by Dan Powell
And finally, on the shore, white sand slipping between his toes like time, he stared out to where she stood, waves lapping at her waist and wearing only the simple pale green swimsuit he had insisted she buy, and he found, after all, that he could not bring himself to enter the water.
‘Come on in, the water’s literally fine,’ she said and waved for him to follow.
In fairness, he did take a step, but then he stopped. It was ridiculous. To have come this far, to have boarded an aircraft, to have allowed himself to be thrown so high through the air at such stupid speed in a flimsy tin can full of people and luggage and highly explosive fuel, yes, it was ridiculous to have put himself through all that, rigid in his seat, hands clutching the ends of the armrests, only to balk now, at the water’s edge, looking out to where she waited, this woman he was still growing to know, stood with her hands on her hips, her bare, vulnerable legs hidden beneath the sea’s glimmering surface.
‘You know, historically there have been over one hundred and fifty unprovoked shark attacks in Hawaii,’ he yelled out to her.
‘Over how many years?’ she called back.
Neither of them, it seemed, was prepared to cross the sand and surf that now distanced them.
‘Okay, yes, over nearly two hundred years. But ten of those attacks were fatal.’
She said nothing for a moment. The air between them filled with the hush and wash of the ocean and the voices of those others dotting Maluaka Beach, but neither had ears nor eyes for anyone else.
‘You’re much more likely to die from a jellyfish sting than you are to suffer a shark attack,’ she said. ‘Or drown. About sixty people drown in these waters each year.’
‘Is that supposed to make me happier about getting in?’ he said, but he felt his heart rise in his chest that she had retrieved that statistic, and that she had retained it, just for this moment, in order to repeat it, to throw it back to the shore for him like a life preserver in reverse.
The awareness that their relationship, though young and new, might already be as important to her as it was to him washed through him then, and carried with it the sense that their continuing conversation, made up not only of words already shared in the days and nights since their first meeting but also all those they were yet to share, in as yet unscripted moments still before them, was like the ocean stretching out in all directions about him now, and certain words and phrases and glances and even certain silences seemed to him like shark fins upon that water, and though part of him was terrified of what moved beneath what could be seen and heard, another part was excited by the prospect of being devoured by something unknowable.
‘Come on,’ she said again, ‘I’ve done everything you’ve asked. We’re following the State of Hawaii Shark Task Force guidelines, I’m even wearing this hideous swimsuit,’ and here she spread her arms in a flamboyant, silent Ta-daa! He enjoyed the playfulness of her gesture, could not help but laugh and yet that word, hideous, it was like a shadow moving in the bright water between them.
All about her, turtles dotted the surface of the shimmering water, their backs steppingstones to where the whale-head of Kaho’olawe Island rose above the horizon, gold and green in the bright morning light.
‘I promise,’ she said, the sweep of her arm taking in the nearest turtles and the fish, their glimmers and swiftenings of colour beneath the waves, ‘if these guys start to flee the area, we’ll make a move too.’
He stepped forward, felt sand shift and tumble and compact beneath him.
‘There were ten shark attacks last year alone,’ he said, ‘eight of which resulted in injury.’
‘Well, there were eight million visitors to the islands last year. That’s a million to one chance, right there,’ she said. ‘You’re more likely to be killed by a horse or a cow or ants.’
‘Stinging ants, yes, if it’s a whole bunch stinging at once.’
The frustration colouring her voice made him stop and look down at his feet like a child. He watched the curl and foam of the waves press up against his toes and retreat, press up against his toes and retreat.
When he looked back up, she was gone. The roll and iteration of the ocean where she had been stood seconds before bore no sign she had ever been there. He scanned the surface for some sign of her, panicked and for the first time aware of the real depth of loss that would follow her sudden absence from his life.
Without thinking he stepped knee deep into the waves. Then up to his waist. Stopped only once the water lapped his chest. And she appeared, still beyond his reach, further off, in deeper water now, but still waiting for him, expectant, urging.
‘I’m not coming back out,’ she said. ‘You want me you’ll have to come and get me.’
And her laughter was swallowed as she dipped back beneath the waves for a moment and swept up towards him, breaking the surface smiling only to retreat again, curling back in the water like she was born to it. He knew she would be unlikely to draw the attention of sharks with only one cone receptor in the eye, those that only see in a single colour. To them she would appear simply as part of the sea. Even to him, with his more complex colour vision, the green of her low contrast swimsuit seemed to merge with the sea beneath which she vanished only to emerge moments later at some distant spot before him, waving him on before diving again, emerging again, waving again.
He watched her silhouette glide beneath the surface, first this way, then another, the shape of her curling and turning before she burst back up for air, smiling. Gentle waves moved through him, around him, past him, lifted his feet from the sand and he let them. The water took his weight, everything else he gave to her, sinking his head beneath the waves and kicking out hard, pointing the whole of himself to where she floated, the water all about them clean and clear and warm and empty, at least for now, of dorsal fins.
Dan Powell is a prize-winning author of short fiction and an AHRC funded Doctoral Researcher in Creative Writing at University of Leicester. His debut collection of stories, Looking Out of Broken Windows (Salt Publishing) was shortlisted for the Scott Prize and longlisted for the Edge Hill Prize.