A story about environment and conscience

The black muscular back flashed in her mind. That was the moment when he had thrown the spear. But that was a few days ago and now Sylvia still had her eyes closed. The phone rang.  She was in her bed at home, in Sydney. And it was as if that night fishing adventure with the two men had been a dream. But it had not been a dream. And she clearly remembered too, the old man’s hands on the paddles so leathery and lined, but so vital and strong.

She glanced at her bedside clock, the phone kept ringing, she picked it up, then closed her eyes again. It was too early, not even seven in the morning.

”Eels? Fish farming”

Why not? She had taken the interpreter job.  The pay was hard to refuse. The young Aboriginal man with the sculptured back had large deep set honey brown eyes and wavy hair. And the old man was skinny, with deep creases in his neck, and shiny small blue eyes. She had been fishing with them in that river north of Cairns, the way men had fished to eat for time immemorial, with few things, and great wisdom. It had been beautiful, the water so clear, and the moon so large. But now she had to leave those thoughts.

She was somewhat surprised at her decision to take the job, and a bit unsure, but It was just one day. The fish farm was north of Sydney, and she would be interpreting for the owners of the farm who had employed the services of two aquaculture consultants from Spain. She had a couple of hours to get there. Yes, she said to herself, she could do that, be that person, and be, as her mother had often told her to be, normal. Even if it was, for just one day.

She sprang up from her bed, opened her wardrobe, and chose a navy sports jacket for the job. “You!” she said to it pleased as she hanged it on the doorknob.

She carefully checked the condition of the jacket, which she had not worn for so many years. When she stretched out the sleeve she realized that at it had been at least a good ten years since she had given up work as an interpreter. And it was then that horrified she had noticed the stubborn dirt under her nails from digging out potatoes in the garden, and then all the bits of green paint from working on her painting last night. And like a murderer who needs to clear all evidence of a crime, she darted to the bathroom sink and scrubbed the stains off vigorously.

By she was standing next to the silver roller door of the fish farm and waiting for the men to arrive. The farm was a grey industrial building with only one window and a galvanised sloped roof. It was ugly and sat intrusively in the middle of a patch of cleared forest by a creek north of Sydney.

As Sylvia waited she became impatient and started pacing the length of the entrance. That was when she caught a reflection of herself on the window. She looked sharp with her long hair, tied back into a low pony-tail. Yes, she looked professional. But she also felt ridiculous, and imagined herself talking to the men with a strong accent “Misterr, why do you botherr with fish farming? There are so many other things to eat other than eels… like, potatoes!” Because really, why producing food had become so complicated? But she quickly decided that it was best to overlook these thoughts for the time being.

Being silly was much more sensible. She stared at her self in the reflection of the window sternly, dropped her eyebrows, lifted her chin slowly, and said “I an fron es-pain. I will not eat an eel!”. But she was tense, and wondered why had she taken the job. Ok, ok, she said to herself. In a few hours the job would be over, she’d be Ok. She looked up towards the sun, closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and listened to the gurgling sound of the little stream nearby.

A few minutes later the two Spanish consultants were stepping out of a taxi enthusiastically. The fish logos on their short sleeve shirts sat next to the company name: Euro Aqua Consulting. They rested their briefcases on the concrete ground and following the Spanish greeting norm, kissed Sylvia on both cheeks. Antonio was a tall thin man with grey hair and his son Daniel was a young man with a boyish gaze and a generous smile. They briefly discussed their flights from Barcelona, the hot weather, and their business.

“La aquacultura es el futuro” He said tilting his head slightly.

“En Australia hay gran potencial, y es un mercado de exportacion. ” Added Antonio with a fatherly smile.

“ Mmm, si, muy interestante…” Sylvia said with wide open eyes. But she was not one bit interested.

This would surely be a long day, she thought, but she just had to rise to the occasion. Then the men immersed themselves in some paper work they needed to discuss amongst themselves and she leaned against the roller door and closed her eyes to avoid the glare of the morning sun. She could feel that her shoes still had sand in them. Queensland sand. And she then remembered that she had taken them off to get in the dinghy and had stopped to watch the young Aboriginal man speaking to the night sky in a language with many g’s, r’s and a’s. It was some kind of prayer or thanks giving ritual and then she had been told by the young man to empty her pockets of money. And whispering he warned her that “you can’t go fishing with money in our pockets ay”.

