Snails set the pail down on the path and moved his jaw about to soothe the soreness from carrying it around. He looked about him to triple check that he was alone; nothing save the worn stones on the path with grass and dandelions poking out from cracks here and there, a pail full of vegetables and a few odd plants that Snails had picked up, and, of course, the tool shed, with one dusty window, a warped wooden door, and a roof in bad need of re-shingling. The ache receded, and the brown unicorn carefully bit down on the pail’s handle and carried it over to the shed’s door. He gave the area a once-over one more time, then closed his eyes and concentrated. His horn began to spark, and with some straining he cracked the door open just wide enough to put his hoof in the gap, then pushed the door open, entered the shed, and closed the door as slowly as he could—not quietly, the hinges squealed anyway.
The inside of the shed was dim, with only the light from the window coming in, catching the dust motes. It was still lit well enough for Snails to make out the spider web strung across the shelves in the corner, the small hole along the wall to the right where the ants could get in, the cracked seal on the window where the lady bugs and all sorts of things came in, and, of course, the boxes in the corner on top of an old dusty trunk, one smaller than the other. Not that Snails needed light to know where everything was; he could find it blindfolded and spun around three times.
He laid the pail down on the corner of the trunk gingerly then sat on the floor and sighed. The dusty smell and the silence were almost intoxicating. Not like anything he could get at home or anywhere else in Ponyville, except maybe at the library the few times he could go there on Sunday afternoons and it was vacant. Any other day there were too many people and it bothered him, not just because he wanted to be alone but they always gave him weird looks when he poured through the entomology texts, even Ms. Cheerilee the one time he saw her there. But despite all the books, the library paled in comparison to this shed because it lacked—
“Insects!” Mom would say, furiously swinging a broom at some corner of his room. “Always with the insects! Didn’t I tell you I don’t want those disgusting things in my house?” And he would reply, “Yes, Mom,” as straight as he could and she would say “And I told you to stop showing them to the foals at school, you know no filly wants to see those nasty pests!” And he would reply, “Yes, Mom,” while averting his eyes.
If only this were his room. He looked up at the web and saw the spider resting in it, making a move here and there but staying still for the most part. He smiled and almost chuckled to himself. Mom would call that an insect too. Shows what she knew; even the pony most unfamiliar of entomology knew spiders weren’t insects. They also knew that common house spiders--parasteatoda tepidariorum, he remembered from the book he had read cover to cover in the library--weren’t a pest at all, eating the flies and mosquitoes. He tilted his head. He had missed watching it eat today, and resolved to come by earlier next time.
Speaking of food…Snails got to his feet, remembering his original mission. He walked over to the trunk and nudged the lid off the left box in which he had cut multiple small slits that would allow in air and some light and nothing else. He frowned; he’d have to get some proper glass containers, or at least a small fish tank, when he got the money, however he would manage that. Inside greeted him were some grasshoppers with some dry grass and a few half-eaten leaves in the box. Snails levitated the half eaten leaves out of the box as gently as he could and put in some new ones as well as some grass from the pail. He imagined that if grasshoppers could smile they would now, as they moved towards the fresh food. Snails smiled and cocked his head slightly, as if admiring a newborn foal, and reminisced back to his first encounter with the insects.
It had been during recess on a nondescript school day when he spotted it hiding in the grass. There was something great about it, how it nonchalantly clung to a blade of grass, blending into it as if it had chosen its colors instead of being born with them. So great, indeed, that he had to share it with someone, and called over one of the fillies to look at it, but instead of recognizing the grasshopper for its brilliance she quickly crushed it under her hoof with a cry of disgust. Snails didn’t even realize he had hit her until she was laying on the ground, nose bleeding and tears streaming from her face, while all the other foals and the teachers came running to see the crying filly, although the teachers were more interested in accosting him and leading him away. Then came the conferences, and he never thought he’d hear then end of Dad’s ranting—although Snails noted he did seem to have turned a record-breaking shade of red—and no playing outside or dessert or anything but a look of disbelief from Mom and a scowl of disgust from Dad for the next two weeks or so. He stayed silent every time they asked why he did it, figuring it wasn’t worth the effort to try to figure out why no one cared that the filly just killed something beautiful for no reason.
Snails shook his head to rid himself of the memory and moved onto the smaller box which he had given the same treatment as the box before. He opened it to reveal a small garden snail--helix aspersa—and his eyes lit up, erasing the last remnants of sadness from him. Slightly giddy, he placed his remaining leaves of lettuce into the box, then drew out the carrot and began to munch slowly himself. This moment, just sitting there nibbling at a carrot while watching bugs eat, was heaven, the highlight of his day, what he daydreamed about during math. It was more relaxing than Dad’s big new armchair or the hot chocolate that overly-energetic pink pony passed out at Sugarcube Corner on snow days.
