I saw a fly buzz, saw it pirouette through rags of skyten thousand feet above the temple walls.It came to a halt—it studied us—it was less hungry than we thought .—Mark Levine
1. When I think of flies, I think of my mother. She’s sitting in front of the TV eating spaghetti in a big glass bowl, one of those 1960s jobs with blue diamonds and atomic gold stars. Slurping and humming after every bite, and then screaming only as she gets to the bottom and sees the familiar black thing with its iridescent back. It’s big, its single pair of wings intact. The screaming. The retching.
As children, we laughed; the devils my brother and I were. Oh, but thinking of it now, how horrible. My mother said this happened when she was lying in bed with my father. We often disagree about the past. But if her version is true, how did I see it? When my mother sees a fly, she must think of that moment or of the movie, of the small voice crying, help me, help me. It’s a great feat to empathize with a fly. To imagine the short life of an insect that feeds on waste and fears the swatter or the spider. Even now, writing this, I am slightly disgusted. I especially hate their buzzing, their way of constantly landing on your skin. Or green heads biting you when you get out of the Atlantic Ocean already itchy from salt and jellyfish. It’s what I disliked about sailing: the fucking flies.
2. In Arkansas, visiting distant cousins deep in the bush, I sat at the kitchen table eating Raisin Bran staring up at a yellow fly strip thick with them. At any [End Page 31] moment, I thought, one will fall into my bowl, break the surface of milk, and I’ll mistake it for a raisin. I ate wide-eyed, waiting. I might’ve been ten and had asked to go on this trip with my great-grandmother and step-grandfather. I regretted it the most at this moment, or maybe when I got the chigger or when that cat threw her babies off the roof. I begged my grandmother: let me sleep in the car with the air conditioner. My cocoon tightened within that house. Plants grew in the tub; I showered outside with cousins and roaches spying on me. All the kids slept in one room with clothes piled to the ceiling. There weren’t many beds. One of the girls wouldn’t keep any clothes on. See where this is headed? The fear of unsupervised children: The Lord of the Flies.
It was the summer of 1983 or 1984. We were visiting my step-grandfather’s son. He had moved to Arkansas after the Vietnam War. As a teenager, I obsessed over the ’60s and Vietnam. Since then, I’ve read all the books I could get my hands on and watched almost all the movies from Apocalypse Now to Watchmen. Recently, I read a report from the Department of Defense about how flies were a “monumental nuisance” in Vietnam. At a particular mess hall, the infestation was so great soldiers couldn’t eat without ingesting one or two flies. The flies thrived in the humid conditions, the poorly maintained dumps in nearby villages and camps, and the corpses that lay in the fields for long periods of time becoming infested with maggots. The maggots were so bad they had to spray pesticides inside the body bags. It’s true maggots eat necrotic tissue, but they’ll also eat healthy flesh as well. Fly infestations are problems in most warm weather wars. The report kept referring to them as “filth flies,” which seems redundant. Flies can carry over 100 pathogens, but most soldiers suffered major bouts of diarrhea, distraction from their work, and low morale. What they needed was a grandmother who religiously dumped salt into the trash to keep maggots from developing, dry out the food, and eliminate their water.
The humidity in Arkansas hung around you like a dog. I imagined we were...