The Depths

by Faith Novak

Pupukea Beach Park, North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii. Photograph by Ken Lund

Bianca Louis sinks her toes into the fine white O’ahu sand. The ocean breeze fills her lungs. Behind her, food trucks bustle by as the heavy aromas of acai bowls and fish tacos mask the salty sea. It’s a perfect morning for surfing.

Bianca and her family recently moved to the Hawaiin Islands from the coast of North Carolina, where her parents worked as anesthesiologists specializing in trauma cases. They retired early from that life and now spend their days as surf instructors. Bianca and her older sister, J.M., short for Jennifer Marie, are their first students. 

Bianca loves Hawaii. Constant relaxation. Luaus. And of course, surfing. The sport is in her blood. She likes competing with her sister. A month ago, Bianca bet J.M. that she could land a trick first: the perfect alley-oop. Bianca did. The prize? J.M.’s glistening shark tooth necklace, which now adorns Bianca’s neck wherever she brings her surfboard. It has become her good luck charm when conquering the ocean.

It looks like she’s the first surfer on the water. “Dawn patrol.” A coil of waves crash down on the shoreline. She’s tired of the same old tricks. Floaters, foam climbs, alley-oops. Kid tricks. Today she’s going to land what J.M. has only dreamed of landing: the roundhouse cutback.

A hazel palm tree shades her board. It smells of key lime wax. The velcro strap, Bianca notices, is worn-down and sandy. She’ll need to replace it soon, but not today. Bianca sheds her father’s shirt that’s been covering up her bikini, picks up the stick, and whips it up above her head. The Pacific Ocean awaits. 

A hodad is slumped in his beach chair, covered in a blanket. He says to Bianca, “I’d wait at least an hour before you go surfing, little lady. Men in grey suits.” 

She ignores him, races to the shoreline without looking back. Her foot nicks a sharp object in the sand, drawing a gasp. Bianca looks down. A little lead-colored shark tooth, bulging out of the sand, is dotted with blood. How ironic. Afraid of all the infectious diseases her parents have warned her about and nauseum, Bianca hops one-footed back to her dad’s shirt, rips a swath off with her hands and teeth, the way he taught her, and ties the cloth around the cut. Good enough to last a few waves, anyway, if not all morning.

The swells out there are towering. They cast shadows over the clear water. Their crashing sounds call her by name.

Bianca.

She throws her board down at the water’s edge and flops belly-down on it, paddling out. She envisions herself completing the roundhouse cutback from the drop: knees bent, the nose carving a “figure 8” in the silky crest. When the wave finally breaks, applause from the shoreline breaks out. She is triumphant, proud, the image of perfection.

Bianca wakes up from this daydream. 

The tips of her dijon mustard hair rest on the wet board. The salt water encrusts her toned, muscular limbs. The sun’s hitting her just right. She propels herself forward by pushing the water backwards in repetitive motions to reach a hilly section, perfect spot for a warm up surf. She turns her nose to face the shore. Knees hit the deck, then her feet. Bianca feels the sting in her foot, where the tooth bit, but the drop is smooth and so is her glide through the barrel. She extends her hand to touch the water-wall. 

Suddenly, the fin snags the ocean floor, and she’s thrown off. Her shoulder smacks the sharp shells and bumpy rocks. The leash of the board pulls at her ankle.

Almost perfect, she thinks. The section, it turns out, is too shallow. For the roundhouse, she’ll have to venture farther out.

Starting up her paddle again, she scans the waters ahead, hoping for an A-frame or heavy. But the O’ahu, it seems, has lulled, losing its height and thrust and majesty. Little mushburgers roll past her and break into ankle-slappers at the shore. Patience now will be her test. 

Bianca rests her elbows on the deck, propping her chin up. She imagines the look on J.M.’s face when, later today, she’ll tell her about the roundhouse. 

Then again, knowing J.M., she probably won’t believe her. Or, even worse, shrug it off like it’s no big deal. Like their Tutu’s beautiful glass vase, the one Mom got her for her birthday, with the cool green sea turtle and zig-zaggy blue waves. It stood so pretty and perfect on their grandmother’s fireplace mantel. And what did J.M. do when she found out Bianca loved the vase? She picked it up and carried it around the living room, into the bathroom, the kitchen, like it was a kid’s toy. And what did J.M. do when the vase slipped from her careless fingers and shattered on the floor, sending a turtle shard into Bianca’s bare foot? She shrugged. Said, “You’re obsessed with it, you clean it up!” Then reminded Bianca where Tutu keeps the Bandaids. 

That’s just who J.M. is, though, Bianca thought. She can’t see the beauty in little things. 

Bianca swoons over a large wave, drawing her attention back to the pristine waters of the ocean. There’s a slight odor of metal in the air. The waves ahead are growing. Fifty feet ahead over her is a dark blob. It’s getting closer, growing larger as it nears the surface. Bianca withdraws her arms from the water, then her feet, as the figure breaks the water.

It’s a sea turtle!  

