Shark Teeth and Sand
by Melissa A. Domjan
I find my first shark tooth on vacation that year. Each morning my husband and I sneak to the deck on tiptoe. Alone for the sunrise, we sit with hot tea and coffee in deck chairs pushed close together, our hands on the chair arms, pinkies and forearms touching. Will the sun melt on the water like an egg yolk, or spread evenly, crisp yellow light piercing the sky like swords? Below us, people are already combing the beach, but it isn’t until later in the day, sifting sand with my youngest daughter, that the tooth turns up in my sieve: a little seed barely big enough to be caught. I call my daughter and she pushes her face close to mine as we look at the charcoal gray tooth, ridged where it once joined jawbone. That is a shark tooth, we say. We throw it back in the sea, but that tiny tooth changes everything. Knowing how to see them, we find them spread across the sand in all directions. This is also the year when dried pasta spread across the floor in all directions. This same daughter came running to the kitchen when she heard the crash. There were dried, yellow rotini from the refrigerator to the hallway. –Oh my goodness, pasta spilled everywhere! –Yes, Daddy dropped it. He stands motionless, breathing hard, jaw set, and then slowly walks out of the kitchen. I look down at the blue pasta box on the floor and see the tiny, busty woman in a low-cut white blouse, spotless red skirt, and glamorous hoop earrings. She is untouched by the force that accordioned the box. Sturdy and competent, she is hefting two bales of wheat. The first time I noticed her was fifteen years ago in Chicago. He wasn’t my husband then,
only my friend, and he had put on jazz music I’d never heard, brought mushrooms in shapes I’d never seen, Fontina cheese and cilantro, things I’d never tasted. I watched his hands move over the mushrooms as he cleaned them, watched him taste the cheese and smile. Behind the steam from the pasta pot, I saw her wide grin, flanked by the golden hoops. She grinned as we finished everything on our plates, left our unwashed dishes, rushed to the fold-out couch, removed clothing like it was on fire, disappeared into our bodies. Her smile from the floor is as broad as ever, but mine is forced as I take my seven-year-old’s hand. –Let’s get this cleaned up and start dinner. Are you hungry? Shark teeth are white in the mouth, alive and fed by oxygen and blood and calcium. But washed up on the beach they are black fossils, each one a remnant of an old life, an underwater animal buried by silt before decay began. They prove that ominous creatures exist, writhing masses of them, black and muscled beneath the turquoise water.
He stops cooking. He stops playing music. Our whole life, there has been a rented cello or double bass, Real Books and sheet music on the tables and sofas. Now, the guitar remains in its case, music stacked on a shelf gathering dust. We don’t know which mood disorder he has, it has seeped in slowly. At the beach the next year, he sleeps and I watch the sunrise alone. My youngest daughter and I fill a saltshaker with hammerhead, tiger, and great white teeth. Little bursts of endorphins come with each tooth. My older daughter doesn’t join us, cries asking why Daddy stopped loving her. Give him time, the medicines will work, I urge. I believe my words. Layers of calcium build slowly to protect a soft, vulnerable animal. Mollusks work privately, secreting minerals to separate themselves from what hurts, shells that litter the beach.
On a warm, dry April morning five years since the first shark tooth, the girls and I drive to a swim meet ninety minutes from home. The girls aren’t sad, I have concealed the reasons to be, but I offer treats—caramel lattes and hot chocolate. I tell them their father went to the hospital last night to get his medications adjusted. I don’t tell them that I found him pacing the hallway, detailing specific, imminent plans for his exit. Not from our marriage, our home—from his life. I don’t tell them he hissed at me on the telephone this morning, demanding I get him out of there. Today it is someone’s else’s turn to watch over him, to be ineffective. We speed down barren highways, past brown grass, gray pavement, and white sky and arrive in an unfamiliar town. As we get out of the car, my youngest spots a bumper ornament. Walking closer, we realize that the fuzzy yellow ball is not a toy, but a goldfinch corpse caught in the grill of a mammoth SUV. The bird’s face is weirdly intact, pointed outward, eyes open, frozen like taxidermy. –Oh Mama, I wish I hadn’t seen that. I squeeze her shoulders and walk her inside. I sit with my older daughter and sip my sickly-sweet drink, looking down at the squirrelly activity on the pool deck. My mind moves carefully, the way a body moves hours after a splitting headache. Take a sip of latte. Wave to that woman from the daycare, what’s her name? Smile. Watch the board. Don’t miss her events. Touch the child next to you. The mom from the preschool again. Don’t stare. There is nothing in her face to explain how your lives have diverged.
They adjust the chemicals they feed him. I sit with him on the brown plaid sofa as the ultrathin psychiatrist with long fingers leans forward.
–Are your mood swings getting worse? Yes, I think. –Do you ever feel overwhelming anger? Yes, I do. –Do you sleep well? Not often. My husband answers these questions aloud, and she scratches notes. My husband has researched the mood disorders, underscores the ways the descriptions fail, overlooks what fits. Each human brain is an amorphous jellyfish of its own design, floating in a human sea of endogenous salts, trace metals, and organic compounds. Those jellyfish become friable, or stay moist and luscious, each developing a unique pattern of tiny bubbles like Kusama stars. When the prescribed chemicals do not restore his happiness, I should not be surprised. But I am.
Summer comes again, and habit rents us a house on the beach. It’s been six years since the first shark tooth. There is no wildlife at the beach, he says. I look around at brown pelicans, white-bellied killdeer, orange-beaked American oystercatchers, black skimmers, umber-speckled sandpipers. There are tiny gray shrimp clinging to dark green seaweed, bubbles in the sand where periwinkles burrow deep among horseshoe crabs. I leave him on the deck, peering over the railing. A prescription bottle filled with shark teeth is on the kitchen counter. I pour them into my hand, black and shiny reminders of living creatures, now disembodied, lost to themselves. I push the teeth back into the amber bottle and look out at the sky—purple, cornflower, and steely blue streaks, with cottony clouds deepening the colors. I fill a glass with red wine, and taste chocolate and smoke. The broccoli rabe foliage is ornate, polka dots of a dozen greens decorating the florets. Near the window, my older daughter is reading a book with a bright orange cover, and my younger daughter is painting her toenails robin’s egg blue. Shark teeth are a distraction, I realize. The important thing is sand, passing through the sieve. So unidentifiable, each grain, no single one meaningful. Ordinary pasta dinners, a night on a fold-out sofa, a sunrise with tea. Children that built a sandcastle, learned to read, accumulated hurts. No individual day seemed worth saving, and then the whole handful, washed away in a gush of water. I call them to the kitchen. One on each side, we sauté garlic, their hands gently on my back. I see them taste the Fontina and smile. I watch as one pours rigatoni into the pot. Behind the swirls of steam, I see her on the box, wearing those hoop earrings, hefting that wheat. I take the box and using kitchen scissors, I cut across the blue cardboard and circle around her. I write Topsail, the date, and our names on her cardboard back. I put her in my pocket and we sit down to eat.
Melissa Domjan grew up in the Midwest and now resides in North Carolina. Her writing is informed by a depth of scientific interests, especially in the areas of health and disease, environment, and genetics. "Shark Teeth and Sand" is her first published work of fiction.