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The War of the Flies

by William H. Coles

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The War of the Flies  


ne summer when I was eight the dead flies were so thick on Grandma’s porch that Mom swept them into piles and shoveled them into large plastic trash bags.  “They’re a danger.  Think of the disease,” Mom said. 

It was our once a year visit to Grandma.  The flies arrived one at a time at first.

“I didn’t invite them,” said Grandma.

“They’re here for some reason.  Flies are attracted to something,” Mom said.

“Well, it’s not that I’m dirty.” 

Grandma went into her workroom at the back of the house to weave throw rugs on her antique loom–whish, whish, bang, squeak, squeak.  Whish, whish, bang, squeak, squeak. Mom stayed in the kitchen scrubbing sinks and floors with Lysol.  “Your grandmother is mean and stubborn,” she said. 

I thought it was Mom who was mean and stubborn, not letting me spend my summer time with Dad in Alaska, but I didn’t say so.

Grandma lived in Calliope, NY, a four-hour train ride from New York through farming country.  Grandma’s house was just out of town near the river at the edge of a bog.  From my bedroom window I looked out on the two-thousand-acre farm owned by Obadiah Waddle whose wife had died.  He had a few dairy cows, lots of laying chickens, and grew mostly cash crops like soybeans.  He never said much but he let me ride with him on his tractor and taught me to milk a cow.  Grandma frequently took him tuna fish casseroles covered with crushed Ritz crackers in a Pyrex bowl to heat up in the oven.  Sometimes she stayed to share dinner with Mr. Waddle almost until bedtime, while Mom and me ate alone.

Grandma thought we were only as good as the food we put in our stomachs.  She fed me meats and sweets to make me grow and keep me pleasant.  For Mom, Grandma cooked brussels sprouts, beans, acorn squash and fried baloney with pickle relish. 

“Baloney is a good source of protein,” Grandma said when Mom complained.

“It’s the floor scraps they sweep up at the meat factory,” Mom said.

“You’ll never live long enough to enjoy your social security,” Grandma said.

Mom said fried baloney was the reason she could never stay for more than two weeks.

Grandpa had been a Methodist preacher before he had his stroke two years ago and ever since then he had been in the second floor bedroom.  The stroke had made him loud and mean.  “Took the good side of his brain,” Grandma said.  Now Grandpa thought the heathen had attacked Calliope and he feared evil.  He called Mom–his only child–the “witch of the antichrist.”  And he frequently confused me with David and complimented me on my bravery with Goliath.  

Grandpa’s bowels didn’t stop-up too good and that set Grandma and Mom to clean him two or three times a day.  That left bad smells in the house and foul moods in Mom and Grandma.

“Father’s mess attracts flies,” Mom said.      

“Nothing of the sort.  I keep him clean as a whistle,” said Grandma.

Grandma didn’t talk to Mom much after that.

We’d been there two days when I killed the first fly after three swats with one of the flyswatters–the old fashioned, metal-screen-mesh kind, with cloth binding around the edge and a wire handle–that hung on nails near the doors.  About sunset I was using one swat per fly.  Still I wasn’t keeping up so Grandma borrowed strips of sticky paper from Mr. Waddle next door that we hung from the light fixtures in the kitchen and pantry.  Then Grandma called Mrs. Rather in the next house down the road.  Mrs. Rather had flies too.  Grandma felt better knowing she wasn’t dirtier than her neighbor, and grandpa, as family, wasn’t the only fly attraction.

The next morning stuck-flies blackened the papers. 

“Mercy be,” said Grandma.  We hung up more fly paper and by early afternoon they were black again with flies.  I was getting good with my swats now, killing two and three flies with one swing.

“I wish Dad was here,” I said to Grandma when Mom was upstairs, “he’d know what to do.”

“Yep.  He’d get ‘em,” said Grandma.  Mom and Dad were in a custody fight over me and Dad hadn’t been allowed to visit in over a year. 

Dad sent me a post card from Nome, Alaska.  I saw it in the mailbox at home before Mom could take it out and save it for me until I was older.  On the front was a picture of a man in a winter coat with fur-trim around the hood.  Of course that wasn’t Dad.  He worked on a pipeline.  They had moose, caribou, and bear, he wrote.

The flies were getting worse.

“Each filthy little bastard carries hoards of diseases,” Mom said.

