The Greatest of Fears

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The Greatest of FearsIf you were to ask me what I fear most, I would tell you sharks. The smoothest beast of the sea with its gray back and white belly, jagged jawline and bloody teeth popping out of pink gums. The black, sharp eyes that see straight through the night of their underwater world. The silent serpent-fish, gliding through blue depths. Colossal shadows coasting across the oceanic floor. Coral trembling. Shrimp scattering. Its great white-black eyes scanning for the next feast. And there, far above, on the sea’s surface, a boat bobbing with subconscious little me. Alone. Afloat. Waiting for something I can’t see to pop up out of nowhere and get me. The giant finned body crashing forth. The sharpest of teeth–giant jaw gaping wide and open like an angry laugh, a hungry cry–slamming onto the boat. The lashing and slashing of waves and limbs. The boat breaking in two. The water filling it up. My small and helpless body taken by the Greatest of Whites. Screams swallowed by the sea.

Watching Jaws as a child with a bored brother seven years older than me probably contributes to all this vivid fantasy. And growing up outside of Boston with an in-ground pool in my background–a deep end 10 whole feet deep–probably makes the nightmare feel all the more real. Tangible. Totally possible. We’d play Jaws on the floating sun mat, my brother’s head bumping my tiny bottom until he knocked me off the mat-boat into the chlorinated sea. He’d grab me, take me into the deep. I can still feel the cold droplets of water splashing onto my sun-warmed arms. The sharpness of his fingernails chomping my little legs like a jaw snapping shut. Billions of bubbles biting up my back. I can still hear the gasping for breath. The rhythm of my heart beat in sync with the classic Jaws tune: dahhh, dun, dahhh, dun--and then faster–dah, dun, dah, dun, dah, dun. I can feel it now. The shark’s closeness.

And the constant news on TV of the Great Whites getting into the Massachusetts rivers through the Cape only fueled our fears. My brother, still to this day, not going anywhere near the ocean or deep out into any natural body of water. I remember one time when he was on a rope swing at a lake in rural New Hampshire and didn’t let go because someone yelled “shark!” His body hanging and swaying back and forth, clutching the rope like a lifeguard until he climbed down and his feet hit the land. I was raised to be afraid.

It’s more than nurture though. It’s nature, too, and our need as humans to feel in control of what’s going to happen to us. It’s the lack of control one faces when facing a giant sea monster who can swallow you, whole. I can hear the shark people (shark rights!) saying, sharks don’t want to eat you; you don’t taste that good. Just leave them alone. And don’t eat them either. Let them be. That all may be very well, but it doesn’t take the image of him (or her–Mrs. Jaws?) eating my helpless body piece by piece of out my mind. I know I’m not a shark, but if I were, I probably wouldn’t care that much about who or what I bite into. If you bump into me and flail around like a little seal, you’re toast–crunch–you’re brunch. There’s no explaining you can do to get yourself out of facing the giant reality of fierce fish before you. There’s no conversation with him/her. Only a pleading to God. A bittersweet gasp of goodbye to the moment before that brought you to this bloody fate you can’t do anything to change.

But of course, it can’t just be because I was raised with a certain perspective, or because I was born trying to control my surroundings and safety, or because I can’t adequately empathize with the King of the Sea. It’s more like what Stephen King says about being afraid, and how what’s most frightening is what you can’t see. Is the shark itself utterly terrifying? Even the horrible, mechanical version of it on the Jaws ride at Universal Studios? Yes. But what’s more frightening is the dorsal fin cutting the water in circles around the boat. The wake of the dark water gathering close and closer to you. And the mysterious face of wrath and hunger that you can’t yet see. The monster hidden beneath in the darkest of deep. Out of sight. In your mind.

So if Hollywood has messed up my perception (which is what my husband tells me; he’s someone who struggles with grasping important realities and actually scuba dives with sharks “for fun” because they’re “so cool”), then I guess I’m left with a faulty point of view until heaven. Because in heaven, I bet there will be sharks. All creatures are restored, renewed. There’s just no sin. No fear. No death. Nothing to make you run or swim the other way. So maybe, in heaven, I’ll scuba dive with sharks. But until then, I’ll write about how afraid of them I am and wonder what it means.

To close, I thought of Googling a picture of a Great White shark, just to see it. Add a depth of research to my writing. Try and tell myself it’s not so bad; they’re not so mean. But I can’t open the tab and type it in. Not when I’m home alone. Thoughts afloat. Not when the shark is in my lap. That’s too close. The footage too clear. My imagination too loud. The neighborhood where I live too quiet to scream. And the greatest of fears? Those are the ones we leave unseen.


Photo used under CC.




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Victoria Sottosanti received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of New Hampshire, where she was the recipient of the 2017 Nonfiction Prize. Her work has been published in Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, and the Ruminate Blog. She dances ballet, does yoga, and writes all kinds of stories and poems. Currently, she's revising a memoir and works as an English teacher in Vermont and New Hampshire's Upper Valley, where she lives with her husband Scott. Find her at: victoriasottosanti.com.

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