New Voices: “Snail Season” by Emily Suzanne Lever

January 8, 2024

We’re kicking off 2024 with Emily Suzanne Lever’s “Snail Season”! The process for making Tyrian purple was expensive, difficult and, for a time, lost to history. But in “Snail Season,” Emily Suzanne Lever’s debut fiction publication, its potential rediscovery comes with unexpected consequences in the life of the narrator. “Snail Season” is a story about culture and history, but it’s also an exploration of belonging, of identity and agency. Happy New Year, from The Masters Review!


In order to make a cloak fit for a king, ten thousand snails have to be crushed to death. I had memorized this fact after my first date with Victor. Victor was part of a close-knit, stinky brotherhood, wholly composed of men to my knowledge, who were reviving an ancient lost dye derived from the Murex snail, which has a gland near its rectum that produces deep purples and blues that look like a midnight sky. Unlike your ordinary inks or the flimsy red dye number 4s of today, these colors became more resplendent with sunlight and time. Despite the crushingly old lore and molluscan grossness of it all, the idea of something that time only beautifies and makes clearer did make me wistful. It was with historical nuggets like these that Victor tried to play on that yearning that he knew lived within me. For a time it worked.

The spiky snail requires varying degrees of brutality to transform it into something beautiful. The American variety can be gently squeezed and returned to its water to crawl another day, but its Mediterranean counterpart, Victor said, only understands violence: It must be crushed to death in order to give up the goods, then left out in the sun to rot so its gland can dry out.

Our backyard, which effectively was just his backyard even though I lived there too, would be full of tens of thousands of snails he’d brought there during mollusk season, the heat of the summer, what the elders called skhanamout, so hot you’ll die. Sometimes I’d wake up and want to vomit.

There was a cost to everything, a cost to doing business, Victor would say, and people didn’t see that anymore. Systems whisked people and objects to and from a consumer class that didn’t have to confront what it took to keep the world running. I would roll my eyes as he then opened an app on his phone to order takeout.

In antiquity, the exploited workers who made these dyes were as miserable and reviled as the people who wore the garments were exalted. Their hands were stained and they smelled forever of rotting fish, the foul smell as enduring as the precious color, a necessary evil to provide social superiors with a marker of greatness. Victor would have the occasional shirt hanging in the bathroom to dry, stinking and bleeding the color of the Marianas Trench.

I considered this when I thought of breaking up with him but then I would return to what became my mental catalog of reasons to stay: He was perfect to lie in bed next to, never too intertwined to keep me from sleeping comfortably but always making me feel held. Then there was his smell that I loved to inhale when I pressed my face into his armpits, and the comfort of never needing to translate my family history or explain why octopus, the creature that many of our brethren considered illicit to eat, made the best couscous.

Snails were not kosher either. But the Murex snail, or hillazon, or halzoun, was an essential ingredient to a quintessentially Jewish dye, and to another, quintessentially not. It could yield both tekhelet, the sacred indigo shade that striped my coreligionists’ shawls, and Tyrian purple, the imperial color of Scipio Africanus triumphing over our ancestral homeland of Carthage; the chromatic privilege of Phoenician, Roman and Byzantine emperors, the most gentile of all gentiles.

Victor would grind the dye in the backyard when I was at work or when I couldn’t see. It was the only thing he wanted to keep separate from me—he had otherwise come on strong and never let up, never in public with me without slipping his angular fingers between mine. But the tekhelet was his priesthood, his silent quest, and like forming a minyan, it was something I couldn’t help with and had no business in.

I once tried to argue, when we were cleaning up after dinner and he had been prattling on about his snails for a while, that blue and purple were the same shade deep down, the same pigment.

No, he had said. “There’s a whole process to expose the dye to sunlight at just the right time to turn it blue.”

“So the blue is a shade of purple,” I said.

“No. This is our own thing. It’s ours. This is our sacred dye, nothing like the pagans. The blue is like a sapphire and the tablets of the commandments were made of sapphire.” He had never been this dogmatic about anything, and it was like watching an abyss open up beneath him. On one level I was proud of him for delving into the past to slow its slipping away from us, for working tirelessly with his hands to recreate a craft whose artisans we, personally, might be descended from. But our similarities made our differences stand out in harsher relief.

