Source to Sea

The Golden Chub
by Mark Downey -- January 6th, 2014

Maui, Hawaii.


“There are some big drab fish, called ‘grey chubs’,” Justin told me, abruptly changing topics, and I wasn’t sure why; he let ‘grey’ just drag itself out of his mouth and hang listless in the midst of what had been a vivid conversation. Justin was telling me stories from his early days on Maui, twelve years ago, when he had ditched the mainland and moved to the islands chasing life’s vibrancy. We were winding his truck along Maui’s coastline on a road that was more patches than pavement, snorkels bouncing around in the bed. Waves lapped up the shattered lava rocks at the edge of the road. Scraggly trees clung here and there, and through their branches were glimpses of the Molokini crater sinking into the ocean.


I stayed with Justin for a week and a half, and our daily ritual was to snorkel at least once, and sometimes to scuba dive. Or, actually, it was Justin’s daily ritual – he’d been on that schedule for most of the twelve years – and I was pleased to tag along.


“They’re all over this spot we’re going to,” he went on about the chubs, waving vaguely out to sea. “But there’s an albino-like form –“ his voice suddenly, dramatically hushed – “which shows up as the brightest yellow you’ve ever seen, brighter than any other fish out here… It’s the Golden Chub.” He paused, looked over at me. “I didn’t name it.”


“They’re good luck,” Justin continued, after a moment. “The first time I ever saw one, I met the love of my life that same day. I hope you see one.”


And just like that I was interested. I’d already seen rare and powerful things on my sojourn in Hawaii. A reef shark pass below me, among them. A gargantuan sea turtle with half it’s back fin missing. Maybe from the shark. Why not a Cupid-fish with an absurd handle?


We parked the truck on the side of the road and grabbed our masks and snorkels from its bed. No fins or wetsuits; the sea is so warm we could swim for hours and never get chilled. We walked straight into the gentle waves. Even the shallows are teeming with gorgeous tropical fish, so when the water was just up to our knees, we adjusted our masks and began crawling across the surface.


Having done this for so long, Justin is an underwater wildlife expert. He’d stop at every fish, signaling for us to surface so he could teach me the fish’s name and the compelling points of its ecology. It was our fifth or sixth day out, but still we were seeing new species, among them some grey chubs, huge and drab as promised. And each time we surfaced, I found myself worrying that a golden one was vanishing right below me, that I’d never get to see. Wondering what that meant about my life. And worrying that it meant I’d never find love. (Apparently I’m mildly superstitious.)


We’d been out for an hour or so when, one of these times, as we ducked back into the waves, I saw ten feet below not the flash of gold I sought but a ribbon patterned like rocks and shadows fluttering across the coral. A moray eel, as big as my leg. I’d seen that kind once before, but bunched in a hole, only its face leering out, its milky mouth opening and closing as if gulping for breath.


But this one was on the hunt, and we followed it. Watched it seeking for prey in the cracks and hollows of the reef. Here and there it would poke its head down into a dark place, it’s body-tail waving behind in an unseen current. I couldn’t tell what it found – maybe nothing – but after a few seconds it would back itself out and resume the quest.


As we swam along above it – am I crazy? – I distinctly heard the words: “We make our own luck.” And then, I’m not making this up, the eel turned and winked at me. No, I made that up, but I did distinctly hear those words, underwater, and – bear with me – it really did seem like they emanated from the eel. And they seized my heart with such searing intensity that I knew it was speaking truth.


Justin and I decided to turn back soon after that, leaving the eel to its mission, satisfied with our outing. All those worried thoughts of defeat – not seeing the Golden Chub, losing my chance at happiness, etc etc – diminished as I pondered the eel.


Most of its ilk sit in their caves and watch all the delicious fish pass them by, wanting and wanting and just waiting for something to come swimming into their mouths. And, sure, they survive. But some morays, some rare brave eels who’ve had enough of the cave-waiting, they swim out onto the reef and make things happen. And I decided there in those waves that I want that, too: to live like a hunting eel. Metaphorically.


I can see how all of this might be perceived as silliness: there are a lot of ways to explain the mechanisms by which thoughts enter my head and are associated with potentially unrelated natural phenomena – superstition, cultural predisposition, determinism, divine intervention – and we could debate how appropriate it is for me to anthropomorphize eels and ascribe to them telepathic and linguistic powers –


But, I’d rather just wrap up the story: I saw the Golden Chub! Minutes after resolving to leave my figurative cave behind. The final stretch of our return swim. Something so massive and glimmering even across a great distance that I sensed rather than saw what it must have been. And when I swam close, that Golden Chub really was brighter than any yellow I’d ever seen. We locked eyes –


And that’s all the description I’m giving. This eel thinks you ought to leave the cave and find your own.

1 Comment

  1. Ginger
    Jan 23, 2014

    Delightful story and thought-provoking challenge! A great read while watching a blizzard outside my window.

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