A Shark Story

By Erika Warmbrunn

A dark shadow lifted off the sand and floated forward.

“Sting-ray!” she thought, and reached up to pull her goggles down over her eyes. They had seen several rays during their dives that week. She hoped this would be a spotted eagle ray. Velvety black beneath an ebullience of crisp white dots, the spotted eagle rays had been her favorites. She ducked below the surface.

And saw that it was not a spotted eagle ray.

It was not a ray of any kind.

It was a shark.

She had never seen a shark before. Of course she’d seen a shark before: in a movie, in an aquarium. But that was the sensation: I’ve never seen a shark before, but I know one when I see one, and that shape swaying through the not quite crystal-clear water, that is a shark. It felt primal: ancient, encoded, instinctive recognition of predator.

She and Thomas had found the resort on the internet. It was small, remote, rustic in a legitimate, unselfconscious way: no televisions, very little Wi-Fi, evening entertainment pretty much limited to games of Scrabble with the other guests. Nothing much to do during the day, either, other than lie in a hammock or dive. The diving was apparently world-class. Most people were there to dive. She and Thomas were there to escape the New York winter, but after a day of lying in hammocks, they had decided to take the resort diving course. The lessons were basic – they wouldn’t be allowed to go deep, over what the serious divers called “the wall” and down into the trench that plunged thousands of feet toward the ocean floor – but still it was exciting, a new world for both of them. There were eels and parrotfish and those graceful, velvety spotted eagle rays.

She lifted her head for a gulp of air, then dropped back under, to keep her eyes on the fish. It was swimming away. Of course it was. It was going to keep swimming away. It was going to disappear into the distance and she was never going to see it again and of course she had known that there were sharks here but actually seeing one was a whole different thing. And it was going to ruin the rest of her swim. She knew that, and it made her mad; mad at the shark for ruining her swim and mad at herself for letting the shark ruin her swim.

Shark attacks were rare. She knew that. Even if you looked like a seal because you were wearing a wet suit (she was wearing a wet suit), even then shark attacks were, statistically, extremely rare. She also knew that no matter what her brain said, she wasn’t going to be able to get the fear out of her body. She was going to keep imagining the fish circling around, sneaking up behind her, exploding into attack mode.

It was their last day on the island. They were leaving that afternoon, and resort rules forbade diving on the same day you were flying. Going up in a plane after a dive, it turned out, could have the same effect as surfacing too quickly: your body hasn’t had time to release the nitrogen it accumulated at depth, and you can get the bends.

So she had decided to go for a swim. There was a tiny cay about a mile offshore. It was a perfect patch of two-palm-tree cartoon island, a nugget of solidity on the edge of the open ocean, waves crashing and foaming on the far side, idyllic calm on the near side. She had paddled to it the afternoon they arrived. She had pulled the kayak up onto the beach and stretched out on the warm white sand, wishing briefly that she had a picnic or a silly rum drink, but mostly just luxuriating in the stunning scenery, the silence filled with nothing but all the sounds of the ocean.

Would the dive boat be willing to drop her off at the cay, she had asked. Sure, they said. Was it a stupid idea, she had asked. Not as long as you know you can swim an open-water mile, they said. No dangerous currents, she had asked, no worries about jellyfish or sharks? Nah, they said, you should be fine.

The shark was little more than a murky shadow fading into the deep when it drifted to a stop. Then, slowly, it turned around. And like an old dog sprawled in a pool of spring sunshine giving a single friendly flop of its tail, the shark gave one languorous wag of its thick body. And propelled itself back through the water. Toward her.

Would Thomas be watching from the beach?

No he would not.

In the early years of their relationship they had had fights about this. She would come back from a hike or a bike ride an hour or two late and he would be in a panic, sure she had broken a leg or ridden off a cliff or been eaten by a bear. Thomas was an urban creature, ecstatically comfortable wandering the cities of Europe – sipping espresso at a boulevard café, navigating the halls of an ancient palace, tracking down a tiny unsung gallery. The woods and the mountains were mysterious and foreign places to him, full of discomfort and danger. And his fear would have made him mad: If you’re not back when you say you’ll be back, how the hell am I supposed to know you’re okay?

It’s a hike! She would snap, her anger rising instantly to match his, as if his apprehension were a challenge to her competence. I don’t know how long it will take and I’m not not going to the top just because it’s going to take an hour longer than I guessed do you really want me to run down the mountain?!

“It was going to get dark!”

“I have a headlamp!”

