What My Flies Keep For Me
By Shaoni C. White
There’s a dead body on the floor. This is a bad thing. I’m having trouble recalling why that’s the case, but I’m sure it’ll come back to me soon. I fastidiously clean the blade of the knife on the shirt that the body is wearing, because the knife is my brother’s and it’s rude to return things you’ve borrowed in poor condition. That’s what the flies resting on the curve of my ear are telling me. They’re very helpful, although I dearly miss their compatriots. The world is jagged and confusing without them. I look around and see dozens of things that don’t seem quite right, and I can recall the shape of the insect voices that ordinarily remind me why they’re wrong, but I can’t summon up the words they would use to explain it.
Unsure where to put the knife, I carry it loosely in my hand as I step carefully over the puddled blood. “Cleanliness is essential,” hums a fly as it takes off and orbits my head. “It’s important to keep shared living spaces clean and tidy so as not to inconvenience the people you live with.”
Another fly agrees. “It’s bad to inconvenience people.”
“Can you help me figure out what to do next?” I ask, but the flies just hum their murmured endorsements of cleanliness and consideration. “Should I clean up the mess?”
“Yes,” buzzes one.
But another says, “No! You should inform someone that you’ve made an error! You must take responsibility for your actions!”
Unrest reigns briefly among the flies as they argue with each other. Soon, though, they all concede that taking responsibility by telling someone what I did is a higher priority than cleanliness.
In accordance with their decision, I leave the room and make my way down the hall. My brother’s door is ajar. He’s asleep. I’m surprised that he managed to sleep through the commotion, but I shouldn’t be; he’s been known to sleep through hurricanes. I shake him. He jerks awake. He groans, then looks at me, then groans louder and squeezes his eyes shut. “Oh god. What do you want. It’s two in the morning.”
“It’s four in the morning, actually.”
A fly buzzes angrily. “You shouldn’t correct people needlessly simply to prove that you’re right.”
“Sorry,” I say. “That was rude. And I’m sorry for waking you up. But I need your help.”
He props himself up and squints at me. “Fine, what’s . . .” He trails off. “Where are your flies?”
“They’re gone. I only have a few left.”
“The Ordovan boys stole them. Two of them, they came in through the window and caught them in a net. I tried to get them back, but I failed. One of them escaped. I killed the other one.” He stares at me. I hold out the knife. “I cleaned off the blood.”
“. . . thanks,” he says, voice strangled. “Uh. The flies you have left. What are they telling you?”
“Cleanliness is important and I shouldn’t inconvenience people and I should take responsibility for my actions.”
“Cool. Cool. Are any of them saying anything about, uh, murder?”
I blink. I’m not entirely sure what the word “murder” means, although it feels familiar.
He winces. “Okay. Gotcha. Cool. Everything’s cool. Everything’s fine. We need to get your flies back and then everything’s going to be okay.” He gets out of bed and stands, stiff with exhaustion, and places his hand on his desk. His ants, ordinarily lethargic, stir into feverish motion and sweep up over his fingers and his hand and up his arms. His shoulders relax. He shoots me a bright grin. Unlike me, he stores confidence in his ants, not . . . not . . .
I can’t remember what my flies keep for me.
“Alright,” he says. “This seems doable. The Ordovans’ house isn’t too far away. And I bet they won’t be expecting you to come after them, not with your reputation.”
“That guy punched you in the face last week and you just walked away, all calm. Everyone was talking about it.”
“My flies told me not to seek retribution.”
“Yeah, exactly. Mind, they might be a little worried once they realize they’re down a man, but it’ll take them at least a few hours to do something about it. We can get your swarm back before then, I’m sure of it. Come on.”
I follow. It’s a ten-minute walk to the Ordovan property. About halfway there, I bring myself to ask, “What’s . . . what’s the thing that’s wrong?”
“I — what?”
“Something’s wrong. There’s a dead body in my room. What’s the thing that’s wrong?”
“With the fact that you stabbed a guy to death?”
He rubs his face rapidly, like he’s trying to wake himself up from a bad dream. “You’re — you’re not supposed to kill people. You’ll understand when you get your flies back. Don’t do anything until then, okay?”
“Am I going to get in trouble for this?”
“Well, you should, but the Ordovans stole your swarm, and the penalties for that are way higher, so I doubt they’re going to run to court about you anytime soon.”
Sometimes people who’ve lost their own swarms will settle for stealing someone else’s and keeping it close. It’s not an adequate replacement, and of course the stolen swarm will fight like hell to get back to its true home, but the Ordovans are desperate enough to try. Their whole family shared the same hive of bees — I’m not sure what they kept in their bees or why they died off, but now they’re wrecks of who they once were, grasping at anything that might piece their universe back together. I understand now. Without my flies, the world is alien and orderless. I’m stumbling in the dark just trying to miss them properly.
The Ordovans’ house stands tall and proud at the end of the street, trellised in the decayed remains of the jasmine that their bees once pollinated. Now no wild bees will come near the place, or so rumor claims. My flies buzz wordlessly, sensing their lost kin near. My brother notices. “Can they find the rest?” he whispers.
