The Fly Upon My Mantel

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“I have a story to tell you that you will not believe,” the fly said.

I listened. Because if I believed that a fly could speak, then I was more than ready to hear what she had to say.

And I did believe, after a fashion, when I realized that the tiny voice I’d heard whispering my name was coming from the fly that was perched on the edge of my mantel.

~~~

They were days of myth and magic. Of sword and swagger. Of gods and glory.

The fly was human then, for that was how she had been born. She avoided the notice of powerful people for a long, long time, because she just wanted to be left alone to live her life as an ordinary person. But she was eventually discovered and made to join a school that taught her discipline and control over powers and talents that threatened to grow and overwhelm, not only her, but her society. Powers and talents that in our day we would call “magic.”

She was considered a great genius, though she understood that her knowledge was nothing compared to the wisdom and knowledge of the cosmos. She sought that knowledge in a way that her teachers and masters did not approve, and she was punished for it.

To remind her that she was small when it came to ultimate cosmic significance, she was sentenced to be transformed into a fly. Only her body was transformed. She retained her intellect and sense. For she was expected to learn restraint and humility. She was expected to learn respect of the powers she wielded and of those who taught her and guided her.

She was kept imprisoned for a long time. The whole time she continued to teach herself, so that she might get vengeance, for she felt she was wrongly restrained and unjustly imprisoned. Once her wrath was calmed, her thirst for vengeance faded. But she still believed she was wrongly treated, and she resolved to seek justice for herself when her native form and voice were returned to her. And she still lamented of all she would lose if she were made to complete her full sentence.

There was someone she loved, but by the time she was freed, he would surely have moved on. There were tomes she wished to read and to write, work she longed to do. But she was trapped, without fingers, without voice. Trapped in a box of glass covered with a cloth of black wool. She flew around in her box, and her teachers would sometimes take off the cover, and place the box out in the marketplace, or on a snowy mountain, so that she might see the world. At first, she believed it was part of the punishment, to show her the world that she could not take part in. But when her time in the box grew lonely, she realized that they were trying to give her some relief, and perhaps some perspective. She began to understand and to accept that it wasn’t just imprisonment they intended, it was penance. Penance for putting her own progress before the progress of her people as a whole.

She began to contemplate upon her penance.

***

Then one day, she heard a great commotion. Someone lifted the cover of her glass box. It was not a teacher or master, but a disciple. Gray smoke began to fill the room. She caught motion in the halls beyond. With her compound eyes, she could see what she would not be able to see with human eyes. Spells bouncing and leaping through the air. In horror, she saw spells striking those she knew before they could react. Striking them to the ground from where they did not rise again.

The one who uncovered her box, also lifted it clear of her. At first, she did not understand. But he told her to flee. To go to safety, as she had been taught, and await the arrival of survivors. She would surely be freed from her sentence. And if enough of her bitterness for her punishment had burned away, her people would need her.

So she went to the closest haven that she knew of. As she flew out and up, she saw mayhem and destruction. Some enemy was attacking her teachers and her school, the place that had been her home and her prison. The last remnants of her anger toward her teachers faded. Though she still believed there were many great flaws in the means they used, in the limitations they imposed, and their reasons, she pitied them, and she felt helpless. In her form, she could do nothing to defend her people. She tried to find some of the ones who had cursed her. They could remove the curse. But she guessed she would have to find more than one. Like a lock that required more than one key, her curse had been cast by three masters, and could likely only be lifted by three. But there was so much destruction, she feared that she herself would be destroyed. Swatted dead, or burned by a mere ember, or torn apart by a stray bolt of enchanted fire.

She fled and found haven. She waited there for many days. But no one else came. Then, at last, just as she was beginning to wonder if she should return or fly away and make her own plans, someone approached the haven. Though she was a fly and would likely escape the notice of any enemy who did not look closely enough, she receded into a crack in a stone wall. She watched the approach of one of the school-masters. She knew him in passing, for he had taught her a lesson or two. She flew out to him.

