Hurk Harbow found an odd creature on the family dock after lunch. He stepped over the empty slots in the a mish-mash of weathered boards retrieved from the Winslow barn nearly a decade ago. Their former Lake Erie shore house on stilts didn’t look much better after the Hudson Bay seawaters flooded into Ohio with the melt of the ice caps. The creature acted like it wanted aboard my raft.
He wiped the sweat from his brow where the straw hat sat, sun beating cancerous radiation on his bare skin like fire. A high voice lilted “Your da said you’d take me out,” no doubt it was female or younger than it looked. Who could tell with all the implants?
Hurk offered a hand to help her onboard the raft. It wobbled under their shifting weight. “And why the Buckeye would you want to? Don’t you city folk know we’ve work to do?”
The hand placed into his work-roughened mitt was coppery colored but all the hardware tattooed into her skin, all sevens of spades made his skin crawl.
“You may call me High Roller Uwela,” she said. “I answer no questions but I’ll let you play one spin free.”
A laugh barked out of Hurk’s mouth before he could control it. “Whoo boy, you’re full of yourself.” He winked at her, then pressed his pole into the mud and set the raft afloat. Open ocean stretched far as one could see except for an occasional stand of cottonwood and the generator floats.
The spinning bank of cherries, limes and orange slices that had replaced her forehead distracted from Uwela’s grin. “Okay. Call me Owl.” She plunked herself down on the bare synthetic-cottonwood planks and sat cross-legged. “Do you gamble?”
“Life’s a gamble chickypoo. But not on my raft. I’m Hurk. What do you want anyway?”
Owl lay back, spreading wide her arms. “Vacation. Blessed time off.” Her bald head lowered toward the water.
Zing felt in his hands, Hurk dragged the pole out of the water and tapped her head.
“Hey!” she cried.
“Stay on the raft. The fish out there are hungry.” Hurk waited until she lay centered on the raft. He pointed to where a fin broke the water. “See that? Two bites you’re dead. And won’t you fry your brain?”
“Fry? Oh, the electronics, no, they’re in my skin, like a tattoo connected to nanowire sensors. But I’ll turn off unless … can I talk you into a game of craps? Your phone will generate the dice, just hit **D, here, I’ll give you a free roll.” She pulled up her shirt, showing bouncing dice tumbling along a flat belly. Double sevens.
Hurk shook his head, laughing. “Is it rigged?”
Owl scowled and then tapped her forehead, belly and wrists until they changed to skin tone and almost looked normal. “I’m a fully licensed and 65% pure Seneca. We don’t cheat. Don’t need to.” One of her wrists dipped over the side, her fingers lingering above the surface.
Hurk whacked her wrist. “I told you. Stay on board. We’re at the croplands.” He hooked up to the floating generator circuit while she stripped down to a swimsuit. “You can get sunburned and skin cancer, you know.” The activated sonar-shield revealed the sea life below and coil-headed shells trailing tentacles darting among his seaweed.
“I’m wearing permablock.”
Hurk took chum out of the float’s side compartment and got ready to weed his garden so to speak. After he lifted the gate, he scooped the chopped seafood mess on the ocean. “Okay. But see those straps by your hands? Better grip on, it can get rough.”
“What are you? Some kind of pay-for-hire-parent?”
“No. Experienced. Here they come!” Hurk grabbed his own straps and wedged the bucket between his knees. Fifty or more sharks zipped through the gate, fighting for bits of bloody muck. Below them the raft tilted and jerked and splashed 70F waters over the top.
“What? Ack!!” Owl screamed. She pulled her legs up tight and away from the clear floor. “Why didn’t you warn me?”
When the fish counter beeped fifty, Hurk slammed the gate closed. “I did. Told you to hold the straps.” The sharks thrashed below then slowly swam widening circles away.
“I mean about them! What are they?”
Inside the fenced kelp seabed, one of the sharks opened wide its mouth, revealing sharp jagged teeth. It chomped down hard and crunched through the shell of the nautiloid.
Hurk poled toward the next field. “Mostly symmonium occidentalis, an ancient shark from the Ordovician Age. Their teeth are perfect for dining on those nautiloid cephalopods-the squids with the rolled up shells. We bred the cephalopods when the snails started wiping out huge portions of our kelp beds and then the sharks to control them. You should see the big daddy shark, it has a cat like face with big fangs and his whole body is plated, called a Dunkeosteous. It’s hard enough living out here without good vitamin C and … hey, you can relax. They can’t get through the floor.”
“I don’t know. It feels odd having them look at me.”
“You need to get back to nature more often. Aren’t you watched day in and day out? They can’t even see. Most the time they react on sense of smell and ocean vibrations.”
Owl stuck out her tongue. “That’s not me, that’s the games.”
“I’m watching you, how come that doesn’t bother you?”
“You’re just the hired help. They think I’m dinner.”
