Life Cycle

Materialized by Max Wheeler on Friday, September 22nd 2023.

Of all things, they placed a snail in Arnaud’s chest when he was born. There were other options available—tiny tiger, hyena, salamander—and he would never understand why his parents chose the gastropod. He was whisked away as soon as he could eat solid foods, so he never got the chance to ask.

At the school, kids would sometimes sneak looks inside each other’s cavities, carefully cracking the little doors open just a sliver, not wanting the animals to escape before full gestation. They had all heard the story of the girl whose snake had slithered out in year 6 and never been recovered.

“What happened to her?” someone always asked.

And then the teacher would give the whole class a look that said, you already know what happened to her, everything you can imagine and worse, now let’s get back to our math lesson.

They were all excited for graduation day, when they would throw open their chests and proudly show their creatures to the world. Fully developed, with a strong bond, the animals would no longer be a flight risk.

But Arnaud wasn’t excited. Nobody was impressed by the soft worming antennae, the slimy stomach foot. He dreaded the slick mucous shine that would no doubt come to characterize his presence somewhere. He thought he might keep the cavity shut forever.

A few weeks before graduation, a commotion erupted in the year 8 dormitory. Ellabelle had released her mink—it was unclear if she was careless or overconfident—and it had run off down the hall. Somebody quickly found it in a bathtub, but she was already in hysterics. A hall mother scooped up the creature and held it near Ellabelle’s face, which was distorted with fear and rage. “Here you are, dear. No need to scream about it. She’s back, ready to reunite. Here we are.”

But Ellabelle seemed not to hear her. Arnaud watched as she shoved hall mother and chest creature aside and turned on the gathered crowd.

“If I can’t have it, no one can have it,” she screamed, lunching for Venezio’s chest hinge. He was too startled to defend himself, and out burst the capuchin that so many of them had seen only in a stolen glimpse.

There is a beautiful hysteria to crowds of children, which perhaps you’ve seen before, and if you have you can no doubt imagine the scene that roiled here. Grasping fingers, teeth on flesh, high-pitched wails— the children turned on each other with horrifying force, as their animals fled in all directions. The hall mother stood in the middle, yelling. “Calm down, children! Calm down this instant!”

Arnaud wasn’t sure who had wrenched him open, but there was his snail, oozing its way down his striped polo, onto his khaki pants.

He was in the middle of thinking that for once his defects might prove a blessing. It is hard to escape at a snail’s pace. But then Venezio’s elbow made violent contact with Arnaud’s gastropod, and he heard a sickening crunch.

Arnaud’s soul was not only slow, but fragile, too.

The snail’s delicate form was leaking out as a greenish-ochre sludge, fragments of shell stuck to it like bits of egg on a just-hatched, slimy chick.

Arnaud froze.

The death of a creature-self was not discussed with children, and they rarely had the imagination to whisper about it among themselves. Arnaud’s eyes searched the room desperately for a grown up, until he caught the gaze of the hall mother, her hands around a miniature Komodo dragon trying desperately to escape. In the impossible-seeming way of caring adults, she had sensed Arnaud’s distress from across the chaos and was already assessing his situation.

He searched her face for answers, but it was just making distorted shapes at him. If he’d had his faculties, he’d have seen that she was mouthing words: “It will be okay. Go sit down.”

But all Arnaud could take in was his growing dizziness, like a crucial gyroscope had been plucked from his core. He felt made of paper. Then the angle of the wall changed, and he wondered if something was happening to the building for a split second until his body slammed into the floor and he wasn’t wondering anything anymore.

He awoke alone. And nauseated. He was in a place he’d never been in before, but it was too dark to say for certain how he knew that. There was a sense of softened motion, of hushed words. He was afraid, but even his fear was like a cradled thing, small against a greater sense of purpose and rightness.

It was dark forever. He was never hungry. He noticed thoughts floating past: Is this a punishment? Am I Arnaud? How do the pieces of something come together to form a whole?

It occurred to him one day to try to stand, to move his body, and it was then he discovered that there was no body to be found. At least, not like the body he had known. Only softness, and wetness.

There were often sounds, muffled sounds grew larger and deeper, big low sounds that felt like they originated from everywhere all at once, even sometimes inside himself. There was a comfort to them. A familiarity. A known voice.

Every now and then, a blinding light. A sense of exposure.

It may be that he never came to know his own shape. One day, the brightness came and it stayed, and he moved into it, slowly, with gentleness and care, caressing with his whole body the soft textured world that came to meet him. It was loud. And fast. And then, with an indifference born of inevitability, he was crushed again.

Max Schmidt Wheeler is a trans teacher and writer from Oakland, CA. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Metaworker, Beaver Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, Ouch! Collective, and Rough Cut Press. You can find him on Instagram @mxwheels.