Tired of fighting the breeze, she folded her magazine and tucked it into her bag. She glanced out at the ocean where her son was swimming. Years of watching him learn to co-exist with the capricious ocean had ingrained a habit which was hard to break even now when he was allowed to come to the beach on his own. The last time she’d looked up, the ten year old had been enthusiastically body surfing the growing waves. Now he was about thirty meters out, treading water idly.
She turned to gaze down the mostly empty beach. The sand, usually the color of cornmeal, was being leached of its hue as the clouds trailed past the midday sun. When they’d first arrived this morning, the waves had peaked green and blue, little translucent pyramids with hints of foam capping them. Now the ocean was turning shades of gray as the sun played hide-and-seek behind the cloud cover. The on-shore breeze was turning.
Up on the dunes, a man with a digger’s hat and long shorts was walking with his head down. A border collie, frisky with the change of weather, pranced and frolicked up ahead of him, playing tag with the wind. Several hundred meters down the beach, an older woman wearing baby pink pants rolled up at the calf and a tan wind jacket was still optimistically casting her fishing line into the waves, and a younger woman was chasing two toddlers at the water’s edge with a big beach towel, trying to dry them and head home. Beyond them, the beach was deserted and stretched away to Capstone Point in the distance.
She climbed to her feet and leaned forward at the waist to brush sand from her legs. A shiver gripped her as another cloud slid past the sun and briefly obscured the warmth of its rays. She shielded her eyes and looked for her son to signal him to come in.
In the rhythmic rise and fall of the surf, she spotted several dark shadows. At a glance, it was easy to mistake the large clumps of reddish-green seaweed suspended in the waves for people or fish. She searched the crests of the rolling waves for the boy until she located him again. Knowing it was useless to call over the noise of the surf, she waved her arms above her head to signal to him, but with his face turned out toward the horizon watching for the next big set of waves he didn’t see her.
She paused. One of the shadows was moving against the waves. A shoal of fish? It didn’t flash through the water or break the surface as the fish jumped. The shadow executed a sharp turn, and she lost it as a wave crested. The sharp tang of fear flooded her mouth. She knew that turn, had watched it a million times on television wildlife shows, had seen it in aquariums. That jerk of the front half of the fish, so fluidly followed by the rear.
Desperately, she searched the waves for the shadow again. Her mind plotted the coordinates of what she’d registered, and her son became the axis of the map. How close were the shadows, were they moving or not. As she marked dark underwater shapes, she instantly noted which had the uneven edges of clumps of seaweed, which were still questions.
There! No. A trick of the ocean’s movement.
She realized that her arms were still in the air, and now she began to wave them urgently to get the boy’s attention. He was still facing the horizon, and then, leisurely, his head tipped back and the whole of his body rose to the surface as he floated on his back.
She screamed for him. She screamed for him, even though she knew that his ears were below the water. Even though she knew the noise of the ocean would drown out her warnings. She thought she saw the shadow moving under the waves. It was gone again. Had it been giving him wide berth? Had it been circling?
A bank of cloud drew across the sun and the ocean turned six shades of gray again. In the light change, she imagined she saw a fin slicing through the water, twenty fins slicing through the water.
In her mind’s eye, she saw the cover of a tabloid that she’d seen years before at the news agency counter. The bold, ominous print declaring “SHARK!” had gotten her attention, but it was the photo taking up most of the page which had riveted her.
It was an underwater shot taken from one side of the action. Near the top of the black-and-white photo were the little pot belly and gangly limbs of a child swimming on the surface, a girl since she was wearing a full-piece bathing costume. The swim suit must have been yellow or pink or some pastel color, it was so light against the girl’s skin.
At the bottom of the photo, directly below the child, and aimed at her like a rocket, was the largest shark she had ever seen. The upper third of its body intruded into the photo, broke the edges of what should have been a simple underwater photograph of a child swimming. The sense of speed behind the mass was breathtaking. The photographer was facing the ventral side of the shark, and the whiteness of its belly matched the white jagged teeth that were plainly visible in the opened mouth. The shark’s mouth, opened wide to take its prey, was as big as the girl’s torso. Surely after it took her, there would have been only her forearms and lower legs left behind.
Smaller print under the picture announced, “FATHER UNWITTINGLY TAKES PHOTO OF DAUGHTER’S ATTACK!” She had not been able to take her eyes from the white belly of the fish. The magnitude of wrong-ness of this color. How it contrasted against the black space of the mouth. Inside the mouth. Without this yawing negative space, it would have been difficult to delineate shark from water, the two so almost-perfectly blended together. Part of the horror was in this trick of nature, this killer in camouflage only given away at the last moment by the great, empty space it hid inside itself, that it sought to fill. She’d been transfixed.
