BY BEN BLATTBERG
Copyright is held by the author.
My Dear Professor Stern,
While we’re all impressed with Georgie’s little scholarly article on Pacific Island folkloric sea life, with all of its precise details and analysis and whatnot, I fear she left out the thrilling heart of the matter. To wit: how I saved countless Hawaiians from gruesome death. Because of my quick thinking and pluck and heroism and charm and grace and quick thinking, I not only saved Hawaii from an oceanic scourge beyond the imagination of modern man, but also deserve a passing grade for this quarter’s Independent Study in Applied Folklore (PhD track).
I also must insist that my name be included on any further papers that Georgie writes on the subject, as co-author or co-researcher, as my contributions were essential to the project. After all, I rented the boat.
You see, my dear Prof, it all began with a ghastly mistake at this year’s Applied Folklore Conference in Honolulu: my name was entirely absent from the schedule of presentations. Georgie was forced to deliver our research on the Blood children of Butler, CA all by herself.
(Georgie may be too humble to say, but she did tolerably well presenting our research. She only occasionally raided her ample storehouse of swears during the Q&A’s–mostly, but not exclusively, during the A’s.)
After that presentation, Georgie was shanghaied into some follow-up panels at the Conference; and I had some free time to make “an original contribution to the scholarship of Applied Folklore.” I believe that’s the phrase that appears in both the graduate student handbook and Great-Grandpa Hiram’s will, along with dear Hiram’s “he doesn’t inherit a damn cent unless he graduates!” clause. To that end, i.e., graduating and inheriting, I uncovered rumours of a mysterious island off of Honolulu, an island haunted by eerie piping.
That was the story I heard from Raffi, a charming island native I met at the Hawaii Convention Center–or so he at first appeared to be. And he had a boat that was for rent. So I quickly liberated Georgie from a Conference panel on Chinese mountain vampires or vampire mountains or some such, and headed off on Raffi’s boat to investigate the mysteriously piping island.
Alas, the mysterious island was actually one that I’d visited before, since it belonged to my second cousin twice removed, Sophia Randolph y Velasquez. I would have recognized the island in Raffi’s story if only he had used the correct name for it–Sophia Randolph y Velasquez Island–instead of the name he did use, Ka-moku-pe-something. And that eerie piping: merely Sophia’s beloved woodwind orchestra, flown in weekly from Los Angeles.
Georgie had some choice words for Raffi and me, though I couldn’t approve of her choosing them. Since you know Georgie, I won’t bother quoting her verbatim. I’ll trust you to imagine her speech in her native tongue, where expletives serve as nouns, verbs, and surprisingly, I’ve discovered, conjunctions.
Disappointment in every line of his well-lined island face, like a slow-moving molten flow of lava or maybe something else entirely, Raffi promised to show us instead a sunken city whose clock tower alone rose over the waves and tolled melancholically on the anniversary of its flooding.
We declined the offer and opted to return to Honolulu. (Even though I had bought the services of the boat and boatman for the whole afternoon.) Hoping to salvage something scholarly from the trip, I examined some of the odd equipment Raffi kept on the boat. Might this or that tangle of tubes harbour vodyanoi or nereids or some other water sprites? Might I get a paper out of this after all?
No need to go into the boring details of my investigation, but one thing naturally led to another, as it will, and we ended up in an inflatable life raft, bidding adieu to Raffi’s jolly boat as it sank under the clear blue waves. From the ship, we rescued only: a harpoon gun (sans harpoon, which was regretfully left behind in the rush to the life raft because it was unclear who was supposed to carry it and also it was heavy); a single thermos of gin fizz I had prepared for the research jaunt; and a gallon of fresh water (not sparkling).
Let me add here that Raffi’s boat was definitively free of water sprites. Which I tried to explain to Georgie as a worthwhile conclusion.
“Oh, Archy, why do you have to be so darn empty-headed, dear chum?” captures some of Georgie’s attitude, if not her tone.
On the life raft, Raffi cracked open the emergency beacon from the life raft kit and I cracked into my gin fizz and Georgie cracked into her frank thoughts about my utility in the world. There was no pleasing her on that trip as she seemed determined to be cross. For instance, she took exception to the fact that I used some of our water to clean my hands, which had gotten rather dirty from the harpoon.
But luckily, somewhere during her tirade, she was distracted by the sharks that were towing the raft out to the wide blue sea. It was a team effort, multiple sharks clamping their jaws down on some loose bits of rope from the raft.
