Spring Contest Runner Up in Fiction: Swallowed Flies

The man lies face down on the pavement. I stare at his back and try to focus on a point to see whether or not it is rising or falling. It is difficult to distinguish a flutter of wind that ripples across the surface of his shirt from genuine breath. At four o’clock, the light is so honeyed and abundant that it catches the glint of mica in the pavement, making this task nearly impossible. I want to be close to a dead body so I can have an experience, like it is some holy relic that has the power to change me. I could tell my husband that I had had a very interesting afternoon. The anecdote might even have a life longer than that—I could feasibly trot it out at dinner parties for the next month or so.

Another woman stands at his heels. She has a baby strapped to her chest and his head lolls back and forth noncommittally. His mother is also trying to figure out if the man is alive or not and we exchange meaningful looks. She furrows her brow and squints, cocks her head and frowns. She digs her cell phone out of her pocket and says, “I’m calling 911.” I shift on my feet and then peer back at the body. “Do you think that’s a good idea?” she asks. “I don’t want to overreact.”

I kneel down and balance on my toes so that I’m closer to him. He’s dressed like a boy scout leader: khaki vest and shorts, worn flannel shirt, safari hat. His thinned hair is long and silver and tied back in a ponytail. The pavement feels hot on my palms, the residual bloom of a ninety-degree day. “What do you think?” she asks again, cradling her phone in the crook of her neck. I can’t really tell—his back feels warm but I don’t know if that’s just from the sun. The woman kneels and her baby kicks his legs violently. A strand of drool falls from his lip and lands on the man’s back. She touches the back of his shins.

Rush hour traffic has begun to clot the road and the drivers honk impotently. A gaggle of teenagers rounds the corner and spills onto the sidewalk, yelping with delight. They move as a mob but disperse around the woman, the baby, the man, and me as though we are a single boulder that disrupts their stream, rejoining each other once they pass us. A man in a suit stands at the corner speaking loudly into his cell phone, saying, “Yeah. Yeah. No, yeah. Yeah? Yeah! Yeah! Ha ha ha, I know, yeah.”

The woman looks at me grimly and dials. I hear the crackle of the dispatcher’s voice asking her to describe her emergency. “Yes, I’m on the corner of Hardwick and Third,” she says. “There is a man lying face down on the sidewalk and he doesn’t seem to be responsive—”

Suddenly, without any preemptive shudders or jerks, the man calmly rises onto his knees. His face is at odds with what I had imagined it might look like; instead of a large drooping beak and heavy brow, he has a button nose and full, mottled cheeks. He looks placidly ahead and staggers forward shakily. It is a bit like watching a toddler take his first few steps—he seems unsure how to distribute his weight, ambling hip-first as if he has a lasso tied around his waist that is compelling him forward in space. Soon he is halfway down the block.

The woman and I stare at each other. Her cell phone is still cradled between her ear and shoulder. “Sorry,” she tells the dispatcher, “He seems to have woken up. Sorry for the nuisance.” We train our eyes at the figure slowly disappearing into the scrum of the street. The woman tucks the phone back in her pocket. I want to say something about this shared experience we’ve just had but it turns out that we are simply witnesses to a nonevent, after all, something very pedestrian. The baby’s forehead crinkles and fat tears roll down his cheeks. His mother coos, bouncing a bit on her heels. She looks at me, shrugs, and turns in the same direction as the man.

On the bus home I take out my phone and google “why do I feel like I’m going in circles” and the first result is the National Suicide Hotline. Outside the neighborhood is dense: evangelical storefront churches, bodegas, waxing salons, travel agencies. When the bus stops, I can catch the faint tinny sound of mariachi music emanating through the doors. We advance across the stretch of Hardwick and slowly the din of the neighborhood is vanquished by a stretch of spartan boutiques, the kind that sell small ceramics and beauty products made of sea buckthorn. White women, some pushing strollers, flank the sidewalks. Sunlight spills lavishly through the leaves of the oak trees, spangling their hair and shoulders.

At home it is time for my daughter to go to bed. She has her pajamas on, the ones with cartoon cars and trucks, and is perched on the kitchen counter, screaming at my husband. Her legs clang against the drawers, her face a mask of agony. I kneel and touch her knee, which spurs another convulsion of grief. She doesn’t want to go to sleep, she wants to stay up and watch the fireworks.

I tell her we can do our own fireworks next week, that her dad has already bought them. She coughs loudly and then unleashes a fresh torrent of sobs. Her dad has combed her hair after her bath and it is slicked back from her forehead, lending her the sinister look of a movie villain. I used to wince at the ads I get for coffee mugs that say things like “The most expensive thing about having kids is all the wine you have to drink” and “Boxed wine is a juice box for mom,” but they don’t bother me anymore.

