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Tributaries

Stephanie Pushaw


I grew up semi-wild, drawn to fringes. Microcosms in the soft humid forests of Missouri: a massive downed oak tree, its solid trunk cracked open along the lines of beetle-riddled weak spots, was a little writhing world. Pill bugs, worms, the sleek rapacious semicolons of the beetles themselves, drilling their insistent communiques into the decomposing bark. Soft moss rubbed away easily under my fingers; I stood there with my half-bangs home haircut and rolled-down socks, staring at the tumult behind the strips of bark, and itched uncontrollably, as though the beetles’ restless messages were echoing, a sinister telekinetic Morse code, onto my own skin. Scabbed and stuck with dry mud, scratched by branches and errant fingernails, studded with mosquito bites both fresh and fading: my mom said they liked me because my blood was sweet. 


A move, at ten, to fringes more dynamic and yawning than I’d ever pictured: our new condo, although it sat demure enough with other condos in a generic Southern California sprawl of stucco and red slate roofs, still looked into the void. Perched on the edge of a canyon, its sides ravaged occasionally by wildfires which drove the animals into our asphalt streets. At the bottom of the canyon, when the arbitrary rains swept through our chaparral, was sometimes a stream; the stream led to another fringe, the Malibu Lagoon, its semi-rancid waters cloaked in thick greenery, the white wings of egrets and the flicker of rabbits constant contrasts to the placid, opaque water. Beyond the lagoon, across a thin strip of beach, was my first love, the Pacific; it was here I discovered the tenderness of thin spaces, the frontier exhilaration of transitory areas, where things that don’t belong in either place find a bit of rest. Tidepools brimmed with starfish and crabs, washed over by the waves; fat sea slugs rolled about in slickening sand, and if you touched them, their protest was a flood of ink expelled across the gleam.


Then I kept growing up, but now I grew up beachside, in a surfer’s paradise and a billionaire’s playground, became a junior lifeguard at twelve, a lifeguard at sixteen. There were years I’d enter the Pacific every day, from the bone-biting chill of January first through the long mirage of gloomy, fogbound springs, sultry blue-green burn of summer, shortening days of fall, until the next New Year’s Eve found me diving deep again, a brief exhilaration of the heart, the bygone year streaming around me with the tentacles of iridescent jellyfish, the wet, briny slap of kelp. These waters, I am told by visitors, are cold. Not to me. Nor to the great whites that share our ocean. People don’t seem to know how many sharks they swim with when they swim in the ocean. By and large to a massive degree, these animals are as happy to ignore us as we are to pretend ignorance of them. Videographers fly drones over Surfrider Beach; in the clear dark water, the massive fish swim inexorably below and between the surfers and swimmers, harmless denizens of some lost world. Until they’re not. 


Shark attacks are notoriously difficult to tabulate, for a combination of reasons, mostly having to do with tourism (think the mayor of Amity Island) and the difficulty of identifying what, exactly, has bitten or killed someone, especially in the deep ocean. There have been no official shark fatalities in Malibu. But then, how to explain the young couple who disappeared on an early morning kayaking trip, their boat washing up on the shore the next morning, the bite marks unmistakable on its orange plastic, their bodies never recovered?


Being aware of sharks is not the same thing as being afraid of them. Though the numbers vary as one gets closer to the shallows and the shore, sharks clutter the ocean: estimates place about 1,000 of them in each square kilometer of sea. Never mind that; attacks were so infrequent they made headlines, which was reassuring enough for me to spend millions of adolescent minutes being battered by salt water and coughing up sand. I grew up on the edge of a continent, in a strangely wild world not very far from the capital of disingenuousness, and spent as much time as possible in the ocean. I was comforted by how it didn’t care about me one way or the other. 


I’m not afraid of the water, although I know it can kill me. When you’re raised in California, it’s not without a healthy respect for the Pacific and the training, from a very early age, to deal with its vagaries: the shock of hypothermia, the seductive riptides, the unpredictable currents where, several hundred yards offshore, the shallows drop dramatically off an underwater cliff. It’s not the deep water I’m afraid of, it’s the fins and teeth and scales that populate it. But no, it’s not those, either; I know the stats; how much more likely I will meet my death via distracted driving or accidental fall or cancer. So what is the fear we court, when we enter the ocean? Is it the way the sea-slapped horizon only exists as a vague concept, like tomorrow, like yesterday, like the fuzzy misanthropic pits of black holes that suck in dark matter and smooth out hypothetical astronauts into smears of stringy DNA?


It’s the very foolish and unignorable urge to enter an element that does not want me there, that by its very nature lends its secret oxygenated molecules only to beings with gills or at least a lung capacity surpassing the feeble, capsizing bellows of our human pulmonary system. This is not to say that my particular death-wish involves drowning: in fact I hear that, no matter the attendant romance, both the act itself and the aftermath are rife with unpleasantries. To drown in the Pacific is to suffocate, alone and in the wet cold of an alien world that, indignity of indignities, you were never forced to enter (unless some plank was walked, some ship torpedoed or its hull iceberg-shaved, some helicopter urged by the glossy symmetry of sky and surface into shattering its metal hulk against still waters that reflect the clouds and sun without a telltale hint of ripple for warning). 


