Not Always a Coastal Species
by Sunny Chan
Mara is sixteen when they finally tell her.
It’s not even because they meant to tell her, not because they thought she was mature enough to handle it, or because they owed her the truth, or because there’s nothing to be ashamed of so there’s no reason to keep it a secret. They tell her because Josh from school heard it from his aunt who heard it from her neighbor at book club one night, and now Josh won’t stop calling her “fisheyes.”
“What a dumb rumor,” Mara says, after she’s done ranting about the general vileness of boys and the particular repulsiveness of Josh.
Her parents give each other a look they think she can’t see, and then they admit that it might not be so much a rumor as a half-truth.
Mara is half great white shark.
They’ve always been open about the fact that she’s adopted. It’s not the type of adoption you can hide, what with her having black hair and tan skin while her parents look positively Nordic. Ever since she was an infant, as far back as she can remember, they’ve always told her that some babies arrive from a mommy’s tummy and some babies arrive from a long journey, but it doesn’t matter how they get there: the love is the same. Which is why it pisses her off so much more. They’ve always made a point of not lying, because lying means you don’t like the truth, and Mara should be proud of the truth even though it makes her different. Apparently there’s a limit to how different a person can be before the truth starts being too horrible for pride.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“We were waiting for you to ask. We always told you anything you asked,” her mom says. “But you never asked about your birth parents.”
“I never felt like I needed to. You guys are my parents,” she says automatically. How, exactly, was she supposed to know that she should’ve asked whether one of her birth parents was a shark?
“We’re still your parents. Nothing’s changed.”
“Except for the part where I always assumed I’m human! That’s changed!”
“Well, what do we say about never assuming?” her dad says, like this is at all an appropriate time to have a teachable moment about the importance of not letting expectations create bias.
“I think I want to be alone right now,” Mara says, and goes to her room.
Her little sister, of all people, takes the news the hardest. Mara isn’t sure what her problem is. It’s not her life that’s being turned upside down. But Tara’s going through a melodramatic phase and she keeps bawling like Mara’s gone and died instead of found out she’s part fish.
Mara doesn’t want to give her any more attention than she needs because it’ll just reward her for acting like a lunatic, but it starts to seriously grate on her nerves by the third day so she caves in and asks, “What’s wrong with you?”
Tara looks at her and Mara swears she can see the actual process of tear formation, water slowly gathering at the corners of her eyes before beginning their sluggish descent down her puffy face. “Nothing,” she sobs.
“I’m not gonna ask you again,” Mara warns. “If it’s nothing, then I’ll treat it like it’s nothing and move on forever.”
“You’re my sister!” Tara throws her arms around Mara in a way she hasn’t since she was a little blonde toddler, the perfect carbon copy of their mom with a little bit of dad mixed in.
“I know.” She tries to extricate herself but Tara’s like a freaking octopus. Maybe she should ask her parents if she’s actually adopted from cephalopods, just in case. “I try to forget it every day, but here you are, still my sister.”
“I’m not gonna let the sharks have you, you’re mine.”
She eventually manages to wrestle herself out of Tara’s tentacles. “The sharks don’t want me, Tare, don’t be stupid. And I’m still half human. Besides, you’ve always known I was adopted.”
“But what if you swim off one day to go be with your real sisters? What if you leave me here and I never see you again?”
“I don’t think that’s how it works,” Mara says.
Truth be told, she has no idea how it works, what it means to be half shark. She’s still semi not talking to her parents, but between Tara moping around the house like a professional mourner and Mara surreptitiously googling “great white shark mating behavior” on the family computer, her mom picks up on the hints and leaves a book on Mara’s bedside table.
Mara reads The Definitive Guide to Great White Sharks late at night, after all the lights are out and she’s sure everyone else is asleep. She kind of wishes the book would stop using the phrase ‘monstrous creature’ to describe them over and over again, but it does tell her everything her parents don’t. Like, when she was really little, she could’ve sworn she was clairvoyant or something. She didn’t know that word, obviously, but sometimes she’d watch old re-runs of The X Files with her dad even after he warned her she’d get too scared—and he was right, of course; she’d get so terrified of the dark that she wouldn’t sleep for days—and sometimes the episode would be about someone who could talk to ghosts or sense the future, and she’d think, “They’re just like me.” She tried to explain her parents that she could feel people’s energies, their auras, that she felt like if she stood still enough and quiet enough she could sense every single worm in the ground beneath her. Sometimes she thought she might be crazy. “It’s just your imagination,” they told her, and when she got older she decided she agreed, because everybody knows that ESP is the kind of nonsense only babies believe in.