My family had come from Djerba to Queens via Marseille, and his via a camp in the Negev where they’d arrived excited to see Jerusalem and been sprayed down with pesticides— supposedly to delouse the new immigrants—that had given his uncle cancer. They had been proud of the lives they led, sewing clothes ranging from everyday dresses to wedding ensembles heavy with tinkling gold coins, knowing every family on the island, dressing them for weddings and circumcisions—all that was treated as worse than nothing, a stain to be washed away. And yet when I began to question the state whose boots had stomped on his family’s face, he was the first to come to its defense.

For him and the religiously-inclined startup guys he got his ideas from, the obsession with rediscovering the real, true, authentic tekhelet was part of a desire to resurrect the kingdom of Judea that it had adorned. The bible has never had visuals, so his was an impossible mission, the search for the right color replacing the search for the divine. Their worship of their craft of tekhelet became one and the same with their worship of the state, with their fantasy of a new king coming to continue the lineage of King David. A new temple would be built on the ruins of the golden dome; Abraham’s tomb would open to lead us to the garden of Eden. I hoped these were metaphors. I was never sure how serious he was.

Before his scientist friends rediscovered the ancient secret of producing the dye, it had been lost to time, Victor explained to me afterwards, when we were laying on the couch.

“Were they this stinky in ancient times too?”

“Not everything smells as good as you, Minouche.” I hated that nickname, the word for kitten but also pussy. It made me cringe anew every time, but with a thrill, like an unexpected touch of his hand on me, and when he used it in public I felt vaguely like he’d unzipped my pants in front of everyone.

“Would you still love me if I got rid of your snails?”

“It’s worth living with snails if you get to live with me,” he said, pulling me against him. He wound one hand through my hair and rubbed warm little circles into my scalp. We had our own shared body language. My annoyance melted reflexively, the way my leg bounced up when a doctor hit my knee with a rubber hammer. Summer persisted, and with it the snail season that plagued me with its stench. Friends couldn’t come over because the smell that I had grown accustomed to would make them heave. But that didn’t matter, we had each other. We would simmer marmouma with eggs together on Sundays or drive out of town for the weekend. We would visit each others’ parents and I would delight everyone by talking to them in halting Tunisian dialect. When we showed up to Miri’s kitchen for Friday night couscous we were always showered with praise; Victor would charm the women and backslap with the men and enchant the kids. I’d be congratulated for being in his possession, something he’d want to take hold of. Sometimes someone would tell me half-heartedly that I’d make such a beautiful bride, and we would both cringe at a shared vision of future me, looking plain and oily-haired and short in a white dress. No one talked to me that way in front of Victor and I never told him about such interactions. But when I felt stifled, he had never turned down a request to walk around the block with me, no matter what.

We showed up as a unique find in the rooms we were in, both educated, both Tunisian, and we kept being told: You have to hold on to each other. The awareness of scarcity, the cold hard fact of my lack of other options besides him, tightened in on me a little more. We were a perfect couple, doing the couple activities that I’d watched other couples do all my life, activities that signified, as surely as a series of passcodes unlocked a vault, that we were In A Relationship.

I woke one day to Victor’s excited face. He still had a sharp handsomeness that made my heart twinge, but close up, unself-conscious from his glee, he suddenly looked different, distorted. I remembered the day I’d realized I had a crush on him. He had given me a ride home to my parents’ house in Forest Hills from a party in Midwood, driving uncharacteristically slow, and I hoped he wasn’t driving drunk and that he was just trying to prolong this time alone with me. My heart had lurched as he confidently shifted gears on his dad’s Audi. His long eyelashes had caught the first rays of the sun coming up. That day had led me here, sleeping with the stench of the snails. So often that smell had brought me tumbling down from when he was about to make me come, the way he once did effortlessly. I’d long since realized I was boxed in; if he couldn’t have his snails then he just wouldn’t fuck me at all because I’d have taken away his toys.

Now he nudged my shirt up and stroked my stomach absentmindedly. “Guess what. You’re going to love this, hbiba. I’m going to make a tallit for a military hero.”

Victor said proudly that the name of the hero was Moshe Bensaadoun, a name of ours. He had caught a “terrorist” who had lunged for his weapon. He’d pistol-whipped him and beaten him to death, in self-defense of course, until his own tzitzit were soaked in blood. Charitable souls, good religious people, had taken up a collection to buy Bensaadoun some new tzitzit. Victor was going to be the one to provide the dye.

“I’m going to impress the fuck out of them, they’ll see,” he said.

