“And God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
– Genesis 1:28
My grandma tells a story about snails. Every summer, when chlorophyll pumped deep green into leaves, the snails shrugged themselves blindly into her vegetable patch. They slimed up rhubarb stalks and over bunches of frilled romaine, eating away at them the way a flake of ash eats fabric. So my grandma set traps. She filled pie tins with cheap beer and placed them throughout the garden, pools of gold filmed with tiny white bubbles. Overnight, the sweet stink of fermented yeast pulled snails like a magnet, and by morning, the pie tins filled with their heavy, wet corpses.
One summer, while carrying a case of beer to the supermarket checkout, my grandma bumped into her Mormon bishop. He looked at the alcohol and my grandma blushed, stammered an explanation: it wasn’t for drinking, it was for killing snails. They laughed then, and we laughed later, confident in the version of morality that could be satisfied by such an explanation: not for drinking, just for killing snails.
My grandpa on the other side of the family gardened too. He dragged friends to see his plots, nudged mulch around the bases of young green shoots, photographed his flowers: clouds of purple phlox, the spotted blue of iris petals, forever unfolding. When the snails came, he smashed them under his foot, swift and hard. No beer traps, no slow gold suffocation. Their shells split like eggs, oozed green slime that crusted up under the sun. For him, so easy to decide which forms of life would be sheltered, watered, sunned, and which would not. In his garden, he was God.
In the afternoons, before Grandpa got home from work, I tramped barefoot through the yard to ferry snails out. Their cool, wet bellies tickled my palm as I took them past the apple tree and behind the back fence to safety.
When Grandpa found out, he wasn’t pleased. “You can’t do that,” he said. “They’ll just get back in and eat my plants. You have to kill them.”
I didn’t listen. It was the first time I disobeyed him, but not the last. Years later, when I left the church he believed in, I felt just as brave for my commitment to truth, to knowledge gained for myself. Questions became my scripture, curiosity my gospel—I thought knowledge alone could save me, make me good.
I’d like to end the story there, with me as a champion: my eight-year-old self cupping a snail sweetly in my hand, tucking him into a mound of damp soil beyond the garden fence. A subversive and tender act, all at once.
But then there’s this: me standing on the hot cracked summer driveway, around this same time, holding a snail upside down. Its shell feels so frail between thumb and finger, like tissue paper ready to crumple. It has sucked its body inside, coiled up in the illusion of safety, and only a clench of grey muscle peaks out, thick with mucus.
In my other hand is a fistful of salt. I’ve heard it said that salt does something to snails. I want to see for myself. I’m hungry for it.
I open my palm and the crystals pour out. The snail froths. White bubbles spew from its shell as salt leeches liquid from flesh. I stare, horrified, fascinated, at this strange violence.