He always orders shark fin soup and there were rumors he had fed a man to the sharks because he hadn’t liked him very much. Or, to be more accurate or precise or however you’d say it, that he had taken the man he hadn’t liked very much out in his yacht, the man didn’t have the free use of his hands and feet by the time he was on the yacht and like as not had already taken a bad beating to soften him a little and take some of the kick out of him and for the hell of it. When the yacht got to a good distance so the water was that deep ocean blue that’s almost black and the shore’s nowhere in sight so it’s all water out to the curve of the horizon, he had one of his bodyguards chum the water. Fish-guts and blood went in the water until some of the blue-black ocean turned red-pink and was mixed with solids the color of red-pink guts and some dull colors mixed with them which were the scales that hadn’t been separated out and then the man went in the water with one of those children’s innertubes around him so he wouldn’t sink down beneath the water and drown. 

Could have tried swimming towards them by just desperately shifting his bound legs but that wasn’t much of a way to try and swim. Yacht sort-of followed him as he drifted in the slow current along with the pink-red that followed the same current.

Had time to beg under the sun and of course there’s no shade out on the water so he would have been real hot and surrounded by fish-guts and blood also out there where’s no shade and so it all smelled like something gone bad in a fish-market dumpster. Heard somewhere that men who fell out of planes during the War and landed in the ocean or Marines died on some piece of sun-damned coral nobody could find on a map but sure could die on and float in the water or wash up on the beach with high tide because there was no time to gather the bodies and bury them respectfully, that those boys got so they smelled like large spoiled brine shrimp. Now, this particular man out in the water who wasn’t dead quite yet got so he was asking and begging now please take me out of the water, apparently started on that subject so much that there was consideration of going ahead and shooting him in the head to shut him up which would have missed the fun of watching the sharks going after him but he was being so petulant about the whole situation that he was spoiling the anticipation. And, seeing how he was desiccating under the sun and with all the water available to him being saltwater and full of blood and fish-guts besides, meant his throat parched quick so he started to lose his voice and sort-of trailed off and that made him less annoying. 

He was adding saltwater to the ocean and moaning with what little voice he still had about there being sharks in the water before the first fin broke the water. Probably didn’t know for a fact the shark was there which bit into him first until some short time after the first part of him got separated from the rest of him. Shock you know how a man gets shot doesn’t really know he’s been shot the split second it happens before the chemicals wear off and it registers in some part of his brain that yes I have been shot and my goddamn God it hurts real bad only in this case it wasn’t being shot it was his legs being bit off by a big goddamn shark. 

Started struggling and wriggling, hadn’t been able to free his arms and his legs weren’t bound anymore because need all the parts of the leg for them to be bound and guess if he tried swimming with just the sort-of stumps that were left to him he might’ve started turning in little circles like a kid in a swivel chair. Didn’t last too long because he was pumping his own blood into the water and reminding the sharks of an injured seal. 

Wasn’t nothing left of him, not even the innertube too long after that first bite, except the smell of his blood which was mixed with the fish-guts and blood and the salt water. Heard all this from the man who claimed he had chummed the water. Real mean bastard who was with the Marines and got decorated couple of times and left at the same rank he went in and had a tattoo on his index finger that looked like a shark’s tooth. Like the fossil teeth find in places which don’t have ocean in them which never did make no damn sense to me, and I once asked this old Marine why he had an old shark’s tooth on his finger and he told me to go fuck myself it weren’t for me to know and so I suppose he felt the tattoo was an expression of his personality without needing to be articulate on the subject.  

Was all a real hard way of doing somebody and I wondered if by his ordering shark fin soup he was hoping to get a little bite of the man he had fed to the sharks.  

It was one of those kind of Chinese places which would keep a private table in a screened off area for a regular. All gaudy in colors white folks didn’t decorate with and mirrors with people and animals painted on them in colors people and animals don’t usually come in and fat laughing Buddhas who must have had something to be happy about some green statutes of them out of imitation jade and other thinner Buddhas painted on the walls with concentric circles radiating out of them and those circles being full of other thinner Buddhas and were electrified chandeliers where the crystal was made out of plastic. The staff were all Chinks and always wondered if they were all related to the Mama-San ran the place or were her property because how she treated them they were either her nearest-and-dearest or slaves with their papers and passports in a safe somewhere because nobody else would stand it.

I was at that Chinese place that served shark fin soup and only knew this one white man to ever order it because I was having to explain why some money went in one place when it should have gone some other place. It wasn’t anything, was a kind of an accounting error, least it was in the extended family of an accounting error. Nothing I hadn’t been able to settle before sitting down with him. 

Place was authentic and could tell it was because it played Chinese music all the time, sounded like out-of-tune windchimes and played hell with my nerves.  

