My Wonder Book of Snails and Slugs
Fool's TrapThe Bone Whale
Rids Itself ...
My Wonder Book of Snails and Slugs
The Bone Whale
Rids Itself ...
My Wonder Book of Snails and Slugs
Fool's Trap The Bone Whale
Rids Itself ...
The Bone Whale
Rids Itself ...
My Wonder Book of Snails and Slugs
by David Stevens
My Wonder Book of Snails and Slugs
by David Stevens
Towards the end of his long life amongst the snails, the man sat diminished within the rattle and crunch of the wind blowing through the fractured shells–from the merely broken, through to ground down grit–that composed the beach. His spine bowed so that his body curved inwards on itself. Left long enough he would become a logarithmic spiral, but he knew that death was coming soon and would thwart that outcome.
Above him on driftwood pikes flapped weathered black bath mats. Lower down on lesser pikes were impaled the skulls of those for whom the bath mats had been skin and fur, mammalian intruders like himself, scant interruptions to the world of molluscs.
He had killed them all, but had taken no pleasure in the deaths, other than a slight contentment in a technical skill well exercised. As a collection, the remnants left a lot to be desired. They were uniform, unlike for example the marbles of his youth, all the different aggies, cat’s eyes, alleys, and jaspers that he had played with in the basement. There was no variety to catch the eye, to lead it from one specimen to another. Just a bunch of fading black bath mats.
He had not exterminated the brutes, he still saw them in the distance on his perambulations, but as he killed more and more, they had wearied of their nightly attacks on his camp. He could not remember why he had mounted them so. They did not serve as scarecrows. Tradition he supposed. Something for him to do, and once done, he could not be bothered to undo the arrangement.
He wondered if his friend had ever been among the waves of attackers. He did not think that he was amongst his victims. The man was sure that he would have recognised his friend’s suckered scar, even through the fur.
Now, as he more frequently slipped into a twilight state beneath the warm sun, the problem he dwelt upon was this: what force had propelled him to this land? What had driven him here, so far away?
Why had he been barefoot, the man wondered. He could have turned back and collected his shoes, but no. The boy that the man had once been shuffled only one way along the path. He would not be changing direction.
It was dark–it was always dark–but not yet true night. A hint of light came from far away, bouncing between earth and sky, until it flickered at the base of the low clouds above his head, a poor–and slightly green–imitation of lightning.
It was cold–it was always cold–and the boy distracted himself by picking out details of the path revealed by the flashes of not-exactly-lightning. He noticed his feet were dirty; well, that was a given. On a rock he saw a snail. It was slightly different to what he was used to, its shell a cone spiralling into the air. He hadn’t thought about that before, that snails could be different. Sea snails are different, he supposed. All the shells washed upon a beach, and when you pick them up, each is flawed. Every single one of them pierced through by a predator inserting a proboscis, drilling into the softness beneath, sucking it up to make it one with itself.
He could look in his library he had gathered in the basement, see if there was an Observer Book of Snails. He had one on butterflies. There’s one on shells, but only sea shells, not land shells. No one collects land shells, he suspected. But no, he would not be turning back to check.
The boy walked on and on and on. He did not see if the shell of the next snail was different, he did not see it at all, but heard and felt it crunch beneath his foot. He felt a little bad, but walked on.
Soon, each footfall was crushing a half dozen or more snails. When he looked down to see them, the next flash revealed the slightest strand of mist reaching towards his ankles. He leapt forward, lest he felt an acid sting across the back of his legs.
He jogged for a bit, crushing mounds of snails with each step, and his feet were not just wet with the damp of evening on the trail, but with the mucus and protoplasm of the crushed animals, mixing with drops of his own blood from the nicks in his feet from the crushed shells.
His breath came a little harder. The slope was rising. He was climbing a hill of snails. He staggered, his steps were slower, and finally he fell on all fours. With each reach of his hand, he dislodged clumps of molluscs, the lone foot of each stuck to one or more shells of others. He pushed his hands in deep, disregarding the destruction his progress caused.
