When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Genderless Mollusk

"Black Arion," a short story by Charlie J. Stephens

reflective snail

When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Genderless Mollusk

Black Arion

Daisy is a show pony and she always has been. She’s got the pompoms, the leotard, the hip-hop dance class at the YWCA, the youth theater auditions, the singing lessons, and the piano recitals. She’s got the special smile she uses when there’s a camera nearby and she says Please and Thank you without ever having to be reminded. She’s only nine now, two years younger than me, but I don’t feel like I’ve got any kind of first-born clout here.

My family lives near the ocean, and the salt air eats away at the foundation of our house each winter, but this is not something Daisy would ever notice. While she’s plié-ing in the kitchen, I’m studying the way everything under us is cracking apart, splintering, and coming undone. There are fractures on the patio, and the walls sometimes seem to swell and sway, barely able to stand the pressure.

Sometimes when Ronny, my stepdad, is out with his friends, and Mom is at work, and Daisy is looking at herself in the mirror or whatever she does, I go down into the cellar. It’s cold down there, so it’s best in the summer. The slugs all move in for the moisture, crawling along the damp floor, leaving trails of silver. The main kind of slugs we have are the shiny black ones called Black Arions. I looked them up, found out they’re hermaphrodites. I wasn’t sure what a hermaphrodite was, so had to look that up too. Sometimes when I look up stuff, I tell Ronny and he’s usually impressed that I know so much, but this isn’t something I want to explain to Ronny.

Earlier this summer there was a day when everyone was out, and I did something I’d been thinking about doing for a long time. I went to the cellar, took off all my clothes, and lay down in the middle of all the slugs. It felt like hours, waiting. A lot of them came close then stopped, curled up or changed directions. But then finally one and then another slowly made their way up my side, crossing the landmass of me. I tried to stay completely still, pretended I was a corpse. I wondered what we looked like as their cold bodies glided over mine, wondered what someone would think if they walked through the door and saw. Then I imagined it was me coming through the door, looking down at my own body. Flat chest, slender hands and feet, and all my pet slugs around me, a whole kingdom. I saw myself and thought, “Here’s someone who is interesting at least.”

But I’m not sure anyone else would agree.

Now, I can’t get the idea of a hermaphrodite out of my head. I feel distracted with it all the time. Wonder if I know any hermaphrodites. Sometimes I think Ronny might be a hermaphrodite. Once I saw him in Mom’s dress and they were laughing in the bedroom and closed the door and kept on laughing, and they never said anything about it later. Mom could be one too. She’s got these thick hairs above her lip that she sometimes forgets to pluck and when they grow out there’s a dark shadow there.

My dad left us when I was one, and I don’t remember him. Mom says I don’t need to worry about him because I got her genes. She said before I was born she thought I might come out black, because he was black, but I’m almost as white as her, prone to sunburns. I did have dark, curly hair like him when I was little but it has lightened—Mom says with the sun—and softened over time. I wish I had something from him, something I could point at and say, “See, this is from my dad.”

Daisy is my half-sister, but I’ve known her almost my whole life. Sometimes I feel bad just calling Ronny my stepdad because he’s been here for so long. Daisy has all the luck. She’s good at everything, has two parents who made her on purpose, and she’s pretty in a way that people recognize, even just on the street. When she was younger, and some stranger would say how cute Daisy was, Mom would always correct them.

“She’s not cute, she’s INTELLIGENT,” Mom would tell them, and give them the eye.

Most people didn’t seem to understand, probably were horrified that this mother was yelling in the grocery store about how her daughter wasn’t cute. People generally haven’t exclaimed about my cuteness, but I do get some attention. Mom says I’m precocious, and when she says it I know I have something Daisy doesn’t have. This past year, right before school let out, I got sent to the office because the teacher told us to make Father’s Day cards, and I told her that her assumptions about the nuclear family were misguided. She just stared back at me with her round mouth open like a cave, and I could see her gold fillings in the back, before her lips got hard and tight and she told me to leave the room. The principal called home, but that night when she got off work, Mom just gave me a big hug.

“The nuclear family is misguided, huh?” she asked me before lights-out. She leaned in my doorway and rolled herself a cigarette.

I told her that a few months back I had heard her talking with her friend Francis—that I’d sat in the hallway and listened as they drank wine and blew cigarette smoke out the window.

“Francis said nuclear families were nothing to strive for and were often pretty dysfunctional,” I reminded her.

Mom smiled and gave me this look she gives me sometimes. “You’ve got a good memory, kiddo. I’m scared to ask what other conversations you’ve eavesdropped on,” she said, laughed a little, turned out my light, and went to go smoke.

But I couldn’t sleep. I wondered what else Mom talked about with Francis when they thought no one was listening. Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I think about the Black Arions in the basement, living their hermaphrodite lives. I picture their slick black bodies, their movements so slow and sure. If I visualize them long enough I can usually fall asleep. Sometimes though, I keep worrying about things. My biggest fear is that I’ll grow up to be a regular woman with boobs and kids and stresses. I don’t want that, not at all.

My friend Stacey just got a bra and I can tell she is so proud of it, like she’s getting somewhere, like she’s grown up. I don’t mind that she’s excited, but I don’t have much to say because that’s the last thing I want. I don’t want to explain anything though because I might end up telling her about the slugs and she wouldn’t understand. I can’t think of anyone who would understand. Not Mom, not Ronny, and definitely not Daisy. I wonder if my dad would understand, like maybe he left because he agreed that a nuclear family wasn’t all that great, and maybe he was precocious like me, and wouldn’t think it was weird if he knew about me and the Black Arions.

I thought everyone was out again today when I went to the basement. I took off my clothes and lay down in the spot I liked, near the window that looked out at the yard at eye level, so I could see the overgrown grass and the ocean winds blowing the cedar tree. There was one Black Arion out, and it was curled in a ball of silver it had made. I curled in a ball too. Then it stretched out a little and moved, and I tried to copy what it did exactly. I wasn’t thinking of it as a dance, but for a second I could understand why Daisy liked to practice her assemblés and arabesques over and over. I stayed on the floor for a while, making the same shapes as the slug, but I was getting cold. When I pushed myself over, I saw her feet first, housed in pink ballet shoes, and when I looked up, there was Daisy, staring at me with a look on her face that made my stomach turn icy.

“Mom! Dad!” she screamed, strangely guttural and hoarse, in a terrified voice I’d never heard before. “Help!” Like it was an emergency.

Mom and Ronny came running down the stairs, stopping next to Daisy a few feet away from me. I stood there before them, shivering and naked.

No one said anything at all.

Below us, the Black Arion stretched itself out, gracefully covering everything in silver, looking like it was having the time of its life.

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