Thresher Derby

by Patrick Bernhard
Featured Art: Daemonie 39 by Paul Klee

The undertow had carried Daisy far enough out to sea that her bullseye swim cap probably looked like a floating pastry to the judges, even with their binoculars. She hoped that rest of her looked similarly delectable to the Medium-Class blues that the scouting report had placed a reasonable 19% of hunting in the Frontier Belt; nobody had caught anything elsewhere, outside of a zebra shark that wandered into the Sandbar Belt that the chatterbox from Bethany Beach managed to cosh, catch, and drag. Not that she was worried by that bag; Chatterbox’s zebra had the telltale torpor of a bad fungal infection, so it barely put up a fight, and she’d repeatedly coshed more dorsal than skull and in shallower water, too, losing major accuracy marks that she couldn’t afford to have subtracted.

Daisy’s choice of enticement pattern – tread for ten seconds, followed by a burst of strategic thrashing – was fairly exhausting, with the current more active than the lifeguards’ flags were indicating, but the rumor was that deep-water endurance played up heavily with the judges at this particular beach, mostly due to sentimental reasons. It was apparently at this depth that the woman that this derby was named after, Betsey Gulliver, managed to drag in a four-foot thresher even after a whip from the tail of the shark in question had lacerated her left eye and given her ear a flat top. Thus, the parameters for this derby’s Spontaneous Technical Victory – cosh, catch, and drag a Medium-Class thresher – were established. The banner reading “Betsey Gulliver’s Thresher Derby” was stretched above the stands like a giant volleyball net, painted in garish lettering whose crooked slant was evident even from where Daisy was, as if the banner had been made in a group effort by the local middle school.

Daisy began to add a pinwheeling arm thrash to the enticement pattern, risking the fatigue. From here, the other swim caps appeared as colored pins on the undulating board that was the sea, a brooding indigo due to the ashen sky, the only indicator so far of the midsummer storm in the forecast. They were all playing it conservatively for now, from the highly skilled Sylvia Guerrero, who’d won two out of the last three tourneys and bagged copper sharks so easily she could do it in a rocking chair, to the showboating Darlene Young, who would bite a signature hunk out of every dorsal fin of each shark she bagged even though it cost her with the judges, to the unhinged Gianna DeSoto, who’d somehow convinced the American Handsharking Association to allow her to stay on the circuit after demonstrating that the flipper attachment replacing her bitten-off foot gave her no competitive advantage. DeSoto and Young were the most likely to join her in the Frontier Belt if nothing more than adolescent blacktips kept showing up, so Daisy hoped that something more significant showed up, as those two, despite their flashiness, both held advantages over her both in terms of technique and swim speed. Guerrero would likely aim for the Spontaneous Technical Victory and stay out of the deeper waters, but Daisy knew to keep an eye out for her, anyway.

A persistent ache in her right shoulder zinged in protest during her latest thrash. The fatigue was beginning to lay bare the other hurts that had been dogging her the entire summer tour, like the persistent tightness in her left lat, or the more ragged pain in her heel from where a sting ray barb had to be removed midway through a disastrous Neptune Beach Memorial Day Tournament, more of a slaughterhouse than a showcase for technique, anyway. She’d lurched to the shore in a cockeyed breast stroke after the sting ray took off rather than use the emergency flotation device strapped to her belt – the retirement cord, as it was typically referred to.

The site doctor who removed the barb warned her of a litany of dire infections if she rushed back to competition, but she was out there the following weekend, registering a Naught rating at the Fort Pierce tournament after the nurse shark she’d trapped in the shallows came to and escaped. To miss a meet was to risk being listed as “incapacitated” and losing her spot on the regional circuit, which, with as many Naught ratings as Daisy’d received this year, was already precarious. She’d be forced back into showboating in the estuary circuit; under no circumstances was she returning to that redneck hive, where the injury rate was much higher and technique was regularly left by the wayside in favor of mindless butchering, and her only other option – returning to her parents’ home in Little River – was even less ideal, as if she’d even be allowed to stay under such circumstances. Their phone calls had been coming with decreasing frequency during her cold streak, and to step away from handsharking would mean being carpet-bombed with reminders that she was the last carrier of a long-held tradition and to leave it behind while still physically whole was an affront to all the limbs and lives lost over the generations on both sides of the family. Her mother had already mentioned something to this effect two weeks ago, the last time they spoke, when Daisy had been unable to mask the waver in her voice while discussing her standing on the circuit. It was one of the few times Daisy wished for siblings, or at least for cousins who could catch sharks without losing arms and legs.

