Manhattan, NY. 1916
Esther knew that all good stories had blood and teeth. She knew this even though she was young. This was why her father loved the shark stories, and why her brother Roy listened. Her father read them out loud while they ate.
“Really? At the table?” She said because she thought this was something her mother might’ve said—though she hadn’t heard her own mother say anything, she heard other mothers say things like this.
“It swam down this creek here and ate that little boy.” His finger traced the line until it hit the X. Her father put the paper down on the table, got up and walked quickly over to the kitchen sink. Then, he started going heel to toe across the floor, into the hallway, and all the way to the front door.
“The creek is just a few feet wider than our apartment, I think,” he said, with a clever smile on his face.
Just then, their home felt smaller—dangerously claustrophobic. Esther took a deep breath. Her father came back and sat down heavily. He picked the paper back up and held it close to his face.
“The poor boy’s leg was left in ribbons, from knee to ankle,” he read.
“Right here.” Roy kicked at her leg, but Esther was quick and he missed, hitting her chair instead. She kept her face down, away from her brother, but she knew he was white mad. She knew he was wide eyed and chewing on his lips so the color blanched out of them.
There wasn’t a time that Esther could remember where she wasn’t watching her brother out of the corner of her eye. He was sneaky and quick with violence, pinching the underside of her arms or behind her knees, marking up the soft fleshy parts of her that no one would notice. But then, as he got older, he became careless and his transgressions were done in plain sight, evidence left in front of everyone to see, like a cat bringing home a dead bird and dropping it at your feet. A very bloody gift. The harder their father went at him, the more showy Roy got.
“What do you know about that? Says they’ll pay $100 to whoever catches the monster.”
“I bet I could catch him,” Roy said.
“Yeah? With what, your hands? You ever been on a boat before? You know how to swim?” Their father said.
“Well, do you?” Roy said.
“Why don’t you go ahead and try, this thing has already eaten four people—why don’t you see if you can make it five and make all our lives a little easier,” their father said.
That night Esther slept in rows and rows of teeth. She couldn’t see anything in her dreams, there was just the dark, and a gnashing sound. But she knew they were teeth—she could feel them with her hands. Everywhere she touched would be a sharp, triangle, serrated point piercing into her skin. The first night she had the dream, she woke up screaming and her brother, Roy, pinned her to the bed with a pillow over her face. Their room was small, and their small beds only had a very small space between them and Roy bridged the gap without even touching the ground. She never heard him coming. He did this until she thrashed underneath him, kneeing the middle of his back. He let go and she gasped for air, not being able to control how loud the sound came out of her mouth. Their father came in, a sudden giant in the dark, and grabbed Roy by the hair, pulling him to the ground. Roy clawed at his father’s grip while Esther stared at him, filled with both vindication and an unwanted pity. She could smell the salt from his skin.
“Are you done? Because I can keep going until you stop moving for good.”
Roy nodded his head as best as he could without pulling against their father’s fist. Their father let go, wiping strands of hair off on his chest before leaving. Roy crawled back into bed, and with his back turned toward her he said, “If you make another noise, I’ll kill you.” He sounded the way she thought a snake would sound.
The next morning, Roy came in with the paper and a big smile on his face that made Esther feel sick.
“They got the fish.”
“What do you mean?” Their father said, and it was unusual to hear them talk together in the same excited pitch. Their eyes opening wide in response to each other’s wide eyes. It was a receive and response.
The first thing Esther saw was the mouth, and only the mouth. It was exactly as she had dreamt it. A black hole that she knew went on forever, covered in teeth and the ribbons of a little boy’s skin. Gnashing for always. The whole world would have fallen in, eventually. She wasn’t certain that it still wouldn’t. She could feel a slight pull in the center of her stomach. She couldn’t understand the rest of it. She didn’t know where its parts were, or if they were. She couldn’t tell if it had eyes or arms or what else. But she knew it had a mouth.
“Says it’s going to be on display on Sunday. In the window of that paper. Can we go see it?”
In the picture, four heads peeked over the top of the thing. You couldn’t see half of their faces, but you could tell by their eyes that they were smiling. Squeezing themselves together like friends behind the monster in front of them. They didn’t even look proud, just happy. She tried to picture her father there, looking that way, but she couldn’t place him. He wouldn’t fit.
Roy was staring at their father and smiling—waiting for an answer. Esther could see a hole forming in the back of his mouth. A tooth was going bad, bad enough that you’d look away if he caught you staring at it.
Once, after a particularly bad and early bout with Roy, when Esther would still ask what she did–why he did, their father turned his back on her. While she cried in the kitchen chair holding a wet rag on her cheek, he told her.
“He misses his mother.”
This wasn’t an answer. Esther kept crying and said, “I miss her, too.”
