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The Mussel Eater by Octavia Cade

The Mussel Eater

The Mussel Eater by Octavia Cade
Published 11/18/2014 | 3,627 Words

“I was curious,” she says, when he asks her. She has seen him eyeing her, seen him moving closer, and holds out one of her hands. It is stronger than his, and the nails are pointed. “Are you curious, too?”

Karitoki is fascinated by the Pania, who beckons him with her plump, scaled flesh, her razor-sharp nails, her fish-oil scent.

His Pania, Karitoki thinks, as the two spend more time together by the rock pool. His Pania, he believes, loyal to him just as she is loyal to the lives of the dolphins and whales she guards. His Pania, if only she would eat the delicate mussels he cooks for her, every day, by the sea.

But a Pania never eats cooked food.


The Pania is sitting in a rock pool, grooming. Karitoki can’t help but be fascinated—Pania usually stay in their packs, out beyond the harbour and away from town. Even living by the ocean as he does, he has never been so close to one before.

“I was curious,” she says, when he asks her. She has seen him eyeing her, seen him moving closer, and holds out one of her hands. It is stronger than his, and the nails are pointed. “Are you curious, too?”


Her hair feels like seaweed—air-dried, stiff with salt, and so matted with sand from the shallows he can hardly get his fingers through it. “Let me,” says the Pania, reaching with her razor nails, but he pushes her hands away and undoes the strands himself, unknotting, untangling, easing the way with sweet water and ignoring her moue, half-disgusted, at the freshness of it.

“You smell like the sea,” says Karitoki.

“What else would I smell like?” she says, and beneath the salt and the brine and the under-tang of shellfish is a faint, sweet odour of rot, of mussels left too long on the beach and under the sun, of the torn fragments left by seabirds, breaking open calcium carbonate and leaving fleshy feet to spoil. When he is done with her hair, he sits back and watches her coat herself with oil.

“The water’s cold,” she says. “It helps to keeps the heat in.” And she went on insulating herself, applying fish oil to her legs, her feet, oil glossing over the bare hint of scales. Karitoki has seen this before, on a boat travelling along the coast: Pania on the rocks, sunning themselves and basting until their bodies gleamed and their flesh was bright against the waves. He and the other young men would watch them from the deck, fascinated by their plump shine, the flash of bone and breast. And beneath all fascination would be the longing to swim with them as the seals swam, around their fins and nuzzling up to the sturdy fish-scent of them, all danger and teeth and ruthless purpose. But Karitoki is not a seal, and so his swimming is perilous. Pania are guardians but they are not his; they exist to dote on dolphins, on whales and seals and ocean mammals and they have little tolerance for threats. Karitoki is no threat, he wishes no harm—but he has never been near enough to prove this and the Pania, oiling herself before him, is now so very close. His fingers itch to touch her. He wants to show that he is friendly, that he can be trusted.

The Pania lets him help in return for the mussels he has dug up out of sand, and Karitoki’s hands shake as he wets his palms, makes them slick and slippery. The oil is strong, pungent. He will smell of fish for days. “Do you always use this?” he says, and his hands are warm on the Pania’s collar bones, the sharp protuberances of shoulder blades.

“What else should I use?” she says. “What else is there that smells so wonderful?” And Karitoki, who makes his living with mussels, who breathes in the redolent, wine-scented steam of their braising but who prefers that scent on his plate and not on his women, is briefly silent.

“I can bring you something that smells better,” he says.


He brings orange oil to the ocean, boiled out of pith from the Northland orchards and fragrant. When he smoothes it onto the Pania’s legs, onto her webbed feet, she smells of groves and distilleries and he laps at her skin until he feels scales on his tongue. She’ll only allow it for so long—the oil is thin and stinging, and when it’s left on too long it makes her itch. She washes it off in salt water while he digs for mussels on the beach. Just a few, barely enough, but they share them out between them.

The Pania eats hers raw, but Karitoki steams his in a pan over a driftwood fire, steams them with oranges and fennel until they’re plump and sweet. He offers some to her, but though her teeth gleam at him like bone spears she doesn’t eat cooked food. Instead, she winds the fennel through her hair and uses an orange as club, to smash the little crabs in their rock pools so she can suck out their insides.


