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The line fouled. That’s how it happened.
Story Notes: While based upon actual events, this story is a work of fiction that in no way reflects the lives of the real persons involved in WWII. Naturally, certain historical data have been altered to better suit this story. This is purely for entertainment and no disrespect is intended. Written in 2010.
He was chumming squid off the stern of the Tuscany when he heard the click of the reel. He had just enough time to turn around before the line shot out with a whirring scream as whatever was on the end of it began to run at full speed. He scrambled across the wet deck toward the reel mount, ducking under the boom with his boots squeaking on blood and seawater, and grabbed the spinning handle. The rod bowed deeply, arcing toward the water. David Webster clenched his teeth, gripped the reel seat, and pulled hard. His wet palms skidded against the handle, and he began to reel her in.
It was a big one. Not a ray, not a Thresher—maybe a Tiger or a Hammerhead. The thought was thrilling, especially since David had yet to catch anything larger than a nurse shark this week. He turned the spool one slow, strained revolution. And then the fish changed course.
It caught him completely off guard, and as the rod pivoted in the mount and the line swung to the starboard side of the boat, David frantically began to unhook the rod clasps so he could man the line himself. The fish fled toward the bow and the line whipped into an empty chum pail and an oar, sending both overboard. His heart pounding, David finally freed the line just as the fish changed course again and ran in the opposite direction. He quickly wound the spool and picked up several feet of slack by the time the line went taut again.
He grinned, feeling energized and confident. A cool, salty breeze swept through his auburn hair and filled the sails above him with a sound that reminded him of his parachute opening—that same whoosh of sturdy fabric catching the air and saving him from death. He suddenly became aware of those days again—the fear and the friendship, the blood and the brotherhood—and he breathed deeply, grateful to be alive to remember the faces of those whom, despite all differences, he had loved loyally above all others.
Just when he was certain he had the situation under control, everything went horribly, horribly wrong.
The line zipped under the tiller and David, not willing to let his fish gain an inch, raised his leg to push it out of the way. The fish chose that moment to redouble its efforts, and David slipped on the wet deck as he was jerked forward. He slammed into the aft gunwale with one foot on the bulwark and the other against the tiller, which was already turned as far as it could go. David could hear the wood beginning to groan and creak as the fish pulled harder. His entire rod was threaded beneath the tiller and he was under it to his elbows, fighting desperately to keep his hold.
This was the point where he could have decided to let go and return home empty-handed, weary, and bruised in spirit. But he couldn’t do it, not with a fish this impressive at the end of his line. So he pulled, and the fish pulled back, and the tiller gave a frighteningly loud crack as it snapped in half.
Shards of splinters scattered onto the deck. With his equilibrium disrupted, David fell forward onto the pushpit, still gripping the rod in a white-knuckled clasp, every muscle in his body screaming for victory while his bones begged for mercy. He caught one last glimpse of the sky—that lofty, atmospheric shade of blue, with long streaks of creamy-smooth clouds and the yellow-white orb which made all life beneath it possible—before the fish wrenched him over the side of the boat and his head smashed into the rudder. He hit the water with a splash, and the little air remaining in his lungs would be the last he ever breathed.
The rod slid out of his limp hands and disappeared into the infinite blue. He hung weightlessly in the water for a moment, teetering on the edge of unconsciousness, his mind filled with stars and silent explosions. He could barely make out, in his rapidly-darkening vision, a wide ribbon of blood staining the water, and he knew it was his. Somewhere deep in his subconscious there was a running monologue about sharks and blood and death at sea and all the people who would never know what really happened to David Kenyon Webster on this day, September 9, 1951. And as he began to sink, he knew it was over.
Anger, denial, fear, self-pity, and grief spent all of five seconds in his mind, but as he gazed through the trail of blood up at the surface growing farther and farther away, he let it go. He let everything go, including the last breath of air he had instinctively been holding in. He watched the bubbles wiggle up toward the surface, running away from him like rats fleeing a sinking ship.
I’m sorry, he thought as the world dimmed into velvety blackness. I didn’t mean for . . .
