El Tiburón

A young man about twenty-five years old paddles out to his local surf break in San Clemente, California.

The silhouette of something substantial yet sprightly in the murky water startles the surfer with no name. The still sea around him becomes agitated. Moments later, a creature scuffs his leg. He recoils his limbs and lies flat on his board like a popsicle in the freezer.

It’s been years since the retired professional surfer has prayed to the great Wave Maker. Instinctively, he asks God for protection.

The next thing he remembers is being knocked off his board. Summoning courage, he opens his eyes under water to face his opponent and swings his arms in all directions as if he were fighting the precarious Poseidon himself with water-like omnipresence. The jaws of a great white take hold of his right arm. His body thrashes while being pulled under. Surfing big waves at Pipes and Mavericks has trained him to hold his breath for long periods of time under water. But he’s been held down so long now that he’s starting to lose consciousness. The surfer tries to shove his fist into the shark’s throat to stimulate its gag reflex. But it’s no use. It won’t budge.

Its rows of serrated teeth have clamped on tight just above the shoulder where the trapezius and deltoid meet. Deep puncture wounds cause him to bleed profusely out his wetsuit. With Odysseus’s pluck, he prays for the leviathan to take his arm. It’s the only way to save his own life.

Suddenly, he hears a snap! He’s sure his arm is completely detached but soon realizes it’s only dislocated from its socket. Epinephrine shoots into his bloodstream increasing heart rate and respiration. With his free hand he punches the shark in the gills but the stubborn creature won’t let go.

Meanwhile, on land, his suffering goes unnoticed. The lifeguard, whose tower is directly in front of the attack, uses his binoculars to observe girls sunbathing. If only he’d lift his gaze, then he’d spot the oceanic trauma taking place.

Every second seems like an eternity to the drowning wounded. Instead of filling his lungs with life-giving air, he starts suffocating in saltwater.

The end is surely imminent.

But then the most unexpected thing occurs. The shark suddenly lets go and retreats. One minute, the surfer’s arm is caught in an iron bear trap, and the next, he’s miraculously freed from the jaws of death.

Still in shock, the mystery man paddles back to shore with only one arm like a renegade propeller slicing and scooping the open sea with every rotation. As he swims, he swallows air into his spasming lungs, which causes him to cough up ingested and inhaled saltwater.   

But then, in mid-stride, he stops swimming. The release of more adrenaline and cortisol fill him full of fight (not to mention numb the pain). Fear no longer controls him. Resolve possesses him.

Looking back to shore, he scans the horizon. Not a single person had witnessed the incident. No one had come to his rescue. Sadly, this parallels his personal life: he has no one he can count on. He realizes that he feels more alone on land than he does in the sea. At least in shark-infested waters, he knows who his enemies are and where he stands in the biological food chain.

He shakes his head. “No one would’ve hardly noticed if I’d died.” The words first reverberate in his head before they sail out of his mouth skipping like a stone across the now still waters.

The young man’s parents died when he was young just four days shy of his fifth birthday. He was adopted by a young Christian couple. They were not perfect by any means but they did the best they could with what they had. They gave him a name, of course, but it’s been so long since he went by his nickname—Neal—that he’s forgotten his birth name. As a boy he had an unusual affinity for his parents’ religion. They would often catch him praying throughout the day to his “Father,” as he said it, on his knees without prompting. Thus, they started calling him Neal because he spent so much time kneeling in prayer. He has always been extremely sensitive to the spiritual realm, which enables him to experience visions and dreams of what God is doing both in heaven and on earth.  

But Neal’s love of God would prove to be short-lived, not initiated by his own account but because of his naïve parents. Eager to do their best to please God and raise their only son to perfection, they joined a Christian cult and became “fanatics,” as he called them. Their new found religion with its oppressive elements of moral legalism and spiritual control suffocated Neal’s freedom to worship God. For eight years he lived with the pressure of being perfect and pleasing his fastidious parents. It’s no surprise that as soon as he turned 18 years old, he left home to get as far away from them as possible.        

Looking back at the undulating purple-crested waves forming in the horizon, Neal makes a decision that would change the course of his life. He swims to his board and aims it back towards the point break. He reasons to never allow anything get the better of him again, not even a shark. Neal forbids himself to leave until he’s good and ready.

