4a – The Flies

At dawn Tiresius woke them with a poke of his cane and lead them to his down-beach homespun factory from which they lugged huge vats mixed with dry driftwood chips, and lined with diesel fuel.  Tiresius had saved the fuel from two wrecked drug-running ships which fought a mutually unprofitable battle offshore years ago.  He explained that every day the mumblers would collect the same herb, foraging tens of miles of beach, tread home at sunset, and hand it over for drying.  The mumblers could  help only by relentlessly following the same circuit, trading their picked herb for his baskets of lettuce and olives unmolested by flies. Apparently Tiresius hoarded one ton of the herb, for the mumblers were simply unable to feed themselves anything but dead flies, or washed-up squid. And in turn, for years, Tiresius would burn the herb and protect them while they ate and slept.  The vats were heavy enough to coax over rocks but proved impossible to drag up an incline, until Rupert and Aloysius shouldered the weight.

Tiresius reached his rope’s end after being threatened last night.  If he could not get rid of the drug-traders who exploited his island, who hunted his fellow Santorinians from the air, he would risk everything to destroy the flies.  Besides, it corresponded with his dreams, and the boys were ready to help. At least the source of why the mumblers mumbled, why the vegetation nearly vanished, why three generations of Santorinians spent their days picking herbs instead of feeding or clothing or keeping houses or speaking for themselves, and why the graves, and even bedrooms, were once robbed of their dead, would disappear.  He had to take advantage of the boys who had the bodies and minds to do the grunt work that he could never manage and the mumblers could never figure out.

The point was to turn over all the burning vats at once and trap the  flies in a circle of smoke, around the ring or caldera of the former volcano.  Tiresius predicted that the flies would not retreat from the poison if he could present some human bait — the same young men pulling the vats down — hopefully protected by the smoke.  They would do it at night when the flies formed their tightest grid.  Instead of burning a few oil drums they would ignite the whole ton, and risk that, cornered by a tailwind, presented with human bait, the poison would consume the flies en masse.  If not, the flies would have the run of the island.  And, they would be eaten.

After a whole day of work Tiresius sat them down and carefully reviewed the plan.  They were to light the vats by a thin rope soaked in gasoline, wait till all vats were smoking, then pull a chain strung through eyelits on each vat at the height of the burn.  The herb would spill down engulfing the cliffs, rolling a cloud into the thick of the flies.  The greatest problem was to get close enough to the flies to pull the chain and not blast their wits.  He reminded them of what had happened to the mumblers.  And fretted over what to do with Diogenes.  They could not risk leaving him by the beach alone if the flies escaped along the coast, or swarmed over the far side of the vats.  They decided to position him just below and right of Rupert and Aloysius so that they could watch him.  Moving Diogenes, inside his crate, up to the lip of the caldera, completed their day.

This done, Tiresius rehearsed again each item.  They would wrap the chain around their ankles so that if the flies drove them mad, they could still salvage the plan by pulling the vats down while trying to flee.  After Rupert and Aloysius pushed three dozen oil drums up just below the lip of the caldera, exposed all day to the stench, the nerve-rattling, ceaseless buzz, and with an increasingly cranky Tiresius as their taskmaster, they needed rest before their last push.  Tiresius urged them to take a puff of his paste for their nerves and they complied.  He emphasized his warning that they were for in a terrible ordeal, facing the flies.  They poo-poo’d him, ready to light the vats, turn them over, smoke the pests and leave.

“We’ve heard it!  It really can’t be that bad!” Rupert sighed, feet propped on a rock, sipping a little island liquor, between puffs.

“Forget it!”  Aloysius seconded him, “Just give us the noseplugs.”

“Stuff them tight,” Tiresius horrumphed, exasperated, handing them  aromatic flower plugs for their nostrils.

“If we have da herb ain’t no big bad boogie-Fly, seeing nor hearing ‘em gonna scare me — no!”  Aloysius joked, wrinkling his nose like a rabbit, mumbling at the mumblers who gaped at him, dumbfounded, before Tiresius ordered them back to their hutch.

“Don’t look at the flies unprepared!”  Tiresius warned,  “Make sure to hold the chains and pull them out to give you slack!”

“You’re driving us crazy!”  Rupert snapped.

“We’re already mad!”  Aloysius mugged like a madman.

“Just hang on to your sanity!  Better men than you have lost theirs!”

“Then we have nothing to lose!”  Aloysius waved him away.

They dusted themselves off, piled bricks against the door of the mumblers’ hutch, checked on Diogenes’ safety, shook hands with Tiresius, and crawled up on the bellies to just below the lip of the caldera.

