Issue One

Electric Eels Are Fiction

by Max Barker

February 15, 2023

I had no concept of symmetry and even less of style. I tried instead to channel the innate artistic energies that permeate everyone when they’re outside, in their socks, smelling freshly cut grass and concentrating really hard. My brother asked for a bad-guy-hairdo, and I could picture exactly what I wanted. Sort of James Dean, sort of samurai warrior, maybe Viking god and a little bit of skinhead. And vampire mafia; Dracula but not so old fashioned. I could see it. It’d take a little bit of fiddling, a bit of time and some of that telluric artistry but I had the perfect composite impression planted deep in the plum stone of my brain; it was just a case of cutting around the dots.

Though the sun was high and sharp, a cool breeze had convinced me into a jumper. Over Nicky’s big head I’d squeezed an ashen bin bag, to keep him from the wind and to catch all the hairs that irritated his neck. We’d set our station on a quartet of paving stones at the end of the garden, surrounded by a sea of coarse cut grass that had felt like a desert of pricks under our socks. The garden was narrow but long, a deformed triangle shape with a flat top, sentried by a high fence and an evergreen hedge. We had no shed and little decoration, save for a small pot lobster painted pink that sat upturned on a half eroded concrete bird bath. With the back door shut and kitchen curtains drawn, we were in our pocket world.

I took several rubber bands coloured blue and beige and tied three horns of hair into little stooks near Nicky’s crown. I started low near the neck, and spiralled up and round, just like peeling an orange. His hair was thick, though lacking the chaos of mine. He couldn’t do much with it, how it was, kind of moppish but stubbornly structured, like a Lego boy, or a balloon with fuzz on. I owed him a good look. I had just the style. The sun’s rays came shining down like puppet strings, guiding my hands, illuminating the canvas, and warming the steel in my scissors, priming them for the perfect cut. Using his chin like a lever and with a soft hand on his head, I tried to guide his pose to exactly where I needed him, exactly how the picture looked in my mind. But his neck was stiff, and he made it difficult. A rival pair of warring blackbirds cut rings across the sun, their shadows severing the light in strobes. Nicky jolted and looked skyward; his shoulder cocked my shearing hand. He winced. I heard him suck a spitful of air under his tongue and through his teeth. I almost took a piece of meat from his ear but managed to catch the renegade snip before it asymmetrified his face.

“You have to sit still or else it won’t look like anything.” I needed it to work out. He concurred with a uh huh and nestled back into the ivory teeth of a white plastic garden chair. I combed out another ribbon of his locks and feathered off all their heads. A beehive in the tree behind us had come alive, I don’t know when, and sounded like a localised pocket-sized storm in my ear; like the fizz inside a seashell heard through a locked wooden door. Nicky dropped his shoulders and relaxed again. He’d been paranoid, nervous all week. We both knew he was safe, no one suspected anything, but he couldn’t help but read omens in all the weird-shaped clouds, the chilly sun, and misbehaving birds. I thought maybe a new look would anonymise him to the fates. I took a little more off the tab that curtained his ear, then combed it away. I felt his head tilt towards a question.

“Are there any volcanoes near where we live, Max?”

“Some,” I replied. We’d watched a film the other night, just the two of us, about a dormant volcano that erupted and razed an unsuspecting city, the lava burning everyone’s grandmothers and melting their homes. “They’re set up like dominoes across the coast.” I continued. “But they won’t explode until the end of the world. We’ve got ages yet.” I blew a flock of conjoined hairs shaped like an arrow off his nape and made, like a volcanic dust cloud, a rasping torrent of spit speckle over his back. He squirmed and exhaled a hollow snicker before coughing himself back to composure. He wasn’t ready to laugh yet.

I unravelled a rubber band and raked out the hair, measuring it with two fingers and matching it with several relative strands on the other side. It was still a little off. I closed my eyes and compared it to the samurai style I was using for reference. No, I was way off. It had to be perfect.

“What about piranhas, and electric eels? Do we have them too?” I crouched in front of his face and fluffed his fringe like I was playing a weather chime. He screwed his eyes to keep anything from falling in and I adopted a soft learned tone, to better sell the wisdom I was imparting, and to professionalise the rapid-fire amendments I was making with the tip of the scissors.

“Piranhas aren’t native,” I said. “They’re not born here, but they sometimes migrate when they’re tired of Africa. Only one or two at a time though, not whole packs, and they don’t usually last long in our waters. Too much dirt and stuff.”

“So when we go swimming in the sea, there are piranhas swimming around us?”

“Maybe one or two, but they won’t eat you without a gang. They’re pack animals. They won’t even try anything without backup.”

“And what about electric eels?” The beehive buzzed real loud, just for a second, making a sound like arcing plasma from a tesla coil.

The ripping open of the bin bag had drawn a web of grey stretch marks across its surface; a network of translucent capillaries ferried rogue locks away from his face and down onto the floor. The majority still pooled in the dimples of his shoulders however, and on his lap, and under his chin.

“Is your neck itching, or are you okay?”

