That summer Ian’s mama was dying of cancer. Long after, he would remember the thunderstorms—how they blew in quick and let down hard, how the clouds came and ate the sky, how even after they were gone he could still feel their presence hanging somewhere above him. Heavy, damp breezes licked Ian’s forearms and calves as he rode his bike, and the cicadas’ noise vibrated through him like electricity.
When Ian arrived at the fishing spot, he was out of breath and Harbin’s bike lay in the tall grasses by the side of the road. Harbin was already down by the water, line cast, his polo shirt vaguely damp and dark down the middle of his back. Ian’s shoes felt too big as he tipped his fishing pole over his shoulder. Walking down to greet Harbin, he feared he might trip.
“Hey,” Ian said as he took a position at Harbin’s side, then cast his line. “Any bites?”
“Nah,” Harbin said, squinting, then rubbed his jawline with the heel of his hand, a new gesture. “Doesn’t it feel weird?” Harbin asked as he looked at the sky. “Storm or something.”
It did feel weird, Ian thought, as if currents of air, nearly thick as water, were flowing up and down, from ocean to sky, all around him. He wanted something—a cold glass of water, to take off running as fast as he could and not stop, to box with Harbin and punch him hard in the gut.
Instead, Ian stared at Harbin’s profile, examining in particular the perfect line of his nose. He watched as a bead of sweat formed in the neatly-trimmed hair of Harbin’s sideburn, glistened for a moment near his temple, then trickled overtop his cheekbone and down the tan skin of his cheek. The track of sweat left a faint trail.
Harbin turned and squinted at Ian. “What?” he asked.
“You have a . . . ” Ian said as he raised his hand to Harbin’s face, as if to brush away a bug. Instead Ian touched the drop of sweat on Harbin’s cheek, then traced the pale trail it had left, back up Harbin’s face, close to his ear. When he reached Harbin’s sideburn, Harbin jerked his head away. Ian read in Harbin’s expression all sorts of things—questions, accusations. Ian turned to face the water and stumbled as he stepped away from Harbin. His face was hot, and it seemed as though the earth was breathing beneath his feet.
“Don’t do that,” Harbin said, not mean, but plain and quiet. He began reeling in his line, even though Ian could tell there was nothing on it.
“Sorry,” Ian responded, looking over the ocean. The wind from off the water blew the hotness from his cheeks.
“Just don’t do that,” Harbin repeated as he stood up, his rod in one hand and tackle box in the other. Ian listened as Harbin departed, his flip-flops slapping against his heels and the tall grasses shushing as he waded through.
Later that afternoon Harbin only punched his chin at Ian when they passed on their bikes, Ian headed home with his pole balanced across the handlebars, Harbin in his baseball uniform on the way to a game. Ian blurted a good-natured “Hey! You wanna . . . ” but stopped short as Harbin shook his head slowly, staring him straight in the eyes. Ian braked and stood in the middle of the road straddling his bike as he watched Harbin pedal into the distance, knowing that something had just ended, or maybe just begun.
Ian’s mama was ill, but she wasn’t dead; that’s how she always put it. Her flair for entertaining was well-known up and down the coast from Charleston all the way to Atlanta. The Astaire parties were extravagant and deluxe with twelve-piece bands, passed hors d’oeuvres, and an always open, always overstocked bar. And what better time to throw a truly marvelous party, one to enliven the spirits and quell lurking doubts about the existence of God, than when his mama was ill? It was one of her very few thrills left in life. It was one of the very few things that would inspire her to rise from bed, bathe and dress, put on her face, don a designer silk turban, and enter into the land of the living.
And so over the weekend the party had been had. Father shook hands and slapped backs. Mama was ghostly and fabulous and got drunk on honey wine. The day after, Ian searched in the refrigerator for bait and found a porcelain bowl of shrimp left over from the party. He and Harbin had experimented with all sorts of things as bait—bologna and worms, raw chicken and cooked steak—but Ian hadn’t yet tried shrimp, which seemed such an obvious choice.
Ian rode his bike to the edge of the sand beach where he dropped it to the ground. He gathered his bag of shrimp and walked to where the fresh waters of the small river flowed into the vast wildness of ocean. Ian cast his lure far out into the shallow estuary, and felt the loneliness of the day as he stood at the edge of the water. The last time Ian had been fishing was with Harbin, and that was two weeks ago. They hadn’t spoken since Ian’s abbreviated question as they passed each other on their bikes.
Ian was thinking of Harbin—how his hair was wheat-colored and bone-straight, even at the ends—when he felt a strong tug on his line. He pulled against the thing and imagined what was on the other end, maybe a big sea bass or a wayward sturgeon. But as he pulled and played the line, walking up and back along the water, he began to wonder. This thing was strong. It kicked and dove like nothing he’d ever landed.
His forearms began to fatigue, the muscles growing hot as he strained. His neck was tight, and he could feel the later afternoon sun turning it red. Just when he thought he’d let it go, just give up, it paused, and he pulled, and it slid through the water to him. He reeled in what seemed a mile of line, more than he’d ever played out, faster and faster.
At Ian’s eighth birthday party, his mama had hired a magician who wore a red bowtie and tuxedo with tails, and who, for the grand finale, pulled a shivering white rabbit from his top hat. As Ian pulled the animal on the other end of his line from the water, he remembered that moment at the party, the precise way he had felt—amazed, scared, like someone had reached inside of him and turned him inside out. Long, gray, and sleek, the thing on his line rose from the waves and seemed to float on the horizon, a zeppelin paused in mid-plummet, sliding from the sky.
It wasn’t a fish, but a shark, silver and black, nearly as long as his arm. Ian breathed through his mouth as he laid it in the flattened grass beside him.
