As it rose up out of the horizon line, the island may as well have been a speck in Lau’s eye. The ferry’s engine rumbled as it navigated the choppy waves of the strait and drew closer. Lau watched as the island’s dark outline dissolved against the backdrop of the pale sky, light shining through the gaps between the palm trees. Miles before the ship made landfall, he realized he could see the pier and the village, all occupying the same few acres of beach. Lau’s first steps on the island were onto creaking boards, while the crew that had ferried him from the nearest port town moored their longboat knee-deep in seawater. He had arrived at Ambu.
He’d been told it would be small, a spit of sand in comparison to the country’s five main islands, yet Lau had not expected to see the edge of the village just a few miles down the dirt road. In his younger years, Lau had sweltered in jungle highlands and was even shot at once by a national park ranger who’d stumbled upon him and his crew as they snipped the electric fence. Yet of all the jobs he’d been sent on, he felt this would be the most miserable. He cursed Aji under his breath for making him leave the quiet life, and set off walking down the beach, his eyes on the only ship large enough to be the Lamna.
She was at least a meter taller than the canoes and longboats of the islanders that were moored next to her, a steel hulk compared to their wooden frames. Lau could see her name printed in red block letters on the bow, and her hull was nearly twice as long as the average independent fishing vessel. As Lau headed straight for the ship where he’d be spending his nights on Ambu, he found himself flanked on both sides by the village.
With the men already gone off to fish for the day’s catch, the men Lau did see as he walked to the Lamnia were at either end of their lives. Boys too young to learn from their fathers or leathery geezers whose clothes hung off their gaunt frames. He could see one of these old men directing a group of boys as they bent over a dark tangle of net, braiding its tough fibers. As he lingered, the old man turned to him, eyes squinting under his straw hat and mumbled something that sounded like “ship”, and nudged his head towards the Lamna, followed by gibberish that must’ve been the Ambu language. But Lau didn’t turn his head, spotting what the boys were tying to the net, hooks the length of their forearms, attached by many meters of rope to red and white buoys.
“We’re lucky they’re still learning how to long line.”
Aji had mentioned two names before shoving Lau onto the plane: the Lamna, and her captain, Vic Thorpe. Lau turned to meet the voice. The man was broad chested, with a slight gut over his sailor’s muscle, and had spent enough days in the sun that his tan was almost as dark as the islanders.
“Captain Vic,” Lau replied and offered his hand, realizing in the back of his mind how accented his English must be, “I supposed to welcome you, but you got here before me.”
“No worries,” the Australian said, returning the shake and taking the lead towards the Lamna. “Koh Aji tells me you’re my man on the ground.”
As they walked past the shoreline, huts and shacks leaned towards Lau on their bamboo stilts, slick and draped with scraps of seaweed from last night’s high tide. These fishermen’s houses were made from weathered planks and roofed with corrugated sheet metal. Blue, white, and yellow paint flaked off the surfaces that faced the sea breeze, and Lau could see a few toddlers peeking out their open door frames at them, staring at the outsiders who looked as different from each other as they did to the natives.
“Yeah, when the men get back we talk with them,” Lau said, “Find a crew.”
Lau had handled a few mavericks in his day, inevitable among the kind of men who signed up for the exotics business. So when Vic stayed silent for a few beats, Lau said, “Not sure about them either, dunno how many can even talk to us.”
Further up the beach, village women worked, tending to barrels of saltfish and preparing the bait and tackle their husbands would use the next day, paying no mind to him at all. They dressed either in random t-shirts and shorts that must’ve been brought by traders from the mainland ports, or in simple batik sheets that they wrapped around themselves. As he moved closer, he noticed a few of the older women bent over makeshift tables, bamboo rods lashed together, moving things he couldn’t see.
“Nah that’s not it,” the blonde captain said as they reached the Lamna, “I’ve seen their haul, they do honest work. No offense to you and our employer, but I don’t like babysitting.”
Lau couldn’t hide his smirk, so turned his tone apologetic, “Please, offend Aji. I not tell him you need to take care of me, mister Vic. You know the sharks, not me, Aji sent me only to help you.”
“I do know sharks,” Vic said, facing away from Lau as he unrolled the step ladder onto the deck, “But let me ask you something, what did Aji tell you about the Ambu?”
As he opened his mouth, he Lau heard a sharp thwack, and turned to spot a woman squatting near the shoreline, cleaver in hand, then realized. Shark fins arranged by size, cleaned and dried on racks. The woman with the cleaver left the small shark on the sand, and placed the fin in a basket by the bamboo table. When she caught him staring, she averted her eyes, and so did he, before any of the old matrons sorting the fins could scold him in words he didn’t understand. Lau turned back to see Vic’s smile, blonde hair across his face.
