Jensen the snail lived by the side of a stream. It was a lively stream, and Jensen was careful to cling to the rocks when he made his way down to the shoreline, but he loved the cool dampness of the moss and the overhanging leaves of the willows and the pattern of light on the water as it danced downstream. He loved his burrow, too, dug deep into the dark, crumbling soil under the roots of his own willow tree, and he liked the succulent plants that grew in the sodden earth.
Jensen got on well with the vole that lived opposite. "Good - " he said every morning, and Violet said, "Hello Jensen, cant stop, isnt it a lovely day? Rain later, pitter patter, worms for tea, worms for me, off for breakfast, beetle - "
" morning," Jensen said, as he watched the tip of Violets tail disappear, waving, over the grass at the top of the river bank. Sometimes he would have a whole sentence prepared for when Violet came home, but she seldom had time to listen. Jensen didnt mind.
And he was on friendly terms with the handsome green frog that lived down by the watercress patch. "Jensen! Jensen! Greeting!" the frog would call, and Jensen would say, "Hel - " and by the time he got to " lo," Frog would be on the other side of the stream. It was the same thing with the sparrow that nested in the willow tree: each year, by the time Jensen had noticed that the chicks had hatched, it was almost time for them to fledge. He never minded if the chicks wanted to test their hardening beaks against his shell it wasnt as if they had any chance of hurting him, and being considerably bigger than the average snail, Jensen made an excellent practice target. And he did appreciate the sweet blackberries and raspberries Sparrow dropped for him to say thank you, but it wasnt as if theyd ever managed a conversation: by the time Jensen opened his mouth, shed flown away.
Instead, Jensen had long, slow discussions with himself, in winter, when he was curled up safe in the spirals of his shell. He was good at repartee, in his head, excellent at arguments: he was witty, and charming, and articulate...
He was lonely.
Jensen had seen other snails. Yellow pin-striped snails, and pale, tiny tightly-whorled flat spiral snails, and garden snails with their round-arched shells and water snails with their conical black shells, but he had never seen another snail like himself. Jensen was big. Fully extended, his single, gently ridged foot was the length of three oak leaves: his conical shell was the same size as a wind fallen cob apple. When they saw how big he was, other snails crawled away as fast as they could. "Im not having eggs with that giant," he heard one mutter. Another said, "Theres no way that burrows cosy."
But Jensen wasnt unhappy. He had the stream, and his burrow, and Violet and Frog and Sparrow. It was just that... sometimes he felt as if there was something missing.
One morning in May, it arrived.
"Hes down by the stream!" Violet exclaimed, as she pattered right over Jensens shell on the way to the meadow.
"Dapper!" croaked Frog, as he leapt over Jensens head.
And Sparrow waggled both wings, dipping dangerously near the water, as she showed Jensen where he needed to travel.
The strange snail was even bigger than Jensen. His shell was massive, his foot heavily muscled, and his horns were as thick as catkins, but his eyes looked kind and the way he undulated when he saw Jensen was uncertain and excited and friendly all at once.
"Hey!" he said. "You must be Jensen!" And although he spoke quickly for a snail, Jensen could understand every word. "Im Jared!"
"Hello," Jensen said carefully, a little uncertain, because hed never met someone just like him before and Jared was beautiful, his shell strongly arched and patterned in shades of pink and cream and brown, gleaming in sunlight, and beside him Jensen thought his own darker colors would look lackluster and dull.
But Jared was so happy to see Jensen his horns were wiggling and his foot was curling up at the edges. "And youre so handsome," he said. "I like your stream. And your willow."
"Really?" Jensen said, charmed.
"Your friend the vole said you were lonely," Jared said. "And I... " His horns drooped a little, and he looked away. "I wondered if... "
Jensen crawled a little closer and canted his own horns encouragingly.
"You wanted a friend?" Jared said.
"I... might do?" Jensen said. He wasnt at all sure if it was friendship that dampened his skin and made his shell feel heavy and tight, and by the way Jared was gently rocking his own shell, he thought the other snail might feel the same way.
"Or... " Jared said, and then he let the edge of his foot touch Jensens. Jared was as cool and damp as Jensens favorite patch of moss, but the underside of his foot was as smooth as a water chestnut and felt wonderful against Jensens skin. Astonished, Jensen let Jared curl them up together, sliding, lubricious, entwined. He found himself lost in the low, sensuous, cool slide of Jareds massive foot against his own. Every tiny, undulating muscle on the base rippled against Jensens own skin, moist and smooth.
"Is this, are you... " Jared asked.
"Yes," Jensen said, and writhed against Jared just to see the other snails horns curl.
"Jensen," Jared breathed, drawing the word out.
Jensen felt languorous, sleepy and wide awake at the same time, so attuned to Jareds body that they curved together as intimately as water, as close, closer, as the reeds on the riverbank. The unexpected brush of Jareds horns against his own was an intimate shock no one had: hed never he snapped his eyes back, shut. "What are you..."
Jared said nothing, but his nose pushed gently against Jensens and the edges of his foot fluttered endearingly. When Jensen flicked his eyes open again, Jared was staring down at him, open eyed and worried, from both horns.
"You dont like me?"
"No, its just, I dont, youre... " helplessly unable to make the words clearly, Jensen bunched his muscles and slowly swung his shell over his back to knock companionably against Jareds, point to point. They were entwined along the full length of their feet, their horns the width of a grass stem apart, sharing mucus with an intimacy that should have been startling but felt instead utterly comfortable. Daringly, Jensen reached out with one of his horns, his eyes so close to Jareds he could see the faintest gleam of hazel under the darkness of the other snails eyes. Jareds skin was smoother, his shell lacking two or three of Jensens mature spiral curves, but the confidence with which he curled his horns against Jensens suggested an experience Jensen lacked. Jensen had never met another of his own kind before, but the assured way Jared had nosed himself up Jensens foot suggested that the other snail had.
"Youre so... " Jared sighed. "Oleaginous." He dragged the word out, longingly liquid. Hed curled further up against Jensens foot, and between the softness of their bodies, Jensen could feel something hard press against his skin. Cool and lubricious, it was part of Jared, a part... like his own. But Jareds part was pressing against Jensen, slow and rhythmic, probing, and Jensen felt himself soften into welcoming liquid where Jared was hard. Then, so slowly Violet found two worms for the wedding feast and Frog gathered a bouquet of meadowsweet, Jareds parts pressed into, actually inside, Jensens.
"Oh," Jensen said, eyes closed, and Jared moved within him slow as winter, cool as spring rain, elegant as a water lily opening to the sun. All day, they twined together, and Violet finally ate the worms and Frog left the meadowsweet at Jensens burrow, but neither of them noticed.
It was evening when they separated, only to wander slowly up to the soft dark soil of Jensens burrow and bury down together, horns still entwined. Jensen was so happy he could almost burst his shell, so fiercely protective of Jared he felt as if he could face anything the dreaded sparrowhawk, the hoof of a cow, the nose of a fox. Eyes closed, he leant the weight of their shells together.
Slowly, happily, Jared said, "Youre going to have such beautiful eggs."
"... sorry?" said Jensen.