He walks her back out to sea, and tries to look like he’s enjoying it. The Pania had laughed when he’d left his sandals on, snickered through her fingers and looked at him with cheerful mockery, so he’d shrugged them off and tried to move as if he didn’t care what he stepped on.

“You can’t feel the bottom if your feet are all tied up like that,” she says, and the sandy bottom squelches beneath his toes. He can see her give a little shimmy with each step, to embed her feet further in, to luxuriate in sensation.

“It’s not the sand I’m worried about,” he says, squeamish. Karitoki digs for mussels but he’s seen the long-liners, seen what the paddle crabs do to their lures, stripping the lines in minutes while the fish swim away unbaited. And he’s played in the water himself, enough to be pinched and nipped to bleeding as the crabs cover the bottom like cobblestones.

“Think yourself lucky,” says the Pania, wallowing, the water hip deep now and enough for her to swim in so she does, her body slick and undulating beside him, her thighs thick as his waist, plump and gleaming with fat. Even when she had walked beside him she had not been worried—the crabs could sense a Pania, and scuttled away from the webbed feet, the fin-fringed legs, the quick clawed hands and gleaming teeth.

When a crab catches hold of Karitoki’s foot he swears, just a little and under his breath at that, and the Pania is under the water before he can blink, snatching his foot and the crab both, and if he gets his foot back before he’s overbalanced back into the water, it’s only because the crab lets go after the Pania has bitten through its shell. He hears the crunching, underwater as it is, and when the Pania surfaces water is streaming down her and she’s spitting out shell in fragments.

“Teeth are better than oranges,” she says.

There is crabmeat caught in her gums. Her teeth shine like broken glass in her mouth, but not the glass that washes up on the beach as pebbles, worn smooth by the ocean, opaque. They shine like sharks’ teeth, and if Karitoki thought to check his foot for bleeding he thinks better of it now. Instead, he shifts his weight forward a fraction, buries his pinched flesh in the sand behind him, and stays very, very still. Pieces of crab are floating in the water around him. Too small for the Pania, but he knows they would attract gulls if the situation were different. But gulls, like crabs, know a Pania when they see one, and have no wish to be stuffed, feathers and beak and eggy salt flesh, into that gaping maw. Karitoki knows she could do it—snatch a bird from its dive and devour it, bones and all, as easily as she consumed the crab.

The Pania gleams her sharp teeth at him. “Much better than oranges,” she says.


Karitoki brings olive oil to the ocean, a pressed pale liquid that glimmers green on the Pania and makes her skin shimmer. It spills down her in viscous waves, over her shoulders and down her arms in slow currents, making her skin shine bright in the sun. The Pania cups oil in her hands, smells the trees and the fruit and the warm wood echo of it, and she spills it over Karitoki in turn, spreads it down his back, working it into muscles and keeping her nails away.

It takes damp sand to scrub it all off, to make her smell of fish again, and while she does Karitoki cuts up mussels into chunks, binds them with egg and flour and onions and fries them in oil. The Pania squirms closer in the sand, fascinated with the bubble and spit, but when Karitoki turns the fritters in their pan she is splashed by the spatter, just a little, and retreats to the sea, hissing, will not let him cool her burns with oil. When he turns to make a second batch he sees the bowl is gone, and the Pania is out of reach, finger-licking and scooping the raw mix into balls in her hands. She swallows them whole and sends the bowl floating back, while Karitoki eats his fritters with oil-stained hands, with lemon and pepper.


They spend their time in rock pools, mostly. The Pania can come ashore if she wishes, but she loves the salt water too well to leave it, and Karitoki can only bear it so long before his skin starts to pucker and shrivel. Instead, he sits on the rocks and dangles his feet in the water, compares his own pink flesh to hers, glossy and finned and well-muscled for swimming, the expanded chest, the extra capacity for lungs and breath.

“You could come just for an afternoon,” says Karitoki. “We wouldn’t ever be out of sight of shore.” He’s kept quiet, mostly, about the time he spends on the beach, the time he spends not digging mussels, but even if they are hidden by rocks it is not a private place and people talk, are suspicious with him. His brothers don’t believe he’s made a friend. “How much have you got to talk about?” they ask, not willing to grasp that he’s not interested in talking, not really. If only they’d see the Pania close up, he thinks. It’s one thing for adolescents to stare from a distance, to gaze upon the plump sweet flesh of the pack and swallow down their desire, but having the curves under his own hands, feeling the slick of oil and inhaling the harsh fish scent of it is something else entirely. They don’t believe his stories, don’t believe that a Pania would allow him so close. They’d change their minds if he were to take her hand and bring her to them, but instead they look at his picnic basket and saucepan with scepticism. “Why would you bother?” they ask. “Even if you wanted to risk getting up close, you know they won’t eat anything but raw.”