The Definitive Guide to Great White Sharks tells her she isn’t clairvoyant, or crazy, or a baby. She can detect the electrical fields that living things generate when they move, to a half a billionth of a volt. Great white sharks have incredibly sensitive electroreceptors called ampullae of Lorenzini, and if she actually tried standing still enough and quiet enough, she could probably count every single worm in the ground beneath her.
The book also says that no scientist has ever witnessed the mating rituals of great whites, and their sexual lives are considered a complete mystery. So. At least things remain pretty much the same for Mara on that front.
Word about Mara gets around because it’s high school. Soon enough, half the school has heard and people start giving her a wide berth in the halls like she’s liable to lose it and take a chomp out of them between third period math and phys ed.
It’s not like Mara hung out with other kids all that much to begin with, so she doesn’t mind the ridiculous new avoidance shtick. At least the book says great whites are usually solitary creatures; she used to worry a lot about her lack of desire to make friends with people and her subsequent failure to feel lonely for not having any friends. Her mom used to make her invite all the girls in her grade to her birthday parties, back in elementary, and most of them would invite her back to be polite. It stopped when they got too old for their parents to send out their invitations for them, and she doesn’t really miss it. Turns out, that’s normal for her kind.
She’s honestly starting to enjoy her luxurious new bubble of personal space when Josh—it’s always that asshole Josh—starts a new nickname for her.
The halls are more packed than usual after school one day, a basketball game or some other equally uninteresting event drawing the crowds, and even with everyone shunning her Mara can’t help bumping into people. She’s about to apologize for the elbow she landed in someone’s ribs when Josh bellows, “Watch it, man-eater!”
If she’d known it was him, maybe she would’ve dug her elbow in harder. “Sorry, you were in the way.”
“Right, I’m sure all the people who’ve been killed by sharks just happened to be ‘in the way,’ man-eater.”
The students nearest to them titter and shuffle, somewhere between backing away and joining in. A girl she knows from countless elementary school parties pipes up to say, “Just let her go home,” but she’s met with several hissed “Shut up, Emily”s.
Mara could say something about how way more people die every year from being struck by lightening than from shark attacks, but it’s not her job to educate Josh and, actually, right now she would like to skew the statistics and bite his stupid face off. It’s for the best if she just walks away.
“Man-eater” catches on no matter how many times she walks away. Some kids start thinking it’s abso-freaking-lutely hilarious to hum the Jaws theme whenever they see her coming. It’s not that she even cares what they think. The only part that really bothers her is the realization that that’s everything they know about sharks—all their knowledge comes from movies about blood in the water and panicked hoards running screaming from the sight of dorsal fin. It’s that fear that keeps shark culls going, keeps people slaughtering sharks for sport.
And of course, in some parts of the world, people slaughter sharks just to eat the fins. None of the other kids seem to have caught on to that particular connotation of being half-shark, half-Chinese yet. It sits like a bomb in Mara’s chest, cutting her breath short as she waits for it to go off. Her parents have always told her, since she was old enough to understand words, that her birth parents loved her very much because they made the toughest decision of all to let her go so she could have a better life. She still hasn’t asked them if they know whether it was her birth mother or birth father who gave her the shark genes. Had they loved each other as much as they supposedly loved her? Or did one of them end up finning the other, tossing the amputated body back to suffocate beneath the waves when they were done? Did the shark eat the human or did the human eat the shark, in the end? She’s not sure she ever wants to know.
Josh picks a bad day to turn weird with his “man-eater” bullshit. She’s in even less of a mood for him than usual, so the last thing she wants to hear when he leans against the locker beside her is the way he drawls, “So, you’re a man-eater.”
“I’m not a man-eater. But I am late for dinner,” she says. It’s 3:40 p.m.
“How many men have you eaten? Be honest.”
Mara has a few seconds to consciously think the words, “this is creepy,” and then Josh is leaning in close enough for her to feel his breath on her face. The sexual behavior of great whites may be a scientific mystery, but she knows this isn’t it. She would probably be a lot more intimidated if she couldn’t feel someone else’s heartbeat nearby, if she didn’t know she’s not alone with Josh in an empty hallway. And if she weren’t so freaking angry.
