'Three of them can consume a dead horse in three days.'
Linnaeus might have been describing famished wolves or bears emerging from the forest in desperate search of winter nourishment, but savage Nature was not the subject of his dissertation.
Flies . . .
That's what Linnaeus was talking of.
And as I left the house that morning, I spotted another corpse in the garden.
The lawn and flower-beds had become a cemetery in recent weeks. I had buried a rat, three field-mice and a squirrel, intending to hide them from the eyes of Helena and the children. I knelt down to examine the creature more closely. Half hidden beneath one of the rose-bushes, a fair-sized stoat in what remained of its red-brown summer coat.
It had not been there the previous evening when I returned from my office in town. Yet overnight, it had been reduced to a skeleton, more or less. Four or five bluebottles were fighting over the last shreds of .flesh, darting in, teasing at the fat where the ears had been, pulling at the gristle as they flew away, but never going very far. The bared, pointed teeth made no impression on those ravenous creatures. They seemed to have no notion of fear. Armageddon had arrived for the stoat in some form or other; the flies had done the rest in no time.
It seemed to verify Linnaeus's claim.
In the past few days I had been reading everything that I could lay my hands on regarding flies and filth. Count Dittersdorf's library had yielded up Linnaeus, and other useful things as well. But this particular essay was a revelation. Where they came from, what they ate, the cycle of their existence, how fast they could reproduce. They came in all shapes and sizes, and he divided them into a regular army of species and sub species. The familiar musca domestica, the yellow- striped scathophaga stercoraria, the larger calliphora vomitoria, and a hundred others. The Latin names spoke volumes about their .filth, their habits, and the danger that they posed.
Lotingen was infested with them.
My home was besieged by them.
They filled the air, settled on every surface, seemed to multiply like the locusts in the plague that was visited on the ancient Egyptians according to the Bible. They crawled around the eyes and the mouths of my children, and there was nothing I could do about it. I had taken refuge in books, hoping to find some news which would tranquillize my own misgivings, and end my wife's fears. So far, I had found nothing. On the contrary, what I read called forth questions that I had never previously considered. How many days would it take, for example, for the same three flies to consume the corpse of a man, a woman, or a child?
Each day was hotter than the day before.
Walking along the dusty road to town each morning, I had begun to notice a host of creatures that I had never seen before. Strange winged ants with metallic shells the color of brass, which attacked and ate the smaller flies and midges. Larger beetles with hard green carapaces lurked in holes that they had dug in the rock- hard banks of the lane, darting out to catch the ants which ate the flies. It was as if Nature had declared a universal war between its constituent parts.
And here was the evidence in my own garden.
It was hard to imagine such destructive ferocity in any creature, let alone one that was so small, but those bluebottles showed no intention of leaving the corpse alone while anything edible was left on the bones.
Had the flies consumed the fur, as well?
Linnaeus had said nothing regarding the horse's hair.
I made a show of examining the roses, in case Helena was looking out of the window. The blooms were dry, opaque, brittle. At the merest touch, the petals would fall to the ground like autumn leaves. Strands of a cobweb glinted like harp-strings in the sunlight, and, as I looked more closely, something else that Linnaeus had written returned to my thoughts.
Excerpted from A Visible Darkness by Mighael Gregorio. Copyright © 2009 by Mighael Gregorio. Published in April 2009 by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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