Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Snails

A constellation of shells litter the grass. He sits, insomnia-stricken, on a rock next to the tent while his mom snores softly inside. At bedtime, Mom was still angry. He lost her car keys that afternoon. He had begged her to let him return to the car for his mp3 player while they went grocery shopping. Then he lost her keys someplace between the car and the supermarche. Worst of all, his music player was broken anyway, a victim, he is sure, of the constant traveling they had endured the past month.

The snails cover the ground in the camping, having emerged from their hiding spots in the rocks and hedges as the dew descended after sunset. They slime lazy arcs in the grass. Some of them are tentatively crossing, with antenna outstretched, the gravel driveway that leads to the sanitary station.

The light from the crescent moon suffices as he walks to the sanitary station, pees, and returns to his brood outside the tent. He stifles a yawn and decides that bed, even with a furious mother, will do. He crosses back towards the tent and nearly steps on a snail right in front of the tent door. He is about to open the tent and climb into his sleeping bag, but a strange compulsion seizes him. He turns around, stoops and unsticks the snail from the grass. It immediately retracts into its shell. He walks a few steps towards the hedge and sets it back on the ground. After a moment, its head peeks out and it returns to its nocturnal vigil. It is a traveler too, he thinks, carrying its payload on its back, rather than in a car.

He crawls into the sleeping bag, winces one final time recounting in his head the missing keys and their car still sitting 3km away in the Supermarche parking and how they would pay the bill of the locksmith tomorrow, shuts his eyes and counts sheep for a time before eventually managing to fall asleep.

The sun had not yet warmed their shady square in the camping when his eyes flutter open to see his mom standing over him, jingling a pair of car keys.

"You. found. them," he manages groggily.

"Yes, they were just sitting not even a meter from the tent door in the grass, silly boy!" she smiles. "You must have had them in your pocket all along!"

He reaches up and feels them, still wet with dew, and brings them closer. The keychain glistens iridescent with snail trail.

Selling cherries at the road junction, the day passes slowly. He is bored, missing the music that normally fills his day, in a bad mood and it seems their would-be customers can sense it. It is only 5PM, but the gorge walls have nearly swallowed the late August sun when they decide to call it quits. There would be no new mp3 player tonight.

They return to the camping, and notice a van has pulled in adjacent to their site. An older Swedish couple (judging from the license plates and hair color at least) is drinking tea. He wishes them a bon soir and returns to setting up the stove. They cook the last of their food as night falls and the Norwegians retire to the van, taking with them their chairs and tables, evidently fixing for an early start in the morning. He tries reading, but can't seem to focus without any music, so he gives up, lies down and quickly falls asleep.

Judging by glow to the east and the right-side-up big dipper, it is just a bit before dawn when he awakes to pee. There is already a light on in the Swedes' campervan as he walks slowly to the bathroom, nearly stepping on a half-dozen snails who inexplicably loiter by the wheels of the van, oblivious of their peril if the Swedes get their early start. He picks them up by their shells as he walks and then drops them in a pile outside the toilet. As he is leaning over to pick up one last straggler, his mp3 player slips out of his sweatshirt and falls into a tuft of grass.

He doesn't realize the missing piece until he's back in the tent and reflexively feels for its weight in the front pocket of his sweatshirt. Oh well, he thinks resignedly. He'll look for it in the morning. It was broken anyway.

It is a stifling warmth in the tent that wakes him at last. The sun has been up for hours, but it's Sunday, and that's the day off, even for ersatz cherry-sellers. He climbs out of the boiling tent to sit in the shade in the vacant Swedish camping site. He leans back and rests on the trunk of a tree, running his hands through the grass idly until his fingers stumble across a small, square object. His mp3 player. That was a weird place to lose it, he thinks. Maybe mom is right and he really is as absent-minded as she says. He brushes slime off the screen and gives the power button a tap out of habit and blinks in surprise when the screen flashes to life. Not only does it turn on and play music, but the crack running down the center of the screen has inexplicably healed. He puts on the headphones and closes his eyes in pleasure.

About halfway through the third song a hand on his shoulder startles him from his reverie. His mom pulls off one headphone. "Sweetie, I know it's Sunday but they called. There's work in Cavaillon this afternoon. They are promising at least 200 euros. If we leave now, we'll make it by 1."

He looks over towards the car. The tent already lies deflated like a crushed animal on the pitch, and the trunk is open with their belongings half assembled inside. Perhaps he would start this school year in Cavaillon, if the job is as good as they say. But they had been disappointed before. He gives a resigned shrug, hits pause on the song, and goes to roll up his sleeping pad.

Next to him, a snail slimes a patient, directionless arc in the shade of the hedge, secure in primordial knowledge that its path will surely provide.

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