I thought of the sea with its lunar regularity, indifferently touching all shores regardless of borders, the same water traveling freely to Ashdod, to Gaza, to Tunis. It drowns and feeds both the poor and the rich, the good and the evil. What does the blue sky that’s reflected on the four corners of tzitzit think of us staining them with blood?

“Mabrouk,” I said, hugging him tight enough that I could get past the snail smell to get to his real scent. I wasn’t crazy to think the smell was bad: the Talmud says that a woman married to a tekhelet craftsman is within her rights to divorce him over it. It’s not like we have that many rights, so this is a big deal. But I said nothing else; now was not the time for critical thought. Once I pierced through the barriers I’d established in my mind between Victor and his tekhelet, between Victor and his friends, between Victor and the people who funded this arcane ancient-dye research, between Victor and this soldier, there could be no going back. He still made me feel a tenderness I hadn’t felt before; maybe I wasn’t capable of feeling it again, or of finding someone else to feel it with. And he was the only one who could call me Minouche, ever.

For the next week I busied myself waking up early, walking to the subway with wet hair, pounding angrily up the steps at Chambers Street because my boss wouldn’t let me work remotely. I didn’t have time to ponder whether Victor really meant all those things he said or the historical speculation he texted and voice-noted me in the middle of the day, sulking if I didn’t respond.

Of course I understood the appeal of finding something lost, though he thought I didn’t, and how dare he think that I didn’t? I too teared up whenever I heard Henri Tibi’s lament for our lost homeland, “Tunis, ma verte Tunis,” thinking of the years growing old by the warm sea among the cactuses and jasmine that I would never have.

The first thing I did separately from Victor in months was attend a Yom Kippur service. He went to neilah at the big Midwood synagogue, while I headed to a service in my cousin Haya’s apartment. Some of our aunts and uncles would definitely have not approved of what was about to happen: Zeiza was going to lead a mostly female minyan. I showered before I headed over despite the prohibition, because I had to wash the fish stench off me. I arrived late. Zeiza opened the door and let me in. It was only a few years ago we’d been holding each other’s hair back because we’d had too much boukha on Purim and now the full authoritative aura of a rabbi radiated from her, in her white djellaba and blue-striped tallit draped over her head. I felt pedestrian in my white jeans and white T-shirt.

Zeiza whispered she’d been nervous all day; she was leading her first service ever. “And now on top of that, Sarah and her sister are trapped in the bathroom,” she said through gritted teeth. “What a time for the door to get stuck, ya zebi,” she cursed.

As Haya’s husband threw himself against the door to try to ram it open, we joked that Sarah and Alma were going to become sacrifices, our scapegoats to atone for our sins. On Yom Kippur in the days when the Temple still stood, one guy slaughtered a goat by slitting its throat while simultaneously another led a second goat into the desert to toss it off a cliff.

How did they know if the second goat had died, so that they could continue with the ceremony? In those days, Zeiza said in a tone Victor would have described as arrogant, there was a thread hanging in the Temple that would turn from white to red, as if soaked with blood, at the right moment. The service had not started but it was already as if we were reaching through time, collapsing past into present, back to an era when the veil was thinner between everyday life and something else.

Just as Zeiza spoke, the bathroom door slammed open. Dumbfounded, we applauded the miracle. The service could finally begin. We were preparing for God to enter the room, though we were not worthy of him doing so. I was hungry and thirsty and I felt stifled in the heavy cocoon of my body.

We turned towards the Torah in its gold-embroidered velvet cover. Alma hoisted the Torah in her arms like a baby and we all kissed it. Sarah and I shared a look. No way we would’ve been touching the Torah back at Congregation Shaare Shalom. Who would have thought we’d have found our way from the women’s section back to the front row, in a temporary temple that felt like it truly belonged to us?

As our prayers issued from our scratchy throats they changed into something else, echoes of piyyut sung long ago that had become infinitely faint, waiting for someone to amplify them once again. The air was hot and still. God hung in the air like particles of dust suspended in sunbeams. And then, long after I had stopped checking my watch which I was not supposed to be wearing anyway, the spell was broken and we could eat.

Alma seemed faint. Sarah had offered her water an hour before the breaking of the fast but she’d said no. Why did she need to be so pious? I was caught as usual between loving the ritual for bringing us together and chafing under its onerousness.

