The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

Elisabeth is on vacation in Europe when she begins to feel ill. Suddenly she is weak and exhausted, only becoming worse. Back and forth between doctors’ visits, emergency rooms, and major setbacks, no one can figure out the exact cause of her illness.

But out of the blue came a series of insidious relapses, and once again, I was bedridden. Further, more sophisticated testing showed that the mitochondria in my cells no longer functioned correctly and there was damage to my autonomic nervous system; all functions not consciously directed , including heart rate had gone haywire.

Eventually bedridden she is moved from her country home to an apartment where she can receive the assistance of a caretaker and visits from friends and family. She can only sit up for a few minutes and spends the majority of her days lying down. In a seemingly odd gesture a friend delivers a snail to her bedside. The snail lives in a pot of field violets. Skeptical of her companion, Elisabeth eventually learns a lot about the snail and herself. Sometimes elated by the snail and sometimes in the doldrums, she pours over the literature and research concerning gastropods and is introduced to a world and even a way of life that she had not previously considered.

Survival often depends on a specific focus: a relationship, a belief, or a hope balanced on the edge of possibility. Or something more ephemeral: the way the sun passes through the hard, seemingly impenetrable glass of a window and warms the blanket, or how the wind, invisible but for its wake, is so loud one can hear it through the insulated walls of a house.

After a while the snail is moved to a terrarium. Elisabeth keeps up her watch of the snails’ habits learning that it is neither slow nor boring but has a complete and calculated life and habits. Everything about the snails’ daily routine is curious to both Elisabeth and the reader. At times the snail reminds Elisabeth of her difficult position.

Everything about a snail is cryptic, and it was precisely this air of mystery that first captured my interest. My own life I realized, was becoming just as cryptic…Yet it wasn’t that I had truly vanished; I was simply homebound, like a snail pulled into its shell. But being homebound in the human world is a sort of vanishing. When encountering acquaintances from the past, I sometimes see a look of astonishment cross their face, as if they think they are seeing my ghost, for I am not expected to reappear. At times even I wonder if a ghost is what I’ve become.

At other times there is only beauty.

Even when my snail was asleep, I loved to gaze at the beautiful spiral of its shell. It was a tiny, brilliant accomplishment of architecture, and because the radius of the spiral increases exponentially as it progresses, it fits the definition of a logarithmic or an equiangular spiral. Also known as the marvelous spiral, it accounts for the sound of the sea that one hears when an empty shell is lifted to the ear: outside noise enters the curving chamber and echoes back and forth, jumbling into a continuous surflike tone.


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