o there we were on that ice floe, just the two of us, adrift in the polar night. Viskovitz turned and said, "I'd like you to get our conversation down in black and white."
"It's not possible," I answered. "I'm not a typist. I'm not a writer. I'm a penguin. As far as I'm concerned, 'getting it down in black and white' means making more penguins."
So instead there I was a month later, standing still with an egg under my belly, remembering . . .
I was the one who had brought up the subject.
But Don't You Ever Think of Sex, Viskovitz?
Sex? I didn't even know I had one. Imagine when they told me I had two of them.
"We snails, Visko," my old ones explained to me, "are insufficient hermaphrodites--"
"How disgusting!" I shrieked. "Even our family?"
"Certainly, sonny. We are able to fulfill both the masculine function as well as the feminine one. There's nothing to be ashamed of." With his radula, he pointed to my two tools.
"And how come insufficient?"
"Because we can couple only with other snails, if there is a reciprocal inclination, but never with ourselves."
"Our faith, Visko. The other nasty thing is a mortal sin. Even to think of it," Daddymommy warned.
"And it is also impure conduct to shut yourself up in the shell, talk to yourself and be too pleased with yourself," added Mommydaddy.
A shudder of terror rippled my mantle.
"It's high time you started looking around for a good match; the reproductive season lasts only a few weeks."
Perplexed, I stretched out my tentacles in various directions. "But the nearest snails are months away!"
"You're mistaken, sonny, there are some excellent young ones in the neighborhood."
But nearby I could see just Zucotic, Petrovic and Lopez, my old schoolmates.
"You must be joking. You don't think that I--"
"They come from good families, with a pretty good genetic inheritance and good evolutionary prospects. Beauty isn't everything, Visko."
"But have you looked at them?" I pointed my rhinophor toward Zucotic, a gaunt gastropod with a shell that was practically clypeiform, an invaginated eye, an atrophied ctenidium. He revolted even predators. Did they really want to have grandchildren like this?
"With time you'll change your mind. You'll see. We snails have a saying: 'Love thy neighbor, because he who is far away will remain so.'"
"I'd rather be dead." I said goodbye and retreated inside my shell. I carefully closed the operculum and sealed it with calcified salts, because one never knows.
"It's not done to lock yourself inside the shell, little Visko, people will think ill of it." The hell with people.
In the days that followed, for one reason or another, I was unable to think of anything but sex, or the sexes, that is.
It began as indefinable itches, little hormonal disturbances that made my gaze linger on the folds of some snails' mantles, trying to guess their shape under the shell, admiring the undulations of their feet. Nothing to be sick about, you understand, or to lose sleep over. Some of the snails in the garden were not bad, morphologically speaking, but snails who really suited my purpose, who had the class and the zoometric requisites to go with a Viskovitz, were nowhere to be found. I came to the conclusion, therefore, that they did not exist and that probably none had ever been born.
I was mistaken.
Her majesty the gastropodic beauty appeared suddenly among the heads of lettuce. He was rather distant, but I made out her breathtaking profile voluptuously spread out in the sun, the generous shapes barely contained by the trim shell.
Bewitched, I stopped sleeping and eating. For my ocular antennae there suddenly was only she-he. I began to secrete mucus for no reason. But what could I do? My flame was at least two snail-years away! If I sprinted off then and there and started running like mad, even forgoing hibernation, I would still get there old and decrepit.
Unless . . . yes. I was thinking just that. What madness. What if she-he started running toward me? In that case, the point of contact would be among the squash blossoms, and we would unite as two middle-aged snails. The more I thought about it, the more I was seduced by the romantic grandeur of that gesture. I was consumed with yearning and anticipation. The sacrifice of youth for love's promise. And wasn't love always a great wager?
Was she-he looking? He-she was looking. Clearly, she-he had noticed me. It was very, very clear. You had to be bivalve not to get the signs of willingness that he-she was sending with his-her antennae.
"Viskoooo!" shouted Mommydaddy. "It's not good to talk to yourself. People will think ill of it."
"Let them think."
"Pull yourself together! Mr. Lopez is coming to visit."
