted with homemade spears; vicious, barbed tridents we welded and shaped from whatever scrap metal we could scavenge from the haunted spaces on the edges of the neighbourhood—the yards of derelict houses, improvised river-view dump sites, careless, strange-smelling workshops.
One of the boys was named Mossman and I was quietly pleased to see him clamber over slick, wet rocks in his half-sodden green t-shirt. Moss-Man.
Above us, towards the subdivision where Mossman lived with his happy little family (at least I believed them happy then), the hills were bare with great yellow stains of gorse in flower. Gorse didn’t belong here and something in us knew it and we hated it.
We would hack at the gorse with our blunt machetes, borrowed or stolen from Mossman’s father, or Stoppard’s, who was a builder of beautiful houses but a feckless and careless Dad.
Bastard fucking scratchy fucking gorse. The illicit thrill of swearwords in our mouths and the wholesale destruction of an invasive plant. A heady mix.
At night Mossman and I would lie awake itching and still hot, making for ourselves an idea of sex out of half-heard words and clippings from New Zealand Women’s Weekly.
The sun was relentless all that summer, unfiltered, cruel. We took refuge in a copse of native bush beside a small stream feeding into the great river. We’d sit on the bank on fallen ponga and plan deeds of escape and derring-do, on rafts made from tree trunks or inflated rubber rings.
The river ran to Hamilton, twenty kilometres to the north, but from there we weren’t quite sure.
The sea we presumed.
Had one of us read Huckleberry Finn? Or is Huck Finn just the natural product of a childhood lived beside a great river? Is it possible to watch it run away from us every day and not consider where it might be running to and whether it might like some company for a while?
Local lore was rich with tales of boys sucked under by the river’s whirlpools and eddies—formed as it folded in upon itself around the sharp bends and high, jutting banks—trapped under submerged shelves, unable to free themselves from the Waikato’s pummelling insistence.
Stoppard’s Dad would help us clean and gut the eels we caught then build a little fire and hang them in a repurposed gas cylinder to smoke. He’d let us drink beer and listen to ZZ Top.
She had legs.
And she knew how to use them.
On one particularly vicious summer’s day, we stalked the edge of the creek, Mossman and I holding our spears out in front of us with both hands, Stoppard’s held in his right, above his head, poised for violence. Bug-eyed.
We scoured the dark waters. The waterfall was silent. The tūī kept their strange songs in their throats. Even the Waikato crept away from the music of our attention.
We imagined eels out of logs and partially submerged stones.
Mossman’s peevish hiss.
A small pool, a couple of metres from one bank to the other, the water beer-bottle green but clear enough.
He pointed at the submerged ledge beneath his feet.
With his free hand, spear aloft, Stoppard gestured for me to move around the pool towards Mossman. I jumped the narrow stream, landed on tiptoes, steadied myself with my spear.
Stoppard moved in the opposite direction, leapt the pool’s broad outlet, landing neatly, gracefully, spear above his head. A handle on heaven.
We closed in on Mossman until we were a metre or two from him on either side. We crouched and watched the spot that he watched.
It took a while to strip the detritus from the scene; to eliminate the tree roots, the stumps of fallen branches, the slick river stones.
At last, a boneless, liquid twitch gave away the tawny, living tissue beneath the ledge. We gripped our spears a little tighter, pulled ourselves erect then crouched low once more, keeping our eyes on that strange, nebulous creature. We each felt the electricity run through our hands.
Earlier that day, we sat in Mossman’s garage sharpening barbs, making ready. Mossman’s shrill little voice sung out:
“It’s my turn today. You always get them, Glynn. Even when I see them first. You always get them.”
“I’m faster than you. And sometimes you miss.”
“I don’t miss. You miss. Then they move, and it makes me miss. It’s your fault when I miss.”
“Not bull. You always want to tell your Dad you caught the eel. This time I’m going to catch one. Spear it right in the head. In the brain.”
“Dad says the brain’s in the tail. That’s the best place.”
“That’s bull-pucky. The brain’s in its head. My Dad said the tail thing is a miff.”
“If we see one, then we all go at once. You go for the head, I’ll go for the tail, Marty, you go for the middle. I’ll count one, two, three.”
Mossman shrugged and huffed grudging consent, turned his attention back to the spear locked between his knees, pestering at the barbs with a hook file.
Beside the pool, Stoppard eye-balled both of us in turn. Remember the plan.
We focused our attention back on the eel. It was motionless now, unaware of us, of how exposed it was. We could see its gills moving with its watery breath like the leaves on a mimosa tree. It was stretched out, accommodating, perhaps a metre long from nose to tail.
Each of us shuffled our feet into position. Each of us drew a breath, held it. A high-pitched ringing in my ears, the hot breeze sighing through slender trees, the baby-babble of the creek.
I could hear my heartbeat now. War drums. I was aware of a beam of sunlight reaching through the canopy above our heads, illuminating particles of dust and pollen, a dragonfly hovering sleepily in its warmth, light refracting blue and green through its rice paper wings.
