our second nominee, from issue 10.1
Seven Lessons from the Book of Sharks
Before mountains rose from the ocean
so clouds had somewhere to arrive,
before ice carved canyons
and brought the valleys soil,
before seeds taught Color to everything
and Color turned Quiet into birds,
before people and singing
and feathers ornamenting dancers
there were sharks,
indifferent to all of it, celebrating none;
their eyes seeing farther than our firelight,
their teeth needing nothing from our farms,
their lives unimproved by the hides we stretch
into drumbeats . . .
the ocean a rhythm already,
already their home.
Some say sharks are the ocean’s blueprint for tools,
a set of designs for us to imitate.
The great white, for instance, taught us bear traps,
and the thresher’s tail taught us scythes
so our corn wouldn’t fatten the wilderness,
our cows wouldn’t starve.
We’d even have surplus for sour mash
in stills we learned from the whale shark.
And the hammerhead
and the mako’s teeth
taught us nails
and how to drive them home.
Most who believe this are carpenters,
and the handles of their saws are stamped with fins.
They could sand a table or a cabinet with sharkskin,
but they won’t;
they know they’re apprentices,
and what it takes to turn function into beauty,
and respect sharks more than anyone:
the ocean’s best design.
In the story once told to warn children, sharks were a curse
called shoreward as a punishment by a witch.
As a girl, she’d been beautiful,
almost as beautiful as vain,
swimming under the moonlight just to be seen,
her clothes flung off along the beach—half taunt,
half invitation. And some looked,
and so they coveted. Others looked
and felt their envy turn to hate,
so loud inside them
they couldn’t hear her scream,
thought that sound was their own pitched fury. . . .
Though she lived, the girl was disfigured:
ripped off at the elbow, a leg
And the boys just stared, or couldn’t look at her,
and the girls made sure she heard them whisper,
’til everyone’s bitterness drove the rain away.
The town dried up. The people scattered. . . .
Now the witch hobbles up and down the coastline,
watching unseen around corners.
If your image means more to you than anything—
in mirrors, reflected in windows—
then she enters your ear while you’re sleeping,
suggests you take a swim.
A blacktip, of course, has black-tipped fins,
but to know that we have to be under the water.
Riding a board across the surface,
we only know the bite.
And hate is no different.
It tells us the ocean’s just blue.
Not seaweed green. Not shipwreck.
Not angelfish, anemone, or foam.
And not dark,
the absolute black of space. And no,
not depending on the depth and the weather,
just blue. Hate finds a wave
and starts skimming,
and it feels so buoyant
we can’t tell anything is wrong.
We swear along righteously at tiger sharks
though a blacktip bit us,
though it wasn’t a tiger at all.
The best explanation I know was offered by a boy.
His father had died, and his mother couldn’t hear.
He said, “Anger and the ocean have a lot in common,
and it doesn’t have a thing to do with sharks.
It’s the size of the water.”
I was just a boy then too,
up to my knees in the tide pools.
We were pulling the starfish off mussel beds,
throwing them far,
creating whole solar systems.
He said, “You think your boat will protect you,
that you’re crossing it,
and somewhere out there
there’s bound to be an island, but . . . ”.
He had his dad’s knife for prying blue shells from the rocks,
and we’d almost filled our buckets.
Seagulls were full of their screaming song
and balancing on the wind.
“All you’ve got to drink,” he said,
“is what you brought along with you.
Then an empty jug. Then another.
And just the ocean left to fill you up.”
Wear charms. Try remedies.
Still, someone dies of a fever. Some boats sink.
I found a shark on the beach:
and not bitten,
not corkscrewed open by a boat’s propeller,
no hook embedded in its jaw or its gullet,
just dead from ordinary aging.
The sky was unchanged—
a pale light behind the overcast—
no difference in the sound of the ocean.
My friend helped me tow it out
a mile beyond the harbor.
We let the body drift under…rowed back in.
There is no body called Carcharias we look for in the sky.
They are not our heaven.
We name Triton and Pisces,
call a sea of light the Crab Nebula,
but keep sharks away from our telescopes,
out of the stars.
Nobody has to.
We could draw new lines across the night,
teach a son or a daughter, “Those three there together,
that’s the fin.
Now follow my arm to that bright one…
the eight in a cluster below it, they’re the teeth.”
It wouldn’t take astronomy, wouldn’t take a map,
just a little more imagination.
We could add their name to the others
before we went to sleep.