Bored with the heat and humidity of a Florida August, my eight-year-old sister and I were bursting with energy. We'd spent the morning cooped up in our grandmother's house, thanks to a steady rain, and we dashed out the door as soon as our grandmother-- we called her Vo-Vo--gave permission.
Vo-Vo was Portuguese and didn't speak much English, but we'd learned Portuguese with the ease young children have in learning languages. We were often called upon in stores and at church gatherings to translate for our beloved grandmother. My sister, Jo, and I were proud of our Portuguese and considered ourselves experts in the language. However, this August summer, we were to learn that our vocabularies were not nearly so extensive as we had thought them to be.
We'd no sooner stepped into the yard, than Jo made a wonderful discovery. Perched on the tip of each blade of grass rested a tiny round snail.
"Let's collect them," she said, jumping up and down as she pointed them out.
"Oooh, Jo, let's do," I said. "They can be our pets. I'll get us something to put them in.”
I was back in moments with two empty one-quart milk cartons I'd pulled out of the trash. For the next hour my sister and I knelt on the wet ground and pulled snails off grass blades. Our tiny captives were dropped one by one into our cartons.
All the while we chattered with excitement. "I'm naming every one of mine," I said, dropping Matilda, George, and Small Dennis into my carton.
"Me, too," Jo said.
It seemed like minutes, but actually was a good hour later when Vo-Vo called us back inside. Jo peered into her snail carton and then her small face darkened.
"She'll never let us keep these."
"I know. But I have an idea. You distract her and I'll hide the cartons."
Jo, the little sneak, was good at distractions. She rushed in ahead of me and made a fuss over the pillowcase Vo-Vo was embroidering. I slipped in behind her and hid both snail cartons where Vo-Vo would never think to look.
The remainder of the afternoon was filled with a trip to the store, a dash across the street to get permission from our parents to spend the night at Vo-Vo's, and then supper, one of Vo-Vo's feasts. Jo and I forgot our snail pets stashed behind the couch in Vo-Vo's living room.
In the morning, my sister and I woke to the sound of thumping and occasional muffled, "Ay-yi-yi’s" coming from the next room. After a moment, I turned to Jo, yawned, and said, "What's that noise?"
"Let's find out."
With me as the older sister leading the way, we tip-toed down the hall and into the living room, following the sound. When I saw Vo-Vo, I stopped so fast Jo bumped into me.
I thought my eyes would bug out. The walls, the floor, even the living room furniture were dotted with snails and their accompanying trails. Vo-Vo stood in the center of the room furiously swatting at the snails with a broom, trying to herd them into a pile at her feet.
The instant she spotted us, she waved a fist and yelled, "Ay-yi-yi." This was followed by a rapid string of Portuguese words we'd never heard before. Then she jumped toward us with the broom, waving it as if she intended to take us out with a single blow. Jo and I turned as one and raced home in our pajamas.
When our parents heard about our crime, they sent us back to help with clean up. Unfortunately for us, the snails were a lot harder to gather and release than they were to capture. And it was no fun at all washing snail trails off the walls and furniture.
Some months later, after we judged that Vo-Vo had calmed sufficiently so she wouldn't yell "Ay-yi-yi!" if we said the word "snail," I asked her the meaning of the mysterious Portuguese words she'd yelled that day. But she never would tell me.