He was wounded. His robes were torn and soaked in blood. He was in so much pain that he did not notice her until she buzzed past his ear and then darted over his head.

“Master, I will help you,” the fly dared to say. She had cast a spell upon herself, though she was forbidden to do so during her imprisonment. She should not have been able to cast any spells at all in fly form. But she was able and she did. She gave herself a voice.

The master was too distressed to be surprised. He said nothing for a while. He limped and stumbled to the stores of water and took a drink. Behind him, he left a trembling trail of blood. It’s scent was keen and the fly was almost overwhelmed by it.

If there was only one master, then he surely could not free her from her imprisonment. But in that moment, she did not think it mattered.

“I will help you,” she said again. This time, the master spoke.

“You will avenge us.”

He was dying. As he died, he cast upon the fly the curse of immortality. When she realized what he was doing, she tried to flee, but though she could fly fast, she did not fly fast enough to escape the curse.

A long life lived well was a sweet gift. But eternal life was a curse for creatures of limited sense. Only those who were truly ignorant or truly mad could think it was otherwise.

***

The fly returned to the school, to her home village, and found that all was destroyed. From what she could gather, by listening to the rumors spreading in neighboring towns and villages, those who were not killed had been taken prisoner. None were left in the school.

They might have all died or been taken, but the fly wagered that it was not so. When they realized they could not defend against the enemy, some surely had receded into the shadows, forgoing even the havens. They could avenge what had happened there. She did not even know who had attacked them and cared only of removing the curses upon her. She told herself that once she did, she would seek out her masters and teachers, and help them to seek vengeance or justice, or to rebuild themselves.

She decided the only way to free herself was to find her own disciples. With her voice she could speak to them and teach them, and as she taught them for their own benefit, she would also set them to the task of freeing her from her curses. The curse of transformation and the curse of immortality.

So she watched and she waited. She found some potentials, but they all failed her. One thought that she was coming up with the ideas on her own. That the fly was a figment of her imagination. Another thought the fly was an evil corrupting spirit and swatted her. That was the first time the fly saw proof that the curse of immortality had worked. For her body reformed itself and she flew away before the potential disciple swatted her again.

She began to understand the frustration her masters and teachers must have felt when disciples were…unruly. And she waited again, long did she wait, nestled in sleep, dreaming the mad dreams of a mad fly. When she awoke and went seeking again, she found a world much changed. A strange new discipline had arisen to replace magic and alchemy, at least in the public eye. It was called “science,” and while its methods were sound in principle, the fly saw how few were able to properly apply those methods. Especially as time bore on.

She decided to wait no longer, if only to add some interest to what had become a dreary existence. She found a potential disciple and watched him for many days, finding him to be quite civil and broad-minded. Then spoke to him and convinced him she was real. He seemed at first quite honored, and then keenly intrigued.

By the time she realized that he sought to discover the key of her immortality by taking her apart, bit by bit, it was too late. He managed to catch her, for she was still trusting in those days. He started by plucking her wings off with a clean and delicate pair of tweezers. Then he removed each of her legs and the segments of her body, trying to find where her immortality was contained. He thought that her head might survive, even as the rest of her body died, and then she would regenerate the rest. But he was wrong. She died when a natural-born fly would have died. When too much of her body was damaged for the rest of carry on.

When she woke, she was imprisoned in glass again, but this time her captor was cruel and not kind, as her masters and her teachers had been. He did not set her glass before a marketplace or in a garden. He kept it always in his foul laboratory, as he practiced disciplines he had little understanding of. He knew nothing of magic or alchemy, and very little of the fresh discipline of science. She had been mistaken in believing him a genius, for he had only stolen the work of another, but knew not how to make sense of it. She had not found him out until he brought her to his private laboratory many miles away. One he had never visited in the weeks she had been watching him and assessing him. There was no rhyme or reason to his experimentation upon her. One day, he drowned her. Another day, he burned her. Yet another day, he poured searing acid upon her. And of course, he swatted her.