He didn’t know how much time had passed after he went unconscious, but when his senses came vaguely back to him, he was alone in a world of silent blue, like a man lost and floating in the emptiness of outer space. It was that same kind of morbid resignation, giving up and waving goodbye as Planet Earth grows small and distant; now there was only one imminent certainty left—the final punctuation at the end of his life’s brief statement.
He felt something very large move past him, gliding silently, churning the water. He knew what it was. It could only be one thing. He wondered briefly if he was already dead, for he didn’t feel the burning desire to breathe, nor did he seem capable of moving; oddly though, he thought he could still hear his heart beating in his water-logged ears. His mind tried to keep its focus, but then his sleepy, heavy eyes beheld a shape emerging from the shady blue void just ahead. Something large. Predatory.
The snout appeared first, then the teeth, rows and rows of serrated white triangles (flesh-tearing, he thought, bone-snapping) sticking out like jagged, pointed gravestones. Then the bullet-shaped head with its black, inanimate eyes. Then the fins—pectoral, dorsal, caudal—all attached to a twenty-foot gray body (my God, it’s a White) that swam lazily around him, investigating. Waiting.
None of this seemed real. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe he wouldn’t feel a thing when this tremendous shark (apex predator, killing machine), this perfect cohesion of form and function, moved in for the kill, and those jaws hyperextended to grab his arm or his leg (meat—I’m only flesh, food) and bite through it with a thick, bloody crunch.
It’s difficult to care when you don’t know if you’re dead or alive. David had stopped caring. It was a shame, he thought dreamily as the White’s circles grew smaller, that he would likely only be maimed and mutilated. By the time the shark figured out that he tasted terrible, it would be too late for rescue. Not that rescue even entertained David’s mind anymore. He was dead, or somewhere near it, and now there was only him, the ocean, and this shark. This beautiful, terrifying, admirable beast. The very thing that had cost him his life.
The White brushed against his side in one slow pass, bumped his thigh in another. David could feel the darkness starting to come back, so he closed his eyes and waited for the bite. But there came only touches; gentle, mysterious, purposeful. He continued to sink, the shark circling him, sliding against him deliberately, like a cat rubbing the leg of its master.
He blacked out. When he came back again, the light of the water had changed. He hadn’t thought sunlight could find its way down to this depth—it was as bright and warm as the shallows. He could move his body again, though his motor control was taking its time in returning, such as when one’s leg falls asleep and then circulation is gradually restored. By the time he could clench his fists, the shark was still there, dragging itself against him in earnest. He reached out and touched it, letting his hand trail the length of its solid, powerful body.
He had to be dead. He was petting a Great White. And it seemed to have no interest in destroying him.
The next time it passed, he dared to touch its teeth. His fingers ghosted across its lower jaw, trailing carefully along the broad sides of those white, sword-sharp teeth. It swam by, unaffected. Harmless.
Trapped in a liquid Limbo a mile under the breaking waves and shining sun and flowing breeze, David Webster smiled. The fear was gone. He felt an invincible delight, a hot joy that filled his chest and made him forget about the world above. He was forgetting a lot of things now. The deeper he sank, the harder it became to remember who he was, who he had been, all of the people he had known. Faces, voices, smells—birthday parties and first days of school and children’s games—Currahees and Normandys and Austrias—there were none of those here. There was only him, the shark, and the greatest mystery of all.
The White grazed by just slightly underneath him, and David gripped its dorsal fin in his hand, allowing the shark to pull him through the water. His smile widened. He had forgotten his name by now, his friends, his family. He had forgotten the War, his past, his future. There was only now, and the great clock in the universe that measures all Time went finally, mercifully silent. How peaceful it was now that that awful ticking had stopped. He hadn’t realized what a burden it had been.
The shark began to dive, taking the soul that was David Webster down with it into the heart of the deep blue sea. He vanished gracefully and silently, and above the waves, life went on without him.
People say the bottom of the ocean is a cold, dark, inhospitable place. But they’ve never really been to the bottom.