The Plague of Flies

Julie Marie Wade

Maybe it starts here: bright swatch of color behind the closet door, yellow as a fisherman’s slicker. The swatter, they called it, and you thought about it even when you weren’t standing there. Conjured it, feared it, couldn’t say why. The device is so flimsy really, dangling on its hook: a slender plastic handle and a thin rubber square. But why the holes? Almost a potholder or the grip used to open stubborn jars until you leaned in close and saw the pores. Flat colander on a stick. Freckled dishrag on a rod. If a fly was buzzing around the kitchen, hovering near the picnic table or the patio grill, your mother commanded, and your father obeyed: “Bill, get the swatter!” Death before dinner. Swift, matter-of-fact—like the fly didn’t matter at all, like annoyance was a valid excuse. None of that bleeding heart nonsense now! Later, a spritz of Lysol, a pat-down with paper towel, and back in the closet it went. How you hated the sound of it slicing the air. How you hated the hard thwomp right before the buzzing stopped. 


Or maybe it starts here: your preschool body crouched behind the couch, hiding from your mother. She’s shouting for you to come out, but not in a friendly, hide-and-seek way. She’s squatting, and she sees you, your small frame wedged between the sofa and the wall. When she stretches her hand, you recede a little. When she stretches further, you recede some more. What have you done? You can’t remember. But you hear her promise—“Julie, so help me God!”how much worse it will be for you if you don’t surrender right now. Either way, sooner or later, you know she’s going to get you. Euphemisms fly: in for it, another thing coming. Still, you cower. Still, you make her move all the furniture to reach you. The slice of air, the hard thwomp: you see it coming, but you can’t escape. Neither can you concede. You’re bawling before she strikes, and she says, “Stop it!,” shaking you hard. When her hand touches down, it’s not the same hand that cradles your cheek before sleep or cuts the pieces that are still too large on your plate. This hand is a weapon now. You’ll never forget. But more confusing is the way she tells you as she strikes that she’s not hurting you. “I’m not hurting you!” But it hurts. She’s saying it doesn’t, but it does. You don’t know the word contradiction yet, so you bawl, and she strikes again. “Stop crying! I’m not hurting you!” And then: “I should be the one crying. It hurts me to have to do this to you.” At five years old, you would have called bullshit if you could. 

Later, your mother will bathe you with her soft hands restored, guide you to the kitchen in your little white robe and pink bunny slippers. She will make a show of serving you: the tough gray meat slathered with applesauce, a scoop of fruit cocktail with the cherry you like, milk in a sunflower cup. Then, her voice will grow quiet, precise, as she starts to explain: “What happened today was not a spanking, okay? Some parents spank their children, but we don’t, okay? Your father and I agreed to that long before you were born.” You know better than to cry now, but your lip trembles, and you have trouble meeting her eyes. “That was just a swat, that’s all, and whether it ever happens again is up to you.” Of course it happens again. One day someone will say, Past’s prologue, and you will know exactly what they mean.


Or maybe it really starts here: Over dinner, your father, who wields a swatter but never suspects he is married to one—she is, after all, the first secret you keep, from when secrets were synonymous with love—that father is telling a story. He’s animated, happy to be reminiscing, and is it just a coincidence that his favorite tales always take place long before he met your mother? This one’s about his fraternity, Hell Week when he was a pledge. All the young men gathered together in the dining hall: huge oak table, candles lit, freshmen in sport coats and ties. “And we have to pay our dues, you know, prove that we can take it, so every time a little bell rings—some kind of chime, probably on a timer—one of the seniors reaches for the paddle,” he says. You glance at your mother, who seems neither interested nor alarmed. “It’s a great big paddle. Wood, right, with these huge holes–” your ears perk up, “and when the guy comes over to you, there’s no getting out of it. You stand up, you drop trou, and he pummels you! Can you take it? How many times? The other guys are egging him on to do it again and again. You’re gripping the table, you can feel the blisters rising, you know you’re not going to be able to sit down for a week, but man, if you can just hold on and ride through the pain, they’ll see what kind of mettle you’re made of.” 

