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Melinda Ruley

When the shark bites


The Avon pier, listing badly on its port side, snakes out over the lip of the Atlantic like a wounded sea serpent. A Chinese dragon held aloft on splayed poles. The wide planks are silvery-gray, festooned with rusted hooks and sequined with fish scales that wink in the sun. The pilings jut out at odd angles, triangulating away from the deck of the pier in a geometry of tide and wind. The railings are stained with blood.

As a rule, I avoid piers and their carnage, but like a lot of vacationers at Avon in early September, I found myself walking the warm splintery boards on an overcast Tuesday. The sky was glary and bronze, a Flannery O'Connor sky. Helicopters buzzed the shoreline. People stood in tight little groups and talked in the hushed voices of catastrophe. The evening before, just down the beach, two people had been attacked by a shark, or sharks. The woman was in critical condition in a Norfolk hospital; the man had died on the beach.

For the rest of us at Avon, the attack changed everything. We were united now, a hastily-put-together tribe connected not only by tragedy, but by statistically improbable calamity. Rooftop snipers and babies carried away by dingoes in the dark of night. A thunderbolt had hit the town and we had survived.

People who before the attack had been strangers, walking past each other at the fish market and the Dairy Queen, came out of beach houses and condos and hotel rooms to talk and gossip and worry. A woman we'd never seen before asked my husband to get our son out of the surf where he was playing the morning after the attack. Down at the pier shop, a local fisherman led me to a set of shark jaws mounted on the wall. He tenderly fingered the rows of teeth and talked to me about the mischief they could cause with a man's femur. Two days earlier I would have been a tourist, a bottom feeder; now I was a confederate with a shared past. Surviving had made us kin.

Survivorship was a new demographic for most of us, and I wondered, aside from this kinship, how we would react. Would we feel survivor guilt? Would we walk around looking gray and stricken? Would we reflect on the brute power of the animal kingdom? Feel awed by the mystery of fate?

We would not. Instead, there was an odd sense of...well...happiness. It is difficult to explain this, because everybody understood that this was a very serious and out of the way business. They spoke soberly of the dead man and his injured girlfriend, and of the shock their families must be enduring. And yet, in the midst of these grim conversations there was shrouded giddiness, a just-contained gladness. Couples took Polaroids of each other in front of the pier and walked around with the festive accouterments of a celebration: ice cream, disposable cameras. A man with a bronze comb-over ate a Klondike bar and wondered whether anyone would be doing T-shirts to commemorate the event.

There's this scene from Walker Percy's The Moviegoer in which a couple honeymooning in New Orleans, and suffering an acute case of anonymity, is transformed by a chance meeting with a movie star. At first I thought this was the explanation, that the shark attack--followed by the onslaught of reporters and satellite trucks and cameramen and cable lines snaking through the sea oats and wormwood--had lent the survivors an exhilarating reality, had put us on the map. ABC and FOX wanted to know what we thought, how we felt. Our shock and fear were videotaped for the 6 o'clock news. We mattered!

And perhaps there was some of that. Certainly the media were everywhere, TV reporters with chiseled jaws and technologically advanced hair, standing in the sea breeze like little gods. But I don't think that was quite it. This was a private happiness, a glad-to-be-alive thing, awakened in us by the terror of a close call. Everywhere people seemed overwhelmed by a richness of sensation, by the same sky and sand and sunsets that, earlier in the week, they had taken for granted.

Down the beach from the pier, near the site of the attack, a small group of friends stood together. They had been surfing when the attack took place and now, meeting again a day later, they seemed unwilling to disperse. "I just need to linger with this feeling for a while," one of the young women said. "I need to experience my fear."

For all of us in Avon, an image had come into our vision, and the fact that that image was largely the creation of the commercial entertainment industry made no difference at all. It was there, enormous and gray, with a lifeless eye and a blood-flecked ring of serrated teeth. The image made us real to ourselves, lit us up with our own fear. It was fabulous.

In strange juxtaposition to this exhilaration was the desire for an explanation--not just any explanation, but something scientific, irrefutable. I experienced this first in a conversation with four other people in the pier parking lot. One woman, a grandmother from Delaware who wore Mickey Mouse earrings and a velour tank top, told us she'd wakened the previous morning with a strange feeling. "A premonition?" I asked, hopeful that at last there would be a conversation about fate, the mysterious workings of God, or at least dumb luck. She was about to elaborate when we all heard the doppler-flap of a helicopter carrying marine scientists.

