The moment he reached the edge of the shore, he felt the sand give way. It was fine and white above, coarse and black below. He stepped back quickly, before his wife and son caught up with him.
The waves crashed in, making a green roil from the horizon to the tumble of lava boulders that edged the cliffs slanting down from jungled peaks high above. Only this thin crescent of sandy beach remained untouched, and even that was being steadily carved away by the sea. It was vivid in every detail.
“The waves are a lot bigger than when we were here on our honeymoon,” his wife was telling their son, “but that was in the summertime. It seems like yesterday.”
He turned around and beckoned them closer, putting his back to the sea. The boy came up beside him and slid a hand between his father’s arm and waist, hanging there as if he were an ape about to start climbing. “There’s rescue tubes back there, Dad! And signs saying people get swept away here all the time! Kapu! Do you think that really happens?”
“They’re just being extra cautious,” he said. “That’s all ‘kapu’ means. Your mother swam here and it was just fine.”
“Kapu means more than that,” she said, catching up with them. “It’s a Hawaiian word—an old word. Like taboo. Do you know what a taboo is?”
“It means don’t do something.”
“Right. Something forbidden…something you shouldn’t even think. If you broke kapu, the sharks would get you. And a lot of things were forbidden in the old Hawaiian culture.”
“Not swimming, I hope!” he said.
“No,” she laughed. “Not swimming.”
“That’s good,” said the boy. “Because after that hike, I’m so hot.”
“You can cool off your feet, that’s about it.”
The boy stripped off his shirt, kicked off his sandals, then went rushing past his parents to the sand cliff, where he stood surveying the water. Beyond him the sea was pure foam—green stirred to a froth, no clear water in sight.
“I don’t know,” she said. He could feel her grow tense, wanting to go after the boy but trying very hard to let him have his freedom.
“He’ll be fine.”
Then the sand gave way, and she rushed forward with a gasp. He waited a moment, deliberately, then followed. He could see her relax even before he had caught up with her.
“Careful down there!” he called, to reassure both of them. He smiled at his wife. “See? He’s fine.”
The boy was sprawled on a mound of sand; it had given way and carried him gently down to the water. He grinned up at his parents, then threw himself forward onto hands and knees, crawling like a beast, making lowing sounds as he went to meet the surf. The weakest slop, the thinnest scalloped edge of the tide, swept around his hands and withdrew. The boy howled with laughter.
He looked up at the sky, then back toward the trail. This seaward curve of the cove was ablaze full warm sun, but the wind from the water kept it cool. A few other hikers had ventured down to the sand, but most remained on the tumble of black lava boulders, where a stream poured from deep in the mountain valley and emptied into the sea. The three of them seemed alone, apart, as if in a bubble defined by the crashing of surf. That sound was all he could hear until her sharp cry came; it was accompanied by a second noise that was most likely a bird’s call, although it could have been the boy.
Suddenly she was pulling at his arm, pointing into the foaming chaos that now reached all the way up to the sand cliff where they stood. He glimpsed saw a white shape turning over in the swirling waters as they receded, rolling like a piece of driftwood, but limp as kelp.
She screamed again. She was hysterical. She clutched at him, torn between the water and the land. The sand threatened to crumble under his feet as he backed away.
The rescue float, a strip of buoyant foam padding, dangled from a zebra-striped pole, high among some trees that shaded the boulders. It was shiny yellow and twirled in the wind like a fishing lure. Vivid and bright, it held his eye.
He gripped her by both arms, said firmly, “Wait here.”
“What do you mean?” Screaming. “We can’t wait! Go in! Go after him!”
“Wait here,” he said calmly yet forcefully. “I’ll get the life preserver.”
He began moving across the treacherous sand toward the incandescent yellow blip. It was slow going, every step requiring all his concentration. People on the rocks had started pointing at the water, so he hurried his pace. A surge of emotion seemed to crash through him, but then he realized that it was the force of the surf hitting the sand, a wave so huge he could feel it all the way up here at the base of the boulders. That was all he felt.
“What’s going on? What’s happening?” These were the voices of strangers, demanding and shrill. He turned back and saw his wife, still poised on the sand. From her stance, it was clear she had endured as much as she could. Stripped of patience, she hurled herself down out of sight, going after the boy. She had gone in against his advice, he reminded himself.
Slightly out of breath, he struggled up the lava mound toward the garish yellow float. Onlookers appeared to be moving in a different time frame, disjointed from his own. A young woman unhooked the tube from the striped pole and flung it down to him, but wind caught the buoyant scrap and bore it off among the rocks, forcing him to clamber after it. This wasted still more time. Finally he snagged it, plastic padding hot in his fingers. There was no further believable reason not to turn back.
