They came to clean the ditches in 1989. All the farmers chipped in for the job because there’s no use cleaning the top of the glen unless the bottom’s done too. So the digger worked up from the village to the caulside of Barlochan where the burn splits and my father’s half comes up to the back of Clonyard as a steep and hedgy slit in the mud. The water lay backed-up and slack as treacle in the ditch. Jab it with a stick and it stank.
We went to see them working, walking on mounds of birch brash and rush tumps. The digger stood at the business end with a trail of broken soil streaked away behind as if it were an alien spaceship come skidding to a halt. Steam and fuel residues roiled around the cockpit – something was moving inside. I rode on my father’s shoulders and two men stood up from their spade-leaning to nod at the heavy machine. Their expressions seemed to say “It was here when we found it”.
The digger’s bucket boiled in the ditchwater and came up drooling. It teemed a tank of sludge onto the bank like chowder, and the aftermath disclosed a rancid nest of movement. Grey, regretful shapes unrolled from the sediment like a spool of guts. I’d long since seen the intestines cut from sheep and I’d marked the way they burped and bellydanced; the fat, purple coils slithering in the pan of a ‘barrow. And that was my impression as the mud guts drew and redrew their disappointment in endless treble-clefs. The digger driver stopped and lit a cigarette. I was placed on the ground to explore, but I wanted back up immediately. Six feet was close enough.
Frogs and toads had been flayed alive in the upheaval. The bucket had torn into their skin like wet paper, but they walked on as if nothing could have surprised them less; each one bearing injuries that would stagger you to hear them described. But I never saw the mud guts harmed in all my careful watching. They were too slippery to be cut by the bucket’s edge, too decisive in their choice of in or out, so each one stayed or came up whole; lidless and sombre and thick as hydraulic hose.
My father spoke to the men and nobody mentioned the mess as it splayed in the smoke and slime. The mud guts seemed to see me coming. They would nuzzle under clods that were too small to hide them, churning and hunting for somewhere to lie in peace. One of the men saw me staring. He said “have you never seen eels before?”