In our circle, there was a pause and everyone squinted up at the sky. "You see those guys?" somebody said. "Those guys are professionals. They'll get to the bottom of it." Everyone nodded, shielding their eyes against the glare, hoping to catch the face of an expert. The premonition had been forgotten.

I have a friend whose family lived for a time in India, in a rural neighborhood carved out of the bush. One morning, she told me, the next-door-neighbor's baby wandered into the back yard and got bitten by a cobra. Treatment was unavailable and by sunset the child was dead. For several days, my friend's family obsessed over how such a thing could have happened. Perhaps a dog had flushed the snake out of the bush. Maybe the snake had babies; were cobras protective of their young? Books were ordered, a herpetologist consulted.

By contrast, my friend said, the Indian family took the tragedy in stride. "They did not question the out-of-the-blueness of it all," she said. "Our reaction was very American. We wanted answers."

In the wake of the attack in Avon, the search for answers was whipped up by television coverage, both local and national, in which marine biologists, aquarium directors and Animal Planet hosts were trotted out for comment. Two days earlier, a 10-year-old boy had been fatally injured by a shark in the surf off Virginia Beach, and in the course of the summer there had been other serious incidents as well. Since news was otherwise slow, and since shark attacks tend to provoke many different kinds of feeding frenzies, the Avon killing sparked fresh speculation that these attacks were not random events.

To everyone's disappointment, the shark experts were unobliging. A Florida biologist told The New York Times that "the perception that we're having an exceptionally sharky year is wrong." A Temple University math professor said television images were overpowering statistics to create what the Times called a "false nightmare." And so, in Avon, where the nightmare seemed anything but false, locals and tourists supplied their own explanations for the attack. Most of us simply trotted out the prevailing opinion that the couple was attacked because they were swimming at dusk, when some sharks feed. Other theories were more interesting:

Avon supermarket cashier Keith: "About 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon some guy came by here and bought a chum bag and 40 feet of rope. I think he was going to take it out to the end of the pier. And if he did that, with the prevailing winds and currents, I can't help thinking that had something to do with it."

Vacationer and medical supplies salesman Vic Johnson: "See, what I heard was, and I'm not making this up, the government's been conducting underwater nuclear tests down there at Guantanamo Bay. Which is why Castro's got the shakes lately. So you've got these sonic booms vibrating on the ocean floor down there and all the marine life starts migrating north. What you've got here on the eastern seaboard is a forced and unnatural misplacement of sharks that are irritable as all get-out."

Tourist and mother Peggy Price: "Isn't it the saddest thing? We were all of us talking about this last night and we decided it had to be a rogue shark because of the attack up at Virginia Beach being so close. And what we were thinking was, have you ever been to a Red Lobster? All that food they give you on those platters? And then we were thinking that there were probably thousands of Red Lobsters and places like that all over the United States, depleting the seafood supply for the sharks. So maybe it was a rogue shark and what made him rogue was, he was just really hungry."

Avon fisherman and commercial refrigeration specialist Doug Smith: "I'll give you a reason for why it happened. Why it happened was a human creature got out of his element and into the shark's element. And the shark tried to eat him because that's what sharks do. The trouble with Man these days is, he doesn't understand nature itself. He's not in touch with his own environment. I'm convinced of it. You turn off the electricity for a week and just see what happens to civilization."

Two days after the shark attack in Avon, The News and Observer ran a photo of a shark sculpture, carved in the sand on the Avon beach. The caption quoted its creator as hoping to "appease the shark gods."

I never saw the sculpture, and I don't put much stock in shark gods, but I was heartened by the impulse to connect with the mystery of what had happened. That same day, walking down the beach, I noticed a tiny shrine placed in the dune grasses. It consisted of a roughly made wooden cross, tied together with strips of cloth, some sea oats and, oddly, a rabbit's foot. Other people had noticed the shrine as well and one man took a picture of it.

The man with the camera said he liked the joining of the images, divine and dime-store pagan. I pointed out the irony of the little severed foot on its neat chain. The man laughed and said he'd take any talisman that came along, ironic or not.

Then he looked across the sand at the ocean; the water was green and calm beyond a lacy froth of surf. "It's some weird stuff out there in the world," he said. "I'm guessing we need all the help we can get." EndBlock

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