I choked down a glass of water and had three dates and a bowl of lukewarm, salty chorba and could barely eat after that, though I made myself go back three times for bread. Haya and Amir’s daughter, Dina, started to whine and cry and came up to me and hugged my leg. Maybe if I’d been better fed and better rested I could have dealt with her with more grace, but I just prodded her to go find someone else to play with.

I wondered how I was supposed to bring kids into this world, to be soft with them, to make them into good people who would raise their own kids right, whose grandkids would be raised right, whose… the vertigo of my future dizzied me. I wondered if my great-great-grandparents had ever felt lonely when surrounded by people, if continuing the family for another generation had always felt worth it. I thought I should go home to Victor, but I checked his Instagram story and saw that the party at the Benattias’ mansion seemed to be at its zenith. He’d put up a half-dozen stories: his friends cutting a rug to a Salim Hallali song in the men’s section of the dance floor, a boomerang of shot glasses clinking together, blurry photos of a half-devoured spread of stuffed chicken and hlalem and quince jam and sticky-sweet boulou, then of empty bottles of boukha and Black Label. I knew when he got home I would smell the party on his breath. I knew the kids I would have with him—that I had to have with him so that they could be twansa on both sides, so cultural loss could be staved off for another generation—would be my responsibility while he got drunk whenever he wanted. I watched Haya and Amir whisper to each other as Haya rocked Dina to sleep. I huddled in the corner of the room, drinking mint tea.

I asked Zeiza, who was my smartest friend on matters of religion, about Victor’s obsession. The technique of the dye being lost was the whole point, she said. It was once a literal dye from a literal snail, green upon the first dipping and then blue or purple, though not everyone has always had a word for the color blue over the years, or perceived a clear boundary between it and purple. But for the last thousand years tekhelet had been something mystics dedicated their lives to searching for. It had been supposed to be a metaphor, like “next year in Jerusalem.”

When I got home he was still out. The lock was tricky; Victor had tried to fix it and given up, leaving it worse than before. It was resistant if you pushed it too hard, only giving in when you let it turn by itself, like it could tell if you were too eager to open the door. I was sober but felt drunk, with a dry mouth and slack limbs. A mad idea took hold of me. Some dead snails remained in the backyard. I put a face mask on for the smell and grabbed a hammer, tapping a shell gently at first in hopes of preserving the integrity of the gland. But there was no nice, clean way to do it. I felt as though I understood for the first time what went on inside Victor, the attachment he felt to working with tekhelet—a guilt that required you to double down and take extra care because you had to make all the gore worth it. There would not be an easy way out. I would miss him once I left, and I would need to heal, or maybe have to carry on unhealed for as long as it would have taken to put back together the pieces of the hillazon’s shell.

When the work was finished, I sat down on our bed and plugged in the charger on Victor’s computer, which he had left askew. I tried to remember if he had ever done the same for me, if he had ever made me tea when I was sick, or coffee one one of those mornings, quand je m’étais levée du pied gauche. Surely he must have. I lit some bkhour and it quickly released ribbons of smoke into the air, its familiar smell smothering that of the snails. I fell asleep.

I woke up in the morning to the sounds of Victor registering what I’d done. From the bedroom I only heard indistinct shouting at first; maybe he was joyful, relieved I had done it, or even surprised, but soon I realized he was shouting in anguish.

The living room, the kitchen, the bathroom, all were lined with newspapers to catch the drippings of threads and threads and more threads arrayed meticulously on hangers, spaced apart to dry. All of them were the same resplendent color, a deep dark color of the most remote minerally underwater cave, so rich I could taste wine on my tongue and I forgot the smell momentarily. I understood why the divine might have been seen as embodied in that color.

“What did you do?” he said. He went on to list theories about how it could have come to this. Was it him, was it me, had I ever believed in him, was he going crazy, was I making him crazy?

Victor was crying, his face flushed, overheated, monstrous. I had never seen him cry before. He moaned as he collapsed like a demolished building, “They all came out wrong. They’re all the wrong color.”

Maybe it was the wrong color, or maybe it was the right color and he couldn’t see it. It didn’t matter anymore. The only thing I yearned for was to leave the house, to open the locked door and run down the stoop to the noisy street, and so I did, breathing in the air, nothing between me and the sky.

Emily Suzanne Lever is a writer, reporter and sometimes translator living in New York. Her work has either been published or is forthcoming in
Bookforum, NY Mag, Jewish Currents, Africa Is A Country and The New Inquiry. This is her first fiction publication, and pretty much nothing in it is made up, except the characters.




At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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