At last, unable to suffer more torture, she tried a ruse that she did not believe would work. She played dead, curling up her body and lying on her back, hoping he would throw her out. And after he watched her for several weeks and was convinced that she was indeed dead, he did. He had not been clever enough to simply try destroying her body only to see it reform itself.

The fly did not fly away, not yet. For she had seen sights in that laboratory that she could not ignore.

He kept the heads of corpses arrayed in his laboratory. He “experimented” on them in the hopes of bringing them back to life, or at least extracting what was contained in their brains. Knowledge and memories. An aim far greater than his meager reach. But one that had cost those bodiless corpse-heads their eternal rest. And in some cases, she feared, their very lives. For she could easily imagine the man to be a murderer.

She flew into the nearest town and whispered in the ears of the local lawmen. The man was already suspected. When the lawmen had gathered their own evidence to justify their suspicions, they came to arrest the man.

The fly returned with the lawmen, and remained close by, for she had her own curiosity about the corpse heads. The lawmen searched the laboratory, stumbling over discarded limbs, passing by flasks filled with florid liquids in which floated oozing organs, and holding kerchiefs to their noses against odors that did not bother any fly.

The fly crawled into the skull of one of corpses, not to feed on the dead flesh, but meaning only to watch the downfall of her would-be disciple. But as she crawled, she wondered if she could test the limits of her skill in her current form. If she could cast an enchantment that would let her see through human eyes again. And she succeeded. After all that she’d suffered at the mad laboratorian’s hands, she had something to show. Through the corpse’s eyes, she could see again as a human being sees.

Thereafter, she studied the characters of potential disciples as well as their mental prowess, as she should have from the beginning. She had known to do so, but had ignored that requirement, in her haste to find a way to escape her double-prison. The curses of transformation and immortality.

But she was to find that she should be vigilant with her own character as well.

***

One disciple convinced her that she might be able to keep her immortality, and still regain her former form. She needed voice and gesture to build and create and cast. Rather than try to defeat or undo the curse, she could let it be. She could remain a fly, and simply construct for herself a human body. A body that she would control from within, looking out of its eyes, speaking with its voice, moving with its limbs.

This disciple built her that puppet body, which she occupied and manipulated. It was built in the form of a human male, for the disciple believed the fly would wield more power in that way. The body was artificial save for the eyes. The fly found that she needed real human eyes, so she could see the world as a human. Real human eyes outside of a living body would eventually rot. So she used a rotating supply of corpse’s eyes of every color. She mesmerized the royal family of the powerful kingdom in which she then resided. It was not difficult. They had a sickly heir whom she alone could treat, but she could not cure him, not as easily as she could have in her natural form.

She tried to live through her puppet body. She relished wearing fine clothes, suits of silk and satin in rich colors. She bathed in soapy waters made fragrant with herbs and flowers, for as a fly, she could only lick herself clean. She ate the richest and rarest food. Though she had not often indulged in drink, she even sampled the best liquors in royal possession. She would avoid only the pleasures of the flesh, for her puppet body, while admired from afar by many a noble lady, would be found out as false and unnatural at once. Many remarked upon the cold heaviness of her handshake. A lady once kissed her puppet body’s cheek after a dance and drew back, startled, remarking that it felt as if she’d kissed a corpse.

The fly could move the body about but could not sense through it as she could have through her own body. No touch, no smell or taste. A kind of madness began to set in. She forgot herself. Part of her knew she was a fly and wondered if she always had been. Just a tiny fly. Living a tiny meaningless life. Part of her remembered she had been something else, long ago. In another life, another incarnation.

She caused much harm in the royal family, at court, and in the kingdom. She was not tolerated for long. Conspirators killed her, or rather the body in which she lived. The disciple who built her had been killed long ago. She hadn’t even noticed it. The puppet body felt no pain, and so it took much to bring it down, but bring it down they did. And as a final desecration, the body was weighted and thrown into a river. The fly, still inside, drowned.

