I always feared the sea, even before I understood why that fear was perfectly justified – before I knew what was hiding there, waiting for me.
I remember standing skinny and shaking on the Port Pirie jetty after the other children had plunged into the murky green depths, furiously egged on by the swimming teacher and yet utterly unable to give myself up to the water; I remember my humiliating inability to master any strokes other than the dog paddle as my peers took easily to the waves; I recall coming dead last in a swimming competition, all the other kids long-finished and watching on as I clumsily thrashed through the water and finally ran up the beach, hearing the teachers mutter disparagingly about me as my feet pounded the sand in the loaded hush of disgrace.
Perhaps my earlier near-drowning in the River Murray had something to do with all that, but oddly, I recall no panic or understanding of the danger I was in from that experience. In any case, I was thirteen by the time I learned to swim properly, and I managed that in the safer confines of an indoor pool. There, I could see the edges that proved this territory was finite, that safety was never too far away – and the water was clear, so I could see that nothing else lurked in those limited depths.
Ultimately, that was – and is – my primary concern when it comes to open water: that I am not alone, that I cannot see just what is down there beneath me, and that I will not sense its presence until the moment it touches me.
And it has a name.
My brother and I sat down with our cousin Daniel to watch the Jaws movies when we were way too young, and those shocking attack scenes stuck with us for years. Even the ludicrous Jaws 3D and the insanely crap Jaws: The Revenge could not shake our dread fascination with the sea’s apex predator: the great white shark. Carcharodon carcharias is the perfect killing machine – always moving, always hunting, its senses finely tuned to distress and bloodshed, utterly implacable in its unending mission to devour. The shark is not intelligent or cunning, but it is always coming, its black eyes communicating a complete lack of soul or self-awareness – it does not wish you any ill will, it is not evil, it just is. It is bigger than you, it is faster than you, and its hunger is relentless. Enter into its domain, and you are food.
Great whites have enthralled and terrified me ever since, and so I’ve always wanted to write a frightening shark story – but that’s a tricky narrative to master. You can’t get inside the creature’s head, because you can’t credibly put forth a viewpoint from such a basic brain – Peter Benchley and Steve Alten have done this, but their books entertain, they do not terrify. And your characters merely have to stay out of the water to assure their safety, unless you’re talking Junji Ito’s Gyo or the execrable Sharknado series… or, perhaps, my story from the forthcoming Transcendent, “Everything is Red in This World.”
That said, there is no shark in my tale – at least, not in the conventional sense. But, appropriately for a story to be found in an anthology of dreams, that entity has its root in a sleeping vision of mine from some years ago. And as dreams tend to be woven from a billion memories and experiences and desires and fears, it is no surprise that there should be a dark and predatory shape cutting through the dusky waters in my mind, as it has done ever since I first saw Jaws… or perhaps even before that.
I had the complete set of Sesame Street Library books when I was a toddler, and – I may be misremembering this, because an internet search brings up nothing that matches – one volume featured a drawing that made me deeply uneasy: Grover in a big tank of water, surrounded by dorsal fins that churned through the water around him. Surely at that age I would have had no idea what those fins portended, and yet already they scared me – as if they’d been there deep within me all along, prowling through the primal red waters of race memory, just waiting for me to recognise their brutal, thoughtless majesty.
No wonder I feared the sea.
Matthew R. Davis is an author and musician based in Adelaide, South Australia, with around forty dark fiction stories and poems published thus far. Twice shortlisted for the Paul Haines Long Fiction Award (Australian Shadows Awards, 2016 and 2017), he’s judged for the Aurealis Awards two years running and occasionally performs spoken word shows with street poets Paroxysm Press. He plays bass and sings in alternative rock/metal bands Blood Red Renaissance (on hiatus) and icecocoon, whose latest album How Long is Forever…? was released in 2018 along with a video for first track “The Great Aerial Ocean” that he edited.
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