The life of a snail is not as dull as you think. Most people assume that, because snails are slow, they never go anywhere. Well, most people are wrong. I go places.
I’ve seen the whole lake!
How is that possible you ask? You just have to be patient and wait for it. That is what I am doing right now. Waiting. Snails are good at waiting.
Today is my nephew Archibald’s birthday. The first swirl on his shell is complete, signaling his readiness to separate from his mother. A very big day in the snail world, and my sister Tina is just beside herself with pride. She is insisting that the entire family be in attendance.
Never mind that I was on the other side of Round Lake at the Algae Bar because I am in desperate need of a few more swirls myself. I admit, my diet has been a bit shoddy of late, and I am getting a bit pudgy around the middle, but can you blame me with all these birthday parties lately? Tina’s last brood was 50 snails, and in the last month they’ve all completed their first swirl.
I had just ordered my calcium infusion when I got the not-so-gentle reminder from Eleanor the mudpuppy. Mudpuppies are salamanders, so they move a lot faster than snails. Although mudpuppies eat snails, Eleanor is a vegetarian, so my family often uses her services to communicate. I feel confident she won’t eat me. Most of the time.
“Buster, you’re going to be late,” Eleanor’s gruff voice accosted me from behind.
“Late for what, Eleanor?” I asked just as gruffly. Even though I was perfectly aware of why she was there, I don’t like to be interrupted when I’m eating healthy and trying to enlarge my shell. A snail’s shell is not only his protection and his home, but it is a statement of his personality and growing it symmetrically takes concentration and commitment.
“Buster, you irritate me,” Eleanor replied and then poked my over-tight shell. Touch hurts when a shell is too tight, and Eleanor knows it. She was just determined to get my tentacles in a twist because last time Tina sent me a message it was collect. How is it my fault that Tina sent a collect message, and I didn’t have enough money to pay to receive it? I think that is the risk Eleanor takes when she accepts a collect assignment, but she sees it as a sign of my morally defunct character.
“Slink off, Eleanor,” I told her. I was determined not to be rushed or strong-armed by a salamander, even one as notoriously persistent as Eleanor. “I’ll leave for Archibald’s party when I am good and ready.”
“By the time you are good and ready, you’ll also be late,” Eleanor said with another jab. These are the moments I wish I were anything but a snail. Fighting back is nearly impossible for a snail. We just can’t catch anyone by surprise. Plus, having no grasping appendages means we also have no weapons. Slime isn’t very dangerous, though it can be seen as offensive.
I slowly turned around to look Eleanor in the eye. As you can imagine, it took a while and Eleanor got impatient.
“Buster, you are the most bothersome snail I know,” Eleanor told me.
“Then leave me alone,” I told her, finally looking her directly in the eye. I raised my upper tentacle to look her eye-to-eye, something I know that she hates. “You delivered your message. Now slink off.” I slowly turned back to my recently arrived shake, but she pulled my head around with one of her front feet.
“Shows how much you know,” she snapped. “You haven’t heard my message yet. Tina wants you to know that your Uncle Mortimer is going to be at the shell ceremony, and this will likely be his last one, so unless you want to dishonor your favorite relative, she suggests you get moving.”
I sighed, intentionally slower than necessary. Uncle Mortimer. Blasted Tina. She knows that Uncle Morty is the only one in the world for whom I would drop everything. I glanced back at my foaming dinner and sighed again.
“You can tell her that I am on my way,” I told Eleanor and began to slide back inside my shell.
“Are you paying for that message?” Eleanor asked, grabbing my upper tentacle with her foot again. “Tina didn’t pay for no reply.”
“Then don’t tell her anything,” I said, trying to wriggle free.
“You can bet I won’t,” Eleanor said, letting go. “I ain’t doing you no favors, Buster.”
By the way, my name isn’t Buster. It is Mortimer Percival Augustus the third. Percy is my nickname, but Eleanor doesn’t think I deserve a dignified name, so she just calls me Buster.
“That’ll be fifteen zebra mussels, Buster,” the snail at the Algae Bar told me. I looked at him, my uneaten shake, and my very light wallet. I guess the name is catching on.