“I said we were lucky, and I meant it,” Vic told him, looking past Lau at the finless sharks, gray bodies speckled with sand. “If these people had been long lining instead of angling, they might have cleaned out the sea.”
Vic chuckled, “Then where would old Aji have sent you eh?”
As Vic climbed up the ladder, a final sight caught Lau’s eye. An older boy came out of one of the houses, a doddering elder clinging to his arm. Something around the old man’s neck swung in his hunched gait. At this distance it was a white triangle on a string, but once Lau noticed it, he saw the same thing around the boy’s neck, hidden under his shirt. When the men of Ambu returned, he’d see every one of them wear one too. A length of twine, threaded through a shark’s tooth.
Lau hadn’t been sent over two hundred miles to be a glorified translator. Yet as he received blank stares from the fishermen of Ambu that night, the reality of the situation impressed itself upon him.
“Who’s used rods like these before?” Lau asked, trying to sound authoritative, despite struggling to hold the unwieldy fishing rod up in the air. The powered winch built around the steel line strained his arm.
One of the men sitting on plastic chairs barked at the rest, “Well answer! Or he’ll try to catch the shark with his bare hands!”
As the roars of the fishermen’s laughter went on, Lau knew Vic must’ve shaken his head and chuckled along behind his back. That was how most of the meeting went. Vic explained what he needed to Lau, Lau explained to the fishermen in common Indonesian and the fishermen joked or talked over each other in their warbling language without committing to anything. Lau had walked away from a job over less, but he’d been stranded on Ambu by Ahi and there was nowhere left to run.
At first, Lau thought the talks were a success. A few hours ago, he’d watched as the fishermen returned home from their ships, unloading their catch. He’d found about two dozen who could speak Indonesian, and about ten of those didn’t brush him off as a strange foreigner. Six bothered to show up in front of the Lamna, where Lau had told them he wanted to talk.
By that point in the night, the fishermen still interested in the offer had followed Vic onto the deck of the Lamna, showing them the hardware anyone interested in joining their crew would be handling. Over a dinner of mackerels roasted on a rusty little charcoal grill, Lau plied them with a flask of rum he’d slipped past customs on the ferry. He tried his best to explain why Vic needed an Ambu crew.
‘Mangihang hunter’, Lau noticed himself repeating whenever he mentioned Vic, who sat back by the equipment he’d brought down from the ship. Mangihang. Ambu for shark, three syllables on his clumsy tongue, one for the fishermen.
The word bounced back and forth as Lau described how Vic had been hired for his reputation as a game fisherman, and that they needed to use the Lamna because of its specifications. But both Vic and the Lamna had been sent to Ambu because the island was under special jurisdiction. More accurately, the islanders and their ships were. For them, all sharks were free game. As for the foreign Vic and the Lamna, they’d had to make the trip to Ambu under cover of night.
“Of course we respect your way of life,” Lau told them, “We don’t want to take anything from you. We just need your help to show us where the mangihang are, and the best way to catch them. For that, we need you to sign on.”
“More importantly,” Vic raised in English, “on the slim chance we’re spotted by a passing ship, they might wonder how a little island of fishermen built themselves a full-sized, commercial well boat. And if we’re caught with our dick in our hands, hoisting a bloody 10-footer up on deck, tell’em it’ll be their job to make it look like just another day of fishing.”
Lau translated what he could.
“Om Lau,” a younger Ambu called in dodgy Indonesian, “For what you pay, all okay. But if you not selling what you catch, you still not tell us what the job is.”
“Tell’em already,” Vic said, packing up the equipment.
Whether it was the drink, or his unfamiliarity with the islander’s sharp, weathered features, Lau noticed curiosity in the eyes of those fishermen. They’d heard of rods with electric winches, of steel fiber cables, and had approached these items with a confident aloofness. But the balance between unease and eagerness shifted with each step they took on the deck, twice as long as their longest boat. Some even fiddled with their shark tooth necklaces. Sure, they’d seen larger vessels, traded with them, but from what they’d told him no Ambu had served aboard one of the strange ships that arrived on their shores. Lau knew that in the morning, the drink and awe and promise of opportunity would do their work, weeding out the uninterested, and leaving only the men burning for something different. These were the men who he needed to join the crew.
“We’re here to catch a shark. One big shark,” Lau said, “But it has to live.”
Lau quietly hoped they would breathe a sigh of relief. Instead, they sat closer, muttered a few phrases at each other and stood, a strange calm in the set of their shoulders. The young man who’d spoken up approached Vic and Lau, and Lau could see he must’ve been no older than twenty.
