The Snail Trail
by T. H. Cayne
The night was quiet.
It had rained during a couple of hours, and now the path was moist. The air smelled like wet earth, and tiny drops of rain kept falling from the Douglas firs on the stones near the path. Bohduh had waited all day for the rain to come, and the night to fall. Usually he waited in the firs, deep inside, protected. He never slept, because the monsters were everywhere, always. But The Unspoken only appeared during the light, and they were worse.
He often tried to remember his age, to estimate time, but could never do it. What he did remember, was his parents. How they sent him to the path, alone, in fear, to forage in the large space of sounds and moves which he'd never seen before that very night. He had lived in the firs forever, and liked its dark protection. He could observe silent weaving spiders for hours, and hear the winds outside. But he knew his parents wanted him to reach out into the open. How he heared their soft and old grey voices when he went out there. How that was the last proof of their existence. This was many nights ago.
He greeted a birch while passing by. The birch was asleep and did not notice.
Bohduh met Koohduk on the edge of the path and the firs, far away from the two ends. He already knew from the slime trail that this night, Koohduk would be his companion. He was silent, as usual, and just nodded to Bohduh, as if to show his appreciation for his buddy's arrival. He was grazing from a patch of fern moss which grew on the cobblestones of the path. Because it had rained that evening, many snails were out there. And many wouldn't see the next moon, as they all knew. He noticed a rabbit not far from where he was, but that was just fine. Rabbits weren't interested in his kind, and even if they came closer than usual, they were always ever so nice. (When he was smaller, Bohduh used to think he was one of them. He often tried to communicate with them through patient words and kind songs, only to find out much later that their furry eyes appeared to be ears.)
(He still had no clue if a rabbit actually had eyes.)
The fact that there was utter silence and darkness was a good sign - The Unspoken came in bright noisy light. It made Bohduh think of dark stories. About the dust which ate them inside out, sometimes by the dozens. It called upon you, and you just could not resist. He remembered stories about silent screaming and twitching bodies, and of the smell. Nothing remaining eventually except the empty shells. Suddenly he heared the distant screeching of an owl.
He shivered and tried to think of something else. The trail was their curse, he knew. Since the beginning of times, the slime trail betrayed them, but they could not help producing it. They needed it to move to the path. To eat. To graze. And everything just happened so fast.
Snails couldn't cope with the world because of its terrible pace. Clouds drifted by in a blink, insects ran you over, and just when it had rained quite a bit, the sun dried the landscape before you even started to feed. It was a drag. But also redemption, for they lived closer to the pace of all creation than any other animal. They were the only kind that saw the plants grow, talked to trees and observed the whisper of time itself. But not at little cost. He knew his night would come eventually. They all started to die from the moment they were born, more than any other being in existence.
Snails were born in Purgatory. The other animals died in it.
Bohduh listened to Koohduk's silent grazing. How he loved that sound. They all did. It was the sound of comfort and coherence. It was the whispering of unity. When they grazed at rainy nights on the mosses of the path, they became a single organism which was older and perhaps stronger than The Unspoken, and then the whispers slowly filled the air. They became the snail trail - an echo in which he could speak to his forefathers, a gaze through which the experience of the ancient could be felt. A force that only they, still, controlled. Although the remembrance of his parents and friends was terribly vague, once he was part of the snail trail, he could go back to the times when The Unspoken still had to be excremated from the damps of evolution. In ancient times, the force of the snail trail was so intense, that no praying bird, rodent or stone marten was stupid enough to even come near the trail. But now, his people were dying. Still, he had heared (or at least imagined) that once every so often, small animals such as shrews came close, and died from the whispers if strong snails such as Koohduk where still around. But even Koohduk seemed to become tired of the thin thin thin trail. And only old eagle-owls and old trees still seemed to know about the face of the trail. (Sometimes Bohduh suspected that bees also knew about the trail - smart as they were, young bees often flew by them with great interest, talking to eachother in their funny little language, while observing them slow beings in ever such sharp care.)