***

When she woke, she woke inside the head of a corpse, teeming with maggots. She crawled out of the empty eye sockets. The maggots had completely eaten the eyes. She felt her wings spread behind her and she knew herself again.

When she looked back upon the memory of her time in the puppet body, she was horrified at what she had done. The kingdom she had tried to take, to control, in what she believed was her utmost wisdom. That kingdom that she believed was her way to avenge her people and herself. To find and lay waste to her enemy. That kingdom had fallen. The monarchy had collapsed.

She had not been completely to blame. She had thought herself despicable as a fly. But flies only fed upon a thing once it was dead. She had been a parasite, feeding upon what was still living, still clinging to life.

She could never make amends for what she had done. But she must strive to nevertheless. She abandoned her search for a disciple, and sought to give comfort and help to those in the direst of need. She whispered in the ears of others, much as she had done in her false human body, but now, it was not plans and machinations she whispered, but words of peace, comfort, and serenity. To the dying on fields of battle, she spoke such words. To mothers whose children died at birth, she spoke such words. To those who were contemplating taking their own lives, she spoke such words. At times, her whispers only drove the hearer mad. But often, it drove them to believe that though they suffered inconceivable anguish, they did not do so alone. Those who survived their ordeals might speak of an angel’s voice or that of a good spirit. They would never be restored to who they were before their torment. But they would be left with a scrap of hope. The fly could not reach all who needed such comfort. And she did not feel that even an eternal life performing such penance would serve to balance what she had done to push a kingdom teetering on the brink of collapse over the edge.

After a while, she began to search again, not for a disciple, but for the spell that would undo the curse upon her. She had considered such a search futile in the past, for without a disciple to do the casting, most spells that the fly found would be useless. At last, she found the spell of mortality. Strangely enough it was easier to find a way to reverse the curse of immortality than to undo the spell of transformation. Perhaps because the cosmos could tolerate a woman becoming a fly, but had less tolerance for a mortal becoming immortal.

***

The fly only needed someone to cast the one spell now. For she had decided that she would live out her life as a fly. Without immortality, she would live for a few days, then die at last, eons after she should have.

So she found a potential disciple. She taught the disciple. The disciple understood what was asked of her and convinced the fly that she needed to know the spell of mortality well in order to cast it properly. But when she actually began to cast it, she made adjustments that would reverse the intention of the spell, casting immortality instead of mortality. And she directed the spell not to the fly but to herself.

It did not work.

By that generation, none still lived who possessed the skill needed to alter such a spell without great consequence. And great indeed was the consequence. In the span of mere moments, the young disciple’s body aged several decades. Her dark lustrous hair turned coarse and brittle and gray. Her bones thinned and her skin dried until it was parched and cracked, pocked and wrinkled. Her clear eyes grew cloudy.

The fly was still immortal. She witnessed another disciple fall. She saw what she had sought given to one who sought what she had. For the disciple had grown so old that she surely only had days of life left. She begged the fly to cast the curse of immortality upon her, so she might life long enough to find a way to reverse the aging. But the fly could do no such thing. She knew the spell, for she had remembered it from when it was cast upon her. But even if she were human, she could not cast it alone. Certainly, as a fly, she could not channel the energies required in her small form without perishing before the spell was done. She still tried, several times, and failed. The fly rose to life again each time she died. But the disciple died six days later, and did not rise again. And the fly collected another lesson to relate to future disciples.

After a long while, she decided to search not for a disciple, but just a person. She would settle on the first person to believe her story, and to follow her instructions. She found no such person. All who believed they were speaking to a fly, wanted to know what the spell was about, what it would do. Some said they would ask no questions if she could promise some reward. But she had no reward to give save knowledge, the very reward she had decided to withhold. Her knowledge had proved to be far too dangerous and destructive in unpracticed and foolish hands.