“No, it’s okay.” His eyes were screwed so tight he looked seconds away from turning inside-out. Or teleporting away. I wanted him to forget it all. Expunge his guilt. He was stuck inside a mind paradox with repeating halls, a hundred jurors and a badly worded riddle. Why did he do it? Because he’s a kid and kids do stupid things. He opened his eyes just as the idea hit me. Tending to his fringe I was crouched on bent legs, and our faces were level. I felt I’d betrayed a psychic pact by mentioning the subject, even just by thought.

“What about electric eels?” he repeated, innocently.

“They don’t exist.” My instinctive reply.

“Yes they do.”

“No.” I stood up again and moved round to the other side, the one now in shadow. “They’re fiction. Like sheep that grow on trees or the three-headed dog.”

“I thought they were real?”

“They’re made up, Chinese mythology, I think.”

“You’re lying.”

“I wouldn’t lie to you, Nicky.” I untied another rubber band and combed it out. I bit down on the scissors, holding them in my mouth like Rambo in the swamp and compared the thickness of two sibling strands of hair. It was the first time that I felt my shearing hand seized by indecision.

“I read they’re not really eels, they’re fish,” said Nicky. He sounded defeated. “They are real.”

I was losing it. The gestalt Viking vampire man was breaking apart in my mind and all his thousand looks were splitting off and fading into haze. I kept looking at these damn strands and I couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to cut. I couldn’t match the dots to life, and as I squinted the whole thing started to look like a hack job.

“Is the man really still alive?” I looked to the pot lobster, but he didn’t have an answer. I let the hair go and untied the final stook. The rubber band fell into a crack between two paving stones. I took the scissors out of my mouth.

“He’s still alive Nicky.” I stood behind him and combed all his hair down straight. It was a mess. “Newspaper says he’s hurt but he’ll be fine. It was more of a shock, he said.”

Newspapers said the man was dead, but Nicky wouldn’t be reading them. He’d found an old muzzleloader pistol in the attic the week before but lost it in the park after loading it up with dirt and pretending to shoot the swings. Some man in a blue suit took a lung full of shrapnel a day later and died. They never did catch the salvor cum killer, but poor Nicky blamed himself as a caddie for death. Kids do stupid things. He just needed a change. Something to get his mind off everything. But I was in the process of fucking it up.

“I’ll fix it, don’t worry.” I said.

“How?”

“I just need to tidy it up on top and make the back straight. I’m nearly done.”

“Okay.”

“It’ll look good, I promise.”

“Okay.” 

“It’ll look good. Real cool. Like a punk. It’ll be fine.”

I tried to summon back that Earth magic but with the day being laboured and the smell of grass becoming mundane, I felt the zenith of my conjuring power behind me. The bees had gotten quiet too. I don’t know when. And the air carried a new more potent chill. I saw the strange shape of our garden as the arrow of a compass, pointing north, aligned with the planet’s magnetic field. We were all within its influence. Everything pointed forward. Except Nicky. He’d gotten lost; knocked off course by a rogue body he should’ve seen coming. But kids are stupid. I combed out a ribbon of hair and pinched it between scissored fingers.

“In China, in the olden times, they thought the sun, moon and stars,” I made a little snip at his hair as I said each of these words, “and all of space was just a painting on a giant piece of paper.”

“Is this about the electric eels?”

“Yeah, it’s what they believed. In Chinese mythology. They thought electric eels were batteries for a big clock under the sea that rotated the planet and made time move forward.” I trimmed a few more frenzied strands that stood out longer than the rest and took another inch off the back, nice and even. “They kept the Earth rolling round and round so everyone got a chance to see every bit of the painting in the sky.”

“How did they know what batteries were in Ancient China? They weren’t even invented.”

“It’s just a myth,” I said, and stood back. “I think your hair’s done you know.”

He got up and flipped the bin bag inside out, up and over his big head and shook like a wet dog. He patted himself down and I waved a handkerchief across his neck. As the grass was showered with micro-filaments, I spied among its blades, slithering on its stomach and with an evil eye, a mean looking grass snake, stealthing his way to the spot where Nicky stood. Without hesitation, I leapt right over the paving stone and stomped on its neck. It felt as hard as cable under my socked foot and sent a shock up the tendon in my ankle. I leaned over, tucked its tiny grape looking head into the pivot of my scissors and snipped it right off.

“Why did you do that!” cried Nicky.

“It was coming right for you. It’s a wild animal.”

“It was just a little grass snake, they’re not even poisonous, they don’t bite.” My thumb was peppered red; there was less blood than I anticipated but the handkerchief was almost saturated. I wiped my hands in the nooks behind my knees and looked at Nicky and his new hair. It looked real good. I was proud. He looked real cool. Untouchable.

About Max Barker

Max Barker is a short story and comic book writer from Sheffield, England, specializing in magical realism, speculative fiction, and bizarro science fiction. Interested in the weird, the oneiric and the sublime. He recently graduated from Hallam University with a Masters Degree in Creative Writing.

Follow Max Barker