My husband opens a can of tomatoes and stares at me with suspicious concentration, like he’s appraising a cheap bicycle off of Craigslist, looking for concealed signs of damage or evidence of a swindle. His white shirt is crisp and spotless, not a speck of tomato stains it. He comes from the kind of family where maiden names are repurposed as first names; on our first date he told me that his family didn’t come over on the Mayflower but on the next ship after.

“She wants to add another medication,” I say. “I don’t really see the point.”

He dumps the contents of the can in a pot and it seethes against the heat. “The point is that you deserve to feel better and that I deserve to not feel worried all the time.”

“I’ve been doing this for sixteen years,” I say. “I can’t keep getting my hopes up. It’s too painful.” The kettle politely whistles, its steam warming the small room and clouding the windows.

My husband fills another pot with the boiling water and adds a palmful of salt. “What would you say to someone with diabetes? That they should just stop seeking a medical solution because—”

“Oh stop it with that fucking metaphor.” I quickly look at my daughter. She is staring forlornly out the window and absently dragging her fingers across its surface, leaving talon-like impressions. “First of all, there is an unambiguous way to diagnose diabetes. Secondly, there is already a single viable treatment for diabetes. Someone with diabetes doesn’t have to test a bunch of different pills to see which one works.”

He closes his eyes tightly and presses his thumb and index finger into his brow. “You know this is a symptom of the illness, right? If you were feeling well, you wouldn’t be speaking this way.”

I try to remember that my husband is an angel of a man, a profferer of backrubs, bringer of flowers, an emergency therapist, whose only oafishness I can point to is a tendency to binge-watch prestige cable shows for hours on end but I feel my voice involuntarily thicken against my throat. “So you think I should just get a lobotomy? Or a personality transplant? What do you think would be best?”

I can see the muscles at the hinge of his jaw spasm as he sucks in his cheeks. “It’s fucked—” He glances at our daughter and lowers his voice a hair above a whisper. “It’s messed up that you think you suffer more indignities than the rest of the world. Why? You’re a middle class American woman in good health with a family. If you let us actually try to address your chemical
imbalance maybe—”

“I don’t think I suffer uniquely!” I try to inject levity into my voice. “In fact I think I minimize my suffering. The doctor says I have a very high tolerance for agony.”

“Yes, wonderful, you have a very high tolerance for not taking responsibility for your life.” He claps his hands lightly in mock applause. “Congratulations.”

My daughter begins to cry again, in sudden recall of her misery. “I don’t,” she inhales sharply, eyes shining. “Want. To Go. To Bed.”

“This is not how we act when we don’t get what we want,” I say. “We’ll do our own fireworks on Saturday.” She hunches in surrender and drops her head so I can see the back of her thin pale neck. “It’s just not fair,” she whispers to herself.

In the bathroom I squirt sparkly pink toothpaste on her toothbrush and she stands on a little stool admiring herself as she brushes. She spits, leaving a lurid glittery pink residue in the sink. She wants to read There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly again. She holds the book against her chest so I can see its grotesque cover, an illustration of a deranged cross-eyed woman sitting in a rocking chair with an alarmed-looking cat on her lap. My daughter instructs me to sit and she drapes her body luxuriously across my lap. I open the book and clear my throat theatrically, effecting a folksy accent: “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly. I don’t know why she swallowed a fly—perhaps she’ll die!”

My daughter’s eyes widen. We have read this book nearly every night for the last three months but she still thrills at the flippant allusion to death.

I continue. “There was an old lady who swallowed a spider; that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her! She swallowed the spider to catch the fly; I don’t know why she swallowed a fly—perhaps she’ll die!”

My daughter presses the palms of her hands against her cheeks and says, “Oh, brother!” Soon, the old woman has swallowed a whole menagerie of animals, each one bigger than the last. She gets progressively fatter and fatter and slowly collapses into a binge-induced stupor. The previously pert rose pinned to her enormous cowboy hat now hangs limp.

This familiar sequence bothers my daughter this evening. Her face has flushed and her eyebrows knit together in worry. I ask her if she wants to read another book but she presses her lips together and shakes her head stoically.

“There was an old lady who swallowed a cow,” I read. “I don’t know how she swallowed a cow! She swallowed the cow to catch the goat, she swallowed the goat to catch the dog, she swallowed the cat to catch the bird, she swallowed the bird to catch the spider, that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her! She swallowed the spider to catch the fly; I don’t know why she swallowed a fly—perhaps she’ll die!” My daughter hiccups and gulps. She is so pale that I can see the tiny capillaries of her eyelids brimming with blood, thin as gossamer, almost violet.

On the last page the woman lies flat on her back, her slip peeking out from the hem of her skirt. Hay and feathers and her cat’s collar settle at her feet. Her eyes are glazed and her jaw has slackened; there is a loucheness in the way her palms fall limply open from her wrists and her groin tilts upward. “There was an old lady who swallowed a horse,” I read. “She’s dead of course!”