The fights had never lasted long, diminishing quickly in the face of his relief at her safe return and her delight at a day of fresh air and dazzling views. You just need to trust me, she would say, coming out of the shower and tapping her wet forehead to his chin. You just need to be back on time, he would answer, kissing the top of her head and reaching for the corkscrew.

Over the years he had learned to be less fearful – to check his watch less, to imagine the worse less. She was still rarely on time, but she had always come back.

She watched the shark glide toward her.

Healthy fish, she told herself. Swim like a healthy fish. She remembered hearing that somewhere. Don’t break the surface of the water. Don’t splash. Only sick or injured fish splash. Sick or injured fish are easy prey. Don’t look like easy prey.

Flounder, she told herself. Be a flounder. A flat fish. No legs dangling down like bait. Breaststroke. Water-treading breaststroke: legs moving you forward, arms making big backward circles, keeping you in place, keeping your eyes on the predator. Watching the shark come closer.

She had grown up among the trees of a Maine logging town that had one grocery store, five bars, and two churches whose white spires against the blue sky could inspire a girl to want to build buildings. And if by the time she had made her way south to the university and then on to New York City she had outgrown god and any inclination to design churches, she had held tight to her devotion to her baseball team. The crack of a wooden bat could still snap her back to the cool heat of long summer evenings at her grandfather’s kitchen table, listening to the Red Sox on the radio and keeping score, the grizzled logger and the nine-year-old redhead sitting side-by-side, each grabbing up, at the call to “play ball,” a meticulously sharpened, eraser-free pencil.

Trips to Fenway were expensive and therefore rare, but the experience of those once- or twice-a-year outings, the iconic geometry of the infield, the ramshackle yet magnificent rise of the fan-filled porticos, the paradoxical intimacy of the monumental arena, had kindled aspirations to create, herself, those large and public spaces – stations, plazas, memorials, ballparks, museums – where purling masses of strangers crossed paths and came together. These spaces had, she believed, more in common with the austere white steeples of her childhood than most people understood.

She needed a plan. What was her plan? What was she going to do when the shark bit off her foot? It was going to be like those stories from Mount Everest: you had to know ahead of time exactly what to do when disaster struck. You needed experience, you needed training, you needed knowledge so profoundly ingrained in your body that when the cold and the exhaustion and the lack of oxygen sucked reason from your mind, you would do the right thing anyway. Even though you thought you were warm, there in the middle of the swirling high-altitude blizzard, you wouldn’t take off your gloves, because the years of training would override your non-functioning brain and make you keep them on, thereby saving your fingers from frostbite. She had no training. She needed a plan.

Thomas had grown up in Cambridge, on a leafy street of neat clapboard homes. The glasses-wearing son of mathematics professors, he had veered away from his parents’ love of numbers and found his calling in the galleries of Huntington Avenue.

Never a painter, Thomas had become a lover of painting – of the magic of a story stroked with pigment onto canvas. Never an athlete (his Little League career had lasted half a season), he had since earliest childhood been an impassioned disciple of baseball. In baseball he saw art. In those summer contests beneath the Citgo sign he was even able to appreciate his parents’ cherished numbers, for there in the intricate and multitudinous digits he saw a pointillist painting – of nine innings, of a season, of a career, of one swing of the bat.

Through college and graduate school and assorted fellowships in museums grand and not, across several countries and half a dozen states, Thomas had remained true to his hometown team, following the Red Sox however he could – first in the crinkly pages of the International Herald Tribune, later via the scroll at the bottom of an ESPN broadcast, and now, long since settled back in academia, in a job less than three miles as the crow flies from the home of the hated Yankees, on the screens of the internet.

What was the signal you were supposed to give if you were in trouble in the water? The dive boat probably wasn’t very far away, somewhere beyond the cay. Were you supposed to wave one arm or both arms? She couldn’t see the boat, which meant no one on it could see her; nevertheless she thought about it for a while, trying to remember – one arm or two?

Thomas didn’t hang up his shirts. He would drop off their dirty clothes at the laundromat; he would pick them up; he would distribute the clean socks and underwear to the correct drawers, his and hers; he would fold his t-shirts and put them away; then he would take his collared shirts, the ones he said he wanted on hangers, and he would dump them on the chair at the foot of the bed.

She would try to ignore them. It was his chair. He could do whatever he wanted with it. She had a chair, too, on her side of the bed. She flopped her pajamas on it every morning, kept her gym clothes folded over the back, used it for once-worn clothes clean enough to be worn again. If Thomas was happy keeping the shirts he said he wanted on hangers lumped in a pile, it was entirely up to him.

Within a day or two, inevitably, she would hang them up herself.