Fragments of cracked shells splintered their way beneath his fingernails, constantly irritating him. Slime was ever present. Wind whipped up as the climb grew steeper. As he slowed he began to cool, and he continually shivered. The air was clear though; he had left the mist behind.
He climbed and climbed. His thoughts drifted. Could the hill be composed completely of snails, all the way through? Snails are converted plants; were there enough plants in all the land to make this many snails? Can snails be claustrophobic? Can fish be thirsty?
Shivering became shuddering. He was unprepared. He should have worn boots and an oilskin. He floundered. A flounder is a fish. He is a fish because he is not thirsty. What is never hungry? A rock? He is a rock. But rocks don’t shiver. Except in earthquakes. It would have to be a snail quake. Fish shiver. Quiver, when hooked from the sea and flung on the shore. His teeth chatter. Fish have teeth. Sharks have teeth. Sharks are not fish. Sharks never sleep. Sleep ...
There was a clinking noise, then warm tongues began to lick the boy clean of blood and shell and mucus, in long comforting strokes. Abundant fur emerged from beneath the shells, as hidden mammals shook themselves free of clinging snails. Their fur was soft and luxurious. Burrowing dogs climbed out and covered him with their weight and fur. Their beating hearts comforted him, returning him to the womb. He warmed, his quaking reduced to an occasional aftershock. He was not meant to die here. He moved from confusion to sleep. Beneath his ear, broken shells whispered to him of fractured seas to come, and he began to dream.
Why seek truth in memory? The only advantage memory has over dream is its consistency, because we’ve had more than one night to get our stories straight.
He dreamed of sleeping. At night–true night–all the interior doors are locked. He has been told from a young age not to worry about any noises in the hallway. Sometimes there is a dull thumping, as something makes its slow, unsteady way along the wall. His door handle might erupt in a mad, jittering rattling. He does not mind. That is like laughter, like something outside yelling “Surprise,” joyous at catching him unawares. Other nights, he awakes to silence, and wonders why. Wait–the tiniest noise. A vibration. Something slowly turning his door handle, testing it on the off chance. His thoughts: what if this is the one night Mother forgot to lock the door? Or worse: it is left unlocked, but not because she forgot.
The whispers: You’re special. You’re special. Now–open up.
He wakes, dreams forgotten, as the dogs slink off, insinuating themselves into the gaps between the snails, burrowing their way down away from daylight.
The boy set off. He knew it was the correct direction, because it was up. He never looked back. As the morning passed, the slope levelled off and became a plain.
After a long journey, snail bedecked and shell sharded, he came to a sea. He tested its surface, and found that spreadeagled–starfish shaped, like the boys in quicksand in his Guide to Scouting–the sea bore his weight.
It was a sea of slugs. At first he thought only to try it, if just for a break from the shell-crushing monotony of the snail paths. After a moment, the wind blew, and the current took him away, sliding across the jelly of them.
They wait until he relaxes, then mould about him. He shifts from side to side, to spread the burden of the sun across the different parts of his body. Soon their soothing mucus covers him. It begins as a balm for his burns, and then shields the rays entirely so that he sleeps again, and their work begins. Discharges seal the breaches of his skin, the myriad cuts and nicks, the entry points of fragments of snail shell. Gently, the slugs insinuate themselves into each orifice, worrying their ways through resting sphincters, gliding between flaccid lips, merging into nostrils. He is lined and lubricated throughout. The burden of breathing is removed, and the slugs–varied in size and function–take on the roles of ferrying nutrients through his veins and electrical impulses through his nerves.
Before long, he is far from the sun, deep in an amniotic sea. He is vaguely aware of others in the depths, all borne on the tide. Their dreams leach from one to another. For a time he forgets his name. Then gibbering voices wake him, and he starts to drown.
Rain falls; the slugs retreat. Inside him, they begin to break down. and he sneezes and convulses, breaking the seals within. The bits of them are expelled in a diarrhoeatic spasm, to reform later.
Blind at birth, spitting out gulped rainwater and slug fragments, he drags himself from the sudden surf onto a beach. The sand is pulverised snail shells, but he is impervious to its points and edges. Sight returns, and he grows used to breathing air again.
