The first time I saw a shark was on a whale watching trip in Bar Harbor. The boat was dingy and didn’t fit a lot of people on it, but we were smaller and could squeeze into our parents’ thighs if we wanted to. The captain guided us through the top of the boat on a loudspeaker. There were many things I didn’t know much about then, but that I do now. The boat found a shark, or the shark found us. It circled the corners of the boat, like tracing fingers on backs, but lightly loving a tin side instead. People grouped up, shut their mouths, and brought out their cameras for a blurry, unrecognizable, picture of a fin. Parents held their children’s chests safe to their bodies like the shark was going to jump on the boat, kill us, all our babies, and maybe, just maybe, we weren’t going to live again. “36 feet long…” the captain said. They shook and held their children closer. I detached, rummaged through cameras and mothers with fleece jackets, and leaned my big head over other little shoulders besides my own. I’m a kid. I’m such a kid. But I am enchanted by something so big and slow. Enchanted on how people could be afraid of something so quiet. How could you be scared of something that barely makes rips in the water?
In elementary school we had Library Day. The librarian taught us about things we didn’t know and us boys and girls became better at the world, always leaning our heads back like there were flies on the ceiling. She would read us a different book every time, sitting upon her rocking chair as we flooded our limbs all over the alphabet carpet. She wore sweaters and glasses and sand pants tight on her calves. She was cold. She had probably never watched herself undress in the mirror—something I think now.
The last ten minutes were our time to roam and check out our own books, if we wanted to. She distinctly talked about fiction and nonfiction. She’d ask us all which one meant what. I didn’t know. But I would go and find oceans.
I’d find sharks. There were a couple different ones—all picture books—all of them going through the list of species and small facts that I could hold with me to impress someone that was older and much more wiser than I was. I sat in the bean bag chair in the nook, a place that would be sexually charged if we sat there now.
I read my shark books. I read about tiger, basking, lemon, hammerhead, sand, angel, great whites, and blue sharks. I would hold the book from an angle for the great whites, unwilling to familiarize myself with teeth so big. I got to see what a basking shark looks like under dingy boats. They leave their mouths open as they swim through the water, filtering in krill and small fish. They are different looking in the water than I thought they would be—on a boat. They are absolutely terrifying underwater. I read about sharks and the ones who were the gentle giants. Basking sharks were one of them, even if they didn’t look it. Gentle giants.
As I grew up, I watched movies on sharks. Saw that they were never really perceived to be nice, and the only one they would care to show would be the great white. I did research papers, projects, and science presentations on finning and these giants. I learned that there were sparingly a number of shark attacks, and every time there was, people wanted to wipe out the whole species. My mom would tell me about these attacks, and I’d tell her that humans kill a lot of people, too. Doesn’t mean we’re all bad. It was the smartest thing I would ever say.
It’s only a few times a year when the sharks come up in conversation. When they do, I spit out all of my facts and all of my reflection. I get so angry that other people know about them, so I stand there like pop rocks, jumpy and tense in my mouth. Mom gags and squeezes her eyes shut like she had drank bad milk. She asks me why sharks, out of all creatures.
Writing is the same thing as them. The ars poetica, the Mona Lisa effect. They are foolish things to love, something someone has probably said. There are pieces that I have been terrified to write—ones about my brain, trying to make sense of a seizure to others when I don’t myself. There are things I’m still terrified of in writing. I want to be terrified. I have come to know what nonfiction is rather than fiction myself, without the help. There is a certain cliff that non-fiction looks over. A certain cliff that sticks as I start writing, and I know where it’s going. I know it must be soon.
There is a dingy boat, with a 36 foot basking shark next to it. I peek over ever so often to remember that there are giants in the world. He circles around my shoulders as I peek past little heads to see him, creating some sort of movement. I’ve been able to shed some parts from him, maybe make him smaller, and now he is only some of those scary things. Fears that I can handle in writing. Fears that make things real, and make them worthy. He’s slow like syrup, and I am just the same.
Mom asks me why I can’t love something nice. I tell her about possibilities. That I figured out that you can be completely terrified of something and infatuated with it at the same time. I tell her about how this is possible. I tell her about the things I know now.
Mom came to the lake with me, and we decided to take a swim in early April. We slowly stepped on those toe cutting rocks, and clenched our hands together for the temperature, for the hurt, for our love of each other and the birth of a new year. Mom looked at me and asked if there were any sharks in this water. I looked at her and realized she was serious; she was concerned. I smiled into my own chest, finding that my mother was trusting me for the first time with these giants I love, these sharks. She knows I know. Mom didn’t gag when she asked me the question. She was waiting, like I did, when I didn’t know fiction and nonfiction. She was waiting on the gentle giants and maybe what it feels like to write.
There are no sharks without salt water. There is 2014. On the news it said that researchers had claimed an incredible discovery in Lake Champlain. They believed they found a 500 pound freshwater bull shark, a monster as they referred to in the report. The man that wears hats with strings on the bottom says that usually there’s no noise when he monitors the waters in the morning. But he says this time it was different.
“..Different, different, and so clear…”
Ask me why writing and sharks are near each other. Or why dingy boats matter and how, as a writer, I was so unaware of the difference between nonfiction and fiction. Then I will ask you if you’ve ever been terrified of something, but infatuated with it at the same time.
They are different, and different, and so very clear.