Author / Speaker
Justin was asleep when Cedar returned to the Wendell Holmes. Jonathan hung upside down beneath the towel rack, wings folded like a linty leather coat. He fluttered softly when Cedar taped the note to the door. The attack had shaken her son. Sleep was his escape.
This had not always been the case. When Justin was little she would sit in his cabin and watch him sleep, his lips issuing indecipherable mumblings while his body performed small jerks and tremblings beneath the sheets. Sometimes he would suddenly sit up and shout out, fear clear in his voice, and she would leap from her chair and take her son in her arms, holding him until the jerks and mutterings slowed and finally stilled. He never woke. The next morning he would have no recollection of any of it.
She had tried to write off his tossings as the product of a hyperactive imagination, but she had never forgotten the sound of his cries, frightened, but wretchedly hopeless too, an oddly querulous lament. She wondered what a happy-go-lucky child dreamed that broke his heart. Several times she had asked, but he had only looked at her blankly and she had stopped asking. As he entered his teens she stopped watching him sleep; such behavior might be viewed as psych ward-worthy. But now and again she heard him shout, the familiar wretched cry, and she lay in her berth, her own heart hammering, picturing him slowly quieting until he again became the peaceful boy she knew.
She had her own means of compensating. She made the phone call. A small island had its advantages. It wouldn’t take either of them long to get there. Placing her ear against the door of Justin’s cabin she listened to his soft snores. Snatching up her windbreaker, she walked up the hill to Shirley’s Emporium.
Under normal circumstances the name alone brought a smile, so grand for an establishment with four patio tables and a six-stool bar. Shirley’s Emporium had changed ownership three times in the ten years Cedar had lived in Koror, but the name always stayed. Not one of the owners and none of the old-timers could recall the place ever being owned by a Shirley, or even by someone infatuated with a Shirley. Given the number of infatuations men suffer, this alone was surprising.
Cedar favored Shirley’s for her view. From any barstool you looked out across the small wood patio and down to the harbor, the uninterrupted sea beyond. Seated at the bar Cedar could see the Wendell Holmes now, a single red Christmas bulb on her stern and bow. Justin had rigged the bulbs when he was ten, running the wiring along the ceiling below decks, so that Jonathan could find their boat. Each evening, when Justin wasn’t looking, she had smeared a portion of railing with banana.
Cedar sighed. Justin was too old now for tricks.
“It is indeed a sad state of affairs,” said Henry agreeably.
For a moment she was startled that Henry had read her thoughts. Then she remembered why the glum bartender, elbows on the bar, stared out at the night sea with a funeral mien. The bar was empty.
“I was hoping the sad turn of events might draw a few more to the well,” he said to the bowl of peanuts in his hand. “Or perhaps bring in the optimists to spend a little advance reward money.”
After three years as bartender, Henry had recently assumed part ownership of Shirley’s. The weight of responsibility now pressed constantly upon his mind.
“Cheer up, Henry. The All Blacks play the French this Thursday.”
Cedar found rugby brutish, but the rest of the island was mad for it.
A smile rose to Henry’s face.
“Ah yes,” he said, popping a peanut into his mouth. “A grand butting of the heads while the butts wander in a circle.” Henry had never grasped the intricacies of the game either. His face went dour again. “Perhaps that will take our minds off this terrible occurrence.”
Henry believed he possessed a poet’s soul, absorbing the world’s sadness as his own. Coming up off his elbows, he sighed again.
“Another?” he asked.
The Red Rooster beer in her hand was nearly full.
“Let me drop it below the neck first.”
“I have bought into a bar inhabited by ghosts and teetotalers,” bemoaned Henry, moving off to polish glasses.
Marty was right on time. On an island where time mattered to few, Marty Haruo was never early and never late, arriving punctually with nary one curly hair out of place. The island’s only home grown pilot, Marty had built his plane, a twin-engine Piper Aztec, from the wheels up. Although he spent most of his time flying over water, he had refused to build a floatplane. On an island of maritime men, Marty never touched the sea. The closest he came was boarding the Wendell Holmes for dinner. He had done this twice, both times crossing himself vigorously as he stepped aboard.
