Alright, folks, this is my offering to the God of Eels.
This story is set within the 'Dark Clouds'-universe, right before what will be chapter 34. I tried to keep this spoiler-free and comprehensible and hope to have succeeded. Besides lots of eel, it offers an early glimpse of Maud and you can never have enough Maud in your life, as far as I am concerned.
Happy Christmas to you all and very many eels in your future!
December 25th, 1917
No. 7 Canadian Stationary Hospital, Arques, France
A Tale of Eels and Intestines
„…So then I gave that cheeky little Corporal McBride a right piece of my mind! And can you imagine what he replied? He actually dared to –"
"Maud?" I interrupt my fellow nursing sister.
Maud turns to me, the tale of cheeky little Corporal McBride immediately forgotten. "What is it, sweetie?"
"Maud – do you know what this is?" I wonder, frowning at the plate in front of me.
"What do you mean, darling?" she enquires kindly.
"Well… this." I poke my fork at the thing on my plate.
It smells fishy.
Maud laughs good-naturedly. "Oh, that's eel, sweetheart."
I turn to her, incredulous. "Eel?" I parrot, my voice cracking slightly at the very thought.
"Eel," confirms Maud with a nod and a twinkle in her eyes.
"But… why?" I ask, helplessly. Why anyone would think it a good idea to put eel on a plate is beyond me. Surely not… surely not to eat it?
"It's considered a delicacy," Maud explains. "My grandmother had a recipe for spitched eel, which was very fashionable in her youth."
I blink at her. "Spitched eel," I murmur. What on earth is spitched eel? What does it even mean?
This is getting weirder by the second.
"What does it mean, Maud? Spitched?" I ask weakly. I have never heard the word before. Maybe Walter has? I must write and ask.
"It's short for spitchcocked," answers Maud. "It means that the eel has been skinned, split along the back and then grilled. Alternatively, it can also be fried, or sometimes broiled."
Somehow, the mental image of that doesn't do anything to make this any more appealing.
Maud smiles at me. Then, to my utter fascination, she takes a forkful of what is ostensibly eel… guides the fork up to her mouth… chews… and gulps it down.
"Yep, definitely eel," she confirms cheerfully.
I simply stare.
She didn't just eat that, did she?
"So… that's spitched eel, is it?" I ask faintly, as I watch Maud take another bite, unsure whether to be fascinated or repulsed.
Maud shakes her head. "Ah, no, sweetie, not spitched eel. And it's not jellied eel either. Probably some French recipe I haven't heard of yet."
So there are several ways prepare eel, are there?
I take a deep breath.
"You might want to ask the cook later on?" Maud suggests.
The horror must be evident on my face, because Maud reaches over and pats my cheek, before blithely turning back to make good work of the eel on her plate. A quick glance around the Sisters' Mess reveals, to my astonishment, everyone else to be eating their eels with the same unconcerned air.
Have they all gone mad?
Gingerly, I poke at the piece of eel on my plate again. It remains quite still, but then, you never know. Aren't eels electric, anyway? I must remember to check with Carl.
"Maud?" I ask, still staring down at the piece of eel. My voice sounds a little forlorn.
"Yes, darling?" Her voice is gentle, if a little amused.
"Maud – the French don't always eat eel on Christmas Day, do they?" I wonder, looking up at her.
Maud inclines her head thoughtfully. "I don't think so, sweetest. Why?"
Another bite of eel enters her mouth.
"Why would the cook serve eel to us then? Why not something normal like… like… like chicken?" Oh, what wouldn't I give for a nice, inoffensive piece of chicken right now!
"It's quite tasty. You should try it," encourages Maud.
Dubiously, I eye first her, then the eel. Picking up my fork, I let it hover over the plate for a second or two before dropping it back down.
"The men at the front would probably be very happy to get a nice piece of eel instead of the usual bully beef and biscuits," points out Maud, clearly amused at my antics.
"Then they can have it – and welcome," I respond darkly.
Maud laughs. "Don't tell me you'd rather have the bully beef?"
"Well, I'd take anything over eel, that's for certain. And if it's bully beef, so be it," I declare loftily.
"Ah, I see," nods Maud. "Better the devil you know, right?"
Better no devil at all. But then, who else would be able to think up a thing such as spitched eel? It probably was one of the trials of Job, originally. No other explanation for it.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Maud take another forkful. Her piece of eel is two-thirds gone already. Seeing that, a new thought strikes me.
"Maud? They aren't serving eel to the patients as well, are they?" I ask, with horror.
Maud considers the question. "I don't know. Why wouldn't they?"
"Because eating eel can't be beneficial to their convalescence, that's why!" I explain, indignant.
Another laugh from Maud. "Oh, you darling girl!" she exclaims, moving to pat my cheek again, but as her hand carries the fork and the fork carries a piece of eel, I quickly lean out of reach, to Maud's obvious delight. She takes the bite of eel, chuckling to herself as she chews.
I turn back to my own eel, thoughtfully push it around the plate for a moment or two. "They're a lot like intestines, aren't they?" I wonder aloud.
"What was that, sweetheart?" Maud replies, through a mouthful of eel.
"Eels," I clarify, "they remind me of intestines. Eels are all twitchy and slimy, aren't they? Always trashing here and there and slipping through your fingers. And so are intestines! I bet that it's not any easier getting eels into a basket than getting intestines back into an abdomen, once they're out."
I look up at Maud, expecting consent, but instead seeing her face freeze. For a second, she doesn't move a muscle. Then, suddenly, a strange noise escapes the back of her throat.
"Maud?" I ask, concerned, moving to check on her.
She shakes her head, holds up a hand to stop me. Then, breathing deeply through her nose, she slowly starts chewing again. She doesn't, all of a sudden, seem to enjoy her eel all that much anymore.
Finally, with obvious effort, she gulps it down.
"You," she says after a second. Her voice sounds all strange. "You."
"Me?" I enquire innocently, as she doesn't add anything else.
"You are going to leave this Mess now and let the rest of us eat our eels in peace," she orders. "And when you come back, I'll have the cook prepare some chicken for you. Do you think that's a course of action we can agree on?"
I can't help but notice that the rest of her eel remains untouched.
"And what am I supposed to do in the meantime?" I ask, with all the petulance I can muster from the olden days.
"Go see your officer, for all I care," responds Maud, carelessly waving her fork about.
"He isn't –" I start, suddenly alert.
Maud clicks her tongue. "Not your officer? Whatever you say, darling."
I consider taking up the argument, but then give it up as a lost cause. We've had it more than once, already. However much I try to convince her, Maud clearly won't budge.
Instead, I give it a shrug and her a wave and toddle off into the direction of the door. Only there do I stop and turn. "Maud?" I call out.
She looks up. Her eyes are wary. Her fork hovers in the air. "Yes, sweetie?"
"You're welcome to my eel as well," I inform her as earnestly as I can manage.
For a moment, I revel in her incredulous expression, before quickly ducking out of the door. It falls shut behind me just as I burst out laughing.
Who would have thought that eels and intestines could make for such a very merry Christmas tale, after all?