A shadow down the strand resolves itself into a small boy, still not free of the sea. He wonders if it is a past reflection of himself, caught in a very slow mirror. It is not, for the second boy tries to flee as gibbering creatures swarm towards him from the dunes. First they flail him, and when the child falls, one thrusts a spear and pierces him.
Enraged, the boy charges towards the creatures, arms waving. Some flee. Others stand to fight, but soon find that the broken snail shell beneath the boy’s skin is an armour that absorbs the energy of their blows. The bravest stays to grapple, so the boy tugs at its fur and stares at its face, which is like a bat’s, all doubting and clenching, challenging the air. The boy sneezes, a last discharge from his sea voyage, and red welts rise on the face of the shocked beast. The boy’s snot burns it like strands of stringy fire.
The boy pursues the screaming beast as it runs, clutching its ugly, pained face, until they reach the creature’s settlement. The boy stops, his target forgotten. There are purpose-built dwellings, constructed of driftwood and the opportunistic weeds that litter the place. There are mothers with their young at their breasts, baby faces emerging from large shells that encase them like hermit crabs. Little bat-faced monkey hermit crabs. One baby pulls away from the teat, its mouth a toothless surprised ‘O’ at the sight of the boy. From its lower lip hangs a strand of drooled mother’s milk, grey and viscous. The baby shakes its arms in excitement at something new and falls from its shell, plump and squishable.
What will he do, wreak havoc? At the edges of the settlement, the warriors have paused. Perhaps they will decide it is now their turn to chase the boy. The fallen baby starts to cry. An older child chews on a slug. He decides that the important thing is the speared child, so he returns to the beach. It is not, he tells himself, because he is embarrassed by the sight of a bare breast.
The wounded one is still alive. He lies holding the spear so that it does not move and tear his insides any further. Returning from the settlement, the boy takes a greater interest in the weapon than in the boy from whom it protrudes. The spear is a long broken bone. The boy tries to identify it by remembering pictures of skeletons he has seen in the encyclopaedia, but the atmosphere is not conducive to recollection. The spear will have to come out. “Sorry about this,” he says, not knowing where he learned that combination of words. “It may hurt.” It is a lie, for he holds no doubt. He wipes his hands and takes a firm hold of the bone. He pushes his foot down hard on the prone boy for leverage, then pulls the spear up and out.
There is resistance, there is a squelching noise, there is a flicking of fluids. The wounded child screams, then is silent. The boy checks him and finds he is still not dead. However, they cannot remain here. The scream was a signal of weakness and will attract predators.
The child is light and easily lifted over his shoulder. After some time, the lips of the child’s wound find purchase on the skin of the boy’s back, so that he can draw sustenance and healing. The boy does not mind. He has been alone on his journey for a long time and is glad of the parasitic burden.
The injured child began to communicate through his wound. Perhaps to thank him, he sent the boy a story of another beach, composed of mundane sand and splashed by tedious waves of mere water. There, yet another boy has found the beach littered with thousands of starfish, their arms curling as they fry in the sun. The boy’s heart is shocked by the mass deaths. He hesitates, tempted to walk away. He steels himself. Knowing that he cannot save them all, nonetheless he does what he can, and begins throwing the animals as far as his strength allows, back into the sea.
An old man approaches. The boy thinks he will be lectured on the futility of his actions, but reassures himself: it is better to do something than nothing. However, the man says nothing, but once he is close enough he cracks his walking stick across the boy’s back. The boy falls to the sand in pain and fright. The old man is nimble and keeps the boy pinned down with a series of whacks.
The old man screamed, “We know not what horror drove them here, except that, to flee their own world, we know it must be great. And as they pass into death victorious, you are cruel enough to snatch them from their refuge and return them to the maelstrom?”
After a day of hard work, the boy slept. He dreamed he was awake, lying in his bed in the damp, cold house, whispers coming through the keyhole.
Nothing is forbidden. he accepts all. he would not have us miss any experience for his sake. Now: open the door.
