Snapdragon Sunset
rating: +27+x

Snapdragons don’t grow by the sea. But these ones did.

You open the book.

There was once a beach with waves like the sunset, brilliant gold and orange curling the edges of the waves and deep purples and blues filling the deep. This sea was salty, and the breeze that came off the waves was unlike any other breeze elsewhere: it smelled of old wine, of fallen leaves, of too-old roses, but none of these smells were particularly unpleasant.

This beach was owned by nobody.

The nights on this sunset beach were spectacular. At sunset, the sky reflected how the seas everywhere else in the world looked, all at once: burnished gold burned against brilliant stellar blackness, sharp incandescent blues and violets surged like fire coalescing under the waves, and sometimes, on rare nights when a hurricane or tornado or earthquake hit some far-away coast in a region of the world nobody yet knew the name for, the fish and crabs and eels rose to the surface and watched as meteor-trails struck hot blistering lines across the purple-red sky, a blazing display that bled the power of the cosmos like a tsunami.

But only on this beach. Elsewhere, even just a mile off, the dumb koi and carp swam drowsy circles in their still-water tidepools and did not look at the sky, for there was nothing to see. And in the years that went by, as cities rose and fell and wars were won and lost, as lightning found its way into copper and lit up the sky in a way the stars could never hope to outmatch, there was even less to the sky than ever, and the children’s-children’s-children of those koi knew not to grieve the loss.

But on the snapdragon beach, the stars shone as brightly as ever.

It was in those years of industry that the beach began to change. Now, in the age of innovation, driftwood would wash up in a way it never had before. This driftwood, like all the other things that came from the sea, was different and unique: each piece was salted to hardness and durable to boot, and the crabs that scurried over these pieces found them strange. Each piece that drifted in would wash up looking just like any other cast-off piece of ship, but when observed, a transformation would occur: it would turn from broken wood into a chesspiece, or a tiny wooden dragon, or a little black-eyed figure, or anything else the watcher might have had drifting through their thoughts. The crabs had no education, no knowledge of the outside world, but they did know beauty: the pieces were always beautiful, exquisite, like a piece of a world frozen in time. Soon, the beach was populated with little wooden carvings of shellfish, of kelp drifting in the sea-current, of those strange silver fish that swam up at dusk in the hopes of seeing a meteor-shower reflected in the sky. The wood formed nothing else though, for no human or primate knew of the sunset beach. It was only crabs and sand fleas that saw the change.

But this was the age of change, and such small wonders do not suffice for the world. It was only a matter of time before the tankers found the cove. The first came by chance, searching for oil-sign and sending powerful sonar bursts through the water that made dolphins’ ears hurt and whales murmur bellowing sighs: the great metal destroyers were out again; stay clear lest one be caught in their spinning fins.

When the first tanker came, entered a cove that the captain logged as flooded by cyanobacteria, by toxic algae, by wine-red waters, it was a small thing. The sonar showed oil-sign, but the water was too murky to see clearly and the crew was tired. It was by fortune that the captain logged the beach as unmineable and did not return.

But the silver fish did not come back that night. They were scared, for many of their schools had been incautious of the tanker’s great hull and were now drifting as crabmeat, having been sheared to ribbons by the boat’s whirling rotors. They grieved their dead that night, and they did not return in full for many nights hence.

But they did eventually come back in their full silver-sided glory, after many unwatched showers and many more quiet days without ships or sonar or the rumbling of oil-drills, and when they did they rejoiced, dancing in whirling clouds beneath the crimson-and-orange waves. And when the moon was at its peak, they raised their silver heads above the waves and watched a night sky turn to fire with comet-trails and meteor-burns. As the nights passed and no more ships were seen, they thought that everything would be all right.

It was a cloudy red dawn when the tankers came back, this time in numbers. The snapdragons waved in the salty breeze, a riot of colour against the simple black sand. The verdant seagrass swayed in the waves, glowing turquoise and aquamarine in the refracted ocean sunlight. The grey crabs were out of the water, scouring the beach for sand fleas and bits of kelp and dead sea things, carelessly transforming a hundred new pieces of driftwood that had washed up overnight as they went.

Sound travels faster in water, and that morning, the silver schooling fish were the only ones to hear warning.

The silver schooling fish and a few stray crabs stayed close to the rocky cove walls and watched as little pilot boats cut gaping gashes in the rough sand, washing up with explorers and company-backed naturalists. The silver fish held no hope, for their gift of seeing the meteors carried to hearing the people’s minds, and they felt the people’s pressure and indoctrination to look not for life but for industry. It was that morning, a time with a blazing dawn and carefree scarlet waves and waving snapdragon fields and untouched sand, that the silver fish knew it was time to leave.

The sunset sea is still there, but it has been transformed, just like the driftwood. The waters are labelled as hazardous from bacteria – nobody can go swimming there. But nobody would want to in the first place. The scarlet waves are stained black from oil runoff. Seabirds wash up by the dozens every day, even in this little cove, and choke and die come sunset because nobody comes to rescue them. The pepper-salt sand is stained grey from rubber dust and metal cast-off, covering the driftwood, trod underfoot by workers who gripe and moan about how the company has delayed in installing metal walkways so the workers do not have to slog through the metal and plastic flotsam between stations.

It is quiet but sure. The sky fades a little each day, and the workers do not see the day when the last meteor shower hits the stars and stops with a shudder, like a VCR tape paused between frames so it jitters back and forth in uncertainty before someone pulls the plug and resets the machine. But there is no reset here, and the meteor blinks out of existence, and no crabs watch to see the scarlet waves lose their colour because they are all half-dead and rotting, crawling sluggishly with tar sticking their joints and filling their gills until they join the seabirds in oil-slicked fetid death, eyes blind to the sky because there is nothing to see but the underside of a worker’s boot as it crushes what lies beneath.

And somewhere on the beach, the last snapdragon of the scarlet sea is crushed by the rolling tyres of a land-mover. And though the waves are no longer crimson and the night sky is the flat black of a screen with the plug pulled, the plant tries to stand up straight, curls its brilliant emerald leaves to push itself out of the muck, unbatters its petals—

Only to be crushed again by the next tyre. And the next. It is ground into the muck, for this is not just one platform, it is many, and this company has just struck industry gold.

And the last snapdragon of the scarlet sea breathes a final withering sigh and slumps over, browning.

But no, that didn’t happen.

You shut the thin book, slide it back on the shelf. A Docent silently watches from the shadows and you pay it no attention, for it is not here for you.

You think over the work.

The writing had been so sharp that it almost cut into your skin, all hard jagged lines and bleeding ink stained by seawater – the markings of a crab-written manuscript. Some crustaceans and fish could have made it out alive, written their tale before the beach’s influence on their minds faded and reduced their minds to those of their cousins, but that was doubtful. This was almost certainly a work that could have been, yet never was.

It is by mere miracle that you had been there but weeks before.

You turn, cradling the potted snapdragon – crushed, wilted, sticky with tar but still alive – against your chest, and make your way to the Serpent’s Garden.

And in the windswept surf
Below the plastic flotsam
Beneath cast-off wood and metal
Hidden under old oil and sunken rusting tanker-ship's hulls
There swam
a single silver fish.

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