“Why did she do that?” my daughter shouts. I startle and feel my body seize around hers. “Well, love, remember? She swallowed the horse to eat all the animals she had eaten before.”

“No, why did she swallow a fly?!”

“I don’t know. Maybe it was an accident. Or maybe she was bored and decided to see what would happen.” She digs her small fingernails into my thigh. “It’s dangerous,” she says through clenched teeth.

“Yes, that’s very true. This story is a very good lesson in being safe. But she might have been feeling very unwell and thought that the best medicine was swallowing the fly.”

She turns around to face me, tears hovering on the brim of her lashes. “She should have gone to the doctor. Why would she swallow a horse?!”

“She was just trying to feel better, love,” I say.

I feel her nod her head against my chest and her body slacken on my lap. Her breath smells like bubblegum and she gives no resistance when I tell her to get in bed. “Please watch me until I sleep,” she tells me. I stand at her door and listen for her breath to steady and finally relax into a shy burr of a snore.

In the kitchen, the muffled sound of British accents and a maudlin violin score spills in from the living room. I swirl a fork in the pot of spaghetti and chew over the sink. The counters are scrubbed and immaculate except for a large chef’s knife left on the stove. When I pick it up, I see my reflection in the blade and go cool down my torso, like I’ve swallowed a gallon of ice water.

“I had a bizarre experience today,” I call out through a mouthful of spaghetti. “Coming out of my appointment and I saw what from a distance seemed like a rolled up carpet but as I got closer it turned out to be a man’s body, just lying there.”

The sound of galloping horses floods the kitchen, and then there is the satisfying pop of gunshot. A confusion of color erupts out the corner of the window. The embers shudder and fade to nothing and then it is black again.

I poke my head into the living room. My husband is facing away from me, the glow of the screen a halo around his body.

“Did you hear what I said?”

“Huh. Yeah, the body.” He’s really riveted by the show—his shoulders are hunched and his clasped hands hang over his knees. He leans closer to the screen, like a sunflower besotted by the sun.

“This lady and I were really concerned and she was about to call the cops,” I continue. “But then all of a sudden he just got up and started walking. Not saying a thing.”

He turns his head slightly so I can see his profile. “So then what happened?”

“He seemed completely fine. Just disappeared into the street.”

“That’s it?” He seems disappointed, like he’s been cheated somehow.

“Yeah, then I just took the bus home. I feel bad for saying this but I really thought to myself, why couldn’t that man just be dead? I’m not saying I’m proud of that, but to be honest I was distraught over a man not being dead, that he rose from the ground like a goddamned miracle. If he were dead it’d be a better story.”

My husband pauses the television and turns completely around to face me. “That is an appalling thing to say,” he says. On the screen behind him a famous British actress wears a corset that makes her breasts graze her chin. She looks mid-sneeze: eyebrows comically raised and lips pursed to the side of her powdered face. I feel the knife’s handle slide a bit in my palm.

“Listen,” he says quietly.“I think that if you were feeling well you wouldn’t have had this reaction.” He unpauses the show and I tap the blade against my knee. The British actress’s face resolves not into a sneeze but a smirk. “Do you believe Archibald would ever resist such bewitchery?” she asks her ladies-in-waiting. They obediently bend and smooth the folds of her gown.

My husband turns around and watches the British actress stride down a torch lit hall. His back is unshrouded and gently sloped. I dig the knife’s tip into the dimple at the side of my knee and feel a warm trickle down my leg. In this light blood looks purple against the blade. I press both knees together and attempt to inconspicuously hobble to the kitchen. I feel stupid and adolescent mostly because the wound is superficial—the cut is so dainty it will need just a slim bandaid. I wipe the knife with a paper towel and drop it in the sink where it clatters feebly. Out the window another firework erupts, this one shaped like a weeping willow. I press a paper towel to my knee and close my eyes where I can see the explosion’s impression, orange and purple fronds swaying against the back of my eyelids.

“Come here,” he calls from the other room. The score swells, drums heavy like a heartbeat, primitive and steady. I watch the credits roll and he looks at his phone, grazing his thumb against its surface. I place my hand on between his shoulder blades and feel his breath gently rise and fall. I think, “I hate freedom, its proximity and my cowardice” and then feel dumb for having such a thought, the kind of thing college freshman utter outloud in dorm rooms. The doctor says I need to recognize my bad thoughts and replace them with good ones. I think, “My husband is an angel of a man.” He pats the back of my thighs. “Here,” he says, nodding to the cushion next to him. “Why don’t you relax?”

About the author

Isabel Murray is a New York-based essayist and erstwhile copy-writer, grad student, film production coordinator, movie theatre concessionaire, and assistant to a Freudian analyst, among other sundry titles. Her work has appeared in The Awl and The Billfold (RIP). She lives in New York with her enormous cat Nigel. This is her first piece of fiction.

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