Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

I lifted the slim volume down from a shelf of new nonfiction books in the library. The title had caught my eye. Perhaps, I’d read a review or seen the title in one of my many emails or in a newsletter. I glanced at the blurbs, one by Maxine Kumin another by Jane Hamilton. Then, I read the bold print: “The Earthly Adventures of a Woman and a Gastropod.” The writer was Elizabeth Tova Bailey, and like me, she lived in Maine. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a fine independent house, had published the book.

I opened the book to the title page: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating and under the title, a lovely drawing of a snail, its soft body out of its shell, antennae alert. For the next two days I immersed myself in the small world of Elizabeth Tova Bailey and her snail.

When Elizabeth Tova Bailey was thirty-four and traveling in the Alps, she caught a strange virus or perhaps a bacterial infection. Her illness was severe and complications were life threatening. Mostly, she was bedridden. Years and years would pass before she even began to recover.

One day early in Bailey’s illness, a friend who was visiting walked in the woods. She found a snail, dug up a clump of violets, planted them in flower pot and set the snail down under leaves, then carried her gift to Bailey. And so it began, Elizabeth Tova Bailey’s fascination with this snail. Bailey became a careful observer, an ardent researcher, but what attracted me to this book was, not only Bailey’s emotional attachment to this creature, but the way the snail itself gave focus to her diminished life. Reading the book, I learned about snails, their history, their diet, their habits, their sexuality: woodland snails were hermaphrodites. I learned that snails have memory. I learned that no matter how small a person’s world becomes that world enlarges with connection, connection to a woodland snail.

Reading the book, I remembered my own fascination with a woodland snail, not that many years ago. One of the grandkids had arrived carrying a small terrarium. Which one? It couldn’t have come from Colorado so that ruled out Raina and Lilly. Zeke was too young. Nina. Memory flooded back, tooth marks in leaves of lettuce, slices of apple. I hadn’t known that snails had teeth, rows and rows of them. I emailed, Nina, now, twelve. “Nina, do I remember that you once brought a snail here? Was the snail a school pet?”

She emailed back. “Yes, I did have a pet snail named Skeebz after my best friend who moved. I kept it for about a year and then it died.”

As I write, I think about Nina’s brief response. She had a pet snail. She kept it for a year. The snail died. But, she named it after her best friend. So that small creature was for Nina a way of easing loss, a way of keeping her friend present in her mind.

I’m not a person who relaxes easily. I move too fast, try to do too much. Yet, when I would stand at my kitchen counter with Nina that year she was seven and in the second grade, the two of us observing the snail’s slow deliberate movements, I’d find ease in my fingertips, ease in my jaw. How could I have forgotten that time? And how could I have forgotten the pleasure of sharing that moment with Nina?

Reading Nina’s email, I was sorry to learn these years later that Skeebz had died. I wished for a happier ending, release into the wild. That’s what happened to Elizabeth Tova Bailey’s snail, release into the same woods where she had been found. Elizabeth Tova Bailey did, however, keep one of the snail’s many offspring. But Nina assured me that of all the snails given to each second grader that year, Skeebz had lived the longest.