Entering the bar, he bowed slightly.
“Thank you, Miss Cedar, for saving me a seat.”
Cedar had ordered his scotch malt. It was an expensive drink, but Marty never drank more than one.
“I took the liberty of ordering.”
“As you always do.” Marty settled on his stool. “It would go easier on your pocketbook if you weren’t always early.”
Henry wandered over to give Marty a bowl of peanuts and a mournful nod.
“A fine evening to you too, Henry,” said Marty, lifting the scotch and smiling. The man had the whitest teeth Cedar had ever seen. “To tailwinds and following seas.”
Marty sipped delicately and put the Scotch down. Half his smile disappeared.
“How are you holding up?”
Henry had sidled off, but not far off. He leaned on the bar, sipping a soda water and pretending to watch TV.
“Worse than I expected,” Cedar said. “But problems are relative. I hope your sister’s morning sickness has eased.”
Henry made a choking noise. Marty’s sister was Henry’s current amour.
Cedar raised her eyebrows.
“What’s the matter with him?” she said to Marty.
“Paternity and a lemon wedged in his throat,” said Marty. “Just punishment for nosiness. Although I suppose it would be a dull and uncaring world if we didn’t meddle in each other’s business.”
“A pox on the both of you,” he said and disappeared into the kitchen.
“Alone at last,” said Marty.
It was their dark joke. She and Marty were always alone. His wife had died eight years earlier of pancreatic cancer. Five days separated diagnosis and death.
The beer was cold. Marty sat beside her. Cedar felt a little better.
“So,” Marty said. “Talk and drink. Or just drink. Ladies choice.”
Beyond the Wendell Holmes the world was black. The boat suddenly looked very small, a fleck of lint at the edge of a vast carpet.
“Maybe drinking and small talk first,” she said.
“I like your hair.”
It was a bob cut. Something different. She had done it herself, consulting a cover of Redbook.
It was just small talk, but it still pleased her.
“Thank you. It was getting long. And hot.”
“It’s quite becoming. You cut off the light hair. It makes you look more like us.”
“Well aren’t you ethnocentric.”
“I did not say dark hair was superior. Only decidedly more attractive.”
“For some reason I feel partly responsible,” she said.
Marty smiled down at the ice in his glass.
“You have never been much for dawdling. We have moved past small talk?”
“May I be honest?”
“It’s what I count on.”
“You assume guardian angel-ship for whoever sets foot on your boat. This I understand. But after they leave the boat? While magnanimous, it is impractical. Not to mention ridiculous.”
The facts were simple. Ted Marple had died eight hours after leaving her boat. That she was accountable was ridiculous, but that didn’t stop the thought from nagging her.
“It’s more than that,” she said.
“I don’t understand.”
She loved that Marty never pretended. It was the rarest trait in men.
“I don’t either.”
She’d been trying to frame it into a coherent thought since the news of Ted Marple’s death reached her, but she had yet to mold it into anything that made sense.
Marty was the only person she trusted with her incoherent thoughts.
“I can’t explain it, Marty. I just feel responsible.” Even as she said it, it sounded less than sane. She forced herself to finish. “It’s not a vague feeling either. If it wasn’t so crazy, I’d be certain I played a role.”
“Ah.” Marty sipped his scotch. “This I would keep to myself.”
“I have. I’m not that crazy.”
“And Able? What did you learn from our resident Sherlock Holmes?”
Bella the receptionist was Marty’s second cousin.
“Not much more than you probably already know. The man’s name was Ted Marple. He went swimming at dusk. He was attacked by a shark. People on the beach heard him screaming. Several claim they saw him waving for help. Briefly.” She decided to leave out the story of the daughter. It was immeasurably sad, and private, business. “The hotel skiff got there quickly, but they found almost nothing.”
