The last shark attack on Cape Cod, in which a man was swimming far out, occurred at the beach half a mile south of here, in 2012. When I was a girl, it was unusual to see a seal on these beaches. Now the beaches are full of seals. It’s global warming, ran the bright ribbon of rumor, like an advertisement pulled by a plane in the sky along the beach. It’s global warming, I thought to myself, the shark bite. The seals are moving northward, the sharks come in for them. Like many things that seem like answers, the truth is elsewhere.
It turns out I am right, that when I was a child there were few seals in these waters. “They were five dollars a head,” recalls a friend. The fisherman detested the sharks, who wound up in their nets and ate the fish. The lovely seals, so wide-eyed, in the blood-stained snow—“Save the Seals,” we read on the posters on the walls of my high school. But since the Atlantic seals became an endangered species, in 1975, their numbers have grown exponentially. There are approximately fifty thousand seals off Cape Cod, and the shark population has grown with them. The week I knew I was pregnant with my youngest child, the girl who ran to the edge of the water and then helped carry the gored swimmer up the dune, we saw two seals cross the bright path the dawn painted on the water as we watched the sun rise. A good omen, we thought.
In the days and weeks that followed the attack, we continued to go back into the ocean. From the top of the dune I would look to see if anyone was in the water. If there was, I usually knew them by name. We brought binoculars, and trained them twenty or thirty feet out. I got up early in the morning, and went down to the beach, but I did not go swimming in the fog, or in the early morning haze, when the fog cleared. It was no longer a gift, to be alone on the beach. We went in pairs, or in groups, and we did not swim far out—although the man who was attacked was not swimming far out. We followed his progress in the hospital, hearing news through friends, and on the news. We saw a video of his slow walk, with a bandaged leg, across a hospital floor. When my children were small and played in the waves I put them all in identical bright bathing suits so I could see them, and I spent hours standing in a wet suit, watching lest they be hit too hard by a wave and go under, emerging sputtering, with a mouth full of sand, but I never looked for a fin in the water. When they were older they were surfers, for them one of life’s great pleasures, and I am glad that they do not surf often, now.
The afternoon of the second shark attack, at a beach a few miles down the road from our house, where my father, who is eighty-six, still swims beyond the breakers, as he taught me to do, I was in New York, in the kitchen. My eldest daughter took the call from my youngest. She listened for a moment and her face went still. Give me the phone, I said, sensing danger. My youngest daughter said, “I didn’t want you to hear it on the news. There was another attack, at Newcomb Hollow, and he’s dead.” Her voice was shaking a little. I was standing by the sink and I leaned against it. Then I burst into tears. I called my father. I said, “I didn’t want you to hear about it on the news.”
As she finished her novel To The Lighthouse, drawn on her own summers spent as a child by the sea at St. Ives, and began to catch at the thought that would later become The Waves, Virginia Woolf wrote, in 1926,
It is not oneself but something in the universe that one’s left with. It is this that is frightening and exciting in the midst of my profound gloom, depression, boredom, whatever it is. One sees a fin passing far out. What image can I reach to convey what I mean?
A few days later I drive back to the Cape. The road to the beach is splattered with autumn leaves. The early morning beach is deserted. I am standing in my bathing suit and a sweater, with my feet in the water. The water is freezing. What image can I reach to convey what I mean? Like so many things one thinks, what I had imagined isn’t true. The seals are not here because the water is warming, they are here because we made room for them. Now I want them dead. The ocean is not your friend, my father taught me when I was a child. What can I say to convey, standing looking out, at what was a place of safety, and is still a place of beauty, that I do not want change, that I know at once the ocean is not mine but that I want it to be mine? That the place closest to my heart, this square of sand at the bottom of the cliff, has become in an instant in which something that was bound to happen, happened, alien, violent and brutish. Gone.
Read Part I of this post here
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Image: View from the coastal path at Godrevy Point, visible from Virginia Woolf’s childhood seaside home at St. Ives, Wikimedia Commons, asands, London
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