“Daddy, look! Look what I found!” Sander tripped up the three wooden steps to his father’s shed, blinking seagrass from his eyelashes.
“Okay, settle down,” his father grunted as he raised his goggles and unbent over his worktable. “What’s all this about?”
“I found a unicorn seahorse!”
“You did not!” His father’s chuckle was strange.
“I did, though! I did!” Sander opened his palm and thrust it under his daddy’s nose so he could see – and smell – the palm-sized creature, a papyrus-yellow fish with an elephant’s trunk for a tail, tiny gossamer wings for fins, a horse’s tubular snout, and a forehead crowned with a twirling horn. The mother-of-pearlish material danced in the light and shadow, reflecting the gestures of Sander’s father as he gulped a breath of winch-fired air, waved his arms uselessly and shouted. “What did you do?!?!?!”
“What did I…?” Sander winced away a little, wondering what he’d managed to screw up this time.
His father snapped forward and began digging into the child’s palm as if it were a deep pit and he, an undead creature desperate for shelter from the sun of night. Sander readily surrendered the fish, whose glassy eyes swung lazily as Daddy clasped the body between his thumb and forefinger and dashed out the door. He nearly crashed down the rickety steps.
Sander watched from the threshold as his father ran to the ocean, this strange giant neighbor he had to salute from afar but could not play in or taste a drop of its green-brown-blue-red-purple-black waters.
His father knelt and, in the most delicate gesture Sander had ever seen out of him, he cupped his hand to let the seahorse under the water. He crouched there for a long time, motionless.
Sander joined him and crouched too, in the mud, not bothering to take off his shoes or roll up his trousers. Thinking the better of asking his questions aloud, he kept his mouth shut and just watched his father’s lacerated palm floating under the surface, the tiny unicorn seahorse upon it bobbing with the tides as they breathed in… out… slowly, not flickering a fin. “What’s wrong, Daddy?” Sander finally asked.
“You made perhaps the most revolutionary ecological discovery of our time,” his father responded, staring into the glassy eyes of the graying beast.
“So? What’s wrong with that?”
“And,” his father continued as if he didn’t hear Sander, “it’s dead.”
When his father stood and tossed the dead fish out into the brown-gray-blue waves, Sander stayed a moment longer, letting his father’s metallic scent recede and the blanket of salt-weed smell overtake him. His face in the wind that slapped his cheeks, he squinted and searched the horizon for an island, a ship, a whale, something he’d read about in his old books. A flicker of movement caught his eye – he turned to the corner of the horizon – to see – a styrofoam helicopter whizzing into a smog where his vision ended. Hope had presented itself for a glimmer of a sliver of an instant – just long enough in its opalescent beauty to crack and heartrend everything and leave behind the same despair, but changed, more toxic because the people wading through its smokey fog had known for a glimmer of a sliver of an instant, the caress of sweet clean air on their throats.