[shark over open book]

James Dickey

"The Shark's Parlor"

Memory: I can take my head and strike it on a wall     on Cumberland Island
Where the night tide came crawling under the stairs     came up the first
Two or three steps     and the cottage stood on poles all night
With the sea sprawled under it     as we dreamed of the great fin circling
Under the bedroom floor. In daylight there was my first brassy taste of beer
And Payton Ford and I came back from the Glynn County slaughterhouse
With a bucket of entrails and blood. We tied one end of a hawser
To a spindling porch-pillar and rowed straight out of the house
Three hundred yards into the vast front yard of windless blue water
The rope out slithering its coil     the two-gallon jug stoppered and sealed
With wax     and a ten-foot chain leader     a drop-forged shark-hook nestling.
We cast our blood on the waters     the land blood easily passing
For sea blood     and we sat in it for a moment with the stain spreading
Out from the boat     sat in a new radiance     in the pond of blood in the sea
Waiting for fins     waiting to spill our guts also in the glowing water.
We dumped the bucket, and baited the hook with a run-over collie pup. The jug
Bobbed, trying to shake off the sun as a dog would shake off the sea.
We rowed to the house     feeling the same water lift the boat a new way,
All the time seeing where we lived rise and dip with the oars.
We tied up and sat down in rocking chairs, one eye on the other responding
To the blue-eye wink of the jug. Payton got us a beer and we sat

All morning sat there with blood on our minds     the red mark out
In the harbor slowly failing us     then     the house groaned     the rope
Sprang out of the water     splinters flew     we leapt from our chairs
And grabbed the rope     hauled     did nothing     the house coming subtly
Apart     all around us     underfoot     boards beginning to sparkle like sand
Pulling out     the tarred poles we slept propped-up on     leaning to sea
As in land-wind     crabs scuttling from under the floor     as we took runs about
Two more porch-pillars     and looked out and saw     something     a fish-flash
An almighty fin in trouble    a moiling of secret forces     a false start
Of water    a round wave growing     in the whole of Cumberland Sound the one ripple.
Payton took off without a word     I could not hold him either

But clung to the rope anyway     it was the whole house bending
Its nails that held whatever it was     coming in a little and like a fool
I took up the slack on my wrist. The rope drew gently     jerked     I lifted
Clean off the porch and hit the water     the same water it was in
I felt in blue blazing terror at the bottom of the stairs and scrambled
Back up looking desperately into the human house as deeply as I could
Stopping my gaze before it went out the wire screen of the back door
Stopped it on the thistled rattan     the rugs I lay on and read
On my mother's sewing basket with next winter's socks spilling from it
The flimsy vacation furniture     a bucktoothed picture of myself.
Payton came back with three men from a filling station     and glanced at me
Dripping water     inexplicable     then we all grabbed hold like a tug-of-war.

We were gaining a little     from us a cry went up     from everywhere
People came running. Behind us the house filled with men and boys.
On the third step from the sea I took my place     looking down the rope
Going into the ocean, humming and shaking off drops. A houseful
Of people put their backs into it     going up the steps from me
Into the living room     through the kitchen     down the back stairs
Up and over a hill of sand     across a dust road     and onto a raised field
Of dunes     we were gaining     the rope in my hands began to be wet
With deeper water     all other haulers retreated through the house
But Payton and I on the stairs     drawing hand over hand on our blood
Drawing into existence by the nose     a huge body     becoming
A hammerhead     rolling in beery shallows     and I began to let up
But the rope strained behind me     the town had gone
Pulling-mad in our house     far away in a field of sand they struggled
They had turned their backs on the sea     bent double     some on their knees
The rope over their shoulders like a bag of gold     they strove for the ideal
Esso station across the scorched meadow     with the distant fish coming up
The front stairs     the sagging boards     still coming in     up     taking
Another step     toward the empty house     where the rope stood straining
By itself through the rooms     in the middle of the air.     "Pass the word,"
Payton said, and I screamed it     "Let up, good God, let up!"     to no one there.
The shark flopped on the porch, grating with salt-sand     driving back in
The nails he had pulled out     coughing chunks of his formless blood.
The screen door banged and tore off     he scrambled on his tail     slid
Curved     did a thing from another world     and was out of his element and in
Our vacation paradise     cutting all four legs from under the dinner table
With one deep-water move     he unwove the rugs in a moment     throwing pints
Of blood over everything we owned     knocked the buckteeth out of my picture
His odd head full of crashed jelly-glass splinters and radio tubes     thrashing
Among the pages of fan magazines     all the movie stars drenched in sea-blood
Each time we thought he was dead     he struggled back and smashed
One more thing     in all coming back to die     three or four more times after death.
At last we got him out     logrolling him     greasing his sandpaper skin
With lard to slide him     pulling on his chained lips as the tide came,
Tumbled him down the steps as the first night wave went under the floor.
He drifted off     head back     belly white as the moon. What could I do but buy
That house     for the one black mark still there     against death     a forehead-
        toucher in the room he circles beneath     and has been invited to wreck?
Blood hard as iron on the wall     black with time     still bloodlike
Can be touched whenever the brow is drunk enough. All changes. Memory:
Something like three-dimensional dancing in the limbs     with age
Feeling more in two worlds than one     in all worlds the growing encounters.

Copyright © James Dickey 1965