The Flies in My Life

After an arduous morning of weeding and other nap-worthy chores, I head to the screened porch, supplement the spring breeze with the overhead fan, plump the pillows and then settle in with a shimmering glass of beaded ice water. My book is merely a prop; I know that within ten pages it will transition to a comforting presence on my chest as I closed my eyes in grateful silence.

And then I hear a fly.

I swing a pillow over my head hoping that a glancing blow will bump the fly into a new remote orbit.  Momentary silence – then the buzzing resumes.

As I gather up my things to move inside, I think about the annoying buzz of a house fly as a shared experience spanning all continents and cultures, and the universal knowledge that all peaceful pursuits will be ruined until the fly is dead. Emily Dickinson wrote about this very experience in her poem, “I Heard A Fly Buzz.” She imagines her deathbed, her mourning family around her. All is quiet “… and then there it was, There interposed a fly, with Blue – uncertain stumbling buzz.” The fly is the last thing she hears before she dies. Now I will grant that on the scale of transportive events, death outranks a nap, but effect is the same. A single fly can spoil everything.

I can think of nothing other than a fly that provokes such a consistently negative reaction, except perhaps the extended middle finger that I now aim upward as I leave the porch. However, this finger evokes only contempt, while the fly resonates on so many levels. There is the lonesome fly of my nap experience as a symbol of frustration. Then there is the fly as a symbol of filth and inattention to the basic principles of hygiene. And of course, as a swarm, the fly symbolizes the plague, the end of days, the wrath of God.

I have experienced all three.

I immediately know that my carefully constructed nap tableau will only succeed in the unlikely event that I can kill the fly lazily biding his time above me. Flies are very difficult to kill under any circumstance, and virtually impossible to kill from the prone napping position. I think about the many thousands of other naps now being interrupted by the buzz of a single fly, of the feeling of inadequacy as humans are routinely outfoxed by the fly’s the uncanny ability to escape the hand, the swatter, the rolled up magazine or other gerry-rigged weapon. And it’s not just humans. How many grazing animals are switching their tails in frustration, vainly trying to shoo flies?

Our preeminent humorist Mark Twain knew these frustrations, quipping “I’d rather have a rank old prostitute around than one fly,” and then in a later letter, “I’d rather have ten snakes in the house than one fly.” In his autobiography, he devotes an entire 2000 word essay to the annoyance of the house-fly. He details his various killing strategies, including snapping a wet towel or trying to smoke flies out of his chimney, all with limited success. After their continued escape he notes, “the fly smiles that cold and offensive smile which is sacred to the fly, and the man is conquered, and gives up the contest.”

Twain admits to some grudging respect for the fly, which ”defies all man’s inventions for his subjugation or destruction. No creature was ever yet devised that could meet man on his own level and laugh at him and defy him, except the house-fly.” He does successfully swat some flies into the toilet bowl but then begins to feel guilty in his joyful efforts to drown them as the flies doggedly stagger out of the water. Ultimately, Twain cannot stand to watch the flies suffer a slow death, so he crushes them.

Twain and I are very similar. I too have had limited killing success. The overhead slap has never been a winning strategy for me. I have tried to tempt a fly with the expanse of my bare legs, and then once alighted, clap it between both hands just as the fly rises up. But that requires a stalking strategy and more patience that I can muster, and I don’t appreciate my identity as fly bait.

Like Twain, I too believe that humans have the inalienable right to kill but not torture flies. I recall one teenage summer in which a neighboring boy impressed a porchful of kids with his ability to snatch a fly out of mid-air. He then shook it vigorously, slammed it into the floor and stepped on it. This seemed to be an embellished but otherwise acceptably quick death. However, things turned ugly when he carefully held the stunned fly by one wing and tied a long strand of hair to its thorax. He then let the tethered fly circle round and round. “Look,” he said, “the world’s smallest leash.”

Others applauded his ingenuity, but I considered this akin to the cruelty of pulling off wings. “Let it go,” I yelled, ”step on it and kill it, but don’t torture it like that.” Accusing eyes identified me as the kill joy in the group.

While the napping fly is the epitome of frustration, the kitchen fly presents another dilemma. In preparation for a party yesterday afternoon, a fly landed on my turnip carrot casserole. I waved it away and carefully disposed of its carrot landing strip. I kept my dirty little secret, as I am sure all cooks routinely do. Nothing says filth more than a fly on food. If my guests had witnessed this event, I probably would have disposed of a larger spoonful, hoping to dispel any concerns regarding the cleanliness standards in my kitchen. At a barbecue, how many flies hovering over raw hamburger patties can people tolerate? Maybe up to two or three in an indoor setting, upping to six or seven in an outdoor setting, but beyond that food becomes suspect.