He awoke next to a bonfire, still burning, the product of his labour. It is a tall beacon that he constructed, despite the burden of his parasite. The flames will attract any other children here, to this safe place, where he will protect them from bat-faced monkeys and other menaces yet to be discovered. Despite his bravado he is unsure how good a guard he will make, as on opening his eyes he saw that he was almost surrounded.
There was a loop of girls, their arms fused where their hands once were. They still had two hands though, a left and right, at the two extremes, where the end girls were unconnected.
“We don’t want you to join us,” said one, without him enquiring. “Boys are problematic.”
Though he did not want to join anyway, the boy could not resist pointing out a flaw in the statement. “He is a boy,” he retorted, pointing to one of their number towards the centre.
“Only for the moment,” advised the same girl.
“I’m Richard,” the boy said, but was ignored.
The girls sighed at the sight of his big fire. Different voices spoke.
“You’re going to have to put that right out // It’s a good idea // Your heart is in the right place.”
He started to feel angry at their challenge. They were girls. “I need to bring the children here.”
“It is dangerous for them // I understand your motivation // Some children survive because they are spread out.”
“I will protect them.”
“You’ll try // You won’t, you know // Your beacon won’t just attract children. Look.”
One with a hand presented him with a pirate telescope. He took it.
In the distance, there was a massive bulge in the sea of slugs. Something huge moved beneath the surface. It was travelling towards him, at great speed.
“You are also attracting the things that feed on children.”
Shaken, he returned the telescope, but he could not just admit he was wrong.
“It won’t come on the land.”
“You did // We did // Yes it does.”
It was too late to extinguish the beacon. Instead, they all fled, aiming to be somewhere where the beacon wasn’t. He ran and ran and ran, his parasite bouncing on his back, until he could run no more, and fell. The earth shook. They did not look back.
The girls had many rules. The boys didn’t like such regulation, so they–except for Richard–went their separate ways. Some of the rules were like fairy tales. If you find a cardigan, you can wear it to get warm, but you must never, ever sleep with it on.
There was no lemonade, no google buns or pop biscuits in this land, but it did not matter, he only knew the words as puzzling references in the mouldy books in the basement.
There was a type of potato, and there were fruits and berries from the scraggly vegetation. The only source of water was rain, which fell regularly. He collected it from puddles in depressions in the scattered boulders. When the puddles dried, he scraped off a salty sediment. The scrapings increased the edibility of cooked snails.
Between the woody scrub and the driftwood borne over the slug sea, there was always enough fuel, but he never again attempted anything on the scale of the bonfire.
No matter how dull his fare, he kept his resolution never to eat a bat-faced monkey. Not even their plump babies.
It was cosy close to the stove, where he would often find his mother. Move slightly away, however, and the air was cooler than the rest of the house, as though the cold gathered its forces to ensure that the warmth was a statistical aberration. It was wetter there than elsewhere, from the steam from the pots on the stove. Fungi sprouted from the walls, lumping out in horns and antlers the boy always admired. His mother taught him that you could not just pick from the growths willy-nilly. Some were good for cooking, some would wipe out the whole family in seconds.
With the omniscience of the dreamer, he knew that dinner tonight would be soup. It will be hot and filling, if he eats it quickly enough. Sometimes there were also boiled vegetables. He pressed them down onto his plate with his spatula to watch the stained fluids leak out.
In the dream, he and his mother do not talk. He leans, pressing his shoulder to her hip. She does not push him away. He sleeps easily, and wakes with tiny tears.
He awoke to find his parasite gone. It was not a relief, it was as though part of him was missing. He searched until he found him.
“I hoped this would happen,” said the parasite. He had broken a rule. A cardigan was becoming one with his skin, beginning to grow like matted fur.
“I will fix you,” said the boy, crying.
“No you won’t,” replied his former parasite, “Now we are both free! The cardigan has healed my wound.”
“But the cost!”
“What cost? I shall be a bat-faced monkey, free of rules!”
“I will never forget you.”
“I will forget you in about 15 minutes, once the cardigan has settled right in.”
