Go down, abranchiate, to the mud and the mire, where your ancestors dwelt; in the suck slithering breaths that rasped through the fluted throats of your ichthyoid grandfathers and grandmothers, crowded broods of egg hatched thieves who robbed the churning, blundering depths of the sunless sludge at the bottom of the sea; down, go down, to where the heavy water sits, bloody blue and thick, like a river eroding the bottom of the world; go down to the ice cold canyons where your cousins sleep in circles, tied up in the jetsam a hundred years old to keep from floating apart in the windless wind down there, where they go down there; go, and sink your fingers in the bottom of the world; and see what you dredge up.
The shark’s skin was smooth from gill to tail. When he dragged his palm towards the massive head, the dermal denticles, minute teeth that formed the aft edges of the gray, oily skin, tore his palm. He pulled the hand back to inspect the blood.
“Just because it’s dead don’t mean it ain’t dangerous,” the old whaler told him. He grinned over the coil of lines in his husky arms.
He shuffled to the bow, his heavy tread arousing a chorus of groans from the salt-swollen shipboards. Rene wiped his bloody hand on his tarred shirt.
The shark was massive: A whole great white, thick from tail to snout, like an overgrown, bloodless pork sausage, over twenty feet long and Jove knew how many hundreds of pounds. The whaler had killed it last night, when the tempest was at its most unforgiving, the waves higher than their masts, the spray tumbling over the ratlines and rails – even with the drainage ports the water roiling about their knees thick with seaweed and sea life, horrendously misplaced crabs and glowing, ornery squid. The shark had come soaring over the bow, open-mouthed, eyes black.
“Pardon, boys!” it had bellowed over the cyclone. It flattened McDonald, killed him outright. “Terribly sorry!” it had screamed, then it rolled to the port side as the ship tipped, the wave carrying the brig higher and higher. It smeared Seamus and the second mate to the taffrails, impaling them on the pins. When the ship bucked and came crashing down on the far side of the monstrous roller the two men went over into the abyss. The shark flipped end over end; each sailor prayed to his God that it would sail beyond the edge of the aft cabin but, instead, it shattered the captain’s rotten wooden leg and swallowed half the helm. “This is dreadfully embarrassing,” the shark could be heard to mumble over the splinters in its tooth-ringed jaws. The ship yawed alee once more and the captain was crushed by the iron ten-pounder. Rene and the whaler had tried to push the gun into the sea when the squall first began but had both been flung to the main deck by their half-mad first mate, and so it fell freely. Yet the captain made a valiant attempt to crawl away from it, half sunk into the pale belly of the shark.
Before the storm had ceased and the few still remaining had their wits once more about them, they circled the shark where it came to rest on the main deck. It bawled; long, low howlings, lisping occasionally with the shredded bits of the wheel still trapped in its gums. The whaler beat it senseless with their last (and broken) harpoon. When that was nothing more than a split switch of wood, they decided to jump on it. A throaty hiccup, and another burbled apology, and Renton’s misplaced boot coincided to separate the man from his lower half, between the jaws of the abashed shark.
They spent the night killing the damn thing, until only Rene and the old whaler were left, and the shark’s sloppy grief was only a fresh, irritating memory. There was no place for remorse in the deep blue sea.
I am a very old wizard. I spend my time in the city, eight hours a day, fashioning wooden pegs into wands, and when I am done with them I box them on the factory floor and ship them to the packaging boys, who wrap them in tissue paper and seal them in plastic blister shells with cardboard backs. The backs of the cardboard can be cut away and saved as stat cards, with all the specifications of the wand tallied so that they can be compared to other wands made by the other wizards on my floor. Some wands are 11 centimeters long, others are almost 40. Some are designed to ward off dragons, others for divining water in arid spaces, or distinguish poison mushrooms from the edible ones. Every season we create a new series of wands. For holidays, we make novelty copies of old ones. Last year for the fourth of July I built a wand that shot red, white and blue sparks. It was colored like a grilled burger, charcoal cross-hatches on sanded cherry wood.