Hurk pulled his hat further down on his head and scratched his hairy belly like a yokel. “Pretty bright chickypoo. If you fall in, I ain’t going in to rescue you.” He didn’t bother telling her it was a lie. He turned off the sonar.
She wrinkled her nose then lay on her belly ignoring him.
Hurk rowed between field gates where the kelp changed from nori to red algae and to the more shallow fields with Calamites-an cloned ancient bamboo some of which he scythed for lunch and put in the AutoFood. After a dozen fields, sweat beads covered Owl’s skin and gurgles churned inside Hurk’s belly. He noticed his guest’s raised eyebrow a time or two, so he gave up on doing real work and poled deeper, flicking the switch on one pole to widen the end into a paddle. The water grew murkier. “You hungry?” he asked finally, the silence acting like a storm growing on the horizon.
“Mhmm. I’m hot.” She curled into a ball. “What’s for dinner?”
Hurk anchored. With a grin, he stripped down to his utility trunks. “Stay here,” he said and dove off the edge. He grabbed hold of the giant kelp when his downward momentum ended and searched for snails and the sea tomatoes, plucking hands full and placing them into his trunk pockets until he saw it.
Mouth. Huge. Twice, thrice and again bigger than him. Thin tissue columns lined the inside of the mouth.
Where the buckeye had that come from?
Slowly, he pulled his legs in around the stalk of the kelp. If he could stay almost motionless … it might not notice him.
Gunk came like stones down toward him from above. What?
Chum! Not chum! Energy flared through his arms as he grabbed and pulled, grabbed and pulled.
The giant shark turned toward him.
Around him, flat shark heads swept back and forth, mouth gaping wide, teeth sharp. Sharks snagged fish bits and darted away. He reached the raft edge and climbed half way on. Owl readied to lob more chum. “Noooo!”
The sharks roiled the water so much he could barely hang on and the big daddy of them all loomed. Larger and larger it grew until it breeched, right beneath the raft.
Owl threw herself to her handhold but was flipped over the edge by the sudden rise.
After a heart wrenching minute or two, the raft quit rocking.
Hurk levered his legs on top, then inched toward Owl. The ocean creature they rode didn’t dive, how come? A minute more. Another. Hurk reached down around Owl’s waist and pulled her on top. Hurk hugged her for several minutes breathing heavily until Owl moaned. “Oh nooo.”
Owl twisted so she could look him in the face. “It’s headed away from where we were. Is that bad?”
Hurk checked around him. “Yep, bad bad.” All the field generators receded; they were headed out to sea. “Don’t move, you’re rocking the raft.”
“Fine. What’re you going to do?”
Hurk flushed. “Me?”
“Yeah, you. You’re the hired help.” Her eyes sparkled, and then she shoved his arm away.
“Fine. Let me think.” Jaw gritted, Hurk counted down from ten. “By the way, when someone is in the water, never, ever dump in chum! Have you no common sense?”
“Now you tell me.”
“If you had any sense, you would have known they sense blood and motion.” He rolled over onto his belly, fit his feet through handholds and motioned for her to do likewise.
Owl rolled her eyes. “I threw food opposite of you to keep the sharks away.” She bit her lip. “Why do you suppose it doesn’t dive? What is it, anyway? Don’t sharks have teeth?”
Hurk slapped his head. “Baleen. That’s it. It’s not a shark. Those large fins and no teeth are the clue. It’s a filter feeder, like,” he leaned over the side, catching sight of the fins propelling them, “like a Bonnerichthys-whale that looks like a giant cod. When we cloned the sharks suited for the warmer, more oxygenated environment, someone must have decided we needed a complete ecology.” He shrugged. “It’s no danger to us. So why head out to sea? Oh. The shallows.”
This time Owl peered into the pale green waters. “Shallows?” Reeds reached almost to the top.
“This whole area isn’t more than one hundred feet deep. It probably prefers the depths. So what are the odds of it coming ashore, hmm, you’re the odds maker.”
After a long silence, Owl whispered. “100%”
Hurk noticed water on her face. Not ocean water. Not sweat. She was crying. Feeling kicked in the gut, he placed an arm along her shoulders. “Hey, hey, it’s okay. It will take us to the depths, then dive and let us go. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“But I did. I nearly killed you.” Owl rubbed at her eyes. “My brain implant sends a subliminal attraction message. Do you suppose it works on all mammals?” She raised an eyebrow.
“You know… to attract buyers.” Owl’s lower lip stuck out. “Why doesn’t it affect you?”
“I’se just a dumb ol’e country boy.” He laughed. “Dad had my receptors blocked, out here we put all our earnings back into the farm.”
“And a liar, too!” She gave him an all teeth mug shot smile, not a bit friendly either. “Earlier, when you dove, why didn’t the sharks attack you?”
“Life’s a gamble but I like the sure win. My skin repels sharks.”
Owl smiled. “Now that’s a trick I can use. How does it work?” Strange how a nice smile made her seem so young and human.