The sound of a car crushing gravel broke off her memory and brought her back to her job. A shiny black four-wheel drive zoomed in and parked under the shade of a gum tree to the right of the farm. Then two large men, slowly emerged out of the car and swaggered over towards Sylvia and the two experts.

The man with red hair seemed to be the boss.

“Clive” he barked as he stretched out his hand to Antonio.

They all introduced themselves mechanically then stood in an uncomfortable silence for a few seconds.

Barsa? O Real Madrid? Asked Clive with a chuckle.

Barsa, Barsa! Real is the football team for Madrid, but we are from Barcelona!” Said Antonio in an accented English.

It was not bad English, thought Sylvia, and this would help. Clive’s partner, Peter, was not a short man, but towered over Clive like a friendly puppet and nodded to every thing Clive said with a grin. Sylvia’s interpreting work had began.

The building inside was like an endless white tunnel holding two rows of water tanks each standing well over a metre tall and about one and a half metres in diameter. They stood at the door briefly and Sylvia translated some figures and the general state of the farm. Three hundred kilos of baby eels were arriving in a week. That meant a large investment at $1000. a kilo, and they had to deal with some sort of infection in system A.

There were some dead eels upturned floating on the water, and the faint smell of ammonia made Sylvia nauseous. This, she had decided, was a disgusting place.

Clive led them away from the large fish tanks and into what appeared to be a small laboratory, with a sink, and benches along the walls. There, Clive and Peter slipped on white plastic coats. Antonio asked Peter for some water samples from system B as he took out a microscope from his briefcase. Baby eels were expected in system B and the water had to be right. Sylvia was translating for Antonio:

“Now the re-circulation systems need to be checked, and we need to check the Ph, the temperature and the oxygen…”

Peter returned holding a glass container with water and Antonio poured it into a tube.

They all waited in silence and after a few minutes Antonio shook his head. Then they all turned to him. He lifted the tube against the fluorescent light and frowned.


“Too much nitrites”

Clive said nothing and produced a long drawn out breath as he looked to Peter. In silence they all stood next to Antonio monitoring the glass tubes in their little stand as they changed colour.

On the bench-top there were charts and bottles, and bags of feed piled up against the walls. This is what was required to produce fish, she told herself, and this was normal now. And it wasn’t a boat and a spear, or a fishing line, it was figures and microscopes, medicines, and fish feed made from God knows what. And even experts, flown across the globe.

From the glassed air-conditioned enclosure where they stood Sylvia could see into the farm, a long white tunnel with plastic pipes arching over and around the two rows of tanks. And as they waited for the results the forest with its arching mangrove roots over the pristine water flashed annoyingly into her mind like a reminder of the beauty of the forest, it’s warmth and its fertility. It was a reminder too, of the ugliness of the farm she now stood in, being normal.

Then Daniel said “malo, malo” as the liquid in the tubes changed to green. And they all turned to him and held their heads down looking into the tubes as he meticulously squirted liquid from a dropper into another set of tubes.

Sylvia felt Clive’s strenuous breathing onto her neck as he looked over her shoulder to the tubes. Even in his reserve she could feel his tension. The poor man, was not so confident as when he had arrived. Silently they waited for the results, and her mind wandered off.

It had all happened last week amongst the mangroves north of Cairns. She had begged the two men to let her go fishing with them, she was curious. Then one bright night, when every single leaf stood still and the air was warm they went fishing in the river. The old man rowed slow advancing with gentle paddles, careful not to disturb the fish. Sylvia stood holding the torch, skimming the water for fish, and the young man stood very close to her, holding the spear above his shoulder. Ready to strike.

The water appeared black, but with the light of the torch she could see it was very clear and at times shallow enough to see the bottom and all the protruding mangrove shoots and the bright clean sand. The river shore was an entanglement of arching roots that stood above the water and as they advanced up the narrowing river they had to dodge the mangrove tree branches above. There were times when they seemed to be entering a tunnel in the thick forest and there were times when she could see glimpses of the stars in the sky. It was dark, hot and humid.

She could feel the tension in the young man’s body, his deep breathing and his concentration. It was the silent anticipation of a hunter, the awakened senses, and the determination to win. He held himself at one with the water, as if he was able to stand on it. In the advancing boat, he did not falter, like a figurehead on a bow he seemed to have been transformed. And the masterly event meant for her that she had to do her best. Her arm ached from holding the torch up above her head and the mosquitoes were biting, but she held well. And she had felt good to be there.