She was pretty sure it was both arms, which made absolutely no sense, because if you needed help in the ocean, the last thing you probably had was the strength to tread water while lifting your arms above your head.

Moot point, she reminded herself: no one on the boat could see her, and Thomas, after all those years of being told to stop worrying, had finally stopped worrying. He wasn’t pacing the beach with binoculars. It would make no difference how many arms she waved; no one would see her.

He dog-eared books. And not just used paperbacks. New ones, too. Even hard covers. This in spite of the fact that the clerks at the neighborhood bookstore tucked a bookmark into each and every book he bought. There were myriad bookmarks floating around the apartment, piling up in drawers and on shelves, lying on the kitchen table, the coffee table, his bedside table. Yet somehow when it was time to put a book down – to turn on the game, to go to sleep – he would never reach for a bookmark. His mind already on whatever was next, he would slide a finger up the page, crease the corner, and snap the book shut.

Only last week she had watched him dog-ear a page of a brand-new catalogue. She understood that he wanted to be able to find the Reiner Nooms again quickly, but it was a glossy, oversize, perfectly pristine catalogue. With an index that made it really easy to find Reiner Nooms!

She had tried not to look at it, there on the coffee table: the divot in the otherwise tight tower of pages. It was his book. It wasn’t as if he were dog-earing her books, lined up in precise alphabetical order on her side of the study.

The next morning, inevitably, she had opened the catalogue, smoothed out the corner above Amsterdam Harbor Scene, and replaced the triangular fold with a bookmark: Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read. – Groucho Marx.

She figured she was about a third of the way from the cay back to the resort. When the shark bit off her right foot – which was, somehow, very clearly what was going to happen, not her left foot, not an arm, not instant death, just a nibble, her right foot, off at the ankle – when that happened, should she attempt the longer swim back to the island, where there would be medical help? Or should she opt for the shorter swim back to the cay, where she would be alone, just her and her bloody stump, but at least she would be out of the water?

Whichever way she went, she would be losing blood, probably a lot of blood, probably pretty quickly, and the blood in the water would be attracting other sharks, even after the first one had decided she didn’t taste very good. She had heard that somewhere, maybe late at night on the Discovery Channel: that people didn’t actually taste very good to sharks. That after the first bite, a shark often lost interest. Unfortunately, the blood in the water still smelled good to other sharks. And apparently sharks couldn’t be bothered to warn each other: “Dude, no, you don’t want to eat that.”

She decided she should make the shorter swim, get herself out of the water as soon as possible, and then figure out what to do next – make a tourniquet out of her goggle strap, bury the stump in the sand. That thought made her queasy. But at least she had a plan.

Thomas talked to her from other rooms. Feet up on the crackled leather ottoman, reading the Times, Thomas would shout that this politician had done that or that country was experiencing this. Still in bed, “Morning Edition” burbling on the radio, she would hear words bouncing off the thick pre-war walls, unable to make the turn in the hallway, burying themselves in the plaster and brick. “What?” she would shout, turning down the volume.

“What?” she would yell again after a moment’s silence.

“Nothing,” would carom back then, “I’ll tell you later;” the muffled consonants comprehensible because predictable.

Okay, she would say to herself, and turn the radio back up. If it was important, he would walk down the hall. Let it go, she would tell herself. Leave it alone.

Then, inevitably, she would heave a sigh, throw off the covers, and stalk to the living room. “What?!”

The shark was less than fifteen feet away, still moving gently along the sand. Seen from above, its nose was roundish and unthreatening and it looked young, and curious, and not much more than four and a half feet long, maybe five. She was five-five. Sharks don’t attack things larger than themselves. She had heard that the other night, sitting around the fireplace playing Scrabble. One of the divemasters had said that sharks don’t attack things larger than themselves. So maybe she was safe. Maybe those five extra inches would save her.

It had been a crisp late-winter day when she walked into the graduate seminar – Architectural Painting in the Dutch Golden Age – wearing a Red Sox cap, and met Thomas’ cheerful “They’re looking good this year” with a minutes-long untempered disquisition – on the weaknesses of the aging pitching staff, the idiotic acquisition of a flashy but over-rated third baseman, and the emerging brilliance of the young catcher, if only they wouldn’t be distracted by his lack of power and would focus on his ridiculously nuanced sense of the game – by the end of which Thomas had been already just a little bit in love.

Close to two decades later, they could still get riotously caught up in a game together, rooting for the Sox as if their lives depended on it, inured by years of practice to the heckling of the New York fans surrounding them in their neighborhood bar.