Finding five or six large sharks towing our life raft was a rather distressing turn of events. Still, even with all the sturm and drang — all of us sorely disappointed by the lack of scholarly progress towards my inheritance — I’d like to formally request an apology from Georgie for calling me some hurtful names that I cannot bear to repeat here. I would almost ask Georgie to apologize to the sharks for the things she said to and about them as they towed us, but as you will see, they just about deserved it all.
“Dear God in Heaven!” was not exactly what Georgie said about the sharks-towing-the-life-raft situation. In a heroic attempt to ward them off, I threw the only thing to hand at the sharks: the emergency beacon. It missed, but I think they got the message.
After that, the sharks towed us with more force. Not wishing to fall off the life raft, we’d been forced to sit and hold on and also squeeze our eyelids shut tightly to avoid getting any saltwater splashed in our eyes, where it would sting tremendously.
And then, when we could see what the sharks were towing us towards, Georgie shouted something like, “What the copulation is that Oedipus-ing copulation?”
I alone knew what we were being towed towards. It was an M Class Princess Yacht, 30M model, with teak flooring and Kraus chrome kitchen fixtures. Only this yacht was tipped at a precarious angle and great holes had been punched into its hull. Several smaller boats were wedged in close to the Princess, lashed together in an abomination of yacht design, like a Sargasso sea but made of boats instead of Sargasso. All the ships were in similar disrepair and one can only wonder at what dark power kept this mass afloat. Shark magic?
Regardless, this makeshift island was the sharks’ destination. They pulled our raft up to the edge of their island, and tied it firmly to a derelict jet ski that formed a sort of peninsula. I was feeling a little sick both from the rocking of the boat-island and from the amputated left hand that still clung to the jet ski’s handle. Judging by the mid-level Seiko dive watch at its wrist, the hand had been there for some time. With such an upset tummy, I could not offer any resistance when the sharks dragged us towards the Princess at the centre of their floating island.
If you don’t mind, dear Prof, I’ll skip over describing all those unpleasant and boring details that Georgie described so precisely: the sharks growing human legs and arms as they came out of the water; their rather shocking state of undress — though I never looked below the neck; their teeth, rusty swords, and rustic spears, with which they herded us. Also, I’ll skip detailing all the strange carvings and symbols that had been carved into the boats.
(I haven’t actually read Georgie’s article, but from skimming, it looks like she included all the pertinent information about the carvings. In addition, I don’t need to remind you of Georgie’s tempestuous anger the last time I tried to draw an odd sigil we found in our research. Speaking of, how is Cincinnati’s gibbering weatherman on Channel 4? I’ve heard he’s down now to a mere three mouths.)
The sharks herded us into the dining room, which was canted at an unhealthy angle, but still had a great deal of natural charm, even if the 30M is a little on the cramped side for me. Still, I don’t think a Sunseeker yacht dining room would have looked half so good spattered with blood as did that Princess dining room. And in the middle of that dining room — do I even need to say it, dear Prof? — was a sacrificial altar: a mass of sea-weed and driftwood scarred with the heavy blows of knives and slimy with never-dry blood.
Besides the altar, the dining room was rather formally kitted out, with some fine china and stemware, all leaned up against the far wall so it wouldn’t fall over or slip. The dining table had been savagely hacked in half to make room for the altar, but had a fine orange tablecloth covering most of what was left
(The tablecloth actually turned out to be a deflated life raft, which I thought was a rather inventive repurposing of readymade materials.)
The sharks roughly shoved us into a corner. They never bothered to disarm us, so we still clutched what we’d rescued from the ship, to wit: Georgie and harpoon gun (sans harpoon); Raffi and water jug (from which he would not look away as he muttered to himself that this was not happening); me and gin fizz thermos. After that, the sharks paid us no mind as they chattered among themselves and prepared for the ritual sacrifice.
About the ritual sacrifice preparations, I will leave that sort of tedium to Georgie. Luckily for her, though their shark teeth gave the sharks a peculiar accent, I rather quickly picked up what they were saying. (“Your freakish and peculiar gift of tongues” is more-or-less how Georgie refers to my proclivity for speech.) And I say this was lucky for her since she occasionally asked me to translate what they were saying as she made notes in the little notebook that she is never without
It struck me around this time that the sharks always referred to themselves as Shark-Gods, but I’m not sure what significance that has. Probably it doesn’t mean anything. I told Georgie all this, along with the names that I had heard individual sharks call each other: Dakuwaka, Kamohoali’i, and Kauhuhu.
“I flipping knew it,” said Georgie. “They’re flipping Shark-gods.”
Well, yes, I explained, that’s what they call themselves, but it probably doesn’t mean anything
At that, Georgie just stared at me without her usual vociferous commentary on my heritage or brain mass, so I assume that she agreed with my analysis.
