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A little snail makes a big splash

I first glimpsed Mr. Mossy, a walnut-sized apple snail, cruising the waters while I was tediously dealing with the day's mound of laundry. Yanking open my son's chest of drawers to drop in one more warm load of freshly folded T-shirts and jeans, I glanced at the one-gallon aquarium collecting dust on top of the dresser and froze. I was stunned by the sight of a snail, sailing. Mr. Mossy was poised upon an oval cucumber slice like a seasoned California boy surfing beneath a faraway Western sun.

A couple of years earlier, loving godparents had given my youngest son a small hexagonal-shaped water world in honor of his first birthday. It was delivered with two pale fish, a bottle of Start Right Complete Water Conditioner, and the warning, "Clean water weekly or the fish will die."

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At the time, I was irritated. With four children and eight years of interrupted sleep, the prospect of one more surface to clean and two more mouths to feed felt overwhelming. But my son was excited, so I staged a smile, murmured a thank-you, and took on the responsibility.

By the end of the first week, Darwin's theory of natural selection seemed to have unmercifully prevailed. Flesh, the bigger fish, preyed on Rocky, so named because he hid near the bottom among the rocks.

Unanimously, we decided not to replace Rocky. Flesh was a bully. He could live a solitary life. But a few days later, my prodigal husband and son came home from the fish store with a large snail shell and its accompanying escargot. He was christened Mr. Mossy for the green moss that sprouted along the back of his dark-colored shell.

The fish-store owner told us to toss in an occasional lettuce leaf or cucumber slice to complement the snail's diet of aquarium scum. So every week, after changing the water in the tank, I dropped in salad mixings.

Then I'd pause to watch as our enterprising fresh-water snail slid on top of his thick slice of cucumber in the clean waters of his four-quart tank.

Perched on top of his floating banquet, Mr. Mossy first ate the cucumber's seedy center, then worked his way outward to the hollowed-out fleshy rind.

When his appetite was satisfied, the snail would plunge overboard, gliding to the pebble-strewn bottom to explore the lower realms of his habitat.

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Mr. Mossy's life - defined in 11-by-7-by-7-inch dimensions - has been lived to the proverbial fullest. He intimately knows each millimeter of the plastic-sided aquarium, having scaled it clean with his radular mouth many times in the course of a day.

Instead of succumbing to fits of boredom, he sagely punctuates this important but thankless job with a burst of imaginative playfulness.

Mr. Mossy will ripple over to the air filter, plop on top, and enjoy a burst of bubbles.

Other times, he'll tightrope along the lengths of seaweed, inching higher and higher, then quickly somersault - shell-over-flat-foot - down to the smooth stone floor.

His paired tentacles stretch upward, outward, and downward, curiously embracing new delights.

And now, every time I clean the tank, this determined snail bustles to the top of the aquarium, causing me to redefine the expression, "a snail's pace."

He propels the cucumber slice into a corner of the aquarium, leaps aboard, then glides through the seas of his one-gallon world. Mr. Mossy fastens dreams to life's routines and turns them into grand adventures.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor