Wednesday 20 February 2019

Rebecca and the King of All Snails

(Reposting. This was written some years ago as a birthday gift for my friend Rebecca Lowe.)

Snails don’t think much, on the whole.

Ooh, lettuce, thinks one, making for the vegetable patch. Could do with a bit of rain, thinks another, probing around on the dry stone path. Please don’t eat me, bird, thinks a third, as his antennae withdraw into his head and his head into his shell.

This one thinks, Damn, that’s it, then, as a footprint shadow obscures the light and everything goes darker. The snail shrinks back into his shell, waiting for the end. But the foot stops; hovers for a moment, moves to one side before setting down on the ground.

And pwic suddenly, the snail is plucked off the ground, leaving behind a frightened little smear of slime. And then it stops. The snail puts out an edge of its stomach-foot, and feels a reassuring green leaf. An antenna pops out, followed by the other. A voice, a big shape in different colours, and the taste of greenery.

The snail, of course, forgets what happens.

But he is not the only one watching.

Today, thinks Rebecca, it will be All Right. I have a little bit of good karma.

She stops for a moment and looks at the iridescent slime that coats the snail’s body, the way the snail doesn’t so much move as flow, at the ridgy spiral of its shell, so solid and so fragile. She likes the way its little feelers move around. She’d almost think it was happy.

She finds the sight of a snail munching on the leaf of some weed inexplicably cheering.

It’s the little things that keep you going, she says out loud to no one in particular. And she hoists her bag over her shoulder, and heads for the bus stop.

Thursdays aren’t normally a good day. But: Rebecca arrives in time for the bus and she gets a seat; she arrives at the Post in plenty of time; she manages to avoid the eye of the editor; the stories are, on the whole, interesting and not in need of terribly difficult amounts of subbing. And if no one in the office talks to her much, and no one remembers to invite her to the staff lunch, and no one pays any attention to the way that this morning, unbeknownst to her, her hair seems to have caught the spring sunlight and held on to it like some sort of halo, well, she doesn’t seem to mind.

You might almost think her blessed by some higher power.

Friday, Rebecca, walking to work, sees a snail in the same place. She looks around, and satisfied that no one is watching, crouches, and says,

Hello. Are you the snail I met yesterday?

The snail seems to stop eating, and its antennae almost seem to wave in her direction.

You are, aren’t you? She pats her hair. Well, I had a nice day yesterday. I hope you have one too.
Rebecca is about to say something else, but someone walks past her, unexpectedly, and Rebecca blushes, and straightens her bag strap and pretends to be looking for something she dropped.

See you, she whispers.

At dinner this evening, when Rebecca’s husband, Rob, asks her how her day was, she smiles, and says it was the absolute best it could have been, under the circumstances.

I suppose that I’m in with the God of Snails, she says, tucking into her conchiglie bolognese (she cooked the pasta shaped like shells rather than the twisty stuff out of some sort of reflex action. It just seemed right).

Rob smiles; Rebecca has a talent for whimsy.

That night, she dreams of snails.

The web of coincidences and happenstance defines us. We link all this stuff that happens in our heads, and imagine some sort of causal relationship. Superstitions come from this sort of thing, and sometimes religions.

For Rebecca, it’s something of a whimsical in-joke shared with her friends, a thing to laugh about, no more than that. She’s nice to the snails that live in her garden and on her street, and she has a good day. She doesn’t see a snail, or fails to say hello, and she gets shouted at by her boss or has to sub-edit stories about marrow-growing competitions in one of the other local papers.

Rebecca imagines the King of All Snails smiling down on her; in her head she pictures a benevolent Buddha-like figure with iridescent, bumpy skin, antennae and a huge shell on his back, sitting on a throne and sending good things down to her.

And now Rebecca has a baby coming, and her husband is solicitous and swells with pride, and she feels full of life and love, and slight misgivings about no longer being able to fit in any of her clothes.
Months pass. Rebecca says hello to the snails, and avoids stepping on them, and picks them up and puts them on luscious green leaves, and imagines them waving their little antennae in thanks. And life is sweet.

She sees a lot of snails these days, in her overgrown little back garden, in the street outside her house. It’s just a coincidence.

Mondays, Rebecca doesn’t have to go to work. Her usual routine: she gets up late and does her hair, writes a couple of articles for her newspaper, and maybe meets a friend in the afternoon for a cup of tea. It’s all pretty civilised.

She’s not feeling so great this morning. The Bump is playing up a little. She woke up at six today, and never really got back to sleep. Still, she lies in bed and grunts a half-asleep goodbye as Rob heads out to work, and dozes in fits and starts until nearly ten.

The milk she pours on her Fruit’n’Fibre is everso slightly on the turn, and she manages a mouthful before deciding that breakfast is not for her (she puts a hand on the Bump and whispers, Sorry). The rest of her breakfast goes in the composter, except that it’s full, so Rebecca has to find her slippers and dressing gown and go outside to empty it into the compost bin in the garden. And it’s raining.
Still, it has to be done. So she takes a deep breath and opens the kitchen door, to find hundreds of snails waiting patiently in columns and rows at her front door.

They regard her, standing there in her dressing gown and slippers, with no makeup, and messier-than-usual hair. Holding a green plastic composter. And Rebecca gets the strangest feeling, like there’s some great occasion, and she is terribly underdressed, like she feels in that recurring dream where she’s back at school and about to do exams, only she’s in her underwear.

The snails don’t seem to be particularly bothered. The front row extend their antennae towards her, and then shrink them back, bow their heads almost into their shells, and then, at their accustomed pace, turn and move to one side. The second row take their cue and move forward, and the rows behind them each take the place of the one in front.

