A Lesson in Magic from the Maine Coast
If you sing to periwinkles, it coaxes them out of their shell.
I don’t know if this is actually true. It may well be a myth passed down to Maine children, who explore tide pools that form temporarily in the divots and cracks of rocks. In fact, writing it down like this really makes it seem like a myth, but I want to cling to a little childlike faith in magic.
Let me explain for the uninitiated.
In this case, Periwinkle does not refer to the purplish blue crayon in your sixty-four count Crayola box. Periwinkles are small snails curled up tight in blue, black, gray, or brown banded shells that spiral to a soft point. They weld themselves to the rough surfaces of rocks, sometimes baking in the sun at low tide. When I was young, I’d plunge my hand into the tidepools or into a crevice and pull out a periwinkle shell.
As the story goes, singing to them coaxes them out of their shell, bringing these seemingly inanimate objects to life. I never experienced them in motion, with places to be and mollusks to see. They are always static when I reach out to grab them, pure potential energy that I want to harness.
Years later, surrounded by Midwesterners at my small liberal arts college in Ohio, my friend Grace, another Maine native, and I learned quickly that we could convince our peers of anything about The Pine Tree State if the other corroborated it. Periwinkles, to their credit, helped us learn this through a text exchange I had with one of our friends.
“What’s a periwinkle?”
“A snail,” I responded.
“So Grace wasn’t making that up!”
“Yeah, and if you sing to them, they come out of their shell.”
“That’s what Grace said! Does it really work?”
I considered thumbing to my phone’s browser and typing in the undoing words. I usually Google questions like a clueless toddler tugging at the search engine’s sleeve, but I couldn’t seem to ask this question.
Instead, I just responded “It does!”
Let them believe it. Let me believe it. Everybody wins.
Tide pools are like neighborhoods, I learned in a science lesson in the fifth grade. We were preparing for our field trip to Reid State Park, where we were going to poke our heads into these tide pool communities and document our observations in colored pencils.
When the Glacier dragged her feet across Maine, kicking in small bays and inlets between points and peninsulas, she left behind the rocky coast. The coast of Maine is longer than the coast of California. Tracing all the inlets and points, every last place where the coastline doubles back on itself, creates a line that, when stretched straight, is more than three thousand miles. In some places, cliffs overlook the ocean as the water splashes against their side in white peaks. In others, the rocks step down into the water like risers or bleachers, the steps covered and uncovered twice daily with the changes of the tide. Layers of bubbled seaweed cling to rocks, making them slick to those navigating towards the water. When the tide recedes, it leaves temporary ecosystems between, beside, and under the rocks.
On our tide pool discovery field trip, we ran our fingers through the algae and watched small crabs scurry out of their hiding spots.
“A crab!” one of us shouted to the others in our assigned groups. The students and chaperone scrambled over the rocks to look into the pool we had found. By then the crab had dipped out of sight, behind a picket fence of algae and rocks.
“He was there!” we promised as we wrote “CRAB” on our worksheet, adding a small sketch beside it.
After the school work was done and the bagged lunches from the cafeteria were consumed, I settled into a kneeling ball next to one of the tide pools. I stuck my hand into the shallow, chilled water. Or maybe I palmed the pocked surface of rock that snagged my hand like Velcro on cotton. Either way, I pulled back a periwinkle.
I sang the songs I knew and loved as a Disney Channel tween of the era: “Beautiful Soul” by Jesse McCartney and “We’re All in This Together” from High School Musical, to name the most embarrassing ones. I sang because people I trusted told me it made the tiny snails emerge, like I was a gentle alarm clock rousing them from slumber. I sang until my attention waned or the chaperone told me it was time to go, leaving the shell unopened.
I never go to the ocean with the express purpose of singing to Periwinkles, but it always seems to be where I end up.
I suppose this is where I have to tell you the truth.
My suspicion started to get the best of me, as I parrot this story of music-loving snails over and over to bewildered Midwesterners first in Ohio and then in Chicago, where I live now. Just like that nagging feeling that a giant, egg-bearing bunny who put jelly beans in plastic eggs was too good to be true, doubt descended with the stark realism of adulthood.
I no longer lived in a world of magic. I lived in a world where People’s Gas wanted money I didn’t have from me every month and there was always another load of laundry lurking in the bottom of my too-small closet. From the paint-peeling solitude of my studio apartment, I decided to brave the suggested blurbs from Google and actually do some research.
Dear Google, does singing to periwinkles bring them out of their shell? Regards, Meghan
The results are inconclusive, since we can’t just knock on Periwinkle shells with a survey asking them if they liked our song. But some scientists suspect that the snail’s decision to come out and explore is not a reaction to the song, per se. It is more of an attempt by the periwinkle to reorient after being jostled by the hands of the waves, a crab, or, yes, a singing child with a love for movie musicals.
