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A two-centimeter world floated on a torn hibiscus sprig. It was like a little planet, so far off the pole seemed but a twinkle radiating red ravines, a spiraling streambed. Round and round the brilliant apex orange whorls spun, shot through with crimson, darkening to brown at world’s edge—all the colors she imagined the Grand Canyon would display at sunrise, only they were right in front of her.
One day she’d seen six different blues shimmering all at once in the Atlantic off Church Bay. She’d counted them for her clients. She’d pointed out kiskadees and casurinas, snails in tide pools, snails in gardens, snails snoozing on boulders while waves broke on top of them. But she’d never seen a snail like this.
The shell swirled orange, red, brown, yellow. The tiny body, dark silver, glided along the dying sprig. Discarded by the wind, it had caught on one of Qisha’s windshield wipers. Qisha thought the snail would hide under the curl of a withering leaf.
She forgot she was pretending to be on the phone. The routine was: pretend her phone could only get reception in the scruffy yard until two TVs shouted through the walls of the lower apartment. In thrall to wonderment, Qisha exposed herself to risks which she took pains each evening to avoid. The risk of an ambush of nephews demanding money, of her father deploying her to the liquor store; risks, which made coming home a matter of running the gauntlet, slipped her mind as Qisha gazed open-mouthed upon the snail.
The snail bypassed the curl, instead of hiding left the leaf to adventure along the sprig. Tiny upper tentacles waved at the coming night as if welcoming with joy the air’s invisible water. Tinier lower tentacles probed the sprig to taste its history. Minuscule skin muscles rippled almost like fish scales, and Qisha foraged for some memory of a snail like this—of a glow rising in her heart, like this, that wasn’t anger.
The snail seemed to crawl towards her if she stood in the right place, leaving a small shining behind it. The sky was almost black. There was a breeze and drizzle.
Qisha told herself it was the breeze that made her do it. A Bermuda breeze could fly into a rage in no time. A snail too slow to flee, too small to fight, might be thrown to the ground, crushed by a rampant nephew, dashed against the pink house that looked more pathetic every day. Qisha told herself it wasn’t for herself she took the sprig but for Cecilia. That is, for the snail.
For Qisha figured there was not another snail like this in the whole world. This snail was an individual who deserved a spiraling name.
Qisha heard brawling on the TV in the living room. She heard wailing on the TV in her grandparents’ room, indicating that her father would soon be griping at her mother in their bedroom. Off he went, and Qisha slipped inside. She slithered behind the sofa, sprig in hand, unnoticed by her nephews who were enthroned with potato chips before the TV. In the kitchen, Qisha propped a chair under the doorknob.
Cecilia didn’t flinch under the sudden brightness of the kitchen’s solid sky. Cecilia carried on exploring, undeterred by the alien tabletop at sprig’s end.
Qisha sat down with her phone, latched on through the ceiling to the landlord’s Wi-Fi. She learned snails loved lettuce, apples, celery, grass, paper, soft and wet with a pinch of rot. She learned most snails were hermaphrodites, Cecilia was singular and plural, a they.
They looked around with black, tentacle-mounted eyes. Their lower tentacles tasted the air for warnings, promises. Qisha thought they’d turn and hide under the leaves.
But Cecilia did not turn. Their body stretched. Their tentacles probed the tabletop. The rest of Cecilia, which Qisha learned was mostly foot but far from brainless, followed the tentacles and flowed onto the table, bearing the bright shell like a pebble on a languid river. On the table they resumed the compact qualities of a slow-rolling loquat seed.
The only rolling-curling male name Qisha could think of was Jojo. Cecilia-Jojo meandered the plastic landscape.
Qisha learned Cecilia-Jojo walked by rippling, sending muscular contractions through the foot in waves, sliding over their secretions of clear slime. The slime stayed on the table in squiggle-trails like handwriting in water. With divergent eyes wandering in opposite directions—waving, Qisha thought, at Qisha and all the kitchen’s novel, pungent vibrations—Cecilia-Jojo questioned everything by trying to taste it from a distance. Qisha worried the table might be a bore, snailhunter.com might say the substrate was too uniform and dry. Oh my god I love you, Qisha said inside her head, as if tentacles could hear it. It was a shock to her, this—this wasn’t human but a boneless, pluralistic, scruffy-yard phenomenon.
Cecilia-Jojo wandered to the frontier of the table. The tentacles suspected the table’s underside of being walkable, but Qisha didn’t think of that. In an all-too-human reflex, Qisha put out her hand.