And he did. Befurred, he raced off through the dunes of shell grit, between the boulders, his legs forgetting that they had grown useless from months of hanging idle. He screeched happily, leaping and spinning in the air, his sonar allowing him to avoid all obstacles.
Later, once his emotions had settled and he had an opportunity to reflect, the boy thought about how his parasite had managed to remove himself unnoticed by cutting through his own flesh above their join. What had he endured, to hold the flesh tight so the boy did not wake, to not jerk in pain? Where had he found a blade, or stolen the time to fashion one, undetected? How had he sharpened it? How long had it all taken?
Sitting in his campsite, he saw a glint as the sunlight struck a snail trail just so. The trail was not random. Leaning closer, the boy made out words:
“Gratitude is a burden I can no longer carry. It was either this or kill you in your sleep, and this is warmer.”
Of course he would not have killed me in my sleep, the boy said out loud to himself. He was just being dramatic. And the parasite hadn’t been doing any carrying.
But his parasite had a blade. And there were no locked bedroom doors here.
What else was he failing to notice? He resolved never to be surprised again.
Digging in the scrub for potatoes and roots, he fell back, startled, and dragged himself on his haunches out of the bushes. Snake! His heart raced at the prospect of danger and distraction.
He did not want to get too close, but he did not want to lose sight of it either. How do you catch a snake? Why, what are you going to do with it if you catch it? Make a pet of it? Eat it? What if it is a poisonous snake? Snakes aren’t poisonous, they’re venomous.
He was talking to himself again.
Shrubs shook. The snake crunched amongst the shells and emerged into view.
It was not a snake. It was a human arm, severed just before the elbow, propelling itself by grabbing and dragging with its fingers.
The boy watched it pass by, oblivious to him. It had only the sense of touch. Unlike a snake, it had no tongue to flick in the air and taste the delicious scent of fear from its prey. He was not sure if he was disappointed, but he knew he would not eat it. He wondered if he could fashion a collar and lead for it, but by then it had dragged itself out of sight.
Seasons passed. His clothes were gone, his body tanned, his dominance over the bat-faced monkeys established. Taller, confident, he decided a long distance recce was called for, and took the path less chosen.
One morning he came across a circle of huddled stones and thought of the Beaker burial sites and standing stones in his Child’s Book of World Mysteries. Then one of the stones coughed, and he saw that it was the arm-fused girls, and Richard, from years ago.
They did not react to his approach, though walking was never silent when the trail was composed of snails. Should he cough back? “Why, hello!” he called, instead.
Slowly, their heads turned towards him. Their hair was long and lank, their shoulders slumped. As one, they rocked back and forth on their bottoms, and rolled forward onto their knees. From there, they slowly rose.
This time, though, they did not fan out in a line to greet him, but remained in a circle.
He noticed a new girl, not facing inwards like the others. Her red hair stood out. Her eyes were doing something funny. She was trying to signal something, but it was a language he did not understand.
There was no end to them. They had no hands. All their arms were fused together, so they formed a permanent ring.
“What did you guys do?”
“This is what we wanted // Oh yes this was our plan // It’s God’s will.”
The middle voice was clearly sarcastic, the last tinged with hysteria. He thought it might be Richard.
“Did you sleep under a red berry bush when the moon was full without all hopping on your left foot three times? Everyone knows that is what causes this.”
“You’ll never understand the rules // Such a boy // Very funny.”
“How do you eat?” he asked. How do you wipe your arses? he thought, but did not say. How do you do anything? He began to think of ways to help, but there were a dozen of them. How could he feed and clean them all himself? There were only so many potatoes he could dig and snails he could boil in a day.
“We co-operate // The sun and the air feed us // Like the plants.”
The unwiped stains around their mouths gave the lie to that last. Unless they were Venus flytraps. They had been chewing at something recently, something that bled more than air and sunlight.
He wondered how it would be now, if they came across him sleeping at the beach. He pictured the circle closing in, each jostling for prime position.
They were a fairy circle, and if he entered, he would never leave.
