The Prince and the Snail

How about a fairy story? Excerpted from the novel I'm revising, whose protagonist is a storyteller. Massoud was the son of the king and a prince, but he could not have been less the sort of son his family wanted. While he was as happy fighting and riding as other boys his age, he did not go anywhere without a little snail that had been his companion since he toddled on two legs. When he took meals, the creature squatted beside his plate. During his lessons, the snail perched on his shoulder. When sparring, Massoud put the snail inside a little case he had made to protect her and keep her close, hanging around his neck.

What neither Massoud nor his parents knew was that the snail was not a snail at all but the goddess Alyona, who is known to prefer an animal shape to any other and is found more often in the company of mortals than others of her kind. Alyona delighted in mortals, and so thoroughly in Massoud that in his eighteenth year she decided that she would marry him.

Alyona knew the hearts of mortals well, however, and did not think that Massoud would take well to the ruse that had been her shape as long as she had known him. One night, while he was asleep, she slithered near his ear and whispered that he must take her as a snail for his bride. When he had done so, she would be transformed to a beautiful woman.

Massoud met with great resistance from his family, who claimed they would forsake him if he insisted upon such a marriage. His brothers would not speak to him and everyone in the court began to whisper that their prince had been driven mad. Still, Massoud would marry his companion and had two rings fashioned from fine metals, one for himself and one for his snail bride.

No one in the kingdom would perform the ceremony, so Massoud placed Alyona in the little case around his neck and traveled to the next kingdom, and when denied there, the next and the next until he came to a land so far away that no one had before heard his name or would even have known to worship the creature he carried. Married at last, Massoud slipped the ring around Alyona's shell, though once he had done so she was unable to transform to a shape that would please him, bound by the ceremony and his love.

Alyona had not known her man as well as she imagined, for he did not want her to change. Massoud settled quietly in the village where they were married, making a small and honest living and whispering his secrets to her as he had always done. For thirty years they lived this way; the whole of Massoud’s life they shared. As he lay upon his deathbed Alyona slithered to his ear and whispered the truth of what she was. Massoud replied that he had always known, but he could love her as an equal only when she occupied such a form, and so he had done and did not regret it.

When he died, Alyona was freed from her snail form and brought his body to her sister, Dsimah, whose province is sowing and harvesting and who is known to bring life to any soil, no matter how infertile. Alyona begged Dsimah to bring life to Massoud again, for if any god could do so, it would be she.

Dsimah could not, however, do what Alyona asked. From Massoud’s body she grew a great, flowering tree, and when Alyona swallowed a fruit from the tree, she bore a child that was cradled in its roots and raised dancing beneath its heavy boughs. So Alyona and her daughter, Massoud’s daughter, can be found still, sheltered beneath her husband’s arms.