Snail Sludge

Firyal El Bawab

Brentwood, CA

King’s Academy

Fiction

     Two-thirty came crawling in the afternoon like the snail Ms. Bittons was watching from her mud green armchair. She didn’t know how it got in. The armored slug left a line of sludge down one pillar of the fireplace that gave the brick touched by it a pretty gloss. An old-fashioned clock tick-tocked hung high above the pit. Ms. Bittons turned to the floor all around her, the wrinkles and flaps of her neck rotating like a reversed blossoming. It was a spotless spread of earthy carpet. She looked at her feet. No trail from Ms. Bitton’s slippers, as thin and worn as they were.

     Ah, there she is. Ms. Bittons perked up. A plump old lady with a snow bob entered the lounge room of the retirement home. The woman tapped the ground with a cane in one hand while shooing away a nurse in the hallway with her other, her arm flapping in the air like a sail. A pair of pale discs in her sockets looked upward. Ms. Bittons giggled to herself then clicked her tongue. What a fool, a fool. Just let them help you, you blind sack.

     It was nap time, and there was only one other person in the room, an elderly man at a brown table to the side playing a solitary game of cards. The curtains and walls hosting the arrived were beige. Mrs. Abel walked over to a faded mint armchair by the fireplace, adjacent to and tilting toward Ms. Bittons. Mrs. Abel leaned her cane against the arm as she lowered herself to nestle into the cushion. The air conditioning was turned off because the nurses thought the weather was nice, but the temperature glazed stale within the hour.

     “What time is it?” Ms. Bittons said.

     Mrs. Abel smiled, staring at the clock. “It’s two-thirty, love,” she said.

     “Really? I need to take my meds.”

     “I bet so. Your bunch is a variant sort,” Ms. Abel said. “It’s like a whole meal.”

     “Mm. About a dozen pills. They have to start giving me something for my back, if they haven’t already. If they did it’s not working. And now there’s something wrong with my foot. Ever since I woke up this morning. I can’t walk properly. It’s probably swollen.”

     Ms. Abel’s eyebrows knitted together. “Oh, that’s a shame, love. A stroll in the garden always makes me feel better. The weather’s very nice today.”

     “What are you talking about? It’s awful. I’m swimming in my own sweat.”

     “Mhmm.” Mrs. Abel reached down beside her, sinking her hand into a knitting basket pushed against the side of her seat. She pulled out a quarter-finished scarf and a pair of rods.

     “That’s an ugly yellow,” said Ms. Bittons. “It’s blinding.”

     “You think so, love? I wouldn’t know.”

     A punch of silence passed, quiet but for Mrs. Abel’s chair creaking. Her hips shifting unconsciously. She had added three strips to the scarf when Ms. Bittons began sharing her existentialist thoughts.

     “You know what I think is the most horrid thing about life, for the most of our lot?” she said. “It’s not horrid enough. Not tragic enough to be precious. It’s slow and mediocre and if I wasn’t scared I’d rather see hell.”

     “I think falling in love is tragic,” said Mrs. Abel. “Have you ever tried it?”

     Ms. Bittons twisted up her face in disgust. “Of course I have, or else what right would I have to be saying all this? I’m certainly certain I’ve had more lovers in my lifetime than you.”

     “I’m certain, too,” said Mrs. Abel.

     “What? You’re certain of what? That you had more lovers or that I had more lovers?”

     “You. That you did.”

     “Oh. What makes you say that?”

     “Because that’s what you said. Don’t you remember?”

     “Of course, I remember. Christ, I know what I said.” Ms. Bittons glanced at her companion. “Would you stop worming already? It’s not a damned rocking chair.”

     “Mhm.” Mrs. Abel stopped, nodded slightly, and continued to work the scarf without pause. “Strange. Didn’t realize I was doing it.”

     Ms. Bittons stared at the fireplace bricks. “Where’s the snail?”

     “What snail?”

     “The snail that was climbing the fireplace. It’s gone. It was right there, and now it’s not.” Ms. Bittons shifted nervously in her seat, then snapped to Mrs. Abel sharply. “Your armchair is going to break right under you. Look, you went right back to it, rocking back and forth as though the damn thing will follow you. It’ll break and then you’ll know I’m right.”

     “Mm.” Mrs. Abel stopped once more.

     “It makes a horrible little screechy noise and I don’t know how you don’t hear it.”

     “Sorry, love.”

     “Oh, you’re not listening!” Ms. Bittons stood up and went over to the lighter chair. “I can tell when you’re not listening. I can tell, it’s when your eyes go glassy. And you make a little consenting noise, so I’ll stop talking. Well damn you!”

     An angry spittle teardrop catapulted from within the lines of Ms. Bitton’s mouth where lips should be, onto Mrs. Abel’s cheek.

     “Lydia, please,” Mrs. Abel said, her colorless gaze skittering upwards, over Mrs. Bitton’s forehead. “People are sleeping.”

     “You’re not listening to me!” said Mrs. Bittons, louder, her face in front of Mrs. Abel’s. “I can tell! Your eyes glaze over. Stop that!” Ms. Bittons dug her fingers into Mrs. Abel’s sockets and scooped out her sightless eyes. “Stop it at once, mother!”

     “Lydia!” Mrs. Abel’s dropped her needles, the ugly yellow scarf rumbling on her lap. Nurses that heard the commotion rushed in and pulled Ms. Bittons away. One of them gently unhooked Mrs. Abel’s eyes from her daughter’s fists as two others led her out of the room by her arms. The first nurse returned the smooth balls in his palms to Mrs. Abel. They were pure glass, transparent as empty snow globes.

     “Thank you, love,” said Mrs. Abel, “But these are dirty now. Do be a dear and put them on the shelf with the rest, and then tell the doctor to whip me up new ones.”

     The nurse obliged, turning to the hearth and lining the prosthetics on the wooden ledge with a pretty clink alongside others rowed like ornaments. The old man at the table playing cards hadn’t moved. The air buzzed with heat and the clock’s unbroken tick-tock but was otherwise peaceful. Mrs. Abel politely smiled up at the nurse as he left, laughter lines crinkling up around her black slits. She picked her needles back up, humming a bit now as her soft hands got back to knitting on muscle memory.

EDITORIAL PRAISE

I love this one. Great exploration of the characters’ clearly complex relationship. The end is disconcerting, but you don’t have to wait that long to be disconcerted.

Firyal Bawab attended King’s Academy in Madaba, Jordan, from which she graduated in 2019. She is Palestinian-Jordanian. She loves her parents and two younger brothers very dearly, who have always supported her writing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR