"Why does Kuo Ming build the stone shrine instead of taking care of his farm?" asked the trainer. Our trainer is from Chicago, quick-witted, sleek-shirted. This was the last week of September.
It's so obvious I can hardly bother putting it into words. But we're supposed to write a few sentences. And so, "Grief," I write. And am done.
But I want to be helpful. Our trainer is so enthusiastic. I try again, "Grief @ being re-orphaned." Do we really have to go through all of this?
But he -- the trainer -- wants evidence from the text. And I am good at this, and so . . . .
Kuo Ming is orphaned
page 110: "He lived alone. His parents had died two years before" and page 109: "He walked slowly, for he was not eager to return to his house."
Then he's not orphaned
After finding a snail and bringing it home -- page 111: "the farmer found his dinner waiting for him on the table -- a bowl of cooked rice, steamed vegetables, and a cup of hot tea," and "the next evening, his dinner was again waiting for him - and this time there was a branch of wild peach set in a vase on the table," or page 112: "Every evening, his dinner was waiting, and always there was a wildflower in the vase," and page 113: "his loneliness disappeared. He skipped to the fields in the morning and walked quickly home in the evening. His dinner was always waiting. The house was shining. The air was sweet. And his heart was full."
Then he's re-orphaned
page 115: "He stood in the pouring rain a long time. Then he went back into the house. The snail shell was there. He picked it up. No living creature was inside" and "He thought only of White Wave and how to bring her back."
I admit this is a magic story for me. So why am I reluctant to look at it more closely? My heart has leapt up, beating more fierce to see this story show up today, of all days, a story about a snail who is really the moon goddess . . .
She was pure light. Her dress was made of silk, and as she moved, her dress rippled, changing from silver to white to gold. Wherever she stepped in the room, the room shone.
I loved reading this story, recognizing it even though I'd never heard it before. A moon snail who is really the good mother returning. Who when she leaves -- as she must leave -- leaves an empty shell that is not really empty. A shell that in the young farmer's last, most desperate need pours out blessing.
The farmer held the shell in front of him. Then he raised it in the air, and with his last strength he cried: White Wave, I need you.
Slowly he turned the shell toward him. A wave of gleaming white rice cascaded out of the shell and onto the floor. He dipped his hands into it. The rice was solid and firm.And of course, I explain later, when it's my turn to talk in the training class -- there are twenty-seven of us, teachers, specialists, volunteers learning to teach our town's students to read more richly -- Of course, I say, the farmer never needs to call on her again. He is the shell. He had thought he was empty when he was abandoned again and again. He built the stone shrine as another shell, a better shell, trying to make a space where life might want to enter in again. Until he realizes he may be a shell but he is not empty.
It has made my heart full of light to read this story. To have it appear like this in the last week of September, claiming me right while I'm pursuing my duties, all in the midst of the self-forgetting forging that adopting a new child has been . . . it's like getting a letter from a faraway friend.
Because the snail, you know. Because once, when I was working my way through heavy weather, my mother-the-therapist, hoping to help, asked me to consider what animal I might be. The totem of my soul.
And because that morning, or the morning before, I had been out walking after a rain, the animal most fresh in my mind had been a small white snail I had stooped to see. I had stooped, then scooped it softly, its lightness resting in the little valley of the palm of my hand before I set it back down on the green grass away from the dangers of the road.
The sight of the snail had struck me to the heart. Oh my soul, I had said, here you are! So small and brave and uncomplaining. The pearly iridescence of her neck, the nuance of her eyestalks, her questing the air for the smells she was seeking, retracting with discrimination, yearning forward. I had coveted the snug self-providence of the shell that allowed her to move through a wet world without ever going homeless.
And so I told my mother, "A snail."
"Oh," my mother said, her voice turning professional and bright. But I know my mother so well and she could not hide her dismay. She didn't want to think of me so burdened down, so slow, so shy, so ready to retire. She wanted me to be something bolder, braver. Something bigger at least.
And so I retracted, "Or . . . a dog? Maybe a watch dog?" And after that if I mentioned snail it was to speak disparagingly of what was weak in me.
But in the way that the forbidden always looms all the louder in its brooding silence, the snail became more and more my secret sign. A symbol, a story I did not care to interpret. Just to know that there was some persevering iridescence, some sheltered vulnerability. To know my soul traveled. Slowly. Without apology. Was everywhere at home.
Only once did I find myself telling a new friend a little of this story. When she later wrote a myth of her own, I read it like a better echo, booming back louder and changing.
So now to be given this other snail story like an unlooked-for gift in this last week of what I am coming to see as the last month of my inner year -- this month that I have spent renaming the months to come: October: Keeping Time, November: Binding Up Lost Pages, December: Learning to Dance, January: . . . what should this month be called? Living in a Nutshell? Counting on Fibonacci? . . . The story appeared and I already knew what was going to happen when the young sad farmer notices a small white stone that is not really, after all, white but all the colors of the rainbow, and not a stone but a snail.
"And what was the most wonderful good fortune -- it was alive!"I knew like Kuo Ming knows "though no one had told him" that the lovely girl the snail turns into is really a moon goddess. I knew like he knows "though no one had told him, that he must never try to touch her."
"How does he know?" asked one of the teachers in our group. She was the same one who answered the trainer's opening question ("Why does Kuo Ming build the stone shrine instead of taking care of his farm?") with "Well, he broke the rules. He had to atone for being a rule-breaker."
Other people said, "He had an unhealthy obsession. He was sick and selfish and had to almost starve himself before he got over it."
Or, "He owed her a home that didn't include him getting housework and free meals."
Or, "To honor her and glorify her out of gratitude for being so good to him."
They each said their answers as if each were as obvious as "Grief @ being re-orphaned."
Hello, said the snail. Have you forgotten me?
How many ways could this story be told?