The moment your existence is questioned or threatened, the rule of priority of life sets in. You understand all of its implications, all its necessities, all of its sacrifices. The fight seeps through your skin permeates the air around you and provides you with the strength to make it through almost anything.
For me, a shark provided the clarity I needed to survive.
My girlfriend and I were on our vacation for the summer. A one week get away, down in the Duck area of North Carolina. Late August provided the cheapest prices for the nicest rental houses and proved to be the less populated season, with late June and deep July claiming fame to prime beach time.
It was a simple morning. Early and crisp, with the sun just peaking over the horizon. I threw on my dark swim shorts and decided to go for a swim before the rest of the vacationers lugged their coolers and umbrellas out on to the sand like beached whales. It was comical to see whole families walk uncomfortably across scorching sand, hands full of chairs that created wedgies, coolers that kept the beer cold, and suntan lotion for babies.
Now, though, the sand was cool between my toes. Traces of crab scuttles marked the sand, giving evidence to an active night before. I had one pole resting on my right shoulder. The orange flag attached to the end flapped aimlessly in the wind. Since I needed nowhere to sit to soak up the twilight rays, I had to mark my place somehow. I brought the flag with me every time we visited this beach because every set of stairs leading to the back of each waterfront house was notoriously similar.
Similar. It’s how life had been feeling lately. Not monotonous. Definitely not boring. My girlfriend was anything but a bore. She kept my life at a pace I could barely keep up with and I loved her for it. We were both field medics, saving lives and such. It was a beautiful and haunting job. The majority of the calls we went out on were traffic incidents. And I say incidents because it would astonish the layman as to how many auto accidents were not accidents at all, but road rage and retribution for a small cut off here or a missing turn signal there.
But back to similar. More like deja vu. Deja vu of me standing somewhere alone reflecting on my thoughts, of the world around me, of the multitude of problems everyone else had. What I had was simple. I had a job I loved, I had a girlfriend whose careful strokes across my forearm gave me goosebumps, and I had this morning.
With the wind blowing against my ankles, I jabbed the pole into the sand near the shore and waited a moment until the flag caught in the breeze. Its flapping was a familiar and comforting sound. As I walked to the water, the sand moistened. My hairs stood at attention in response to the coolness of the water. And just as the sun peeked over the horizon, I dove in.
The water jetted over my ears, down my back, and across my feet. The waves propelled me down and up as I pushed my way through the current. I always swam against the current so the swim back was easier and more relaxing. The waves kicked up sand and small shells, yet nothing bothered me. I swam with my eyes closed and listened to the churning ocean and clicking dolphins underwater miles away. As my head broke the surface of the water, I took a deep breath in and submersed once more.
And at that moment, it hit me.
A force, stronger than any I have ever felt, pushed my back into the melting sand on the ocean floor. As I was pushed deeper into the sand, I felt shells dig into my shoulders and puncture skin. And then the burning began. Searing, lightning, stinging pain in my left shoulder. I opened my eyes and spotted the monster on my left. It gnawed at me as if I was a piece of meat.
And then it really hit me. This was a shark. My heart skipped a beat at the realization and time slowed. Seconds turned into minutes, and minutes to hours. Albert Einstein had relativity on point.
I felt the animals teeth seek deeper into my shoulder and it began to swing it’s snout back and forth. I clawed at its slick skin, looking for a hook in the shark’s gills but I had no luck. It slung me forward, and gave me the advantage. Raking the sand for some kind of weapon, my fingers stumbled upon a shell large enough to injure. I grasped at it and hurled it at the shark. It made impact and startled the shark, making it loosen its grip on my shoulder but bit down harder lower on my arm. Blood coursed through the water and I could taste its coppery tang.
My heart raced and my body tensed. I could literally feel the shark’s teeth ripping though my skin, muscle, and tendon. I lost all sensation of my left hand and knew I was in trouble when the shark began to wrangle. Shaking me around like a rag doll until suddenly… it stopped. It let go and darted off into the darkness.
As I was released, I pushed my way up to the surface and gasped for breath when my face hit air. Cold air filled my lungs and it felt like God had granted me a second chance. Floating there for just a moment, I caught my breath and then realized that as I swayed my arms around in the water to keep afloat, that I was loosing massive amounts of blood.
I swam as fast as I could, thanking the current for not changing direction on me. I saw my flag. The orange one I had set up just a half an hour ago still waved in the breeze. When I reached the shore, I dug my feet into the sand to stand. Instantly, I fell to my knees and was pushed over by a small wave hitting the sodden sand. I felt weak, out of breath, almost childishly tired. I braced my self on my right hand to try and stand up, looking toward the sky for support, and that’s when I saw it.
Blood was pouring from the tattered remains of my arm. I froze. By tattered remains, I mean nothing. I had nothing where my arm should have been. And as I began to freak out, I could feel my blood leaving my body even quicker with the hastening of my heart. I flopped onto my back and pushed my self out of the surf as much as possible. I had to tourniquet this. Stop the blood flow. But with what?
I looked around. I knew I only had a matter of minutes, maybe seconds before I would lose consciousness and bleed out. My breathing shallowed. Grasping for anything, I felt the string around my waist. The one that held up my swim shorts would work. I fumbled with the knot, oh god. A wet knot is nearly impossible to untie with one hand. Some way, somehow, I unraveled the tie and yanked it out of my shorts.
I could barely move. All of my muscles ached and burned and not only was I losing blood from my missing appendage, but the bite on my shoulder was spilling my blood onto the sand as well. Biting onto one end of the string, I tossed the other end over the remains of my arm. Thankfully, I had just enough arm left to tourniquet. Quickly, I struggled to tie the string as tightly as possible. The bleeding had slowed, but not enough. I needed help if I was going to survive.