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Miserable Molluscs

This story is from the Tales for Telling series, and is broken into sections to aid storytellers.  Please see information about copyright and performance below.

1.     Settling down

When Hilda first met Henry she lied about her age.  She was 2 million years older than him.  You see Henry and Hilda were two small ammonites.  They met in a rock. 

Our story begins in the Mesozoic era, 200 million years ago.  Hilda was quite settled in some soft rock when Henry was engulfed in sediment quite near to her.  You know how it is when you spend a lot of time with someone, you either love 'em or leave 'em.  Well, neither of them were going anywhere and neither of them had any particularly bad habits, unless you count slowly turning into rock.

Henry was what is commonly known as the strong but silent type.   He was ideally suited to Hilda, who was quiet, but deep, being 1.8 cm  centimetres further down the geological strata than Henry.  Neither of them minded this distance, which may have troubled other fossil ammonite  relationships.  It gave them space to develop into rock in their own way.

They were very calm and didn't argue much.  Life was unhurried.  Every couple of million years or so Henry would say to Hilda,

'Did you have a nice bimillimillennium dear?'

And Hilda would reply

'Yes thank-you love.  How's the petrifying going?'

And he would say the same joke he'd said for the last 60 million years.  The first time he'd thought of it he'd thought it was so funny he'd laughed for 750,000 years.

'The petrifying's going fine...its not frightening being petrified.'

And she would say kindly, 'Oh Henry, you're such a wag.'

By the time they were well fossilised they were, in all senses of the word, inseparable.  Buried deep in the rock that had formed around them they were undisturbed by the too-ing and fro-ing of the outside world.  But the quiet companionship they had developed over epochs was about to be disrupted and their tranquil lives shattered forever.

2.  Upheaval

You remember Geology.  Plate tectonics and all that.  Well if you're a rock, or a fossil, it can be very disturbing.  One millimillennia you're snug and comfortable in the middle of hundreds of strata of rock and the next you're being squashed or folded.  Suddenly when you were laid down in the bottom of a sea you find yourself at the top of a hill !  It's just not on you know.  And the next thing you know your rock is being eroded away and you find you're a cliff !

Well this is what happened to Henry and Hilda.

The worst thing, when it had all settled down was that Hilda was now on top of Henry.  They'd never tried this position before.  They liked routine and it all seemed too modern and a bit rude.  When you've done things the same way for a hundred million years or so change does not come easily.

But they didn’t have time to talk about it because in just 6 million years, before they could say ‘lammelibranc' really, the cliff wore back and their bit of rock fell onto the beach.  They were in the light and then in the sea for the first time for 200 million years

3.    Freedom

In the sea they saw creatures rather like them, with shells...but sometimes these beings moved about and ate things.  There was some dim stirring in their memories and they recalled that once they had done the same.   It was strange that it took Henry and Hilda a couple of hundred million years, but they gradually began to realise that they were dead.

Henry and Hilda laid there, still sharing their piece of rock, looking on in secret envy at the modern shellfish with their trendy shells, eating their fast food. 

'Look at all those youngsters rushing about, Henry, why are they in such a hurry?'

'I don't know dear, some of them are even going on the land.  What's the world coming to?'

But finally, now they were exposed to the sea, the inevitable happened.  Hilda and Henry realised that they were ammonite spirits.  They were dead, but their souls had been unable to leave their bodies because they had been trapped in rock for millions of years.  And now they were free to go.  One day Hilda thought to herself,

'Actually it would be rather nice if I could go crawling on the sea bed again like I did when I was a lass,'...and the next thing she knew she was out of her rock crawling with the living shellfish. 

'Yewellellweloo'  The shellfish screamed in terror and crawled away as fast as they knew how.  They had just seen a ammonite ghost.

Soon Henry was free as well and together they were filled with a curiosity and sense of adventure they hadn't felt for millimillennia.  So they decided to explore the dry land.  To their amazement they found creatures like them on the land.  These creatures, called 'snails', seemed more used to ghosts.  They said they saw the ghosts of humans, whatever they were, all the time at night.  Henry and Hilda liked the snails.

'These chaps are much nicer than the others aren't they Hilda, they don't seem so frightened.'

