April 4, 2017

CNF/Essay By John Spiegel: "The Life of the Homebodied Tigershark"

John Spiegel is an English teacher in Springfield, Ohio. He wears one pair of shoes and had a flip phone until last year because it just worked, dang it. His poetry and nonfiction can be read or is forthcoming in Birds Piled Loosely, Vine Leaves, Garbanzo, Indiana Voice Journal, and others.

The Life of the Homebodied Tigershark

My wife and I, both teachers, have summers off. During our first summer together, we went on vacation to South Carolina with my side of the family, or at least what side could come - my brother-in-law’s appendix burst 4 days before we were supposed to leave, so he, my sister, and my little nephew, spent that week in the hospital in Indiana - he was recovering, lucky to be alive; my sister was next to him, probably scared and at a loss for what to do; and my nephew, just learning to walk and make barking sounds, probably won’t remember or know what he was missing.

But the rest of us were there on the beach. My father spent most of his time in the house avoiding the heat, or in the ocean at low-tide looking for sand dollars. My mother was outside as much as possible. My siblings slept in most days and stayed out late most nights, walking and swimming. My wife and I would find a happy medium: we would be up early enough to beat the heavy midday heat, go back inside to nap, and head back out for the evening’s wind and cool air, a relief with how the humidity and sun choked us each day. We would spend those nights walking the beach, hand-in-hand, watching those around us. Some nights people were fishing, others playing bocce ball in the sand, plenty of people riding bikes where the sand was sturdy enough to hold them. One fisherman in particular caught a baby shark on his line. The shark couldn’t have been more than a foot and a half long. We glanced, walked past the fisherman, commented about it to each other.
“Hey, it looks like he caught a shark.”
“Yeah, that thing was pretty tiny.”
“It looked cool.”
But as we were walking back, we found the shark washed up on the sand, the fisherman gone, the shark all alone, wanting for oxygen. I speculated that he tried to throw him back, but the shark got washed up again. My wife thought he simply set the shark down and walked away. It seemed dead at first, but gave one energetic thrash before falling silent and still again, as if it had used all its energy in that one violent struggle. Not knowing what else to do, I picked the shark up, and gave a hearty throw, trying to get it far enough into the water so that the waves wouldn’t push him back to the shore.

And for some reason, walking back to the house, I couldn’t get my mind off that shark, as if the waves of my mind kept pushing it to the shore, to the forefront. I think it was the skin. It amazed me, in that brief moment when I picked up the shark, how thin and not fish-like a shark’s skin feels. It wasn’t scaly. More rubbery, leathery. A baby shark’s skin is so thin, his muscles so few, I could feel his bones when I pinched him. His bones, so light and flexible, made of cartilage, felt like they bent with my fingers. The baby shark wriggled less than a fish on a hook. It simply let it happen, let me pick him up, and accepted his fate.

Female skin is thicker than males’, probably to keep it safe - during intercourse, the male shark will bite the female, either to signal their interest, or to keep the two connected.

They give birth to one or two pups at a time. Sharks give birth in one of three ways: they lay eggs, are born live, or the mother keeps the eggs inside of her. This is the most common. When the eggs hatch inside of her, they practice a form of cannibalism, eating the yolk of other eggs and even the unhatched eggs in order to grow before leaving their mother. And when they do leave her, she doesn’t follow them. She doesn’t care for them. She doesn’t raise them. She doesn’t spend hours nurturing and feeding them. She doesn’t teach the pups proper sleeping habits. She doesn’t instruct her children in the ways of her religion or philosophy. She doesn’t spend hours reading her babies the same book over and over. She pays no thought to her children; they know everything they need to survive instinctually, which is a scary thought - scary that instinct is something we as people may not possess. Or if we do, I certainly don’t feel it.

Later that night, I had trouble sleeping. I layed in bed next to my wife, she was on her phone or watching T.V., but all I could wonder was whether or not I threw the shark far enough, whether or not it made it to deeper water, or rinsed back up on the shore. I couldn’t bear the thought of an animal like that dying because of my - my lack of follow through, my insufficient experience in these kinds of situations, my lack of arm strength.
I was restless, got up to walk around, to get a glass of water, to google “shark skin,” to get another glass of water, to drown myself in all of this water. I was completely unsatisfied.

When I held the shark in my hands for a brief moment before throwing it back to the ocean, it felt defeated. Sad. Perhaps it felt like it just wasn’t given a large enough dose of instinct at birth, just lucky to survive the birthing process. Maybe it was a homebody and it missed its mom. It was definitely close to death, being on shore and out of water for so long, out of its element. If I were that shark, I would have felt stagnant, unmoving, after a life of continually swimming and progressing through the ocean.

All this was going through my head, and I wondered who was holding me.

© John Spiegel

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