Diary: Cynthia Zarin, A Fin Passing Far Out (Part I)

The morning before the first attack, a Tuesday in August, I woke up early, as I do in summers. I did the usual things. I shut off the outside lights and turned on the kitchen fan. I made coffee. I took yesterday’s beach towels out of the dryer where I’d put them the night before, because it looked like it would rain during the night and there is nothing worse than wet towels on the line, and I folded them and put them in the basket by the door. Upstairs, children—my own, a school friend, a cousin—were asleep. At the kitchen table I slipped into the vortex of the news, and read for an hour. Our house is mile from the oceanside beach, down a road stitched by lichens and lined with blackberries; in the other direction, a few hundred yards, a farm stand sells tomatoes and zinnias. The route to the beach takes you to a parking lot at the top of a sheer dune cliff; from the edge you can see straight into the water, forty yards down, which can look green as the Mediterranean or gun-metal grey. Most mornings I put on a bathing suit and a big shirt and walk to the beach and go for a swim. The beach is deserted then, except for a few dog walkers. Sometimes there is no one. The water is freezing. On the beach, I take off my bathing suit in the open air and change into the shirt. On the top of the dune path I pick up my shoes where I’ve left them and walk home.

The morning after the first attack, Wednesday morning, after I read the news, I did none of these things. I went back to bed and slept for two more hours, and then got up and made breakfast. After breakfast, I piled the kids in the car and we drove to the beach. At the edge of the parking lot was a police car with its lights flashing. A sign on a traffic cone said “Beach Closed” with a picture of a grinning shark. The town hires local kids to work at the town beaches. At the beach permit kiosk, a girl handed us an informational brochure, through the car window, about how to avoid shark attacks. Do not swim near seals. Do not swim at dawn or dusk. Do not swim in isolation. Do not swim far out. Do not wear flashy jewelry. There was silence in the back of the car. Then someone said, “Who wears flashy jewelry swimming?”

The small parking lot, which is usually packed with cars on a sunny day, was almost empty. At the top of the dune there were two more signs, “Beach Closed to Swimming” and “Swim at Your Own Risk.” No one was in the water. I wanted to swim, so we drove across to the bay side and went to the beach there. It was early enough in the morning that we could fit the car into one of the eight parking spaces, and when we walked down to the water the sand was already hot.

It was mid-tide. The water was cold, but not too cold. Another family came and sat down beside us—friends from the ocean beach, my friend Debbie, and her children, who are also not children, but emergency room physicians. The day before, in the late afternoon, at the ocean beach, they had dropped their books and sunglasses and towels in an instant and ran one hundred yards down the sand to the water. Now, twenty hours later, on the bayside, we managed to take our eyes from their small children, who were knee deep in the water, for a split second. The day before, on our ocean beach, it had been impossible to look away.

From where I was sitting, the day before, near the volleyball net at the foot of the dune, in a welter of towels and umbrellas and beach chairs, the beach convulsed. Everybody began to run. Some ran all the way to the water and others stopped in the sand, not wanting to add to the chaos or unable, struck still, to go forward. Facts flew. It was a man. It was a woman. I saw my friend Sara racing across the beach and my heart stopped. He was far out. She was close in. He was dead. She had lost her leg. The water was azure and green, with barely a wave. Someone was running up the dune, and the ice cream truck, which arrives every day for ten minutes, shot off down the road. There is no phone signal here, the ice cream man was on his way to the place at the bend in the road where the signal starts. Down on the beach, doctors materialized. The swimmer had been pulled from the water by some Australian kids. The swimmer had made it to shore by himself. He was bleeding to death. No, the doctors, in their bathing suits, who had raced across the sand, had stopped the bleeding. He was bitten on his torso. He was bitten on his leg. He had defensive wounds on his arms. He was conscious. He was unconscious.

Within minutes a convoy was set up. One beach towel, or two, or three, were knotted together into a makeshift stretcher, and a group of beachgoers began carrying the man—it was a man—along the long steep path up the dune to the parking lot. Breughel’s “Procession to Calvary” flew into my head; the intent hive of people, intent on one thing. Or “The Fall of Icarus,” a painting in which something that was bound to happen, happens. It was a friend of our friends, visiting for the day. His children were rounded up; their mother would go with him in the ambulance. No, she would go with him in the helicopter, he would be airlifted to Boston, but the helicopter could not land in the parking lot, the ambulance would take him to the baseball field, to the police station, to another parking lot, where the helicopter could land. The ambulance shot away. The National Seashore rangers arrived. The attack had occurred beyond the few hundred yards that constitute the town beach: they should have been called first. No one had thought of whom to call first. The beach was closed. A sign went up: “No Swimming, Recent Shark Attack,” beside the sign that is put up every summer: “Swim at Your Own Risk.” (Within a day, the sign disappeared. A second one also vanished. For a few days, the town resorted to a handwritten sign, less interesting to poachers.) For the next hour, we sat on the beach, where I have sat since I was a small child, watching the water. There was no end of expertise. One acquaintance digressed on the predatory habits of bears versus sharks, about which he, a city-dweller, seemed to know a great deal.

That evening we went back to our house and made supper and drank a little more than usual, and then in the morning, as I’ve said, I went back to bed. That afternoon, after our swim in the bay, we came home for lunch, and then we went back down to the ocean beach, with our towels. We were handed the flyer again. The parking lot was almost deserted. We recognized every car. From the top of the dune we could see small clusters of swimmers with their feet in the water. Because I was taught to get back on the bicycle, to look fear in the face, because the connection to this place, this beach, this ocean, is so deep in me, because it is the only place I feel truly at home, we went back in. We stayed close in, watchful, our heads out of the surf, in three feet of water. When we came home in the late afternoon I went back to bed and slept for three hours. A friend who is a doctor, and was on the beach, diagnosed shock … [read Part II here]

Cynthia Zarin is the author of An Enlarged Heart: A Personal History, a book of essays, and five books of poetry, as well as five books for children, most recently Saints Among the Animals.

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