By eight o’clock Thursday morning it was already oven hot. Walking across the runway with Marty, Cedar breathed in salt air and softening macadam.
She waited as Marty walked the Piper from tail to nose and cleaned the windows twice.
Pocketing the rag, he nodded.
“Don’t need a pilot’s license to see the importance of clean windows.”
They flew cocooned in the intimacy of engine-drone and rattle, the sky through Marty’s windows filled with the puffy sheep clouds of a child’s dreams. Far below, the ocean deeps were blue, the shallows the lightest green, and when they came in low over the islands, creeks, marine lakes, and mudflats flashed back sparkling sun.
They didn’t speak until they landed and took off the headsets.
“Better?” asked Marty.
“Is that the truth?”
“It’s pretty close.”
“I’ll accept that.”
In the cab of his truck, Marty turned and pulled two bottles from a cooler behind the seat.
The homemade lemonade was ice cold, more tart lemon than sweet. Exactly how she liked it.
“Do you forget anything?” she asked.
“Your drinks are like you.”
As they drove Cedar stuck her head out the window, the wind pressing her hair away from her face. It felt like being a kid.
She did feel better. She loved to dive. Marty loved to fly. She was pretty sure it was for the same reasons. Once he had said to her, “Flying is like closing the door on a row.”
But you always had to come down. Or up.
Every decision has repercussions. We never walk away entirely untouched. Following my act of vengeance, boats buzzed overhead for four days, crisscross wakes slashing the sea. I gave warning. The older ones listened and vanished, but many of the younger ones stayed. Youth believes itself beyond the rules. I felt each of their deaths; hooked by steel barbs, eviscerated by gaffes, shot with guns. They were so surprised. There is no satisfaction in “I told you so.”
When enough sharks were killed – how you measure this, I cannot fathom – the whine of engines ceased. The waters went quiet. I know my retribution temporarily dampened your enthusiasm for the sea. It was nice; the way it once was. Things would not be so bad with you gone.
The boat returns to the reef at the end of the week. I hear her approach like a familiar voice from the far side of a room. I am glad she has returned. I drift up, almost to the top of the reef, a risky maneuver in the light of day, but the light laboring of the engine tells me there is only one person on board. The engine cuts out. The boat drifts down on the mooring, like a leaf settling in an eddy. This gentle touch pleases me every time. There are no chickens. The boat just rocks in the sun.
When night falls she plays the bagpipes. The keening continues deep into the night.
I love bagpipes. They touch me. Their sound is so very old, mournful and endowed with thoughtful meaning. In their time they were played when a country went to war, or a king was laid to rest, or a bride and groom took their lifelong vows among running grasses. Even in these times they remain an instrument of occasion. I believe she employs the bagpipes in the same fashion.
The sound, played only for the stars, is halting and not quite lovely. But it is lovely to me.
Again I feel the flame of hope rise cautiously, a tinder spark, but hope nonetheless. Many have mourned their enemies. It is a sign of respect. But more than that, it is a signal of connection, recognition that, despite our differences, we all share the same pulse, and when a pulse is gone, something irretrievable is lost. The thought that a conceited man, a bully and a taker, is also a loving father, requires you see past your petty inclinations. It requires you see the Big Picture. And the Big Picture is what matters. It is not you alone. It is all of us together. But I fear very few see this.
This woman does. She feels both connection and loss.
At dawn I smell plumeria. Their scent is strong. It reaches me the instant the petals scatter on the water.
The petals float on the surface until, one by one, the reef fish gulp them down.
Hers is a noble action, but I am not blind to her faults. She wished him dead. I heard it clearly, a summons in itself. She is right to torment herself. We were in it together. Collaborators. Accomplices. I was the gun, but she and I pulled the trigger.
Murderess? Righteous judge? Who am I to say? Who are you? You wished him dead too, did you not? You often wish hateful things upon your fellow man. You would place yourself above the animals? Really?
I am not perfect, as you now know. Nor am I all seeing. That’s the stuff of your fantasy writers, and maybe your God, if there is one. I know only what I’ve encountered, though over the years I’ve encountered a good deal. I’ve seen good and bad. Mostly I’ve seen gray and indifferent. Your species is oddly blasé regarding the world you are so fortunate to inhabit and your fleeting moment in it.
Of course, in the beginning I had no inkling of any of this. I was propelled solely by rudimentary need. Food. Procreation. Survival. Proper motivators for the prehistoric life. Believe you me, I had my hands full. The bullfighter in the ring has little time for philosophizing. I was smaller then, and the seas were a lively place. It’s true, my kind was once a significant predator, but it is also true there were far bigger fish in the sea. Had I not branched significantly from my family tree, I would not have survived. Even as I grew larger, I remained very much afraid, for those who wished to eat me had jaws and teeth I could only dream of, and not an iota of wobble in their motions. They came like silent arrows on a soundless wind. Though preoccupied with keeping my own blood from clouding the water, I did not miss the beauty of their near perfect design. I don’t know if chance, or some Great Hand, is responsible, but in either case I bow my head to such achievement.
As I grew larger still I continued to know fear, but I also came to welcome battle. Youth wants testing, and I received it in spades. There were skirmishes that thundered into the deeps and tore the ocean’s surface to blood-flecked froth. Those were the salad days. Tooth and fang, act and react, survival of the fittest, the gladiatorial arena and all that. I won’t bore you with my victories. I will only say that if you hold anything close long enough, it will die.