He was there drinking tea and the server in a cheap red suit looked like a vest, poured me a cup from a separate kettle and tasted like warm lettuce. Had two big white men standing by the kind-of bead-curtain the Chinese use to separate rooms from each other and one of them was the ex-Marine who liked looking stern. The room otherwise was the table with a big symbol in the center of it looked like a swastika only couldn’t have been that because was the Japanese got along so well with the Germans, Red Chinese would be a hammer-and-sickle, another electrified chandelier over the center of the table, some red paper lanterns with a symbol on them probably meant something in chink, and an aquarium built into the wall with some mean-looking spikey fish swimming around in it. And course was him in the room, too. 

Looked all the world like Truman Capote. Not as though individuals with a survival instinct made the comparison where he could hear them. But man had the thin hair and high-forehead and softness like a eunuch. Even had the wide mannerisms that brought out rumors he was, well, light in the loafers not as though individuals with a survival instinct repeated those rumors where anybody could hear them. Was wearing a white suit and drinking his tea tasted like warm lettuce. 

Ordered his shark fin soup from the same server and poured my tea before addressing me, not that he said hello or asked me about my day or nothing like how a normally adjusted person would start a conversation. 

“There is something,” and he even had that strange pitchy nasal voice, “wonderful about shark fin soup. Have you ever had it?” 

I couldn’t say I had and I said as much. 

“The fin itself does not flavor the soup, you should understand, but it provides the texture. And, more than that, the dish has spirit and the spirit is in the shark fin.” 

He was a strange man. Not just in the feeding men he didn’t like to sharks. 

“A man ought to have spirit in everything he does. That’s the samurai way.”

“I thought those were the Nips,” I said because I didn’t think they had those in China, at least I had never heard of Chink samurai not that I had done any reading on this subject because I was a well-adjusted man who had never fed a man to the sharks because I didn’t like him. 

“They all amount to the same,” he said, “except that man over there has only killed Nips and would like to have a chance at a Chinese.” Pointed to the real mean Marine and I turned and man was cracking the meanest goddamn smile ever see like a shark smiling and all sharp teeth and a killer expression.   

“Might be this place’ll fuck up your soup someday,” Marine said and the man laughed his pitchy helium laugh. 

“They would not dare. They would not dare,” he said and sounded like the scariest faggot in the world and I believed him. 

Server in his red jacket came and put his soup in front of him. Server didn’t ask for my order and I considered calling after him and the enthusiasm died in me. 

“They get it started when I arrive. I believe they go through the ritual of ordering it because they find it comforting. Men need rituals. Even Chinese. How that man standing over there needs to beat somebody to the point of nearly being dead every so often. And past it, when it suits him and I let him.” 

I didn’t look back to the Marine but could feel the smile on my back. 

The man ate down his soup and didn’t offer any to me and I was grateful to him for not wanting to share. Was grateful to the boy in the red jacket for not taking my order because I wouldn’t have been able to force the food down or keep it down neither. 

Man wiped his mouth with a red napkin with some gold-colored letters on it how the Chinks have those complicated letters nobody except them can understand. Balled the napkin and placed it in the soup-bowl and this whole time I’d had nothing to do except sit on my ass listening to that goddamned music and feel eyes and a mean smile with teeth in it on the back of my head. Man looked at me like he hadn’t thought about me for a longer time than it had taken him to eat his soup. 

“Do you know what a shark is?” 

“A very large and mean-spirited kind of fish?” 

Suppose I was feeling more spirited how a man can be foolish and brave at the same time and the one like enough contributes to the other. Only when the bravery predominates does it get a man dead and a medal and when the foolish predominates he gets dead and remembered for being a dumbass. 

“A shark is the destructive face of God. There is nothing driving a shark but consuming what is around it. When that man, Oppenheimer, detonated the first atomic bomb, he said that he had become death, destroyer of worlds. Now, I have read somewhere that Oppenheimer got it wrong. The line was supposed to be that he had become death, devourer of worlds. And the man who was originally speaking the line was God, and so God then revealed Himself as all devouring death. Now, if that is what God looks like, then can there be a better and a truer representation of God on Earth than a shark?”  

He looked like an evangelist making a pitch for the kind of church has a hand-painted sign over the door saying “Holiness is Here” or something similar and the building the church was in didn’t used to be a church and there might be a regular congregation but if there was it wasn’t any of the sort of people you would know. Might have been the oldest kind of that old time religion and I wasn’t in the market for being saved by the Methodists or the Catholics even if I was baptized one and I certainly wasn’t in the market for being saved by whatever this was. 

“Then, do you understand why I order shark fin soup?” 

I didn’t think that question was any less rhetorical than any of the other ones he had been asking me and I didn’t track his logic and couldn’t point to where it was going any better than I could predict whether the stock market would open higher or lower or if the Russians were going to drop the bomb on New York next week. 

“Because by consuming a shark, I am consuming both death and God Himself. This is one of the rituals by which I live my life. My particular way of celebrating the Eucharist, that is what the Catholics call Communion.” 

I knew what the hell Communion was and thought about saying so and instead I took a sip of my tea and the cup was empty and all I was doing was breathing funny like I was trying to drink down air. My bravery run out of me and the foolishness too. Left me with bad nerves.  