To be drowned in the Pacific is to grow blue and bloated, one’s skin pruned and peeled away by currents, to be brined or nicked by the neutral teeth of the water’s authorized inhabitants. It is to unfairly surprise a fisherman in the corner of some quiet beach, who, observing a huddled shape flung around the barnacle-roughened legs of the old wooden pier, nestles his Tecate into the brown sand and walks over to investigate, his body knowing from a faint sinister scent before the truth reaches his brain. Or it is to be made simply a flesh-log, eyes open and staring, lips blue, presented to the carnivore-cluttered waters for consumption. 


I have a picture in my mind of a snorkeler in South Africa, a great white decapitating him soundlessly as the bright ocean sparkles around him; or the young mother bitten in half off the coast of South Australia in front of her family while diving for scallops. I have in mind the dauntless triathlete off the coast of Northern California who plunged his arms through dark fathomless waves, training for the next championship, before a YouTuber captures a blip on the surface: a splitting, gaping unimaginability, then a pooling silence, arterial blood seeping through the surf. I know all of the stories, from the Farallon Islands to Florida, from New Jersey to Hawaii to Australia. I have swum in the ocean in all of these places, too. And I am sometimes able to push the knowledge I have from my mind. But more often, I am not, and my swimming – though the most essential feeling of bodilessness I have ever tasted, the most perfect high I have ever sought – is always tinged with an electric crackle of apprehension. Perhaps this is why I love it, why I roll my eyes and judge the tourists who proclaim their preference for pools.


Recently two videos made the rounds online: in one, an eighteen-year-old kid jumps from the deck of a party cruise docked near the shore in the Bahamas, into the dark water at night. From the deck, his friends’ drunken shouts coruscate in a wave from hilarity to horror. Dark shapes encircle him, barely visible beneath the tight, rippling surface currents. One moment he is there, drifting, the realization of his error barely hitting him;  the next, he is gone. No other videos have surfaced, despite the boat being full of just-graduated teenagers. No further information has been released. And then, in the Red Sea off the coast of Egypt, a video I have not watched and do not intend to: a young Russian man, escaping the draft, being consumed entirely by a bull shark as his father and girlfriend watch helplessly from the shore.


I live now on an island off the Gulf Coast of Texas. From the end of my quiet residential street I can see the cruises docked, hear their sonorous sounds of departure, musical blattings of horns that cut through the stultifying air year-round. Hurricanes hit often; coyotes and rattlesnakes share the dunes with tourists and joggers and dogs and outdoor cats, usually harmoniously, sometimes not. I swim in the ocean as close to daily as I can manage, except when its currents are particularly choked with storm debris or stinging jellyfish. Thanks to our proximity to the Mississippi River, the water here is an ugly brown, save for the one or two days a year it turns a miraculous Hawaiian blue. My friend and I drink terrible over-sugared margaritas from the cabana bar on long spring afternoons. We swim far enough that the annoyed lifeguards are forced to blow their whistles to beckon us back. One afternoon last fall something  smashed into her, under the surface, while we were about neck-deep. Something big enough to leave a bruise, which we examined back on shore, the flesh on her upper thigh blueing in the low sun, reddish patches peeling back as though a cheese grater had been run over her skin: the telltale sign of sharkskin, which is sandpaper-rough and comprised of millions of abrasive scales. The next day a news article showed, in a rare patch of clear water, an aerial photo of a bull shark – one of the species most notorious for attacking humans – swimming in a placid current near the amusement pier. 


Of course we had no evidence for what had hit her. It could have been a redfish, a stingray, even a smaller species swimming with blind ferocity and unusual speed. But the bruise lingered for days before it faded, another four or five afternoons of cheap margaritas poured from plastic into plastic, another four of five evenings of shimmering shell fragments gathering in our swimsuits, sand coating our belongings, tar finding its tenacious way between our toes. 


Schrodinger’s shark, perhaps. 


But we both knew unshakably what it had been, that sudden judder, that massive presence in whose trajectory we had found ourselves: ever so briefly, shark and human had met. Then, implacable and unseen, shark had carried on, while the two humans, one bruised along her upper thigh and the other immensely jealous, breathlessly swam back to shore to examine the damage. Changed. And unchanged. And charged with an inexorable thrill: a brush with ancient danger, that danger now swimming onwards through the shipping channel stocked with cargo ships carrying sofas and televisions and crops, cruises loaded with sunburnt tourists chugging their all-inclusive cocktails, fishing boats bringing home the haul of shrimp and crab for that night’s happy-hour specials at the tacky seafood restaurants dotting the shore. That danger that hadn’t been dangerous after all, that couldn’t care less– and how breathtaking a reminder– about our little human lives. 

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