“Can you see the diseases?” I asked.  Mom was a sixth grade science teacher at a private school.  Her job made her know everything about the mysteries of disease. 

“Of course not.  They’re microscopic.”  She gave me that look that she used with Dad sometimes.  Like we were too slow to understand. 

Grandma kept a five-inch magnifying glass to read the phone book.  Under the lens flies were as large as jellybeans: their heads round circles, their legs fuzzy, their wings transparent as Saran wrap.  I wondered where the bugs hid. 

On the fifth day dead flies layered the porch and we swept them up to shovel into bags.  Mom drove forty miles to get surgical masks: mine half covered my eyes, and Grandpa tore his off again and again and we gave up on his disease prevention.  We lined all doors we didn’t use with tape but the flies crept through the heating ducts. 

Mom called PestKill the Surefire Exterminator.

“He’s useless,” Grandma said about PestKill.  “His garage went bankrupt.” 

The pest killer came with a tank strapped to his back and a wand with a nozzle.  He sprayed in the basement and attic.  Mom followed to be sure he didn’t miss a spot. 

With my magnifying glass I noticed that flies never died on their backs, at least that I could tell.  They seemed to just fall over on their sides, their legs pulled up, their bodies often arched.  I showed one to Grandma.

“Do flies hurt?” I asked.

“No, Bobby.”

“But they’re all stiff and twisted.”

“Rig-a-tortoise.  Happens when we die.”

The same morning a health department guy parked his green pick-up truck in the driveway.

“The bog and farm next door are thick with larvae,” he said.

“We ain’t never had larvae before,” Grandma said.

“From chicken manure for fertilizer.  Cows too.  Maybe you should move out for a week or so.”

“We got an invalid upstairs,” Grandma said.

The health guy said he was sorry and they would hire a crop duster to spray. 

“It’ll poison the river,” Mom said.  She was an environmentalist and belonged to the Sierra Club and bought Ranger Rick magazine for me.

“We’ve got to do something,” said the health man.

That afternoon a red and white crop duster plane swooped down to level out across the bog and Mr. Waddle’s fields then pulled up and did a roll to come back the other way.  That was what I wanted to do when I grew up.  Mom shook her fist.  “Polluter,” she yelled. 

“Could we go flying sometime?” I asked Mom.

“That’s stupid.  You’re sounding like your father.”

I turned away but Mom grabbed me and squeezed me from behind.  She said she was sorry and she loved me and I wasn’t like Dad at all.

The next day it wasn’t much better but it wasn’t any worse.  Mom wanted the sheriff to jail Mr. Waddle for causing an apocalypse with his chicken shit.  She looked in the phone book for the number. 

“There’s no proof,” Grandma said

“You’re so irritating,” Mom said but she closed the phone book without calling.

In the evening Grandpa soiled himself and the flies descended.  Grandma screamed.  Mom sprayed insect kill and grandma and I washed grandpa off with towels and water from a bucket.  It took a long time. 

Mom refused to surrender to flies.  It wasn’t in Mom’s blood to give up when she had a cause.  That was what Dad used to say to me after they’d had a fight.

Two days later the live flies were gone.  We still found lots of dead ones behind the sofa and in the curtains.  Flyswatters hung idle on their nails and we took down the strips.  No more crop dusters or health men in pick-up trucks. 

“That’s weird,” Mom said.

“Praise the Lord,” Grandma said.

“Cool,” I added.

“I’m baked,” Grandpa yelled from above, loud enough for us to hear downstairs.  I was sent up to open two windows as wide as I could.

“Don’t ever let a snake roam in your garden, Judas.”

“I won’t ever let a snake into my garden, Grandpa.  Never!” 

“That’s a good Christian boy.  Wish my kin was like you,” he said. 

Mom turned silent and kept to herself in her bedroom.  I think she was mad, not the insane kind.  Well, maybe a little.  She had found purpose in her war with the flies but now the enemy refused to fly around anymore.  She felt defeated at the surrender; there was no glory, no purpose, no lesson learned to be taught to the multitudes.

Grandma started cooking again, singing to herself, beating eggs and opening and closing the oven door.  For meals, we’d had microwaved packaged food for days.  Now grandma chopped raw vegetables and plucked a fresh-killed chicken.  She made a special dinner for me to take next door to Mr. Waddle.  I might get a tractor ride.