~~~

At last, she came to me. She thought she might be able to pay me with something that she was willing to pay, and that only one such as I would find valuable. Her story. She was right. Her story, whether any of it was true or not, would be useful to me, if I could find some way to make it sound dramatic and riveting.

I wasn’t an alchemist or a scientist or a magician. I was a writer. Not a genius or a breaker of new ground. Just a work-a-day writer of fictions.

Still, it seemed such a waste for all her knowledge to be lost. I knew she was sure. If even part of her story was true, I figured she was certain of what she was doing by that time. A person had to learn a lesson or two after all that had happened to her and all she had done.

“How can you trust me after all the times you’ve been betrayed?” I asked her.

“I choose to, that is how. But I think you mean to ask, ‘why?’ Why do I trust you?”

I raised my eyebrows when she said nothing more.

“Because I must trust someone to help me. There is no particular reason that someone should be you.”

I supposed it was too much to ask to think I was special in some way. That I had been “chosen” as previous disciples had been. Maybe I should have been grateful. Most of them didn’t have happy ends.

I sighed. “And why should I help you?”

“I don’t know whether or not you should help me. That choice is yours. I have nothing to offer but my story. You have that now. Though it’s possible much of it is untrue. I may have gone quite mad after spending millennia in the body of a fly.”

She saw that I hesitated. That I still peered at her, blinking and searching, as if expecting that she was a hallucination that would fade or vanish any moment. My ears heard her voice as surely as they heard the irritated mumbling growls of the little terrier lying on the carpet by the dying fire, my disapproving canine companion.

“I can prove to you that I am what I say,” the fly said. “Tear off my wings. I can bear the discomfort, and they will be restored before your eyes.”

“Tearing off the wings of a fly, that’s classic serial killer stuff.”

“Not if I’m asking you to do it.”

“A voice in my head is asking me to do it.”

“Very well, then. Let me show you.” Before I could say or do anything, she leapt off the table and flew straight into the candle burning on the mantel.

I cried out. That was strange, considering I had no particular sensitivity to insect death. I leapt out of my chair and put out the candle, my gaze searching for the burned remains of the fly. There she was. A charred husk, barely recognizable as anything but a small chunk of black ash. Before my eyes, the chunk of ash began to shudder. A stray breeze, I thought. But it jittered spasmodically. It seemed to grow, and I saw glints and sparks of light from within the chunk of ash. Then, the chunk of ash seemed to uncurl and flip around until it stood on six thin bristly segmented legs. Two shimmery translucent wings popped up from the thing’s back. The ash fell away as she shivered, until she was visible underneath. Her iridescent green body. Her large vivid red eyes.

She had risen from the ashes. Like a phoenix. A tiny, insectoid phoenix.

“All right,” I said, gaping. “I’ll help you.”

~~~

“How will we know it worked?” I asked, washing the fragrant oils off my hands.

“If I die and do not rise again, then it has worked.”

It took a month for me to track down all the supplies I would need, during which time the fly disappeared and left me wondering if I had indeed imagined it all. But once all the needed elements were gathered, she returned. I suspected she’d been watching the whole time.

With all that was needed at hand, it had been no more than fifteen minutes of preparation. And only a few moments of the actual casting of the spell. I felt nothing. No great energies moving through my body. No opening of my mind to cosmic comprehension. Not even a crackle of static to raise goosebumps on my arms.

But the fly seemed satisfied.

I felt a wave of regret and sorrow that she would die as a fly and not as a human, as she had been born, as was her right to be. “I’m sorry that you did not get the chance to live out your life as you envisioned it,” I said.

The fly was silent for a while. Then she said, “As I have observed it, none of us do. But I thank you for your kindness.”

I nodded, and a sudden and sharp hunger compelled me to ask if she wanted me to start preparing that end-of-life feast for her that she had asked for, mostly sugary treats. But just as suddenly, I felt a wave of exhaustion overwhelm me, lapping over my shoulders, hunching them, and bowing my head, and drooping my eyes. I caught myself on the back of a nearby chair, and vaguely thought I heard the sound of a voice telling me to lie down…

***

When next I woke, it was still morning, or so I thought, until I realized that it was not the same morning, but the next morning. I had slept for an entire day. The fly was there and she told me that the spell had taken its toll upon me. I would need yet more rest in the coming weeks. But after that, I would be recovered.

“There is one final gift I would give you,” the fly said. “Perhaps I will regret it. But I feel reckless in these last days of life.”

That last gift she gave me was a single word. A word that was both a mystery and a key. Questions arose in my mind after she uttered it. Was it her name? Was it the name of her homeland? Her school? The name of the enemy who attacked her? Why did she give it to me? Is it because she too didn’t want all of her knowledge, all that she and her people had discovered and built, to be forgotten and wasted? Or was it a mad magician’s last joke? A temptation for the curious. I wondered if there were any people left in the world who would know what the word meant. I wondered if it would be dangerous for me to inquire.

“Algrinash,” she said.

And then she flew out of the window in the direction of the bake shop.

I sighed, once again questioning if all that had preceded the present moment had been real. But not with any conviction. My doubts were weak. I only raised them because that’s what a person is supposed to do when the extraordinary happens.

“Algrinash,” I said.

I liked the sound of the word. I wrote it down in my notebook. I liked the look of it too. She had given the word to me, which meant she had given it up for herself.

As the days passed, I glanced at my mantel now and then, looking for the fly.

But she did not return.

 

Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel.  Artwork: “The Fly’s Disciple” by Sanjay Patel.

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