He made the return among hurrying strangers–some of them unaware of him, others urging him on. He felt as if all of them were watching him, judging, committing his actions to memory. He must be careful now. He reached the crumbling brink, no longer alone, and all of them saw the same thing at the same time. In the churning foam, nothing remained of mother or child. Wife and son had been washed away. The ocean stretched out unbounded and empty, and he had nothing more to add. He drank in the meaningless, repetitive pounding of the surf, as over and over again the waves came in relentlessly and washed everything away.
He raised the yellow float, striking a pose that suggested readiness to plunge in. His stance was a promise made for everyone to notice. An empty promise, but none of them could know that. Immediately there were hands on his arms, urging restraint. Implicit in their comforting grip was the threat of force. These strangers would not let him throw his life away. Everyone knew it was hopeless. Their eyes held nothing but pity and relief that it was his family and not their own.
There was a sharp rapping sound and his own eyes jarred open. The jolt of adrenaline felt like sand giving way.
“Did you doze off?” she asked.
His wife tapped again on the windshield and opened the passenger door of the rental car. She reached in for her knapsack.
“I must have,” he said. “It’s so warm, it put me to sleep.”
“You can rest with a mai tai when we get back to the hotel. It’s hiking time. Come on, we filled the water bottles.”
He twisted from the driver’s seat, shouldering his own small pack as he stood. The cool sea breeze reached him, even here in the parking lot, under a dense cover of leaves. His heart continued pounding. Was it fear?
She gave him a long look and put her hand on his brow. “You’re white as a sheet,” she said. “Did you have a bad dream?”
“If so, I can’t remember it,” he said. “I think you just scared me, tapping on the glass.”
“Take it easy then, there’s no rush.” She waved at their son, waiting for them at the trailhead near the beach, marching in place impatiently. “The lifeguard said the trail’s in good shape, at least up to the first beach. It’s been a few days since the last big storm and it’s all dried out.”
The boy spotted them, waved. “I’m going first!” He started up the path before they had caught up with him. For a while after that, there was no more talking–only the rhythms of the hike, slow breathing, deliberate steps, the alternation of sun and shade. His pulse calmed to the rhythm of steady physical effort. The trail was dusty, beaten to clay by the sun. Jungled peaks lofted above; below was the wide green sea.
They stopped at the first promontory and caught their breath among other hikers taking photographs and posing against the backdrop of a cloud-strewn sky.
“When your father and I came here last time, the beach was the most incredible swimming spot. It wasn’t storm season then though. The winds are coming from the opposite direction now. That might make for bigger waves.”
“I hope we still get to swim!”
“We shall see.”
From the beetling cliff and the incised trail there was no way to see the waves directly below. The swell seemed to lift the whole ocean and let it back down all at once, like a settling quilt. It had a peaceful power. He tried to imagine what that was like.
They passed dozens of hikers returning from the cove, all of them cheerful, encouraging, enjoying the heat and drenched with sweat. Some might have been swimming recently, it was hard to tell and he didn’t ask because he didn’t want to be remembered. When the trail leveled off, he fell into an even stride and then further into a reverie. Suddenly he was back in the car, snapping forward, his eyes jolted wide. Why had he felt panic? Was it because he had imagined for a moment that she could see what he was seeing? It didn’t work that way. He had to make his visions real, and only then would she witness them. Up to a point.
The sequence came back to him now, sharp in every detail, vivid and present, unfolding like a memory of something that had already happened, something more precise than a premonition. He let the scene brighten and grow clear again. Here in the sunlight on the hot trail, it was possible to safely experience the fear. It was like watching the waves come crashing in without feeling their force. The terror grew until it crested, carrying him with it. It towered and broke and washed through him, discharging its power. And then it was truly past. Gone. His pulse hadn’t varied. He kept on marching, and only startled slightly when his son’s fingers crept out of nowhere and slid into his own, giving his hand a small squeeze.
Just ahead, his wife had found an opening among the trees, a view of cliffs and sky framed by leaves and vines as if it were a tropical postcard vignette. Joining her, he gazed through the green portal and saw the beach below. He smiled, relieved by the sight of a white sand crescent at the foot of sheer black cliffs. Lava boulders lay jumbled where soon they would be clambering. A tiny speck of unnatural yellow fluttered as vividly as in his vision. The three of them stood with hands knit, the postcard now a family portrait.
