alder leaves in still creek, ducks nearby
My best friends are two land snails. I feel very close to them sometimes; we each share all that we have, all that we know and are. They slide around slowly, up the mantelpiece and down. I sit or pace in my rooms, agitated, picking up and putting down a saxophone, changing my shirt, hefting by turns a china lamp, a leather pouch, trying to joke with the snails. One is tannish; one is yellowish.
They differ — the yellowish one is more. . . . Oh, if they were very different, if one were, say, a musician, wry, and one a muscular philosopher, say, what society I would enjoy! For the plain fact is, if you insist upon it, that they are much alike. So much alike that for most purposes, an outside observer, and even, to be perfectly frank, myself, would have to call them identical, more or less. Quiet.
After I have spent some long time absorbed with the snails and their ways, occasionally, or, in fact, almost always, I am struck by the incongruity of the picture we present. I am, after all, a human being, and, as such, almost six feet tall, give or take a few inches. I line up the snails on my palm and inspect their ranks. I carry them to my eye, while one snail or the other retracts and protrudes first one feeler, then another. I wait until all four of the knobby bulbs on their feeler tips are fully extruded and plump, until they are well forward, supplied with a dark drop of blood, and calm . . . and then I see myself suddenly and think, I treat my friends too curiously, too curiously for words! I put the snails under the philodendron, disgusted, and leave, walk to the newsstand, hail and greet the newsstand owner behind the counter with his wondering, joyous expression; and buy the foulest cigars at any price and carry a dozen to my rooms, triumphant.
Or I say to the snails, ‘‘Friends, children, illiterates, you imbecilic nubs’’ (and I stroke or pinch the furls of their feet, which recoil, curling, like tickled lips), ‘‘The trouble with you, the ridiculous, ludicrous thing about both of you, is: You are too short.’’
Short! Look at them! It is unheard-of to be so short! Friends are friends, and I love these two on their merits and idiosyncrasies quite apart from their positions as my sole and best friends, and quite apart from the figures they cut — just as you love your friends, I am sure. But their size, once I notice it, strains my credulity.
Once this notion takes possession of me, as it has, I confess, now, the inappropriateness of the snails’ height, which at first seems so marvelously comical, takes on a lunatic air, the smack of a cosmic incongruity. It is an anomaly so endlessly comical that the very length of its humor pierces the bounds of the mind and touches the rim of mystery itself. It is too much to think about, and far too much to explain, that these snails are so impossibly short.
Sometimes in consequence I have taken a kettle from the fire and thrown it through a window. Sometimes, I jump on my own foot, I bite my finger, I run out and break a framed painting over the skull of a pedestrian (once); I throw things; I do, actually, love to throw many things. There is much I love. Because the world is so astonishing, the snails — to take just one of the many possible examples — are so short, and it is all too great for me to think about alone. Or at all.
On many fine mornings I do not concern myself overmuch with the mystery. And by controlling the depth of my thinking carefully, I permit myself a little joke.
‘‘Good morning,’’ I say to each snail in turn: to the tannish one looking dead on the hearth, slowly turning her gelatinous head; to the half-dead yellowish one who rides a trail of slime up a window like Botticelli’s Venus afloat on a frilly foot — ‘‘Good morning . . . ’’ I say, narrowing my eyes, ‘‘Shortie.’’
And a good morning it may be. Many are.
(from Annie Dillard’s Impossible Pages)