My apartment is covered in snails, likewise my bookshelf. All that is missing is their tracks. In the medicine cabinet in the morning a snail tells me: why hurry? Two snails face each other by my typewriter. In between them is a tiny music box that plays “What a Wonderful World.” Lift them up, look at their foot, and read: Take your time. On the corner of my desk a blue snail the size of a pencil eraser has been carrying a heart across the polished wooden plain for eons.
I have spent two recent birthdays fashioning snails out of clay with friends. Now they line my sills and stand watch over my porch garden with its mini-rock garden and reflecting pool. A shining glass snail guards the mantel, a gift from the boy at school whose cubby symbol is the snail. In the play yard at school I crouch by the Black-Eyed Susans with small children. We carefully reach into the densest, wettest, darkest undergrowth in search of snails. One day a little girl brought me snail whose shell she had pried off out of curiosity and it died on my desk. When I myself was young my mother and grandmother sang to me: Shellakie Shallakie Bookie, come out of your shell, the British are comin’ to get ye. The snail here was the Irish resistance. When my grandmother was little, the young men of her house and village had to disappear when authorities were rounding up suspected resistance fighters. My grandfather, as a boy, had to help dig holes for them to hide in.
On my bookshelf the amazing, surprising Virginia Woolf short story on this subject; Gertrude Stein has something too within her voluminous works; and Lewis Thompson, in his The Medusa and the Snail, writes a disappointingly brief snail treatment.
When I first acknowledged a minor snail obsession I lived in the Bay Area where it practically rained snails. We regularly rounded up the snails in the community garden and put them on Snail Island, a patch of grass where the only place to go was up the lone tree, not a natural place for an earth-loving creature unless they have that horrible snail-zombie disease where a parasite makes them climb a tree- I don’t like to think about it. Clumps of them gathered forlornly on tree branches. It was gardener versus snail but in looking back I find it kind of heartbreaking.
Now that I am living back in the east yellow nautilus shells collect in more reasonable numbers in the garden, a lovely gift to find. I prefer to see them in spades rather than in droves.
Unless, of course, I go to snail world, as I just did. On an amble in the city I found myself unexpectedly transported to an underwater realm of miniscule industrious black snails, many young ones with just a beginner baby toenail of a shell and elders whose gnarled shells go round and round. I look in from above and marvel at their mysterious and busy lives, lives which are entirely spent cleaning the fuzz from the mud and each other in a shallow puddle, on an abandoned dirt road, on the outskirts of the city, bordered by swamp and train tracks, none of which they will be cognizant of though they feel the thrum of the trains drum in their muscle-y bodies.
Cicadas hum in the row of stunted trees dividing road from swamp. Here is snail world, over there, bird land. In the distance the road finds its way to an abandoned warehouse. Its other end parallels the tracks where they disappear under a bridge that is seamed with a broad pipeline. On either side, everywhere, walls of chirping grasses that sway in the sun that beats down on us, the humidity that rolls over us, and even so, snail stays cool and dark in its secret world.
These puddles appear every ten feet. Rather than being laid down on the road, they are like windows that have opened, dusty dirt shades all snapped up to reveal jewels, living pictures, in slow motion.
The next day I tell the children about snail world and they hang breathless on every word, as entranced as I was. They listen to a story about nothing, about a puddle in the road. Then they go on to other things, and I do too. Small children may have an affinity for microcosms, being ones themselves. I forget the snails are all around me until they suddenly assert their presence again one morning- I don’t know why. I admit: I am in my own puddle. Sometimes I don’t leave my two block radius, though at other times I fly far and wild. I have dropped these little anchors, these earth-creatures, like sinkers on a lure, their one foot firmly tasting ground, and we are connected as though by invisible lines, although unlike those of Lilliputians, theirs cannot pin me. Instead, they use them to transmit their wise words and news of other worlds.