Orr watched the girl, the sunkissed skin of her exposed midriff swaying as she danced, the crackling bonfire setting the sequin droplets of sweat across her brow and shoulders ablaze with amber light.
“When you the kill the gyken, you kill it for her,” his father said, pointing at her.
Orr looked into his deep set eyes, blue like the sea on a clear day, and then drew the old symbol for “peace of heart” in the dirt near his feet.
“Remember, you kill the gyken, we survive another season. Kill the gyken, you become a man,” his father said, a smile playing in the creases around his eyes, his beard swishing sideways as he spoke. “Like me.”
The girl — Rema was her name — scooped a child on her hip, took its tiny hand in her own slender fingers. She swayed. She laughed. Orr watched the hairline hook of her upper lip, her teeth straight and white, her tongue the color of the hibiscus that grew in the inland fields outside their village.
The drums, like the rhythm of his heart, quickened.
Rema found him on the jetty, listening to the waves slap the rocks, watching the slack water on the opposite side, where the children swam before they were strong enough to manage the tide. She touched his shoulder, and he turned, startled at her silent approach. Her dark skin looked somehow luminous in the moonlight. “It is late. The great fish come before sunrise. You should rest.”
She stepped beside him. Somewhere in the distance, a seabird sang. She touched his elbow, let her fingertips glide down the knotted muscles of his forearm until they found a home in his palm. He opened his hand, let her lace her fingers through his. “You are scared?”
“If you do not kill the gyken, someone will. We will not starve.”
“I will not be a man.”
“Many things make a man.”
He turned to her. “If I am not a man, I cannot leave father. I cannot marry. I know my worth. But I also know my heart.”
She pulled his hand to her lips, kissed the knuckles, each in turn. “I have sealed you with prayer. With old magic. You will be mine.”
His father woke him early, his eyes sparkling in the pale light slipping through the open-air windows of their shack. He wore a long leather strand around his neck, a massive gyken tooth dangling between the muscles of his chest.
Orr came awake fast, sucking in breath like a man startled by a spectre.
“Child,” his father said.
“Is it time?”
Orr stared past him into the dark, where his mother, sisters, and the infant snoozed, a chorus of raspy snores and groans. “I am not ready,” he said, his voice low so as not to wake them.
“You are ready.” His father touched him in the center of the chest, his fingers thick and hard. “When you were an infant, you slayed giant anoles in our garden with a tiny spear. Gyken are slower than giant anoles.”
They heard the distinctive slapping of giant fins in the bay through the open window — the signal from their hunting partners, returned from the unknowable expanse of the sea, where they spent their summers in loops of folly and feast or whatever endeavors beckoned the great fish.
The others in the village heard it too. They sang, uncaring where their voices carried or who they disturbed, even at this hour. “Rise the sea calls, rise the sea calls!”
His father smiled. He leaned close. “I am near you. The gods are near you. You are strong.”
The women drew the old symbol for “fortune” in the sand, just out of reach of the undulating tide. Rema was with them, etching runic symbols on the ground. They called down the gods of the sea, and wind, and water elementals, and Orr was sure he could feel them tingle against his skin and hear them sizzle as waves broke against the shore.
The men shoved the gykenboat to sea and piled in, taking their places behind the oars. His father stood at the helm, his muscled chest bare, the gyken tooth glistening in the moonlight. Before them, all three of the great fish splashed coiled tails in the water, lifted their snouts above the surface, and barked as if to say, “Hurry, you are missing it.”
Orr took another look at Rema, still carving symbols in the sand, and then took his place on the boat, near the front, a long and jagged spear resting across his lap.
Gyken skin feels like silk, but it is hard like a tortoise shell. Many a man thinks to bury the harpoon in the eye, but this only wounds the beast. It does not kill.
Orr could still see his father standing in the reedy grass behind their shack, holding the spear firm in both hands as if he feared it might fly away.
“Beneath the neck,” the older man motioned to his own throat with a thumb. “Long folds, little creases. This is how the gyken breathe in water. This is where the gyken is weak. A space no bigger than your forearm. You stab there, put your weight into it, hard as you can, drive the weapon deep. The gyken will die. Now show me. Show me your strength.”
The gykenboat glided across the bay, where the pod had herded the gyken, where they could see it now, writhing in the distance, as two of the great fish nipped at its fins in an attempt to disable it.