Now that they were in their home territory, the sharks seemed to relax, as much as sharks can. There certainly seemed to be a mirthful glimmer in their doll-like dead black eyes. They joked among themselves about this ceremonial transfer of power they were about to enact and about how much blood each of us might hold. They grew nostalgic and waxed bittersweet about the old days.
(“Ah, remember the old days?” said the shortest one, as he filed butter knives to a sharper edge.
“Yes, I do,” said the great white Dakuwaka, who was putting on a man’s evening casual shirt with French cuffs.)
They complained to each other about how, though there were more people on Hawaii for them to eat these days, now they had to go out and actually do the hunting, whereas they had formerly been treated as gods and sacrificed to. That was the recurring refrain from the shark who was writing weird glyphs on its body with lipstick. I’ll say it was a hammerhead. I believe that’s a type of shark.
In other words, the Shark-Gods roundly ignored us, which I found rude and mean-spirited. It reminded me strongly of the Folklore Conference, where I hadn’t gotten the attention that was instead showered on Georgie. (Now that I think of it, being ignored by savage monsters also calls up memories of boarding school.) I proudly stood up and declared, in their own language, that I had a name, too. The effect of this was somewhat ruined by the fact that they didn’t actually notice me over their own chatter.
Two things occurred to me in that moment when Georgie pulled me over to her rather roughly after my ignored speech.
One: the Shark-Gods had never actually said any of our names, not even Georgie’s name, which I had heard and seen all that weekend at the conference, practically up in lights: Georgette Hurston. By contrast, the sharks simply called her “Our Dark Queen.”
Two: Raffi must have been in on it–he was surely a degenerate Shark-God cultist, luring us to this doom.
“Nah, man,” he said, when I explained his role in all of this, “I’m just a guy with a boat. Heck, not even that anymore.”
Perhaps, I mused aloud, simple island Raffi had been tricked into serving the Shark-Gods by means conniving and foul and hypnotic.
“Dude,” he said, or something like it, “what’s with all this ‘simple island’ bullhootie? I’m from New Hampshire. I went to BU and majored in Business Administration. And my gosh darn name is Arthur–I never gosh darn told you my name was Raffi. You’re the gosh darn gosh-darner who brought us here.”
Georgie had to separate us after that, only using one hand to push Raffi aside as the other hand was busy scribbling notes. She commented occasionally about what she was writing–something about the Otter society rituals of the Pacific Northwest Indians. I’ve never been to any of their society events, but Georgie seemed to think it significant and somehow “proved her bleeping theory of Pacific Rim interchange.”
Meanwhile, Raffi-Arthur went back to his near catatonic state, the shocks of the day too rough for his simple New Hampshire nature.
Their preparations done, the Shark-Gods remembered that we were there and came for Georgie, to “crown” her, they said. Which I took to be a metaphor — a disgusting metaphor — until I noticed the crown of sharpened butter knives the littlest Shark-God held.
But I bravely threw myself forward, to sacrifice myself in Georgie’s place and be crowned as king of the sharks. Georgie tried to stop me, but my heroism knew no bounds that day and the weight of the harpoon gun she still carried made her easy to push over.
The great white Dakuwaka shrugged and muttered, “Fine, we’ll eat you first.”
I don’t want to underestimate the difficulty of speaking when one’s mouth is full of multiple rows of sharp teeth, but again, I have to note how quite surly and churlish the Shark-Gods were. A little enunciation goes a long way, as dear Great-Uncle Phineas taught me. (That was before Uncle Phin tried to pass his soul into my body. Unsuccessfully, I may add.)
“I’m sorry,” I said, clearly in the shark language, “did you say ‘eat’ or ‘crown’? Oh dear, is this one of those rituals where you crown and then devour your king?” Really, Prof, what are the chances that we would run into another one of those rituals so soon after the Hollywoodland Photo Ghost Fiasco?
I turned to Georgie with a wry smile on my face and no matter what her report says, I want the record to show I had a wry smile on my face. “Who could possibly have known?” I asked.
Georgie raised her hand. “I whoopsie knew that, you whoopsie jackanapes.”
She raised her other hand too, but this one held the gallon jug of fresh water (not sparkling), and she sprayed all of the sharks with the water in a smooth arc. Which seemed like rather a hypocritical move on her part since she had recently chastised me for spilling water when I washed my hands in the life raft. Apparently, when she does it, it’s okay.
Actually, when she did it, the sharks started screaming and grabbing at their now-smoking flesh. The smallest one screamed, fell down, and was no longer moving. Three of the others continued their guttural screams and grabbed at their faces in pain as they launched themselves out of the spacious windows of the Princess yacht’s dining room.