Slowly the sounds of animals got silenced by the murmurs - tiny little drops of whisper that the snails produced while grazing - wghhi - wghhi - ... Slowly the snails forgot where they were, and closed their eyes for the trail that started to form around them, from within. Not one snail moved now, the birches listening to this strange peculiar play. And slowly, a first almost unnoticable mist arose from the ground on down, becoming more massive by the second. The dense fog colored the cobblestone path like a damp white ghostly blanket, only to sneak further between the houses, the garden parks, the forrest and the meadows, the willows. The animals backed down, The Unspoken stayed in, no monsters dared to come out of their dark stinky cages of rotten sound and violence. (The Unspoken could die in these mists, it was known.)
Then the fog started to reach even further in this landscape, through the veins of time, to the distant voices of the forefathers and foremothers. The anger of the wind got isolated by a force of silence, only to come back when the snails would be long gone. His father spoke to him, he smelled his mother's delicate smell of dried chestnuts and wet earth - he was not afraid now. But much faster than in the ancient times when much bigger animals roamed these whereabouts, the trail could not hold their presence anymore, the fog dissipating to the moist earth into the nothingness of his being so dreadfully lonely.
Could he ever be a part of this feable organism ? Would he ever leave his friends and kin without the fear, because he had to ? He hoped so.
Koohduk was the strangest, strongest snail he ever met. And his deepest friend. A dark and large snail, Koohduk was the only one he knew that was not born in the firs - in fact, it was because of him that the fir snails knew that there still were living snails elsewhere. The trail was not strong enough anymore to tell them that (or to remember). Koohduk had a large scar on the right hand side of his shell, due to a fight with some kind of small bird. It must have taken him ages to fix the damage.
Somewhere nearby there was the peeping sound of a male toad looking for mating partners.
Koohduk was not the talking kind of snail - rather, he was a thinker, not afraid of the choice of destinies which was offered to snails, having beaten the ancient laws so many times. Koohduk did not talk at all that night. His way of showing his friendship to Bohduh was not sending him away, and letting him do some small talk. In fact, he enjoyed these evenings very much, and relieved a "grumpff" now and then to express this.
His strange name, not at all as common as Bohduh's, came from an old and forgotten dialect from the North, but Bohduh did not know what its meaning was. He imagined it to be a courageous name. A brave old word.
He crawled back to the firs, before the dryness of the afterdawn in this season could overwhelm him. He asked Koohduk to join him, but Koohduk was not there anymore. Only an echo, and his last slime print. A single tear dropped from one of Bohduh eyes. This sudden sadness. This pain. This.
He hadn't even noticed when the tawny owl had grabbed Koohduk, and crushed his flesh with its for snails oh so deadly claws in a split second. But what he did see was pieces of shell, and the terrible sight of a single piece of warm flesh.
It was a cold night, and the air was filled with millions of raindrops. He was alone now most of the time. The others did not speak to him anymore since Koohduk disappeared in thin air. They were afraid, as if he was infected with the dust. He decided not to bother, but did not succeed at all in doing that. He had cried many nights over his loss, and just felt like the loneliest being in existence. It was as if this great sadness had come over him, and he couldn't control it - even more: he did not want to. Only in the whispers and the trail could he still sense Koohduk, or the many others which had passed, and left. He cried again. Tired of being afraid, of knowing, of not being able. After Koohduk, there was no sleep anymore. Bohduh just sat there, night after night after night after night after night after night after night after night, burried deep in his shell, waiting. For the end of dandelions. For the end of anything. Life was not a choice anymore - it was a weight.
He wondered if Koohduk still had been able to put up a courageous fight against his
murderer. And even if not, one thing was for sure - the trail definitely had changed since Koohduk's going. It had become stronger for the first time since any fir snail could remember.
He looked around. All the others were gone, and he was the last one on the path that night. Somewhere he heared noises. He knew it was time to graze some more.