“Great white sharks have a bite force of 4000 pounds per square inch, but don’t worry, you’ll always be safe because I’d rather die than put you in my mouth,” she says, before punching him right in the gut. She’s never punched anyone before, not for real, but the way he crumples is surprisingly satisfying. There’s a stifled gasp, not from Josh but from the other heartbeat.
“If you tell on me,” Mara says as she passes the trophy cabinet Emily’s been hiding behind this whole time, “you should at least tell them I was provoked.”
Emily doesn’t end up telling on her, but Josh does, of course. The next day Mara gets sent home with a note that her parents have to sign, and she isn’t even in trouble with the school because the principal has written the infuriating comment, “We have to understand and respect her natural aggression.”
It almost makes her wish she’d chewed Josh’s leg right off after all. The only thing that makes her feel better is how her parents do not, in fact, understand or respect her natural aggression, and allocate all of Tara’s chores to her on top of her own for the next two weeks.
After the note from the principal, the teachers give up the pretense of not knowing. Mara’s biology teacher calls on her to explain ovoviviparity one day, when they’re learning about non-mammalian reproduction, and Mara doesn’t understand why at first. It’s not in the textbook and none of the other kids seem to know what it is.
“Oh, sorry, I just assumed you might have some insider wisdom you could share with the rest of us, since shark eggs are well known to hatch internally and the young develop in the uterus until birth.” At least the teacher has the good grace to look embarrassed when she repeats, “Sorry about that.”
It brings up a niggling half-forgotten memory from first grade, when she’d first started at a new school and other kids’ parents kept telling them to follow Mara’s lead in math class. She hadn’t been bad at math, but she wasn’t so good that it made sense. After it came out that Mara was adopted and her parents weren’t even Chinese, it eventually stopped and faded slowly from her mind.
“I’m adopted,” she reminds her bio teacher now. If it worked the first time . . . .
Not three days later, the phys ed teacher comes up to her with no warning and asks if she’s ever thought about joining the swim team.
“We used to be division champions, you know,” Coach Mullins says, “before any of you can remember. Would be nice to get one more trophy under the ol’ belt, before I retire. We’ve been in a slump for a good while but this is shaping up to be a fine year. We’ve got a pretty solid team and you’d be a welcome addition.”
“I’ve never tried competitive swimming,” Mara says. “I don’t think I’d be very good at it.”
“I know it’s a few hours of practice every week and young people are always so busy, but I can count them as extra credit for gym class. And if we win it’ll look great on your college applications.”
“I really doubt we’d win if I joined the team. I only know the breaststroke and I don’t like opening putting my face underwater. I’ve never done laps. My dad tried to teach me butterfly one summer and I almost drowned him.”
“Nonsense,” Coach Mullins says. “You just need practice. I’m sure you’ll pick it right up with a bit of guidance. You people are naturals.”
Mara looks around for a plausible exit and finds none. She tries anyway. “I’ll think about it. But I’m going to be late for band so I have to go now.” She’s not in band, and she rushes away before Coach Mullins can realize it.
“The next practice is at 4:30 next Tuesday!” he yells at her quickly retreating back. “Bring your own goggles!”
Mara keeps her head down and doesn’t acknowledge that she heard. Students hurry out of her way, except for one who sidles up alongside and falls into step with her.
“Coach is so rude sometimes, right?” Emily says.
Mara valiantly does not sigh in her face.
“The worst part is that he doesn’t even know he’s being offensive,” Emily presses on, oblivious to Mara’s complete lack of camaraderie for her. “He tried to recruit me for the swim team too, last year; he totally assumed I’d be this power swimmer just because I’m part tiger shark. One eighth, on my father’s side.”
Mara stops walking. “Let’s not do this.”
“This,” she says, making a gesture that encompasses the space between the two of them. “Let’s not bond over how you must understand exactly what I’m going through because you’re part shark too and we’re destined to be best friends because sometime in the past one of our DNA donors was dumb enough to fall in love with a fish.”
“You’re putting words in my mouth.”
“Great whites and tiger sharks don’t fraternize in the wild,” Mara tells her. At least Emily has enough social skills to grasp that she shouldn’t follow her when she starts walking again.
Mara hasn’t thought about it for ages, but it occurs to her that Emily was the last person to stop inviting her to her birthday parties, a good two years after everyone else had. She’s thinking about it now because she should’ve taken it as a warning sign that Emily is rather tenacious.
“Honey, there’s someone for you at the door!”