She might’ve expected that, alarmed by an enormous fleshy thing heading straight for them, a snail would retreat into their shell. But Qisha was too enchanted to expect anything less than the remarkable.
Cecilia-Jojo slid onto her hand.
And inside Qisha sparks were flying, the world, even Bermuda, was suddenly expansive, abounding in untold possibilities …
She spent the night in her usual place. Under the kitchen table on the wad of bedding from on top of the fridge. She hid as usual behind a curtain of silence, pretending everybody had forgotten her—till something drew the curtain back. Her own voice, tiptoeing out.
“Sorry there’s just two bedrooms. One for Momma and—. One for Nanna and Pops.”
She whispered because when she was too loud, Cecilia-Jojo winced. Having explored Qisha’s hand, brimming her with love and slathering her in slime, the snail dined on leftover Admiral Salad in a styrofoam takeaway container.
“Momma won’t eat vegetables unless I bring home leftovers. I’m on the dinner shift at Mizzenmast. And the morning shift at Rock Island.”
Qisha watched Cecilia-Jojo by dimmed-phone-screen light. Snails loved darkness, she’d learned. She listened, breath withheld, to gossamer sounds: a small invertebrate chewing …
Googling orange red brown snail Bermuda yielded nothing. Bermuda land snails unfurled a tapestry of images. Black-and-white striped whorlers, tawny terrestrial conchs, twisty wizards’ hats—and there. Spiraling orange, red, brown, brilliant, a crystalized mini-hurricane.
Qisha showed her phone to Cecilia-Jojo. Cecilia-Jojo had eyes only for the innards of a shriveling cherry tomato.
Qisha learned Otala bermudensis lived only in Bermuda, one of its oldest endemics. She learned Bermuda’s biodiversity rivaled the Galápagos’ until humans arrived. Cecilia-Jojo’s Ice-Age ancestors had to outwit endemic snail-eating ducks, cranes, long-beaked clapper rails, tortoises. “So they grew bigger shells, three times their normal size, too thick for a tortoise to bite into.”
Those predators were all extinct now. Theirs was a ghost story.
“The Ice Age ended. Sea levels rose. That made Bermuda smaller and the ocean closer. So snails had less to eat and more stresses to deal with: salty air, periodic floods, and droughts. Since withstanding environmental stress requires energy, Otala snails spent less energy on shell building. Shells downsized species-wide.”
Cecilia-Jojo’s shell was smaller than a dime. In certain light it appeared transparent. With a nip of fear Qisha thought: Humans ruin the climate, sea levels rise, and that makes Bermuda disappear, a twenty-two-mile sunken ship and manmade reef, so snails who live in bushes have nowhere. She read, Ninety-five percent of the Bermuda island-archipelago is made of lithified calcium-carbonate sand formed from the shells and skeletons of snails and corals.
“Let’s go ahead and not read some of this. Know what I’d like? A client to tell about you.”
Qisha remembered clients. Pre-pandemic, cruise-ship passengers used to book her in advance. Qisha remembered cruise ships. Her little car rolling up to some seafaring colossus, her little sign: Private Tours By Qisha.
“I’ve been thinking,” Qisha whispered to Cecilia-Jojo. “End-Of-It-All Tours. Stuff people should’ve paid attention to but didn’t, and now’s almost too late.” Someday those half-dozen blues gonna be poison-hued effluvia mixed with industrial byproducts; maybe it won’t even look like water anymore but a carpet, Qisha thought, of antiviral masks and gloves and testing swabs.
She’d show clients the last red crabs. She’d show them Bermudiana, the endangered national flower. Sea turtles and parrot fishes while they still lived free. Parts of the Atlantic Ocean which once were cliffs, coconut trees, historic landmarks.
“That’s why I keep afternoons open. In case the airlines bring people. Or Bermudians just want to see.”
Her father’s voice: They’re into Horseshoe Beach and rum, period. Qisha imagined future googlers: The Bermuda tour guide (endemic) was declared extinct in the twenty-first century following the demise of cruise ships in the global health crisis. She felt an urge to explain. Her two jobs, Momma’s two jobs, Pops’ willingness but he’d already retired, bosses didn’t want old people, and her father refused to spend his days “enslaved” even for money.
Qisha felt ashamed before Cecilia-Jojo. Not that a snail pretended, like men, to be invincible; but simply, Qisha said, “You don’t need nothing from nobody.”
Then she said, “Nanna says I should get married” and found herself floundering in rage. Her father said she owed it to the family (Momma said she didn’t) and the groom best have some money; Qisha thought of cows doomed to the slaughterhouse. And no matter how she tried, when she thought of being eaten, she thought about her nephews.
