My transformation wasn’t quite Kafkaesque. I didn’t wake one morning as a mollusk, leaving my human self behind. My calcium carbonate shell grew slowly, expanding and hardening over my delicate flesh. I didn’t know I was being tracked by the glimmering mark I left behind me as I moved through my mouldering home. One day, I simply noticed the extra weight I was dragging around, and I felt the antenna protrude from my soft forehead, dancing through the air in 360 degrees, searching for danger, or food, or love.
I don’t even know when I first recognized that there was a predator in my decomposing Eden, a six-foot-tall toad with glittering gold eyes, licking his thin, reptile lips and dreaming of escargot.
“He used to really embarrass me,” Mama told me in one of our late-night talks that reached through the cracked calcium carbonate of my late adolescence, after the predator had been vanquished, and hit the tenderest bits underneath. “Remember when we used to live next door to Mrs. Batts? I used to catch him walking through their back yard at night, trying to see Mary Ann when she’d change clothes.”
Mary Ann was human, so far as I knew, the next-door teenager I remember only as someone who threatened to nail me to my bed when she babysat me on some occasion that required my parents be child-free for an evening. After that night, I daydreamed about a nail long enough to pin a person to a mattress like a like a butterfly in a display case.
So maybe I was wrong. Maybe I did recognize the predator when I was still human.
Occasionally, I wonder if the predator had himself ever been human, if he’d undergone his own transformation. Now, I can only see him as a toad, hunched and covered in warts, the apex predator of the garden we shared. No herons strolled in to gulp him down into a labyrinthine prison. I never invited them in – birds eat snails as well as toads – and so I curled tightly into my shell, inching out only enough to let my antennae taste the air for danger.
I was still mostly human, soft and pink, with underdeveloped antennae and only the beginnings of my shell, when his bony toad-fingers stretched toward me, his eyes bulging slightly. His tongue flicked as he he drew me into a damp, cold, good-night embrace. He crouched on his slimy rock, a cigarette dangling from his thin, grinning lips as I stepped around him on my way to my bedroom. I was prey.
“Lookin’ good tonight,” the toad drawled.
I smiled hesitantly and thanked him before I fled.
And I transformed. I developed protective coloration and a hard shell to hide behind and antennae that danced at dinner, testing the toad’s mood. Would he be cheerful? Maudlin? Sarcastically cruel? Were we snails at the table weak and stupid, or were we the only things worth living for? Each mood was dangerous, of course. He was a predator. Inhuman. Unpredictable.
“You need to learn to relax,” he told me. He brushed his fingers along my neck and shoulders. “Mama always likes it when I give her a massage.”
I retreated at the warning, the smell of fermentation, of rot and death.
“I’m pretty tense too. Maybe you could give me one. Standin’ on my feet all day, my legs get really tight. Cramp up.”
Wet feet slapped against the ground outside the tiny cave where I slept, where I dreamed that I was still human. I woke as a snail and saw the predator crouching in my cave, watching, toad lips stretched into a grin. He picked me up and rolled me around in his palm as I retreated as far from him as I could. He kissed the spiral of my shell, and his cold-blooded fingers sought for a weakness, for any crack. I curled inside and waited until I felt the predator move away.
He followed my trail throughout the garden, no longer an Eden but an overgrown area in a park known for clandestine hook-ups and used condoms and dirty needles. I slid easily around the garbage, blending in. Surviving. Trapped in the garden of secret rot.
The toad followed me, though, pulling me into strange parts of the garden far from my little cave, bright areas with a sun that deadened my awareness and desiccated my delicate skin.
“When you were human, you told me you wanted to play with toads,” he croaked, tongue flicking.
I barely heard his words as I curled tightly away.
The toad tried to coax me out of my shell with gifts, with secrets, with attention, with professed love.
The toad coaxed, the toad cajoled, the toad told me how much I liked him.
And I, fully transformed, no longer the slightest bit human, hid from his groping grasp, from his flicking tongue, from his anger and his sadness and his love.
Did I ever imagine that he was human? In my memories, even in my fully human memories, he is always the monster, crouched and waiting and hunting for a meal. The toad was larger than me and stronger than me but not cleverer than me. Not better at hiding, at tasting the air, at sliding away from the garden to secret safe places where there were no toads, where I could luxuriate in stretching my full length, feeling the shell just as a bit of calcium carbonate resting atop me.
Always, though, I had to return to his grasping arms and
glittering gold eyes.
He shattered the shell only when he hopped heavily away from the ruins of the garden, when the pressure of his absence was greater than the torture of his presence. Then, I smelled the rot that had seeped inside the shell, and then, I began to feel the pain of a life spent creeping through leaves and under rocks.
When I was curled deep inside my shell, when he lit a cigarette and languorously stroked his scales, I told myself that one day, the garden would be free of toads. And when the toad was gone, I would be free, transformed back into a human, whole.
When he left, though, I became a half-mollusk monster, only half-transformed. My protective coloration made me invisible, and I waved the antennae, desperately looking for toads, or anyone who might, with their petty conflicts and loud voices and sheer obliviousness, attract another predator to the garden.
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