Bianca releases a breath of relief. She centers herself on the board for a closer look. The turtle’s shell, it seems, is dented. Its spotted head smiles at her before it’s swallowed by a wave the size of a hill. 

Over the horizon, she sees it: the perfect A-frame, headed her way. She scoots the nose toward the shore. She kisses the lucky charm dangling from her neck and starts paddling, paddling, paddling. She thinks, If Bethany Hamilton can do it with one arm… Then everything darkens. She rises with the wave, then drops. Foam curls at the top of the wave. She cuts into the face and upward, then whips her back leg around to complete the figure 8. But she doesn’t whip hard enough. The stick is pulled from under her and she plummets into the water.

While submerged, the necklace breaks from her neck. Bianca feels it happen, then sees the little tooth drifting to the ocean floor. Bianca tries reaching for it, tries swimming after it, but the leash around her ankle stops her. She feels the surfboard tombstoning above her at the surface. She has to swim back up for air. 

Breathless, she thinks, J.M.’s right. There’s no hope. It’s too hard. I’m not an expert surfer. I’ll never be able to do this. 

Bianca pulls off the velcro, takes a deep breath, and dives back down. 

On the ocean floor, her hands sift through goopy wet sand, ribbed shells, seaweed, rocks with algae-encrusted ridges. They dance around her as she frantically searches. She’s down to her last few air bubbles when a line of flat beads appears, wrapped around a rock. Her necklace! Bianca grabs it and launches herself up to the surface. 

Her board’s only a few feet over, nothing to die over. She catches it and checks for dings and creases. Then climbs on, reattaching the velcro to her ankle.

Now, a moment to rest. O’ahu, it appears, has lulled again. But the small swells feel like a blessing to Bianca. She’s tired. She’s out of breath. Her foot is stinging. She notices that her bandage is gone. When, exactly, did it fall off? Blood trickles from the cut onto the tail, diluting in the salt water puddle. 

Maybe it’s time to call it a day.

“Biaaaaaancaaaaa!”

It’s J.M., calling her from the shore. 

She doesn’t have her surfboard on her. She’s wearing jeans. What’s she doing at the beach so early? 

“BiaaaaaanCAAAA!”

She’s told Bianca that she’ll never pull a roundhouse cutback, no matter how hard she tried. 

I must’ve been close to landing it, Bianca thinks. Closer than I thought, anyway. Why else would J.M. come all the way out here to taunt me? 

Guess what, big sister? The joke’s on you!

Bianca paddles back to the deep section, far enough where she can hear J.M. but can’t understand a word she’s yelling. Good. Bianca can’t have that negative energy right now. Only positive vibes from here on.

Bobbing up and down with the mush, she scans the clear water for her sea turtle friend. Where there are turtles, there are waves. She spots the darkening blob ahead, in the next section, caught in the through of a groundswell. The size of it indicates that it’s bigger, much bigger, than that first turtle! 

And here now come the waves.

Bianca paddles farther out, to the depths. A school of fish zooms under her board. More than one, actually. Various species, their scales reflecting the movement of the water, and the sun’s rays beaming through. They’re so pretty, Bianca has to shake her head, like a sopping wet dog, to refocus on her mission.

The biggest wave of the morning, a bomb, approaches. This is it!

She points her nose to the shore and looks for J.M. She’s still there, waving her arms to me. Not a greeting, but a plea for Bianca’s attention. 

The surfer thrusts forward, her hands like motors, and the board rises with the wave. Her hair flaps in the wind. There isn’t much time. The swell curling behind her, she stands up, angles the board with her feet, cuts hard, harder than she’s ever cut. She ducks inside the barrel. Then, closing her eyes, whips her back around. The deck lands upright. Bianca’s still on her feet.

No. Way. 

Bianca screams with joy.

She can’t believe it. 

She conquered O’ahu!

From the shore, J.M.’s screaming. Like she’s losing her mind, too. Bianca kneels down and unstraps herself from the leash. Her stick thuds beneath her.

“What was that?” she says, scanning the waters ahead.

The teeth—what feels like knives—tear into her calf. Throbbing, shooting pain. Bianca turns around and sees a large grey fin submerging. Blood pools around her. 

Where there was once a leg, only ripped flesh and a mangled limb remain. Muscle and bone. The leg itself, gone like a snack. 

J.M.’s shrieking channels through the air and sea. It covers the beach like broken glass. 

The shark will be back any second.

Bianca struggles to paddle through the murky red sludge. It spreads larger every second. Her head feels lighter. The stench of metal and iron burn her nose. 

She feels the teeth again. They snap at her knee cap. Then her thigh. Bianca turns and kicks the predator with the only leg she has left, aiming for the creature’s eye.

It’s gone. Bianca’s tears have ceased. There’s nothing to cry about. Her board carries her with the ebb and flow of the waves, inching closer to the shore. Her life is bleeding out into the crimson tide.

She rests her head on the board. J.M. is rushing to her.

♠ ♣ ♥ ♦

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