The girl facing outwards. She hadn’t wanted to join. She had turned her back to flee, but in her kindness, she had let them get too close. The girls had made a mistake, two of them had reached to grab her instead of one, and hands joined, the circle was closed.
There was a restless energy coming from them, He thought they must be cold, the way they shifted slightly from foot to foot, then he realised the whole time they had been moving slowly towards him. Without saying another word, he turned and jogged away from them, ensuring he did not head towards his temporary camp.
Shuffling grew quicker behind him, then with several thuds, he heard them trip and fall.
He dreamed of home. Sometimes, there were screams in the hallway. Sometimes, there was meat in the soup.
There came a season of storms. Wind whipped through, thrashing his shelter, reaching its vibrating fingers through the gaps between the boulders where he was hunkered down. Rain pelted, but the sea did not rise in waves to flood the land with slugs. Rather, the creatures battened down, compressing themselves together, so that the sea level sank.
There grew a new recklessness to the wind, an abandonment. Lightning joined earth to sky. Bored from long confinement and the monotony of the shrieking storm, the boy lifted his head to sneak a look. In the distance, he saw an impossibility. The night itself was curved in obsidian spiral. There was a mountain where there had been none. Thunder welled, and lightning forked across the horizon.
The mountain had a horned head that turned more swiftly than its size and kind suggested possible. A sphere shifted, and he saw it was a giant snail bestriding the landscape.
The storm moved with it. He suspected the titan dwelled permanently within tempest, the size of it creating its own weather.
A wind-flung cone snail thumped him between the eyes, to punish his daring, and he withdrew into his shelter.
He found her after the storm, as though she had been torn free and blown far away to land near his (metaphorical) door.
She was bone thin and soggy, and he took her for a waterlogged frond. He felt stupid when he recognised her red hair. He saw that her long arms ended in infected stumps, where she had broken free from the fairy ring. Though he did not know all the rules, he had taught himself a few things. Snails were set to work, bound to her extremities with tied leaves, so they kept mostly still and drained her pus into themselves. Less fortunate snails were boiled in a broth, which he dripped into her mouth a little at a time.
To ease her fevers and keep her clean, he washed her gently. In the early days, if he pressed too hard on her arms, dents remained for a long time. Underneath her skin, her arms felt crackly. Later on, the problem disappeared.
He surrendered his bed of leaves and branches to her. She did not speak much, and she slept a lot. He did not mind. Unlike his home, here sometimes the nights were clear, and with no impediment the sky hung fat with brimming brilliance. He was happy to fall asleep outside, stars filling his eyes.
Leaning into his mother’s leg, the wool soft on his cheek, he closed his eyes and listened to the wooden spoon hit the side of the pot as she stirred the contents round and round. With her free hand, she stroked his cheek.
“Am I special?”
She bent down, gripped his biceps, and looked him right in the eyes. “Has someone been whispering nonsense through your keyhole?”
There were screams in the night. This time, it was he who had to be comforted. The girl held him and stroked his brow with her forearms, hushing him as the adrenalin from the dream pulsed through his system, now easing, now rising again. The details of the nightmare left him, but the taste remained–metal mixed with his mother’s soup.
He calmed, and they both slept.
She grew stronger, and they entered a life together. She did not speak of the past, of the fairy ring, or of the time before that. He thought about her escape, of course. Her arms were longer than his, though they were around the same height. The stumps of her arms reached near her knees. Perhaps his arms were disproportionately short. He only had his memory for comparison. If she didn’t comment upon it, neither would he.
He carried out thought experiments about breaking free from a fairy ring. He suspected that at least part of each arm used to belong to her former companions. What happened in the last days? Did she have to wait until the others died, hoping by force of will to be the last one standing? Did toxins from the dead and dying carry through the chain of arms, each to each? Did she drag the corpses of all of the others to a convenient spot, where she could break their arms over a sharp rock? He envisioned her somersaulting again and again, twisting the arms around and around until they tore, but in the end he dismissed that as unlikely.
Whatever happened, he was glad that she had survived it, and that she was here now.
