The Covenant of the Sharks

Posted on May 27, 2005 by Jenna

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This is the story of a man. His name’s Steve.

He hangs out with the sharks. Or at least, he did.

Steve never liked being good too well. He didn’t have an evil nature, exactly. He wanted to do well by his fellow man. He needed goodness to be whole, just like you and me. But he never liked it.

Steve wanted to be a shark.

“So,” Steve says one day, staring up at the Heavens, “here’s a thing between you and me. I’m bound to be good, and if I’m not, that’s a sin. I’ll suffer for it here and I’ll suffer for it there. And I have to ask, what about the sharks? What contract do you have with the sharks and the wasps and the terrors of the deep that lets them hurt others so?”

And there is a thundering in the firmament and a light in the shadow, and he hears this voice: “What business is it of yours, my covenant with the sharks?”

And that is all the answer he gets that day.

Steve’s sitting in the bar. He’s talking to Ben. He’s saying, “It’s cruel, is what it is. They don’t have to be good. They don’t worry if they’re good enough. They just swim, smooth and sleek, and their teeth are like knives.”

Ben rapidly establishes context. “The sharks?”


“It’s better to be human,” Ben says. “But it’s not better to worry. That’s where you’re getting mixed up—the two aren’t the same thing. Guilt isn’t goodness.”

“If it’s not the same,” says Steve, “it might as well be.”

And Steve walks down the street, and he can feel the water on his skin, and the cold dark deeps of his eyes. And he works at the bank, and he knows he could steal enough to live well forever. And he passes a girl and he wants her. And he has a little stomachache from eating too much and he knows that all over the world are people who don’t have enough.

And he says, “How do the sharks get away with it?”

The firmament shakes and the girl runs for a building and the cars on the street speed up and one of them grinds its tire on the curb and an old homeless guy on the corner falls down and a businessman’s coffee sloshes right out of his cup as the voice says, to Steve, “What is my covenant with the sharks to you?”

“I want to rip them up,” says Steve, “with my fine sharp teeth.”

And the voice is low, and soft, and this time it is just within Steve’s soul. It says, “You do not.”

So Steve kicks over a trash can, because he can, and then he feels dumb, and he picks up the trash and puts it back in and he goes home and he washes his hands and he goes to bed.

Ben calls him the next day, from the office where they work.

“Hey, Steve,” says Ben. “You didn’t show up today. Are you okay?”

“I wouldn’t be happy as a shark,” Steve says.

He hasn’t shaved. He hasn’t even really gotten out of bed.

“That’s true,” says Ben.

“Why wouldn’t I be happy as a shark?”

“You like the idea of sharks, man. Not the reality. You don’t want to tear people up and look at the blood and the horror of their pain. You want to tear up props that look like people. You don’t want to steal. You want to be a glamorous outlaw. You want the world to give you exactly what you want without any prices, ’cause you know that the price of badness isn’t one you’re willing to pay.”

“It’s not?”

“Look at yourself, Steve,” says Ben, who has a pretty good idea what Steve looks like right now. “You’d be empty and hollow like a rat. You’d be cold and alone and your eyes’d be filled with shock. You’d be broken, man. Hurting people just isn’t as cool in the real world as it is in the cinema of your brain.”

“I could stop caring,” says Steve.

“It’s the covenant of humans and the world,” says Ben. “That it’s better to care. That it’s wholer. That when you love others it can fill you with joy.”

Steve frowns.

“How come you know so much, Ben?”

“You know how sometimes people’ll be walking along thinking about stuff and the firmament shakes and the television goes staticky and a voice answers their thoughts?”

“Well, yah,” says Steve. Everybody knows about that.

“I listen in,” summarizes Ben.

Steve looks appalled. “That’s theological voyeurism, man.”

“I’m addicted to truth. But hey, it pays off, ’cause when you ask me these questions, I can tell you what’s what.”

“But …”

Steve flails.

“But,” says Steve, “does that mean that the sharks are hollow and empty and cursed by God?”

The line goes dead. The blender whirls three times. The light flickers and the music of the spheres is for a moment piercing and loud:

“What is it to you, Steven, my covenant with the sharks?”

“You’ve got to be fair, man,” Steven tells the universe. “You’ve given them some kind of preferential deal, haven’t you? You’ve done something … they get to be happy monsters.”

The light in the room is blinding and the messenger is there.

“Steven,” says the messenger. His hair is long and silver. His robes are white. His eyes are shadowed. “Steven, the world was born in a state of undifferentiated sin. It is full of error. It is a place of ignorance, fear, and desire. And it is the covenant of the world with humanity that humans may cleanse that sin. That they may be recipients of grace. It is that opportunity given to you, that you may be good. It is priceless because in virtue and in love and in trying to be good you heal the world.”

And Steven thinks about what it’s like to have hard cartilege fins and rough gray skin.

“Please,” Steven says. “Please tell me about the sharks.”

“They are evil,” says the messenger. “They are gatherers of evil. They are a sinkhole for the horror of the world. For if there were not sharks, if there were not wasps, if there were not sociopaths and monsters, then that evil would roam free, in the dust, in the water, in the air, and it could not be healed with ending.”

“Gatherers,” Steven says.

“Sin is a wound,” the messenger says. “The evil are those who take that wound into their souls and let it unweave them until they are hollow worthless men.”

“That’s the one I want,” Steven says. “That’s the covenant I want.”

The messenger bows.

It’s best not to think of it in a human’s terms, because you can’t. If you could understand the covenant of the sharks, you’d be a shark.

Steve walks out of the room. He breathes the air. He looks around. Then he goes, and he begins to kill.

There’s a sinkhole in his heart where you and I’ve got a source. There’s a black depth in his eyes where you and I have light. And he isn’t sad that he kills, and it doesn’t hurt him to hurt, and he doesn’t even have to lie.

It’s not something we could understand. It’s not a human covenant, and it’s not a human thing.

It’s just what he does, so that when he dies, when they fill him full of bullets on an overpass at night, and he falls, and there’s blood in his mouth and his skin’s scraped raw, it’s not a murder that destroys a man but the justice given to a shark.

He laughs as he dies.

He’s not around any more.

Ben asks the world, a while later, “Why was that right? Why was it okay that he did that? What kind of world would turn a good man bad?”

And the firmament shakes, and there are terrible winds, and the sky flickers with light, and the voice says, “It is not an affair for the human kind, my covenant with the sharks.”

See also Shriekback’s “Shark Walk.”