The Mussel Eater – Octavia Cade

Games? What? No, games are for kids, we don’t do games around here. This is Once Upon a Time IX, the internet-wide celebratory blogathon of Fairytale, Folklore, Fantasy and the Mythological, and this here is a short story review — that’s right: fiction, short fiction, which as a format is in the way of being the vertebrae in the veritable backbone of literature! And as with the previous three short story reviews, this one can be found in RETOLD – Six Fairytales Reimagined, a very attractively presented ebook published by The Book Smugglers. So, without further ado:

The Mussel Eater

by Octavia Cade

Karitoki admires the Pania from afar, as do all the fishermen, then has a chance to admire one up close when his always attentive gaze pricks her own curiosity. He wants to cook for her, but the Pania eat their food raw — not fried with fennel and oranges, with lemon and pepper, bound into fritters with egg and flour and oil. Always seafood for both, but when he walks her back into the tide and crabs pinch at his defenceless toes, she glides beneath the surface with lightning speed, her shark-like teeth shattering their shells, and he sees the crab meat in her smile and hopes his feet aren’t bleeding.

The Pania are guardians, but not of the likes of him — their wards are the dolphins and seals that play easily in their powerful wake. When they meet she smells of the sea, always coats herself in fish oil against the cold, but is willing (albeit briefly) to try the alternatives he suggests: Orange oil, coconut out, olive oil, all things rich with the smell of trees and the land. She likes his butter the best, working it into her scaly skin, wearing it like perfume, and he eats his sautéed meal upwind of her rancid new fragrance.

Karitoki knows countless ways to prepare mussels, a thousand delicious ways into a woman’s heart — but this woman, if if can be said she is a woman, only eats them raw and smiles mockingly at his strange ways with food. Yet he still entertains his little fantasies: that she will walk with him further from the shore, sit with him outside a cafe in town where mussels are eaten with a spoon; that he will finally bring her something that will carry him past their differences and bring them closer together.

Until he does.

-o-

They do say be careful what you wish for, don’t they? In this collection of reimagined tales, Octavia Cade’s story is inevitably presumed to be a shark fin inversion of The Little Mermaid — though in fact it is a tweaking of a Māori myth, Pania of the Reef. The original tale of Pania is rather more feminist than its European rival, with the love-struck Karitoki attempting deceit to trap his lover on land, and Pania rejecting him and returning home as a result. Contrast with Hans Christian Anderson’s suicidal semi-happy ending, where the love-lorn mermaid throws herself to her “death” — and let’s say nought about its Disneyfication

In this version, reversals abound. Karitoki’s motives are less troubling (it’s puppy-love, basically), but Pania has been made over into something truly threatening, elevated from an Arial-like marine princess into the representative of an apex predator race. Karitoki is swimming with sharks here, but both of them know it, which gives the relationship… bite.

In that sense, then, could there be something of a very different fairytale theme at play? Does Red Riding Hood’s pseudo-sexual encounter with a big, hairy forest-dweller have its parallel here, in a naive young man getting way out of his depth with the wrong type of woman? She’s a bit of a man eater, if you’ll pardon the expression…


Two more short stories to come, and a movie, but next Thursday I’ll be wrapping up the main part of this project with the last of my four book reviews, Paul Kingsnorth’s remarkable folklorish novel The Wake.

And before I go: Happy Birthday, mum!

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