His father motioned for him to stand.
Orr rose, swayed, was unsteady on his feet.
The men breathed and toiled to drag the giant oars through the water.
Orr longed to be with them — one of the lowly oarsmen who propelled the craft to sea, as he had done a thousand times before since he was a child, too small for his muscles to make much impact on the momentum of the craft.
They could hear the gyken now, its cries like rusted metal scraping against itself in a gale.
The pod took turns driving the animal to the surface, shepherding it away from the open ocean. They were excited now, and their fins and tails slapped at the water. The gyken’s tendrils writhed at the surface, kicking spume into the air.
Orr stood, holding the harpoon as he had seen throughout his childhood. He tasted the salt as it fell against his lips.
“Look alive,” his father pointed to the head of the animal. The oarsmen adjusted their course, guiding the boat a few degrees starboard.
The gyken dwarfed their tiny vessel. As it rolled to its side, foamy water peeling away, Orr realized for the first time their true advantage: the gyken believed itself entangled in a life or death struggle with the great fish. The presence of the men, of the glistening point in Orr’s hand, of Orr himself, may as well have been a collective fly on the rear of a horse. He looked at his father and nodded.
They drew near the head, the neck, where Orr’s spear could pierce deep enough to mortally wound the beast. He gazed down its long, tube-like body, it’s snake-like appendages and flesh the color of sorghum, and steadied himself.
The creature rolled again, already bleeding from its confrontation with the big fish.
Orr saw the slits, saw the weak point, and knew he should strike. His father wanted him to strike. The entire island wanted him to strike. He drove his lance downward, felt it breach the flesh, easier than he had expected. He saw a gout of blood answer his call as the creature peeled away from him, screaming.
The gyken seemed to coil in on itself, protecting the wound from the great fish which swarmed it: one breaching the water to land atop it, the second stripping away huge chunks of flesh with its razor-sharp beak, the third vanishing beneath the black water, forcing the creature to the surface with its bulk, preventing its escape.
The gyken’s massive eye rolled in its head, searching the faces of the men. Its gaze fell on Orr, and he felt he might disappear in it. Milky, and vast, nearly human. Most of all — afraid. This giant beast, afraid of a boy, almost a man, a boy it could swallow on accident, perhaps without ever realizing it.
“Strike again,” his father yelled. “You must set the hook.”
As he spoke, one of the gyken’s massive tendrils lifted from the sea beneath their boat, sending it skyward, bow over aft. Orr’s head struck his own seat before he fell away from the craft, spear still in hand, amid the churning water. Some distance away, he saw men splashing downward, the boat splintered into three pieces, floating like a dead animal.
He did not see his father.
Orr struggled to stay afloat, his feet striking the creature beneath the surface as he kicked and found with surprise he could stand on the broad backside of the gyken, the water sloshing around his waist.
The creature rolled. Orr staggered, nearly falling into the open water. Everywhere, there was blood and the screams of drowning men. He listened through the chaos for the voice of his father but could not find it.
He stumbled forward.
The gyken bucked.
He tumbled to his knees.
The giant eye fell on him, the tendrils lifting high into the air, writhing like snakes, seeking him.
He drove the spear into the eye, put all his weight behind it, pushed until the shaft moved no further.
The gyken breached. It dove.
Orr caught a brief glimpse of the great fish struggling with one of the creature’s limbs beneath the surface. Warm blood coated his fingers, and he slipped to the end of the spear. His fingers left the wood grain, but he was tangled in the 50-feet of rope at its end, his arms and legs lost in undecipherable knots.
The gyken raced across the water dragging Orr behind it — a hellish sleigh ride out to sea. As he skipped like a stone across the surface, between the plumes of broken wake, he watched the sinking craft, the surviving men, bouncing further and further away.
Orr did not think of releasing the rope, of returning on a later day to claim his manhood from the gyken. Instead, he thought of Rema, and of his infant sibling suckling at his mother’s breast.
He held on.
Soon, there was no land. Just Orr and the beast and the rocking of the waves. The creature slowed, and Orr braced himself against its bulk. It did not dive. For that, he was thankful.
The beast shuddered beneath him, then lay still, floating, its serpentine appendages trailing in the water like hair.