Rebecca stares at this balletic manoeuvre for a whole ten minutes before clearing her throat.
I’m terribly sorry, she says to the snails. Would you mind waiting for a while?

And she closes the door and steps inside.

Right, she says.

She showers, dresses, puts on some lipstick and brushes her hair. As she’s leaving her bedroom, she hears a knock at the front door. The postman has brought her a small, awkwardly-shaped package.
She thanks the postie, and inside, opens the cube-shaped package. A box of the kind that might contain a ring. Except, flipping it open, she finds a gold chain and a large, heavy jewelled pendant, fashioned in some fabulously baroque and archaic way to resemble a snail’s shell. It must be someone else’s. No, that’s her name on the brown paper, written in what looks like old-fashioned fountain pen ink.

She holds the necklace in her hand, taking note of its weight, and wondering where it came from. No card or note came in the package. It seems somehow appropriate to put it on, however, and wearing her new acquisition she returns to the back door to find the snails waiting patiently for her.

You’re going to stay here until you’re done, aren’t you? She says to the snails.

And so, she receives her visitors, row by row, as they show respect in the way that only snails can.

After an hour of this, Rebecca has to go — apologetically — and get a chair, because her back is killing her. But she comes back.

Rebecca doesn’t get bored. Long into the afternoon, she takes pleasure in the adulation of these creatures, taking note of the unique ways each one moves, the variations in swirls and colours on a snail’s shell.

She doesn’t tell anyone about it. Not the friend she talks with that afternoon, not Rob, not her mum who calls for a chat and a lecture about what she’s got coming when the baby comes. Not because they won’t believe her, although they won’t.

But because this is her time, her special time. It’s her secret.

She finds it hard to sleep; as Rob lies beside her on his back, breathing gently, she stares into the dark. And she does not sleep. She closes her eyes and sees the snails, and pictures the snail-pendant that sits hidden in her shoulder-bag.

She’s at the cusp of something. Something must begin soon.

She decides that if she’s going to picture snails, she might as well do something about it. So she counts them. Like you’d count sheep. Only more slowly.

And she drifts away to sleep…

And wakes, she’s wide awake, aware of an odd lettuce-green light that bathes the room, shining through the front window of her house.

She sits up, rubbing her back, expecting the light to fade, half-believing it to be some visual left-over from sleep. But it’s bright and real, and so she looks out of the window, and nothing is there.

She says out loud, That’s odd. 

She sits down on the side of the bed and looks at the window. And then she sees the King of All Snails, fat and shiny and smiling, sitting on the windowsill, a snail-trail leading up the window, out through the gap where it’s open, down the other side and presumably down the wall to the street. He’s about a foot-and-a-half in height.

Rebecca opens her mouth, closes it, opens it again, closes it, runs her hand through her hair, and says,

I thought you’d be a bit bigger.

Oh, I’m big enough. The King of All Snails shrugs and extends his eye-stalks. Aren’t you going to ask why I’m here?

Um. It had crossed my mind. But I thought it would be a bit rude to ask.

Quite so. The King of All Snails beams and settles somewhat, his mushy snail-flesh bulk rippling under his white robe.

Should I be standing? 

No, no. If anything, I should be showing respect for you.

How so?

I love you.

Rebecca doesn’t know where to put herself. She reaches around with her right hand, as if trying to locate something like a pen or a lipstick with which she can fiddle.

Oh. I- I mean, that’s lovely. But —

No, no. I’m a snail. That sort of thing is out of the question. Besides, we don’t do it like —

She cuts him short.

What is it like, then?

I love you because you are extravagantly kind and generous to even the lowest of us, and because you are bright and funny and because you do not take yourself seriously. I love you because you are beautiful, because you are aware of how that life inside you reflects that beauty and extends it to more than one human life. He warms to his subject, extends pudgy snail-flesh hands in an attitude of blessing. I love you, he says, because you are my friend.

I don’t know what to say, she says.
Be my priestess.


My priestess.

The King of All Snails explains that the last of his priesthood died out a long time ago. He is unloved, and unremarked. When small gods need a friend, he says, what they really want is a little bit of worship.
 And Rebecca, feeling that she knows this in the way that you know things when you are having a dream, is about to accept when something occurs to her.

But I made you up, she says.

Maybe. He shrugs his eyestalks, which shorten somewhat. So how about it?

Well, I have this contract at work which, erm, cracks down on moonlighting. You know how it is. But I’m going on maternity soon. And they don’t have to know. And I don’t think I really want to go back after Bump is born… She bites her lip. Oh, go on, then.

The King of All Snails expands and the lettuce-green glow intensifies.

You won’t regret it. Thank you. I’ll let you get on. He gives a malleable flourish, and turns, flowing up the window and down the other side. Rebecca watches him go.

She doesn’t go back to sleep.

Dreams usually depend on going back to sleep, or waking up, don’t they?

Rebecca reminds herself of that, even as she regrets giving up caffeine. She just about manages the hoovering, and is dozing in an armchair when the postman thumps the door again, asks her to sign for a sizeable package.

In a box covered with silvery spiral designs, Rebecca finds a lovely green silk robe, with the same spirals embroidered all over it in gold, and a headdress made of gold, designed to look like snail antennae. And a little instruction book, bound in lovely hand-made paper, painted in thousands of little spiral swirls.

Which is why, when no one is looking, she wears her priestly (priest-ess-ly?) regalia and with great ceremony, sacrifices a lettuce leaf in her back garden, and will do nearly every day until her baby is born, happy and healthy, and ready to receive every bit of love she has.

The snails won’t mind one bit. Snails don’t think much, on the whole. They forget.