The Story of the Fly
“And see she flies, and she is everywhere.” – Nick Drake
There’s something off-kilter about that Nick Drake song “Fly.” I think it’s the harpsichord, John Cale’s harpsichord. It lends what would be a heart-destroying song of absolute beauty just a hint of menace and destabilization. It’s also likely the fly in “it’s so hard for the fly.” I always thought Drake was singing, “for to fly,” and that was ok; the archaic construction didn’t faze me. I was crashing in my sister’s basement, having been dumped by my live-in boyfriend, and I couldn’t stop the steady drip of Nick Drake into my headphones. It was Nick Drake all the time for me back then, over and over and over and over again. It’s so hard for to fly. What I didn’t get was the insect’s literal invocation—the thing that lays its eggs in meat, the thing with wings we hate.
Nick Drake is one of those musicians who never goes away. You may stop listening for a while, but Nick Drake is a lifelong compatriot. He’s like those two sets of footprints on the beach that turn into one set because sometimes Nick Drake is carrying you and you didn’t even realize it. Sometimes you find yourself in England, running between rows of birch trees, and Nick Drake arrives in your ears — “Please give me a second grace / Please give me a second face” — and you feel yourself metamorphize. You metamorphize into an actual runner, into a gothic breather-of-air, into a goddess of the kitchen variety abroad in a land circumscribed by Nick Drake’s music, the giver of second graces, of second faces, of new chances in old places.
And by you, the essayist really means herself, and that is a ritual of rhetoric too.
So now, running along a bike path back in my stolen country, having abandoned my old heartache, married, and had children, I pass a racoon kit dead in the grass, a chunk of its flesh torn away. I came across another: same thing. I know if I were to stop and look closer, I’d find the flies and their maggots. I would step inside the stench. I keep running. I make eye contact with a woman running in the opposite direction and we share a moment. Less than that. A mo. We look at each other and say with our minds, What the fuck happened here? And then the moment is gone. But in the middle of it all, I let “Fly” play. I don’t press pause. “It’s really so hard for the fly,” sighs Nick Drake.
Then I shower and my husband and I take the kids to a Civil War reenactment one exit south at the Ohio History Museum where — just beyond the mid-twentieth century bunker-like building filled with taxidermized animals, mammoth bones, and an exhibit touting Ohio’s technological advancements in the domestic quarter during the 1950s — sits a recreated nineteenth century village complete with chapel, toy shop, post office, bank, beer garden, and public green.
It’s about a quarter-mile walk from the museum to the village and all along the path are bivouacked women and children poking at little fires, hanging up laundry, rocking babies, pouring coffee into tin cups. Dressed in their 1860s clothes, long-faced, the children — I tell my own kids — follow their parents from reenactment to reenactment, from one battlefield to another, all summer long. What a life, right? Maybe at night, if their parents aren’t too strict, they’ll get to stay in a hotel, watch cable, play a video game or two. But maybe some families are uncompromising and they force their children to stay all night at their encampment watching an incongruous sky light up with jets, with ghetto birds, with radiance from the neighboring soccer stadium as they drift off to bloody sleep.
Bloody sleep is a sleep filled with the dreams of amputated limbs.
The village is crawling with Rebs. Weird old men and young nerdy boys in butternut uniforms amble in pairs and quartets with rifles over their shoulders along the pretend-streets. Confederate flags puff then fall, puff then fall in the breeze. There are firing demonstrations and our kids hold their ears and squeeze their eyes shut. But this is supposed to be some idyllic Ohio town from a bygone era that likely never existed, much like the stuffed tiger posed prowling through high grass, encased in glass, and on permanent display in the pretend-hotel’s lobby, never existed. I mean, I guess that tiger was a real tiger once, but it likely never looked like that. Still, there are expectations we attach to geography and the cultures we attach to that geography. This is Ohio. What’s with all the Confederates? And what’s with the tiger?
We refer to the schedule: Battle at 1:00 pm. After a quick lunch at the museum café of quesadilla, mac and cheese, sweet potato chips, we rush back out to the war. A lady cop warns us off the path to the village. At one side of a grassy slope is a battalion of Union soldiers in blue. Once they’re off the sidewalk, she says, you can head over there, but stay behind the yellow tape. The yellow tape, it turns out, spans the town and the battle happens on one side of it. The rest of us watch, with cameras, from under visors and sunglasses, with strollers and backpacks and water bottles, me in my denim jumpsuit, as the Union army attempts to capture back the pretend-Ohio village in a clash that never happened. The guns pop. The road is covered with paper cartridges. The cannons boom. “What are they doing?” My daughter screams, hands clamped on either side of her head. “Why are they doing this?” A Union solider is shot. His compatriots drag him away from the fighting. He moans and twists, writhes, then lays still.
Across the street, the surgeon waits with fake blood on his apron. There is fake blood on the operating table and the table lays under a pitched canopy beside the road where the fighting takes place. One thing follows another. My daughter must have her three stories then two songs. She must ask for water and we must fetch her the water. Then she’ll sleep. A few soldiers — for the sake of the ritual — must fall, must be removed from the fight, must be hacked apart with a saw, must dictate a letter home to a pretty nurse, must die. This is the way it goes. What’s that famous quote of Joan Didion’s? Right. It’s, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Even my repeating that quote is a ritual, the ritual of the female essayist citing her immutable patron saint. Of course, these four rituals seem so opposed to one another, yet they exist in the same world, a world that includes my children, running to Nick Drake, the Civil War, and essays. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” and in order to sleep and in order to die.
A young woman — probably in her early-twenties — sits on a hillock to watch the action below. She’s in Victorian dress and 2019 eyeglasses. She reminds me of some prosaic Brontë heroine, a little shabby, definitely American, and off by a few decades. Still, she affects a sort of sadness, a sort of loneliness as she sits there, her skirts spread around her. Hers is the ritual of quiet attention.
A family behind us — smart enough to bring noise-cancelling headphones — ask each other, “Is grandpa Blue or Gray?” “Blue,” some adult answers with authority. People appear genuinely awed. Nervous giggling.
“What are they doing? Why are they doing this?” my daughter asks.
Tony Horwitz tries to answer in his book Confederates in the Attic. He tries to explain why someone would become an expert at playing dead, at pretending to bloat their pretend-dead body. He writes:
“When Union litter-bearers climbed out of their trenches, four days after the assault, they found only two men still alive amongst the piles of stinking corpses. One burial party discovered a dead Yankee with a diary in his pocket, the last entry of which read: ‘June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed.’”
I’ve started keeping an electronic diary with the app One Day. My entry for June 22 reads, “We went to the Ohio Village today to watch a Civil War reenactment. The kids were pretty confused by the whole thing and not a fan of the gunfire. Interesting thing: men lie around in the grass in the pose you see in period photographs.”
And I include a picture I took of the men lounging in grass in just the exact way men did that exact thing during the real Civil War — on their sides, maybe one leg up, perhaps a blade of grass in their mouths, sunlight dappling their military jackets. This is the story of leisure, the story of momentary life among the dead dappled with flies and with sunlight.
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