The tears streaming down your face faster than you can wipe them away. “But Dad, you’re not made of medal! No one is!” Your mother sighs. “Different word, different spelling. Look it up!” He’s grinning—you can’t understand why he’s grinning—as he leans across the table toward you. “Mettle is courage, Smidge. It’s what separates the wimps from the champs. My friend Nelson—he goes full Oliver Twist—says in a perfect English accent, Please, sir, can I have some more? The guy went nuts on him, but Nelson never caved. Round after round. His ass looked like he sat on a cactus.” Now your mother frowns. “Bill! Language!” He nods, leaning back in his chair: “Okay, okay. All I’m saying is that Nelson earned his pin that day, and you’ll be proud to know your old dad did, too.” 

You can’t wrap your mind around his pride or why he thinks you should share it. You want to ask things you have no words for: How was he not humiliated? Why was this ritual even allowed? And was there no other way to prove you were brave than to endure something that seemed like abuse? All you can manage is “Why did the paddle have holes?” Your father’s eating with gusto now, and the question comes as a surprise. “Oh, well–” he has to think about it, but he isn’t shy when he replies, “to make it hurt worse. To turn a swat into a bona fide wallop!” 


Now you’re thinking of a riddle you learned as a child: What has no wings but flies faster than anything? The answer was time. The answer is always time. 


Flash-forward: It turns out there are so many flies. Literature, which you go on to study, is full of them: Paradise Lost, of course, and its distant offspring, Lord of the Flies. Language is full of them, too, the way people speak of a fly in the ointment or a fly in the milk. You recognize yourself in such expressions, a more subtle animal symbolism than black sheep or odd duck. Anyone gazing at a pasture or pond can spot at once the one that is not like the others. This isn’t true with flies, which are more intrepid. They are not always buzzing so conspicuously but often alight on out-of-the-way places—curtain rods, windowsills, the proverbial wall—motionless, mute, and watching in a way that resembles monitoring. It turns out flies have extraordinary eyes. You learn this in biology class: holoptic is the word for their “wraparound” vision. 

In biology, you are made to study the fly: fruit flies with their red, white, and vermillion eyes, enormous compared to their bodies. This is how they introduced genetics to you—what traits get passed down and how.  Flies have a habit of slipping in (the jar, for instance, or the carton), and their discovery leads to surprise: “How did you get in there?”  Surprise followed by outage, disgust. The fly is never safe once it’s been outed: “Bill, get the swatter!” 

You learn the word maggot around this time, fly larva found in decaying matter, and when you say it aloud, you can feel the rot on your tongue. It’s uncanny, the physical sensation produced by a sound. There is also a rhyming word for maggot, which you know instinctively you are not supposed to say but which, upon first hearing, seems to blister the inside of your ear. This reaction is visceral and immediate as any strike. It’s a strange case of knowing what a word means without actually knowing what the word means. So you look it up, just as you’ve been taught to do. 

First, something benign in early usage: “a bundle of sticks.” Just sticks, not even stones. Then, evolving, becoming pejorative, a handle that affixes to something one can hold: “a derogatory term for women, particularly older women.” Word as paddle now. Word as weapon. Then, evolving again, growing in potency: “Abusive term for men who are considered effeminate (woman-like) and presumed homosexual.” There it is: bright yellow as a warning—swat!—and riddled with holes. 


During these years, you’ll spend incalculable hours wondering how much control you have over the kind of person you will become. For instance, both your parents have blue eyes, and so do you. This is a trait they passed down through their genes. But was there a gene for the trait of bravery, say, or benevolence, or a disposition toward biding one’s time? People will tell you that you’re a glass-half-full kind of person, a rose-colored glasses kind of person, but the image that sticks, even as it rattles: you’re a get-more-flies-with-honey-than-vinegar kind of person. At this, you wrinkle your nose, wondering why anyone is trying to get all those flies in the first place. Couldn’t people just let the flies be? And the woman, sensing your dismay, laughs and clarifies: “I just mean, because you’re sweet.” You nodded then. You knew what she meant. But you couldn’t stop picturing the fly caught, stuck, drowning. At that point, wasn’t the substance almost irrelevant? 


