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Letter to a Greenland Shark

by Madden Armstrong


As much as I’d like to, I don’t think I will ever lay eyes on you. I know you from photos, your blubbery skin a composite of mottled grays. You are Somniosus microcephalus, a sleeper shark with a tiny head and an even smaller brain. And still, you die if you do not keep moving, so you do not truly sleep. You don’t have eyelids to close, but you are no insomniac. You rest as you glide through the Arctic waters, your tail beating the water behind you no faster or slower than necessary. Everything about your kind is slow. Our scientists watch intently, noting down your maximum speed of two miles per hour. Upon dissection, we know that your fluids mingle with natural antifreeze; your heart doesn’t beat fast enough on its own to keep your blood from turning to ice.

The oldest Greenland shark we have found is four hundred years old, the envy of all other vertebrates. The other sharks struggle and strive all their lives, frantically chasing down their prey, racing to their fertile years to create more of their kind. They are governed by fear: fear of starvation, of stillness, of mankind.

Though I envy your immaculate design, I find myself more like your distant cousins. It is far easier to live in fear than it is to live in peace. When I was a child I loved sharks for their sleekness, their slim and muscular bodies. I love you, too, even though you are not slim or muscular, because you are special. Your body is extraordinary; I love you because you were here long before me, and you will be here long after I am dead. You will not carry my memory.

If only I could learn from you, learn how to move slowly, unceasingly, forward. If only I could learn how to carry on unbothered by time.

Time still works on the bodies of Greenland sharks as it does with any other creature. When I admire your thick hide, I see the scrapes against icebergs and the nips from other sharks. Though your bodies remain intact with minor nicks, your eyes will not. The Greenland shark eyeball is a rich bed of exposed nutrients compared to the thick, fatty hide draping the rest of their bodies. It is easy pickings for parasites (Ommatokoita elongata) that nibble at the precious eyeballs. They prey on the pulpy matter behind the cornea and on the electric fizz spouting from the optic nerve. The prevalence of these parasites means that, sooner or later, nearly every Greenland shark faces blindness in their four-hundred-year life spans.

The cloudy surface of your eyes reminds me of my grammie, the woman that secretly taught me to fear the natural effects of time on the body. She passed more than ten years ago—that is nothing to you, but it makes me strain trying to remember her face. Grammie’s one eye was a milky cataract for as long as I had been alive, and I started to notice that tiny white speckles were creeping into her other eye as I grew older. I thought it was mold.  

Her wooden cane boasted a handle carved into the head of a dragon. It clenched a pearly marble between its teeth, reminding me of the cataract. We would go on walks and I would coach myself into walking slowly so the two of us could have girl time. I feared girlhood if it were to turn into magenta lipstick that clings to my cheek and the cloying smell of rose perfume. Girlhood was something sleek and slippery in my hands, requiring the constant chasing of youth and busyness.

I briefly introduce you to a woman you wouldn’t care to know otherwise because your kind revels in age. The only other time you are likely to be acquainted with our kind is when we catch you for meat. Many have relied on your flesh for sustenance through brutal winters and fleeting summers. You still make the hungry work for their food, if that gives you any pleasure in death. The fresh shark meat is full of chemicals that create a scent cocktail similar to urine. These chemicals also make the meat too toxic to eat raw.

Through fermentation, our kind makes kæstur hákarl. We know that the meat is ready when it begins to reek of ammonia, as all of the toxins inside the meat becomes gas radiating off of it instead. In this process, we try to catch the largest of you to give you time to grow, to reproduce, to wander the depths. This is the only kindness we can offer as we consume you.

The only way for me to see you in person was as kæstur hákarl, one of Iceland’s national dishes. The small cubes on my plate could have been some type of cubed cheese instead, a lightly-pigmented gouda or muenster, if not for the smell. I pictured the meat on a slice of buttered rye bread, how if I plugged my nose it would taste delightfully tangy and bitter. I could even chase it with a shot of Brennivín, because the waitress had cut off my protests to being underage with a wink and a smile. You’re going to need it, that look had said.

And yet, I could not help but admire the meat. There is nothing short of immense respect that the shark is handled with. Hákarl makers wait an entire season pass before they can partake in the meat from a single animal. I tell you all of this because you should know how you are made new again above the waves. I see you, wizened, ancient, and I beg for your secrets.

What would happen to my body if I just let it age? I had never thought I would grow old. The future felt like a distinct impossibility once I realized who I was, and how few queer people reached old age. My kind struggles through our teens, lives in our twenties, and dies(?) in our thirties. Queer life, according to the people I grew up with, was a frenetic and angry struggle through a world not built for us, until we die. To put it in words you understand, we lock onto prey that pulls us in too close to shore. We gasp and thrash on the sand because we are the strange ones, our bodies are not beloved bodies. Those are the lives of other sharks, not you, ever the ambush predator. I don’t think I am built for the chase, but instead for the meander. There will be days that I don’t move towards my goals, my idyllic life, at all. There will be days that I do not move at all, and I sleep.

As I age, I can embrace grammie now that I know that girlhood was never something in my trajectory, anyway. I will never fault her for her lipstick and cheap perfume, and I wish that I hadn’t washed off the last kiss she gave me. The slippery thing in my hands, some idea of a girl, can be returned to the ocean, because I am not a sleek thing, and isn’t imitation the thief of happiness?

Maybe I will become new again, or something else entirely, if I acknowledge the marks that life leaves on the body; my stretch marks from my flesh pulled downwards by gravity, or freckles and moles that pop up after summers enjoying the sunshine. One day there will be more changes, no doubt.

That used to frighten me. I used to think that growing old was the worst thing the world could do to a person. I was told that one day I would fizzle out, and the only thing after that was a howling black void. There was a time I thought it was better to be a smooth, exquisite corpse, rather than a living being bearing the marks of age. It was raw, primal, fear of the future.

Do you understand that? Fear of the future? Is your frontal lobe developed enough to understand what comes the day after this one? The year after? The hundred years after? Those thoughts, that void, compress into a black hole, an absence of light or time. Another thing you could not possibly understand.  

There is no way for you to read this letter, nor do I have any idea where to send it. Nevertheless I hope that you continue to live, too. If you are the next shark to be plucked from the water by a fisherman, I hope that you can be made new by aging again.

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