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A Thousand Lives of Flies

by Chris Ward

Once I’d been a man. I’d lived in a lovely little house on the Cornish coast which overlooked the sea, had a big sloping garden with wind-bent trees to hem it in, a forested valley spread out below me and about as much happiness as I’d ever needed.

I’d had three children, one of whom had been a young GP, a junior at a practice somewhere near Exeter. Of my other two children, one had been at college in London while the other was just finishing school. Very proud, I was.

My wife too, was lovely. Hair like a wild cornfield and eyes as blue as the sea on clear days. Our bond was strong, only death could break it.

Which of course, it did. I forget exactly how, but I’d been travelling to work — I don’t remember what I did for a job — one frosty morning in February when a van pulled out in front of me. I’d been driving a little too fast, but the black ice made it irrelevant. I hit him square on, and don’t remember anything more.

I’m not sure now what my name had been.

* * *

I don’t remember being especially religious, but of course everyone had pub theories. Several were clever; that God was omnipresent and basically everything was part of one single living organism, that we were little more than protrusions, like fingers, toes; that Heaven really did exist, a place of fulfilled dreams where the losers got laid and the bank managers got consciences; or that we basically relived the one life over and over again, subtle decisions along the way changing its course, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad.

I listened intently, of course, though rarely offered one of my own. Never greatly creative, I’d been content to listen to others, soak up theories and ideas while the beer gradually turned my mind to sponge.


The fanciful idea would be that you could choose; so that a moose in one life could come back as an Adonis in another, the fat kids thin, the thin kids with muscle, the stupid kids with brains and the brainy kids with sex appeal.

Of course, in a perfect world. But this is real life we’re talking about.

* * *

Someone once told me that flies are not sentient beings, that they have no awareness. Well, let me tell you that’s bull. I am perfectly aware of what I am, a feces-tasting bluebottle buzzing about in the oppressive summer sun, hanging around the back end of cows and waiting for another steaming pile to drop.

I have no real control over what I do; it’s not like I can decide to buzz into a house and eat freshly baked cakes or anything. My life seems to be remote-controlled, but at the same time I am consciously aware of my being; I know I exist and I also know that I used to be a man. It is almost as though flies are little memory carriers, buzzing about in the air carrying all the souls of dead people in transit until they die enough times to be reincarnated as a human once more.

It seems souls are souls, whatever they belong to. When something dies, its soul gets put back on to the conveyor belt of life production, waiting its turn to be born again. The same soul, different body. The same crap, different day.

Despite the overdrafts, the sexual frustration, the perennially piss-poor television, being a human is a pretty good life. Even if you’re really short of money, food is pretty easy to come by. It’s not like you have to catch and kill it now. And that’s not all: since when did nature’s beasts have the comfort of double glazing, power steering and cappuccino machines? All in all, being a human is a pretty good life. I think that given the choice, pretty much anything would want to be a human.

Unfortunately it is a little more random than that. And relatively speaking, humans aren’t all that common.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been a fly.

* * *

My first fly-life was fairly uneventful. I remember the sensation of being a white writhing grub for a few days, before I became a cocoon and emerged a beautiful common housefly. I then proceeded to eat crap and buzz into people’s faces for a while, before one morning I felt far weaker than usual, and struggled to get up into the air. Dying, I thought, and sure enough, a few hours later I did, my fly lights blinking out suddenly into that nothingness between life and death, a fraction in time between the leaving of one body and the birthing into the next.

My second fly life was not so short.

* * *

I remember my first fly life as being relatively easy, though, obviously, in comparison to the soft human life before it, fly life was a hardship that knew no bounds. But this second one, well...

I was born in an arid desert land, hot even on my nerveless thorax, and enough almost to burn through the fragile membranes of my wings. I emerged from grubhood (as I call it) from the carcass of a dead camel, its body mostly picked clean so that barely one in a thousand of us survived. For a day and a night I hunted food, finding some pickings from the carcass of a meercat, and a little moisture from the leathery hide of a rhino. The third day of my life was the hottest I’d yet faced, and, in searching for shade beneath a stand of scrawny trees I flew straight into a spider’s web straight out of every fly’s nightmares.

I began to fear that this wasn’t a common garden spider from the way the web stretched almost fourteen feet between the upper reaches of two neighbouring trees. And sure enough, when Shelob emerged from the shadow of the opposite tree she was a good four inches across, her bulk so heavy she made the web bend like a trampoline ready to spring her up into the air.

I was on one side, Shelob on the other. I had a good couple of minutes to struggle before her hideous blackness reached me, those menacing fangs and the eight eyes that seemed to gleam with delight.

I promised myself then if I ever became a man again, I’d crush every single spider I ever met.

I wondered if it would hurt. I had few nerve endings, but even a fly can feel pain. I looked at those fangs and prayed it would be quick.

It wasn’t. Shelob had clearly eaten her fill for the day, so she proceeded to truss me up in her webbing until I could move nothing but my eyes. Only then did I really look around me, and see the other little cocoons scattered across the web, nine or ten of them. My brothers were here too.