“Now I was born in a good Christian family and was raised by a good Christian mother. And what my mother always told me was to leave my problems to God because God would handle them in His mysterious ways. And as I have grown older I have come to see the wisdom in my mother’s words.”

Realized he was talking about why he liked feeding men he didn’t like to sharks second before he clarified for my benefit like a slow child who for once has managed to get ahead of the teacher. Suppose I was experiencing what a beatnik would call grooving to what the other man was putting out there. 

“God is on Earth, or at least in the waters which are an extension of the Earth, and He is happy to dispose of my problems. Sharks eat everything, as long as there is a little blood in the water to draw them in. But then the world runs on blood and God demands blood, we who are His children are bathed in it and He shed His blood on Earth and now He is forever seeking out blood how a man must bleed for what he loves and all men must love God and God loves man.” 

I still had the cup in my hand. Was a cheap ceramic cup made to look like porcelain and was painted with those Chinese letters wish I could understand because like or not they were reassuring. Even if the music playing in the background sounded like something played to punish folks who had done wrong by Mao they couldn’t be such a cruel people as to write mean-spirited messages on restaurant cups. 

“It is my considered theological and practical opinion that God made blood so that there could be blood in the water.” 

I nodded my head and wanted one of those fortune cookies. The kind restaurants like these serve. Those were always reassuring. Wouldn’t be sensible, wouldn’t be fair to write something like Sharks and Salt Water Are in Your Future on the little slip of paper you find cracking the cookie open. Would always say something like You Are Going to Have Great Success in Your Work in the Week Ahead or some cheap kind of aphorism like Diligence and Perseverance are the Key to Success would sound like if Santayana didn’t feel like putting any effort in. 

The server came back and I wondered if he might save me. Like if I shouted “Kato” he would spring into action and use judo or something like that to take down the Marine weighed twice what he did, which must be the difference between growing up on corn and red meat and growing up on too little rice. Could throw him around for me. After handling the Marine, another man with him wouldn’t be so hard and this man in front of me wouldn’t amount to any problem at all. Instead all he did was ask the man if he wanted anything else only it came out “you wan’ in-ting else” and like enough didn’t know judo and man told him he was finished and didn’t ask for a check and added the soup was excellent as always. Server took the emptied plate and must have picked up quick I wasn’t the sort would be served because after that first pouring of tea he hadn’t looked at me let alone taken my order. Could have been world judo champion and wouldn’t have lifted one world judo champion hand to deliver one world judo champion chop on my behalf. 

Server left and left me with the evangelist. Marine and the other man, too, but suppose needed an audience. Theatricality, how men like him tend towards. I flicked my head towards the Marine and that inspired the man. 

“Our mutual friend is one of the few who have truly understood my message. He was so taken with the truth that he has that tattoo on his finger to remind him. A shark’s tooth in lieu of a cross.” 

I suspected his conversion was opportunistic sadism how cults that preach screwing everything that moves to get to Heaven don’t have trouble recruiting a certain sort of man with a strong sex drive only for him it was a man with a strong drive to violence and being told violence would get a man to Heaven. Though Jesus did come bearing a sword and there were the Crusades, and I didn’t want to be talking over the theology of whatever this was and deciding if it was or was not Christian. I barely had the head on me to be empty. 

“I have a cross too,” the Marine said, “you should know seeing as it’s on my bicep.” 

Man waved that off and he actually waved. Little effeminate flick of his limp wrist. 

“A man can be forgiven a little syncretism. I imagine I have some of that to my church as well. But there are other things which are not given to a man to forgive. A man who goes back on his word of professional honor, for instance, is a man who can only be saved by God.” 

Might have cocked the hammer on an old revolver. Would’ve had the same bad sound to me like finality. 

“Now,” and he put his soft hands with careful nails on the table and were equally varnished, “about my money which you have taken upon yourself to embezzle.” 

Didn’t phrase as a question and I didn’t start crying, which was trying to save water and delay my desiccation by the sum of a few drops of salt water. 

“Because you stole money from me and there isn’t any point in denying the truth, all that is left to determine is one point that is less than the accusation and more important because it concerns your immortal soul.”

I was a dirty accountant sure enough and a lapsed Catholic and I did not want to be a congregant of this man’s Church of the Shark because what else could you call it and I did not want to be something offered on his warped version of Sunday Communion. Man was looking at me with a mean kind of religious glee how the more perverse variety of missionaries must have felt saving the souls of folks they didn’t much like at a mass baptism with dirty cholera riddled water but the baptism still counted to God and the societies collected donations at home.  

“Have you been saved,” the man said and was like he was saying something which he would learn the answer to real soon but not so soon he couldn’t enjoy the anticipation. 

Had a hand on my shoulder and turned to look at it and there was a shark’s tooth on the index finger of the hand gripping my shoulder hard.

V.N. Ebert is the winner of the inaugural Passage Prize in Fiction for his short story “Georgia Buddha,” available in the collection from Passage Press. In his spare time, he enjoys reading pulp novels and watching old movies.