I nod. We let the flies lead us around the side of the house and to the backyard. I realize they’re bringing us to a ramshackle gardening shed that hunches awkwardly at the edge of their property. I break out into a run. I hit the locked door with my whole body and press my forehead against the rough wood. I can feel the agonized buzzing of my flies as they slam their tiny bodies desperately against their prison to find me, but I can’t hear them. “It’s locked,” I say, choking down a sob. I want them back more than I’ve ever wanted anything. Without them, I’m miserably aware of the dark and formless sky that brings its weight to bear over the city. The shadows that occupy the backyard hold depths I can’t interpret. I know that the Ordovans hurt me and stole something precious to me and I know I hurt them in return, but these facts are hollow. There’s a wrongness there that aches like a torn-out tooth. I want to know its name again.
“Here,” says my brother. He’s found a shovel. “Stand back.”
I do, reluctantly, and he swings the shovel into the wood with a violent thud. He pulls back the shovel and swings again. And again. His ants are a seething mantle of movement over his shoulders, murmuring a cacophony of encouragement for his ears alone.
Someone shouts from inside the Ordovan house. I whirl around. Through the smothering darkness, I see a man slam the back door of the house open and run across the grass. My brother doesn’t turn around, just keeps working to break down the door, the confidence of his swarm forbidding him to doubt the destined success of his work long enough to comprehend his danger. The man running toward my brother has something in hand that glints. I don’t stop to process exactly what it is, I just know he’s coming at my brother with it. I raise my knife.
What follows is too much to parse in full, even with the help of the few flies I have left. They can do nothing but buzz fruitlessly above me as I meet the man with my knife. The seconds that make up the fight are trapped in brief, distorted reflections in sharp metal. Time twists out of recognition between each drop of blood. He gets me with whatever he’s carrying. I don’t get a good look at it. The pain has a bright, glittering edge. I scream, raw and loud. At some point, our weapons are discarded — we tear into each other with teeth and nails. Our bodies are a wordless snarl. Sometimes I feel the chilly grass against my skin. Sometimes I see the empty night sky above, before I turn my back on it.
As we fight, the clang of my brother’s shovel meeting the shed door is heartbeat-steady. He doesn’t waver. I know he’s succeeded when, as I rip out my enemy’s hair, a new fly alights on my collarbone and cries, “Shun unnecessary violence!”
This violence is necessary. I slam my fist into the man’s face, sloppy with anger, hard enough to send pain bursting through my own knuckles. A fly hovers over my shoulder and says, “All living things deserve respect.” Another alights in my hair and says, “Put the safety of others above your own.”
Exactly. I need to protect my brother. I slam my fist into the man’s face again.
Now the rest of the flies come pouring out of the shed. They swarm around me. “Don’t let rash anger lead you astray,” one tells me. Another hums, “Don’t break your promises.” There are hundreds of flies now, all layering their edicts above each other. I sob with relief, but I don’t stop fighting. My enemy struggles, but weakly. I’m winning.
And then my swarm cries out in one anguished voice, “You have harmed! You have murdered! You swore you would not! You promised! Life is precious! You promised!”
All of me hurts. My hand is broken, I think, and the man I’m fighting is nearly dead. I stand. I step back.
My brother is watching me cautiously, as if I’m something he needs to be afraid of. I try to speak, but my throat is raw and doesn’t cooperate. I try again. “I remember now.”
“What I keep in my flies.”
They’re my sense of honor. Their chorus is steadfast and constant and I will always listen.
“So, you’re, uh, all back together now?”
“Alright. Good. That’s good. We need to go.”
He starts to gesture with his hands, a sure sign of panic from him. “We need to go. Any second now the neighbors are going to wake up and I really, really do not want to be here when —”
“You should go. You should contact the law. They need to know about this.”
“Uh, no, they really don’t —”
“It’s important to take responsibility for your actions. I would go myself, but I need to take this man to the hospital. He’s hurt very badly.”
“If you get him patched up enough to walk again, the first thing he’s going to do is come back for round two.”
I wait patiently for him to explain how this is relevant.
He doesn’t. He just grimaces and says, “Fine. Fine! I’ll help you get him to the hospital. You know you need medical attention too, right?”
Once again, I wait for him to explain how this is relevant. Once again, he does not.
I take the wounded man’s arms and he takes his legs. The entire way to the hospital he grumbles, and I listen carefully because my flies urge me to pay polite attention to what other people say. I’m in pain, but it’s easier to bear, now that my swarm’s humming has reshaped it into a retribution for my unjust actions. The shadows are no longer frightening in their formless inscrutability. They’re just places the light doesn’t reach. I walk through them without hesitation. Honor keeps me company.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Abra Staffin-Wiebe loves optimistic science fiction, cheerful horror, and dark fantasy. Dozens of her short stories have appeared at publications including Tor.com, F&SF, Escape Pod, and Odyssey Magazine. She lives in Minneapolis, where she wrangles her children, pets, and the mad scientist she keeps in the attic. When not writing or wrangling, she collects folk tales and photographs whatever stands still long enough to allow it. Her most recent book, The Unkindness of Ravens, is an epic fantasy coming-of-age story about trickster gods and unlikely heirs. Enjoy an excerpt at: http://www.aswiebe.com/moreunkindness.html