They could still be contentedly quiet together: on winter weekend evenings at the cabin in Connecticut that Thomas had inherited from a distant uncle she would build a fire in the woodstove and they would settle in on opposite ends of the long and lumpy couch with their drinks and their books, no television needed until spring training rolled around again.

And they traveled well together. He had introduced her to Europe, starting with the Rijksmuseum and the slivers and explosions of light in the dark surrounds of his beloved old masters. Amsterdam had been followed by The Hague’s Mauritshuis, Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, and London’s National Gallery, Thomas’ predilections consistently cool and dark and northern. By their trip to Paris, however, they were spending as much time studying the pedestrian traffic flow in the Gare du Nord as they were gazing at The Astronomer and The Lacemaker in the Louvre, and by Italy she had figured out about the smaller towns and the countryside and they were up in the Brenta Dolomites, where she left him at dawn to hike to the Refuge of the Twelve Apostles and then beyond, returning almost two hours later than she had said she would, dusty and sore and thrilled with her day, to find him fuming at the hotel café, where they were briefly furious at each other before he ordered a bottle of the region’s signature pinot grigio and she chose the pumpkin-filled casunziei for them to share.

So even if it had been years now since he had come into the study to steal her away from the computer for a sweaty midday fuck, it didn’t mean they weren’t still happy.

There was a little yellow-striped fish hanging on to the shark, flickering in the sunlit water above its back, perhaps nibbling up its lunch. What was that called? Like the birds that ride on the backs of elephants and eat the lice. Or hop into crocodiles’ mouths to clean their teeth. The crocodile gets its dental checkup, and the bird gets a safe haven, because who is going to attack you when you’re sitting in a crocodile’s mouth?


The little fish and the shark, in a sweet symbiotic relationship.

It had just happened. She hadn’t been looking. “It just happened” had always sounded like the laziest, most disingenuous way to explain these things. Now it also seemed like the truest. It was riding the elevator up to the office and laughing at the same stupid joke; it was a design tweak jointly conceived and implemented; it was a glass of wine after work. It was a hand on her leg under the table. And then it was more.

Now the shark was drifting upward, toward the surface. Now it was beginning a leisurely circle around her. Toward her feet. Smoothly, evenly – healthy fish – she pivoted with it, keeping her feetbait as far away from its teeth as she could. Treat the shark like a cougar, not a grizzly: maintain eye contact; be dominant, not submissive. She hadn’t heard that anywhere. Slowly, in balletic tandem, they completed a half-circle. Then the shark paused. She was now facing back toward the cay, the shark maybe ten feet away, just low enough in the water for its dorsal fin not to break the surface, the little fish shimmering above it.

It had been flattering. He was a few years younger than she was, handsome in the way of ugly people, like Randy Johnson in his Mariners days, on loan from his firm in Denver for the initial phase of a joint project. He had recently had the first big success of his career, his name attached to a towering new bridge over a western desert gorge, a work whose originality and engineering she had admired, even as she found its overall aesthetic a little heavy-handed.

Maybe a shark is like a horse, she thought, comparing it to yet another mammal to which it bore no earthly resemblance. But you draw your metaphors from what you know, even when what you know is profoundly irrelevant. So, a horse: a half-ton animal whose path you can divert with a well-placed push on a shoulder. Maybe if the shark charged, and she aimed a precisely timed shove against its side, maybe it would just head off in another direction, grazing alongside her instead of, well, the alternative. She stuck out her arm, ready to try it.

Thomas lay in a hammock looking at the sky beyond the palm fronds, his well-worn copy of Wait Till Next Year splayed on his chest, the top corners of half of its pages in tatters. The most dangerous thing at the resort was the coconuts. Someone had said that at dinner the night before. You could drown, you could get the bends, you could be attacked by a shark, but it was much more likely that you would be injured lying in a hammock and being hit by a falling coconut. Weighing as much as four pounds and dropping as much as fifty feet, a coconut could inflict real damage. The resort tried to harvest them while they were small, but they never got them all, and Thomas saw one that had eluded them, dangling high above his head.

He sat up and glanced out over the water – a kaleidoscope of variations on a theme of blue, the tips of the waves flecked with white foam. He could see the cay on the horizon, its two palm trees tipping toward each other like a cartoon. He couldn’t see her, but she was a good swimmer, and presumably knew what she was doing. Thomas wasn’t much of a swimmer. He had no idea how long it would take her to swim in from the cay. He had thought to ask, but then left it be. She would be back when she was back.

Now what she saw was her right hand, four fingers and a thumb, her beautiful opposable thumb, without which it was so shockingly difficult to button your coat or tie your shoelaces, waggling in the water two feet closer to the shark’s mouth than they had been before. Five waggling little snacks, inviting the fish over.

