At first we assumed she was the only one, the young woman with a thick smear of blood on her lips.
We assumed that we’d found this one young woman, feral, maybe, but alone, definitely alone on this barren strip of rock and crevasse in the middle of the Arctic Sea. We were looking for surviving lifeforms. We were studying the levels of toxicity in the water. But mostly, we were a clean up crew.
We assumed, too, that it was lipstick, the dark red splotch around her lips. Well, not lipstick, but face paint. We hoped it was face paint and not blood.
Only after she’d worn herself out and Jenkins was able to get a closer look did we realize it was shark shaped.
We left it there—the smear across her lips that looked like a shark—for the first night and the second day after we’d found her, and then Eloise took the young woman into her own tent to help clean her up and in cleaning her up, wipe the makeup, the shark shaped blotch, from her face.
Don’t take this the wrong way.
People always manage to take this sort of thing the wrong way and I know I shouldn’t be sensitive to this, but I am, and so I want you to know that we weren’t cruel with the young woman.
By leaving her the way she was for two days.
By then trying our best to wipe away what she was after that.
We hear both sides of this all the time.
But of course we weren’t cruel.
She was in a state. That was why we didn’t wash her up, clean her up for two days: because she was in a state when we found her. She was in a ruddy and violent and frightened state and so of course we waited. For the first few hours we waited in our tents while the young woman with the shark on her lips shrieked at us and pressed her face and lips and teeth tight against the fabric of our tents, and who knows what would have happened if she’d known how to use a zipper. And then, finally, she wore herself out, sat heavy against a dune, breathing heavy, but snarling still, still snarling at us, or it would have been snarling if she’d made any sound.
And then she fell asleep and then when we all woke the next day, she was at it again, not clawing at our tents, not quite that, but clawing at them with her open craw, until she was spent, and then we had to leave, our boat was coming for us that afternoon, and so we had to clean her up. For her sake and our own sake, because she reeked of the rotting sea, and because she was covered in patches of oil slick, and because we had to take her back to the mainland, and we wanted to protect her from everyone on the mainland who would be waiting for our return, to learn what we’d discovered here, what we’d brought back, and if we wiped away the shark paint and cleaned her up, and tucked a cap or something over her bald and trembling head, we’d save her the pointing, the probing, be able to pass her off as just another member of our exploratory team.
Eloise did the best she could. The oil left scaly patches on the skin of the young woman’s arms, her back, the back of her neck, under her ears, and Eloise covered these with sleeves or fabric, and what she couldn’t cover, we figured no one would see, or at least no one would notice because everyone who saw her would be focused almost entirely, we were sure, on the mouth, that shark swimming across her mouth, which was not face paint. Eloise scrubbed at it.
Maybe it’s a tattoo, we suggested.
I don’t think it’s a tattoo, she told us.
Eloise tried to cover it, then, with her own makeup, but the splotch seemed to seep back through to the surface no matter how dark or how much makeup Eloise applied, and it was while Eloise was doing this that the young woman bit her.
Someone suggested—Taylor, I believe—that we makeup our own lips, draw our own sharks across them, like it was a thing we had all decided to do because of who we were, because of where we’d been, what we’d seen together.
The others arrived even before we got a chance to tell Taylor what a ridiculous idea that was.
There were six of them, four women and two men, as rotten with sea scrum as she had been, hairless and pale but for the red splotch dark across their lips. They splashed out of the water and climbed onto the rock. We didn’t know where they could have come from. They snapped their jaws open and shut. The young woman scrambled back to her tribe and they snarled and snapped their jaws at her and then at us and we worried we would have to fight, that we would be no match for them, but with the young woman at their side, the others took her hand and turned and then dove back into the black, brackish, frigid sea, and we never saw them surface again.
We stayed on that bit of rock a day longer than planned: to gather ourselves, to form a plan of action—our employer would want to know more about these people, would want to mount another exploratory team. And then we signaled and were retrieved, and only now that it is too late, only now that the exploratory team has already gone, only now has Eloise begun to change, the blood vessels around her lips bursting, discoloring her face in the shape of a shark, which means, which means that if, say, she bit me, as she did the day before, then I have three months. I have three months left.
Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Miniature Wife and Other Stories. A graduate of the Columbia University graduate creative writing program, he has published fiction and nonfiction in Open City, Fence, One Story, Esquire, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and The Believer. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and two children.
Image credit: Aniela Sobieski