Though size helps, it wasn’t size that turned me into, if I may modestly say, an apex warrior in a formidable broth. What set me apart was a slowly growing awareness, so slow growing that for many years I was unaware of it myself. I believed I was acting instinctually, though with quickness and alacrity that surprised me. Gradually I became aware of something more, not just finely honed unthinking reaction, but something concrete. I sensed things beyond the reach of conventional senses. From miles away I felt the frenzied lust of creatures mating. I knew the blood-rage hunger of a Liopleurodon gliding through darkness far from mine. The water whispered hidden secrets. Weaknesses. Fear. Hiding places. Now these rudimentary skills seem laughable, a toddler’s first steps, but a toddler is mightily impressed with himself. Now I do not just anticipate the actions of others. I can crawl into their thoughts. I can persuade a man who thinks poorly of swimming at dusk to reconsider.
I confess there are times I feel I have been chosen. But this is a foolish, self-centered outlook, one that, as we have both seen time and time again, leads inevitably to downfall.
More accurate to say that life is full of surprises, and I harbor more than most.
She wished for his end. She is culpable. But revenge didn’t sit on the throne long. I feel her sorrow. The feeling is as strong as the scent of the flowers she scatters.
I know she will not wish such a thing again.
We can change. We can become better than ourselves.
You must believe this.
By the fourth evening a dozen sharks hung from the makeshift gallows in front of the police station. The wood structure resembled an enormous swing set, with the sharks, hanging by their tails, as the swings. Half the swings were gray reef sharks. Three were blacktips, not noted man-eaters either. Two were fair size bulls, eight to nine feet. Cedar was surprised to see that the last shark, suspended with extra rope, was a twelve-foot tiger.
Gravity had already seen several sharks drop their innards to the dirt, gray oatmeal puddles thick with flies. The sharks yet to extrude their insides swelled grotesquely, ringed by additional clouds of flies.
Cedar and Able watched an Australian couple pose beside the tiger shark, the man flexing his bicep. The locals did not pose for photos, but Cedar did not absolve them from the blasphemy. She knew which sharks were theirs. The fins were gone. On the Asian market, shark fins fetched a good price.
Able had asked her to look at the sharks. She hadn’t wanted to come. She knew what they would look like.
It was worse than she imagined.
Able wore street clothes. He didn’t want to answer the tourists’ questions.
The evening sun bathed the square in gold haze. They stood at a distance, but the smell was still terrible, like caskets pried open.
Able did not bother with the gray sharks and blacktips.
“The bulls?” he asked.
“Not likely. Too small to leave nothing behind.”
They both looked at the tiger.
“Possible,” she said. “But again not likely.”
“Why not likely?”
“Again, no leftovers.”
She hated the casual word.
“Shit,” said Able. There was real pain in his voice. “Well, what do you think then?”
“I don’t know what to think.”
“You think the shark is still out there?”
“I don’t know.”
“You could try harder for a friend.”
“I’m trying to be honest. I have no idea. None.”
The buzzing flies sounded like mocking applause. Bats veered drunkenly through the gloaming.
“My uncle caught the small one by mistake,” Able said quietly. “He didn’t want to bring it here, but I asked him to.”
Cedar felt sorry for Able. She wished she could tell him what he wanted to hear.
“We both know none of these sharks are big enough, Able. It was something big.” Guilt rose unbidden. “It was as if he was inhaled.”
She looked at him, surprised.
“It’s just funny.”
“The one time I want someone to lie to me and they won’t do it.”
That night she and Justin fought, Jonathan refereeing from his perch on the drying rack beside the sink.
“They killed innocent animals because of that asshole,” Justin said.
“Don’t use that language and don’t talk like that about someone you don’t even know. Or someone you do know for that matter.”
His hard face made him look older. It unsettled her a little.
“We’re all flawed,” he said.
He was throwing her words back in her face.
“We are. You were stupid to pick up the wrench. Don’t ever do something like that again.”
“I could have held my own.”
Her son had grown up on an innocent island. He had yet to meet men like Ted Marple.
“No. He would have hurt you, Justin. Badly.”
She saw that the words stung, but not as badly as a wrench to the skull. Very soon her son would be out in the world. She only had a few months left to make lessons stick. All men wanted to be the protector, but the world was filled with dangerous men without conscience or morals and, fair or no, dangerous men often won. They were willing, even eager, to go a step farther. She knew these men.
She knew it would make him angrier, but her time was running out.
“You have to be careful, Justin. Just reacting will get you hurt. You have to think.”
He was shaking almost as much as he had on the dock, only now he held a half-washed plate in his hand. It would have been funny if her heart wasn’t breaking.
“I don’t think he was an asshole. I know he was an asshole. I know you hated him.”
He flung this at her too.
It made her sick to fight like this, but it didn’t weaken her resolve.
“You don’t know everything,” she said.
She couldn’t bring herself to tell Justin what she had learned in Able’s office. There was enough death in the story Justin knew.
They stood facing each other, both of them shaking.
Jonathan chirped, as if things were slowing down too much for his taste.
“You stay out of it,” she said.
Justin wasn’t buying distraction.
“He took a nautilus. He threw it away like a piece of trash. Were you there?”
It was an argument she couldn’t win, because, on most fronts, he was right. It was like fighting with his father. The thought of those arguments made her turn away. She scooped two wet forks from the drying rack and washed them again.
She felt Justin’s eyes on her.
“Sometimes I hate who you are,” he said.
“Hate is precisely the problem,” she said, blinking at the forks.
He slammed his cabin door so hard the glasses rattled in the cabinets.
Jonathan stared at her and shook his wings.
“Big surprise,” she said. “You always take his side.” She wrung out the dish cloth, draping it over the spigot. “But I’ll still let you in on a secret. He was an asshole. I wanted to take the wrench and smash his smug face.”
It didn’t feel good at all.
Jonathan made small scratching noises with his feet, spread his wings, and disappeared up the steps. Maybe he wanted to spare her further embarrassment.
The next night someone cut down the sharks.
Author / Speaker