N O V E L E X C E R P T
THE LANGUAGE OF SNAILS
b y m a r c i a d o u g l a s ~ b r o o m f i e l d , c o l o r a d o
A LIGHT rain was coming down misting everything, and Madda Shilling stood waiting by the gate, shading herself with a banana leaf. She was a short round woman in her sixties, her ankles swollen over her canvas slippers. She smelled of moss and damp earth and the day I arrived, her teeth had been sent away to be fixed, her lips collapsed inwards, her words spoken with a lisp. The teeth came back two weeks later, but they squeezed her gums and in spite of several more attempts by the dentist, they remained the same. The Madda Shilling I knew then would always be without bottom teeth, and it was her light lisp, tha tha tha tha, which greeted me, softening everything, making the world right.
I walked toward her, my feet in wet grass, and Madda opened the front gate, slowly, like the cover of a storybook, the yard filled with flowers—croton, bachelor's button, monkey tail, angel's trumpet, Joseph's coat, hibiscus, ginger lily, anthurium and white and magenta and true-pink and nearly-pink and evening-time orange, soon-a-morning yellow and cross-mi-heart-if-it-not red bougainvillea. Two green lizards chased each other across the tile and Madda shooed them away, "Gail and Robert, enough!" with a swift motion of her hand. The lizards disappeared behind the potted ferns, an over-pink blossom falling to the floor.
I was fourteen and old, but as Madda held my hand guiding me past the shrubs and potted plants, I felt like a small girl noticing the world for the first time. She led me to the back of the house where a room had been prepared with a cot and fresh clean sheets. A mahoe-wood bureau with an oval mirror and kerosene lamp stood in one corner, and on the far wall there was a calendar with a picture of an old-time map of Jamaica and the date of my arrival, November 30, circled in blue ink. The side table next to the bed was covered with crochet and on top of that there was a saucer with a ripe Bombay mango; a jar of water on the windowsill held a yellow and red croton. As I took off my shoes and set them aside, Madda fluffed the pillow and whispered to no one in particular, "Poor thing, she must be tired." She left, leaving the door slightly ajar, her canvas slippers flip-flopping on the tile. I picked up the mango and smelled it, holding it to my nose as I stood looking through the open window, Madda outside now, scattering crushed corn to the chickens in the yard. Long after she went inside and closed the back door, I lay on the bed, the mango against my cheek.
In the morning, Madda fried cornmeal dumplings and opened a can of mackerel and made chocolate tea. We ate heartily, Madda recounting her dream of wild hogs from the night before. In this dream, the hogs stole a man's Bible and buried it under tamarind leaves; and only after two hurricanes—babymother, Pam, and babymother, Sharon,—did he find it, a sow's hoof resting on the shepherd's psalm. I listened to Madda with interest, watching the way her nose quivered when she laughed and bit by bit in the morning light, my eyes awoke to her skin—the little beetle on her chest, brown and almost imperceptible among freckles and spots; the firefly quiet and dark like a mole at her temple.
Later, after we fed the dogs and closed the doors, I oiled and twisted her hair into little bumps, then left her facing the open window. It was then that the butterfly came, brushing against her bare shoulders, then spreading its wings—magnificent in gold and black—at the nape of her neck. I watched through a crack in the door as Madda fed the swallowtail brown sugar from her palm and I saw how it rubbed its feet together, Madda sitting on the side of the bed and watching the moon.
All July I worked with Madda out in the flower yard, learning Jeremiah croton and bull-foot orchid, oleander and sleeping hibiscus, the hum of anthuriums. We watched the bamboo grow, examined the underside of rocks for worms, and Madda pointed out rare snails by the side of the road. Madda had kept company with snails all her life and knew many of them to be tired women who come up with ways to take a break from the cooking and cleaning and all the things in the world which break their backs and their spirits. For everyday on this island there are women who can't take it anymore; they hold up a long finger and say, "Hold on deh," and then go outside and take a deep breath and sink all the way into a beautiful whorling shell which has been carefully hidden beneath their hair. Snail time is slow time because snails claim permission to just please themselves, one hasty minute to others experienced as a whole hour to them. When snail women have had enough, they crawl out to the roadside and return to human self, take a deep breath, then walk back to the house to calm the children, or to finish the conversation with the husband left at the kitchen table, or to slip into the back pew to hear out the preacher and his foolishness. This is why you see so many country women walking close to the edge of the road and why you should be careful as you swerve around corners.
Next time you see a snail, watch it with new understanding. Notice any yellow and black spots spiraling around, coiling counterclockwise, turning back time. Make sure you don't look away to tie your shoelace because when you search again you will not find her; she will be already gone, disappeared among stones. Look for a piece of bark glistening with her trail; if you are patient, you might learn her language.
Madda reminded me that snailing is something to be learned and not a calling for just anyone. The last thing a woman needs is to be taken by predators like that woman who got trapped in a researcher's bottle and was carted off to a lab in Pennsylvania, her baby left crying in its crib. She ended up in a glass case in a university museum. In order to survive, she went into hibernation, deep in the pink whorls of her spotted shell. Her family in Jamaica called the police, assuming she had been murdered or drowned in the Thomas River. She had been a sensible woman who loved her family and not one to just pick up and run. They formed search parties, scouring the whole of Brown's Town, her rubber slippers found on a rock by the river, but no signs of clothes or anything else.
It was a whole year before a research assistant at the university opened the case to clean the glass, giving snail woman a chance to crawl out and make her escape. As soon as he left the room, she transformed herself to human form and walked out the door. It was raining outside and she had no shoes. She stepped into the street and tried to remember her name, rain filling her mouth, her breasts suddenly heavy with milk. Suffice to say, in the United States the government is not too clever and I bet they would be surprised if they knew how some immigrants really enter their country.
Marcia Douglas grew up in Jamaica.
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