She left a small hole for me to breathe, keep me fresh I suppose, but I was almost dead from starvation by the time my turn came three days later. I’d watched my brother flies being devoured one by one, and all my resolve had gone. Be quick, I prayed to her as finally her big black bulk descended on me.

I wondered if she’d take bites or just shovel me into her mouth. I wondered briefly if I might escape if she unravelled me first, but my wings were almost certainly useless by now. Still, I might be able to drop to the ground and hobble away out of sight, to die in painless starvation.

She heaved me straight in. Her fangs closed around me as she swallowed, but apart from a short suffocating sensation as I was squeezed down into her gut, there was little initial pain. Only when I fell into the digestive juices of her stomach did the pain begin.

It took about three hours for Shelob to digest me, though I died within the first twenty minutes. Saying that, those twenty minutes really hurt.

* * *

During my fly lives I’ve experienced many things, more than most humans ever do, that’s for sure, but then I’ve had a little longer to mull them over, and random resurrection is far more interesting a way to travel than any boat or plane. I’ve been all across all the continents, even Antarctica, where...

I enjoyed a brief grubhood on the corpse of a dog accompanying a scientific research mission. Unfortunately the body was thrown out with the trash, and I emerged as a fully grown carrion fly into ridiculously subzero temperatures. My life lasted little more than minutes, but in retrospect seeing that world was worth every second of agony as first my wings and then my legs froze and dropped off.

I’ve seen landmarks too, most of them. The grubhood of my thirty-first fly life was spent amongst the oily warmth of a McDonald’s burger, in a waste bin opposite Manhattan Island. Seeing the rise of all those glorious buildings, I’d absently set off across the water to explore, only to find my young wings unable to cope with the offshore winds that blow in the strait there. I was blown out to sea and died a quick death beneath the rolling Atlantic waves.

And I’ve seen more sides of the human psyche than any psychologist. For a while during my fifty-seventh life I knew what it was like to be an ant after a pair of young children plucked my wings off. Unfortunately the residents of the ants’ nest they dropped me into didn’t quite agree with my character transformation and tore me apart. I can still remember the children’s amused smirks as the ants lifted me up and carried me down into their nest, to what would soon reveal itself to be worse than any torture chamber.

Reversibly, I’ve also experienced the most abstract of human kindness, three or four times being picked free from a spider’s web; once, in my one hundred and forty-first life actually watching a big fat garden spider being crushed to death just inches away from me.

Why? you might ask. Because sometimes the salty taste of human kindness is difficult to understand. What is it about them that makes it right to steal a fly away from the clutches of a spider only to rip off its legs and one wing, to watch it spin across the floor like a ball-bearing helicopter with only one propeller? And be chased by a yapping dog who has the energy reserve to inevitably win?

Indeed, difficult to understand. I’ve been swatted, crushed, dissected, tortured, maimed and sprayed more times than I care to remember. On countless occasions I’ve never even made it out of grubhood. I’ve been stamped, burnt, unwittingly eaten, squeezed, popped and on more than one occasion pierced by a metal hook and plunged into water.

Grubs can’t survive underwater any better than humans can, so I’ve drowned more often than not, before the fish could get me. Having felt the sensation of water suffocation and also the razor teeth of many fish inside my human soul, I’ve yet to decide which is the worse way to die.

* * *

Animals and humans differ in one fundamental way. Intelligence. And during my multitude of fly lives I’ve yet to really understand quite what good intelligence does. Animals kill us for sustenance, or because we irritate them or attack their young. Humans kill or maim us for the simple reason that they can. Yes, we irritate them, we inhabit their buildings, we lay our eggs in their food, their waste and in the bodies of their dead, and the losses to our armies are sometimes justly understandable.

But I have seen children collecting buckets of my brother’s corpses, simply because they can, piled high like victims of the Somme, their deaths just as pointless and undeserving. Whenever the wings are plucked from my back or my legs torn from my thorax I take heart only in knowing that human history is riddled with cases of them doing the same to their own.

The road to higher intelligence is paved with cruelty. Sometimes, as I lie still and unmoving as another fly life fades, I pray not to come back as one of them.

But other times, as I fall victim to another form of cruelty, I pray that once more I can return as one with the power, rather than one without.

* * *

As one fly life drifts into the next, and I enter another bout of endless hardship, the difficulty of finding food, the constant risk of death, I pray that just for once I’ll wake up to consciousness as something else, a cat, a dog, a slug, or even a nightmarish spider. I’ve been houseflies, gnats, fruit flies, horseflies, water flies, and just about a hundred other varieties across the world. And the life is always the same: short, difficult, painful.

I’ve been a fly over six hundred times. And though I’ve seen the world from a perspective I’d never have imagined before, seen things for which I’m forever ashamed, I can’t help but pray for the day that I wake up again as a person.

But as one fly life drifts into the next, I can feel myself starting to change. My distant human life is beginning to fade now, little more than a memory, the silken cobwebs of a barely remembered dream. I know that one day, perhaps many years from now, when nature’s law of averages comes full circle, I will again be born into the body of a man or woman. And I wonder, after a thousand lives of flies, whether I will be born with the mind of a human, or the mind of the fly.

And wonder which I would prefer.

Copyright © 2008 by Chris Ward

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