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“Frogscript • Snails”
by Evette Kwok
Why are you so slow, snails? Why? The feeling people get from snails is one of slowness, the result, perhaps, of having to carry a shell on their backs that is roughly the same size as their body. And yet it is precisely because they dawdle about that it is so easy for so many children to catch them.
Having grown up in one of the most built-up parts of Hong Kong, I never had much chance to go out into the natural world as a kid. Fortunately, however, there was a big park near where I used to live, Hoi Sham Park, with quite a large number of flower-beds full of plants. I used to go there to play on the swings, the slides, and the seesaw, but I also liked to go snail-hunting!
I remember that, for a while there, I was always catching snails — whenever I saw a snail, I would pounce on it. But, every time, before you could say “Jack Robinson”, they would go back into their shells and I would never get a clear look at them. I was bursting with curiosity to touch for myself the soft, slimy body I had heard about from others. I also remember putting a snail down on the ground and waiting for it to come out, but there wasn’t the slightest movement on its part. You can’t expect a child to show much patience in waiting, and of course, before long, I went off somewhere else to play, thinking that the snail would come out again after a while. Some time later, I remembered my snail and went back to touch it again, but — surprise, surprise! — it was nowhere to be seen. I thought to myself: But snails move so slowly, they say . . .
On another occasion, I held one of my “captive” snails in the palm of one hand in the hope that I could stroke its body when it came out. At last, after a long wait, it started to emerge, but I was so eager to touch it that as soon as I did, it went straight back into its shell and so I missed the chance to find out for myself whether snails actually were soft and slimy. But this taught me just how important a snail’s shell is: it gives this most timid of creatures a very strong sense of security!
I once heard someone say that if you sprinkled a little salt on a snail, it would come out of its shell, but I was sure that this would give it a great deal of pain, so I never tried out the experiment! From that time onwards, I was well aware that snails were both slow movers and soft, helpless creepy-crawlies.
That is, until recently, in the course of my work, I met an Australian literary scholar who could speak Cantonese quite fluently. He once described himself as being like a snail. At the time, I thought it was a strange thing to say: why would such a capable person worthy of respect declare that he was on a par with an insignificant snail? It was time for me to get to know this neglected species a bit better.
Generally speaking, snails tend to appear when there is rain. This friend of mind, when I had only just met him, had in actual fact brought a lot of rain with him, together with a Black Rainstorm Warning and a Typhoon Signal Number Eight. You couldn’t help but be impressed by that! Snails prefer damp weather, which makes them rather a good indicator: if you see a snail, that means things are humid and there’s a pretty high likelihood of rain and — if it does rain — it’s even more certain that you’ll come across a snail or two. And just be coincidence, my friend from Australia was also fond of catching snails when he was a little boy. Often, when he had caught a whole heap of them, he would make them all crawl in a big Snail Race, although, according to him, not a single snail ever made it to the finish line.
In actual fact, snails are very intelligent. They hibernate in both the Winter and the Summer, and can retreat into their shells whenever it gets too cold, too hot, or too dry — for several months, if necessary! Snails are also natural-born artists. As they move around, they leave a moist trail behind them, making unique designs on the surface of the Earth!
I once heard a fairytale about a snail. The snail was slowly crawling along with the aim of reaching a certain grape vine when he met a frog. The frog laughed at it for being so slow and was sure that the grapes would all be gone by the time the snail got there. Later, the snail came across a bird. When it had learnt of the location of the grape vine from the snail, it immediately set off in search of it. When the bird saw all those clusters of grapes, it couldn’t wait to pop them in its beak. Ugh! The grapes weren’t yet fully ripe, tasting both sour and puckery, and it spat the pieces out as fast as it could! Going at a snail’s pace, the snail kept on going, slowly crawling along until it finally reached the grape vine. Although there were only a few grapes left by this stage, each one of them was sweet and full of juice, and the snail ate its fill contentedly before, slowly, slowly crawling back to where he had come from.
Translated by Simon Patton