This is a piece of flash fiction I started in 2019 and recently revised. The original impetus was reading about the fires in Australia…sometimes stories take their own paths!
He remembered how hot it was that day. Not hot like let’s soak our clothing and lie in a dark room and take turns fanning each other. Rather, it was hot like an oven fueled by the driest driftwood gathered from high above the waterline; hot like mother demanding that he put an extra layer of rags in his sandals and “for god’s sake don’t throw yourself on the sand.” The hottest he could remember in his eight years.
All of the children and mothers and some fathers were at the beach. In and out of the water the children plunged as the brilliant white orb above scorched the sand. They played games, bouncing up and down to the rhythm of the breakers. He watched the birds, struggling to stay aloft in the heat-thinned air. Once he thought he saw a gull fall from the sky and turned to his brother to tell him, but his brother was back in the water.
He sprawled on the pile of sofa cushions he and his brother and sister had dragged to the beach and thought about waiting one more moment to dash across the burning sand and into the sparkling surf. The water would be cool, not cold. Nothing was ever cold. But the contrast with the air would be thrilling and a relief. He didn’t have to be hot all day, not this day.
Later he thought about how the fog settled in so fast. One minute the sky was a shiny bright bowl, then a filmy cloud dulled the shine and grew and spread and sank across the water. His mother had been lying on a cot, draped in a wet towel, sleeping perhaps. She sat straight up and shaded her eyes against the glare of the still bright beach. “Where are the children? Where are they?”
He scrambled to his feet. She grabbed his arm and yanked him to her lap.
Through the gray veil he could see heads bobbing, not in time with the waves now, but dancing to a different beat, dipping down and then thrusting up only to disappear from sight. Here and there an arm or leg broke the surface of the water. The fog slid from the water to the beach and hid his view.
People would talk about the screams later, because of course there were screams. There must have been screams because why else would all of the fathers have shot from their mats and raced almost as one into the water. But that was not how he remembered it. He recalled that the fog muffled every sound, muted his mother’s sobbing. His own shouts were whispers. The birds stopped cawing and the surf was silent.
The fathers who returned to the beach said they had never seen so many sharks, never swum through so much blood. They came back because the sharks were sated. Maybe not so much sated as drunk. The men held their wives and the children too small or too timid to go into in the water that morning. The tears of the men mingled with the bloody saltwater and fell on the women and children.
His own father had been away that day, along with some of the other men. They were fighting with picks and shovels a wildfire that would destroy their homes if it crossed a nearby dry riverbed. They were experienced fire fighters, volunteers all. And the memory of the fires of years past urged them on. His father returned smoke-stained, triumphant, eager to share that they had beaten this fire, this threat to their homes.
He returned to a family of three. His youngest son was now his only child.
Afterwards, when people talked about the day the sharks came, at the end they would speak the names of the dead. They tended to recite the names in a matter of fact way, as if reading off a list of fish species that had left the bay or houses that had burned down or families who had given up and moved on. No one said that the sharks came on the very day that the waterline was at last clear of the whale carcasses that had rotted on the sand for months. That day not even bleached bones remained on the white beach. No one mentioned the fog.
They spoke simply of the event. “The sharks came one day and when they left, Rosie was gone and young Charley and Joe and Mel and Frank and little Betsy and…” At times, they droned on like old women saying their beads. At other times the recitation sounded like a chant imbued with the rhythm of waves slamming into the beach and rushing out. There were no questions, no recriminations, no blame…just the names and silent tears.
The people persisted. As brush ignited during the long dry season, the men dug fire breaks and fought the flames with shovels. Children soaked burlap bags in briny well water and slapped down errant sparks. Across the eroded path to the beach, the women propped a barricade of driftwood hung with seaweed, restraining access to the cool, deadly water. And when the sharks appeared in the bay, men went out in boats and harpooned or shot or clubbed any bold enough to approach.