Flies

A fly sleeps on the field of a green curtain. I sit by my grandmother’s
side, and rub her head as if I could comfort her. Ninety-seven years. Her
eyes stay closed, her mouth open, and she gasps in her blue nightgown −
pale blue, washed a thousand times. Now her face goes white, and her
breath slows until I think it has stopped; then she gasps again, and pink
returns to her face.
Between the roof of her mouth and her tongue, strands of spittle waver
as she breathes. Now a nurse shakes her head over my grandmother’s sore
mouth, and goes to get a glass of water, a spoon, and a flyswatter. My
grandmother chokes on a spoonful of water and the nurse swats the fly.

* * *

In the Connecticut suburbs where I grew up, and in Ann Arbor, there
were houses with small leaded panes, where Formica shone in the kitchens,
and hardwood in closets under paired leather boots. Carpets lay thick un-
derfoot in every bedroom, bright, clean, with no dust or hair in them.
Nothing looked used, in these houses. Forty dollars’ worth of cut flowers
leaned from Waterford vases for the Saturday dinner party.
Even in the houses like these, the housefly wandered and paused − and I
listened for the buzz of its wings and its tiny feet, as it struggled among
cut flowers and bumped into leaded panes.

* * *

In the afternoon my mother takes over at my grandmother’s side in the
Peabody Home, while I go back to the farm. I nap in the room my mother
and my grandmother were born in.
At night we assemble beside her. Her shallow, rapid breath rasps, and
her eyes jerk, and the nurse can find no pulse, as her small strength con-
centrates wholly on half an inch of lung space, and she coughs faintly −
quick coughs like fingertips on a ledge. Her daughters stand by the bed,
solemn in the slow evening, in the shallows of after-supper − Caroline,
Nan, and Lucy, her eldest daughter, seventy-two, who holds her hand to
help her die, as twenty years past she did the same thing for my father.
Then her breath slows again, as it has done all day. Pink vanishes from
cheeks we have kissed so often, and her nostrils quiver. She breathes one
more quick breath. Her mouth twitches sharply, as if she speaks a word
we cannot hear. Her face is fixed, white, her eyes half closed, and the next
breath never comes.

* * *

She lies in a casket covered with gray linen, which my mother and her
sisters picked. This is Chadwick’s Funeral Parlor in New London, on the
ground floor under the I.O.O.F. Her fine hair lies combed on the pillow.
Her teeth in, her mouth closed, she looks the way she used to, except that
her face is tinted, tanned as if she worked in the fields.
The air is so still it has bars. Because I have been thinking about flies,
I realize that there are no flies in this room. I imagine a fly wandering in,
through these dark-curtained windows, to land on my grandmother’s nose.
At the Andover graveyard, Astroturf covers the dirt next to the shaft
dug for her. Mr. Jones says a prayer beside the open hole. He preached at
the South Danbury Church when my grandmother still played the organ.
He raises his narrow voice, which gives itself over to August and blue air,
and tells us that Kate in heaven “will keep on growing…and grow-
ing…and growing” − and he stops abruptly, as if the sky had aban-
doned him, and chose to speak elsewhere through someone else.

* * *

After the burial I walk by myself in the barn where I spent summers
next to my grandfather. I think of them talking in heaven. Her first word
is the word her mouth was making when she died.
In this tie-up a chaff of flies roiled in the leather air, as my grandfather
milked his Holsteins morning and night, his bald head pressed sweating
into their sides, fat female Harlequins, while their black and white tails
swept back and forth, stirring the flies up. His voice spoke pieces he
learned for the Lyceum, and I listened crouched on a three-legged stool,
as his hands kept time strp strp with alternate streams of hot milk, the
sound softer as milk foamed to the pail’s top.
In the tie-up the spiders feasted like emperors. Each April he broomed
the webs out and whitewashed the wood, but spiders and flies came back,
generation on generation − like the cattle, mothers and daughters,
for a hundred and fifty years, until my grandfather’s heart flapped in his chest.
One by one the slow Holsteins climbed the ramp into a cattle truck.

* * *

In the kitchen with its bare hardwood floor, my grandmother stood by
the clock’s mirror to braid her hair every morning. She looked out the
window toward Kearsarge, and said, “Mountain’s pretty today,” or, “Can’t
see the mountain too good today.”
She fought the flies all summer. She shut the screen door quickly, but
flies gathered on canisters, on the clockface, on the range when the fire
was out, on set-tubs, tables, curtains, chairs. Flies buzzed on cooling lard,
when my grandmother made doughnuts. Flies lit on a drip of jam before
she could wipe it up. Flies whirled over simmering beans, in the steam of
maple syrup.
My grandmother fretted, and took good aim with a flyswatter, and hung
strips of flypaper behind the range where nobody would tangle her hair
in it.
She gave me a penny for every ten I killed. All day with my mesh fly-
swatter I patrolled kitchen and dining room, living room, even the dead
air of the parlor. Though I killed every fly in the house by bedtime, when
my grandmother washed the hardwood floor, by morning their sons and
cousins assembled in the kitchen, like the woodchucks my grandfather
shot in the vegetable garden which doubled and returned; or like the deer
that watched for a hundred and fifty years from the brush on Ragged
Mountain, and when my grandfather died stalked down the mountainside
to graze among peas and corn.

* * *

We live in their house with our books and pictures, writing poems under
Ragged Mountain, gazing each morning at blue Kearsarge.
We live in the house left behind; we sleep in the bed where they whis-
pered together at night. One morning I wake hearing a voice from sleep:
“The blow of the axe resides in the acorn.”
I get out of bed and drink cold water in the dark morning from the
sink’s dipper at the window under the sparse oak, and a fly wakes buzzing
beside me, cold, and sweeps over set-tubs and range, one of the hundred-
thousandth generation.
I planned long ago I would live here, somebody’s grandfather.

-Donald Hall