Posted by GIRL'S GONE CHILD | Sunday, May 28, 2006
When I was five years old, I wasn't allowed to have pets. I was absent-minded and dreamy, sleepwalking from my bedroom at night only to end up under the couch.
My parents wanted to teach me responsibility. They said if I proved I could be less absent-minded and more responsible that they would buy me a pet. I wanted a rat. That was all that I wanted. A black-hooded rat and I wanted to name him Kevin after the cute boy that lived across the street.
One day my mother was gardening in the backyard, and I was helping her with the weeds. Under a heap of Day Lilies she had found a family of snails. They were eating her plants, and this made her angry. She plucked them, one by one from the plant and put them in a blue garbage bin.
"What will happen to them?" I asked.
"They're snails." She said, and don't worry, there will be hundreds more soon."
"But what will happen to these snails?"
"They will die." She said.
I left the crime scene and went straight to my room where I cried for an hour because I was so sad for the little slimy beasts in their spiral shells.
Puffy-eyed and frustrated at the unfairness of life, and sympathetic to the poor little fragile creatures that lived under the daylily plant, I emerged from my room and tip-toed past my mother, who was humming in the vegetable garden, oblivious to the fact that I was sniffling still, in the after waves of melodrama.
I found the garbage bin in the side yard. The blue one with the blue lid. Inside were the snails. There were dozens of them and they were ALIVE!!!!! A hundred little eyes on little faces looked up at me, smiling. They knew I was going to rescue them. They knew I was going to give them names and make them my "responsibility."
I dug up an old fish tank in the garage and hosed it out before placing the weeds from the trashcan inside, along with all of the snails I could find in the bin. There were well over twenty by the time I was finished, pulling them off the side of the plastic. Their little eyes went in when I held them in my hands, hiding. I always liked snails and pill bugs because they could roll up and hide. I wanted to be able to do that too. It would be more convenient than crawling underneath the couch every time I wanted to disappear.
Once in the tank they were happy. They had food and friends and family to hang out with. They were set!
I waited before each snail had a name before presenting my "responsibility" to my mother. I taped their shells individually with little masking tape nametags, which I learned would not stick for long. I named one Kelly. Kelly was the prettiest name when I was little and when I made believe I was someone else, I was always Kelly. Kelly was my favorite snail in the tank, but I admired them all for their own distinct personalities. They were snails, but they were also my pets and I wanted them to be happy living under my care.
My parents were touched and promised to buy me a rat as soon as I got rid of the snails, but I refused. "They are my pets!" I would say. My parents thought it was sweet, so they let me keep them (as long as they lived in the side yard near the garbage cans.)
That summer, I spent much of my time with the snails. I played dolls outside their tank, and watched them write foreign messages to each other on the driveway with their trails of moisture. I put them on my arms and felt them crawl all the way to my fingertips. I wrote them a poem.
One day my mother came home with an unexpected surprise. It was Kevin the rat and he was perfect, exactly what I wanted. He even had the white spots on his back. I was so excited, I couldn't wait to love him, play dolls with him and make up little stories where he would be the main character. Kindergarten had just started and I couldn't wait to tell my new friends.
But what about the snails? When Kevin arrived they seemed juvenile, embarassing, lowly and even disgusting. "Ewwww. Those things are gross." One of my friends from Kindergarten had said. I told her that they weren't mine. "They belong to my brother." I said.
"You should kill them with a magnified glass." One of the boys from the block told me one day. "We could put salt on them!" He said.
I said, "No" and he said, "Come on" so I said, "Maybe tomorrow?"
I went outside that evening, with Kevin the Rat on my shoulder and I picked up the Snail Tank. The little eyes looked up at me on slimy fingers and I said goodbye. I told them they were going to live in the backfield now, and not to come back to the garden because then they would die or someone would put salt on them or they would eat the poison my mother put in the soil.
I took the tank out to the backfield, in front of the lagoon and I let them all go. The eyes went in and they all hid in their shells for a minute, until they settled in the bushes and then came out again. I left them there, and brought the tank home empty, Kevin, the rat still on my shoulder.
I never kept snails as pets after that. I had proved myself responsible and ended up with what I wanted but my conscience throbbed for years on behalf of the snails: poor ugly and misunderstood. I swore to God I would never name another pet "Kelly" again, and I kicked the little boy from the block whenever he asked if I had snails for him to fry.
I lost much of my innocence with my lesson in responsibility. The lesson, which spawned a retrospective, taped in my memory to the shells of little snails doomed to die in the garden.