Monday, August 9

The Inheritance of Shells

Everyone had a shell but Patient, and they weren’t sharing. This, said Grandfather Armand, was the nature of things. Snails were greedy creatures, and did not like to share. He was eating a long strand of red licorice. Patient was waiting for him to finish and leave her a bite. But Grandfather Armand was a very slow eater.

Patient was a young snail, and like all very young snails, she was born without a shell. Her skin was as pulpy and slimy as a banana peel, and it left her vulnerable to all kinds of terrors. Sun, for one. Salt, for another.

This meant, according to Mama Cynda, that she could never glide down to the dew gathering place alone. Young humans were fond of sprinkling salt on young snails. Boys especially, those nasty things, loved to watch salted snails curl and writhe on the sidewalk. Without a protective shell, salt would burn right through to a snail’s core. And if the boys didn’t get her, Mama Cynda nodded, the sun surely would.

But Patient didn’t care so much about salt or sun. What she cared about were parties. And the one thing you needed to go to a party was a shell. “Why,” said Grandfather Armand, “a snail without a shell might as well be invisible at a party.”

So it was clear: Patient had to have a shell. The problem was, shells were family heirlooms, passed down through generations of snails. The only way to get a shell was if someone in your family died and left you their shell. Which, to be honest, didn’t sound great to Patient. She didn’t want Grandfather Armand to die, even if he did keep all the licorice to himself.

“Why not try Miss Sally?” said Dada Marcel. “I’ll glide with you.”

Miss Sally was a long shot, everyone knew. Despite her extensive inventory of custom order shells--sold by the seashore--her taste was questionable. Miss Sally preferred pretty things, shimmering rainbow abalones and peach chambered nautiluses and fan shaped mollusks. But for snails, the bigger and older and grimier the shell, the better it was. A well-aged shell meant your family had been around for decades.

When they arrived, Miss Sally was excited. Why, Patient was such a precious young slug.

“Who are you calling a slug?” said Dada Marcel.

Miss Sally was sorry. She was a person, and people have a hard time telling the difference between young snails and slugs. Patient tried on a few shells, but none of them fit right. They made her back sore and stiff. So she and Dada Marcel went home.

At home, Grandfather Armand was still eating his licorice. Patient was so tired of waiting—for a bite of licorice, for her shell, for the chance to go to a party—that she went to bed early.

In the morning, she had had time getting out of bed. Her back was still sore. She wished she had never gone to see Miss Sally.

When she glided up to the breakfast stone, Mama Cynda gasped. “Where did you get that?” she said.

“What?” said Patient.

“Glory be,” said Grandfather Armand. “I’ve never seen such a thing.”

For Patient had grown her very own shell in the night. It was sleek and glossy and brown, like a chestnut, with splashes of white diamond curving around the spiral. Patient was so happy she sailed around the breakfast stone.

That night, she went to a party. All the other snails in their rough and barnacled shells stared at her glossy new shell. When they asked where she got it, she just smiled. She knew the best things in life come to those who wait.

story by Steve Woodward

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