As the boy shook both their hands, he beamed, “We’re shark killers Om Lau! Catch one easy.”
The men clubbed skipjack tuna as the fish flopped onto the deck, silver heads cracking against the hard wood panels. Lau wiped a spray of blood-pink sea foam from his cheek. Rastum and Suddin, the two anglers Vic had taken on as assistants, cleared the rest of the catch from the lines. Refan, the boy, moved between them, baiting the hooks with bonito chopped in half, and the three of them sent each longline back down into the depths, buoy bobbing on the surface of the waves. Another empty haul.
On their first day out at sea, Lau had learned that in less than three generations, the people of Ambu had learned to make a living off sharks. Pa’rawe they called themselves, shark killers, like Refan had told him that night before the voyage. The first thing Vic did the next morning was to get them to point out their hunting grounds on the charts. They’d been assured the waters forty miles out from the island teemed with sharks. And they were right.
That day, just before dawn, when the sharks were most active, Vic and the crew had dropped their lines, one hundred and fifty meters down, waiting for a bite. It took less than an hour before they pulled up the first one, an eight-foot lemon shark. Lau had seen one in an aquarium once, gliding through the water like a ghost. Now he realized their power, unseen under the waves, but straining the arms of the hardened men who fought to reel it in. Once it finally landed on the deck, thick gray body thrashing, Vic opened the on-deck hatch from his position on the bridge and the well in the cargo hold was exposed. The men pushed the shark with long poles into that open hole, watched as it splashed around in the massive flooded container originally meant to transport live fish. Over his walkie-talkie Lau heard Vic’s enthusiasm, “Looks like a winner. I’m ringing Aji on the satellite.”
Yet as Lau watched Vic take the call through the window, the beaming captain’s expression turned into a brooding gaze. Then Vic unlocked the bay doors that opened into the ocean, and their catch swam out of the well. “Too small,” came Vic’s voice through the radio.
Always too small. For nearly a week, those same words hung over the heads of every crew member whenever they felt a bite or checked a long line. They wondered if they would have to yet again toss their catch back into the sea. While none of the Ambu had any use for sharks too young to have large fins, they knew no waste. Blacktips, lemons, reef sharks, they kept them all. Now they were being told their sweat was as worth as much as the salty seawater.
Every shark they’d caught since they left harbor had been tossed back, too small to meet whatever standard Aji had impressed upon Vic during their private calls. And each time they let a shark go, the men made no effort to hide their reaction. They touched their sharkstooth necklaces, shook their heads, cursed and spit. or most unnervingly, fell into a deep silence and fixed their eyes on the sea. Too small.
As dusk fell on their sixth day at sea, and the Lamna left the net connecting the chain of longlines, Lau wondered whether Aji had always meant for him to repay his debt by suffering through this purgatory. He could see they were heading further out, to one of the hunting grounds on the edge of Ambu’s jurisdiction. Leaning on the prow railing, he heard heavy boots walk up to him.
“What are we hunting for mister Vic?” Lau asked.
Lau turned to him, “We tossed a tiger shark, the other day.”
“I was there,” Vic coldly replied, his eyes on the sunset. Two men and Vic himself had hung on the end of the rod, hauling all ten feet of the striped beast onto the ship. There was a moment of hope. Until Vic came back down from the bridge.
“The men don’t like to waste,” Lau ventured, “I think they are impatient.”
“Have you got family?” Vic asked, lighting a cigarette.
“Wife and three daughters.”
“My little ones are grown now,” Vic said between pulls. “A crew’s like a family, even if you’ve adopted one. You learn how much you can push ’em. The men are alright.”
Though they spoke in English, Lau felt he needed to check for eavesdroppers before he continued, “You know things you’re not telling me. That’s fine. Let me ask, did Aji ever tell you what we’re doing here?”
“A job. That’s all there is.”
Lau had to smirk at Vic’s pointless tight-lipped stance. When Vic didn’t react, he changed tactics, “You know my job at home mister Vic? I breed doves.”
It was Vic’s turn to chuckle, “Can’t imagine Aji would send a dove breeder to do this job.”
Lau continued, “The birds, I take them to shows where they sing in little cages. Judges and breeders watch and the ones who sing the longest become worth tens of thousands in your money. That’s how I met Pak Aji. He bought one of my doves. Hired me to breed them for him professionally. He found out about the other animals I’d sold later.
“Komodo, Madagascar, Papua. Did jobs there, tried to get out. But when Aji hires you, he doesn’t let you say no. But you could’ve. You could’ve said no.”
Lau searched and found nothing changed in the face behind Vic’s sunglasses. “He wants the shark stuck in a glass box, Vic. A house decoration.”
