When Grandfather was young and still lived on the sea, his family traded tripang for fresh water and rice with Chinese medicine men. But Boy Grandfather had no interest in life on land. The days his family spent trading, he stayed in the water—his playground and schoolroom. And the animals all knew him.
One of these animals was a young shark named Sultan. Many boys and girls of the Riau had little sharks they loved back in the days before housing settlements. A young shark was just another fish to them. Kids played with eels, and they caught snakes. These animals taught them about the sea. But Boy Grandfather and Sultan were different.
This particular shark was darker than others, almost black, and he was just as curious about other things living in the sea as Boy Grandfather was. The shark began by working small, inquisitive circles and figure eights nearby as Boy Grandfather played—not the calculated course of a predator, but crooked little questions. When Boy Grandfather went up for air, he swam within the shark’s tangled little routes and up through its wake. This shark darted away but then passed beneath his feet again as Boy Grandfather’s sliver of a body rose—a little game of tag.
Boy Grandfather went under again, and the shark at first acted disinterested and distant. Boy Grandfather did the same, looking for his brothers and sisters. But then the fish inched back in a series of swimming statements and questions.
Sultan’s tail had a greater energy than the other fish. Boy Grandfather did not see this same type of eagerness elsewhere. The shark possessed a unique awareness in its nonchalant observation of the other divers. It slowed to a comfortable and measured glide, held its subject in its dark gaze, studied it, and then with a start—as though it just realized they were not the same species after all—its black eye widened; Grandfather attests to this claim. Then the crescent of its tail twitched almost imperceptibly, and with a great flick, sailed off into the deeper distant blue, scattering vivid schools of yellows and reds from its path. This was no beast to be feared. It was interested and shy. The two of them shared the water the rest of the day, while brothers and sisters and friends played among their own kind.
After he broke the water’s surface, the world beneath received and remembered him. The fish all around welcomed him back with inviting stares.
Being so near sharks was common back then. They were everywhere, and a good diver was always alert. Yet Boy Grandfather did not watch Sultan with the same sort of self-satisfied dominance his friends watched other sea creatures. Sultan was learning to hunt. He was gaining efficiency and studying movement, just as Boy Grandfather was. And so Boy Grandfather could not fear a creature that was so like him.
Boy Grandfather went so deep chasing and playing with Sultan that his eardrums bled. This also was not strange. At one time, all Riau children broke their eardrums in order to go the sea floor—in order to find food. Boy Grandfather was the first among the boys his age to reach this depth. He then became sick, of course, and his mother would not let him into the water for several days until his ears healed.
* * *
When he was able to dive again, Boy Grandfather stayed under the water’s surface as long as he could, just to get another glimpse of Sultan—to watch for that tranquil, dark glide, the twitch of the tail.
Boy Grandfather let himself sink slowly. The steady, slow treading of his arms sent a pulse—pleasant, curious surges—out through the water. He knew Sultan’s movements, and Sultan knew his. After the shark appeared, they once again passed the day about the coral, while the others played.
The desire to explore the reefs with his pet stretched Boy Grandfather’s little lungs. He grew comfortable and content with his friend. His heart slowed, his strokes became easy, strong and efficient. Sometimes he almost forgot he needed air, until his brain began to shout for it. So deep for so long, he had to rise toward the surface gradually in order to avoid the cramping. He had to listen to the currents, use the movements of other fish to measure time, to be aware of how long he was under. And so his world altered, and the present was at a new speed below the surface.
Being so near sharks was common back then. They were everywhere, and a good diver was always alert.
He and Sultan chased each other until the currents and tides would shift, until Boy Grandfather was told to get back into the lepa-lepa and eat. But the boy’s attention was never on his rice and fish, instead his focus was well below the waves, always. A part of himself was always in the water. He wanted to live beneath the water’s surface. He wanted to swim with the schools of sharks, eat his rice under water.
* * *
Sultan would circle very close to Boy Grandfather. His routes grew calm and less anxious. He slowed his motion for the boy, until that marble black eye became still, almost longing. The eye would go several moments without taking in any other divers or animals and focused on his only human friend. Boy Grandfather stayed under, until every last bit of oxygen was used. And so Boy Grandfather was able to pet the shark as it passed. Sultan’s body was beautiful and languid. He could hold its fin or tail and be pulled along, until he became beautiful himself. The fish nosed the boy’s narrow chest. Boy Grandfather knew that even a young shark could shred a human to pieces, but fearing Sultan never occurred to him.
Boy Grandfather grasped Sultan’s tail, and the fierce fish towed him through the water for several meters. He had been carried farther under water than any human could go on his own strength. And so Boy Grandfather was transformed into something larger than himself—more than human—in these moments. The shark took him to depths not even his father or Ramdan, the clan elder, had gone—down to deeper, darker blues.