After a moment, he disentangled himself from the line of his harpoon, and climbed to the back of the creature. Placing his ear against its flesh, he listened to the tiny machinations of its insides, like unseen water dripping deep inside a cave, then stood, the water pooling around his ankles, and moved toward its head and plucked the spear free
Orr watched the sun lift higher in the sky, then eased himself into a sitting position, the gyken sprawled beneath him. He tracked the horizon as it moved up and down with the waves, trying to glimpse land, or the mast of a boat, or anything besides the endless gloom of the ocean.
He did not feel scared.
Even when the mako sharks came to the surface to saw off circular chunks of gyken meat.
Even as the sun drew ever higher, ever hotter, and his skin radiated and prickled in response.
Fear seemed absent inside himself.
He inspected his body, a jeweler appraising a diamond, turned his arms to view his triceps and elbows. He counted fresh abrasions and felt tender areas where bruises had not yet risen to the surface. He looked at his hand. He thought of Rema’s lips on his knuckles, soft, barely wet, but full of warmth. He touched each joint with his thumb, imagining, wondering.
Men disappeared at sea. It was a fact of life. Boys disappeared at sea also. His father had warned him. He could hear his voice, as if over his shoulder. Gyken will flee a harpoon’s prick. It will take you with it. Do not be the only man on the harpoon when she flees.
Orr had seen it too, on his third hunt, when the gyken took his cousin to sea where he was swallowed into the great abyss and never returned. He had watched his mother, and her sister, mourn, covering their bodies with the old symbols for “grief” and “passage” and “light of life.”
Something had nudged his hand, which had drooped precariously into the water.
He jerked it away, fearing a shark. But it was one of the great black fish. He gazed into its eyes, as knowing and aware as any man he had ever seen. The fish barked at him, nudged at the gyken again.
Then it was gone.
He searched the brackish water for its shape, but there was nothing.
The gyken dipped further beneath the water, the ominous shape slipping further and further away. Orr’s feet churned the water beneath the surface to stay afloat, and he drifted, gazing around, but there was nothing but the waves, the taste of salt, the sun burning into him like a hot iron.
He thought of the men who had been pulled underwater by the gyken, who saw their final moments from the murky depth of the sea, who had sacrificed their place with their families so that he might take a place in his own. There would by symbols for mourning, and those who wished fervently it had been Orr rather than their men, their fathers, their sons.
A tattered plank drifted nearby. He pulled it close, using its buoyancy to rest his legs and his lungs. He might join the men soon enough but for now, he clung to the wood and fell asleep, images of total breathless black filling his dreams.
Orr looked up, his eyes bleary from the dark, and now the contrasting sun. He saw shapes in the distance. He heard voices. He heard the barking of the great fish, leading the men to the sunken gyken — and to him. He saw his father helming a gykenboat, gliding across the water on the upheaval of the remaining oarsmen, following the two great fish. He saw the men who he thought had drowned, manning the oars. He slapped the water with both hands, unbelieving.
One of the great fish swam close.
He touched it on the head, imparting his thanks to the creature, traced the old symbol for “many blessings” on its scarred flesh.
The fish chattered, and gossiped, and seemed to swell into his palm.
His father helped him into the boat, his hands hard, and sure, and tender.
The other men began dropping giant hooks into the water, fishing the corpse from the depths, and anchoring the dead creature to the craft. They would haul it back into the bay, where they would leave it for the great fish to feast on for a day before drawing it ashore to harvest the remaining meat, bones and fat.
“I am sorry father,” Orr said.
“You killed the gyken alone at open sea.” His father scooped his child into his arms, and held him against his muscled chest. “Few men walk the sand after gyken takes them adrift. You killed the gyken, and you came back. You came back to me. You came back to all of us.”
The other men, lost in their tasks, moved unknowingly around them. Orr felt small in his father’s arms.
The boat found shore. Orr’s feet found the sand. He felt his knees waver, and he fell to the earth. Across the tiny dunes, he saw the symbols the women left before his journey. The closest one said, “Fortune.”
He considered that word until he saw the slim, perfect feet of Rema obscure the sand in front of his eyes.
He looked up at her. She reached down and drew the symbol for “unity” on his forehead. His skin tingled where her fingertip touched his flesh, and he was sure the gods had heard his prayer. He was hers. He grabbed her hand, held it against him. She laughed.