The shoulder ache continued to increase. Dipping below the surface while keeping both her palms up to signal that all was well, she briefly previewed the ocean’s liquid hush before biting the inside of one cheek, hard, and then the other, opening wide to release the blood into the water. Technically illegal, especially since her hips had already been pre-cut according to regulations, but the adjudicator didn’t go deep enough with his butterfly knife, so the sport wounds were already sealing. Mouth checks happened, but infrequently, with greater importance placed on the immediate skin exams and a second review of her physician-approved menstruation schedule on file in the medical bus.

Something slid against her foot wrap and moved off. She immediately dipped below the chop again, leaving one arm up above the surface to signal the judges’ attention. A couple of smaller shapes slipped past her torso – juvenile stripers – but a larger mass rode below these, turning slightly as it passed to return in an intriguing orbit. Visibility was poor, but the jumbled cluster of bottom teeth and jumbo obsidian eyes indicated a Medium Class mako, four and a half feet if not a few inches more, an 11 percenter in these waters, meaning a Rarity Bonus, with a chance of a Hazard Redress due to its size, giving her some leeway with her coshing method.

A quick gasp above the waves, followed by both arms in a V with the demon’s horns hands to indicate contact – nobody, not even DeSoto, had strayed from the shallows yet – while Daisy hyperventilated intentionally to increase her lung capacity before she took a deep breath and sunk her entire body below the surface. The mako was circling still, interested in the cadence of her thrashing, and now at a suitable, if not ideal, six-foot depth for bludgeoning. Unsnapping her sheath, belted to her thigh and shaped out of puffy foam to offset the weight, she pulled out her cosh, a cylinder of lead weight that, with its handle, always reminded her of the German potato masher grenades she saw being tossed around in the endless stream of World War II movies that every motel television on the tour seemed to offer.

As Daisy wrapped the cosh’s leather sash around her wrist, the mako dropped another two feet, beginning to lose interest. Air wasn’t a concern – she was only twenty seconds into the two and a half minutes she was typically capable of – but the further down a shark was, the more of an advantage it had, especially if her first blows didn’t connect as readily. She had to move quickly. As the shark turned back towards her in a widening orbit, she let out a jet of air, losing about a minute’s worth from her lungs, which undid her ballast. Sinking, she brought the cosh behind her skull two-handed, and when the mako passed right beneath her, the cosh came down in a full thrust, hitting the sweet spot at the base of the skull, right between the edge of the spinal cord and chondrocranium.

A crack ripped through the water, and the shark barely shuddered before dying, drifting to its side due to the compulsion of the current. Her lungs began to pulse, and she sheathed her cosh quickly to prevent it from weighing her down, nearly dropping it to the bottom in her glee. This was the first time she’d ever attempted a deep water drag. Reaching to the left side of her belt, she tore the hook and roll from its mount before swimming over and hugging the tumbling shark, wrapping both legs and arms around its abrasive body until she could properly fix the hook in the mako’s mouth. Her lungs rammed against her ribs as she unspooled the cable attached to the hook, allowing the roll to drop to the bottom, and after snapping the carabiner tied to the other end of the cable onto her left gauntlet, she raced towards the surface.

The breach featured the unique exhilaration of pounding lungs being reintroduced to oxygen. Back at the beach, the Betsey Gulliver banner flapped madly in applause. Daisy immediately reached over to her shoulder band and flipped the switch for the miniature waterproof strobe and recoiled as its light began its blinding SOS blink. For the first time, she was aware of the crowd in the aluminum stands facing the beach, a decent size for a smaller venue. Their cries of encouragement were barely discernible due to the wind and water taking turns tunneling into her ears, but still, they helped to lighten the fatigue as much as the loss of the enticement pattern did. A few of her rivals had turned her way, as well, or were madly popping up and down searching for a last-second opportunity, in case hers was a winner.

Daisy pushed herself onto her back and floated, bobbing up and down in the swells, a position only allowed during a drag. In a minute or so, a boat with a lifeguard and two judges aboard would motor out to pick her up and drag in the shark, where the judges would first perform her skin exam against her charts to note any irregularities before moving on to study the cosh wound while measuring overall length and bite radius and rolling it on the scales before the gutter would perform the spot autopsy to verify the precision of the coshing. As long as there was no mouth exam or someone else lucking into a thresher, this derby and its 2k prize were hers, as was her spot on the circuit. Daisy thought about the phone call she’d make to her parents’ home, how she’d want to sound curt but would likely end up gushing with excitement to her mother, followed by guilty relief as she heard the praise that had been so elusive, her mother then setting the phone down and calling for her dad to get in the kitchen and talk to their talented daughter, the daughter who wasn’t calling to borrow money this time.