“There it is,” she said. “Just look at it.”
The shore was perfection. Storm-driven breakers pounding on the beach, violent immensities of green nether water. He couldn’t feel them yet, but their power reached him anyway, not a premonition but a promise they had made him, self to self. It was going to work.
“Come on,” he said, tugging them onward, one hand to each, allowing himself a thrill of cautious glee. “Let’s see about that swim.”
The rest of the trail was an easy downward zigzag. He considered the return hike and felt no concern. How much easier it would be, alone. Or perhaps he would be airlifted out. That part was out of his hands, beyond his ability to calculate. He knew there was no point in rehearsing it. He enjoyed the descent as much as he had ever enjoyed anything.
At the bottom of the canyon wall, they entered the shade of trees that grew along the cold running stream. Day hikers dawdled on both sides of the river, negotiating the crossing with varying degrees of dexterity. His boy scampered across, hopping lightly over a chain of stones whose tops made steps just above the swirling water. The boy came back for his mother, and the two of them waited while their father came along more slowly. Now was not the time to go down in a noisy splash and draw undue attention. The water was higher and faster than he remembered from their honeymoon and he had not bothered much with this detail, but it was a minor discrepancy. When he gained the far side, he felt a flush of accomplishment. He joined his family atop the slope of lava boulders.
Here was the rescue float, hung from a metal pole, and here was the sign that said “Kapu!” Along with a warning of the many annual drowning deaths. He waited for his son to say something, but the boy only stared breathless at the waves.
“Kapu,” he offered, as a gentle nudge, to synchronize with his vision.
The boy glanced at him briefly and then away. And here was good cause for all that lay in store. What a dull child, to take no interest in the sign. A dull boy altogether. Far less vivid than even his blandest imaginings. In every way a disappointment, a child of no color or vitality. And his wife joined him in it, excusing his deficiencies, both of them conspiring against him. He had given them too much reality in his visions—more than they deserved.
“Isn’t that an ancient Hawaiian term?” he started to say. “Something to do with sharks?” But even prompting them with their lines didn’t work. They had already started down the rocks and were ahead of him on the sand, heading toward the water.
Well, this was where it truly began. He must commit himself now. He must, by careful balance of inaction, allow it all to come about.
There was no one else on the beach; that much he had foreseen. But he had to hurry to put himself ahead of them, and since the boy had not lingered to read the warning sign, he had to run. He was out of breath already when he reached the edge of the sand. He was gratified to find it carved away into a steep cliff of four feet, much as he had pictured. But the sand was pure white, through and through. Where had he come up with the idea that it was black underneath?
And where was his family?
He turned around and saw them following a course parallel to the water, shying away from the surf, apparently looking for shells. The boy had said nothing more about swimming, he realized. Would he have to do everything?
The waves were anything but a disappointment, more than living up to his vision. The sea was confirmation that his plan would work. It reminded him, with its quiet force, that much could be accomplished with no effort. He went and stood near the boy, deflecting him gradually toward the water by standing in his path. This also influenced his wife’s trajectory.
“The trail was hot, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” said the boy, “pretty hot.” He removed a water bottle from his backpack and took a swig, then made a show of feeling refreshed.
“Is that your bathing suit you’re wearing?”
“If you want to take off your shirt, I’ll hold onto it.”
The boy had paused on all fours, eyes focused on the horizon, suddenly pointing. “Shark!”
He whirled around in time to see a grey triangle slide through the foam with a sickening swift ease. A slimy shudder ran through him as he felt his vision violated. The tail swirled up just behind the fin. It moved almost lazily past, giving all of them a good long look at it, and in that moment he knew he’d been defeated. Again. By uncontrollable forces of nature.
“Forget about swimming, kiddo,” his wife said, and the two of them exchanged one of their looks of conspiracy and commiseration—one of the shared glances that always served to make him feel like a stranger in his own family.
The shark was gone but its effect was non-negotiable. Everything else about the day might align perfectly with his vision, but none of it mattered now. Kapu. The shark god had come to turn him aside, putting an end to his forbidden course. He knew when he was beat. All the planning, and his mind made up, his course charted, for naught.
“Damn,” the boy said, and he hadn’t the heart to reprimand him.
They stood and watched the sea for a long time after that, and it was almost as if the woman and the boy shared the man’s regret.
“What’s that you were saying about sharks before, Dad?” And almost immediately his wife was silencing the child, with another of her sharp warning looks that shut him out.
