Jaimee Wriston Colbert
In Shark Girls two women’s lives are transformed by a shark attack that amputates a child’s leg. It is alternately narrated by “Scat,” the older sister of the victim, now a reformed drunk and a “disaster photographer,” and “Gracie,” a casualty of a disfiguring accident, who becomes obsessed with “Shark Girl,” as Scat’s younger sister is known. In the media and popular belief, “Shark Girl” is rumored to have supernatural powers.
ISBN: 978-1-60489-044-0 Trade Paper $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-60489-043-3 Library Binding $27
Jaimee Wriston Colbert is the author of a linked stories collection, Dream Lives of Butterflies, which won the gold medal in the 2008 Independent Publisher Awards in the Short Stories Fiction category; a novel, Climbing the God Tree, winner of the Willa Cather Fiction Prize; and the fiction collection Sex, Salvation, and the Automobile, winner of the Zephyr Publishing Prize. Her stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Originally from Hawaii, she is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Binghamton University, State University of New York.
From the Book:
Here is where we begin, what you need to understand. Random things happen, and these are the things that change everything else. When I was a child, just a mile away from our Kailua, Hawai’i neighborhood, a twin-engine plane fell out of the sky before daybreak on top of two houses, a roar and a growl then nothing, a startled moment of absolute silence. The neighbor across the street heard it and called the Kailua police. This was of course many years before planes would be used as missiles against the World Trade Center, back when this sort of thing really was a tragic accident. Back when, perhaps, there was this sort of innocence, naiveté, presumed, assumed, not questioned. It was the nineteen fifties.
The occupants of the first house were killed immediately, sleeping in their beds. The occupants of the second were blessedly somewhere else. On vacation? Who could remember this detail? The people who lived in the house would, of course, for the rest of their lives. Like the where were you when President Kennedy was shot? question. Where were you when you could have been killed? Random chance, one moment sleeping sweet in your home, the next dying under its charred and smoking remains. One of the kids we carpooled from school with knew one of the kids that was killed. This kid, who played jacks, hula hoops, Nancy Ann dolls, jump rope, water balloon fights with Nalani in our carpool, never expected a plane to fall out of the blue onto her roof.
I was the storyteller in our carpool, ghost stories, obake tales as they are referred to in Hawai'i; get plenty chicken skin! It is a fact that water flows downhill, yet truth is that in the lush green seat of the Koolau Mountains we drove through every afternoon, when the wind rose from the valley wailing against those rigid peaks, you would get the upside down waterfalls, rush of water blowing up, up--running from the ghosts maybe, the night marchers we all knew inhabited this valley, spirits of the warriors Kamehameha I pushed off the Pali, uniting the islands under his rule. If you try to drive over the Pali at midnight with pork in your car--say a pork sandwich or leftover luau--your car will rattle and shake so furiously you’d think a hurricane hit. The spirits don’t like you to hele with pork. Most of us don’t know why this is kapu, just is.
What about the story of a jeweler named Maung Chit Chine who in 1927 hid under some tree during a rain storm and afterwards his friends could only find his hat and shoes. When they killed the gorged python nearby, they found the rest of Chine’s body swallowed feet first and whole inside the snake. In 1993 a fifteen year old mainland boy weighing ninety-five pounds was attacked by the family’s python, which killed the boy, though made no attempt to eat him. For sport, perhaps? The way a house cat sated on kibble plays the mouse to death? The way the hunter blasts the bear? What about the way a poacher slaughters the elephant only for his tusks? There are no snakes in Hawai’i. We have mongoose, mean little razor-toothed weasel types who do kill snakes but were imported from Jamaica in 1883 to annihilate the rats in the sugarcane. The problem: mongoose sleep at night. Rats don’t.
In 1952 there were Congressional hearings, the House Investigation on the sanctity of showing cleavage on America’s new plaything, the television. Here is what else happened in 1952: Ike Eisenhower was elected President of the United States; Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne of England; the volcano goddess Pele of the fiery hair and raging temper caused a volcanic eruption in her own home, Halema’uma’u on the big island of Hawai’i; and in Queens Hospital, O’ahu, a child was born. Peevish and selfish as any child, this one would come to be revered as a saint.
In Hawai’i you grow up hearing things, incidents that occurred to one degree or another, that became stories in the telling and the retelling, almost mythic in the transformation of their details from bits of happenings to full blown magical truths. In Japanese folklore one who drowns returns to life as a sea animal. Your uncle, perhaps, who drank too much Saki, in that honu turtle’s heavily lidded eyes? My grandmother, when she was herself a young woman, told of driving with my grandfather and picking up a beautiful young woman in a long white dress with a little white dog hitchhiking on the side of the Volcano road on the Big Island. Any islander knows this as the goddess Pele in her young woman’s disguise. She’s silent in the back seat of the car, and when they approach Halema'uma'u' fire pit my grandmother looks back and the woman has disappeared. That night the volcano erupts.
When you grow up on O’ahu, you know always to look over your shoulder, back to the mountains behind, when swimming in the turquoise water or playing on the beautiful white sand of Kualoa beach park. It is said that the night marchers come down from the burial caves at the top of the mountain where there are the remains of more than four hundred chiefs. You can hear their distant drums on a moonless night, see the flickering of torches, and if anyone gets in their path, well, you may never see this unlucky soul again. Their path crosses Kamehameha highway in a place where a lot of car accidents occur. Some say there is a bad curve in the road there, others know differently.
