Runnelweep was eeling at her favorite spot, a hillock sheltered by tall reeds next to a muddy channel where the eels were plentiful. Through a gap in the reeds she had a good view looking west over the mudflat, which today was gleaming dully in the late afternoon sun. She had caught all the eels she needed and was thinking of heading home when she heard squelching footsteps behind her.
“I don’t suppose there’s room for me to try my luck,” said a voice.
Runnelweep's heart quickened. It was Puddleglum! Years ago when they were growing up he had been considered disgracefully optimistic, even a rebel, but since coming back from his quest this winter he was a hero. He was a personal friend of King Rilian, and now everyone said he was a sterling example of wigglehood; all the wigglemaidens agreed that he was a real catch. But Runnelweep didn't care about any of that. She had always fancied him and had been quite distraught when he went away. She knew that underneath it all he was as sweet as a freshwater clam.
So instead of telling him summarily to be off, as she would almost anybody else, Runnelweep said, “Plenty of room, but I don’t expect you’ll catch anything.” Her line jerked and she pulled in another eel. That made seven. More than she needed, really, but there was no sense in hurrying off just yet.
She heard more squelching and a splash as Puddleglum sat down next to her. “Well, it’s probably worth a try,” he said. “I’ve had poor luck downstream today. Eels get scarcer every year, it seems.”
“They do. But we mustn’t be too gloomy. Things may seem grim now, but times are bound to get worse, and then we'll look back and regret not appreciating what we have.”
“That's the way to look at it,” he agreed. He deployed his line and caught an eel almost immediately. She watched as he put it in his eel basket, which she noticed was not even half empty.
Puddleglum took out a pouch of tobacco and a pipe. “Tobacco’s hard to come by lately,” he said. “I don’t suppose you’d care for a smoke. It’s terrible stuff, of course—a nasty habit, really—but I try to make the best of it.”
“I don’t have my pipe with me,” Runnelweep said dolefully. “I never seem to have it when it’s wanted.”
Without answering, Puddleglum filled the bowl of his pipe, lit it, took the stem from his mouth and offered it to her. She hesitated, accepted the pipe with a trembling hand, and took a long draw. It was exquisite: excellent tobacco blended with fine peat, miles better than anything she’d ever smoked before.
“Not too bad,” she said.
“Eh. You’re putting a brave face on it, lass. That’s the spirit!”
They sat side by side in silence for a while, passing the pipe back and forth. Runnelweep caught two more eels, and Puddleglum caught three in quick succession.
“I dare say that long hair of yours is a terrible nuisance to take care of,” he said. “Pretty, though,” he added.
“Yes, it’s a lot of trouble, needs a lot of combing and always getting in the way. Not sure why I bother with it…”
“You’d never think of cutting it off,” he said.
Runnelweep shrugged. “What would be the use? It would only grow back,” she said.
“Pretty, though,” he said again. “Just the color of swamp grass in the autumn.”
“Well, that’s some consolation,” she said.
Puddleglum brought in two more eels.
“I think I may have more eels than I need,” he said. “That’s the way of it, always too many or too few. But I’ll have to do something with the extras. No good letting eels sit around until they rot.”
“No, eels ought to be eaten fresh. Though there’s many a time when we’d have been grateful for day-old eels, mind you.”
“Aye, when you’re hungry you must make do with what you have,” he said.
“Well, there are ways to preserve eels. Not as good as fresh, of course, but I have a few recipes. Enough to help my family get through some hard times, at least.”
“Preserved eel is nothing to sneeze at,” he said. “In fact, I almost prefer a preserved eel to fresh.”
Runnelweep pulled in another eel, and a moment later Puddleglum did as well.
“I wonder whether your father could use a few more eels,” he said.
Runnelweep was speechless for a moment. A gift of eels to her father? Was he really that serious? She swallowed, but her mouth was still a bit dry. “Well…he’s had bad luck lately. Worse than usual,” she said.
He nodded. “Perhaps I’ll bring him a basket this evening after supper.”
Puddleglum caught two more eels and then they watched the sun set, its last rays glowing crimson and gold across the mudflat, while they gutted and cleaned their catch. The twilight was deepening when he took his leave.
When Runnelweep returned home her father was building a cooking fire. “You’re back late,” he said. She wiped her webbed feet carefully on the mat of moss by the door of the wigwam and showed him her catch. “More eels than we need,” he commented. “What are you going to do with the extras?”
“I was thinking of making eel jerky. You never know when we might run short of food,” she said. Her father nodded without speaking.
Half of Runnelweep's eels went into a kettle for tonight’s supper. She made a hollow in the cool mud and set the basket holding the rest of the eels in it to keep overnight, covering it with a stone against vermin. She was just setting up the kettle over the cooking fire when her younger sister, Drizzledrear, came home from gathering in the marsh. She had brought cattails to roast in the fire and bittern's eggs for tomorrow's breakfast.
After they had finished eating supper and had cleared up they sat by the peat fire. Father whittled and Drizzledrear mended a torn shirt. Runnelweep smoked her pipe, trying not to think of the tobacco Puddleglum had shared with her that afternoon. Earlier in the day she had gathered some fine reeds and put them to soak, and now she considered what to make with them. A new hat, perhaps, to set off her hair? As she was contemplating this, she heard the rustle of footsteps in the marsh grass.
“Evening, Pondscum. Sorry to be a nuisance, visiting so late,” said Puddleglum, stepping into the firelight.
“Not at all,” said Runnelweep's father. “What brings you here? Must be something important on such a foul evening. Cold, too.”
“I thought you might be able to use a few eels,” said Puddleglum, proffering the basket. “I had a run of luck today, caught more than I know what to do with, and you know what they say: use what you have today, for you may not want it tomorrow.”
Her father looked more than a little puzzled, but he took the basket of eels. “Well, I don’t quite see…” he said, and then the realization dawned and he looked shrewdly at Puddleglum. “Oh, so it’s like that, is it?” He glanced at his daughters. “Drizzledrear’s too young, so it must be Runnelweep you’re after….But I don’t know. Have you given much thought to what you’d be getting yourself into? Marriage isn’t all fricasseed frogs and eel pie, you know. Usually it ends up being more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Well, one thing I’ve learned in my journeys is that sometimes taking a risk is worth it in the end,” said Puddleglum.
Pondscum didn’t quite know how to respond to this daring sentiment, so he nodded sagely and turned to his daughter. “Well, girl, what do you think about all this?” he asked.
Runnelweep glanced up, then looked down again and poked at the fire with a stick. She cleared her throat. “I suppose it’s all right with me,” she said.
“Young people! Well, even a dip in the bog won’t put out that kind of fire,” said her father, shaking his head. “I see there’s no use in trying to persuade either of you to reconsider. But don’t come crying to me later if you have second thoughts.” He put down the basket of eels and, still shaking his head, he lifted the flap of the wigwam and went inside. Runnelweep guessed that he was getting the bottle of terravita and the glasses that they used only on very special occasions.
Drizzledrear was staring at her from across the fire, wide-eyed. "What are you looking at?" Runnelweep asked, and her sister shrugged and went back to mending her shirt.
Puddleglum squatted down by the fire next to Runnelweep. He turned to look at her and, no doubt about it, he was smiling. It made her feel warm inside and she returned his gaze, allowing the corners of her mouth to curve up, just a little.