Stoppard held his count a heartbeat longer.
The three never came.
I know that in that moment the spear left my hands, arrowing towards the pool with an intention not my own. I know that voices exploded from young lungs in bursts, in cries, in yelps, in screams. I know that the stillness of the pool erupted in a frenzy of thrashing, white water, a churn of hairless white limbs and a muscular, thrashing tail.
(I remembered a picture book image of the Red Sea closing in over the heads of the Egyptians, their spears and helmets floating loose on the torrent, their strong, tanned arms grasping for wisps of cloud above them, just out of reach.)
When stillness returned once more, I noticed two things. The eel was gone, probably fled downstream towards the safety of the Waikato’s monstrous currents.
And Mossman lay prone, his top half propped up on the sandy bank of the pool, his legs dangling loosely in the water.
A spear protruded from the meaty part of his calf. Blood pursued the eel downstream, undulating in unseen currents, turning the water a queasy pink, dissolving.
Mossman whimpered like a puppy.
Mossman responded by throwing up a thin, yellow gruel over his t-shirt. His head lurched to one side as he lost consciousness for a moment. Then he roused himself and started to wail. A terrible, vibrating keening that seemed to come from some deeper pool, as yet unfished.
I looked up at Stoppard. He stood still, his left hand clutching his right as if to restrain it. His face bone white. He shook.
“He went early. He didn’t wait. Now look what’s happened.”
I recognised my spear hanging from a root on the opposite bank. Mossman’s lying in the sand beside him.
“What do we do?”
“Pull it out.”
“We’ll pull it out, carry him home.”
I felt a flicker of sickness.
Stoppard jumped down beside Mossman. He looked at him curiously, like he was trying to guess his weight for a prize.
“You ok Mike? You’re gunna be ok. I’m sorry I got you, mate.”
He smiled, including Mossman in some mischievous conspiracy.
“But you went too soon. You moved and got in my way. Didn’t he Marty?”
I stared at the spear disappearing into my friend’s leg. I stared at his face, grey and blank, the vomit smeared over his neck and chest. I said nothing.
“Hold his leg still. I’ll pull it out.”
“No. Don’t do it. Go and get a grown-up. Go and get my mum.”
“Shhh. We’ll take you to your mum as soon as we get this spear out of you. Ok, mate?”
Hold his leg.
I knelt down beside Mossman.
I put one hand on his ankle and one hand on his knee.
“This’ll only hurt for a second. Then you’ll be home with your mum.”
Stoppard stood over Mossman. He put two hands on the shaft of the spear. He gave us both a little smile of reassurance. Mossman covered his eyes with his hands. I closed mine.
“Oi! You three.”
I opened my eyes to see a lean, supplejack-limbed figure sliding down the bank towards us. Despite the short shorts, the singlet, the bare feet, there was no mistaking it. He was a grown-up.
He leapt down into the pool. His eyes widened when he saw Mossman’s leg. Saw the spear disappearing into boyish muscle.
He stared at it for a second. There was a smell of gasoline and beer. He looked at me. Then he looked at Stoppard, his son, hands still braced on the shaft of the spear.
With the heel of his hand, he knocked him sideways, under the now murky waters of the pool.
Without looking down he reached under the water and fished Stoppard up by the scruff of the neck.
“You stupid little cunt. The barbs. He could bleed to death.”
He let his son go. Stoppard looked so small as he dropped back into the pool, his knees pulled up to his chest, water up to his shoulders. He started to cry.
We were sent up to the Stoppards’ house with instructions to tell his mother to call the ambulance and to fetch a hacksaw from the garage.
When we got back to the creek Glynn’s dad was telling Mossman about a Camaro he had once driven from Los Angeles to Memphis.
Mossman didn’t look good. He usually would have done anything to have Stoppard’s dad tell him stories of long-vanished muscle cars and the vastness of America. Now he didn’t seem to notice. He stared off towards the river. Like he was watching cartoons, half asleep.
“You wouldn’t believe the noise that thing made. Like music. Here they are. Give me that.”
He sawed off all but a couple of inches from the spear tip.
“Pick up your shit. I’ll see you at home.”
He scooped Mossman up in strong, thin arms and headed back up the hill towards home.
From the other side of the river, we could hear the faint un-music of approaching sirens.
When Mossman got back from the hospital, he limped around the neighbourhood with the air of a returning war hero. He paraded his stitches to whoever would stop long enough for him to roll down the bandage.
Our spears were taken away. We were no longer allowed to go down to the creek or to the river.
Mossman enjoyed a brief holiday of grudging respect. His blood had been carried northward, past Hamilton, to the sea perhaps. Who else among us could make that claim?
I watched Stoppard as he watched Mossman brag about the scar he was going to have once the stitches were removed. Unlike the rest of the small audience of boys who had gathered to listen, he did not look impressed. He absently rubbed the side of his head where his father had knocked him down, his eyes fixed on Mossman, dark like the water in the middle of the river.
Mossman saw him looking. Stopped talking for a moment. And looked away.