“No. No you don’t, sweetheart. You can’t miss what you didn’t know. That boy loved his mother. God help me, he needs his mother.”
And after that, Esther stopped herself from missing her mom. She couldn’t grow that same meanness inside of her.
People came out of church and went down to Harlem to stand in line. Esther felt underdressed. As the three of them stood there, she found five stains on her clothes. She didn’t know what to do with stains. What exactly you needed to mix in order to get rid of them. Whenever she asked her father, he told her he didn’t see them.
“Can I go over there?” Roy pointed to the group of kids playing come with me. He had been jumping in his skin ever since they started standing still. He never waited well.
“Go ‘head,” their father said, just as happy to get rid of him.
Roy left them both in his wake, his arms and legs jutting out at harsh angles as he ran off.
“Find me before you get to the fish.”
“Yeah,” their father said.
Esther let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding, and prepared to settle into the familiar silence with her father. Somehow the line moved, though she didn’t feel like she was moving. They turned the corner from Hart St. to 125th, and suddenly people were celebrating. The street was crowded with games and food stands and people selling all kinds of things. Right at the corner, a man stood behind a small wooden table with lots of little glass bowls. His face was all screwed up as he tried to keep the sun out. His lips were drawn up over his teeth, showing several holes. Then his eyes found Esther, and she felt like she got caught in something.
“How’d you like a baby golden shark, dear?”
She grabbed onto her father’s arm. Inside each of the bowls was a small orange fish, swimming so slowly she wondered if they were real. Then one of them turned and swam to the other side of their bowl, knocking itself headfirst into the glass.
“Why don’t you ask your dad to get you one. It’ll grow up real big.”
She pressed her cheek to her father’s coat, inhaling the smell he carried with him from work. She didn’t know what it was, not exactly, but it smelled like rocks and soap and something else that could sting you.
“How much?” her father asked the man whose smile now seemed impossibly big.
“Just five cents. One nickel to take home a friend of the Terror of the Century.”
“What do you think, Essie? You’ll take care of him? Make sure he gets strong.” Her father wasn’t looking at her as he reached under his hat for the change, so he didn’t see the fear on her face. He took one step out of line, then quickly moved back.
“Don’t want to lose our spot here, can you bring one over?”
“Sure, I can.”
The man started peering into the bowls, one by one, his face up close, his nose over the opening.
“This’s the one for you, right here.” He came over, and Esther could smell him now—like fish and garbage. He was dirty. His face shined from grease and sweat, and he walked like he might fall down. Her father put his arms up to catch him, but he waved them away.
“S’alright. I’m just missing a few toes on my right foot.” Then he looked at Esther and winked. “left my feet dangling in the water a little too long, didn’t I?”
He handed Esther the bowl and took the money. “See how it shines in the sun, like that?”
Esther had been too afraid to look at the fish, but out of the corner of her eye she saw something flash. The fish sparkled.
Her father talked to strangers that looked like him–men with dirt on their clothes who sounded just the same. Whatever they were saying floated past Esther as an imperceptible hum. She wouldn’t have been able to decipher between words if she tried. She held the fishbowl tight from the bottom, wondering if it had any teeth yet, or if it had just one sharp, tiny triangle sticking from the top of its mouth. She thought about what she would feed it. Small bites of her dinner from the tip of her finger. She would need to teach it to be gentle with her. To come when she called it. To behave.
“My God,” said another voice ahead of her. A woman’s voice. The light way she spoke made it sound as if she were talking to Esther directly–whispering something sad to her. When Esther looked to see who it was, she only saw shoulders and backs. People were pressing closer together, all of them bunching up, and then she realized they were near the monster.
Esther stopped dead on the sidewalk and held her breath. She realized she didn’t want to see it. She didn’t want to see the thing that ate up children in the creek. She didn’t want to stare into the hole that swallowed smiling bathers on holiday. She felt her father’s hand take hold of her shoulder and squeeze.
“Almost there, Es,” he said, and he pushed her forward. She felt sick—she thought about Roy’s knees and elbows as he ran off, wishing, for possibly the first time ever, that she had gone with him.
Her father maneuvered her through the last few people in front of them, squeezing her between a woman’s hip and the back of a man’s hand, his knuckles scraping against her cheek.
The shark hung in the window, swaying almost leisurely behind the glass. Esther’s face reflected over its gills. The leather skin folded at the corners of the mouth, which had been propped open by a sanded down branch. She stabbed at the roof of her own mouth her tongue, trying to create the sensation of a stick in her mouth. Next to the shark, displayed out in small pieces like splinters of wood, were bones. A sign next to them read: Young Female Great White Shark, 350 lbs, 7 ½ feet long. Shin Bone of Young Boy Found in STOMACH.
