Teresa H. Janssen
Several months after the landslide, we left the Andes and took a bus to the coast. We spent two days at an Ecuadorian beach town called Ballenita, meaning ‘little whale,’ named for the humpback migrations offshore. I smiled at the Spanish diminutive for an 80,000-pound behemoth, understanding that the term expressed affection.
We checked into a small hotel propped up on a bluff above the ocean. The children ran to the terrace to look for whales. We saw gulls and dinosaur-like frigate birds, but no sea creatures. The next morning we went to the beach, a half-moon of salty, peppered sand arcing between outcrops. We hiked to one end where we could be alone.
I leaned against a rock, carved a nest out of the sun-warmed sand, and pulled out a thin mystery to read. The children moved to the edge of the rocks to dig and play a game. After a while I looked up to see them kneeling in a circle around something on the ground.
“It’s a shark,” Nick said gruffly over his shoulder.
Luke looked up at me. “It’s dead.”
It was the carcass of a gray, several feet long and mostly intact. The jaws were open as if in a final gasp, its double rim of pointed teeth chomping at the thin air. Its eyes were flat and gritty like sandpaper. The skin was torn in spots where sand fleas jumped and flies touched down on exposed tissue that reeked of rotting flesh. I felt a twinge of sympathy for the creature, once sleek and swift, fierce and free, now victim of an overwhelming force of nature. A foot away, Stina had begun to dig a hole.
“We’re going to bury it,” she said. I went back to my rock, lifting my head between paragraphs and plot twists to check on their progress.
They dug all morning, starting over when they thought they were too close to the sea, arguing about how deep was enough, lengthening the hole because the shark wouldn’t bend. They found a plank to serve as a bier, and the three of them slowly lowered the body into the hole, plucking leaves from a tree and layering them over to hide the creeping decay. They covered the corpse with sand and leveled the grave, running their small hands over and over the top until it was smooth as suede.
I felt a weight settle on me, but perhaps it was due to the tone of the mystery I was reading, a dark one, or the pillow of gray pushing in from the sea. A few drops fell on the page, and I looked up at the cloud above. I realized that for no reason at all, they were tears. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand, checked on the kids still immersed in their work, and moved on to the next chapter.
Stina went to the water’s edge and gathered broken shells. She outlined a square over the grave and wrote “Here lies Mr. Shark” with the white fragments. Nick and Luke gathered sticks and stood them on end, affixing a horizontal piece in the shape of a cross. Next to it, they set bunches of green seaweed and a blue bit of fishing line they found on the surf.
Stina led the ritual with a solemn tale about Mr. Shark’s life at sea. “But for every fish, or whale, or shark there comes a time,” she concluded, “when it takes its last journey.”
We stood in silence, heads bowed. No one spoke the names of our loved ones lying beneath a mass of mud on the other side of the Andes, nor of our loss. No one asked why we never went back. In bed that evening, I realized the children had done what I could not: they had buried their grief.
Teresa H. Janssen is a linguist and educator who writes memoir, essays and fiction, often to the themes of family migration, the influence of language, and the power of place. She holds a B.A. in History and French Literature from Gonzaga University and an M.A. in Linguistics from the University of Washington. She has received a number of writing awards including the Pacific Northwest Writers non-fiction prize, a Travelers’ Tales Solas Gold award, the Tidepools prose award, and the Norman Mailer/NCTE national creative non-fiction prize. She has lived and taught on four continents, and currently resides in the Pacific Northwest.