After only finishing half my shake and enduring a few more painful prods from Eleanor, I pulled back into my shell and headed for the surface. Remember how you wanted to know how a snail can get around? Well, snails can float on the top of the water if they pull really tightly into their shells and trap a little air in with them. I do it all the time, which is how I travel so far. A good windy day can push my shell on the waves for miles.
Why then don’t you see more snail shells floating on the lake? Well, to be honest, floating is not a precise method of transportation. A good wind in the wrong direction can send you miles away from your goal instead of closer to it. Even a good wind in the correct direction can send you flying miles past your goal if you are not paying attention. Plus, floating can be very boring. As I mentioned earlier, it involves a lot of waiting, which is what I am doing right now.
In order to stay afloat, I have to keep the air trapped in my shell and stay inside my shell, which means that I can’t exactly take in the scenery while I travel. Inside my shell, I can’t see anything except my own skin. I could really use some moisturizer in here.
After counting to about six hundred, planning my congratulatory speech for Archibald’s birthday, and thinking up a few new jokes for my Uncle Morty, I decide it is time to pop out for a location check. I stick my head out of my shell and find myself staring into a big blue pair of eyes.
“Mommy! Look what I found!”
Before, I have time to let out some air and plunge into the concealing, sandy bottom of the lake, my shell is scooped up out of the water by a tiny human hand. She is gentle enough and doesn’t crush me, which is good news, but I am getting a bit nauseous as she waves me around violently in the air.
“Look, mommy, the snail is still in it!”
Oh, shucks. I am in trouble now. I am about to get poked and prodded for sure. Little kids always think that, if they poke me enough, I will come out and look at them. Don’t they know that, if they are poking me, that is the last thing I want to do? This is when I wish I was a hermit crab and could just abandon ship.
“If there is a snail in it, honey, then you need to throw it back,” I hear the mother’s voice say. “You don’t want to hurt him.”
“Awwwww,” the little girl whines. I can still feel myself suspended in the air in her hand. I wonder if she will listen, or if this is when the poking will commence. Then…
I am flying through the air. I actually enjoy this sensation. I feel so light, and I know that the water can’t hurt me…
But boats can. I don’t even have to look outside my shell to know that I have hit a boat. It has a distinctive vibration that I feel throughout my body. I can also hear the loud roar of the engine, which in this case is a very bad thing. An engine means I could get sucked up by the motor and crushed to death or chopped into little pieces. Neither option is particularly attractive as you might have guessed.
Slowly, the vibration stops and the sound fades. I wait to another count of six hundred to calm my nerves. Then I peek out of my shell again. Blue sky and fluffy white clouds. How soothing. Then I let out some air and begin to sink to the bottom. I need to figure out my bearings.
As luck would have it, I settle onto the bottom right next to my brother Ellsworth.
“Heading to Archibald’s party?” he asks me as he slowly inches along. Ellsworth insists on traveling under his own power. He is a scaredy-snail in my opinion. No sense of adventure at all. It is rare to find Ellsworth more than a few feet from our birthplace, which lucky for me, means I am close to my sister’s party.
“Yes,” I tell him. “You too?”
“Yep,” he replies. Ellsworth is also a snail of few words. We inch along in silence for a time.
“I think at this pace you are going to be late,” I tell him, calculating the time in my head.
“Usually am,” he reminds me. You may think that since he lives so close this is rude, but even for a snail Ellsworth is wretchedly slow. As a result, Tina rejoices if he arrives before her party’s end. Me, on the other hand, I have to be on time to make up for my brother. Hardly seems fair.
“Well, I better get going,” I tell Ellsworth.
“I guess you better,” he says.
“See you there,” I say.
“Hope to,” he replies.
I mosey off at a pace few others than snails can achieve, and, before long, I leave Ellsworth behind and hear the sounds of the party up ahead. That is when the worst thing that can happen to a snail occurs.
I see a baby turtle up ahead, and he sees me.
Now imagine you are me, what can you do? Not much is the answer. I can’t run. I can’t fight back. Looking around, there is nowhere to hide. My only defense is to curl up in my shell, but, believe me, that turtle has a beak made specifically for getting me out of my shell. Looking a turtle in the eye is pretty much a death knell for a snail. Snails, as a rule, just give up and accept defeat.