Suddenly this part of her plan looked deeply, deeply flawed. A shark probably wasn’t like a horse at all. She pulled her arm back and raised her head for another gulp of air. Every time she had to do this, it felt like walking into a parking garage in a horror movie. What would she see when she ducked back under: would it be nothing but row upon row of teeth, mere inches away?

It had just happened. He hadn’t been looking. He hadn’t suspected. Her phone had been lying on the coffee table, where she had left it next to a half-drunk glass of wine when she went to take a shower before they ordered Thai food and chose a movie. It had started to play the latest in her ever-changing choice of text tones and he had glanced down. Hadn’t picked it up, hadn’t tapped in her security code, had just glanced down, and the words had been scrolling across the top of the screen and he had seen them and they had been unambiguous. He heard the hot water tumbling in her shower, smelled the pinot rising from her glass, and watched the words go by. Once, twice, before the screen went dark.

They stared at each other, the woman and the shark. It felt like forever that they floated there, looking into each other’s eyes, though it couldn’t have been longer than she could hold her breath. Then the shark – curiosity satisfied? intimidated by those extra five inches? just not hungry? – turned serenely to its left, and, drifting lower as it went, melted into the blue.

She lifted her head and inhaled deeply. The cay, with its white sand and twin palm trees, looked as idyllic as ever. She turned around, completing the circle that she and the shark had begun together in what already felt like a memory, and looked across the choppy water to the island, where she could make out the pier and low-lying cabins of the resort. She couldn’t sprint two-thirds of a mile. All she could do was swim, alternating between breaststroke and the crawl – the smoothest crawl she could manage – breathe right, stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe left, stroke, stroke, stroke – while fighting down the image of the shark changing its mind, turning around, accelerating….

Ever since the revelatory message had scrolled across her screen, Thomas had found himself watching her in a way he never had before, not on that day she walked into his classroom wearing a Red Sox cap, not on the morning he first woke up beside her, not in all the years that had rolled along, pleasantly and unexceptionally, since then. It felt like seeing through her, as if her physical self – the freckled skin, the unruly russet hair, the hiker’s calves, the body she was sharing with someone else – had lost its solidity, lost its opacity, and what he was seeing was a slow-moving her-shaped oil-on-water tangle of what he loved, what he knew to have been true, what he now questioned, what he no longer trusted, and again what he loved and believed to still be true.

She thought about him as she swam. About his breath behind her ear as the elevator door closed and they were suddenly alone, about his hand running up her thigh, about his whispered suggestion, just a few weeks earlier, that she come with him when he went back to Colorado.

She drifted to a stop, quelling the fear that rose up at the thought – no, now, the knowledge – of what lay beneath. She turned around. The receding cay interrupted for a moment in space the meeting of sea and sky, swelling into the horizon like peace and safety, although she knew that on its other side lay jagged rock and breaking waves.

She thought about Thomas. Thomas who didn’t hang up his shirts, Thomas who dog-eared books, Thomas who talked to her from other rooms; Thomas, who would never ride a bike down a mountain with her, but would rub her feet for hours as they lay reading on the Connecticut couch; Thomas, who would never remember a birthday, but would often appear home with spontaneous treasure – an obscure coffee table book (The Doors and Windows of Sicily) that dovetailed perfectly with a current interest; a pint of ridiculously expensive Red Spruce sorbet that tasted like burying her nose in the bark of childhood woods; a scratchy round of vinyl that neatly filled a gap in her collection of smoky tenor saxophone recordings. Thomas, who knew as no one else did that sometimes all she wanted for a midnight snack was a hunk of Roquefort and a fork, no crackers required.

For the second time that day she completed a full circle in the water, bringing herself back to face the island.

Thomas stood on the pier. He could see her clearly now, moving through the calming water. He watched her swim toward him. He waited.

Erika Warmbrunn’s short stories have appeared in Able Muse and The Idaho Review. She is also the author of Where the Pavement Ends, an award-winning account of her 8-month, 5,000-mile solo bicycle journey across Mongolia, China and Vietnam. Without her bicycle, she has traveled to Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Haiti and Malawi to work with Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders. Closer to home, but much longer ago, she wrote and performed the simultaneous translations of the Moscow Sovremennik Theater’s productions of Three Sisters, Into the Whirlwind, and The Cherry Orchard on Broadway. Erika lives in New York City, where she works as a stagehand on the Tony Award-winning musical Come From Away. Once upon a time she and her husband Peter went to the Bahamas, and she went for a swim.

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