A Shark Story for My Son

Note: In 1937, a bull shark swam up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico to Alton, Illinois, where it was caught by a couple of fishermen. That's 700 miles as the crow flies, countless more in the twists of the river. Eau Claire, Wisconsin is only another 500 miles north of Alton. Who knows, stranger things...

They all said even though it was possible, it would never happen. They kept saying it as they stood on the bridge over the river, the lights of the TV cameras the brightest part of the cloudy fall day, with proof swimming thirty feet beneath them in the gray water.

“Bull sharks are part of the elasmobranchii subclass that can survive in both salt and fresh water, but it’s extremely unlikely they would swim this far north,” the biologist said as he clutched the lapels of his lab coat. “I just don’t see how that would be possible.”

The reporter lowered her microphone and failed to hide her confusion. The shark’s fin darted out from under the bridge after a group of ducks that flapped away just before they became lunch. “But there’s one right there,” said the reporter. “How do you explain that?”

The scientist stared at the outline of the shark before it faded into deeper water. “Bull sharks would never swim all the way to Wisconsin. It wouldn’t happen.”

Despite the disbelief of the scientists, there it was, swimming between the old railroad footbridge and the point of the river confluence. The government was convinced it was a hoax or an accident. Someone must have been transporting the shark who-knows-where for god-knows-what, and the truck crashed or, hidden in darkness, some joker backed up to a boat landing and released the beast. There was no way it swam all the way up the Mississippi, took a right at the Chippewa River, jumped over dams, dodged bridges, and navigated the shallow stretches without anyone noticing. No matter how the shark got there, the people who worried about that sort of thing were very worried. The sheriff’s small fishing boats couldn’t capture a beast like that. Killing the thing would cause an uproar. The best hope was that falling temperatures would push the animal south a little each day until it found the Gulf of Mexico again. And if it stayed in Wisconsin, the freezing river would eventually kill it. The best the people in charge could do was wait.

Everyone else who wasn’t an expert thought the tropical visitor was delightful. They arrived at the park that lined the river, parked their cars, and walked over the bridge or down to the point carrying plastic bags full of old meat from their backs of their freezers. They threw their dried out roasts and gamey venison steaks into the water. They tried skipping their leftover chicken thighs and gristly porkchops across the surface. The shark learned quick that he preferred his meat thawed, so he ignored the still-frozen offerings, which bobbed in the river until they warmed, like a giant stew. Sometimes the shark would snatch the meat from the surface without much fuss, and sometimes he put on a show, with a full breach, mouth wide, and terrifying teeth snapping down on the snack. Everyone cheered when he did that. Someone set out a table on the sidewalk to sell t-shirts. One little boy with curly hair and too big teeth ran between groups of spectators to share his knowledge of sharks. “Did you know bull sharks are the largest of the requiem sharks?” “Did you know bull sharks give birth to four to ten pups at a time?” “Did you know bull sharks are the most dangerous shark to humans?”

There were a few close calls. The crowd almost lost a few dogs that were jealous of the shark’s meaty bounty. The canines wandered too far into the water and found only the shark’s jagged teeth racing towards them. Dozens of cell phones and sets of keys plunked into the water under bridge, dropped by shark enthusiasts trying to juggle bags of meat and cameras and purses and toddlers climbing the railing to get a better look. Although it was too cold, several groups of teenagers tubed down the river past the shark, to get a better look, to prove their toughness, and those inflated flotillas provoked at least one attack. They lost a tube. The tuber was fine.

And then, a few weeks later, the show was over. The shark remained, hungry, out of place, and alone, but the novelty had worn off. The people went back to feeding the ducks, which had learned to stay on land to avoid the river’s violent and increasingly unwelcomed guest. The weather got colder, and the sheriff started making plans for what to do with the shark’s body when it finally froze to death. No one cared anymore.

Except for the little boy with the curly hair and the teeth.

He still came to the river and offered the pieces of meat he had hidden in his pockets from previous dinners.

The shark jumped out of the water to eat them, and the boy laughed each time, but they were both worried. So the boy did what he had to do.

He took off his shoes and stepped into the water. His feet went numb immediately, but he gritted his teeth and kept going. He couldn’t pull his pants up any higher than his knees, so they got wet, but he didn’t stop. Then he saw the dorsal fin racing towards him, and he winced and turned and prepared for the worst.

But the shark stopped and swam in a circle in front of him, and the boy relaxed. He pulled a slice of ham out of his pocket.

“Hey,” he said, “you need to swim south.” He threw the ham downriver. The shark swam to it, ate it, and returned.

“No,” said the boy, “you need to keep going. Otherwise you won’t survive.” He pulled out a piece of hamburger and threw it farther. The shark chased it, ate it, and came back.

“You don’t understand,” the boy said, and sighed.

If sharks stop swimming, they drown, but this one paused for a minute and turned its great head and looked the boy in the eye. The boy looked back, face full of worry and hope. He whispered, “Please.” And then the shark understood.

The boy had one morsel left in his pocket, half a hot dog. He pulled his arm back, exhaled, and threw it as far down the river as he could. The shark raced to the ripples it left in the water, chomped the morsel, and kept swimming. The ducks looked around and hopped back into the river. The boy stood on the point that marked the farthest north a shark had ever swam. He stood there for a long time.

Eric RasmussenFiction