Yesterday, I wrote about my quest to find a short story that I remembered from my childhood about a scientist eaten by a giant snail. It turned out to be a story called The Quest for the “Blank Claveringi” by Patricia Highsmith. I found two versions of the story, one, in a 1967 edition of The Saturday Evening Post and another in a plethora of horror short story anthologies.
I could not get the tale out of my noggin’ so I realized that I had no choice for my Sunday Snippet entry other than to write a sequel. So, I give you the first rough draft of the first scene in my homage to Patricia Highsmith and her tale of ravenous snails the size of Volkswagens.
Since I read two versions of the story, I tried to craft my sequel so that it would fit either one – though I had the Saturday Evening Post version in my head. I put in enough backstory that you can read mine without knowing the Highsmith version – though of course, mine will contain many spoilers if you read it first. Sorry. If you want, go to your library and read the Highsmith story first. It’s worth it. You can find it anthologized in a number of books.
I left the story so I can continue on with more if I get the druthers. My idea for the next scene would take place a few years later on the I10 bridge over the Atchafalaya Swamp in Louisiana.
I’ll leave the action there to your imagination.
The Revenge of the “Blank Claveringi”
Doctor William Stead braced himself as he thrust his hands into the thick rubber gauntlets of the glove box. He did not have any dexterity to spare as he used forceps to pull the yielding bodies of six Zebra Snails out of their shells and snip off samples with a tiny pair of scissors. He was seventy five years old, felt even older, and the gloves made his work that much more difficult. Still, his license to work with invasive species carefully stipulated that he work under strict procedures to keep any of his subjects from escaping into the wild.
After collecting enough sample material he transferred the bits of brownish gray tissue into a small mortar, added a few drops of solvent from a pipette and began to grind the sample into a paste. Almost immediately his hands began to cramp and he set his work down and pulled out of the glove box to massage his fingers. He wished he had an assistant to help but he didn’t trust anyone with some of the work he was doing.
Stead was the most celebrated expert in malacology, with his expertise in snails. He had spent a third of his life looking for the giant snails of Kuva Island in the isolated Matusas group west of Hawaii. The natives there told of legends of enormous man-eating mollusks that once lived on Kuva until brave warriors had fought to exterminate them. Decades of futility had made him the laughing stock of the small community of scientists that shared his field of expertise.
Then, suddenly, and unexpectedly, Stead had been vindicated with the discovery of the species Carnivorous Steadi, the giant snail of Kuva. He was filled with pride when the snails were named after him. Two full-grown specimens had been discovered, one alive and one dead, along with a large group of smaller, immature specimens. The snails were monsters, with shells fifteen feet across and bodies twice as long.
The snails were omnivorous. At that size, the natives’ claims that they were man-eaters certainly could be right, although they could not move more than twenty feet in a minute. Doctor Stead was starting to put the plans that he had dreamed of for a quarter century into motion, building a massive, stout crate to bring the giant specimen back to the mainland for study, when the military stepped in and halted his work.
The public story was that the Matusas had been contaminated by a secret, early atomic bomb experiment and that had caused the strange mutations in the snail population. The natives were forcibly relocated and the entire area quarantined.
Stead, of course, knew this to be poppycock, and was quiet only under severe threats from some very powerful people. His research was taken from him and he was dragged back to the mainland. To further insure his silence, he was reimbursed to a generous degree, enough to establish his present laboratory in his original hometown of Kittanning, perched directly on the Allegheny river. He was even given a sizable grant to continue his research into mutations in the snail population. The government was sure he would be quiet and cooperative, laboring away in obscurity during the last few years of his life.
What the military and the government did not know is that Stead had managed in the short time that he was able to study the Carnivorous Steadi, the giant man-eating snails of Kuva, to learn the secrets of the mollusks’ complex and unique reproductive cycle. In addition, he had managed to secret a small vial containing several dozen fertilized eggs, each no bigger than a grain of rice, onto his person and brought them to this very laboratory on the banks of the Allegheny.
Stead had hatched these eggs and was studying the small larval form of the giant snails. These were voracious shell-less tiny forms of the species, able to thrive on land and in fresh water, eat both plant matter and animal flesh, and seemed to be able to reproduce on their own. Stead had always wondered why he had never been able to find any of the giant snails on the small almost featureless Kuva island for decades – then, after he had given up looking for two years, the massive mollusks suddenly made an appearance. There seemed to be a trigger that would cause these small leech-like larvae to suddenly metamorphose into the giant form, growing quickly to a gigantic size in a surprisingly short time.
He wasn’t sure exactly what circumstances would cause this dramatic change, but he was beginning to suspect it was a combination of brackish water and warm temperatures. It was this ability to hide as a tiny form for long periods of time, even decades, and then reappear as the monstrous form that had made survival of the species possible. The natives of the islands had many legends about heroic expeditions to exterminate the snails. That was also how they had managed to elude him for so long.
The doctor turned back to his work, using the thick gloves to apply small patches of the material he had prepared to long strips of electrophoresis gel and then clamp electrodes to the end of each strip. He had begun to suspect that the Carnivorous Steadi were able to interbreed with other local species of snails. Would these hybrids be able to grow under the proper conditions? If so, to what size? Stead knew it was vitally important to find out.
