Friday, March 24, 2006

Nature Call: a continuing column of occasional stories and news from the natural world of amber fox

As I write this I am watching a deer scratch its ear. It is approaching dusk, and she is foraging in the back yard, occasionally pawing at the sod. It's almost as if they have a sixth sense. She looks directly at me as though she knows I'm observing her, as though she can see through the window and into the alcove where I sit. Her ears are poised, intent. But the moment is over, and she returns to her grazing. I can see her white tail now, flat against her haunches, now swishing straight up, now flat.

Perhaps her tail swishes at houseflies. I saw them in lazy groups doing crazy eights in today's afternoon warmth. They seemed especially attracted to the pools of muck where the snow has melted. Now I know where houseflies come from. They come from the ground.

Upstairs, in the tower of the house, we have an ecosystem of houseflies. They live in the walls. Many years ago, when Ken finished the tower, each floor glimmered like a different jewel. Many say the top room was the most dazzling of all. Ken hand stitched yards of bright blue herringbone tweed to the walls. If you look closely you can still see the precise

stitching around the corners, and stitches rising in perfect lines up the angled walls to the four-sided vaulted cupola above. When the room was new and the morning sun streamed in, the light was the color of the Mediterranean. Sundogs looked like the sun flashing on waves. In afternoon light, the room was calming blue. Lying on the bed for a nap with the curtains drawn was like resting underwater, where you can be cool on even the hottest summer day.

Over the years the fabric has faded and grown dusty. Where the sun was strongest, in the cupola, it has decayed and rotted. The tatters of fabric have long been torn down and only the faded ceiling remains. It's the color of an overcast sky.

Houseflies are born in the fabric. They eat the mites who live on dust and dead houseflies. Generations seem to have established themselves. They are born of the fabric, and they die of the fabric. Most spend their lives buzzing about the cupola and trying to escape from one of the high windows. But some are born inside, trapped between the fabric and the wall. You hear them buzzing from time to time at night, stuck in place, tiny bulges here and there in the darkness. When I lie in bed listening to them I can't help but think of Edgar Alan Poe and cataleptic paralysis, and I imagine what it's like to be taken for dead and wake up buried six feet down inside a coffin. But just for a moment. The thought is too unbearable. They say they've found evidence of people who've clawed through the lid. I squish the houseflies buried under the fabric when I can find them. It seems like the right thing to do.

My very first spring here, dead houseflies covered the top floor an inch deep. There were piles of flies. Vacuum cleaner bags full of flies. Flies on the bed, under it, in it. Nowadays the flies have been beaten back season by season so at least their dessicated remains no longer form drifts. They start back up this time of year, and they're already buzzing above me in the mornings telling me to get out of bed. Most of them seem content to remain high up in the cupola, but the curious and the dead and dying always find their way down. Soon it will be time to get out the can of spray. I feel bad spewing poison into the air, and it's hard to hold your breath long enough to get out of the room and down the stairs, so you know you're taking it in. But it's the only way to keep them at bay, and I tell myself my method is more sophisticated than a deer's flick of its tail.

There, she's gone. They have a way of disappearing when you're not looking. The light is beginning to fade now, almost time to rebuild the fire.

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