On Acting Like Snails
By Elodie Reed
I searched for action in the tidal pool but could only find periwinkle snails. My friend Laura, visiting from Washington, D.C., had never been to the coast of Maine before, and I wanted to show her a crab or something else wriggling and obviously alive. I sat on the edge of the long, narrow, water-filled gash in the grey rock and stared down.
It only took a minute of staying still before I saw just how much the snails squirmed along the damp rock walls, at the water’s edge, and at the bottom of the pool. The brown, beige and lilac spiral shells spun like dials, adjusting this way and that, as each set of dark brown antennae probed the way forward.
“I think I’m stepping on them!” Laura, who had also discovered the periwinkles, tiptoed over wet rocks a few feet away. She let out a cry whenever her sneaker landed with a particularly crispy crunch.
“They’re everywhere,” I agreed. “I didn’t realize how much they moved.”
"The brown, beige and lilac spiral shells spun like dials, adjusting this way and that, as each set of dark brown antennae probed the way forward."
Before we left Maine, Laura and I drove through Portland, where a bearded man in a blue flannel shirt stood beneath a stoplight and held a cardboard sign that read: “Fisherman Out Of Work.” The light was still red, so I reached into the backseat for our box of snacks and rolled down the driver’s side window. I held out the box.
“What is it?” the man asked.
“Granola bars and fruit leathers.”
He grabbed a Chewy bar, said thanks and moved on to the car behind ours. As I waited for the light to turn green, I wished I had met his eyes, which had been shaded by the baseball cap crammed down over his long hair.
“Wow, I don’t know if I would have done that,” Laura said. She didn’t sound critical – more like, wondering. I considered all the old arguments I used to make inside my head: it might be unsafe; he might sell the food for drugs; there might be a better way of helping him.
“I used to not stop and tell myself I’d donate to a homeless shelter when I got home, but I’d always forget to do it, ” I said. “Now I just try to acknowledge people, and offer them food if I have it.” The attempt, even if small and imperfect, always felt better than doing nothing.
“Something similar happened to me last week,” Laura told me. She had been riding the subway, she said, when a non-verbal woman in an electronic wheelchair got stuck between the doors while she tried to exit the car. People rushed in to help, but once they got the woman out, everyone left. Laura lingered and watched the woman continue sitting near the edge of the platform. She seemed to be having a hard time getting her wheelchair to go.
“I didn’t know if I should go and try to help,” Laura said. She worried she might mess up and accidentally send the wheelchair onto the tracks. Laura eventually decided to go over anyway and, after communicating with the woman through hand motions, found the correct switch on the wheelchair.
“I can’t believe I was thinking of just walking away and not helping her.”
At the tidal pool earlier that day, I noticed, with some pity, a single periwinkle clinging to the dry rock directly across from where I sat. I thought it might be dead, left behind by the receding tide now six inches below. At first I looked away, back to the mollusks quivering in the water; but then I returned to the lone snail. Hadn’t it stuck to a higher spot just a minute ago?
Little by little, the periwinkle’s slime trail lengthened in a sideways, descending slant. It followed one lateral groove in the rock for half an inch, stopped, turned around, lowered down to another groove, and repeated the process all over again. After ten minutes of tracking this razor-thin switchback path, the snail finally reached the waterline.
I would have stayed for whatever slow-motion happened next, but I heard Laura shifting from foot to foot behind me, waiting out my snail antics. As we walked to the sandy part of the beach, I couldn’t stop thinking about the overwhelming effort and time it took for snails to do something, and what a wonder it was that they attempted anything at all. Perhaps their trick was that they didn’t think about it.
Elodie Reed is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.