It’s not the “no, of course not” I feared. It’s a “probably not.” It’s a “we can’t be certain, but it’s unlikely.”
But it’s not a “no.” It leaves the door ajar for an outlandish, unlikely “yes.” It allows the possibility for the magic that existed for me between the bounds of high and low tide. It allows for a little piece of my Maine childhood, a sliver of belief, to weld itself to me even as I increase my physical distance from home.
“Did you know,” I’ll keep saying with a nostalgic smirk, “that singing to periwinkles—that is, little snails—coaxes them out of their shells?”
“Really?” a new friend will ask.
“So I was told,” I’ll respond, unwilling to take off my rose-colored glasses entirely.
It’s Christmas Eve, and the days are at their shortest. My family ventures out to Simpson’s Point in Brunswick, Maine at sunset. I have returned for the week from Chicago where the lake is Great, but it can’t match the ocean—and not just because of the lack of tidal worlds to explore.
Bundled up in our LL Bean Outlet jackets, we fan out over the rocks that frame the cement boat launch. Here, the dead end road dips down the hill towards the ocean where it turns into the inclined sections of the ramp that have cracked, crumbled, and shifted as the tide swallows it and spits it out daily. In some places cement has been carried away or eroded beyond recognition, revealing the rusted rebar underneath that snakes across the remaining rocks.
The tide is low and muddy, and the water fidgets but sits still. The orange sun fractures across the water’s surface as pine trees on the islands cast black, rippling shadows.
I kneel on the boat ramp. Its tire-gripping indents leave an imprint on my knee even through my jeans. My shadow is long in the late sun as I slip my black-gloved hand into the crevice between the cement blocks. My hand emerges with a sparkle of sand and a periwinkle.
I hold the periwinkle in my open palm, the slope of the shell wobbling back and forth as I try to hold still. The opening of the shell faces straight up towards the darkening sky.
I do what I have done a hundred times. I start singing. This time, I choose “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” hoping the periwinkle I’ve chosen is not too picky about key, pitch, or general singing ability. After the first round, the shell starts to open.
Periwinkle shells have an inky black door, shining with a layer of sea water and slime. As I sing, the door pushes ajar, like the periwinkle is a disgruntled neighbor looking beyond their chain lock at whoever dares disturb them with their door-to-door caroling. If you shift your hand and send the shell rocking, the door slams shut. Otherwise, they may undo the chain, and the door continues to open to reveal the grayish fleshy foot beneath. Sometimes, once it has peeked out, it recoils, showing only a sliver of itself to the outside world through its cracked front door. Sometimes it forges ahead on its search for a place to suction itself.
This one’s foot—periwinkles just have the one—begins to unfold and wave at the sky. Rippling against the December air, the foot seeks solid ground. It reaches left and right to feel the sandy surface of my gloves.
The waves cracking against the coast drown out the song, and the salty wind blowing off the water carries away my thin voice.
Despite the number of times I have crouched on the rocks, singing to the shell in my hand, I have not witnessed a periwinkle completely out of its shell. An antenna once or twice. But mostly, I’ve only witnessed the amorphous blob of the snail’s exploration before it retreats, or my boredom or distraction ends the endeavor.
Maybe this time, I think, I’ll have the patience to coax it all the way out, for it to crawl up my hand like I’m just another piece of the coastline, another way station to explore when the tide is out. Perhaps I can be its temporary ecosystem. Whether it is the song or the wait that draws its sluggish body out into the world, I can still be a bit of the world it emerges into. I can still watch as the spiral shell, still and stoic on the rocks, comes to life in my hand.
I ignore, for a moment, the “probably not”s that tinge this childhood myth. I let myself live in the liminal space between high and low tide where there is a snail-sized chance that this could be true. There’s no laundry to do nor bills to pay. I’m just that child on the rocks, believing that I have an otherworldly power to charm snails.
And so, I start the song again.
Meghan McGuire is an essayist, screenwriter, and playwright. Her TV pilot The Way Life Should Be was a quarterfinalist for the Slamdance Screenplay Competition (2021), WeScreenplay Diverse Voices Lab (2022), and the Page International Screenwriting Awards (2022). Her plays and monologues have been performed on stages in Illinois, Maine, and Texas. She holds a BA in Theatre from Denison University and has studied at the Second City, The Annoyance Theatre, and the Neo-Futurists. Meghan is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. Born in Alaska and raised in Maine, she followed her passion for cold places to Chicago where she lives with her goblin-cat, Pippin. Twitter: @mearghan Website: meghanmcg.com