The thought hung between them. Marty didn’t like the sea, but he had spent his life beside it.
“Odd, I’ll admit,” he said. “But we have big sharks and, though an exception to the rule, they don’t salute smartly to Cedar Mahoney.”
Sliding off his stool, he went behind the bar.
The second beer tasted better than the first.
“You’re trying to get me drunk,” Cedar said.
“You would do the same for me.”
“You would never accept.”
“There are always exceptions.”
“Not with you,” she said.
“I should take umbrage.”
“Or be flattered. Do you remember when we met?”
“Of course. The school talent show.”
She gave him a wicked look.
“Mr. Haruo. You would make me suffer yet again?”
“And you played the bagpipes.”
For some unknown reason the elementary school talent show had featured children and their parents. It had been the last thing in the world she had wanted to do. But Justin was seven and there no saying no. Virtually the entire island had been in the audience. “Dawning of the Day” the song was called, and it was still the longest five minutes of her life. Even now she could see the pain on people’s faces.
“And what did you say to me afterward?”
“That you still needed a little practice.”
“And I’ve trusted you ever since. They found almost no remains. What do you think, Marty?”
Marty smoothed his cocktail napkin.
“A big tiger shark could take everything.”
“Maybe. A very big tiger.”
She hadn’t seen a tiger shark bigger than ten feet in nearly six years. Before that she had seen them regularly, veritable monsters casting ungraspable silhouettes just beneath the surface. Once a tiger shark big around as a Volkswagen had swum casually alongside the Wendell Holmes. Now she saw no big sharks. Sharks of every species were being killed for their fins, their jaws, their meat, their purported aphrodisiac offerings and just plain irrational fear. The biggest ones were killed first. Unfortunately, size does matter.
Outside on the patio the insect zapper crackled.
She felt Marty looking at her.
“I see you are still leaving yourself open to the torment of conjecture,” he said.
“There are things that just don’t make sense.”
“Well then, I have a suggestion. I suggest we go flying.”
“Good. How’s Thursday morning?”
Suddenly, getting as far from the water as possible was all she wanted. She laughed.
“Thursday is perfect.”
“Justin is welcome too.”
“He can’t. He’s studying for a history final with Issy.”
“Perhaps their generation won’t repeat the mistakes we’ve made.” Marty sipped the last of his scotch. “Quite amazing,” he said.
“Passable. Your son’s powers of concentration.”
Laughing felt good.
“Let’s see how they do on the test,” Cedar said.
Marty gave great attention to placing his glass on the bar.
“You never just say ‘Yes’.”
He was right. Maybe it was two quick beers on an empty stomach. Maybe it was fear. Maybe it was drifting without a mooring.
“There are always exceptions.” She heard the tinge of desperation in her voice. “Never say never to change.”
A cool breeze blew across the patio, picking up her cocktail napkin and depositing it behind the bar.
“The weather is changing along with you,” said Marty.
“I hated him.”
She wasn’t sure why she said it.
“The unofficial police report says he was a bonafide son of a bitch.”
She was glad Marty didn’t smile.
“I wished him dead.”
Now Marty did smile.
“Cedar, it would be a chaotic world if all our desires came true.”
Walking back down the hill to the harbor her words still rang in her head. It was as if she had sentenced him. As if she were a Mafia don seated before linen, gulping down pasta and red wine, giving only the faintest nod to a cloaked assassin.
They like this very much. Oh yes, they do. Over the next six days, in the Red Sea off the city of Sharm El-sheikh, the Red Sea is indeed red. The sharks, they dedicate themselves to the task, mauling five victims. They unnerve me slightly with their uncontrolled zest. They remind me of what I once was. Or perhaps still am. For neither your species nor mine ever changes completely. We retain our primordial underpinnings
Your scientists proclaim the Sharm El-sheikh attacks an unprecedented mystery. Before this there were only six attacks in the Red Sea over the past ten years. Your theories are amusing. Climate change, a falling off in local fish populations, ships dumping sheep carcasses into the sea, a lone rogue shark who has acquired a taste for human flesh, but no, there has never been proof of a shark acquiring a taste for human flesh before. Yes, opines one shark expert, but there are no absolutes in science either.
