"Listen carefully," he said, "this won't be easy for you to hear".
“What is it, Dad?”
“Your mother’s being held hostage.”
Most people might gasp or react in some alarmed way to this, but knowing my mother like I did, I wasn’t overly surprised, although I didn’t know the exact circumstances. I hadn’t talked to my parents in weeks, because of the snails, mainly.
Whenever my life gets too stressful, I cook. I’ve made some pretty challenging dishes in my time, and a few weeks ago – or maybe it was months by now – I decided it would be interesting to try to make escargot.
I’d started gathering snails. With all the forests around here, and the perpetually damp weather, it wasn’t difficult. The thing was, though, I hadn’t fully thought out the implications of escargot preparation. As I looked up recipes online, I retched, realizing what I’d have to do to those snails, who were no longer just abstract things destined to be squishy, mushroom-like meat drenched in butter and parsley.
During the hours I spent online, the snails slowly slid out of the bucket I’d put them in, and took up residence with me. You might find it hard to believe, but despite their being slow and leaving telltale trails of slime, they were excellent when it came to hiding. By now, I couldn’t turn them all into escargot if I’d wanted to. Days went by, then weeks. The snails showed up everywhere: on my towels, in my sock drawer. It was terrifying and amusing – and deep down, I believed, probably what I deserved. The snails also became drawn to my cell phone. They slithered and slid on it and their slime must have gotten into some fissure and broken it.
In this situation, most people would probably have at least bought a new phone. But being disconnected from the world – at least no longer being summoned by a persistent ring – was actually very nice. Most people I could still keep in touch with by email if I wanted to, but not my parents, who’d never been able to figure out the Internet. And so that was why I wasn’t up to date on the circumstances that had led to my mother being involved in a hostage crisis.
The situation was more complicated than I could have imagined. The hostage-taker was my parents’ closest neighbour, a mountain lion named Chris.
“I always told her I wanted to live in a city, not out here in the middle of nowhere,” my father fumed as he drove us recklessly up the mountain towards where the scenario was playing out.
We arrived at a clearing near the top of the mountain. Across from us, there they were, on a small cliff sticking out from a sheer wall of rock. Chris the mountain lion looked just like an ordinary mountain lion, but I noticed a gun barrel sticking out from between two furry toes of his right paw.
That was the first time I felt truly alarmed.
“Did you call the police?” I demanded through clenched teeth.
“He told us not to,” my dad said, shaking his head wryly. “And frankly, I understand why he’s doing it. You know your mother.”
She was pale and shaking, the gun barrel pressed against her right calf.
“Mom!” I called out.
“Shh!” my dad said, “She’s not allowed to talk! That’s one of the demands.”
“What happened?” I said, my eyes darting from my mother, to the gun, to Chris’s menacing face.
“Well, you know, your mother plays that damn metal music all night long. I’m fine with it, thanks to those earplugs you got me. But the animals here – I told her when we moved that isolation maybe wouldn’t be the solution. Why doesn’t she just wear headphones or something?”
He paused, then answered his own question, “Nah, she’d blow her damn eardrums out.
“Well,” he continued, “Chris here is an intelligent mountain lion – I mean, he talks and everything.”
“Yeah.” My dad lowered his voice, “we think he’s either a genius, or the result of a government experiment.
“Anyway,” he took on his habitual tone again, “one night your mother was playing that damned music, and bashing on those drums of hers, and I happen to turn to the window and see this big cat roaring – scared the life out of me, but we got to talking and he introduces himself and asks me if she can keep it down. She’s scaring away his prey – ‘You wouldn’t think it was fair if I just snatched the dinner off your table’ – I remember him asking me – real smart animal – and I told him I’d try to get her to keep the noise down.
“But of course that didn’t happen, and the poor guy is probably starved. You know what it’s like when you’re hungry.”
I had to agree. People can get out of sorts when we haven’t eaten for a while; for a mountain lion, a predator in his normal state, taking someone hostage and holding them at gunpoint on the narrow ledge of a cliff was an understandable reaction to the same sensation.
“So what are we going to do about this?” Chris called out, before I could ask the same thing. So he could talk. His voice was like a growl – but that might have just been because he was angry.
“Chris, I gotta tell you, I’m stumped. My wife is just passionate about her music.”
“Could we interest you in some earplugs?” I yelled over to him. I had a friend who worked at the local earplug manufactory, and I bet he could steal some extra foam to adapt them to Chris’s doubtlessly bigger ear openings. I started to say as much, but Chris growled out a refusal. “I’m a fucking mountain lion,” he told us. “I need to be on my guard all the time. Is this your son, Harold?”
My father nodded.
“He’s a real idiot. I’m sorry for saying it, but really.”
“Well, he takes after his mother.”
I could see my father was about to throw in the towel and leave my mom to be shot and then possibly eaten, so I took a breath and made a final, brilliant strategic move:
“Okay, Chris, what if we let you come down to the house and break every single guitar and speaker and drum set and album in the place?”
“No!” my mother screamed. It was a true scream of terrified sorrow, not her metal voice.
“I think it’s the only way, Tammy”, my father said, back in the negotiations now.
Chris slowly nodded. He slid the gun barrel back under his paw. “Go to your family,” he told my mother.
She made her way to us slowly, not because of the tricky terrain, but because she felt completely defeated.
Then, we all went back to the house.
We left Chris alone inside to wreak havoc. “I’ll only destroy the musical objects,” he told us, and we somehow knew we could take him at his word.
As we waited on the front porch, my mother glared at us. “Why are you both standing there? We should torch the place while he’s inside.”
“I’m not moving again,” my father said staunchly. He stood up for himself so rarely that I knew he was truly angry.
After about twenty minutes, our front door opened, and Chris came out. “That was wonderful,” he sighed. In the light that shone from the living room, I noticed small shards of wood and speaker foam in his fur and whiskers.
“No more loud music,” he said to us in a low, threatening tone. Then he hurried into the woods.
“What am I going to do now?” my mother sounded broken.
“Well, I know what you can do – your son needs some help. Listen carefully," he said, turning to me, "this won't be easy for you to hear."
Living cell phone-less with snails has its good points, but my father was right; it had probably gone a little too far. Finding each and every snail in my house was a project my mother threw herself into as passionately as she’d thrown herself into mosh pits before. Within a few days, all of them seemed to be rounded up. We took them out to the woods and let them go.