A slight tug on her left wrist shattered her reverie, and she dropped back into a tread. Her mental checklist unfurled. The line was properly unspooled, with enough lead that the current would need another ten to fifteen minutes before it began to carry the body out to sea. Hitting the bottom wouldn’t cause a tug, either, as the depth at this distance wasn’t greater than the length of the cable. If the mako had only been stunned – doubtful, but her mishap with the nurse shark made her acknowledge the possibility – the tug would likely be a singular, pronounced pull as it tried to run, meaning she’d have to detach her gauntlet or risk drowning, particularly in the case of a mako, which was even faster than a blue.

There was still no sound of an approaching motor from the retrieval boat, which she was momentarily thankful for as she dropped below the surface to check on her catch. A bubble shot out of her mouth, along with a bead of red that twirled itself into a ribbon as she gaped. Blood was clouding around the mako as another shark twice the length tore at its side with a gorging gusto, rendering the mako an automatic DQ. A quick scan of the new, more fearsome specimen, with its blunt nose, pronounced girth, and long, low caudal fin indicated that it was a bull shark, and full-grown, far too dangerous to cosh, catch, and drag under normal circumstances.

Normal circumstances were also based on the assumption that she could afford to wait for another fish or another meet; she already owed her parents more money than she’d made in the past month, which still wasn’t nearly as bad as the flat tone of their voices as she described how another nurse shark had evaded her. Daisy pushed recourse behind her as furiously as she swam towards the bull, holding the unsheathed cosh in front of her to speed her descent. The bull continued to ravage the mako, already exposing bone with its tearing. The hook remained in the mako’s mouth, with the line floating in the water in a cursive pattern whose stillness largely belied the quivering of the mako’s body as it was stripped of flesh. She raised the cosh as she had with the mako and swung it at the bull shark.

Her aim was true, but the thrashing of the bull as it tore at the mako made it a glancing blow off its gills. The bull lunged at her like she was part of the mako, its jaws snapping at nothing but water as she kicked backwards.

Following one last snap like a rebuke in her direction, the bull resumed feeding on the mako. They were fifteen feet down now, with the bull bringing the mako a little deeper with every swipe. She swallowed her increasing need for air and swung the cosh in a sidestroke, catching the bull on the nose, then a second time, then a third, with the bull so obsessed with its meal that it now regarded the blows with idiotic apathy. Incensed, she switched the cosh to her left hand, drew close to the bull, and shoved her thumb deeply into the middle of its eye. She felt the iris softly give as an oyster would under similar pressure.

The bull snapped its head back in surprised agony and then shot towards her, not to attack but in a panic. Its blunt nose drove into her chest, hard, and she dropped the cosh as the last of her oxygen exploded out of her mouth. The shark whipped its head in confusion, its mouth working up and down as if asking what, what, what, and caught her under the chin with the movement. She felt molars splintering as her own jaws snapped together. The bull then almost gently nudged her aside and shot off, its ruined eye trailing a thread of gauzy liquid. In her daze, she inhaled water and gagged, the dark caramel sheen of the water enveloping the ruined mako in front of her as it drifted downwards. She closed her eyes, gagged once more, and pulled the retirement cord.

The belt, as it inflated, flipped her upside down, and the surface sped towards her rear end. Looking up, she saw a white hilltop poking out of a silvery, throbbing fog that she was falling towards, the fall slowed by her lapses of consciousness. It took her until a pair of arms pulled her gasping from the ocean to understand that the hilltop was the bottom of the retrieval boat.

Arbitration, Daisy said before vomiting a torrent of water on the floor of the boat, meaning for the boat to haul up her mangled prize in order give her an Attack DQ rather than a Medical DQ, which was typically viewed by the circuit’s administrators as at a lower level than a Naught rating, resulting in a plunging ranking, while handsharkers receiving an Attack DQ were typically kept on if their injuries were not too severe.  

Arbitration.

One of the judges bent down and patted her shoulder lightly once the lifeguard had moved back. Ineligible, she said. Your gauntlet’s gone.

Daisy looked at her naked left wrist. Her thumb was bent back at an odd angle, dislocated from when it got caught in the bull’s eye socket. Though she couldn’t remember it, she likely tugged the gauntlet’s release tab after pulling the retirement cord, per her training.

Gimme a tick here, she gasped. The gauntlet’s probably only ten or twelve feet down. My mako was attacked. Arbitration’s my right.

Sorry, girl. You look like if you’d been tussling down there any longer, we’d be throwing you in the chum bucket.

I’m going back down.