Flypaper is one approach, perhaps acceptable in farm houses in close proximity to flies luxuriating in urine and feces-soaked hay. However, in the more antiseptic suburbs of my childhood, flypaper was a horrifying spectacle – its jaundiced thick goo progressively accumulating slowly dying flies. I remember one childhood summer when kitchen flies were a particular problem. My mother finally resorted to flypaper, but lightened the mood by creating a competition. Each sibling could hang a piece in a choice position, and the one with the most adherent flies after a week would win a prize. One strip hung over the freezer in the mudroom and swayed in tandem with the opening and closing doors, another hung over the kitchen sink perilously close to the hair of anyone washing dishes, and one kept watch over the kitchen table as we ate. I quaked at the thought of friends arriving to see the curled yellowed tendrils festooned with hundreds of trapped flies. I was appalled and refused to participate.

Authors have long understood the powerful imagery of flies. Vladimir Nabokov is renowned for his visual images and the fly was one of his go-to symbols of filth and decadence. In Lolita, the lascivious Humbert Humbert goes on an extensive road trip with his teenage step-daughter Lolita. In one of the many grimy diners they visit, Nabokov describes “one half of a chocolate cake under glass, and several horribly experienced flies zigzagging over the sticky sugar-pour on the ignoble counter.” Nabokov again calls upon flies in the closing moments of Lolita, as Humbert Humbert finally kills his tormenter, Clare Quilty, “I could not bring myself to touch him to make sure that he was really dead. He looked it; a quarter of his face gone and two flies beside themselves with a dawning sense of unbelievable luck.”

The flies themselves immediately set the scene, but the addition of the phrase, “horribly experienced,” or “unbelievable luck” takes the image to an even more specific and unpleasant level; I can immediately visualize a stale pie, tacky counters and a world-weary waitress, and then later on a putrefying body ripe for the emergence of maggots. Nabokov has taught me that sentient flies speak volumes.

Single or small groups of flies in the house or kitchen may be a pervasive annoyance, but once flies coalesce into a swarm their identity transforms from pest to pestilence. The Bible is filled with references to swarms of flies. In Exodus, the Lord sends down a swarm of flies upon the Egyptians as the fourth of ten plagues designed to convince the Pharaoh to let the Israelites free.

“For if you do not let My people go, behold, I will send swarms of flies on you and on your servants and on your people and into your houses; and the houses of the Egyptians will be full of swarms of flies, and also the ground on which they dwell.” Exodus 8:21

The Lord clearly knew the power of the swarm, the seething masses of flies darkening pale skin, crawling flies blinding lids and eyes, swallowed flies and aspirated flies. While some of the Bible’s plagues wreak of embellishment, such as the plague of frogs “coming into the bedroom and the bed,” the plague of flies rings absolutely true. I know this because I too have been engulfed by flies.

Every summer my family vacations on the South Shore of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Usually the weather is clear with a light north breeze, but occasionally the wind turns to the south bringing flies to the beach in Biblical proportions. The first hint of the descending horde might be the gathering number of flies noted on the person walking ahead of you, and then the growing realization that your back is probably covered as well.

10509679_10203453340709568_6802847958186334978_nI remember one memorable hike when I looked down on my pant leg and was struck dumb by a patch about the size of the palm of my hand that was covered with an orgiastic mass of flies. Perhaps they were whipped into a frenzy by an inadvertent smear of mayonnaise on my pants, perhaps this was some sort of breeding ritual, but this incident has left a searing memory as something truly revolting, and also left me with the knowledge that you cannot outrun flies.

I know from experience that only a cold front from the North can disperse the swarm, but until it arrives, the flies and I engage in a tense contest of wills. I scream at people as they enter the house, demanding a contorted sidling motion in order to scrape flies off along the door jamb. Even so, the house soon becomes abuzz. I issue fly swatters to family members and we sit in a grim killing circle until the fly census drops to manageable levels. And then someone walks in and we start all over again.

Over the years I have become increasingly impressed at the Pharaoh’s stubbornness. I would do anything to get rid of a swarm. Under my watch the Israelites would have been freed at first sighting of flies, but the Pharaoh refused and subjected his people to the ensuing plagues of diseased livestock and festering boils. Perhaps the Pharaoh was shielded from the swarm by a dedicated squad of royal fly swatters, but I feel certain he would promptly succumb to the swarm if left alone along Lake Superior when the south wind blows. Perhaps he would do as I do, go to the beach, look across the vast expanse of Lake Superior, watch the gathering clouds and distant lightning, throw one last middle finger in the direction of the flies and then drop to my knees and raise my palms to the sky in gratitude for the oncoming cold front.

The missing words in the following poem consist of a set of anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

There is one thing that all people and cultures universally despise.

It is the annoyance and disgust with buzzing house *****

You’ll find them among the literary ***** of writers such as Mark Twain,

Who described multiple failed strategies for a killing campaign.

And one of ****’* greatest tribulations is when they arrive in a swarm,

And all you can do is look to the heavens and pray for a storm.






Answers:  flies, files, life’s

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