“Let me tell you what I do if I get frustrated,” my new friend Alex sipped his coffee at the only café in town. “This might sound weird, but I take a break and I go look at snails.”
“That’s an odd thing to do for relaxation,” I said, but I was also getting used to the idea that there wasn’t a lot to do in New Cornwall. Many stores on Main or Washington were empty. The days of prosperity had definitely been gone for a while. Alex had been showing me the ropes of life here for a week or so now, but there wasn’t much in the way of excitement. Checking out some snails sounded about as good as it was going to get.
“I’ll show you,” Alex said, and we took our coffees into his pick-up truck and drove about a half hour north out of town, passing the hamlet of Ives. We pulled over by a trail and started to hike. It was a bright spring day, and I followed Alex in his black windbreaker for at least half-an-hour. The pines smelled gorgeous. The brooks were full of rushing water, and a pleasant gurgling sound permeated the forest.
At the end of the trail, we came to a high waterfall and walked to the edge on one side.
“Here,” Alex said, and pointed at a ledge just above us while he stood on some rocks. I followed his lead and saw a bunch of small grey-shelled snails slowly moving on the wet moss of the rocks.
“They are the only ones of their kind in the world,” he said with awe. “You’re looking at an entire species.”
I stared at them for a while. What he said was impressive, but they didn’t look that different from most snails I had seen.
“Whenever I feel like my life hasn’t amounted to much,” he said, “I visit these guys. And I think to myself, ‘I have the power to destroy an entire species.’ Just like that. I could smash them to smithereens. And that would be it. I would never do it, but just think of that! But instead of wiping them out, I place some bits of leaf on the rock and watch them eat. I counted 25 of them last year. This year, there are 27.” He paused for a bit, then added, “You know what else? If you stay out here long enough you can learn about the way they communicate. I think I can even understand them a little.”
“You speak snail?” I ventured, somewhat bewildered.
“I can’t speak it,” Alex said, “but I can understand it. It’s hard though, because they don’t really have individual minds, they speak more as a unit. So when I come back here, and there are more of them, it’s just a little stronger, like a chorus.”
I paused and thought about our place in the universe. “They’re kinda like us,” I mused.
“No, they’re not,” Alex said. “They’re snails.”
“Right,” I said. “I just meant…” “I know what you meant,” Alex snapped. “Just shut up and listen.”
We stood there in silence, and damn it if I didn’t think I could hear a faint sound above the rush of the waterfall—almost like a humming–as the snails munched away at their fresh new leaves.
Geoffrey Orens teaches high school English and art history in New York City. His work has been published in several journals, most recently in Terror House. A previous story, “Wrestling Angels,” was published in Potato Soup Journal last year.