'Yes dear, but I do wish they wouldn't rush around so much.' said Hilda, who was quite worn out with all the talking she and Henry had been doing.

And so they went to where the greatest population of snails was gathered.  Which is how they found their way to our allotment.

4.    Allotment

It was Spring and the snails and just woken up from snoozing on the underside of plastic sheets and at the bottom of damp piles of wood.  They hovered invisibly at the edge of the allotment.  They were very hungry.

I suppose, in a way, Henry and Hilda had just woken up too.  But they found they didn't need to eat.  In fact they couldn't.   They tried biting on a few leaves but their mouths made no imprint.  It was so frustrating and they began to wish they were back in their rock.

And here our Wendy and I come into this tale.  We been digging the previous day and now came to the allotment with trays of seedlings which we had lovingly and painstakingly grown from seed.  We planted rows and rows of sweet and tender broad beans, peas and lettuce.  We knew the snails where there, waiting to pounce.  But snails are cunning and had hidden well. 

We tried to gather them up in a bucket, but could only find a few.  Two of them were a ghostly albino white, but they looked dead so we left them.  The others we humanely disposed of in a neighbour's garden.  We would return later when the others had been lured out by our new plants...before they’d had any chance to eat them of course. 

However we were delayed by really important and unavoidable business.  But as soon as the Simpsons had finished we got on our bikes and cycled back to the allotment, now in twilight.

It was a massacre.  Hundreds and hundreds of snails were silently munching on our tender seedlings.  I said silently, but two of them, the white ones we had thought to be dead, seemed to be wailing.  Little did we know it was poor Henry and Hilda.  There were the snails having an orgy and a feast.  They were gorging on the beautiful sweet leaves and then they were passionately making love between what was left of the rows.  But all Henry and Hilda could do was watch and wish they could join in.  Suddenly they realised they would never be able to eat.  And they understood that they never had, and never would be able to consummate their 200 million year old relationship. 

But the joy of the other snails was not to last long.  Us humans declared war.  We dashed among the snails picking them up and putting them into our buckets.  We collected hundreds.  We tried to pick up the white ones, but somehow our fingers seemed to pass right through them.  But when we had finished we looked in a bucket and there they were in with the other snails.  It was weird.

5.    Dinner

We were very angry.  Our crop was ruined.  So we did something very cruel.  We took the snails to Gigi!  She did what only the French know how to do to snails and a few days later we collected them, ready to cook, dressed with garlic.  'Zee white ones..I could not do anysing wiz zeez' said Gigi, 'But somehow zey are steel here'  'It ees strange but ze seem to be crying.'

Yes they were.  Henry and Hilda had lost their home in the rock.  They had discovered they couldn't eat or make love.  And now they had lost their new friends.

We ate the snails as a starter.  They were delicious.  And then we had some tender steak also cooked in garlic and served with a sharp tangy sauce.   But we were put off by the gentle sobbing that seemed to come from the two white snails left in the bowl that we didn't seem to be able to pick up.

Gradually we realised they were ghosts, although we thought they were the ghosts of snails.  We had no idea they were ammonite spirits millions of years old.  'They're unhappy,' said Wendy, who knows about these things.  'They need to be released, perhaps we should call a priest.'

'Is that so,'  I said.  'Forgive me, but I had no idea snails were Christian, especially judging by what they've done to our allotment.  Perhaps we should find a shaman who specialises in snail exorcisms.  I expect we'll find one at Glastonbury.' 

I was chewing on a rather gristly piece of steak, and so I took it from my mouth and dropped into the bowl where Henry and Hilda were lying, still sobbing.  Suddenly, as the steak touched them, they vanished.

And so Henry and Hilda went to a better place.  To snaily heaven and an eternal life that would make two hundred million years seem like a few seconds.  Souls that had been trapped on earth, but which had been finally released by the traditional means…of garlic and a sharp steak.

© 2003 Ged Duncan

Storytellers are authorised to tell or perform this tale in private or at not-for-profit groups.  If you wish to tell this as part of a performance please contact me.  There will not necessarily be a charge for community-based artists, but I would like to be credited and to know when the story is being used.

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