Houseflies of New South Wales

by Alissa

Flies are another nuisance; they swarm in every room in tens of thousands, and blacken the breakfast or dinner table as soon as the viands appear, tumbling into the cream, tea, wine, and gravy with the most disgusting familiarity.

Louisa Ann Meredith, from an excerpt Notes and Sketches of New South Wales During a Residence in that Colony from 1839 to 1844 (1844)

When not in use as a doorstop, The Literature of Australia (Norton, 2009. Thanks, Mom!) serves as a comprehensive-ish introduction to a continent of writers (except Jill Ker Conway) I have never read before. I carried it around America last summer not reading it, but cherishing its potential while reading Bruce Chatwin’s aboriginal/anthropological CNF marvel The Songlines instead. The Songlines was dramatically easier to hold aloft in bed while O and I were camping out at Emily’s house. Since we arrived five months ago, I’ve removed TLA from its place of honour by the bedroom door during O’s maybe monthly naps and indulged in small snippets of old letters, stories and poems. On page 96, which sounds farther in than it is, I found a kindred spirit in Louisa Ann Meredith. The flies! It must have been September when she wrote that.

Last September, within a day or two of the Michael Ondaatje incident, we had our first really warm day of spring. I opened all the windows and let the breeze blow through the house. The scent of salt came on the wind, the dust of the beach, and the fragrance of one of the blooming plants whose names I still don’t know. Energized by the breeze, I finally unpacked the roasting pan and put it to immediate use on the assortment of meat that was approaching expiration in the fridge. The aroma of hot chicken joined the air, and as I sat down in the box pile to read a recipe for the lamb, a fly buzzed through the room. I picked up a piece of cardboard and knocked it flat on my first try. Congratulating myself on my unusually swift reflexes, I found some packing paper to collect the remains. This slow thing was an Australian housefly? How had such a clumsy species survived?

It was a brief triumph.

As I picked up the carcass, I realized it might have been so slow in part because it was filled to bursting with larvae. Teeny wriggling baby maggots.

Then I heard more buzzing. As the afternoon wore on and my chicken smelled better and better, the flies swarmed the kitchen screen and the front door screen. There would be no going in or out. For a while I thought I could draw the flies away from the door by opening the side windows in the living room. Somehow even more started coming inside, and I chased them up and down the room, wads of paper in my hand to smash them and wipe up the larvae.

My skin crawled. My brain crawled. How were they getting in? What did people do in Australia in the millennia before screens? Why weren’t my screens working?

For a couple of hours I feared this was my fate for the season, or maybe forever, to be swarmed by giant flies and their tiny writhing offspring. I filled one bag with 20 kills, tied its top in a triple knot, and then turned around and filled another. O and I bolted out the back stairwell to take the bags to the trash can past two doors and a flight of stairs.

More flies came in–hungry, pregnant creatures, looking for meat.

Then it was time to roast the lamb.

I alternated feeding my child bits of chicken, guarding the meat, and working through bursts of fly rage. Was I slowing down? Or were there just more. flies. every. effing minute? O watched me run all afternoon, and probably learned a little too much about killing. We’re still working on the inside vs. outside bugs, and what actually needs to be squashed.

Hours and another swarm of flies later, windows and boxes smeared with guts and grubs, I sat down. Surely flies must serve a purpose in the great teeming compost heap of planet earth–I had read something good once about medical maggots–but I was beyond trying to make peace with their existence. I wanted to give up on the whole thing, repack the boxes and go back somewhere cold where the flies all vanish for seasons at a time. But I had promised to give Newcastle a year before rendering any kind of lasting judgment. Anyway, the chicken was good, and I was ravenous.

Ace came home, looking confused at my apparent lack of progress unpacking, and pointed out a slit in one of the screens just wide enough to let in the flies.

We don’t open that window now, and we haven’t had a serious fly episode since.

Spring turned to summer, and I made a friend close enough to tell the story of my sad September. We’ve been making things together. I gave her a hunk of fabric from my stash. For my birthday, she sewed me this from it:

Isn't it sweet? Cuddly, even. If you look closely you will see its tiny larval pattern.

My own stuffed housefly! Isn’t it wonderful? If you look closely you will see its tiny larval pattern.

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