Sultan had taken him to where belut, comek and other fish were not startled by humans.
He continued to adapt. His muscles, his ribs, lungs and head became part of these great depths. At these levels, his body took negative buoyancy, and he walked across the sea floor with a harpoon, hunting for food. At these angles, life was crystal clear. He deciphered the routes of schools of fish. He interpreted the sea’s currents and floor formations. He reasoned the way fish did. Boy Grandfather told his own father and Ramdan where the fish would be before they arrived. The boy had a gift, everyone said.
* * *
As Sultan grew, he didn’t trust other Riau people. Sultan eluded the others. Boy Grandfather tried to show his brothers and friends how to move their arms and bodies, how to send out friendly and curious currents. But Sultan’s circles would grow wider if other people joined Boy Grandfather. The shark’s eyes flinched with distrust, and he became less knowable. And still sometimes when another boy would come within Sultan’s pattern, Boy Grandfather noticed a closing in, a veering at the last second: a warning. There was something baser in Sultan’s eye.
Then everyone looked at Boy Grandfather differently.
* * *
The afternoon when Sultan’s teeth finally found another diver—an old, unhappy man and poor fisher—Boy Grandfather first felt an odd stirring in the water. The currents around him wrinkled and roiled in a way that was not natural. He remembers seeing a cloud of dark, dark fluid web and creep through the water like a demon. His heart stopped, and he could not move in the place where currents grew heavy.
Boy Grandfather felt fast hands under his arms and was pulled halfway to the surface before recognizing the hands of his own father. Boy Grandfather’s body felt foreign in the water, out of sync. His back and legs cramped and shivered as his mother massaged the muscles. She dumped rice overboard, which was to have been that night’s meal, in order to appease the sea spirits.
His body began to ache for his friend in the water. He wanted to be swallowed by the sea. As Boy Grandfather read the waves, he could feel Sultan waiting, waiting to explore new areas of the sea. But the shark would see his boy only once more.
* * *
Again, Boy Grandfather was not allowed to dive for days. He was told he must wait until the currents changed and the sharks moved south. Boy Grandfather watched Ramdan and his father talking behind their hands, smoking private cigarettes. They met out away from everyone in a lepa-lepa, drifting. Their time, he knew, was not spent talking about fishing, trading and other business. Soon more men joined them, floating and talking in low voices. These men looked over their shoulders, nodded, then looked away. But Boy Grandfather was sure he’d done nothing wrong.
Lying on his back, looking up at the stars, Boy Grandfather held his breath and counted the waves passing under the lepa-lepa—a slow crescendo of rolling soft waves, followed by a calming, then the same gentle swell. He knew Sultan was treading below, fearless and longing.
* * *
He was told he could dive again. He acted appropriately grateful but did not show too much excitement about playing among the coral, at being pulled deeper and farther away from everyone. He imagined finding new islands away from all these unhappy and angry men, from their presence he and Sultan did not understand.
After he broke the water’s surface, the world beneath received and remembered him. The fish all around welcomed him back with inviting stares. He went deeper by himself than he ever had before, and from down there he sent the friendly pulses out to his friend.
The sunlight broke through and shuffled past the waves. Then it wavered and dimmed. Boy Grandfather raised his head to the passing shadow and saw the familiar shudder of the tail; the tangled routes of his friend. Boy Grandfather let himself rise upward toward the silhouetted arc. Sultan grew closer and the tail fluttered. With a flick, the shark fled and returned in playful recognition. The eye of Sultan fixed on him, and Boy Grandfather held the gaze as long as he could before breaking to the surface. And as he breathed in deep the world above, he waited. He watched for the outline of his friend at his feet, waited for another playful dart and descent.
But before Boy Grandfather had a chance to spot the quick shadow, the unmistakable sound and flash of harpoons cut into the sea. Sultan’s tail and mouth lurched and lunged above the waves as the weapons buried into the shark’s dark flesh. The rope attached to these devices jerked and pulled tight as three different lepa-lepa bows jounced and bobbed wildly. This was not just unnatural. It was chaos. As men’s voices shouted, Sultan’s body slowed—spasming in unusual rhythms. The water’s surface changed to alien pink foam as several men’s bodies jumped in and the darkness continued to rise. That same hideous demon, webbed in all directions, working its escape from the sea. It clung to the men’s bodies as they climbed back into their lepa-lepa. The men’s harpoons and knives caught flashes of sunlight, and before Boy Grandfather could fully expand his lungs with the new air, Sultan was becoming meat for the families. Meat to fill their bellies for days.
* * *
The water around the lepa-lepa calmed—became eerily calm, dead. A man must learn to harness nature, Ramdan said.
And then we’re the ones who become wild, Boy Grandfather said, knowing the sea would never move the same way again.