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Leave a trail: where we’ve gone, what we did

/ 09:43 PM December 26, 2013

Not all children are young. One fine day, I found myself playing in the garden with children who are not my age, who are really young, moved by nothing but the gushing of the river of life in their veins. A wayward ball tossed my way rolled under the hedge. Going down on my knees to retrieve it, I discovered a solitary land snail slowly making its way across the street. A shaft of sunlight fell upon the trail of slime it left, transforming the trail into a ribbon of iridescent colors.

Later in the day, I noticed that the snail had become road kill. It was then I realized that the year was about to end, that the annual ritual of spring-cleaning was at hand, and that it was time to visit my old china cabinet of seashells that had long been gathering dust and cobwebs in the basement. As night descended—a big black bird with wings outspread—I hunkered down to the task of cleaning and buffing the shells. As I did, one by one these thoughts came to me, like moths drawn to the call of a lantern in the gathering dark.

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I wrote them down, for you to remember, for me not to forget.

A snail leaves a shining path that you can follow, to know where it’s been, to know where it’s going. Most men leave no trail of their passing, leave no record, no shell, of their sojourn. It’s a puzzle to me why some men, said to be the measure of all things, leave no mark when they go, leave no imprint of their existence when they die. Snails leave a trail of slime as they go. When they die they bequeath something of themselves—their shells—which will not rot or wear away. You, who all your life just took and took, what have you given? What will you leave?

I have finished cleaning my showcase; it is as bright and shiny as it can be. The shells no longer exude the odor of fish and brine, but when you put one against your ear you can hear the roar of the ocean inside your head, imagine the sea rearing and prancing, down to the details of the lace of froth on the undulating skirt of the surf. They resound with the sigh of mermaids, the song of sirens. Shorn of its patina of dust, stripped of its fine film of neglect, my shell collection has again become beautiful to behold, but the glass that covers it all also reflects my image—that of a tired old man looking upon these leavings, of lives once lived, of houses once occupied and then forsaken.

I find I cannot stop thinking about my own mortality. These shells stand before me, mocking with their permanence the impermanence of my existence. When I die, will I be placed in a glass case for people to see? If you see me then, under the glass, what will you say? What will you recall—my tender mercies or my cruelties? Will you spit on the glass, or weep? Will you light a candle and say a little pray’r for me, or will you light that same candle, place it underneath my coffin, and torch me straight to hell? Will your vacillation matter to me then? Should I mind that you brought roses and not lilies? Should you not have loved me while I lived?

I will never be a child again, though it was ever my ambition to be a boy once I grow old. Just this morning, in the garden of oblivion, my futile attempt to return to that far fantastic world we call childhood showed me why that is not to be. My reflexes now slow, my responses dull and dense, I find I have to sit down and rest every so often, huffing and puffing like a wolf before a house that will not fall.

These shells, gathered from many beaches when I was still tumid and turgid with the sap of youth, sit before me, eloquent in their silence. They seem to say: Soon, old man, your time will come, to join us here in eternal vigil. When that time comes, can I withstand scrutiny and examination by a public that comes to gawk, that takes great pleasure in seeing such loquaciousness laid to rest, such garrulity stilled at last?

While they lived, the tenants of these shells were hobbled by being born single-footed; they had to carry their heavy houses on their backs. They were soft, slimy, ugly and unlovable. In spite of those impediments, their race has prospered on this earth for 600 million years! Can you imagine? Had you been asked to carry a burden that big behind your back and you a cripple, could you have managed? Could you have done better? I wonder. I wonder.

Take a lesson from the snail. Be a snail if you cannot be a man. Burdened by the sad accretion of the years, why haven’t you thought of making a pearl, a pearl that is the pit and putamen of all that you are? We must leave a slime trail, a shining path of where we’ve gone, what we did in our lifetime. We must leave a shell of who we’ve been, a shell worthy of being put on display in a glass case, observed under a luminous light, in the numinous silence—a life examined. Appreciated. Treasured and kept. Loved.

For some, the stairs turn but once and then—the precipice, the fall, the end. Therefore, live while you live. Do what you can while you can. Ascend the winding staircase of your house, go to the top, to the very end of yourself, go! Make mad, dirty, slimy, sticky love like the snail. Love as you must, because you must. Love.

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Antonio Calipjo Go is the academic supervisor of Marian School of Quezon City.

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