Once a shark suffered from bleeding gums. A taste for blood was the heart and soul of being a shark, of course, and so “suffered from” might not seem a very apt term for this one’s predicament. On the face of it, blood was blood, wherever you could find it. Why be a top predator in the first place if you weren’t going to act like one, moving from feeding frenzy to feeding frenzy in perfect confidence your right to batten on the vulnerabilities of others came with the territory. Why be provided with 30,000 teeth in a lifetime if you weren’t supposed to use ’em and lose ’em? And why have this nose for blood in the water a mile off? No need to go that mile, however. Not with the amount of blood in the water on every side already these days, as if it was open season on anything with a pulse. So much blood, in fact, the shark had fallen into the habit of repeating to itself “seas incarnadine” and wondering where it had heard the expression before, but then deciding, oh well, what difference did it make anyway? Just go for it, and forget everything else. Except when the blood in the water was your own, of course. Then it could definitely make a difference. Especially if every time you opened your mouth for a well-timed strike, the private taste of your bleeding gums became public in an instant. Then those who’d been at your side through the savaging of one surprised victim after another suddenly drew a little close for comfort and a little too numerous to be ignored. They weren’t just by your side; now they were looking directly at it. How challenging life could become without warning for a shark, accustomed as it was to lording it over oceans of potential prey, so much so that the confidence it was born to set upon all those it felt certain deserved being set upon merely for having come within range of its razor-sharp wits turned almost wearisome, almost as if going in for the kill was a joke. But now to have your vaunted powers rendered useless, unequal to saving yourself from the same attacks you’d launched so confidently before—one moment you’re toying with those at your mercy, like the most accomplished of late-night “personalities” or morning radio hosts, and the next you’re worrying about what was being said behind your own gills—did one go from big fish to bait just like that? Apparently. The occasional self-injury that was a matter of course among those who lived off the wounding and destruction of strangers and spent their days one-upping each other in the casual proof of their prowess could be borne. But the speed with which these hit-and-miss cuts could abruptly turn more earnest, triggering the impulse to attack in a thrashing whirl of shark upon shark until telling whose blood was whose became impossible, until all were taking pieces out of all and watching their own backs in a sea of mutual destruction each blamed on the others—would the whole thing come down to the last shark left swimming? What a fate for a species synonymous with life as a roving, random predator. An entire ocean and not a kindred soul left to appreciate one’s mastery of it. The shark, faced with this deflating prospect, sucked its gums in tight-lipped gloom at the end of a long-savored reputation to die for.
Copyright © 2007 by Geoffrey Grosshans