Germ Theory

by Lesley Saunders

Hydras and Gorgons, and Chimeras dire
– William Heath, ‘A Monster Soup’, satirical etching of a sample of Thames water, 1828

We are all sapiens, all cherishable.
Even those of us who drink only bottled water
for fear of what’s hatching in the cut-glass carafe.
Microbiology is a slow science, plenty of time
for the pigtailed bacilli of anxiety to divide and pullulate
like a saucer of leprechauns, escherichia coli, variola,
vibrio cholerae, a tsunami of golden staphylococci
pouring from the standpipe of imagination
that in hours will flood the streets with corpses:
at the Hotel Dieu a man in fancy dress
has suddenly collapsed and underneath his masque
his face is violet blue. A horrified dowager
drops her teacup – she eyes the scientist’s soup
of magnified pathogens gurgling in her taps, the curdle
of volatile iodine circulating through her veins.
We wash our hands and wash our hands,
refuse ice in our summer daiquiris. On a window-ledge
little flasks of pandemonium ferment and seethe.