As I looked up at the abandoned house I knew deep in my gut that I had seen it before. The wind blew firmly against its weathered walls, filing through the cracks, howling down the halls, a mournful cry. I stood for a time – I know not how long – transfixed. Eventually, a sweet melodic tinkling brought me back to the present. I looked about to see what was the cause of that delightful tone. A small empty shell, of a snail lost, was rolling about on the path. I bent over, picked it up ever-so carefully and examined it closely. I lifted it up to the light beseeching the sun’s rays to travel through its fine walls, revealing ridges with shades golden-brown, spiralling round and round. Delicate and small though it was, it had not suffered the wear-and-tear of the cement roller-coaster-ride that windy day.
I cast my mind into another world way-away and imagined that its original owner had abandoned its residence a time ago. “But why?” I wondered. “How could it bear to leave a house built as beautifully as this? How could it abide to live without its song?” I felt a sense of urgency rising from my gut right through to my chest. I had to find out why.
Then, I raised my eyes and looked at the empty house once again…
I embarked on this self-imposed mission, searching high and low. My mind set to work and my imagination ran away with me, or rather, with the snail. Yes, the snail was the key to solving this mystery! I walked slowly through the gardens surrounding the empty house, looking carefully for that rebellious snail. I stopped and bent over to see perchance it had hidden itself in the folds of the leaves of the silverbeet. After much searching, I found it resting amongst some foliage in the corner of the garden. Admittedly, the luscious green leaves, hanging on fine stems over the damp soil, all-together created a spellbinding getaway. I was half-tempted to join the snail in its world of fantasy – for surely it is fantastical for a snail to believe that it can live outside of its shell. As I dreamt of a relaxing holiday escape I heard a tiny voice.
But surely not!
The snail’s beady little eyes were staring at me. “Hellooo! I’m speaking to you! Yes, you!!”
“Goodness”, I thought, “the snail has attitude?” Stunned was I. “Sorry,” I responded, “Are you talking to me?” The tiny mollusc gently shook its head from side to side, rolling its beady little eyes. I stared in disbelief. As I began to speak again the snail interrupted, “I know why you are here. You are not the first one to come along this path, nor do I doubt that you will be the last.” The snail took a deep breath and sighed… “I suppose you want to know what I’m doing without my shell.”
“Well, yes the thought did cross my mind,” I responded.
“Hmmm, take a seat,” it commanded.
I hesitated. What was I doing? “For crying out loud,” I thought, I’m talking to a snail!!”
“Come on, what are you waiting for man?! Sit down, I don’t bite,” said the snail with a hint of sarcasm. I sat down and looked intently at the snail waiting for it to speak.
“Well,” it began, “the truth is that I have lived all my life carrying a shell on my back, the one that you are holding in your hand. As a young snail I felt that the shell was a burden. It lay heavy on me and to be quite frank, I didn’t like its colours; I felt that they did not express who I was. I always dreamt of a day that I could be free of my shell; a day that I could travel the world a little lighter; a day that my back could bask in the warmth of the sun. But… it was just a dream. I went about my daily business looking for juicy leaves to eat and that was all. My life was aimless and rather bland. I was never happy with anything. But I had convinced myself that if I rid myself of my shell, then I would find happiness. Eventually, the day came when I decided that I had to take the plunge and cut myself off from my shell. There was no other way. Without going into the gruesome details, let’s just say that I managed to dismember myself. It was painful, very painful. I didn’t realise…” it stopped.
“What didn’t you realise?” I asked.
“Did you know that a snail’s organs are housed in its shell? Its stomach, its intestines, its heart…”
My heart began to beat faster. I wasn’t sure where this was going, but all of a sudden I felt sick. “No,” I replied, “I had no idea.”
“Well, that’s just how it is. You see, a snail cannot live without its shell and that is the reason why. Unglued from its shell, a snail is essentially far from life. It lives an empty bliss, awaiting its death…”
Hearing the snail speak like this was too much. I had come to like the snail. Its sarcastic and demanding attitude hid something else; a ‘will’ that wanted to live, which ‘will’ did not find its life. The snail’s voice was full of regret and I knew deep down that it was going to die; perhaps soon.
I went to speak, “How long have you…” but the snail cut me off, “That’s enough about me. What about you? Where is your shell?”
“We humans don’t have shells,” I responded.
“Impossible!” it cried, “All living creatures have a shell!”
“Well, I don’t,” I insisted.
“Well that’s problematic, isn’t it? How on earth will you survive without your shell? And where do intend on keeping your heart?” its voice reeked of sarcasm.
The snail’s response frustrated me. Again I questioned myself. Why was I talking to a snail? Everyone knows that snails can’t talk and even if they could they wouldn’t have much to say, their brains are too small for a start. I turned my back and began to walk away. After a few steps I stopped. I sighed, “I should at least farewell the snail. After all, that’s the decent thing to do.” I turned around and looked towards the leafy haven but I could not spot the snail. I walked towards the corner and started rummaging through the foliage calling out, but there was no response.
The snail was gone…
Now feeling rather low, dragging my feet I managed to make it around the garden to the front of the house. I looked at the empty house; my house. I walked up the steps to the front door and reached for the handle. I had done this many times over the years and yet, for some reason, it felt like it was the first time. As I walked through the entrance I felt a silence, I heard the emptiness. I closed the door behind me and proceeded to walk through the house, touching the furniture, the doors; sliding my hands across the window panes and over the bannister.
I reached the top of the stairs and strode down the corridor straight into the study. The evening drew near; the day was coming to a close. The rays of the setting sun, emitting a gentle light, were peeping through the cracks of my old weathered house; joyfully dancing across the floorboards, lining everything with gold. I had been so busy with my daily routine – the work, the chores, the demands of the infamous ‘rat-race’ – that I had not given my house the attention it required. After years of neglect, as to be expected, it lost its initial beauty and I stopped loving it. Now I dreamt of being free of this house; releasing myself of this burden and finding something more beautiful, more convenient; something new. The thought consumed my everyday life.
I sat in the armchair, closed my eyes and let the evening light warm me. I heard the distant song of the magpies as they dug for worms, before the light settled for the night. All was still, all was quiet. My heart began to beat, gently at first, then becoming stronger. It was imploring me; it was alight! I once again desired. My heart was found. The sun had filled my dwelling with light and though it had settled for the night, my home was yet full of life.