Sharkskin

Story no. 8.


day7

Once there was a woman trapped on a dock.

It was narrow structure built of slats of woods, unstable, almost flooding as it tipped from side to side. An old rope anchored it to a few metal posts rising from the ocean. They were stable enough to keep the dock from floating away entirely, but they could not hold her weight – she had tried to climb up on one during the long vigil of the night, and they swayed and bent dangerously. The shore – well, she couldn’t see it. Shadows twined through the yellow-brown water underneath her. They had been following her boat all this time (her boat, which now sat somewhere deep below her, obscured in the mud, with all her possessions in it.) One had risen to the surface a few hours ago, in case she had forgotten them: a pack of long, lithe sharks, some gray, some white, some brown-striped and spotted.

The other boat had been a shallow dugout, and there hadn’t been any room for her. Even if they had thrown all of their supplies off – dangerous, as it would have attracted attention from below – they couldn’t have made up for her weight. They had dipped their heads to her but had not apologized as they paddled away, leaving her on the dock.

When they had pulled their boats up to the resting spot, it had been, in fact, two floating platforms next to one another. She had tied up her boat to the one that was now at the bottom of the ocean. Thankfully (maybe?) she had been standing on the other when one of the sharks leaped from the water and slammed down into the wood, splintering it and causing it to sink almost immediately, taking her boat with it. This had been late in the afternoon, before the sun touched the water. Those in the other boat had at least shared a meal with her – crackers and cheese and tinned pears – before sliding away into the water as the sun set. The sharks were more active at night.

The night had been very long. She had dozed leaning against the metal posts, but she did not dare lie down in case she should roll off. The waves kept splashing her, and she was very cold. The other boat had left her a tin of peaches, but she had eaten it sometime during the night, then chucked the can as far from the dock as she could manage.

The sun had risen some hours ago, but it was only a bright spot behind the clouds.

Sleep may have sneakily wrapped its arms around her brain again. When she shook her head and lifted bleary eyes to the horizon, the bright spot was much higher overhead, and there was a gentleman in a three-piece suit standing at the other end of the dock.

She could not say whether she was more surprised by his appearance or that she immediately knew that he was shark. A well-dressed one, to be sure, in narrow, subtle pinstripes and a human skin with a long nose and slanting dark eyes and sleek hair, but indubitably a shark.

They regarded each other across the stretch of wood for a long time. His presence on the dock seemed to stabilize it somewhat and keep it from rocking so severely.

“Good day, madam,” the shark said, and the woman was surprised again at his staticky baritone.

“Good day, sir,” she said, or tried to, but her dry throat betrayed her and she was overwhelmed by coughing.

“I’ve actually come about that – at least – partially,” the shark said. He bent, and lifted something from the water. No, not something: her pack, which had sunk with the boat. And which, she remembered greedily, had a bottle of water in the bottom.

The bag was surrendered to her with little resistance; she dug through the soggy clothes and disintegrating papers in the top until her fingers touched the cool ringing glass of the bottle. It slid free from the morass of ruined fibers easily, and she unscrewed the top and started to drink.

When her thirst no longer felt like something that would climb up out of her throat and scratch her eyes out she lowered the bottle and looked at the shark. “What do you want, exactly? I hope I don’t seem rude,” she hurried on. “It’s just – well – it seems a bit out of the ordinary that you’d come up to talk with me instead of – um – waiting below. Thank you for my pack,” she added hastily. “It’s very kind of you.”

“It is rather unusual,” he agreed gravely. “I wanted – hmm. Do you see this here?” He knelt in his suit (it did not get wet even when the waves splashed up on his knees) and snatched at a dark shadow hovering just alongside the dock. To the woman’s surprise it did not snap at him, but rather came away from the water in a long fluid motion, like a roll of cloth or an oil slick made cohesive.

“What is that?”

“My skin,” he said, and she saw that the shadowy oil slick was hollow like a mannequin. There was a suggestion of teeth at one end and angular fins at the other, but overall it was a bit like a sleeping bag or a knapsack – an uncertainty of a shape gathered around a dark interior.

She blinked. “Do you often come out of the water like this?”

“Not often,” he allowed. “Being a human is not so pleasant as being a shark.” He hesitated. The woman thought it very odd to see such a powerful creature uncertain of himself.

“What did you come up here to say to me?” she said, feeling oddly sympathetic to the wrinkle between the shark’s brows as he searched for words. Probably he just wanted to tell her that she might as well give up, but she was willing to listen, if only because now she wouldn’t die thirsty.

“The thing is, in extraordinary circumstances, more than one person can fit in a sharkskin,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you are stuck here, for the moment,” he said. “And as you stand currently, I don’t think you can manage to leave without some difficulty.”