She couldn’t tell Cecilia-Jojo—her sister’s boys, Jump and Ketchup, turned up one day without their momma and dropped anchor—just the thought of those boys frightened her. They were just twelve and thirteen, but their eyes weren’t children’s eyes. The nephews’ eyes were empty except of hate and bitterness and an incurable sense of entitlement. They could hear through walls when there was something to gain by it. So Qisha didn’t mention them to the snail on the tomato. She just whispered with the fury and resolve of a small child, “Nobody gonna find you. Promise.”
Her phone refused to comfort her with emails from travel agents or foreign addresses. Instead she learned Otala bermudensis was declared extinct in the twentieth century, and their tender night was over. That discovery, that “declaration,” was a deathblow to the slow, enchanted night and the birth of a whole brood of belligerent, blinding days in which relentless doubt waged war against fear of running out of time.
Only Qisha didn’t know it yet. Qisha believed she was in the presence of genius. Joy bubbled out of her. “I get it now. You tricked them—tricked them!”
She learned people once burned snails by the thousands to make mortar. She learned when people brought edible snails to Bermuda, the snails escaped and gobbled people’s vegetables. A police force of cannibal snails was introduced, but the edible snails were skilled escape artists. Endemics like Otala bermudensis were not.
Nevertheless Cecilia-Jojo contemplated the tomato by waving perfect tentacles at it.
So. Someone with the upper hand decimates your kind, your kin, your sense of what you are, your chance to thrive—how do you go on?
Well, thought Qisha, the best way to get people to leave you alone is to make them think your world no longer exists.
And if a world was a circumscribed order of space-time, then what Qisha carried to Rock Island Coffee in her knapsack in the morning, in a takeaway container with Admiral Salad and a bit of water, was a self, selves, and a world running on snail-time. Like their singular dual self, snail-time was a profound whirlpool so slow, so vast a spiral, that no human being could grasp it.
Qisha thought: They don’t deserve you. I alone understand. I see your silence, your cloak sewn out of absence, for the triumph that it is. Anybody else would say, when it’s discovered an endemic hasn’t died out after all, people need to know, the community deserves …
Cecilia-Jojo slept through the morning upside down behind an epiphragm of congealed slime. The slime stuck the shell to the underside of the container’s lid, its sticking power so strong that, Qisha learned while latte-mixing, the epiphragm had inspired anti-gravity-boot designs. Oblivious, Cecilia-Jojo snored inaudibly as Qisha made her way back to her car. She window-shopped along Reid Street, turned down Old Cellar Lane to Front Street, and at the bottom of the lane she saw a van with a government crest: Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Two men stood by the van. One wore gloves, carried some sort of box. The other, bouncing with excitement, had a snail on his thumb.
Not the same, but—not the same—the other snail was dark with dirt. But it had enough red-orange blaze to strike Qisha in the stomach.
All the way to Mizzenmast, she fought against the feeling that everything she tried, every time, would come to nothing. That feeling wasn’t fair to Cecilia-Jojo, Cecilia-Jojo had nothing to do with it. Qisha’s hands shook as she chopped vegetables, nearly neglecting to save a rotting cucumber. She checked Bernews every five minutes, checked the takeaway container with her heart in her throat and the dreadful feeling that it had all just been another stupid dream.
Cecilia-Jojo slept the evening through. And in the night too, when Qisha lay beneath the table with the chair under the doorknob and the takeaway container lying open beside her, restocked with Kokomo Salad—still Cecilia-Jojo was inert and reticent in their shell.
“It’s so easy for you, isn’t it,” said Qisha. Then she worried she’d done something wrong, traumatized Cecilia-Jojo into catatonia, morphed somehow into an annoyance to be locked out, waited out. What did I miss? What did I just not understand?
On her phone, Bernews again. Three hundred snails had been found behind an ice cream shop in Old Cellar Lane, a family of Otala bermudensis.
They lived in litter, lived in concrete cracks, lived in broken PVC pipes, discarded wood chips, scraps of polyurethane. They lived in wrinkles of thrown-out plastic bags, and from above the air conditioners dripped water into these precarious and paltry riverbeds. They lived.
Okay, what does this mean?, thought Qisha. Wanting only to love Cecilia-Jojo, hear Cecilia-Jojo chewing, wanting to be covered in Cecilia-Jojo’s slime-caresses, Qisha had no idea that what she really meant was: What does this mean for me?
From Old Cellar Lane, all three hundred were “collected.” The government proposed to send them to a “captive breeding program” at a British zoo. Babies by the tens of thousands were anticipated.
