Two Stories

Echo Eggbrecht, Untitled, 2006, ink on paper, 16 x 23”. Courtesy of the artist and Nicole Klagsbrun gallery.

Shark Cage

What happened to me—not to me, but what happened—I’m a writer of magazine articles and I was writing an article about sharks, about how they communicate with human beings. I was somewhere off the California coast with a group of scientists who were studying the human response to shark communication. They’d rigged up a fishing boat with winches and scientific instruments and a stainless steel cage, and I was inside the cage. Sensors were attached to various parts of my body, measuring my heart rate and my brain activity, and I was under the water, breathing through an air tank strapped to my back. I had my back to the boat’s hull, scanning the water through the mask on my face, and even through the wet suit, I could tell the water was cold. But I didn’t care because I was thinking about sharks. They’d pretty much guaranteed me a shark attack—something about an anomaly in the ocean current—and as I held the steel handrail I could hear the air as it passed from the scuba equipment into my lungs. That, plus the pressure of the water, plus the temperature of the water, plus the fact that there was going to be a shark attack, was focusing my attention.

I saw schools of little fish darting out from the darkness, I saw the speckled sunlight filtering down from the surface of the water, and I noticed pieces of meat floating down from above the cage. The scientists were chumming for sharks and I could see the blood dissolving in the water. I knew the minute I stopped expecting the shark, the minute I took my mind off the idea of shark, like a watched pot, that’s when a shark would appear, and since I didn’t want to miss that appearance, I kept my mind focused on the water, trying not to think about anything other than water, but I must have been thinking something, and I must have been in the middle of thinking it when a white underbelly flashed by, huge and white and slightly above me, and then suddenly the bait, which had been floating in the water, was gone.

The bait was gone and the shark was gone, but I was still there, still feeling the effect of the shark. I’m sure the scientists, looking at the data from my sensors, would have called it fear, which is a word describing a certain emotion, and it was definitely an emotion I was experiencing, and yes, my heart was pounding, and yes, my senses were acute, and I’d seen enough of the shark to feel the threat, but because I was protected by the safety of the cage, what it felt like to me was the absence of fear. I wouldn’t have called it serenity because my body was full of energy. My fingertips, through the rubber gloves, seemed very alive. And although I couldn’t see the shark, I was aware of it, just beyond my vision. And when I say aware I mean I was sensing some kind of signal from the shark, as if the shark was communicating. And because the most rudimentary form of communication is the expression of desire, I was feeling the shark’s desire, and one of the things it was desiring was my annihilation.

So there was fear. But it wasn’t overwhelming. Because the cage was protecting me I was able to communicate with the source of the fear. The human brain is capable of receiving millions of neural signals, and what I was trying to do was send signals, to the shark. I was trying to tell the shark that I understood its desire, that I accepted its desire, and I was just getting into this conversation with the shark when I felt the cage begin to rise. The scientists were bringing me back, and I tried to signal through the sensors that I wasn’t ready, that I was still conducting the experiment. I tried to think those thoughts and send those thoughts, but either the sensors weren’t working or my thoughts weren’t working. I felt the weight of the water pushing down as the cage rose up, like an elevator, out of the water, and there I was again, in the breathable normalcy of air.

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