“And that thing,” her father said into her ear as he pointed, “just hiding all the time down there. Waiting.”
“Daddy,” she said.
“Can we go home?”
“Yeah. Let’s get Roy.”
They found him alone, scratching at dirt on the ground with his fingers, trying to pry something out from between the cracks in the sidewalk. His shoulders hunched when their father called him, but he didn’t turn around. He wanted whatever it was, bad.
“Roy, get up, let’s go,” their father said. His voice was low, like he was daring Roy to raise it.
“There’s an Indian Head Nickel here, dad.”
“Yeah? How do you know?”
“I saw some boy drop it.”
“He’s probably going to come back looking for it, and I don’t feel like dancing with some kid’s father. Come on, let’s go.”
“What about the shark?”
“Seen it already.”
“But you were supposed to come get me.”
“Tried to find you,” their father lied.
“I’ve been here the whole time. Even after all the other kids left, I waited just right here.”
“You must have moved without knowing.”
“I swear I didn’t,” Roy stretched his neck out in indignation.
“Leave it be. Time to go.”
“Then let me get this nickel, I can go back later.”
“But I almost got it,” he said, grunting between words.
“Won’t ask again.”
Roy let out a frustrated scream and slapped the pavement with his dirty hand.
Roy stomped over, brushing his hands off on his pants. When he saw the fish in Esther’s hands he stopped walking.
“What’s that she’s got?”
Esther gripped the bowl tighter, turning away from her brother so he might not see it. The look on her father’s face made her nervous—because he was nervous, but then he straightened.
“Man gave it to us over there.”
“Gave it to you?”
“Said your sister was pretty enough not to pay.” Their father patted her head as if she were a house pet.
“She’s not pretty.”
“Well, she’s got a fish, doesn’t she?”
“If I can pull out that Nickel, I can get one myself.”
“That’s enough. It’s time to go home. You’ve both got school tomorrow.” He grabbed Roy by the back of the neck and shoved him, almost making him fall, but Roy caught himself, sucking air between his teeth as he straightened. He shot a look at Esther, and she knew she was in trouble.
She wanted to hide her fish somewhere. She thought about tearing up a floorboard under her bed and making a home for it. She’d put little things down there—thimbles, change, needles; shiny objects that might make it not miss the world so terribly. Or, at least, distract it for a little while. It might not grow so big in the dark, but that would be okay. She would make sure it ate what it was supposed to eat—sleep when it was supposed to sleep. She felt the floor with her toes for any loose pieces, but found nothing promising. She knew she couldn’t keep it out in the room with her and Roy. It would make things worse. She kept it on the ground on her side of the room between her bed and the wall. Her father had asked her to share it with her brother. He said it without looking at her–shameful with his eyes on his knees.
“No,” she said, for the first time.
He sighed then he nodded. “Okay.”
Her father was more than nervous.
At night, she’d wake from her teeth dreams and search for her fish with her hands, being careful to not knock the bowl over, but just feel for it. She’d find the opening and stick a finger in—sometimes brushing against its scales and sometimes dangling it so the fish might come to her. One morning she woke with her finger still in the bowl, the fish swimming around it as if it were chasing its tail, and her brother staring at her from the doorway standing completely still—she didn’t even think he was breathing.
It was dark when she woke, but she could tell it was almost morning. She could hear something. Birds, she thought, at first. But then it sounded different as she came out of her sleep. She could hear better. The sound of something hitting against glass. She couldn’t see in the dark, but she could picture Roy in the doorway, warning her of whatever was going to happen next. Out of habit, like the way she used to twirl her hair when she got scared, she put her finger in the bowl, but the fish did not come. She wormed it around until she felt something that hadn’t been there before. A long hard thing. She grabbed and pulled it free from the gravel she had found on the street and put in the bowl.
Her eyes, adjusting now, saw the golden jewel she loved stabbed through with a fork—all four prongs piercing its skin. Each second her eyes could see better in the dark and she could see what her brother had done. Despite all his training of her, she screamed. Without letting go of the fork, she screamed. She could hear him wrestle out of bed, falling to the floor tangled up in his sheets. Then she heard the heavier sound of her father’s feet hitting the ground. He came in and grabbed Roy before he could reach her mouth, which was swallowing up the world. Her father threw him against the wall and began yelling something at him she couldn’t understand, she couldn’t quite hear. All she could hear was the gnashing sound of her teeth. All she could think about was what they would find in her stomach if she could grow big and live forever in the dark.
— Mary Thorson is from Milwaukee, WI. She received her undergraduate degree in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and her MFA at Pacific University’s low-residency program in Oregon. She has been previously published in Milwaukee Noir, Worcester Review, Tough, & Ink Stains Anthology.