“Not exactly hard to figure that out.”
Lau scrambled for his next words, “Then why’d you agree? Risking yourself and these men so some guy can stare as it swims around a tube until it dies of boredom. Whatever you used to kill sharks for, it wasn’t whatever this is.”
Vic took off his sunglasses and stared daggers at Lau, “That’s right. And when I was through, everyone had far too much of me. I kept those beaches clear for ten years ‘til the government put a leash on me. Said they’d had enough, that there was no more danger.
“So I broke out, left to try and find work in backwaters like this,” he swept his arms outward, ”Guess what, maybe they were right, because no one came crying to me about blood in the water after I left. And after everyone I chewed out back home, no one’s handing out a commercial license to a bloke like me.”
Vic turned, and Lau saw him watching Refan, sitting on his chair with his rod, at the other end of the ship, “These people don’t know how lucky they are.”
“Getting killed looking for your next meal is lucky?”
Vic blew a long puff of smoke, and surprised Lau with a broad grin, “Almost mate. Almost getting killed.”
“Berley!” Vic yelled, and the red slurry slopped out of the barrel and stained the waves.
The Ambu didn’t chum. Lau had seen them balk at wasting that much bait, without any guarantee it would attract sharks specifically. Now on the seventh day, the crew moved with a hesitance that was unbecoming of their skill, and more than once Lau caught them looking far out into the horizon instead of at their rods. It may have been because they were at least ten miles outside of Ambu territory by now, far into open ocean, where Vic decided their heading by instinct. Deeper water, bigger fish he’d said. Vic was hands on now, with his own rod and line, waiting for something to disturb the surface of bobbing bait chunks.
When something did, it nearly yanked his arm off. Over the buzzing pitch of unraveling steel fishing line he grunted, “Shit, give me a fucking hand would ya?”
The burly anglers Rustam and Suddin dropped their rods and ran to their captain, while the three others set about preparing the deck for the beast on the line. Lau watched from the bridge, hand hovering over the control panel. Vic and the Ambu anglers nearly had all six of their hands pulling on the near-unbreakable graphite rod as it bent down towards the red murk. As the powered motor reeled in the line, Lau cursed out Aji in his head for not allowing them to just kill the damn thing.
A scream from nowhere, from a voice he didn’t recognize. The crewman who yelled nowhere in sight. Lau saw the Ambu struck dumb, bodies rigid and unmoving where they stood. Both men helping Vic lost their grip, and Vic’s waist slammed against the railing of the boat. He cried out, hands still fighting with the creature trying to drag him down. As Lau rushed to help, each second seemed to stretch into an agony of struggle, and in slow-motion he thought he saw the men staring at their struggling captain like he’d spat in their face.
As Lau planted his feet and helped Vic lean back with all his weight on the rod, motor now straining to reel in the line, he found Rehan’s arms pulling alongside his own. His young face grimaced all the same. Until they saw the length of the shape in the water. And the sharpness of the fin breaching the surface. And the flexing white neck, thicker than the trunks of two men. And the bulging eyes of Vic as the shark leapt out of the sea, sank its maw into him and dragged him under the waves. The screams of Lau as he wrestled against the men to get them to dive in there and help. The crash of the churning water slapping against the hull. The red boiling up from beneath. From behind Lau, a club to the head came down and ended it all.
Scraping. Darkness. Something buzzed past his ear.
And Lau’s eyes were open, watching his feet as they dragged across the planks. His muscles caught up to his mind and in the next instant he tried to surge forward, but the men who held his arms were too firm. He writhed and kicked out and screamed through the rag stuffed in his mouth. When he received three swift kicks to the stomach for his trouble, his body sagged in the men’s grip once again. His head lolled back, and his eyes rolled up in pain.
It was night. Stars and the full moon showed him the face of the deckhand who’d kicked him. Munur or Muju or some island name. Lau was pretty sure whoever he was, he’d brought coffee during those long watches with Vic.
Vic. Lau’s ears were open to more heavy boots thudding across the gaps in the boards. Lau stopped himself from thinking about the why, and craned his head in all directions. He didn’t recognize the beach he was being dragged through – all cliffs and stones encroaching on a narrow spit of sand – so figured it must be on the northern edge of the island. He caught a glimpse of the Lamna as it shrunk out of view, moored to a pile of wood that could barely be called a dock. But soon the man who’d kicked him blocked his sight, and the two men holding his arms now spun him around to face ahead. Lau could see the rest of the crew at the edge of the beach, pale light reflecting off their taut backs as they clambered over a crop of barnacled stones. The right stones to step on made a narrow path, and Lau’s shoes slipped on the slick algae as he was dragged by the armpits over the rocks. As he made the stumbling journey up and over, Lau realized they were passing under an arch of stone. Some ancient erosion had weathered a cliff into a short tunnel. Dazed, Lau thought he saw shards of bone among the barnacles at his feet, strange shapes in the stone walls. In the distance, an opening glowed with something more than starlight.