Lopez was closing in frantically, drooling mucus and slipping in it, his face convulsed with lust, with dilated osfredia, a drooping mesenchyma, a flaccid radula, panting, and now only two days away from me. Moreover, a few more hours away, Petrovic and Zucotic were charging in my direction, set on a death race to have me, to pleasure themselves with my young body. I felt a chill in my hemolymph, and my palleale cavity stiffened. I extruded my esophagus in a spasm of horror.
I turned my eyes toward the lettuce and in an instant--one of those instants in which a life is determined--the choice was made.
"I'm coming!" I shouted.
And she-he also set him-herself in motion.
After six months of running I was a wreck.
Passionate impulses are not for mollusks, especially us snails. I had rashes on my squamae, and my mesenchyma was in pieces. With the end of the reproductive season, the hormonal levels had dropped, and the romantic agitations had dropped with them. Youth had vanished, and my mucus was drying up.
I could see my body changing faster than the view. If life is a race against time, well, one thing is certain, against us snails time is the odds-on favorite.
At the start of my journey, I had deluded myself that, worst-case scenario, I would have at least seen the world, virgin territories and foreign cultures inches-upon-inches away. But I was coming to see that the whole world was vegetables. I had deluded myself that I could make a clean break with the past, but every time I turned my antennae, relatives and acquaintances were there, wearing disapproving and furious expressions, their stares loaded with reproof. The snails of our childhood are forever in our field of vision, as are those of our old age. Casual meetings don't exist for us, nor does privacy. It is clear, then, why one needs a shell, despite the trouble of having to lug it around on one's back.
But I kept running toward him-her, sighing and dreaming with eyes wide open, at night, under the moon, with the scent of parsley and the wind's caress on my squamae. And she-he also was coming toward me. That was all that mattered.
Winter came, and after three months, spring and the buds of the first squash blossoms.
And then, the long-awaited moment.
I was dismayed, the world had crumbled under my foot. No wonder he-she was coming toward me, was responding to my calls. She-he was my reflected image. I circled the spigot and saw myself quietly weeping my last drops of mucus. Poor Viskovitz. I felt for me an infinite tenderness. Then I leaned on that chromed surface and began to howl with laughter.
What else could I do? I was laughing. No. We were laughing. But my image immediately became serious and began to look at me attentively. How beautiful I was! So pliably feminine and vigorously virile. I couldn't tear my eyes away from myself: I was still a superb animal, probably the most attractive one who had ever existed, extraordinarily sexy for a mollusk. A sensual radula on squamae out of a fairy tale, an elastic and compact physique, a shell that was camouflaged but elegant, and reproductive equipment . . . Parbleu! In an instant the meaning of this event was clear to me. I timidly bent my ocular antennae toward each other, and for the first time my right pupil stared into my left one. I felt the short circuit, the shudder in my soul, and was able to stammer only one banal sentence:
"I love you, Viskovitz."
"Me too, silly."
With my radula I delicately caressed my pneumostome, with the distal part of my foot I brushed the proximal. I felt the warm pressure of the rhinophor slipping under my shell, and a strong agitation froze the center of my being. "Oh, heavens! What am I doing?" I stammered. But I gave myself up to my embrace, I clung to my flesh. Inebriated with desire, I pressed myself to me, I throbbed at the clammy touch of my epidermis, I drank of the viscous liquid of mucus, greedily straining to possess those adorable limbs. I clutched them desperately.
When I was done, I realized that in the frenzy I had come out of my shell and was lying on my back, with my sexes waving in the breeze. And that everyone's eyes were aimed at me. In a half-foot radius alone there were three families of snails, and you can imagine their reactions.
"How gross. What a thing to have to see!" a neighbor complained.
"You will be damned forever, Viskovitz," snapped another. They yelled at their children to turn the other way, but they themselves took care not to turn their antennae.
"We will teach you a lesson," they threatened. As if a snail had ever beaten up another snail. I had taken enough abuse, so instead of retiring inside my shell, I stood up before them.
"Insufficient hermaphrodites yourseeeeeelves!" I screamed at those hypocrites.
