by Susanne Gervay
Pounding her arms through the surf, Zoe’s surfboard dips and rises. With her back arched, she looks for the gleaming line behind the swell of waves. Out to sea into the beyond. She makes a final charge ahead, riding against the curling rolls before they arch and crash into white fury. When her board reaches smooth waters, she surveys the horizon, dividing earth and the heavens. Then she flips her board around, and calls out to Caleb. ‘What kept you?’
‘Someone had a head start.’ Laughing, Caleb skims his hand over the glassy water. With a flick, he splashes her.
Zoe splashes him back, the water catching the light in a rainbow of colours and stars.
They float beside each other, watching the swells, gaps between sets, currents, surfers’ riding waves. Caleb points down the beach to a pod of grey dolphins, flying and bounding like champion aerialists. Two dolphins spin in the air. ‘I’d love to surf like that.’
Zoe watches them dive away. Her blue eyes soften. She looks up at the sun gleaming between white clouds. It’s a perfect day.
‘Come on, Caleb. Let’s ride a wave.’
They surf all summer. In winter, they put on their wet suits, but winter is not blue and warm like the Aussie summer. Caleb and Zoe have been beach buddies since they were five. When Zoe’s parents welcomed the family from India who settled next door, Zoe’s mother was happy. Caleb was a friend for Zoe. He just had to learn to swim.
Zoe’s mother would sit on the sand and watch them play at the water’s edge. She’d watch Zoe’s father surfing like a hero, tunnelling through foam spitting tubes, carving and cutting, rocketing over the waves. She would clap, until one day she did not clap. Could not clap. Until one day only Zoe’s father watched them on the beach. Until.
They scattered creamy frangipanis with golden hearts into the ocean. They scattered Zoe’s mother’s ashes with broken hearts into the ocean. The white and grey of seagulls shimmered above them flying in a V formation in a salute.
Zoe’s mother became part of the sea. Her dad taught Zoe to surf after that. He taught Caleb too, so she’d always have a buddy.
‘Hey Caleb. That’s my wave.’ Zoe paddles fast, catching the swell. Standing on her board, she drops into a wall of water. She skims at incredible speed, flying with the wind in her face, salt on her lips, sun on her back. Raising her arms, she feels like a sea gull soaring.
As she heads out again, a familiar voice faintly drifts from the shore. She turns. Her father has followed them down to the beach. ‘Zoe. Zoe.’ He’s waving.
Zoe smiles and waves back. Paddling to the line where the swell begins, she waits and watches. That is what surfers do. Wait and watch. She studies the swell, wind, sun, currents, sea, sky. Caleb is on a ripping ride. Zoe gasps as he spins into the air, flipping his surfboard three hundred and sixty degrees.
It has been an amazing morning. Zoe floats on her board, letting the warmth of summer trickle through her. She dozily looks towards the horizon. From the corner of her deep blue eyes, grey lights ripple under the glassy swell. She loves dolphins beyond the sea and the sun and the stars at night. Smiling, she peers into the water, when a chill zigzags through her. A large oval shadow ripples under her board. Too big for a dolphin. The fin doesn’t swerve into a dolphin curve. It’s knife-straight. Her heart pounds and she starts paddling. But the huge shadow tails her, worrying the water.
Slowly, a dark blue eye without eyelids, emerges beside her. Then it disappears. Zoe paddles faster than she has ever done before. Breathless, she splashes the glassy surface into shards of light. Then everything erupts. Water spits and swirls, all-consuming like a tornado. Zoe holds onto her board for her life. But she is not strong enough. Her surfboard trembles and she’s sucked into the sea.
The great white attacks. Instinctively, she punches its white belly. Her arms swinging, her legs pounding, she kicks, kicks, kicks. The shark retreats. Zoe scrambles back onto her board. She’s paddling towards the beach, but she can’t out-surf the shark and it’s coming back. Fear grips her like when her mother died, like her nightmares that her father will abandon her. Like she is alone forever.
Beneath the water, the dark shadow glides towards her again, gaining speed, slicing the sea. Faster and faster. It surges. The waters part into monumental foam and spray. Breaching high into the air like a super-god, the great white arcs, with its mouth open wide. Double rows of jagged teeth glare from its enormous jaw. Screaming, Zoe hurtles off her board. In the face of whirls of thrashing fins, she clasps her board like a warrior shield. The great white charges again, hitting the board hard, again and again, dragging the board and Zoe into a deathly spin. When the shark falters, dizzy and momentarily confused. Zoe struggles back onto her board.
The water is calm again. Zoe glides gently along the outer line, where the swell begins. The great white shark re-emerges, gliding beside her again. Slowly Zoe turns her head. She stares with her deep blue eyes into the shark’s dark blue eye. A calm spreads through Zoe, as the great white silently watches her. Her panic scatters, like confetti playing in the sea breeze. She feels her mother here. The sun warms her back. The sparkling blue of the sea surrounds her. Distant murmurs make her glance back to see Caleb swimming towards her. Then she glances to the shore. Her father is coming for her because he would never abandon her.
The great white swims beside Zoe. Their deep blue eyes connect again. Zoe stares at the great white. The shark stares at her. She doesn’t paddle or panic. She just lets go, trusting the sea to take her home.
With a smooth swish, the great white shark ripples the surface, glides together with Zoe. Then, turns away. Disappearing beyond the swell, into the infinite sea.
Her father’s arms are around her. Caleb is beside her. The sea surrounds her. Her mother’s heart is hers. She is not afraid anymore.
This story is inspired by an interview with a surfer who survived a great white shark attack at Cellito Beach, NSW. He fought off a great white, but at the end of the attack, when he felt calm and at peace, the great white shark stared at him, turned away and let him live. He felt it was a spiritual experience about acceptance of life.
“Sharks can be stared down” according to Australian Geographic. https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/wildlife/2018/02/10-myths-about-sharks-the-truth/
Susanne Gervay: Awarded the Lifetime Social Justice Literature Award by the International Literacy Association, Order of Australia, nominee for Australia for Lindgren Memorial Award, Susanne Gervay is recognised for her writing on social justice. Her award winning stories are published in literary journals and anthologies including the Indian Subcontinent-Australian anthology ‘Fear Factor, Terror Incognito’ on terrorism alongside the works of Sir Salman Rushdie and Thomas Keneally. She represented Australia in ‘Peace Story’ an IBBY, UNICEF anthology where 22 authors, 22 illustrators from 22 countries wrote for peace.
She writes from picture books to young adult novels. Her award winning I Am Jack children’s books which have become rite-of-passage on school bullying adapted into an acclaimed play by Monkey Baa Theatre has toured theatres across Australia and USA. Her books are endorsed by The Cancer Council, Room to Read, bringing literacy to the children of the developing world, Children’s Hospital Westmead Sydney, Books in Homes reaching Indigenous and disadvantaged schools, Life Education, many anti bullying and literacy organisations.
An acclaimed national and international speaker, Susanne Gervay is head of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators SCBWI Australia East and New Zealand, Ambassador for many literacy, reading and equity campaigns. www.sgervay.com