In 1914 the United States government built a dry dock for its Navy over a cave, the home of the female shark god Ka’ahupahau. The Hawaiian natives regarded the building of this with tremendous unease. After years of labor it was finally finished and within hours it fell with a sudden and inexplicable crash. This is real. You can look this up. Engineers speculated there seemed to be earth “tremors” of some sort that prevented the structure from resting on the bottom. But the Hawaiians believed “the smiting tail” of Ka’ahupahau still guarded the blue lagoon at Pearl Harbor.
This also happened: On December 13, 1958, Lanikai beach, island of O’ahu, fifteen year old Billy Weaver was killed by a shark. In my memory Billy is a surfer, and he’s surfing when it happens. In fact he was on an air mattress accompanied by five friends, all with their air mattresses, catching waves. The other five didn’t notice when Billy didn’t catch that last wave. When one of them looked back, he saw Billy slide off his mat, disappear for a moment, then surface, his face ashen. Help! he called, but faintly. The ocean churned red. They tried to keep him afloat, bear him back to the beach. But Billy Weaver slipped from their grasp and sank beneath the water. That’s when they saw the shark.
In my memory he’s a handsome boy and no doubt he was; blond is how I see him, surfer haircut, sun tanned skin, though the news articles showed him as dark haired, that winning smile. He was popular. All of Kailua and Lanikai mourned his loss. I was barely eight at the time; even so there was something of the hero made of me, of any Kailua resident, just by virtue of living beside his town, swimming near that beach off the bay we shared, one of ours. The boys swam frantically back to the shore, and the search boats who went looking for Billy reported seeing a large shark in the area. A diver found his body wedged into a hole in the reef, his right leg bitten clean off to the knee. The Honolulu Advertiser reported he was the fifth person known to have been killed by a shark in the Hawaiian islands in 72 years; three of those fatalities were in the past eight years.
I liked to believe I knew Billy Weaver; his loss loomed large in our small town lives. He was from a prominent island family, as the papers described it, his father and uncle owners of a family restaurant chain including Tiki Tops in Kaneohe, where my own family went on Sundays if we were good. They had Peppermint Patty mints at the cash register. We begged our father for one after each meal.
Billy Weaver became mythic, a hero, a legend, the most talked about kid in town. The Territory Of Hawai'i officials and community leaders declared war on the sharks that swam off the island of O’ahu. This I remember: the fear, what was unseen, violent and predatory, our every nightmare lurking in our ocean waters, and how, we were assured, these brave men (for of course they were men in those days) would save us.
Two days after Billy’s death, three tiger sharks and two sand sharks were killed off Lanikai. A Billy Weaver Shark Control Fund was started to help finance the destruction of sharks. Fund raisers canvassed our neighborhoods, knocked on our doors, reminded us we lived on Kailua beach, same bay as Lanikai. Once, a dead nurse shark washed up on the beach, riddled with chunks and gauges from being nibbled on by who knows what? Maybe even her own kind; sharks are cannibals, we were told, tiger shark fetuses, brothers and sisters, will eat each other in the womb, survival of the fiercest even before becoming fully formed. The neighborhood children beat it with kiawe sticks, coral pieces, whipped it with long smelly strands of kelp, whatever was handy. The dare was to run your hand over it, feel the hateful thrill of its sandpaper-tough and wasted skin. We despised that nurse shark for its perceived power, higher on the food chain than us--once we stepped into the ocean we were potentially its prey. Defiled it in its death, harmless as it might’ve been.
Merchants posted bounties for any sharks caught, and a local jewelry store offered a quarter for every shark tooth brought in to them from a shark freshly slaughtered. A boat circled O’ahu daily, the Holokahana I, chartered through the Board of Commissioners of Agriculture and Forestry, no other purpose than to catch and destroy sharks. At the end of the year long campaign, this was the toll: 697 sharks killed; a total of 641 embryos in the females; nine species, including a sixgill shark, a species never recorded in Hawaiian waters, and the second bramble shark ever caught in Hawaiian waters. These numbers are documented. You can look them up: Ikehara. Billy Weaver Shark Research and Control Program/Final Report.
The Hawaiian natives were grieving. Some sharks were gods, akua, believed to have guided the original islanders to Hawai'i. Other sharks, mano kumupa’a, were 'aumakua, ancestral gods, guardian spirits, fierce when the occasion called for it, noble and strong. Once when a family member died, his corpse might have been offered by a kahuna, a Hawaiian priest, to a particular shark. The kahuna would point out to the sorrowful family the gradual transformation of the body, the markings of the burial clothes onto the sides, the fin, of the worshipped shark. This particular mano then became this family’s own 'aumakua, believed to drive food into their fishing nets, save them if their boat capsized, protect them from the giant people-eating sharks. 'Aumakua was thought to ward off sorcery, before Christianity came to the islands in the form of white people, the haoles, who labeled this as superstition.
Sharks are not cruising the seas after people to eat, but the ones that do eat people have a name: niuhi. To avoid niuhi you use your head; you don’t go into the ocean at sunrise, sunset, kicking your legs and arms like you are their preferred diet of seals, turtles, or fish; you don’t swim at river mouths or in murky water, which appears in the inland seas sometimes after a rain. You use your head. In Hawai'i it is best to try and live peaceably with the old gods. It is a bad omen not to do so.