The Lord of the Fruit Flies

Picture credit: Sahil Muhammed

Spring pollen slipped into the cave through cracks and crevices. His nostrils twitched as he blinked awake and threw off his matted rug. He rose and stretched his arms above his head and yawned, his mouth as empty and dark as the cave in which he stood. A fatty smell emanated from the rug and eased the irritation in the lining of his nose and throat. He lowered his arms slowly, wary of the grind of shoulder bones in sockets. A third of his body weight had gone during the winter sleep, his bones were dry, his muscles soft, hunger rolled around his shrunken belly. He went to the mouth of the cave and heaved back the giant stone that had sealed it during the cold months. A rush of pollen. He sneezed, a giant blast. He twisted the blue cap from a small plastic bottle and took tiny sips of water – too much would make him puke – while surveying the crag that stretched below. Green shoots pushed through brown bracken. A wren’s bones flexed as she hopped from gorse bush to rose hip. The sun was rising and he leaned towards the clean energy, but he was too weak yet to step out into the world.

He spent some days sitting on a pile of small grey rocks at the entrance to the cave, observing clouds and moons, each passing day warmer than the one before. He ate berries. He listened to the spring showers that came each evening and filled the water container he had rigged with a filter of moss and muslin. From time to time, the sound of men, calling to each other as their barges passed on the river below, heading to the estuary, the scrap yard, the rubbish tip. And he remembered another call. From clutches of tiny white eggs, hatchling grubs.

Here we are. New specks of life. We grow, we grow, we wait for you. We’re waiting to become for you, unfold our wings, fly to you.

When he felt strong enough, he pulled on his boots and scrambled down the crag. He made his way to the river and followed the bank, walked for almost an hour. But there was only the water and sun and birds and mosses and clouds. Only the men on barges. He went back to the cave and sat a while longer and pictured the flies emerging, their swollen grub bodies wriggling as they fed on the surface of broken fruits.

The next day, after sleeping badly in the bright moonlight that snuck into the cave, he returned to the river. This time, he took off his boots and waded into the water. The mud sucked at his feet, but he kept his balance, took a step, another. Water reached his calves, his knees, his groin. He turned to face the near bank and let himself fall back. He sucked breath through his teeth in rapid bursts while his body burned cold then he stretched out his arms and propelled himself across the river with wide strong sweeping strokes. Dead skin and dirt slaked off his body and his oily hair dragged in the water like strange dark weeds.

He clambered out on the far bank and lay on his back, tired from his swim, smells of decay from the rubbish tip wafting over him, intensified by the sun’s heat. When he had dried off, he rose. He could hear the sound of maggots squirming on fruity flesh in the tip and feared he was too early, would have to camp out for a day or two. A deeper fear, much worse, that the first swarm had already risen. But he heard the first hatchling’s call. He had timed it right. He licked his lips, the heat of his tongue a shock. The new season, brought in by his beings, his crowd. And he could hardly bear to think of his moment of communion, his encounter with the swarm – when the flies would let him command them in clouds and spheres and fractal sweeps. He willed them to come to him. There was a response. Faint, but enough to make his heart skip. He breathed deep and held his nerve as he slipped through a gap in the fence and walked into the tip.

Here we are. New specks of life. We grow, we grow, we fly to you. Our wings are yours, we fly for you.

One rose, then another, then the air was flecked with new bodies in flight. One fly bobbed towards him, its minuscule mind swelling to pair its impulses with his. The little creature grew giddy as he directed it to land on his hand. One fly was his, the others would come. But the fly took off again, flew back to join its brothers and sisters in the swarm.

Then he saw her. What was she doing here? The swarm was his. He glared at her, a young woman, who took off her heavy black glasses and waved them at him.

“You look like you know what you’re doing!” she called.

Someone else was coming, a man wearing jeans, a t-shirt with a fine-line drawing of bees, also young, despite the big gingery beard. The girl turned to greet him with a quick hug, which he received awkwardly.

“Is he part of the event?” the bearded man asked.

The woman put her glasses back on. “I think so.”

“I thought I might have missed it. I was reading that book you left on the wall.”

“Which one?”

“The one about the sad donkey on a balcony. Is anyone else coming?”