“What’s that?” Mom said.

“Tuna fish casserole for Mr. Waddle.”

Mom grabbed my shoulders and the dish fell out of my hands to the floor; the glass shattered.  I wiggled away.

“Don’t feed that criminal,” Mom said.

Grandma came in from the other room.  “Wasn’t Mr. Waddle’s fault.”

“That’s your trouble, Mother.  You never stand up for what is right.”

“Oh, yeah?”

The bag was getting dark brown spots from the casserole soaking into the paper but Grandma kept quiet. 

“He can’t eat that,” I said.

“I’ll get him something else.”  Grandma said. 

“It’s your mess, “ Mom said to me.

“We’ll clean it up when we get back,” Grandma whispered to me.

Mr. Waddle and Grandma hugged when we took him chicken. 

“How you doing, Bobby?” Mr. Waddle asked.


“Doesn’t sound so okay.”

“He misses his father, don’t you Bobby?”


“Why is Evelyn so mad?” Mr. Waddle asked.

“Bobby wants to see his Dad.”

Mr. Waddle put his food down and said we ought to pray.  We all kneeled next to his sofa.

“Dear Lord, in thy mercy, let this young man see his father again, a father he loves…” And when he finished Grandma said “Amen,” and kissed me on the top of the head.  Ick!  

“Could I talk to my Dad?” I asked Grandma.

“You don’t talk to your Dad?” Mr. Waddle asked.

“His mother won’t let him, “ Grandma said.

Mr. Waddle looked and Grandma.  “I don’t see why I couldn’t give him a call.”

“I know the number,” Grandma said.  She looked to the palm of her hand where she’d jotted it down with a ballpoint pen.

Dad told me how big moose were dangerous but independent.  He wanted me to come and after we finished talking, Dad talked to Grandma a long time about legal stuff. 

In Grandma’s house, I hugged Mom. 

“You look happy, my little man,” she said.

And I was but I didn’t tell her until the next day that Grandma and I had planned a trip while we were at Mr. Waddle’s.  To Alaska!

Illustrations by Peter Healy

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Why do readers read fiction? What about fiction makes a reader seek interpreting the written words on a page over watching a film, TV, or stage play? In an interview, author and educator Jim Sheppard noted that in fiction a reader is encountering language on the page, negotiating language, and constructing for themselves in the imagination the narrative that in film is largely provided for the viewer. It is an active process with fiction rather than the more passive acceptance of watching a story on film.

The trick is to build the story illusion with fiction stimulating images that integrate the story and characters as elements in a mosaic that create a whole and provide the conflicts and desires of characters through internalization and narrative discourse so the reader is involved, asking questions like: That was unreasonable? Why did she do that? OR Is that really the truth? OR I thought he loved his grandfather. What's happened?

"The War of the Flies" is about a boy and his mother visiting his grandmother in upstate New York. They are invaded by hoards of flies and battle to recapture a peaceful environment. (See if you think the illusion is effective as stimulated by the prose, and if the effect is different than a story in film delivered in concrete visual terms. The purpose of the story is to experience the real war that emerges from the illusion of the fly assault, and glimpse the complexities of human love that are rendered to ponder. Does it work for you?

READ or LISTEN to story "The War of the Flies" here:…

You might enjoy this INTERVIEW with Jim Shepard. It is one of the most favored on-site discussions on the complexities and potential of fiction. (Would greatly value your thoughts.)…

Did you know there are THIRTY-FOUR SHORT STORIES by W H COLES online, easy to read or to listen without cost:… These stories are also available in print, digital media, audio, and story collections.
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Posted 3 months ago

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Joyce Notlookingforaboyfriend Smith, Sandie Sullivan Driggers and 23 others like this