When I come home (and I live in a cave outside the city), I sit down at my kitchen table. I slice a hunk of cheese from the big piece on my mantel. I take what’s left of the bread I baked last week, and the cold meat that’s kept at the back of the cave, and I eat a small supper. After I finish my meal, I push what’s left of the food away and lay out my materials on the table.
I unroll the scrap wood, the flotsam of dead branches I find in the brown and red leaves at the edges of the highway, driftwood from my walks to the beach. I lay out my carving knife, my shaving tools. I leave the magic in a small pile in the center of the table, between the driftwood and the cheese. (I try not to let any of the magic sprinkle the cheese. The last time that happened the cheese developed an insidious habit for belting showtunes at the crack of dawn. I had thought that eating it would be the end of it. But it sang all the way down. And whatever part of it was singing, it didn’t end with its digestion either…)
When I have all my implements, I say the words, usually “Abracadabra,” but sometimes I get fancy. Sometimes I say “Coca-Cola,” and sometimes I say “Perestroika.” These do not alter the spell very much. The air will taste differently, but I say them because they are the kinds of words that sound like they ought to, and that is all that matters. Once warmed up, the magic makes the wand easier to build.
I make wands in the city. I punch the clock to get in, and at lunch, and when I get out. I have few friends, and no hobbies. Except for the magic, and the wand. And the longer I work on it, the less I think there is anything I will do with it. So sometimes I leave pieces unfinished to polish the next evening. When I get stuck, I take a walk outside my cave or I turn gnats into frogs. Only for a little while.
After that I return fresh and sit down to another night of me, and the wand. (And some cheese, if it doesn’t sing.)
For Helen, the life that she would lead did not begin in media res. When she emerged from the egg, on the placid shore of the lake on a windless day, a swarm of crickets struck up a euphoric chorus. That symphony took the place of her birth cry. It played through the sparse wood in a rolling tongue of laughter, an unfurling path fording its way past the bracken and branches scattered over the sweet earth; soil turned up to its fertile face as the chirps cascaded, tumbling one after the other until they crashed against the lakeside, where the infant Helen lay, washing over her in sylvan glory. Ab ovo, she exulted. The first twinklings of her joyous voice were set like jewels in the untamed world, bright sweetnesses, mere bubbles of the songs that were to come, and yet every note that popped in that still afternoon was like light itself, felt upon the skin as a soft howl of vitality, of ruddy hope; faith was spread like the pebbles of dew o’er the silken translucence of spiderwebs in the pale green meadows that bordered Attica.
For Helen, that first breath of life was the grandest, the most succulent, the pause that followed the most suspenseful, the most willing to breathe once again.
For Helen, the world was civilized.
A molten sunbeam lanced the wooden slats in the quiet saloon. It spread over the air, over the spread of cards on the poker table’s worn green felt. The stains were darkest where the felt had been frayed; some of them weren’t stains at all but gray cigar burns. The hot sunlight washed the table in its heat, scouring the players’ uneven whiskers, black nostrils aflare with black hairs, tanned faces bent to their hands, and the quiet air was more restless for it, the uneven, encroaching heat that rolled over the saloon like a nettlesome tumbleweed. All sorts of particles in all sorts of shapes gushed upward in the shafts of liquid light. These motes swirled with the dust, and the smoke.
The man with the cigar reached down to scratch his thigh. But a significant look from his tablemate prompted him to raise his hand again, open, aboveboard. He nodded amiably, reaching to pull the cigar from his mouth.
But he couldn’t bluff anymore.
The look in his opponent’s eyes told him too much. If he was going to walk away with his dignity, if not his money, it would take something more than grit to make it to the end of the hand. Thankfully, he knew he wasn’t smart enough to know what that was. He decided to try a joke.
“Knock knock,” he said softly.