“We need to bring the Ph down to 5.” Said Daniel bringing her back to the present.

In the small room with its blinding white walls under the fluorescent lights she felt cold. The air in the small office was dry and there was an overwhelming smell of disinfectant, as if all life except that of the eels was to be supressed. But these men knew what they were doing, she told herself. And this farm, was after all, an example of the way food production had become and the way it was heading. It was normal. And at this thought Sylvia felt a shiver.

Antonio wanted to inspect the recirculation system and see the filters. Now she could get out of that hostile room at last. Then a heavy door opened into ghastly room where pumps ascending 5 metres set in a stream of water coming from the tanks produced a deafening roar.   It was hard to translate over such noise. This is where everything happened and here the men became animated, gesticulating theatrically to make sure everyone knew which button controlled what. Everyone had to yell to discuss measuring devices requiring calibration, and temperature, and a myriad of buttons with different functions. And Sylvia transferred the information from one language into the other without a pause. Her throat was sore and the air acrid. And she wanted it all to end.

They moved onto the last lever and bending over pipes they listened to her as she translated Antonio’s instructions. Then they left the noisy room behind. But by then her voice was beginning to fade. The men then strode out and down the aisle of the farm with Sylvia behind, she felt her mouth dry and her hands sweaty but kept going. Daniel stopped at one of the tanks, brown eels were swimming in a constant circular current. The water was dark, Sylvia could not see the bottom of the tank.

“See there that one, his head is red, It’s diseased, that’s why they are not growing” Sylvia translated into English and they all went silent looking at the eels.

And the bottom of the mangrove reappeared in her mind with it’s clear stream and light sand. And then came the sight of a beautiful silver fish, over half a metre long and meandering large and slow close to the water’s surface; and the sure sweep of the young man’s arm like a flash released onto the water followed; and in a clean stroke of the spear, it pierced into the silver fish. Silently he pulled the speared fish up, released it flapping hard into the dinghy next to the old man’s bare feet and then turned to the sky again. This time, she thought, to give thanks.

Antibioticos!”. Antonio declared solemnly.

“Is it worth it?” Asked Peter.

Antonio shrugged his shoulders. No one knew how the eels would respond, but many were dying and there would be loss.

The men had frowns. They stood with their hands on the rim of the tank looking down into the circular stream of tireless eels. There were thousands of dollars involved. Many eels would die.

“Look” said Antonio, “I have seen this before, you put the fish through the course, many die, others are not big enough, you waste a lot of time, you need the tanks, there can be contamination in your system…”

And as Sylvia translated it became obvious to all that it was best to do a dump, and that there was no clear destiny for the sick fish. It would be waste.

Then she lowered her head, she could hear the men talking and feel her heart thumping. She did not want to listen, and she did not care about being normal anymore. The eels kept swimming around in their crowded tank, only in the centre there were none. What a life for a fish that travels across oceans, now here confined to a life in a tank to be dumped. And she could hear the men talking to her. In Spanish, and English. And she kept her head down looking at their long brown bodies sometimes twisting over each other. And this went on for a few minutes.

Then she lifted her head, took a couple of steps back from the tank, breathed deep, and said:

“I know this is normal for you. But I can’t do this anymore. I have to go.”

Pero que te pasa?” Asked Antonio clasping her hand with warmth.

“Estoy bien, estoy bien” she replied,

“But are you ok? You look pale.” Clive said.

Sylvia did not answer then marched towards the door. Clive followed then opened the door for her.

“I’ll call a taxi for you love, just wait there.”

When he stepped outside she handed over the interpreting agency’s card to him. His hands were long, unblemished. Good for handling test tubes and charts.

“I am sorry,” She mumbled.

“Yeah…You’re right,” He said sympathetically as he looked at the card.

She stood outside next to the silver roller door and felt her nose tingling and her eyes welling up with tears. But she contained them well, it was all over now. She had said no, and she would never take part in something like that again. She turned her head up towards the sun, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. And then she remembered the paddles, gently striking the water in the black water, the fish caught, the gurgling sound, the crickets calling. There was so much victory in her failure to be normal, in that just one day.

Paula Ajuria 2006