Peter Shelton

Seven At One Blow

Posted in Animal Dreams, Watch columns by pshelton on November 5, 2010

Tonapaw, when he was still with us, decided that one of his most important jobs was to catch and eat houseflies. He’d pin them against a windowsill with his paws, peer under, and gobble them up with a couple of quick bites.

Ellen and I praised him every time he did this. And he did it right up until the last month or so of his life. Did it with astonishing dexterity and reflexes: the reflexes of a cat.

The only problem was, he was too good at it. In the fall, during Indian summer, when the days are still quite warm and it’s maximum housefly season here at Boulder Rock, Tony could consume dozens of flies in an afternoon. When he overdid it, we’d find disgusting puddles of cat barf swimming with fly bodies, some of them maybe still struggling in the soup.

Now Tony’s gone, and the flies are trying to take advantage. I just killed a bunch of them on the living room windows, and I’ll be back at it when their annoying buzzing and crashing into the glass becomes too much in another hour or two.

Like Tony, I can get into it as sport. Can I be quick enough of hand to smash one that has alighted on a horizontal surface, where they are especially wary? Can I get two at once where they have congregated in a corner?

(Maybe they are copulating. I read that male houseflies, unlike most insects, don’t perform any sort of approach or identifying dance. In fact, they are known to fly at anything that is about the right size and try to copulate with it. Dumb clucks.)

Killing more than one at a blow, of course, brings to mind the Grimm Brothers fairytale, Seven at One Blow. In which an unimposing tailor, annoyed with the flies in his jam, takes a swipe and kills seven of them. (They never talk about what that actually looked like: Was there jam all over the place? Did the tailor have to fish their carcasses out of the jam? What did his hand look like afterward? Am I being too literal?)

Anyway, he makes himself a belt that says “Seven At One Blow” on it and decides to seek his fortune in the wider world. Naturally, people and giants and kings and everyone else thinks his belt is saying that he killed seven men with one blow. This gets him into all kinds of trouble. But, with pluck and quick thinking, he manages to capture the unicorn and trick the giants into killing each other and in the end gets to marry the princess. You’ve got to think that she knew the truth, but everybody else, including the king, her father, was terrified of the little guy.

Seven at one blow, that’s pretty impressive. When I was a kid, we had a semi-enclosed front porch where we played ping-pong. It was open in front but had glass in big panes on the sides. One day there were flies by the hundreds buzzing around on the inside. I got the flyswatter and began swinging away in a propulsive orgy of killing. I wasn’t proud of myself after about the second swing, but neither did I stop. It was kind of like the World War II movies: An American soldier gone berserk with the Tommy gun is easily forgiven. His sergeant died in his arms. And for that the Jerries (or the Japs) didn’t deserve to live.

Houseflies don’t deserve to live. With apologies to the insectologists out there, there is no earthly reason for houseflies, except to piss people off and spread disease. The poor people of Haiti are suffering a cholera epidemic right now thanks, at least in part, to the sticky, filthy little feet and probosci of houseflies. (They can’t eat solid manure, or their other favorite food, human waste, so they regurgitate saliva to dissolve it and then suck up the liquid nutrients.)

Anyone who has found wriggling fly larvae (maggots) in his cake flour knows that houseflies don’t deserve to live.

It’s part of the yin-yang of the season. I love the warm sunshine, the ground still dry enough to hike, the house toasty enough so the boiler rarely has to kick on. But at the same time I’m getting antsy for the snow to come. And for the houseflies to be forced by the cold into diapause, their version of hibernation. Unfortunately, any of the four life stages of a housefly can survive the winter in suspended animation: the adult, the eggs, the larvae, or the pupae. Whatever miserable form they’re in they wake back up in the spring.

Tony can no longer be our Little Tailor. He’s buried under a rock in the yard. I’ll just have to carry on without him.

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