October 21st, 2015
We were living in Berlin, West Berlin, because the wall still cleaved the city in two. My father was working for the U.S. State Department – he was a Public Safety Advisor and did things like negotiate prisoner trades between East and West. We had a brick house with six bedrooms across the street from the Botanical Gardens. Before moving to Berlin my parents separated, my father had been having an affair, and he moved out of the house. We were going to live without him, just the three of us, my mother, sister and I. We were going to be fine. But then my parents reconciled and we were all moving to Berlin, packing our life, leaving our friends and home and beginning again in a different part of the world.
Next door to our new house lived a white-haired couple in a place resembling a castle – with actual turrets. The woman, whose name I have forgotten, was very kind and had a beautiful garden with ponds and an aviary with parakeets. She grew gooseberries, plump green globules which – if eaten raw – caused the whole face to pucker. In the front of her house she grew lilies of the valley. She showed me how the tiny white flowers clustered and were protected by dark green, shiny leaves. She would bend down to instruct me to smell them, they were sweet but not cloying, a ethereal fragrance.
While gardening this neighbour collected the snails and gave them to us one day in a cracked glass terrarium which her children had once used, long ago. “You might want to cook them, in butter,” she said to my mother, smiling.
My sister and I insisted we would not. We would keep them as our pets. There were at least ten or fifteen snails in that terrarium, some large, some small, all with shells in varying shades of brown. Simply to watch them climb the glass wall was entertaining, the ripple of the muscle in their single foot as it moved, propelling on its own slime.
We took them out one by one, letting them climb us. They left shiny trails of snail mucous along our arms and legs. Snails are curious creatures, once they have figured out you are not a threat they poke out of their shells, tentacles first, then those long stretchy bodies, and explore. Touch a tentacle and it shrinks, but then extends again, seeking what it just repelled from.
We gave them lettuce and let them try different garden plants, watching their reactions, noting their favourite meals. If you are very, very still and quiet you can hear a snail crunching its dinner. There are few more delightful sounds. It is also a pleasure to lie in the grass with a snail slowly climbing your body, imagining yourself a mountain – a slime tracked island of eight-year-old girl. As for snail poo – it’s not even disgusting. Just black odourless pellets to flick away.
Snails make good friends when you have none, as do books, and elderly neighbours. But gradually my sister and I made friends with other children and moved beyond our backyard. I don’t remember what happened to the snails, but fortunately the terrarium had no lid. I imagine them escaping and making a slow trek back to the neighbour’s garden, to her beautifully tended plants and ponds. Our garden was the low-maintenance kind designed by embassy staff – a few thorny rosebushes, a swathe of lawn and hedges with prickly leaves – designed to repel rather than attract.
But I remember those snail bodies rippling against the glass, leaving shiny paths on my skin, showing me my own power, the things we see when we are still.
Now, in Australia, snails find their home in my mailbox, they seem to love the combination of damp, dark and junk mail. They make quick work of Domino’s flyers and coupons for maths tutoring, leaving paper pellet poos in their wake. I can’t bring myself to remove them. I just know that I have to collect the important mail within a day or so if I don’t want to find it riddled with holes, masticated by a ravenous snail mouth.
And I dread coming home, in the dark, and hearing that sickening crunch on the garden path. In the morning, a fragmented shell, a shrivelled body already black with tiny ants.
They always remind me of that time, the upheaval of my small world, the sense that everything can change in the blink of an eye.
Step carefully, they say. Don’t forget the power you hold.