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Snail Picking

By Donovan Hohn

I was, at age nine, a god of snails. On the quiet San Francisco cul-de-sac where my family lived, Helix aspera, the brown garden snail, was by far the most plentiful and least evasive wildlife around. Snails plied the long green fins of our neighbor’s agapanthus like barges transiting green canals. I’d unglue them from their shiny trails, hold them in mid-air, and poke their sensitive horns. They’d ripple and recoil.

Usually I’d show mercy, restoring them to their universe of leaves, but sometimes I’d hurl them hard against a garage door, where they left ichorous spots. Snails were pests, after all. Other times, I’d launch them high above the telephone wires. Diminishing as they rose, they’d hang, suspended for a moment, at the apogee of gravity’s arc, little spinning cosmonauts, brown specks on a canvas sky. Watching them, I tried to imagine how it might feel—ganglia lit up like filaments—in that last, astonished instant before they fell. Did they experience snail terror? Snail rapture? Or were they too dumb to experience anything at all? Afterwards, on the asphalt, the shattered bubbles of their bodies, veiny and blue, reminded me of the skinned testicle I’d glimpsed while perusing my father’s medical books.

One day I filled a half-gallon margarine tub with snails, took them home, and set them on my night stand. Glowing jars of fireflies were for other children. For me, a tub of snails. They climbed the white, translucent walls and clung to the underside of the perforated lid. From my pillow, before turning out my light, I could see their dark forms moving around like thoughts. When I awoke the next morning, the lid was off, and the tub, save for a dozen gray squiggles of turd, was empty. Only after opening the curtains did I spy the slow explosion happening all over my bedroom walls, the small armada, the wakes of light.

Donovan Hohn is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His work has appeared in, among other publications, Civilization, Agni, The Bedford Reader, and the Italian magazine Internazionale, which translated and reprinted "Moby-Duck,” his January 2007 cover story for Harper’s. That essay was also selected for The Best Creative Nonfiction Vol. 2, from W. W. Norton. A former high school English teacher, he is now working on his first book.

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photo by Leslie Miller