They apparently were trying to get back to the salty embrace of the sea (according to Georgie later). But because the sharks had lashed the boats together so tightly, there was no space between the boats for the sharks to dive into the sea. They dove out of the yacht windows, but instead of that cool relief and splash of shark-in-water, there was instead a ham-like thud as they hit the deck. One seemed to decide to rest there, his shark head at a terrifically uncomfortable angle to his human-like torso. The other two scampered off, but only one made it to the ocean. The other, blinded, ran rather directly into the single mast in sight.
This, however, left the great white in his French cuffed shirt (lacking cufflinks and pants) and the hammerhead with the lipstick glyphs on its skin. (Georgie informs me it was a she, but again, I wouldn’t deign to look.) The great white Dakuwaka had only been slightly burned by the fresh water and now he stood against an unarmed Georgie. Or unharpooned, as she still carried the harpoon gun, sans harpoon. She was also half his size. Even the hammerhead fellow hung back, waiting for Dakuwaka to get the first bite.
But I still had my thermos of gin fizz, and though it was the good stuff, I didn’t hesitate more than a few seconds before I uncapped the thermos and yelled to get Dakuwaka’s attention.
“No,” yelled Georgie, ever-mindful of the cost of the good stuff. But she was too late, as I had already sprayed all the gin directly into the Shark-God’s face and shirt.
Which damaged the shirt, but largely because Dakuwaka seemed to swell up on contact with gin, like a particularly alcoholic sponge. Buttons popped off the shirt as his chest expanded and his already thick hands grew into quite sizable clubs. On a conservative estimate, I’d say Georgie was now one-third his size.
“You son of a —“ Georgie said, though whether she was speaking to Dakuwaka or to me seemed more ambiguous than I expected. Dakuwaka rushed at her, but I never gave up hope, Prof. Next to me, Georgie is clearly your top student — a resourceful folklorist with a wealth of knowledge at her hands.
But she also had the harpoon gun at her hands, and when Dakuwaka rushed her, she swung the metal barrel two-handed into his face. The harpoon gun made a wet smack as it connected, followed by the stick-like sound of his cartilaginous bones cracking, followed by the almost musical ivory tinkle of his teeth spraying out on the floor in front of me.
I thought, discretion being the better part of survival, that we should escape while Dakuwaka grabbed his face in pain. But Georgie continued to beat Dakuwaka around the face and chest area until the harpoon gun was a twisted wreck of metal and Dakuwaka’s shirt was completely ruined.
At which point, I noticed that our hammerheaded friend was making a run for the ocean.
Right before he dove in, I yelled out after him, “And don’t come back!”
And I rather think the Shark-Gods won’t after I gave them that tongue lashing–thereby saving countless Hawaiians.
Nothing of real interest happened after that particular act of heroism on my part. Arthur-Raffi found or fixed a radio on one of the boats and made a call to the nearest rescue team–which happened to be my second cousin twice removed Sophia Randolph y Velazquez. She sent out a chopper to bring us back to Honolulu. This was very kind of her, though she insisted an oboist accompany us the whole way. Still, I must remember to send a thank you card.
Thanks to her, I am able to write these notes to you, setting the record straight on how we really defeated the Churlish Shark-Gods of the Pacific.
Similarly, I am able to send you these curious artifacts: the teeth of the shark-god Dakuwaka. While Georgie was busy on the boat-island making notes about that Pacific interchange between Otter and Shark or some such; and while Raffi-Arthur played around with the radio equipment; I was busy stuffing these shark teeth into the pockets of my boating jacket–at great and heroic risk to the inner lining of my boating jacket.
In fact, the inner lining already looks somewhat torn up, as if the teeth were able to move on their own and have been trying to escape. Now that I have the teeth laid out on the table, they do seem curiously restless. I suppose it would be a great disaster if these teeth somehow got loose during their trip from here to the University of Chicago. I mean: what a great loss that would be to our research. I’m sure the teeth themselves don’t have the power to grow into new sharks or the malicious will to constantly consume.
Ah well, I’m not the expert that you are, Professor Stern. I’m sure that you will find these teeth fascinating and potentially worth a slight bump in this quarter’s grade.
Wishing you the best and hoping we can get my name on an academic paper soon,
Archibald Balfour Cox-Randolph
Ben Blattberg is a software developer, improviser, and writer currently living in Austin, TX, as long as there are no followup questions on any of those facts. His stories have appeared in PodCastle, Diabolical Plots, Apex Magazine, and other venues.