He again slipped back into reverie watching the gastropod eat. The first time he saw one, on a school picnic, it enthralled him. He could have watched it ooze across the park bench for hours, moving steady and undeterred across chipped white paint and warped worn wood. No one had bothered him, except for Snips who only came to tell him to stop staring at that stupid slug and hurry and get some of the carrot cake before it was all gone. Snails only glared in reply, and the chubby blue unicorn quickly decided the mission was pointless and ran over to secure his share of the sweets. There was only a smattering of apples, vegetables, and pie crumbs left when the snail had finally finished his pilgrimage across the bench and the unicorn went to get what remained of the lunch. It all tasted so much better, though.
It was the morning after when it happened, when he reluctantly drew back the covers to rise to his shrieking alarm clock and he caught sight of his flank, now bearing a purple caricature of a snail. His resultant cheers caused his parents to rush in—“Are you out of your mind, young man? It’s too early for that ruckus!”—and he pointed to his cutie mark with the widest smile he ever managed. One of the shortest as well, as it atrophied in the face of Mom’s own smile, clearly forced with a “That’s wonderful, honey!” faker than a two-and-three-quarters bit coin. And if his Mom’s display caused his smile to shrink, Dad’s killed it, shaking his head with a scowl and turning to leave the room, muttering about that boy being slow. Snails could barely answer Snips’s excited interrogation about his cutie mark with soul in his voice when he got to school, and that night dinner seemed even quieter than usual.
But he decided he was fine with slow. If slow what he was destined to be then there was no sense in being fast. Mayflies were fast; they moved in a hurry, learned in a hurry, loved in a hurry, died in a hurry. It didn’t make much sense to Snails but he figured that was just one more thing he just couldn’t understand.
Slow was better anyway. This snail knew what it was doing. It was barely halfway through the leaf, munching it slow, the way you were supposed to eat--what’s the point of good food if you eat it all in two bites? It lazed across the leaf, the way you were supposed to move—how could you find three bits in the street if you’re always running to make it here and there and over there all the time?
Snails finished his carrot. He could hardly draw his eyes off the mollusk, but it was growing late and he did not need any more angry lectures than he already got if he could avoid it. He bid the snail, grasshopper, and spider good night as if they were small children, promising he’d visit again tomorrow. He gingerly replaced the lids on the boxes, took the pail in his teeth by the handle, and backed out of the shed, nudging the door open. He took one long glance around to see if anyone was there, then broke into a run back to the house, stopping once or twice to pick the pail back up when it slipped from his mouth.
* * *
Snails munched at his dinner of broccoli (again) absently, daydreaming about the tool shed. His father was less than pleased and close to livid when he got home—“Do you know why we even bought you a watch!”—and grounded him, and Snails couldn’t find a way to weasel off after school to visit his small friends. He had at least the comfortable near-silence of the dining table, until his mother’s voice shattered it.
“You know, dear, we really ought to do something about that tool shed.”
“Yeah?” his father replied, mouth full.
“You never use it and it’s so old. It’s such an eyesore.” Snails perked up, eyes fixed on his mother.
His father swallowed. “I’ll get to using it, don’t worry. What do you even want done with it?”
“Oh, I don’t know, spruce it up a bit or something?”
“Spruce it—it’s a shed for tools, not an art project!”
“I know I know but that doesn’t mean it has to look so…bleh! And it’s filthy anyway. I was cleaning it this morning and there were all kinds of bugs and things in there, it took forever to clear them out!”
Snails’s heart rocketed to his throat. His mouth was agape, prepared to stutter but too shocked to do even that.
“Snails, honey, don’t open your mouth with food in it, that’s rude. Anyway, there are still some of them there; I want you to clean it out entirely tomorrow. And make sure you throw out those torn-up boxes!”
“Yeah yeah I’ll get some pesticide or something, jeez. You act like I don’t have better things to do than turn a shed into a mansion.”
Snails stared back down at his plate, not daring to meet anyone’s eyes. He ate the rest of his meal which now tasted as if it had turned to ash, ignoring his parents’ squabble, and went off to his room wordless, as if in a trance. He locked the door behind him, apathetic to the fact that his father would yell at him for that later, and collapsed on his bed, burying his head in his pillow to muffle the sobs. The next day at school he was even more silent than usual, not even responding to Snips’s usual pestering, and afterwards he went straight home. When he arrived he dashed inside, averting his eyes from the trash set out in front of his house, specifically the dusty crushed boxes.