And then there are the movies: It turns out they’re also full of flies. There’s a movie called The Fly, and the poster is a woman’s face, her mouth agape, screaming. The caption reads: Once, it was human—even as you and I! Your partner says, “Oh, I bet you’d really like David Cronenberg’s remake of that one. Seems to touch on all your favorite themes.” She’s probably right, but when you look up that movie poster, the caption reads, Be afraid. Be very afraid (so that’s where that expression comes from!) and you realize you already are. “His genre is sometimes called body horror,” Angie explains. You peruse a synopsis online. Man turns into fly. Better: Man transmogrifies into fly. It’s compelling and repelling at the same time. Who was it who said, “An allegory is a story everybody gets but nobody likes?” Oh, wait—that was you. 

Angie is the first person to show you The Amityville Horror, released the same year you were born. It’s campy and melodramatic, with plenty of reasons to laugh, but the scene with the priest feels eerily familiar. Outside the house the family looks happy, playing in their yard, heading out in their skiff, while inside the house a priest is preparing a blessing. It’s a ritual you recognize from mass. When he looks up, there’s a fly on the glass, buzzing a little. Just one at first, then a few more and a few more, and suddenly a surge of flies, hundreds of them. They’re inside now, somehow, swarming his face and head. You can see he’s wet with sweat, sick with fever, and the flies actually drive him away. The house, it turns out, is immune to blessing. Some sinister presence therein refuses to be blessed. Familiar, yes. 


In graduate school, you learned to rename contradictions paradoxes, as in “sometimes flies represent the self, and sometimes flies represent the other.” Which brings you back to the most pressing question of your life: What happens when self is other


Flash-back: You’re fourteen, watching Psycho for the first time with your father. He remembers 1960, the year it premiered, taking a date to see it at the cinema. “Mom?” you ask, and he shakes his head. “No, no, I hadn’t met her yet.” The movie is terrifying, true, but you don’t think the title really does it justice. He’s just a psycho? That’s it? That’s all he ever gets to be? You’re mulling on the unoriginal fear of becoming your mother—surely it isn’t just you—and then you see Norman Bates in his cell, but it’s not Norman Bates at all. Instead, you hear the voice of his mother in his head—surely this happens to everyone—but soon you realize she has also occupied his body. There is no Norman anymore. His mother who made him has now replaced him. “They’re probably watching me,” she says. “Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am.” 

A fly lands on Norman’s hand, which is to say his mother’s hand. “I’m not even going to swat that fly,” she resolves. “I hope they are watching. They’ll see. They’ll see, and they’ll know. They’ll say, Why she wouldn’t even hurt a fly. You’re gone from the couch before the final credits roll. You remember your father tapping on the bathroom door. You remember being wet with sweat, sick with fever, but not sure how it happened, let alone how it happened so fast. You’re crying, retching into the toilet bowl, but the whole time you’re also calling out, “Don’t worry, Dad! I’ll be alright. Really, Dad, I’m fine.” Does he know? Can he tell?  

Even then, your story was full of holes. 

Julie Marie Wade

JULIE MARIE WADE is the author of 16 collections of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, most recently Fugue: An Aural History (New Michigan Press, 2023) and Skirted: Poems (The Word Works, 2021). With Denise Duhamel, she wrote The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose (Noctuary Press, 2019) and with Brenda Miller, Telephone: Essays in Two Voices (Cleveland State University Press, 2021). A winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. Her forthcoming book is Otherwise: Essays (Autumn House, 2023) chosen by Lia Purpura as the winner of the 2022 Autumn House Nonfiction Book Prize.

Art: “Lock In” By Leslie Brown, Photograph, Digital Design

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