The Covenant of the Sharks

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?”

“Yeah.”

“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.”

13 thoughts on “The Covenant of the Sharks

  1. He is a shark. He eats poor defenseless pasta and quivering, frightened broccoli flowers. He eats cows and chickens and pigs and horses and if he feels bad about it it’s because he chooses to. That choice, the choice to suffer, to know sin, is the original Sin, and it is why through sin comes only sin. When you let it into your heart and don’t let it rip you to shreds, what does that make you? is it better? I don’t know, but it sure tells you if you have any kind of faith.

  2. And isn’t a human who accepts the Shark’s Covenant doing something that goes beyond mere “good?” To accept the sin of the world, to swallow it down, to carry it around and eventually carry it away, with knowledge of the act … that’s better thab some gilled mindless thing doing it, better than just cleaning up the mess.

    Its easy, oh so very easy, to be good. Its much harder to be evil.

  3. Good story. But the concept of original sin just doesn’t work for me. If the world is in an undifferentiated state of sin, and if there is any metaphysical reality, then the one at fault for the sin is the creator of the world, not the people living in it. To attempt to heal the world is then a form of rebellion, and to do evil is just to cooperate with what the creator has set you up to do.

  4. I don’t think this is really about original sin. I think this is about the Monster. More specifically, I think it’s about the Monster’s mindset; his ethical standpoint.

    Or maybe it isn’t. The Gibbelins’ Tower Theatrical Company’s plays are usually as cryptic as their director. The plays in which someone makes a choice to become something else are definitely about isn’ts, (and the process of becoming one,) but it’s not always clear what kind of isn’t the plays are about. Upon further thought, I retract what I said in the first paragraph. I think it’s more likely that this play is about how somebody becomes a Demon, seeing as Demons are the Yin to Angels’ Yang, and the sharks in this play are sinkholes of negativity.

  5. [T”>he concept of original sin just doesn’t work for me. If the world is in an undifferentiated state of sin, and if there is any metaphysical reality, then the one at fault for the sin is the creator of the world, not the people living in it.

    And here we get into the Gnostic thing again. What if the creator of the world is neither omniscient, omnipotent, nor omnibenevolent? What if that horrible, horrible song that got far too much airplay for no obvious reason was actually a message to those with the sense to heed it, and God is just a guy trying to do the best He can with the resources He has?

  6. I’m not sure sharks are like demons, because the story says that sharks are the opposite of people, not angels. Angels are about hope, not about purifying the world.

    I wonder if sharks are related to siggorts, because they are both creatures that are supposed to cause harm to others by their very nature, and might actually suffer guilt from being good (like Sid).

    While I agree that sharks are not monsters, because Hitherby seems to condemn the Monster as wrong, but not the sharks, I think they are an important contrast that brings up questions about different types of evil.

  7. I wish that Ben had been right about Steve. I wish that Steve had realized he didn’t really want to be a shark.

    I also note with some interest the use of “messenger”. Normally we’d say “angel” — in fact “angel” means “messenger” but in this context the word is already being used for something else.

  8. Sharks are the bad things in the world that are caused for no discernible reason: The whole idea of the natural world’s evil, and not so much the evil of the mind.

    That’s why they aren’t considered bad, because it’s just their nature, whereas a mind must choose to be good or evil.

  9. “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.”

    And without syphillis, we would have neither chocolate nor cochineal!

    In a prior letters column, you mentioned being unfamiliar with Candide. Passages like this make me wonder if you’ve since found the time to read it, as I found it to be an interesting satirical critique of the sort of teleological cosmology that seems to exist in Hitherby…

  10. I just ran across an essay that says much the same thing as this legend, but less convincingly and at much greater length. Hooray for Hitherby!

    I am still unpersuaded, however, that individuals of the type that the link above categorizes as “truly evil” (Claggart-like, malicious for the sake of malice) exist outside of literature. The psychological literature shows that real-world wrongdoers generally construct a scaffold of rationalization to support their behavior. Even sociopaths proffer an argument along the lines of “I am better than them, therefore what I want is more important than what they want.” We just never see anyone say “The suffering of others is an end in itself.”

    I draw from this the inference that sociopaths are not qualitatively different from solid citizens, only quantitatively. You can’t draw a line and say “Here are the humans, there the sharks”; the sharks are us.

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