The days that followed were the happiest of my life. The spring breeze had brought the homage of two big yellow petals, and I languidly stretched myself on them and bathed myself in their scent, happy to be a mollusk and in love. I had taken this new abode in place of my shell, too unsuited to the complex geometry of hermaphrodite eroticism. But my story had not stopped causing scandal:
"This is nothing but a typical example of the collapse of gastropodic society," said one. "The 'I' has replaced society, and the narcissistic personality triumphs. We are falling back on the personal and the private."
I confess that I was falling back on my privates rather willingly. It was one of the few advantages of not having a spine.
And there were those who sought to psychoanalyze me: "When you have secondary narcissism, frustrated love turns on itself and gives birth to delusions of grandeur, to the overestimation of the self. The 'I' believes itself to be God."
No, it had never occurred to me that I was God. If anything, He was the one who started those rumors.
"The advancement of old age shatters the dream of the blessed extension of childhood's omnipotence, and the self-protective mechanism of narcissism breaks down . . ."
I had to admit that I hated growing old. Old age made me become jealous. More than once I had caught myself fantasizing about a younger snail, and my heart had broken to pieces. Naturally I was that snail, my youthful image spread out on the lettuce, but that didn't make the pain any less. During such moments I locked myself in my shell and wept. I wasn't loving myself back. My eyes weren't looking at each other anymore.
But life went on, there was no getting around it--I was pregnant. I lived in terror that the stories about the dangers of self-fertilization were true, and that I would bear monsters. Types with a turreted shell or with a bifid foot who would make me feel guilty for the rest of my days.
I was mistaken.
As soon as I saw the tiny shell of my newborn son, Viskovitz, I recognized it. Her majesty the gastropodic beauty. He was the perfect copy of her parent, more like a divinity than a mollusk. So tiny it looked like a snail seen from a distance, that snail seen from a distance. How beautiful she was! I delicately caressed his pneumostome, with the distal part of my foot I caressed her proximal . . .
"I love you, Viskovitz," he answered.
As in fairy tales, love triumphed. But this time there would be no end. There would never be an end.
"How gross! The things we have to see!" a neighbor complained.
You're Losing Your Head, Viskovitz
I asked my mother, "What was Daddy like?"
"Crunchy, a bit salty, rich in fiber."
"Before you ate him, I mean."
"He was a little guy, insecure, anxious, neurotic--pretty much like all you baby boys."
I felt closer than ever to the parent I had never known, who'd been dissolved in Mom's stomach just as I was being conceived. From whom I had gotten not nurturing but nourishment. I thought, Thank you, Dad. I know what it means for a mantis to sacrifice himself for the family.
I stood still for a moment of recollection before his tomb, that is to say my mother, and said a Miserere.
After a bit, since thinking about death never failed to give me an erection, I figured that the time had come to catch up with Ljuba, the insect I loved. I'd met her about a month earlier at my sister's wedding, which was also my brother-in-law's funeral. And I'd remained a prisoner of her cruel beauty. Since then we'd kept on seeing each other. How had that been possible? God had blessed me with the most precious gift he could give a mantis: premature ejaculation. A necessary condition for any love story that isn't ephemeral. The first week I'd lost a pair of legs, my pincers. The second week the prothorax with the connectors for flying. The third week . . .
My friends Zukotic, Petrovic and Lopez started yelling from the higher branches where they'd settled: "Don't do it, Visko, for the love of heaven!" For them, females were the devil, misogyny their mission. They had been sexually deviant or dysfunctional since metamorphosis. They had taken priestly vows, and they spent the whole blessed day chewing petals and reciting psalms. They were very religious.
But there wasn't a prayer that could stop me, not once I heard the icy sigh of my mistress, the hollow rustling of her membranes, her funereal, mocking laugh. I moved frenetically in the direction of those sounds with the one leg I had left, using my erection as a crutch, making every effort to visualize the glory of her curvaceous shape, which I couldn't see since I no longer had ocelli, which I couldn't smell since I no longer had antennae, which I couldn't kiss since I no longer had palpi.
By now I'd lost my head.