“Sweetheart, of course you are not special.”
“I am.” Foot stomp.
“No. We are all the same. Good and bad, man and woman, rich and poor, the god does not distinguish. No matter how far we fall, none of us will ever hit the bottom, because the god will catch us in his web. He will gather us all together, rolled in his silk. Then he will scoop us into his mouth, and we will fall down, into his giant gut, pressed together in the dark, slowly dissolving.”
She joined him in all of his chores. Man is a tool-using animal, because of his opposable thumbs, which put her at a disadvantage. She could not dig, but she found likely spots for potatoes, and she carried a decent load over her shoulders. She had good ideas and kept him company.
He asked her about the god one time, and she had no notion of what he was talking about.
Eventually–fumbling, uncertain as to what went where, in their world with few mammal examples–they began to do the thing that makes babies. Not like the snails that lay side by side with their bits oozing out from under their shells. Certainly not like the slugs, with their promiscuous chains that stretched for metres, all of them inter-wrapped head to head or head to tail, not much caring what was where or who it belonged to.
Sometimes he felt bad, not at the act itself, which he enjoyed very much, but because it would be wrong to make a baby. He remembered the baby bat-faced monkey, and the grey gruel of its mother’s milk. What life could they offer a baby? But after some time with no baby actually being made, he assumed it must just not be possible. Too much snail had got into them. Some of the zillions of fragments of shell forced beneath their skin had carried through their systems and lodged in strategic parts, so that there was always a barrier between them.
He loved the mammal-ness of her. That she was just right–not too hard, not too soft. That she yielded in the right places. He delighted in the extravagance of her varieties of hair. The bristly, springy coils of it down there, where he liked to very gently rub the palm of his hand, afterwards. Under her arms, where he would bury his face and draw deeply of the rare, rich human smell of her. And though there was no baby, the bits of her that were built to feed one. Proper skin, that kept all her bits in, that did not bulge weirdly, or allow her to climb up rock faces. Her skeleton on the inside, where it belonged. Eyes that stayed within her face, and did not protrude and toggle about.
He did not know all the rules. The first few times they did the thing that makes a baby, he thought, if we fall asleep like this, will we wake up joined together down there, forever? Well, not forever. She had escaped the fairy circle. He knew that if it came to it, she would break off his thingy to escape. She might regret it, it might make her sad, but she would do it. So he made sure that they did not fall asleep like that. He did not want to put her in a position where she had to make such a choice. He also did not want his thingy broken off.
Though he was nothing special to her, he still dreamed of his mother.
“Mama, do you love me?”
“Of course, silly.”
“Will you love me forever?”
“I will love you until we die.”
“Will you love me after we die?”
He felt her exasperation strongly. “Sweetheart, do you think anyone will have time for such things, being dissolved in the gut of a giant spider?”
One day when he woke, she was gone. Later on, he would tell himself that just as the wind had carried her to him to begin with, so had the wind borne her away. It was not literally true, as the air was actually quite still when he awoke and she was not there.
He searched for her. He called her name. He worried that she was injured.
He berated himself. What could he ever have seen in the type of girl who had been a part of a fairy ring? He kicked, he threw great clumps of snails into boulders, he stormed, he stomped.
When he calmed, he knew she would be safe. She was clever and resourceful. It was just that the energies that had driven her to flee across the snail mountain and the slug sea had never gone away.
Perhaps for those driven enough, there were different paths, other lands to discover, to take them even further away. He never found them.
He missed her.
Children continued to come, but over time, more and more they avoided him. He had ceased to be a child himself, and he may have reminded them of what they fled.
There was no reason other than his loneliness to seek them out. He had little wisdom to pass on–he had never picked up on all the rules that the fairy ring knew, and he had no idea how the knowledge had been imparted to them. There was plenty of room for everyone to spread out and avoid each other, and enough potatoes and snail meat for all.
He suspected there were those who, after a season or two in the land of the molluscs, would brave the sea of slugs and seek to return home. Who knew if they made it? There was no communication between the lands. It was something he would never try.