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Callie ParrishSometimes the written word is all that I have to communicate. I have spent my entire life studying mathematics to get closer to the truth and that has always been sacred to me. But I've never understood people before. I'm actually convinced that I am not a person. I've always hated myself intently for the very reason that when I go out into the world and try to connect with people I become very, very, very depressed and frustrated because I never have understood people. And no matter how hard I try to, it just never happens. I do everything I am supposed to to not inconvenience others. I am of course talking about forcing yourself to be just like everybody else just to survive. All my life I have been told that I will get it one day. But the truth of the matter is I am a quarter of a century old and I find it just absolutely terrifying that when I venture outside the lab and see all these people doing all the little things that they do like go to the grocery store, go to work, drinking their coffee... I can't help but have this absolute yearning to be with people as I find them to be fascinating, while at the same time everytime I try to interact with a person, they seem to do everything they can to avoid thinking. The idea that I really am all alone like I have always been and that forever will be the case just scares me terribly. I wish I could be like other people but it's impossible. I am not even a person. I did have one glimmer of hope that there was somebody that I could connect with and that was when I read Infinite Jest. Ten pages was all that it took for me to feel this cosmic connection to a person. A person that I would never meet but to whom I felt this great connection. It gave me a sense of purpose and hope that it's not too late. That I can connect with another biological creature. And then that rather faint but still beaming ray of hope was short-lived when I heard the news that David Foster Wallace had killed himself. The one person on this planet that I felt this infinite connection to, had been extinguished. And I did not want to believe that it was true. I died that day. Because I would have given anything to be there with him. If only I had just bumped into him at a book store and started a conversation with him, Not about his work but about anything that he wanted to talk about. Because I know that it is the little things like this that make life worth while. That is what I crave the most out of human interaction. But I never get it. I wish that I could have been there for him. It has nothing to do with being a fan of his writing but rather being a genuine human being. Had he never written anything I still would be honored to just have a coffee with him and talk about whatever it was that he wanted to talk about. Perhaps that is the reason why I read fiction. Because I will never understand what it is like to be a real person. Perhaps I read fiction in the hopes of discovering friendship. Perhaps that's what it's all about. Looking for a connection. This is all so embarrassing. I can't believe that I typed this all out. I'll stop here.

3 months ago   ·  26

19 Replies

Sam RaceyI've been an avid reader all my life, at one point I was reading a book a day as a teenager and young adult. Edger Rice Boroughs was the first adult fiction writer I obsessed over and have read virtually everything he has written. I love reading good fiction.

3 months ago   ·  8

Jo Ann SartiI read it to escape to imagined lands and adventures. Not all stories take me on that journey. I cherish the ones that do.

3 months ago   ·  6

Ann Elizabeth GarrettI have found throughout my life that when I find an author I really like - this usually happens with one book - I read everything else he or she has written. Started with Dumas then moved to Michener and on to Hardy. Most recent choices have been Iris Murdoch and John Banville. I have fallen in love with the English/Irish sense of the world and use of the language.

3 months ago   ·  7

Dave Williams100 times rather read than watch a movie.

3 months ago   ·  6

1 Reply

Cornell GreenI'd say fiction expands people's horizons and lets them experience new worlds; see through different eyes, perceive through different consciousness. It really is a magical sort of thing.

3 months ago   ·  6

3 Replies

Robert WolfeWhen I was a small child, and had just discovered books, my oldest brother gave me his copy of Gulliver's Travels. He said," Read this and put down those kiddie books, and comics. This will take you on a trip, forever." I still have that book, and go back and read it from time to time. By the way I am 67 years old, he gave me the book when I was in the 3rd grade.

3 months ago   ·  7

Flo StantonThis post makes me think of Larry McMurtry's wonderful Indian tracker Famous Shoes, who is fascinated by the "tracks" in books and wants to learn how to read them as he does tracks on the ground.

3 months ago   ·  1

2 Replies

Lana MartinFor me fiction is a form of escape from everyday life and a way to ease stress from my life

3 months ago   ·  2

Marion Burton KnoxJust Wow!

3 months ago   ·  1

1 Reply

Travis LackeyI like what you brought up. Thanks for this post. For me, it's simple science. A large portion of what we see is filled in by our minds. Where we could watch a scene from our favorite movie ten times and still see new things, when we read, it's all there. Our mind's eye is truly 20/20 (or better) and the picture it builds is so much more detailed than what a background artist can cope with. At least for me, when I'm watching something, let's say Guardians of the Galaxy - the scene at the beginning where Quill is dancing through the ruins, kicking those rat things. I look at it and start describing his surroundings in greater detail than we are being shown. Reading and writing pour so much more of our effort into the mental vision than just watching someone else's take on a scene. It's work. That's why some people hate reading. Their brain meats are lazy, and they're settling for low detail entertainment.

3 months ago

1 Reply

Alexander Apelisfiction puts reality into perspective

3 months ago   ·  1

1 Reply

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