Unperceived by him, a monstrous set of waves begins to form outside the breakers. He squints and catches hold of them with hawk-eyes followed by a voracious paddle. But instead of dropping-in, he “duck dives” under the waves. Bobbing up and down like a cork afloat of liquid, he sits stubbornly on his board waiting for the largest swell the Pacific has to offer as he holds his limp arm in a V-position against his chest.

Suddenly, not one but three gray fins emerge like submarine periscopes about 100 yards north picking up speed and heading straight for him like self-propelled torpedoes. He spots them and prays for surf knowing he needs to take the next wave or be devoured whole.

Neal’s prayer is answered. Immediately, the heavens flash with lightning and resound with thunder. A storm ensues bringing San Clemente the biggest surf it’s seen in 90 years. As the surfer gets in to position so do the triad of sharks seeking to consume him. Neal pushes off his board with one arm and flies down the thirty-foot face at supersonic speed.  

On the shoreline, the lifeguard finally catches sight of what’s happening. For fear of the sharks, which can be seen directly on Neal’s heals, and the behemoth waves, which have engulfed the pier, the lifeguard jumps down from his elevated perch but stops at the water’s edge.

At the base of the swell, Neal cuts to the left to carve up the front of the wave and then cuts back to ride down its face once again. The sharks are just one mistake away. Neal slips into a long, satisfying “barrel” and comes out the other side unscathed. “It’s finished!” he says.

Just as he’s about to reach the shore, he begins to feel discombobulated. The first shark lifts its mouth out of the water for another taste. Neal providentially passes out and drops like an anvil. The shark’s jaw tears a crescent-shaped bite into his board. Missing its intended target, the beast lunges out of the water to finish what it’s started.

Another lifeguard running down the beach pulls out a flare gun and shoots it into the shark’s mouth. Neal continues to sink to the bottom of the Pacific. A bystander jumps into the water to save his life.

Seven hours later, Neal awakes at Mission Hospital in Laguna Beach, California, hooked up to a heart monitor and saline drip. A team of surgeons was able to repair his arm to 90% capacity.

It only takes about three months before Neal is back in the water surfing, although he has long forgotten about his spiritual instinct to pray.

Since the incident, Neal has developed an insatiable desire for high risk adventures, which drops him off at the door of the next adrenaline rush. His near death experience leaves him parched with a thirst for life or, as his therapist puts it, “a thirst for death.”

After traveling the world surfing the largest swells and most dangerous reef breaks and living as an indigenous native in a South American tribe off the coast of Peru, Neal’s hunger for life fades but the proverbial question about his true identity and purpose begins to blossom in his subconscious. He no longer craves superficial thrill-seeking experiences. Neal begins to feel a massive void in his soul.

“I’m the invisible man,” he repeatedly tells himself. “I feel like a ghost, a ghost that’s cursed to roam the earth looking for something that’ll never be found (the Platonic version of love, perhaps, or a soul-mate when there’s no such thing). I feel lost and hopeless like Sisyphus condemned to meaningless repetition rolling a boulder of trivial distractions up the hill of life only to have it come crashing back down on me. I feel like I’ve been bit infested with a vampiric germ fated to roam the earth alone. I’m a phantom in the night.”

Night after night, Neal wakes up in a puddle of sweat dreaming the same dream: he’s an astronaut on Mars but something always goes terribly wrong. It ends with him finding superior intelligence only to be pulled away from the red rock to wander the vast galaxy by himself.

This quintessential modern man turns to answers from the tribe’s witch doctor. He trusts that the prescribed peyote and pagan arts will cure him, but it only makes him feel worse: more isolated and anxious. He has to feign, however, that the shaman’s incantations are healing him on account of not wanting to be shunned by his new family.

A year goes by but nothing changes. One day, a group of Christian missionaries from the north reach the indigenous village. They bring medical supplies, water filtration systems, and Bibles. One thing that is different about this group is that they’re not looking to conform the natives to their culture; rather, the Christians desire to be conformed to the native’s culture sharing only the simple message of the gospel: the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Still, one issue remains: the missionaries are unable to convey the salvation story because they do not speak the native’s indigenous language. And, vice-versa, the tribe is unable speak the “white man’s” mother tongue.