“If I could only persuade her to try,” says Karitoki. He knows how mussels taste, is bound to them by position as well as preference, for the mussel beds are a family occupation and there was never any other career for him. Knows, too, dozens of recipes, hundreds of them; knows what appeals to those who like sweet flavours and those who like sour, those who like grapes with their food and those who’d rather have their shellfish soaked in ale. “Perhaps if she tried, she could see that it wasn’t all bad,” he says.

“You’re trying to make her follow you home,” says his oldest brother. “To make her leave the pods, leave them to fend for themselves. Good luck! You’ll need a better bait than cooked mussels to turn a Pania’s head.”


Karitoki does not give up. He returns the next day, brings butter to the ocean and braises mussels for her; sautés them in the butter with garlic, leaves them to simmer in wine and a few fragrant strands of saffron. Karitoki offers her some of the sauvignon when he is done, the bottle only half-empty after braising. “This is what keeps me warm,” he says, and if that is the truth it is not all of it, for wine can bring a warm body in more ways than one and Karitoki has used it before for seduction. But when the Pania tastes it, brings the bottle to her mouth, her teeth close on the glass and bite it off, and if he did not snatch it from her she would have cut herself on the edges. Dragging the bottle away, he spills some on her by accident.

She laps it up, screws up her face. “It’s so sour,” she says. “I don’t like it.” She prefers the butter, likes the way the little pats of it sit in her hands and soften until she can work it into her skin, between the wet fish creases of her. The butter, he thinks, is worst of all. She no longer smells purely of fish—she is rancid fish, now, and there are small lumps left on her flesh where the butter hasn’t yet sunk in.

But the Pania is happy, sniffs herself in constant fascination. “It’s like fat,” she says. “Like the blubber on the seals, or the whales.” She wears it as if it were perfume as well as warmth, and Karitoki eats upwind of her.


He has smelt blubber before. When he was younger, still a child but almost grown, a southern right whale had stranded itself on the beach, stranded in the middle of the night. The Pania had grouped offshore of it, wailing, and he could not remember now if he had seen his Pania wailing with them, but he had remembered the smell. The whale had died before the town could refloat it, had lain for some days upon the beach while awaiting its disposal. Karitoki remembered the sweet scent of salt rot, the way it had clung to his clothes when he went to visit, to watch it waste before blessings and the ceremonial karakia, before the body was taken away for stripping and science.

“What will happen to the meat?” Karitoki had asked. “Is it given to the Pania?”

“They’d no more eat it than you would,” he was told.

“Of course we wouldn’t,” says the Pania, when her butter-skin brings him back out of memories and he asks her of her diet. There are many reasons. “We like our food better cold,” she says, as if it’s been sitting on the beach under sunlight for all hours of the day, as if she cannot eat at midnight, eat in the early hours of the morning when the flesh has chilled out of sunlight. “We prefer not to eat carrion,” she says, as if they all don’t eat it, Pania and human both, when the fishing boats come back to harbour and the catch is shared out between them. “Don’t you think it would taste terrible?” she says, as if the meat, rich and dark and oily, would not give her calories for days, would not be tender between the bright carnivorous teeth of her. “We hear them singing, sometimes,” she says, and this is the part Karitoki would like to believe, because if it were true it speaks of loyalty, and he has worked so hard to earn hers and he would like to think that he could keep it.

“There is our duty, also,” says the Pania, a guardian to the last. “And some things just taste better.” She does not eye him as she says this, which would have given him a thrill, of sorts, but stares at the ocean. Karitoki wants to know if she is remembering tastes which are beyond him, but he cannot bring himself to ask. Better, perhaps, if he does not know.


Karitoki brings coconut oil to the ocean. He cooks mussels for the Pania, cooks them with lemongrass and lime, with chilli and palm sugar and coconut milk. The Pania is not interested, not remotely, but she is delighted with the fish sauce he adds in careful drops, steals the bottle from him and sucks the sauce gently from it while he sucks sugar from his fingers.