It’s Emily. She knows before she goes downstairs because she’s starting to recognize Emily’s particularly irritating electromagnetic signature. Her mom goes into the kitchen and starts loudly doing dishes to give them some privacy.
“What are you doing at my house?”
“You left this at school,” she says, holding out a book that Mara has never seen or needed before in her life.
“No, I didn’t.”
Emily drops her arm. “Okay, fine, you didn’t, but I wanted to come talk to you and apologize. I shouldn’t have tried to make it seem like we had so much in common when your situation is nothing like mine. But I just got excited, because I don’t know anyone else besides my family who’s mixed-species, and I remembered when we were little we were friends for a while, so I thought maybe you’d be excited too, to know you’re not alone.”
Mara says nothing.
“And it’s not just the shark thing. We used to sort of be friends and now we barely say hi in the halls. I thought if I had a reason to talk to you again, maybe we could start hanging out again. I don’t know. It was stupid, sorry.”
“Thank you for coming over to apologize,” Mara says, “but I’m just not interested.”
Emily protests as expected, but Mara manages to usher her out the door. She locks it and turns around to see her mother’s disapproving face.
“That wasn’t nice,” she says, holding a damp dishtowel.
“Sharks aren’t nice.” Mara shrugs.
“This isn’t how we raised you,” her mom says, and she’s frowning for real now, throwing the dishtowel over her shoulder like she wants to keep her hands free for a fight.
“How you raised me was a lie, Mom! You don’t understand me and you never let me understand myself. I’m a solitary animal. I wouldn’t even normally stay in a family group if I wasn’t raised by humans. You can never understand!”
Out of the corner of her eyes, Mara sees Tara hovering near the bottom of the stairs, blatantly eavesdropping and looking like she might start crying again. Her mom’s raised voice gets her attention back.
“You don’t know the first thing about how we raised you. I’m sorry we didn’t tell you sooner, alright? If we could go back in time, maybe we would’ve done things differently, helped you connect to your heritage more. But the truth is, your dad and I didn’t want to stereotype and go join Save Our Seas just because we adopted you. We didn’t want to pretend we had any right to claim we know what it’s like for sharks or force you to go to marine biology camp every summer. We just wanted you to find yourself and be you. We can start doing all of those things if you want to. We love you so, so much,” her mom says, reaching for Mara, but Mara steps back because she hates being hugged when she’s crying. It just makes her cry more.
Her mom lets her stay at arm’s length and continues, “Listen, Mara. You’re my daughter. I raised you. I understand you. And you are being very much a human teenaged girl about all this. Stop throwing a tantrum and taking it out on poor Emily just because life isn’t rainbows and roses like you imagined.”
Mara wipes her face quickly. “I’m not taking it out on Emily.”
“You are,” her mom informs her. “She was always so nice to you. Do you remember when you were eight and she drew you a special valentine by hand? Everyone else bought those Spongebob Squarepants sets but Emily made yours herself. I still have it in a box somewhere in the attic.”
She doesn’t remember that at all. “I guess I’ll go message her on Facebook.”
“You do that.”
Tara gets her with a sneak attack hug on her way up the stairs. Mara bears it for a whole five seconds because she figures she owes her. “Okay, that’s enough. Get off me.” She pushes Tara away gently enough for the hand on her shoulder to technically count as a pat. She ruffles her hair for good measure.
She jogs up the rest of the stairs to the soundtrack of Tara’s mock-indignant but secretly delighted squeals and closes her bedroom door.
Emily’s made a new post just a few seconds ago so it’s the first thing Mara sees when she logs on to Facebook. It’s a link to an article about great white sharks at Seal Island. Apparently, they’ve been observed socializing in “clans” of two to six individuals. It’s still unknown whether clan members are related or how they’re chosen, but they hunt together and stay together year after year. Mara reads it with more gusto than she would ever admit to anyone in real life.
Mara knows she should private message her to say sorry, but she comments on the link instead. “cool article,” she writes, and then doesn’t know what else to say. She sits staring at the blinking cursor for long moments and is just about to hit send when she tacks on, “do you wanna hang out after school tomorrow? my place?”
She closes her laptop so she can’t obsessively refresh the page for a reply like a loser, but she’s already smiling to herself.
Sunny Chan was born in Hong Kong, raised in Edmonton, and is content in Vancouver. She is currently a Ph.D. fellow at the University of Wisconsin and lives in Madison with a dog named Mango. Her creative writing has appeared in Interfictions, Ricepaper, and Puritan Magazine.