Neal happens to speak both. However, he feels ambivalent about translating something he fails to believe in. But he does it anyway. Why? Because shortly after Neal arrived, he met and fell in love with the medicine man’s daughter, who’s now become deathly ill. The shaman has tried everything to heal his only child but she only grows worse with every passing day.

Some say she’s incurred the white man’s curse—El Tiburón—for loving the white man, Neal. Naturally, Neal feels responsible. Truth be told: he believes he’s the one who’s been cursed: chronically cursed with guilt, and the desperation of finding a cure, even if it means turning his wife over to the enemy, Christians.

As a result of their prayers, the woman is healed. Neal is beside himself, although the source and power of the miracle escapes him. In her revived yet weakened state, he turns to her and says, “My sweet Penelope. You’re alive and therefore so am I. I’m a gadabout no longer. Your Odysseus is home.”  

But the witch doctor still has doubts about his daughter’s rapid restoration. He believes this is some kind of subterfuge, a Trojan horse intended to sedate their senses in order to pillage their humble village. For seven months he remains skeptical of the missionaries’ motives. Vigilantly, he watches them observing their gentleness and kindness and compassion for one another and the villagers. This is not the attempted  “colonial conversion” (or colonialism) he’s heard about from outsiders.

As a result, the shaman publicly accepts the double imputation of the cross: Christ exchanging his justice and righteousness for our guilt and shame.

One night, as Neal and his native friends sit around a crackling fire telling stories, he asks them to tell him the tale of El Tiburón.

(A pregnant pause accents the animal sounds emanating from the rainforest. In the distance, one can hear the booming cries of Howler Monkeys, which drown out the sound of growling jaguars, and the dulcet sounds of Bare-Throated Bellbirds and Amazon Tree Crickets.)

One man shares his personal testimony. He remembers being told horror stories as a child about an all-consuming beast, called El Tiburón, that would come to get him if he didn’t behave.

“What does El Tiburón mean?” asks Neal.

The native responds, “It means ‘The Shark’ but it refers to a land shark that swallows children whole when they’ve misbehaved. As the word “whole” swims out of the man’s mouth, Neal is reminded of the “hapless” incident that happened to him years prior.

“It can’t be. . .” Neal says under his breath. At that moment everything begins to make sense. He realizes that El Tiburón is Jesus Christ who’s come to devour people of their fears and give them abundant life. “This couldn’t be a coincidence,” he mumbles to himself reminiscing over his personal experience with the shark. Neal tells them his story in detail and interprets its meaning: “El Tiburón is not a white man! The white man is supposed to tell others about El Tiburón but sadly the white man has often misrepresented God exploiting and selfishly devouring people. Jesus Christ—El Tiburón—on the other hand, has come to love the world and passionately devour every person, tribe, and nation. But only if they’re willing. When God devours people, He frees them from their fears. Fear is a form of slavery.” He pauses. “I see it so clearly now: the only way to be truly free and alive is to have our hearts and minds completely consumed by God.” He closes his eyes remembering how ardently the shark hunted him down to devour him.

With his eyes shut tight, he hears someone calling him “son.” The voice sounds different from anything he’s ever heard. With ogled eyes he turns to the men and asks, “Did you hear that?” They shake their heads in bewilderment. Again, Neal hears the same voice, which sounds like a cross between a whirlwind and a didgeridoo, calling him by his true name, “Beloved.”

He looks at the purple fire.  

Suddenly, the flames grow twice the size of an average man. In their dialect, Neal hears the kingly fire saying, “Kneel down for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Neal bends his knee trembling. The majestic sound continues: “I AM a consuming fire that has never forsaken you even though you have forsaken Me. I AM the God of all creation not just of fire, thunder, sky, and sea. I have pursued you on land, in dreams, and water. I have come to devour you. You are no longer a vapid ghost, but a warrior poet. You were lost, but now you are found. You were a phantom in the night, but now you are the light of the world.”

Neal responds, “Devour me whole.”                        

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Chester Delagneau

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