She is not interested in sweetness, he learns. The flavour is unwelcome on her tongue, and she will not let him kiss her while he tastes of palm. Even the scent on his breath disturbs her, and he must keep his mouth shut, breath through his nose, while he spreads the oil down her back. She permits this only because other Pania, in other regions, have told her of coconuts, how they float in the ocean and can be bitten through when nothing but soft fish is available and their jaws are bored with tiny bones.

“I would like to see a coconut,” says the Pania, knowing her home waters are too far south for her desires. Karitoki would bring her one, but when he opens his mouth to offer she wrinkles her nose and slinks back into the water, her own self stinking of oil and sauce.


He does bring her a coconut, and she has never been so animated. He leaves mussels smoking on the beach, and there is not the slightest flutter of mockery as he wears his sandals into the harbour waters. She is too intent for that—scudding the nut across the waves, tossing it up and down, chasing it through the ocean like prey. She throws it to him in games of catch and Karitoki pretends to clumsiness, misses where otherwise he would not, for she is strong in the water and can propel the coconut like cannonballs.

He does not have to pretend long. The Pania’s delighted cries call her kin. Some of the pack ventures into the harbour, and they are better gamesters than he is even if he were paying attention, and with the wet wall of flesh about him he is not. Pania brush up against him, playful, undulating, brushing him with their fins and their fingers, dunking down under the water and bringing up crabs to eat. They twist off the crab legs and offer them to him, giggle behind their hands at his small white teeth, at how he has to suck the meat from the claws instead of crunching them whole.

Pania bring dolphins with them, their fins slicing through the water, and they too are playing with the coconut. Karitoki is stupefied with pleasure, almost, with the flesh and the fins and the frisson of it all, so stunned with sensuality that when the coconut comes his way again he never even sees the throw. When the nut hits him it draws blood, the skin split and seeping.

Instantly the mood is changed. Some of the dolphins have calves with them, and Pania exist to be protective. Blood in the water about their charges raises every lethal instinct in them and they are now less nymph than shark, circling Karitoki and drawing him away from the pod, out to deeper waters where he is less manoeuvrable than they, and far less swift.

“It’s alright,” he says, hands held above the water and the sea floor falling off beneath him, and the water squeezing his lungs to panic and breathlessness. “It was an accident. I don’t want them. It’s alright!”

The Pania—his Pania—is there as well, circling him closer than all the rest. Her teeth are all on show, and she does not take her eyes off him. None of them take their eyes off him.

“I like cooked food, remember?” he says, reaching out to her in desperation. “Cooked, not raw. I’m not here to hunt your dolphins.”

You were the only one I wanted to hunt, he thinks. You were the only one I wanted to gobble up.

“This is my blood, not theirs,” he says, at the last, and the salt water has not yet sealed the wound. He has his hands over it, pressing down, but red still trickles into the water and the Pania moves closer. It is his blood but it is warm, and in the ocean warm blood is the purview of pods, of whales and dolphins and seals. Of the creatures the Pania are sworn to protect, to nurture above all else. “It’s not theirs!” Karitoki says again, desperate now, for the Pania are not creatures of subtlety and his blood in the water is not his blood. It is only blood, and he is the outsider.

“Warm,” croons the Pania. Her eyes are black and flat, shark eyes. “Warm.”

And then she is on him, and her hair and her flesh smell of smoke and salt and the great white bones of her jaw are opening towards him, nuzzling into his thighs and his side and the thick, fleshy column of his neck, and Karitoki feels her whole body against him. She is cool, cool like the ocean under thermocline, and the oil has washed off her and the heat has washed out. He realises, then, in the thin space between shock and screaming and the hard, hydra impact of her sisters, that all his dreams are sea foam. There’s no place for her in Napier town, and she’ll never sit with him in the art deco blocks of cafes along Marine Parade and eat her mussels with a spoon, with saffron and spices and sauvignon. He can’t cover her up with butter and oranges, can’t make of her anything other than Pania, a guardian and predator in one.

There are mussels smoking on the beach. He had put them in raw, left the heat and the smoke to open them up while he swam with the Pania and her coconut. He would have made a sauce of parsley and Pernod and tarragon, with the remnants of mussel oil for garnish.

He knows, as her teeth sink into his shoulder, into the raw, massed, mussel-fed flesh of him, that the Pania would never have eaten it.


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