Sometimes, there was the sour smell of berries that had turned. Usually he ignored it. Sometimes the world inside him grew dark. When the two events coincided, there was a good chance he would follow the scent. Each time he finds clusters of snails that beat him, covering the base of the bush and clambering over each other in little hillocks. Some snails have had their fill and toppled away. They behave in most un-snail-like ways, shells lying here and there, bodies limp and exposed, their foot unanchored to any surface.
It takes a lot of berries to achieve the same effect for himself. Of course–he is larger, and as a mammal, his systems are more complex and generally superior. He eats himself into a stupor and collapses with juice running from his mouth. This will be followed later by all number of other leakages, and a terrible headache. He will finally fall into the sea, so that the slugs can bear the pain away.
The main reason that he seldom indulges is that when drunk, he is likely to be awoken by a crying baby. He will try to ignore it, assure himself that it is not there, but it always ends with him reproaching himself–what if it is out there, alone, exposed? He will cry out her name, and think of the impossible baby that they did not make together. He will run about seeking the lost child. Tears pour, but he never finds them, and it is no comfort to know the whole time the sound is only inside his head.
She would not have left him if she was pregnant. There would be nothing in his face to suggest that a baby should be kept far from him.
One time he reassured himself–of course she would not leave: with no hands, she would not be able to care for a baby by herself. A wave of peace passed over him. A moment later, he realised that that was no reassurance at all.
He would seek refuge in the stars and try to name the constellations. As age dimmed his eyes, the points of stars were replaced with blurred snail trails in the sky. Look, he told himself. All things are linked, and nothing can be truly lonely.
In the stuttering twilight beneath the bright sun as death came closer, the distinction between memory, dream, and the worlds blurred.
He was a boy sitting outside that house again. He deliberately wore no shoes for the frisson of wrongness, wanting to feel the cold and damp earth through his bare hands and feet, desiring the uncontrolled shiver.
He scared himself delightfully by thinking what creatures of darkness approached from all around. Inside the rooms were lit, people went about their business. Outside, there was rustling in the bushes. Creeping steps. He held steady, prolonging the time until the moment when he could bear the delicious fear no more and sprinted to the house. He pictured the soundless flap of dark wings in the sky above. Blind upward burrowings in the earth below. Dread shuffling through the forest.
Upstairs the light from windows dimmed, then was gone.
He sat upright at that.
Cloud descended. A tongue of mist licked about the house. He saw it explore, tentative. He thought: all the places light leaks out, something could leak in.
He found himself standing.
The strands wound round the house. Individual silken threads, seeking entrance. Random lights disappeared. Timbers creaked as the walls were wrapped. Something huge hung above the cloud.
Not mist. Web.
Being nothing special, he ran.
Death approached. He heard it, though his senses were failing. It is hard to move quietly on a floor of broken shell.
There was movement at the edge of his deteriorating vision. Something crept towards him. He kept his promise to himself, never to be surprised.
It clambered up onto his bed, and he felt the pressure of it. An unmistakeable stink. A bat-faced monkey! Come to finish him in his weakness. After losing so many battles, they would win the war. There was nothing he could do, he had no strength to resist.
Aged simian fingers stroked his cheek. The primate’s body covered him against the cold that persisted despite the brilliant sun. It breathed regularly into his ear, calming him as he slipped away. Its weight was comforting, reminding him of the dogs who dwelled between the shells on the snail mountain, who laid with him and wrapped him in their luxurious hair on that first night so very long ago.
Was there perhaps a protruding ridge of dried lips hidden beneath the bat-faced monkey’s fur? If he was able to roll over, would he find that the ridge matched the suckered scar on his own back? He was happy not to be alone, though he was too old to hope that nourishment and dreams of starfish could flow between them again.
As the man died, he wondered at the girls of his youth, the fairy ring and all the rules they knew. Who knows? Perhaps there is a rule that if a boy falls into his final sleep while draped in a bat-faced monkey, he will wake far away, transformed into something special that would not be caught in a web and gathered with everyone else.
The wind blew and the shells rattled, as though he had never been there.