In the tourist town, sales of a T-shirt emblazoned with a shark that reads “How ‘Bout Lunch?” flourish. I appreciate dark humor as much as you.
My favorite, though, is the scientist who cautions against overanalyzing because sharks are just big predators with small brains.
Might this not be the pot calling the kettle black?
Sharks are not big predators with small brains. They simply indulge in no debate and give no quarter. There are times when I wonder if I would better off being more like the sharks. But then I realize you make them gods. And I do not want to be anyone’s god, least of all yours.
I feel a touch of regret when it is done. I try to think of the woman and the boy and the calm that descends to the reef with them.
Two ordinary, extraordinary people, tucked in what you ironically call a backwater, away from the posturing and squawking and self-interest of your politicians and your so-called movers and shakers.
This is our hope. The patient movers of stones. The ones you don’t see.
Back at the boat Cedar couldn’t sleep. She pulled the newspaper from beneath the sea turtle paperweight Justin had made in fourth grade. The New York Times still took four days to reach Koror. She could get breaking news, or for that matter the Times, on the internet, but she liked the newspaper. She loved the crackle of the pages and how it smelled of things past, and frankly she wasn’t all that interested in breaking news anyway. Most of it broke madly and dissipated with equal speed.
Normally she made coffee, with a touch of cayenne to ward off colds, grabbed a chocolate chip cookie, and nursed paper, coffee and cookie on the loveseat in the galley. Tonight she just took the cookie. She was having a hard enough time sleeping already.
As always, the pages were filled with partisan politics in Washington, and death, riot and mayhem in countries most readers couldn’t locate on a map. Far from being jaded, she found the news fascinating. Humanity lurked in the seams of every story and mankind was, without fail, spellbinding and unpredictable. The daily paper trumped anything fiction could imagine.
She turned the pages.
She put the cookie down mid-bite.
She read the headline twice. “Sea Beasts Quietly Attack”. Slowly, she read the story. A 375-pound mako shark that plopped into the boat of a stunned fisherman; a woman struck square in the chest by an eight-foot, 300-pound eagle ray, flattening her to the deck; a Pacific blue marlin charging a boat off Hawaii, slamming into the vessel’s side with enough force to knock a fisherman to his knees. “I’ve fished for marlin my whole life,” said the vessel’s captain. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Several weeks earlier she had run into Santy’s nephew, Steinman, at the fuel dock. Steinman was fourteen, known across the island for exaggerating everything, even the limp caused by his club foot. His mother had named him Steinman because she thought it was dignified. When he was little, his mother had told him that the gods only gave club feet to those with special courage. Now that he was older, it was Steinman’s belief that an exaggerated limp provided him more opportunity with visiting tourist girls. Provided the proper pheromones, Steinman swayed side to side like a windshield wiper.
Steinman was a born storyteller, known for running away with the thinnest thread of truth, but Cedar had believed what he told her that day at the fuel dock.
“I’m divin’ out at Lighthouse Reef and I see this big turtle comin’, and he’s gettin’ bigger and bigger. I’m pointin’, pointin’, pointin’, and suddenly I’m thinking, ‘He’s not stoppin’; he’s lookin’ to take me out’.” The boy had wind-milled his arms slowly, dropping his torso back to perform a nifty limbo. “Maaaaaan, I had to make one of those Matrix moves. This huge loggerhead turtle, his head was bigger than mine, he passes right over the tip of my nose. Yes, man. Everyone wanted to know how I slipped that turtle. Smooth. Like Keanu Reeves.”
Cedar scanned the article again, just to be sure.
The incidents, Steinman’s included, had all taken place in the past three months.
Sea Beasts Quietly Attack. I like that. Understated. A rarity in today’s world of sensationalism.
I am curious how the headline writers will handle the events to come.