And then she had put herself in the father’s place and her horror intensified. It was most likely that in focusing on his daughter above, he’d never seen the shark at all, that it had streaked through his lens with all the surprising speed of a jack rabbit, flushed from the undergrowth. His little daughter, so small, so vulnerable in the way of those massive jaws. It was worse than seeing a picture of an actual attack, this moment before. You could only cringe in the anticipation of the child’s pain and fear, the father’s confusion and helplessness, and yes, even the shark’s anticipation of a kill, a meal. It was horrid and riveting all at once.
Her son floated lazily with his arms out, staring at the shapes the clouds made. She waved frantically. Look at me! And suddenly she was down the beach and at the edge of the water. It was only as the sand went cold and damp underneath her toes, the foam of a washed out wave swirling around her ankles, that she felt her own fear pour into her legs like wet cement.
She jerked to a stop suddenly, swayed like a drunk. A thousand thoughts seeped from her pores like sweat. She heard them as the dropping of a drawer of silverware, a great clattering of ideas.
…that it was always she…why wouldn’t he look up…she couldn’t feel her body…she’d had dreams…was going to take a pottery class, write a book, learn to paraglide, go on safari…resentment, resentment…she’d been reading an article on a new diet…the wind was changing…she was afraid of pain…
The sun flashed from behind the clouds and then disappeared, a cosmic peek-a-boo. She looked up at her waving arms, seeing them move in slow motion but still knowing their motion was frenetic, that the molecules were frantic around them though the arms moved in dream time. She was below the waving arms. She was outside the waving arms. She was out at sea, looking back at the woman on the beach with wildly waving arms.
…had liked her job…had not wanted to get pregnant…had liked her husband…had liked herself…was going to become boss, dye her hair red, return the library book, learn to bake challah…driving her son to field hockey practice…made a house, made a home…liked the feeling of her hands in the dirt of the pot plants…was anyone watching?
This thought took root in her brain. Who on the beach was watching? Who saw what she was doing? Did anyone see her standing near the edge of the water, not going to help her son? Did they know she was hesitating? That she was afraid of drowning? That she could feel the serrated dagger bite through her own limbs, could feel the frenzied shaking of the beast taking a chunk out of her. That she was afraid, so afraid. Did she look like a terrible woman, being afraid instead of going to her child? Did it show in her face? Would it show later? And then the thought, What if she did nothing?
The foam around her ankles sucked sand out from under her heels. She wobbled slightly, flattened her toes to maintain her grip. She swayed, but didn’t move further out into the water. She didn’t go to him.
She was…She was… going to tell her father it was she who’d broken his golf club…going to learn to fly a plane…tell her lover to piss off…buy a convertible and drive it through a rainstorm with the top down…buy her son the bunk beds he wanted and let him have a slumber party…
She shifted her heels on the sand as the foam dribbled away from her toes, slinking back into the ocean with little hisses and pops. She saw her life out there on the waves. Saw how so much had slipped away from her in her negligence. Saw herself as a young woman, and the wastefulness, the lack of vigilance. Saw the intentions, the ambitions popping around her like the surf bubbles popping around her feet on the wet, tumultuous sand. Sucked away, reabsorbed into some greater, larger entity.
She understood, even as she feared the whiteness of the shark’s teeth on her, that her only achievement was her son. Her son, floating on his back, probably dreaming of field hockey as he gazed at the sky. Whose swimming trunks were blue and hard-colored against his skin, whose ears were below the water. Hers.
Everything else had been leached away through the years. Allowed to leak away, evaporate, dissipate. She should have paid attention. There were so many things she was…
If she did nothing, if he were taken, what would she be? The grieving mother. But free. She looked wildly around her, felt the screams for help tearing at her throat, but wasn’t sure that they actually left her body. If she did nothing, would everyone around her know when they looked at her? Would she become a pariah? Weren’t mothers supposed to put themselves before their children? Wasn’t that part of it all? But who would know? And she would be free…
Despair flooded her, a sharp inundation like the light that suddenly broke through the cloud cover above. One small boy, her only achievement - not even an ambition - floating so nonchalantly, so unaware of his momentousness, and, somewhere below him, a shadow that left only pieces of people in its wake. She felt her body soak up the grayness of the weather like an inkblot. She was the black-and-white heroine of the 2 a.m. show.
She ran into the waves, her arms over her head now in a classic dive. The water drowned the thoughts in her pores, filled her ears. She refused to open her eyes underwater. She broke the surface with a gasp and swam in strong, uneven strokes towards her son, refusing to think about who she was going to save.