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The Mutations

Francis Kirps




The Snail on the Wall
(After “The Mark on the Wall” by Virginia Woolf)
The three chrysanthemums in the vase on the mantelpiece are al-most dead, but their poison is definitely still effective. I mustn’t eat them no matter how hungry I am. I’m stuck to a white wall, about five or six snail-lengths above the mantelpiece. There’s a fire in the hearth despite the warm autumn day, as if we were in the mid-dle of winter. I feel the heat spreading from below and see the yel-low and reddish flickering glow. If I stay here too long I’ll dry up and never get away from this place. The sun comes in through the crown of the tree outside the window. It’s broad daylight. I must have had a long and very deep sleep.
How did I get here anyway? If I’m ever going to find my way out then it’s absolutely necessary to recall the way into this room.
And now I remember: Something happened yesterday that I’d like to forget forever. A beer trap appeared in the lettuce bed early last evening — the most insidious and dangerous animal of all. I learned from my ancestors, as they learned from theirs and so on, that we have to watch out for beer traps above all else. Even if we smell beer from some distance away, we snails go soft in the head; our brain is no longer part of us, as if an alien power were guiding us straight to our liquid doom.
“Resist the treacherous enticement of the puddle of death” is what we snails learned as children in that first carefree summer of our life, from the School of Proverbs; I and all my fellow snails recited that proverb so often until we knew it by heart.
But I should like to observe in this regard: I personally feel that statement is a little too unclear. Maybe evil should be called for what it is, concisely and to the point: “Children! Beware of beer traps!” That would hit home with dim-witted snails, too. Oh, well. Where was I? Last night, exactly. They came from near and far: slugs from the neighbour’s garden; vineyard snails from across the road; banded snails from the park — all of them out of their mind. I saw my cousins, Pebble and Pear, barely a year old, their shells still young and translucent, creeping toward the beer trap. I heard them debating whether the puddle of death really meant the beer trap rather than the duck pond — lots of room for interpreta-tion there.
“I’m a free snail,” Blossom, my old school friend, shouted, “and nobody’s going to tell me what to do — right!” before she tipped over the edge and vanished out of my life forever. I saw uninhib-ited snails swilling down the pale brew while a dozen of their ilk sank to the bottom, dead already. Now the aroma began to tug at my senses, too; it was strong, bitter, sweet. If I were going to sur-vive the night, then I’d have to get out of this garden, go some-place where the demon wouldn’t find me. I’d slept through the hottest part of the afternoon under some withered leaves beside the wall of the house and only awakened when the uproar was in high gear. I suppose that saved my life. With an almost inhuman effort of will I turned my back on the garden and headed for a nearby doorway. I’d surely be safe within the walls of that house. I thought of everything possible to distract me from the beer va-pours. I was through the door in no time and into a pleasantly cool cellar. But the alcohol fumes were still reaching their murderous tentacles after me. Quick as an arrow, I crept ahead over a rusty bicycle frame, squeezed between the tines of a rake, climbed up the blade of a scythe and slid down the other side, then out through a crack in the door and up an endless stairway leading into a long room. I swiftly slipped over the smooth, polished floor and finally turned right (or was it left?) into the room, worked my way up the wall and then — it must have been then — is when, half dead from exhaustion, I fell asleep.
My slimy trail, a silvery shimmering encrustation, long dried up, runs horizontally to my right, then angles down the wall and peters out on the floor.
But hold on! What’s that? I suddenly have the feeling I’m being watched. I raise my stalk-eyes and indeed: I’m not alone in the room. A human is sitting in an armchair by the hearth, sitting, smoking and staring at me, bug-eyed, over the glowing end of a fag while blue-grey clouds curl around her face.
I am dealing with a She — I realize that clearly: long hair, wound in artistic knots around her head, no facial hair, and a light-brown, floor-length skirt as well.
Humans are of course divided into two castes: the Shes and the Hes. The Hes, as a rule, have short hair on their head, usually wool on their face, and wear two-legged skirts, so-called trousers. They smoke pipes, whereas the Shes seem to prefer cigarettes. As far as we snails can judge from our perspective, the Hes are the domi-nant caste. Why this is so, nobody knows. Maybe in times prime-val there was a mighty war between Shes and Hes, and the Hes won and subjugated the Shes forever. What luck, by contrast, to have been born a snail into a casteless, hybrid community where nobody dominates anyone.
She’s not moving, just sits there smoking and staring in my di-rection. I haven’t a clue whether she’s registered my presence. It’s as if she could look right through me and see somewhere behind me. But there’s only this white wall.
I mustn’t make any rash move now. Humans are not harm-less. Their movements are astonishingly nimble for their size. But above all they’re unpredictable. We all have tales to tell. She could just as well pluck me gently off the wall and release me in the gar-den as kill me and toss me on a rubbish heap. I can only wait and hope for the best: that she takes no notice of me and leaves the room at some point so that I can make my way outside. I simply must be patient with her. If only I weren’t so damn hungry.
How long might she have been sitting there watching? At least it’s not a He. The Hes are famous for their aggressive behaviour. They fight wars with one another like ants. There’s said to be a Great War going on at the moment, far away, where thousands of Hes attack one another. The worms from the cemetery tell how the dead are brought back in boxes and buried in the ground. Sometimes even empty boxes are buried, they say. To be sure, you can’t trust cemetery worms, but I doubt they have the imag-ination to dream up things like that. And some survivors return with missing limbs and other horrifying injuries. A young He sits in the neighbour’s garden every day in a deck chair under some checked blankets. He’s ashen-faced and shakes all the time. The cockroaches over there say he’s suffering from “post-war trauma.” Cockroaches are some kind of know-it-all.
The Hes fight around here, too, but it seems these are ritualised fights; nobody gets killed. Now and then when we take a crawl in the park they arrive in groups, and we watch them playing at war. They throw leather or wooden balls around and run and jump, obviously following some kind of cryptic rules. The Hes in white against the Hes in black. The Hes in red against the Hes in green. Many snails believe that if you could manage to decipher the pat-tern of their games you could predict the weather — but I regard that as a superstition.
Now her eyes have taken on a sort of glassy expression. Every now and then the corners of her mouth move as if she’d just seen something particularly interesting or amusing. But there’s noth-ing to see here. Nothing but this white wall and me. If only she’d do something. I feel the fire down in the hearth drying me out. Can it really be that she still hasn’t seen me although she’s been looking up at me all this time? I’ve got to divert myself, to think of something else to kill time until she gets up. Good idea: I know what I’ll do. I’ll visualise my way back into the garden. Return by my slime trail down to the floor and past her armchair, which hopefully will soon be vacant, then to the door. Right or left? If I came from the right, then I’ll have to turn left, and if I came from the left, then I’ll have to go right. Got to find the stairs. I saw a wa-tering can on the second last step — as seen from above — that will help me get oriented and not crawl down the wrong way. Made it into the cellar where so many things are lying around. Scythe, rake, bicycle. Three pale blue canisters on the left, a number of iron hoops they play with in the garden in summer, and bird-cag-es. On the right two pairs of ice skates, a Queen Anne coal-scuttle, a bagatelle board, and a broken hand organ. So much stuff from the goings-on of past life, forgotten by time and consigned to the dark cellar.




– Translation by Gerald Chapple