The beauty of the thing made him forget his fear, and he reached to touch it without a thought, running his finger down its silvery olive back and caressing its white underbelly. He touched each of the faint whites spots on its side and followed the delicate edgings of black on its fins with the tip of his finger. He looked in its big, watery eyes. The shark’s body felt like a fist as he held it, strong and hard and solid, full of fight. He took off his t-shirt and dipped it in a tide pool, then wrapped the shark in it. He wanted to show it to Harbin, but he’d take it to his mama instead. This was something he wanted her to see.
“Oh,” Ian’s mama said. She took the shark in her cool, white hands and then held it to her chest, as if it were an infant. A trail of dark water drops tracked Harbin’s progress across the peach carpet of her bedroom, up to the side of her bed, where he stood, shirtless. “It’s beautiful,” she said. She was crying, and Ian didn’t know why. She sat in her bed, an off-white silk comforter wrapped around the bottom half of her body, a turquoise scarf on her head. “It’s so beautiful,” she repeated. “But now it’s gonna die, baby. See?” She lifted it to Ian. Saltwater soaked the front of her white satin nightgown rendering it translucent. His mama’s coral nipple bloomed through a spot of wet gown. Her moist lips parted in a graceless way. Her body—it was altogether repulsive to Ian right then, the intimate exposures, the vulnerability. And he hated the dying shark with its desperate eyes and dull twitching. It was wrong. Everything was wrong.
He grabbed the shark from his mama’s hands and rushed out of the room, down the stairs, out into the afternoon light. He ran along the road, toward the marsh by the Astaire house. There he sank to his knees on the dank ground and unwrapped the shark, which he then eased into the clear water among the cattails and weeds and nudged its heavy body in encouragement. It kicked its tail once, propelling itself a bit further into the marsh before it became motionless and skidded under the surface. The shark floated just beyond Ian’s reach, and became entangled in the green water plants. Ian scrounged for a long stick, and tried to free the shark but was distracted when he heard the voices of approaching boys.
Harbin was in the lead dressed in his red and white baseball uniform. He wore tall, red socks and white pants with stirrups. Five other boys, also dressed in uniforms, followed him. Harbin’s shirt was un-tucked and his pants dirty at the knees. Ian tried to push the motionless shark deeper into the stand of weeds as the boys approached. He stood as they neared and kept the stick with which he had been prodding the shark in his hand. Harbin approached Ian with a smirk on his face. He stopped very close to him. The other boys crowded around.
“What ya messin’ with?” Harbin asked, kicking the bottom of his bat so that it knocked Ian’s shin.
“Nothing,” Ian said, his chin tucked close and wet shirt dripping in his hand, very aware of his pale, naked chest.
“Yeah, what’s going on?” the first baseman asked, swatting at Ian’s crotch with his sweaty glove.
“I said nothing,” Ian choked, shoving past the elbows that jutted into his ribs, tripping on cleats that they threw in his path. He had this taste in his mouth, like a battery on his tongue. He swallowed down the regret and disaster of it all as he ran back home.
As Ian’s mama slept, he watched the boys at the edge of the marsh from her bedroom window. Some poked in the grasses with sticks. Others lobbed rocks into the water. Ian sat perfectly still wishing harder than he had ever wished before that they would not find the shark.
The air turned to mercury, and he breathed it in. It was blood blue and silver and black and sped in slippery rivulets all through him. Looking through it was like swimming through a sea of melted mirrors and distressed glass. In this slick the bit of marsh in which the shark lay. In that slick the monstrous countenance of Harbin, his face contorted into the lines of proportions of a man. Slicks of lawn and road and sky. Everything with a new shape, warped and distended.
Ian watched from the bedroom window as Harbin beat the pale, limp body in the marsh with his baseball bat. He watched as the others joined in with the stones and sticks they held in their hands.
Ian wrapped the mangled shark in a bit of newspaper, and carried it in the crook of one arm as he pedaled his bike toward the cove. He dropped the shark into the cloudy water by his and Harbin’s favorite fishing rock. The shark rocked back and forth, floating on its side, mouth open. The tide pulled it toward the ocean and bent its limp body with the currents. Soon, it was gone altogether.
Ian sat on that rock all evening and then into the night, even until the moon rose, and watched as lightening sparked far out over the water. Lumbering thunderheads formed, ominous, grey brains high above the Atlantic, but Ian wasn’t listening to the thunder. He listened to his bones moan and creak. He listened to his muscles murmur beneath his skin. His hair shifted in the wind, now silver, now almost white in the splash of moonlight. His eyes ever so faintly flared from a faraway blue to a more immediate, more complicated color.
He did not want to go swimming, but he began to unbutton his shirt and kicked off his tennis shoes. The water would be cold, and he hated being cold. Still he stripped naked on the grassy ledge, his white body a ghost of itself in the moonlight.
He stepped onto the wet sand, which chilled the bottoms of his feet. Don’t shiver, he thought. Don’t flinch. Just go. He walked to the water, arms crossed tight against his chest and his hands plunged into his armpits. Before diving, he looked back at the sand in the moonlight where his dark footprints formed a broken line to shore.
Without giving himself time to fear the cold or rile of the water, he dove headlong into the estuary waters, and then further out into the white noise of the surf. As he swam, he calculated with detached practicality his stealthy movement through the coming years, through the fiasco of his mama’s death, through his father’s subsequent misplaced and imminent anger at him, through junior high and high school, through the locker rooms and hallways of his impending adolescence, which he knew would be hard in a way nothing had ever been before. As he pushed his body further out into the black ocean, he knew that he would need to become something slippery, beautiful, dangerous.