The man stood at the end on the pier, a giant oak barrel balanced on two carrot sticks, one hand punched into his hip, the other tugging nonchalantly on a fishing reel.
It was the morning grey – before the insects, before the million fragrances and feathery winds – when the mist was still rising from the lake like steam off a mirror. The abattoir trucks wouldn’t be raking up and down the roads for at least another hour and, as long as the sun skulked behind the fringe of trees, the world was his.
The wooden boards underneath his feet were cool and welcoming; he rubbed his toes into them, wishing a splinter to dare crack its head against his iron soles. When he felt the need, he parted his legs and relieved himself, without aim, without arching his back or shaking the final drops away with the scruff of his cheesecloth foreskin; the gentle stream, the colour of coffee and brown liquor, broke the water and sent pine needles into a swirling dance. Somehow it felt like pissing on a grave, but he could hardly drop the line and haul back to the trees: he had to be vigilant. They were hungry those eels; they stripped and strangled, dredged up mud, mice, hair and nails; by sunrise he’d ring a quartet of them, string their greasy tapes on a coat hanger, then smoke them, fry them, toss a handful of their mush to the cats or to the lettuces.
At the sound of a splash on the far bank, the man cocked his head and stepped forwards, slapping the puddle of urine at the pier’s edge with the ball of his foot. An arrangement of limbs and orange peel hair was washing towards him. It was steering through the mist, turning circles in the black film of the lake’s surface, and before he could wind in his line, or wedge the reel between the planks or walk away, a voice called to him.
“Don’t worry,” the woman said, treading water. “I’ve seen it all before.”
The man began clumsily winding in the line.
“I’m a nurse. Just started at the clinic down the way.”
“That’s nice,” the man said.
“What you fishing for?” The woman swivelled her head, peering down into the gloom below. With each stroke of her arms, her undulating breasts rose from the water.
“Hope I didn’t scare them away.”
“They don’t scare.”
The woman dolphined around the pier, flicking water at him, which made his ankles itch; she complained about the state of her knees, which were better before she’d played state volleyball, and giggled as the man tried to twist the line away from her rippling wake.
“You live on Butcher’s?”
The man nodded, indicating a strip of gravel that parted the trees behind him. “Fifteen years.”
“Must be able to smell it from here, when they really get the the burners going. I heard they had to shut down for two weeks last summer the stench was so bad.” A parade of freckles marched themselves towards the centre of her face, and sunk into the deep lines around her eyes and mouth.
“You get used to it.”
“Not me,” said the woman. She kicked out and sailed closer to the pier, where she reached up and folded her arms over the mossy edge and spat into her hands. “Think this swimming is giving me a cold.”
“You?” the man asked, suddenly aware of the firmness between his legs. He looked away, and blinked the flash of her bright hair out of his retinas.
“Yep. Right down the road, yellow weatherboard with the frangipanis. Perfect address for a vegetarian, isn’t it? First letter from my sister was a recipe for beef bourguignon.”
The man exhaled sharply to show he understood the irony.
“You know, I heard that Butcher’s didn’t get its name from the abattoir at all – that, back in the day, whenever, there was guy, a trucker, who killed his wife. Hacked her up with a cleaver.” The woman hiccuped a laugh.
“Then dumped her remains in this very lake… have you heard this one?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Well,” she continued, her pale legs scissoring behind her. “They say she still haunts the area – that she crawls out of the lake and rolls up and down the road scaring the shit out of the truckers doing the night runs. Can you believe it?”
“…sounds a bit far-fetched.”
“The further west you go, the crazier they get.”
“Eels would’ve got to her eventually.”
“Eels. There would’ve been nothing left to do the haunting. They eat anything – floating or sunk, rotten, fresh… they don’t mind what they cut their little saws into.”
“You trying to scare a lady?”
“Grate you up like cheese.”
The woman pushed off the pier and back stroked into an island of sunlight.
“Got to feed the cats.” The man waved after her.
“It’s gonna be another hot one,” the woman called out as she paddled off.
He watched the woman’s tangle of white and orange swim away until it had reached the far bank, then scraped his fingers across the bristles on his chest and waited for the quickening sun to pan across his knees and groin. A dragonfly fizzed over the reeds, sweet mud perfume, detergent and wet newspaper rose from the still water. The first trucks were already rumbling up the road as the man stowed the reel behind a pylon. He padded up the track into the trees to where he’d stashed his clothes.
As he was putting on his steel-capped boots, he remembered a tune from the old days, the words of which he couldn’t recall. “Today the cats go hungry,” he sung, believing the lyrics to be as good as any. “They’ll go hungry. Oh lady of the lake.”