Meditations on a Slug

My mind moves sluggishly much of the time—like a slug, this pudgy porous creature millimetering outside my door. Look how perfectly it forms itself around whatever surface it’s traversing, the way two lovers’ bodies fit each other head-to-toe, no matter what their separate sizes are when they’re afoot.

Even more perfect than lovers’ bodies is this fit, for the slug conforms to all surfaces: to the gravel, the crack in the sidewalk, the corncob that my son puts out for it, crooning, “Here little sluggie, slug on over here.” If total contiguity is love, the slug is a world-lover.

So too does my mind work sometimes if I let it, if I stick to a subject long enough, not just walking over it and saying, “I know it, I’ve been there,” but, sluglike, not worrying about “covering ground” but knowing with every part of me the ground I do cover.

The slug moves best when no one else is watching. If you stand above it, it will never arrive, not in any length of time you can endure. Close the door on it, do something else, trust in the locomotive power of the slug.

It moves most surely under cover of night, when the cold, moist air rises from the hollows, coating every surface and infiltrating each crevasse. The slug thrives in this element. It advances, its passage blazing a trail like that of the jet which gleams briefly in the moonlight before the inevitable dulling. Some might call this “slime,” but it is not; “mucus” is too clinical; call it instead the fluid of its holy motion. Sustained, advanced by it, the outcome is certain: left to its own resources, the slug arrives.

And I, too: if I let my pencil move across the page and back, across and back, not worrying where my trail of words is tending, if with all my feelers out I simply proceed, I eventually arrive. I look up, surprised at the quantity of motion that took place, at how different the world looks from my new perspective, surprised most of all by the golden kernel shimmering before me, which all this time unknowingly I was heading towards.

 

In the morning, first thing, he runs to the door, flings it open, and there the slug might be, loitering in the vicinity of the corncob, or (happy day!) nestled in the mollusk he laid out for it. He gets down on his hands and knees, puts his face up close and studies it, tries as hard as he can not to poke it.

Sometimes he does poke it because he has to, murmuring, “Roll over, slug, show me how you move.”

It rolls, but not over. With the furious speed of reflex, it curls inward around its treasure. “If you kill me, you’ll never know me,” it tells him. “To know me, watch what I do.”

He watches, he knows.

And the slug knows him too, he insists. The same one every morning awaits his greeting, or if there is more than one, they are a family. Confidently, he points out the genders, the relations.

Meanwhile, out on the roads, sidewalks, paths, they move all night long, incalculable numbers of them. A woman up the road once tried counting them. Three times a day every day she plucked them from the broad leaves of her cabbage plants, dropped them in a coffee can, and took them far into the woods, where she released them. In this way, over forty days, 2,450 five slugs were transported before she abandoned her cabbage and her counting.

 

He bursts into my study, wild-eyed and panting. “Papa, help! Mr. Shuttles is killing the slugs again!”

I wince; we have been through this before. Drawing back the curtain, I see him, our neighbor the ex-bombardier, an angel of doom limping from the shed with his executioner’s tools: a rusty can of kerosene and a spatula.

I let the curtain drop. We don’t want to watch what will take place. He’ll patrol the porch and sidewalk until he finds one. He’ll douse it, inspect its writhing death, and then, with one deft motion of the spatula, discard the corpse. I know him: these are not slugs he kills; they’re submarines bristling with torpedoes which could shred the metal hull that beats back memory. Only if he gets them all will he remain intact. The wife who died too soon and the daughter who left home will not trouble him tonight.

“We have to do something!” my son cries, lunging for the door. I grab him by the wrist.  

“I’m afraid there’s nothing to be done.”

He writhes and yells, pummeling my thighs. I lift him off the ground and pinion his arms in a hug. Finally he relents, flings his head on my shoulder, weeps. Running my hand through his curls, I whisper, “He won’t get them all. He won’t get ours.”

 

That evening we advance into the dusky world beyond our fringe of light. Stepping softly, holding hands, we are on a mission to relieve the weight of doubt. They are nowhere at first, and he is tense, his forefinger, the one he strokes them with, twitching in my palm. The path narrows and the trees close in. Light retreats to the sky and to the lanterns of his eyes. A tide of air arrives: first the backwash, damp tendrils tickling the cheeks and eyelashes, and then the immersion. Our pores, nostrils, lungs expand to meet it.

Suddenly they are everywhere, emerging from the mulch on the forest floor and from underneath the sodden logs. The path that a moment before was ours alone has come alive with glimmering bodies—rust-red, brown, black, even luminescent yellow. In clusters, pairs, or solitary, they are angled every which way. The ridges and furrows of their sleek backs are rippling, antennae quivering.

And we too, no longer afoot but afield, feel more than we see—this animal presence, this atmosphere, this kernel of glad truth: the world holds more slugs than anyone can count or kill.

RICK KEMPA

Poet and essayist Rick Kempa lives in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Recently retired after thirty years of teaching at Western Wyoming College, he has embarked on a path of full-time writing and walking. http://www.rickkempa.com