“More than enough. They don’t need you. And who needs babies anyway. You could probably make babies all by yourself. Start your colony right here. Pathetic pink house, lower apartment, Overplus Lane, Sandys, Bermuda.”
And the nephews would find them. The nephews would set them on fire just to make their young aunt cry. And from that—Qisha sensed it the way she smelled the rain—she might never recover.
But it wouldn’t be for my sake, Qisha thought. Not because I’m scared of a couple of stupid boys. I’m not a child, I’m not afraid of responsibility. For the good of the species: “For your family,” she whispered, teeth clenched, eyes shut tight, “don’t you want to go to England, maybe meet somebody? Yeah, you’re right, you’re better off with me. Me and Momma gonna get our own place, just the two of us.”
Qisha, Momma, Cecilia-Jojo, nobody else, End-Of-It-All Tours By Qisha.
The dream didn’t taste right. It refused to focus. Qisha found herself thinking: There’s ecosystems to consider. The extinction of a species is a planetary amputation. Every animal must contribute. Because the community, the great family of Earthlings deserves …
Some ideas are impossible to complete. This one’s failure to taste right made Qisha feel like scum. She squirmed as Cecilia-Jojo dreamed long, leafy, liquid dreams behind a homemade door. ’Cause even I know, Qisha thought, you don’t belong to nobody.
Maybe Cecilia-Jojo didn’t dream about species survival. Maybe their dreams were colors. Or substrate textures or slime trails of an old friend. Perhaps they dreamed of ecosystemic welfare—or dreamed the unobtrusive happiness of one. One no larger than a bean but beautiful, sometimes fearless, and capable of animating love in a despondent heart.
Qisha had a feeling she’d misunderstood everything. Or she’d understood too much, the extent of her powerlessness—had humans any right to decide which worlds persisted, whether they were large or small, populous or singular?—but Qisha couldn’t complete the feeling, couldn’t all-the-way feel it. Unable to put it into words, she came at dawn to the conclusion that big decisions ought to rest on someone else’s shoulders. Someone smarter, better educated, with resources and no crowds of conspecifics pulling at them.
Qisha felt she should take pride in this magnanimous decision. And she felt defeated. One look at Cecilia-Jojo and she was back to thinking she’d misunderstood everything.
The snail slept obstinately, as if deaf to every crisis. Qisha felt almost betrayed, abandoned almost. Knowing it wasn’t true made it worse and fed her anger.
She thought: I’m going to harden just like you.
She said, “It isn’t about you or me.”
And at the headquarters, outside the Botanical Gardens, of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Qisha heard herself congratulate the man with the box. At least she thought it was the man she’d seen on Front Street with a box, but she couldn’t be certain, she was doing so much blinking. She congratulated the Department on the rediscovery of an ancient endemic species. She made some sort of announcement about Bermuda’s place in global ecosystems and “pride of contribution.”
She handed over the takeaway container with arrogance, even a little rash flirtatiousness. But her hands shook terribly even when the container was beyond her reach forever. A name spiraled through her head like the scream of someone falling.
Qisha resolved to pretend she was talking to her father. Or Ketchup, yes, Ketchup. The secret to not being mauled by Ketchup was not caring one way or the other. “It’s asleep, I think. Or dead. Or sick of Kokomo Salad.” She whipped out a business card, a grin so wobbly even she wasn’t convinced. “Be pretty dope to see the island with the girl who helped bring a lost species back to life, don’t you think?”
And it wasn’t until Mizzenmast—the Calamari Platter fell out of her hands.
Thirty-odd years of hiding in plain sight, eluding history’s most voracious predator, only to find that while they slept, someone had betrayed them, someone delivered them, little Cecilia-Jojo, to the wrong side of the ocean. Cecilia-Jojo would understand nothing in that place except that they were trapped.
The cage would always be too small, the inmates too many. They’ll look just like you, they are supposed to be like you, they’re your family, this is your home. But what they’ll make you do, what they’ll expect—Qisha reeling with nausea—so you’re always scared of being the one who doesn’t make enough, doesn’t give enough, who must be culled. You end up sleeping in the kitchen, bargaining for a chance at the bathroom.
Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s first novel, DRAFTS OF A SUICIDE NOTE, was a Foreword INDIES, Eyelands, and International Book Award finalist and a PEN Open Book nominee. Her essay collection LISTEN, WE ALL BLEED was an EcoLit Best Environmental Book of 2021 and PEN/Galbraith nominee. Her novel THE BOX will be published by Graywolf Press in 2023; a new edition of her award-winning chapbook AWABI is forthcoming from Digging Press in 2022.