“If you broke kapu, the sharks would get you,” he said. And even if you hadn’t, he thought.
There was no more sign of the creature, but there might as well have been a feeding frenzy in the shallows, for no one went close to the water after that.
At last, in resignation, he turned and trudged back toward the pile of boulders, and his family followed without a word—unexpectedly somber in the brilliant tropical sun.
They forded the stream and cast about for the start of the steep trail he had expected to be climbing alone. There were still hikers about, and young sun-browned teenagers lazing on the rocks. His son greeted the older boys, eager to impress them.
“We saw a shark out there, right by the shore!”
“Naw, little brudda, that wasn’t no shark. That’s the manta rays. They been playing out there all day.”
“But we saw its fin!”
“Manta, bro! They put their wings up like this!” And the teen raised his arms, fingers tipped up to show precisely how the rubbery grey flap had sliced through the water. “Wavin’ at you, brudda!”
“Aw,” said his boy. “I thought it was a shark. You mean I could have swum, Dad?”
But he could hardly answer.
A manta—a gentle ray—hardly the guardian of things kapu.
He sought to recall the glimpse of fin, and now it seemed obvious. It had been soft and floppy, curling over at the top like a cresting wave. He had seen it as a shark because he was expecting a shark. All these thoughts of kapu had turned the meaningless manta into a messenger of warning. He had let an omen stop him—and it had been the wrong omen!
“Let’s go,” he snapped. “Back to the car. We’ve wasted enough time today.”
“It’s our vacation,” said his wife. “How is this wasting anything? What else did you have in mind for today? You’ve been planning this hike for months. It’s the only thing you planned.”
He did not say anything in reply, for there were too many people in earshot this close to the foot of the trail. But once they had begun to climb, he marshaled his thoughts. They had a long walk ahead of them, single-file for most of the way, and conversation was blessedly impossible. He would have time to picture the days ahead in precise detail. There would be some other opportunity. He would discover it. He would no longer be subject to whims of chance such as…such as sharks that proved to be manta rays.
The spoiling of his plan would rankle him until he contrived a new one to set it right.
At the top of the switchbacks, they came once more to the jungled vista—the view of their disappointing beach framed by vines. He stopped to catch his breath and his family rejoined him. In the blazing sun, the boy finally pulled his shirt off over his head.
A sharp white triangle glinted at the boy’s throat. The man’s breath caught in his own.
“Is that…what is that?” he asked.
The boy’s hand closed over it, and he glanced at his mother furtively, full of dread.
“I said, what is that?” He let the warning of force seep into his voice. It was all right now because they were alone up here, high above the rocks and water, with no one else in sight on the trail. “Open your hand.”
The boy’s fingers unclenched. The ancient ivory token swung free on a hempen cord.
“It’s a shark’s tooth,” he said sheepishly.
A shark! Up here! So high above the sea, yet it had found him.
“Where did you get this?”
He seized the tooth, seized and pulled, expecting it to tear away. But the cord was tough. He pulled harder, ignoring the serrated edges biting into his fingers, and the boy gasped as the cord cut into his neck.
“Stop that!” his wife cried. “I bought it for him, you son of a bitch! I bought it at the hotel because you never gave him anything. Or me either, not since our honeymoon, not a goddamn thing.”
He froze, staring at her, then at the boy. Both of them implacable. Both of them somehow still unexpectedly alive, their continued survival a reproach. Manta rays, he thought again, but then he remembered that the tooth biting into his hand was a shark’s. His blood had made it slippery. As she pulled the boy away from him, he lost his grip and stumbled backwards over the crumbling edge of the trail, over the green verge, taking the long plunge down to the sea where the sharks lay in wait to fulfill their ancient duty while the manta rays playfully waved.
“Kapu” copyright 2018 by Marc Laidlaw. This is its first appearance.
NOTE: This is a very, very, very alternate version of the story I finally published as “Premeditation” in the Ramsey Campbell tribute anthology, Darker Companions. For some reason, this story gave me more trouble than almost any I’ve written. It started as a very short horror story, fairly close to the final version. But the more I revised it and tried to fix deficiencies I couldn’t actually pinpoint (and in response to editorial comments that were as puzzled as I about why the story almost worked but not quite), the farther I strayed from the story I had wanted to write. At one point, I thought to extend it beyond the original ending and see how far I could go before it broke. At that point, what was conceived as a very grim story turned into comedy. After this experiment, I returned to the original grim concept and eventually felt about as happy with that as I supposed I ever would. I present this version as a curiosity, and an example of how far afield a very short story can go…