“That is a very polite understatement, sir. Are you proposing that I get into your skin – with you?”

He nodded. “Indeed, that was my proposition.”

“And where will I leave you and your skin, sir?”

“Wherever you like. There is a coast some thirty miles from here which would perhaps suit your purposes.”

The woman stood very straight on the dock and looked the shark in his dark eyes and thought. It seemed very probable that when she walked toward him he would push her off and let those below rip her to pieces, or perhaps he would envelop her in his arms and consume her himself. His eyes did not have whites or even discernible pupils, but were simply shiny bits of darkness. She did not know how to read good intentions or honesty in shiny bits of darkness.

But if he had given her water, perhaps he meant to be merciful; and surely a sudden rupture of the arteries at her throat was a less painful way to cease being than dehydration by an unkind sun.

Slowly her shoeless feet paced over the wood between them. The shark was very large; she did not even come up to his shoulder. The shadows inside the skin he held in his hand remained impenetrable, no matter how intently she peered into them.

“How does one get into it?” she asked.

“Head-first, I’m afraid,” he said, grabbing her ankle and tipping her into the shadowy interior.

***

The woman had never experienced anything like being a shark. She could see in the murky water, not with her eyes but her nose and the thin line of electric sensors along the fronts of her fins. Her whole body felt like a single, powerful muscle, capable of slicing down into the deep or breaking explosively above the waves.

The feeling of being two persons sharing a skin was not entirely foreign, she thought wryly. The shark’s thoughts brushed against her own, foreign and surprisingly gentle. She had expected his mind to feel stranger to her than those of the men she had brushed against on land, but his attention to the colors of the light in the water and the songs of the other sharks felt pleasant and normal against her own.

The other sharks seemed to notice that this one bore a passenger; they circled him curiously before darting off. The woman had never felt so invincible in all her life.

Eventually they passed from the evil yellow current and into deeper, clearer, colder water. The bottom, though rocky, blossomed with stands of glossy seaweed. They nosed around a spray of shiny leaves, dislodging an air pod from between two stems and following it to the surface. The shark politely nudged her attention toward the wavering shapes of birds circling overhead. To the sharks’ eyes they seemed to leave trails of heat in the air. They watched as long as they could before they had to swim on to keep water moving past their gills.

When the sun began to set above the water seemed almost to lighten; the woman could feel heat, movement, blood, all around her. There was a language written in the water that she could almost but not quite understand.

When the taste of fish filled the shark’s mouth, she was surprised. They cruised through a cluster of panicking silver-finned creatures, snapping lazily from left to right, picking up some bloody pieces and letting others fall to the ocean floor. The woman felt the hunger plaguing the human body inside the sharkskin ease and was contented.

Sometime during the night her consciousness drifted away and the flurry of sounds and smells faded.

***

When her eyes cleared in the light of the next the world seemed much larger. Panic seized all her limbs: there was a bigger shark swimming next to her. How enormous did it have to be that it dwarfed the monstrous shape she had inhabited all of the day before?

And the shark’s warm presence against her mind was gone. Had he left her out in the middle of the water?

In anxiety she flipped furiously in the current, and caught a glimpse of an odd, spotted tail. Was she being followed? She flipped again: the tail returned. What was that?

A deep, staticky shark-song echoed around her, and to her shock she recognized the voice as the same one that had spoken to her on the dock the day before.

You slipped from my skin in the night, he said, and he sounded very puzzled. But you seem to have found a skin of your own . . . ?

The woman looped herself over again. The tail, she realized, was her tail, a spotty long-finned thing, quite unlike the heavy gray angles of her former host. She felt unexpectedly lighter and swam in a tight circle around his back.

May I still come with you? she sang.

He acquiesced, and they continued across the deep water.

A high ragged stone shelf rose from the sea floor before sloping up to the coast. The woman felt a brief surge of fear as she beached her light shark body and found herself suddenly unable to breathe through her flopping gills, but then the larger shark had unfolded from inside his skin and was calmly shaking her out of hers.

She stood looking at the pine trees at the top of the cliffs they now stood beneath. A stair wound its way up the rock face. The smells of horses, cooking, chopped wood, and sheep whispered past her nose.

She turned to look at the shark. “Thank you, sir.”

He bowed. “It was my pleasure.”

They stood facing each other for a long time, while the sun sank behind the clouds.

Finally the woman stood on her toes and pressed a kiss onto the shark’s rough, cold cheek, an attention which he received with equanimity, before folding her spotted sharkskin over her arm and starting up the stairs that climbed the cliff.

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