The other judge stood up from his seat at the bow and walked over to the two of them unsteadily, his lack of sea legs worth snorting at if Daisy could catch her breath.

We let you back in, it’ll be our licenses. And your spot on the tour, whether or not your little death wish came true.

The first judge patted her shoulder again. Don’t want to get the derby renamed in memoriam, honey. Better ways to get your own banner, if that’s your plan.

Daisy wiped water from her face. She could tell from their intact fingers and lack of facial scarring that none of the judges were experienced ex-handsharkers themselves. To be potentially dropped from the tour with the best catch of her career only yards away was somehow even more nightmarish when it was being carried out by people who couldn’t comprehend what she was losing.

It’ll be like ten feet down and ten feet back. Have Mr. Lifeguard over there in the water with me, if you don’t think your hands are big enough for covering your asses.

The second judge tipped his cap upwards. Careful there. You stop talking nonsense and let us bring you back now, maybe we view your insubordination as just frustrated competitive fire rather than cause for suspension.

But a Medical DQ will deep six my ranking, and it’s already pretty far down.

The first judge leaned in closer. Better that than what the suspension will do.

It’s so close. Thirty seconds and I can get the gauntlet.

The judge leaned in closer still. Maybe we skip the mouth exam when the site doctor has her look at you, too, if you settle down a bit.

Either the judge had glimpsed the markings in her mouth or guessed, Daisy couldn’t be sure. She could reasonably argue that she bit her cheeks when the bull slammed against her jaw, but if the judges wanted to cry foul on it, her word likely wouldn’t swing things her way. She nodded silently.

The lifeguard started the engine, and the second judge returned to his seat. He turned his head to call over the motor. Got your limbs, too. That’s a celebration compared to a lot of the Medical DQs we’ve called.

The closer judge stood up as the boat started moving forward. Once she’d given Daisy a few feet of space, Daisy also stood, unbuckled her belt, and jumped overboard with her legs straight to ensure she went down quickly enough to avoid the retrieval boat’s propeller.

Even though the belt and its utilities were designed to be relatively weightless underwater, their absence was liberating. The gauntlet revealed itself rather quickly, floating only a couple feet above the ravaged mako like a pollen-colored price tag, the middle length of line connecting the two sinking in a thin U, likely touching the bottom. As she snapped the gauntlet back on her left wrist, she was surprised to find that her air was already running low; she’d managed only a quick gulp when she’d abandoned the boat, and the likely broken ribs and bruised lung weren’t helping, though they weren’t feeling any worse. But the lack of oxygen wasn’t setting forth the familiar physiological desperation she’d trained herself to ignore.  Her instincts still brayed warnings of hypoxia, but as she settled next to the mako, Daisy entered a stillness that seemed to even bring the current to a hushed, barely discernable pull. While her mind calmed, her senses flared alive, more intense than she’d ever experienced. Even the image of her parents grinning as they spoke to her on the phone about her victory seemed clearer. She could see the faded flannel pattern of her mother’s shirt as her mother reflexively smoothed it in excitement, the same flannel shirt Daisy would bury her face in when she visited after today, her father standing nearby and kneading her shoulder, so shy with pride he kept his eyes on the ceiling fan.

The murk became less of an obscuring presence and more of a gossamer that only took a little concentration to see past. She could sense the fluid left by the bull’s wrecked eye, along with the disjointed electricity of the blacktips closer to shore that everyone else was wasting their time chasing. She massaged her sport cuts, easing a bit more of her blood in the water to mix with the mako’s. The bull’s presence was palpable amidst all of that static clutter, not very close but not getting any further, either, staying true to the fanatical religiosity of appetite that all sharks succumbed to, mortal wounds or blindness notwithstanding. No need to hope for an Attack DQ anymore; the bull would be back. Daisy wrenched the hook from the mako’s mouth, knocking a couple of its teeth loose with the effort. These she also grabbed and fixed in her closed left fist so that the points came out on both sides of her middle finger.

Armed with her new weapons, she waited for the bull to reappear. She’d need a little luck with them, but a stab with the hook through the back of the eye, done solidly enough, might be enough to enter its brain. Her chest pulsed slightly, and she allowed a few bubbles of oxygen to escape before letting a bit of water enter her respiratory system. Daisy had no doubt that such luck would find her as easily as the bull would. She sensed the one-eyed bull speeding toward her position like a change in temperature. She felt her lungs clench and unclench like hands.


Patrick Bernhard received his BA from Oberlin College and his MFA from Northwestern University. His work has appeared in Wilder Voice, Funny In Five Hundred, and Maryland Literary Review. He currently teaches English at College of Lake County.

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