With a final shove from the men flanking him, Lau face planted into the sand, only to be dragged back up to witness. Cliffs like fortress walls surrounding a small cove, spiraling fossils of long dead sea-life embedded in the exposed rock. Torches turning waves molten with orange torch light, and on the beach, the people of Ambu.
Like a warped parody of the village he’d seen on his first day, they all watched as he was dragged down the length of the coast. Their faces now painted, they deepened the shadows of their eye sockets with black and bloodied their mouths with stripes of red. Moaning women approach the procession, shaking jars that sounded like crashing surf. They stripped the men from the crew of their clothes and marked their faces, leaving the gleaming sharks tooth necklaces exposed. Lau’s mind raced, his rapid breathing stifled by the gag, eyes unable to focus on any single person in the shrieking crowd. Their faces blended into each other, camouflaged by the deep shadows and the torchlight that cast them. Bewilderment turned to panic as from behind, ragged nails dug into the sides of Lau’s face and jerked his head around to face the sea.
He saw a maw of stone. Coal-dark, it towered over the men flanking it and must have dwarfed the beast that had taken Vic. Lau futilely kicked sand as they dragged him towards it, screaming into his gag. A shark’s jaw. The petrified bones of a beast the size of the Lamna. As the men tied Lau’s arms to stiff bamboo rods, he could only stare up at the mouth the width of a car. And between its black, palm-sized teeth, the horizon melted into a sea as dark as ink.
As if from far off he heard a booming voice in Ambu, and he caught the garbled versions of words he barely understood. A sign. Interference. What he deserved. Protect the island. Blood. Call. Mangali-hai.
The last word weighed down the air, just as Lau felt the men pressing down on his shoulders to force him to his knees. Then the Ambu picked up the word, chanting, chanting the word that Lau realized had been yelled just before Vic died. The words that caused the shark killers of Ambu to back off from the catch that would’ve finished their mission. Mangali-hai, the shark they could not kill. The shark they fed.
Lau had gone from kneeling to being shoved on his back, and the rod tying his wrists behind his neck was now strapped to a square of rods lashed together, a bare minimum raft. He could see the Lamna’s crew approaching now, paint fresh on their bodies. Behind them, an old man with his whole naked body painted black walked up to Lau, the marks around his eyes and lips contorting into a grim mask. The old man sneered, the torch light reflecting off his face like crude oil, and raised his own shark’s tooth above his head. Yet it was just as black as he was, a massive serrated point taken from the great maw they stood in front of. The pain as it pierced Lau’s hand sent him spasming against his bonds.
As the old man walked through the ancient jawbones, waist deep into the water, the men hoisted the raft on their shoulders and followed, setting down Lay and pushing him out to sea. Blood coursing through his wound, the salt made Lau cry out a second time as the current sent him out to sea. The pain warped his sense of time. He could count each heartbeat by the stabbing throbs he still felt in his hand, and yet the steady white noise of the sea could have lasted for minutes or hours. Yet as he craned his head left and right, he could still sea the crests of the waves lit orange by the torches from the beach. And he could see that something was breaking these crests.
A line of broken water, ripple cutting vertically across. Lau felt bile rise to his throat. Of all the deaths he’d imagined, none were as pointless as this. The fear did not cloud these thoughts, nor did they override the pain. Lau felt all of them seize his flesh and so he could not look away from the gray fin, just a shade lighter than the dark water it emerged from. Then once again, it dived beneath his sight.
Sharks moved and kept moving. All purpose, they did not assess. None of it mattered to Lau. In that second, he felt everything stop, the shifting waves, the shivering night breeze, the dark shape unknown inches beneath his trembling body.
In the next second, two tons of cold strength pushed him aside.
Lau had no energy left to turn his head or shift his weight as the raft spun in the wake of the shark’s motion. His hand bled and bled the water cooling yet the salt like acid in the wound. As Ambu shrieked and wailed behind him, Lau drifted past the red glow of the torches and collapsed staring at the white indifferent stars.
— Lin Kai is an Indonesian writer currently working in New York. His work is inspired by his interests in religion, philosophy and history, and he has taken up art as a hobby. He can be reached on Twitter @LinJKai and Instagram @lin_kai_art. He also publishes short fiction at nicholaslin.substack.com