Hurk stifled his groan. “We’re all born with a protein receptor called TRPA1 in our mouth, stomach, skin, lungs etc. that gets triggered by harsh chemicals. When triggered it produces a chemical called nociception which causes pain and inflammation in the cells afflicted. We can boost the levels of nociception in our epidermis by imagining ammonia and it seeps out of our skin as oil.”
Owl tapped bright tipped fingernails on her teeth. “Does it hurt you?”
“Not really. It’s not pleasant, sort of like getting stung by a bee and swelling up if contact with someone is made.”
“You think,” her voice trailed off, “if you lay directly on the Bonnerichthys and thought about ammonia, maybe it would dive?”
Hurk slugged her in the arm. “Pretty bright chickypoo.”
Owl stuck her nose in the air. “I don’t turn off my brain receptors.”
“Ha. Ha. I could try. And it beats rowing.”
“If it hurts, you don’t have to.”
Hurk bunched up his pecs like a muscle builder. “Yeah I do. Okay. The plan. As I roll off to lie down on the Bonnerichthys, you slide over, so the raft doesn’t tip you in. Where’s the life ring?”
Owl turned this way and that, setting the raft rocking.
“Whoa. Let me think.” Then Hurk knew. “Its smack dab under your belly.”
“Slide forward an arm’s length. Slowly.”
Hurk unlatched the storage crate and pulled out the self-inflating life ring, attached the rope to the raft and passed it to Owl. “Okay, on a count of three, I’m going to roll off. One … two … three … go.”
He placed one foot carefully on the whale’s back, then the next and one hand. Then he let go with his last hand. The raft wobbled but he easily positioned himself full out on the whale’s back and thought ammonia.
A shudder ran down the length of the whale, but instead of sinking, it gave a jerk of its tail and the raft lurched up into the air, sending Owl headlong into the sea.
Hurk stood, took one look at the line of shark fins racing over and dove after Owl, thinking whatever you do Owl, don’t let go of the life ring. It was their only tie to the raft.
Once in the water he found the kelp blocked any sight of Owl. He sprinted in her direction, imagining shark teeth but feeling how the water hit his cheeks. Like a shark, he found motion toward his left side so veered in that direction. And found her. He grabbed her around the waist while imagining ammonia. A thump hit his shoulder then veered away. He reached around Owl and found the raft’s rope. He heaved-ho with all his might. The raft’s wood edge propelled straight toward them.
He ducked, but the raft’s edge connected with Owl’s head with a thwack. She went limp.
Hurk grabbed the raft, pushed Owl aboard and then climbed up beside her. Breathing heavily, he looked around for his paddle. And found it in the last place in the world where he wished it could be-on the back of the whale, already 300 feet or more away.
He checked Owl breathed, then for breaks or bites. None.
His breathing slowed but from the feel of his arm, he wasn’t sure he really wanted to find out the damage he had received. No blood. In fact, his shoulder looked quite normal. It was the deep down ache that told him the story. Bad bruised. In fact, he could see that a black and blue mark began to stain it.
Owl moaned. Her eyes blackened like his arm. Hurk inwardly smiled. There goes my tip.
The paddle sped further out to sea, the whale partially out of the water. Hurk had a spare, but the cost … bad bad. He decided not to mention it to Owl, she’d had a long day.
Hurk began rowing home, tired, hungry, with a shoulder steadily growing painful and thinking, and to top it all, dad would likely be mad he didn’t get his chores finished. After an hour, he cooked the sea tomatoes and snails he had collected and dished up the Calamites shoots.
Owl ate quietly.
The night came on like a veil steadily lowered, deep blue, violet, plum, gray and cold.
Hurk tapped Owl lightly on the head. “You okay? Cold?”
She nodded. “Headache. I’m fine. This doesn’t feel like much of a vacation.” She lay back, staring up at where Jupiter peeked out.
Hurk dipped and pulled, dipped and pulled. The rhythm and silence made him feel sleepy. The moon rose up, higher and higher into the sky.
A gasp broke his reverie. “Look.”
Around them the seas shone like a flashlight through a sheet. Patches blinked into brightness from the dark waters around them.
Owl pointed. “What is it?”
“Bacteria. Grows luminescent this time of year. Tells you that there’s food out there, waiting to be eaten.” Hurk shuffled his feet. “Look, I’m sorry the way today turned out.”
Owl laughed. “I was getting too warm. I needed a good dunk.”
Hurk laughed, feeling like he could breathe again.
“This is one special vacation. Thanks. Thanks for everything. You didn’t have to save me, you know. You’re just the hired help. Even so, you sure showed me a special day.”
Hurk felt the heat rise in his face. He quit hurrying, letting the night’s magic flow over him, the slap of the waves, the milk of the waters, the glow from above. He might not know that Owl was a girl at first glance, but he bet that the odds were, she’d make a fine friend.