As this stage of his work neared completion, he heard the insistent buzzer at the door. “Just a minute,” he said as he withdrew from the glove box, assuming it was another routine delivery of equipment. He was surprised when he opened the door to see a strong-looking young woman enter the laboratory with long, firm strides.
“Doctor William Stead?” she asked with the attitude of someone that already knew the answer.
“Yes,” said Stead. He was sure he had never met her although something about the structure of her face looked familiar.
“Doctor, my name is Wanda Clavering. I believe you were the last person to see my father, Avery, alive.”
Stead stood in front of the woman stunned, until with a great effort he regained his composure and said simply, “I am so sorry for your loss.”
“You know that he left me and my mother waiting in Hawaii while he went off to visit you and to look for those horrible giant snails don’t you. We were stranded there for months before we were able to find out what had happened. My mother has never recovered from the shock and it has fallen on my shoulders to find out the truth about what happened out there.”
“Well, again I am so sorry. Your father came to see me in the Matusas Islands and I warned him of the expedition to Kuva. I did my best to discourage him from making the trip. He was an inexperienced sailor and must have fallen overboard as his boat was found drifting and abandoned. It was the height of irony when I traveled to Kuva to insure he wasn’t there that I finally discovered the creatures that I had so long sought after.”
“He was looking for them too.”
“Yes, but he was only a neophyte. Again, I feel terrible for your loss, but he was new to the quest, while I had been working for decades.”
The young woman turned away, opened her purse, and seemed to clutch a tiny object in her palm. Her jaw was set and she seemed to be trembling slightly, with rage or sadness… Stead couldn’t tell.
“Doctor Stead, do you know a Lieutenant Barnes?”
Now it was Stead’s turn to seethe. “Yes, I know him. He’s that upstart that the military sent out into the Pacific to take over my studies. He is an usurper.”
“I was able to meet with him and he was able to impart some information to me about my father,” Wanda Clavering said.
“He must have been infatuated with you to give up any information,” Stead replied. “I found him to be very stingy with the facts.”
“I assure you his only motivation was to set the record straight, no matter what you may think.”
“Yes, your story, Doctor Stead, is well known, but Lieutenant Barnes had educated me to the existence of some serious inconsistencies in that tale,” said Wanda.
“First of all, I’m sure you are aware that one of the two giant snails on Kuva was already dead when you and the natives arrived in the catamaran canoe. The natives have testified that it had been done in with a crude wooden spear.”
“What does that have to do with me?”
“It means that my father was alive on Kuva when you reached it and you fed him to the snail to take the glory of discovery for yourself. You have said that you had been searching for decades while he was only a mere neophyte. That must have driven you mad.”
“A mollusk with a stick in it does not convict me of that crime, my dear.”
Wanda continued on as if Stead had not spoken. “You know that after a terrible accident that cost the life of three soldiers, eaten in their sleep, that the second snail was put to death.”
“No, I did not know that. It doesn’t surprise me, though, those military buffoons would be ones to be surprised by something as slothful as a snail.”
“After the specimen was dispatched,” Wanda said, “A complete autopsy was done. Inside the snail’s digestive tract… this was found.”
Wanda Clavering extended her palm and exposed the item she had picked out of her purse. It was a simple gold band.
“My father’s wedding ring.”
Doctor William Stead exploded. “Your father was an imbecile. He did not even understand that the snails would eat through the mooring ropes of his sailboat. The minute I saw the boat adrift and examined the ends of the anchor lines I knew they had been chewed through by mollusk teeth – enormous ones. He told me he thought of the snails as Blank Claveringi with his name as the species and an unknown genus. Snail food was too good an end for him, believe me. It was an undeserved honor to be devoured by the glorious Carnivorous Steadi.”
Wanda Clavering let out a horrendous scream and moved forward as if to strike the frail old man. Stead knew he could not stand up to her youth and fury and turned to flee out the door of the laboratory. As he moved through the opening, he turned and saw Wanda looking about for a weapon. Her eyes fell on a heavy glass cylinder containing a mass of green plant matter with a thick lid clamped shut. Stead recognized this as a container with maybe twenty of the precious immature giant snail larvae within.
He paused in his flight right outside the door, standing on the little strip of concrete that ran along the bank of the river.
“No! Not that!” he shouted to no avail as Wanda Clavering threw the container with all her might and it struck Stead on the head with a sickening thunk. Dazed, he turned and fell to the ground amongst the shattered glass shards of the container, which had fallen and broke open on the concrete after cracking his skull.
Stead could not move, paralyzed by the head wound, but could see the steady stream of blood pouring out onto the ground. Greedily lapping at the blood were the larvae, freed of their glass prison and eager to eat something other than the sprigs and leaves that Stead would drop into the jar.
He realized that his left arm was still moving under his control. In the periphery of his vision he saw that Wanda Clavering had found a heavy shovel leaning against the wall of the laboratory and was quickly walking over with the obvious intent of avenging her father. Stead used his last ounce of strength to sweep as many of the larvae as he could off the grass. Some bit his arm and held on but he saw a few slide down the bank and squirm, flipping into the quickly moving stream of the Allegheny river.
“Swim, swim, my children, swim fast and far, swim to the sea,” Doctor William Stead mumbled as Wanda Clavering brought the blade of the shovel down on the back of his neck.