“I love that book! It’s really sad, but lovely.”

“Right. Lovely, but really sad. So what’s happening?”

“I think this gentleman knows.” The woman with glasses looked over again to where he stood, to his bare muddy feet crushing scraps, to his ears. He looked back at her in bewilderment – what were these people doing here?

The glasses woman’s smile was more forced this time. “I didn’t read everything on the event post, but I think there’s like a chant or something,” she said.

“Cool,” said the bearded man. “Like a shamanic thing?”

“Kind of. But really ancient and from here.”

He saw the third person then. An older woman. Standing quietly apart just inside the chainlink fence. Long grey hair straggling the collar of her blue check shirt. She was slightly built with a narrow waist he wanted to touch. She brushed a hair from her cheek and he breathed in quickly. She smiled at him and his body vibrated at high pitch. He wanted to be back in the cave, to roll the giant stone across the mouth, to sit in darkness.

The girl in glasses called hello to the older woman, but the older woman closed her eyes and became still and sure and intent. The flies were rising. The older woman’s body swayed with purpose. They hummed to her. She opened her eyes and smiled and raised her arms and a line of flies flowed between her hands. They spiraled and swirled and formed a sphere.

Here we are. New specks of life. We grow, we grow, we fly to you. Our wings are yours, we fly for you.

“Cool!” Called the woman with glasses.

“Did she say the shamanic thing?” asked the bearded man.

A great growl shook the air. The sound did not come from the intruding people, nor the insects, but from his own throat. It disrupted the formation. The flies became themselves once more, dizzy, random. He took one lurching step, but his knees were weak and he had to stop and steady himself. The older woman glanced at him, but did not speak. He could not tell if her expression conveyed interest or anger or indifference. He wanted to tell her she should not be here, could not do this, but the words would not come. She lifted her arms once more. This time the flies coated her body. Each curve of flesh, each strand of grey hair. As she became the swarm, his heart contracted. 

“Whoah! Freaky!” said the girl in glasses.

His heart was knocking against bone and he was striding towards the woman in the swarm. When he touched his fingertips to her arm, the swarm stilled, each insect held in air, just for a moment. Then disintegration, instant and total: the flies fell to the ground, their black bodies in a pile. The woman with grey hair looked down, said nothing. He removed his hand from her arm and she walked away.

“Man!” cried the girl in glasses. “That was intense!” She turned to her friend but he did not answer; he tugged at his beard, stared at the retreating woman who had commanded the swarm.

To be away from these uninvited people, away from the scrap yard, the dead swarm, that was all that mattered. To get back to the cave. He ran. He staggered into the river, wading deep, crying out at the sudden shock of icy water. It was only luck that carried him to the other bank and not to a drowning.

For the rest of the spring, he tried to forget. He ate little and struggled to sleep. His feet hardened as he walked barefoot through the crag, unwilling to return to the river bank to salvage the boots he had left behind. The long golden days of summer exhausted him. He could no longer feel his purpose in the cave, or in the crag, or by the river. He was glad when the days shortened and the air turned cold again.

That winter, his sleep was even deeper than usual. He was reluctant to leave his dreams of the river when the spring air finally woke him. He was slow to rise and sat for weeks outside his cave. He felt the eggs, the grubs, the emerging wings. He sat on. He felt the hatching, the delicate wings drying in the spring air, the lifting off. He sat on.

He is old now. He lives in a place with other old men and women. He misses the crag, the cave, his long winter sleep but he feels calm, and he eats well and turns his face to the sun every day on a small terrace, sitting outside even on short cold winter days. He thinks of them every day. The swarm. He thinks of the woman with the delicate waist and long grey hair. When the sun sets, his eyes droop. The medicine he takes is strong. It stills his longing.

About Melaina Barnes

Melaina Barnes is a writer from the north of England. Her short fiction has been published in anthologies and magazines including The Corona Book of Science Fiction and The Stinging Fly. She lives in Lisbon.

Melaina Barnes is a writer from the north of England. Her short fiction has been published in anthologies and magazines including The Corona Book of Science Fiction and The Stinging Fly. She lives in Lisbon.

Leave a Comment