The Girl And The Shark

Sophie van der Stap

Excerpt

Beneath the surface she swims around in silence. There are no words, no chatter or banter, but you’d be wrong to think that the ocean doesn’t speak. It does speak, in a language of bangs and echoes. Beneath the surface she’s free: she has no weight, no age, no name. Her body is reduced to a mass of functions. It breathes, it sees, it touches, it floats. When she achieves perfect buoyancy, there’s no gravity and no judgment, and somehow the two seem related. 

The caves do not speak. The caves swallow. They swallow everything around her, they swallow and swallow and swallow, until there’s nothing left but her and an immense silence, daunting in its immensity, sated in its hunger. Enveloped in stillness, her past sinks into oblivion as she floats in a timeless embrace. She does not know if she’s the one who forgets or if it’s the caves who do.

The first time, the silence choked her. But when she resurfaced, she felt replenished. Ever since, she has gravitated to the caves time and again. As a trained diver she’s used to diving alone. Above the surface, together is better than alone, but beneath the surface alone is better than together: on her own she can dissolve in the world around her, and be nothing, or everything.  

In the cave she sits down on the seafloor. A shark appears. She does not move. He circles her several times, then swims towards her and lies down next to her in the sand. She rests her hand on his head, pets him. Far away, above the surface, her life floats on the mirror of the sea’s surface, waiting for her to return. Up there, they say that she’s strong, that she has shark skin. But they don’t know that words are so much sharper than teeth.

*

A red wooden box sits on a bookshelf somewhere above the surface, its lid open. It’s overflowing withhooks, some big, some small, allrusty. Every hook is a life saved, a life she knowsThe box is so chock-full that she can hardly wedge any new ones in there. She adds her latest find to the collection and gets in the shower. The shower primarily serves as a transition between ocean and land. It’s not about washing off the sea so much as immersing herself in water for one last time before falling asleep. 

The hook was jammed deep inside the shark’s mouth. It was the third time she had to remove a hook from the shark she named Foggy Eye. The first time Foggy Eye had come to her was two days after she had removed a hook from the mouth of Grandma, one of the first sharks she got to know. Foggy Eye had appeared together with Grandma, as if Grandma was leading Foggy Eye to her. When she swam past the new shark, she looked right into its foggy eye. The shark’s mouth and left-side gills were covered in a nasty infection. That hook must have been stuck in there for a long time.  

The girl went to work immediately. She fed the other sharks and studied the new shark’s behavior. She wasn’t eating and she lay in the sand, only a few feet away. The girl sat next to her in the sand, petted her, stayed with her. Then, in a quick movement she reached her arm into the shark’s mouth and felt the hook. It was large and had afishing lure, a little yellow fish, attached to it. She pulled once. The shark with the foggy eye pulled back and swam away. 

She checked her air and waited, some of her sharks still circling her, drawing wider and wider circles, until finally they vanished out of sight. The new shark stayed with her and put her head in her lap. She reached into her mouth a second time but again was unable to remove the hook. The shark with the foggy eye disappeared into the dark. 

*

A shark’s eye is like the surface of the ocean: endless and unfathomable. 

Foggy Eye kept on returning, putting her head in the girl’s lap, until one day, the girl successfully removed the hook that was jammed deep into the shark’s flesh. Now sometimes when she raises herself up from the seafloor, the shark will lift up with her,resting between the girl’s hands. A small eternity passes. She doesn’t know whether it’s the shark who decides on this unexpected embrace or whether it is her. It doesn’t matter: in a world where words are absent, they seem fundamentally unnecessary.

They all have a face and a name: Grandma, Stompy, Steph, Hook, Crook, Elvis.  – and Foggy Eye. They’ve all been named after their distinguishing physical features and character traits. Grandma is her first shark, her first hook. She’s always the first shark to appear. But today she’s nowhere to be seen. The girl is surprised and looks around trying to find her.

Back on the boat she takes off the chainmail suit she wears on top of her wetsuit while feeding her sharks, and lies down on the deck. She spends her surface interval with her feet dangling in the water and her face warmed by the sun. When she goes back in with a new tank she swims to Ben’s Cave. She swims through shoals of little black fish, hearing echoes of howling whales in the distance.

She’s a young woman who spends most of her days out at sea. Some days she dives four, five times. The time spent on the rocking boat is to get ready, wait out surface intervals, get some sustenance. She only heads back to shore as a way of guaranteeing her return to the ocean.

The Girl And The Shark is a work of fiction. It was born of my fascination with the silent depths of the sea, its creatures, and my passion for language. In this story I have tried to verbalize a language that has no words, that lies behind the eyes, solemn and mysterious. 

But I could not have written this story without the generous support of Cristina Zenato, a girl who does exist, and who saved the lives of many sharks. The red wooden box in this story is hers. The sharks described, including their names, are hers. Nor could I have written this story without the existence of the larger community of shark conservationists whose work, openness and intelligence I’ve come to admire so much.

It’s my hope that this little story will help contribute to their great cause, which truly should be one that is close to all of our hearts, as our very existence depends on it.

I have printed 20 samples of The Girl And The Shark, while looking for the right platform to distribute the story. A large sum of the proceeds (to be defined) will go to shark conservation.