The Internment of Snails
It was all reasonable to begin with. A colleague
kept an aquarium in the office. Aswirl with plecos,
shimmery cyan neon tetra and transparent catfish,
it took him away from intensely interlinked spreadsheets
every other hour, and improved the feng shui at his desk
to boot. One day, he added a black log into the aquarium,
but there must have been a couple of stowaway snails
cached in a cranny, for within a week we found a battery
of spiral shells creeping up the walls, or perched
on the elodea densa. No one thought more of them,
not even when they multiplied, until we realised
the eggs the corys were laying on the aquarium walls
were being hoovered up by the snails. At once we set about
fishing them out – air-rifle pellets and pebbles,
black conicals and baby translucent spirals –
and resettling them into a new home, a smaller tank
which we airlifted the log into and filled with water.
Only, every few hours we would see more renegades
creeping up the aquarium walls. We caught them too,
and those that came after. At first we watched the snails
in their new enclosure with some fascination;
some glided upside-down from the surface of the water,
while others ran races around the walls, or hid
in the java moss we had added to the snail camp.
Occasionally we threw in a pinch of fish flakes.
Yet it seemed that for every gastropod we captured,
another sprang up from unknown aquarium depths.
Meanwhile the second tank grew concentrated with snails.
Hundreds studded the log; some feelered their way
through layered droppings submerged in murky water.
Nobody wanted to clean the tank. We didn’t know how
to change a water chockful with rebellious molluscs,
couldn’t see how many tiny deaths there were
in that rout of snails, didn’t know what to do with them.
Someone suggested salt, or introducing a loach,
for whom the escargatoire would be a buffet. My colleague
said he would flush the lot of them down the toilet.
We dawdled till they died, of overcrowding and their own
pollution, and over the weekend the tank disappeared,
only to reappear on acidic nights, when silvery trails
lead where whatever we can reasonably do catches us
unaware how efficient we can be, which is, we freely say,
in light of what we want to achieve, a small price to pay.
When you withdrew your calming touch, my old
reactor overheated, and exploded,
sending radionuclides into the cold.
Brave comrades came to fight the graphite fire.
They overflew the damaged core and dumped
cement and boron carbide from no higher
than they dared wherever the fire smouldered.
Memory decays as slowly as radiation;
after the concrete sarcophagus is humped
over the shell, it remains hard to believe
the prisoned heart will turn to toxic rust,
while the heroes of intermediation,
the helicopter pilots, take their leave
of widows and of streets now grey with dust.