Unless the snail is Mortimer Percival Augustus the third.
I fart, releasing air into my shell, and float up to the surface. I can’t see if the turtle is following me with just his eyes or his whole body, but I know I am not safe yet. Upon reaching the surface, I feel the rocking of the wind on the waves and peek out of my shell looking around for some rescue. To my horror, close by is a paddling of ducks: a mother and six babies. The mother quickly spies me floating nearby and alerts her brood. I look down to see the turtle approaching from the bottom. I am trapped with nowhere to turn.
I pull far back into my shell, quivering in fear, hoping maybe my rotund body will prevent them from ripping me out of my tight shell. I hear loud quacks drawing nearer. I feel the disturbance of the waves as I am rocked around. I bob up and down, waiting for death to take me, but nothing happens. I continue to bob up and down, and I cannot take the suspense, so I peek out of my shell to see the baby ducks pecking and grabbing at the turtle, who is also inside his shell. In their frenzy over fresh turtle, I have been forgotten.
Letting the air out of my shell, I quickly descend to the bottom and burry myself as deep as I can in the sand. Once spotted, a snail is easy for a duck or a turtle to keep an eye on, but if surreptitiously buried, a snail can blend in, making us impossible to discover. It is, truly, our only defense: to never be spotted in the first place.
I quiver uncontrollably in fear under the cool sand. I wait and wait, but no one disturbs my hiding place. I can feel my whole body shaking, and even though, I feel confident in my deliverance, I cannot stop. The only bright side I can think of is that maybe all this shivering will burn a few pounds.
I count to six hundred. Then I count to six hundred again. A third time. A fourth. Just when I have finally escaped my fear, something knocks on my shell. Is it the turtle? Did he escape? Is it the mother duck? She does have six babies to feed after all. One small turtle will never be enough.
“Percy,” a voice says. “You are going to be late.”
“Ellsworth?” I say aloud. Pulling out of my shell, I see my brother looking down at me. I look behind him, but no turtles or ducklings are hiding on the fringes. I breathe a deep sigh of relief.
“I won’t be late,” I tell him.
“Usually are,” Ellsworth says.
“That’s you, not me,” I tell him. “Race you there!”
I crawl along as fast as I can to Tina’s party. It isn’t long before I have again left Ellsworth behind and finally arrived.
“Percy!” Tina shouts when she sees me emerge from between some weeds and approach Snail Rock, the most popular gathering place under Round Lake for snails.
Our whole large family has gathered, and the place is crowded. I see Uncle Morty talking to about twenty of Tina’s other children, as well as, Mom and Dad. Realizing that even with my best efforts, I have arrived late, I hope to bypass Tina and slide into their circle, but she deftly blocks my escape.
“You’re late,” she tells me.
“I’m never late,” I reply, giving her a big smile and waving my tentacles in friendly greeting.
“You’re always late,” she says, sadly shaking her head. “I’ve been holding the party just for you, my favorite brother. Archibald has been waiting so patiently, but why I bother…”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “This is the only time.”
“No,” she says, frowning. “You’ve been late to all forty-nine of my babies’ birthday parties. Why do you think I always send Eleanor to get you?”
I look at Tina perplexed. She has never said anything before. I thought she sent Eleanor out with messages for everyone, not just me. I thought about all the other parties. They always did seem to start just as I arrived.
“I beat Ellsworth,” I try with a sheepish shrug.
“Not very hard to do,” Tina says with a reluctant chuckle.
“I’m sorry, sis,” I tell her, leaning in to nuzzle her shell. “You know I love you.”
“I know you do,” Tina says, starting to smile. One thing I love about Tina, she is always quick to forgive. “Let’s get this party started.”
“What about Ellsworth?” I ask innocently.
Tina and I just look at each other and burst out laughing.
“No, seriously,” I say. “How about, just this one time, we wait for him.”
“Ok,” Tina says with a chuckle. “What shall we do?”
“You want to hear about my adventures to get here?” I ask.
“No,” she replies, shaking her head. “There must be something less stimulating.”
“Then, shall we count to six hundred?” I offer.
“Sure,” she says with a laugh. “One, two…”
We start counting, and I burrow deep into the sand, knowing we may have to do this more than once. Good thing snails are good at waiting.