At twilight, as they edged up right to the cliff, all the vats now in place, and the flies spotted them, the buzz grew into a roar like the scraping of aluminum siding over an auto junkyard, like centuries of collective nails on chalkboards, like all the screeching train brakes in every Chinese rail station at once.  Yet it seemed uncannily human.  For they not only heard the weird semi-tonal buzz but something of the pathology behind devising it.  The noise began to burrow  into their inner ears, re-wire their nervous systems, scrape up buried shame then dry heave it as fear in order to broadcast it.  They clamped their jaws shut, and ground their teeth.  Despairing of the uselessness of their hands, they pressed rocks to their heads, screamed back, and pawed at their mouths.  They struggled to keep forward.  Yet their cries doubled as each scream seemed to be siphoned from their past and had like tapeworms come squirming out.  They did not feel guilt, they multiplied it like cancer.  Both seemed to have crawled under a personal, blasting psychical gavel.  Their past crimes and idiocies began to scroll back before their mind’s eye, and replay, in hideous caricature.

Then the shadows grew.  Millions of domed, yellow eyes drilled into their unconscious’. They forgot they were witnessing bio-engineered aggression within mere insect meat. The genetically amplified cross between common deer and horse flies spun viciously at them, blotting out the moon and stars, with obsidian black thoraxes like metal plates — singed, stiff antennae, and monstrous mandibles, pincers — jaws.

As those eyes lit up the night it did not matter if it were a trick, if the whole island, including Tiresius, were an evil hallucination.  Their lives were lies.  They were sinners.  Everything they had said or done was wrong.  Aloysius suddenly accused himself a clown, an idler, a self-chiseler, a fake, a cowardly-costumed-adolescent-fuck, a congenital geek, howling now from his bowels.  Having no fate, what could justify him?  Nothing!  “I’m an idiot!” He grimaced, confessing everything to the beasts, bending his neck, cursing, offering himself.

He was screaming into Rupert’s ear without him hearing.  Rupert pretended to be watching after Diogenes, when a poisonous guilt ran to his head.  Soon he was groveling, begging forgiveness.  He screamed that he’d put Grabmaler back on the earth.  He’d castrate himself: “Here!  I’ll do it myself!  I’ll get a pocket knife!”  He was just a sex-maniac, a jealous onanist, and did not kill in self-defense.  He begged forgiveness, as a pretended innocent.  He intended to murder all along!  He was destined to intend murder.  He clawed, pleading with them not to kill Undine too, “Please don’t visit her”, he screamed, ”Please don’t let her know we exist!”

It was their wild agitation and writhing which tugged the chains and toppled over the vats, not conscious effort.  They never heard the signal Tiresius sent, never recalled the reason why they had crawled to the lip of the caldera, plain forgot they had rolled Diogenes near the cliff.  The fire had already spread from one vat to another and the orange smoke from the burning herb began to billow over the water, drifting into the hoard which seemed even more carnivorous and horrific with the first whiff of poison.  The pesticide spread even as Rupert and Aloysius began to try to hurt themselves, and would have hurled themselves over the cliff, had not the chains restrained them.

Now invented memories tugged back on them.  And they stood, eyes glazed, judged by the flies.  Rupert envisioned his real father then shooting him by mistake, in Grabmaler’s place.   Aloysius saw himself walking home as a child in Bloomfield, New Jersey, to a wooden triple-decker working class neighborhood.  Everyone in his house was inhaling orange smoke through vacuum cleaners.  He then doused the house with pails of gasoline, and watched his family go up in flame.  He was shouting that he got rid of them for the flies’ sake.

Tiresius, meanwhile, covered his ears, while pulling out his noseplugs to sniff for the burning toxin, praying for a charitable wind which could absolutely trap the hoard.

Indeed it was just what made the flies so fearful that undid them.  As the smoke rolled through the ranks of the flies they had no instinct to disperse as individuals, nor retreat in small hoards across the island, nor disperse into the ocean wind before them. They remained fixed, in formation, buzzing louder, but with nothing to program their survival, the smoke began to react with their nervous systems, or system, and disrupt the electromagnetic fear they generated as a byproduct.  The smoke carried a chemical which bonded with the unstable proteins which made up their seemingly metallic exoskeletons, and being unstable itself, broke down, producing the heat by which they slowly began to fry.

Rupert and Aloysius began to hear, through the omniscient buzz — snaps, clacks, like the exploding of small firecrackers.  The flies’ thoraxes burst where the smoke billowed thickest and had all but obscured their tight black grid.  The burn resembled at first the cool but constant progress of lit pure alcohol, spreading in weightless transparencies dabbing the orange smoke with translucent green, and cool yellow, then kaleidoscopic sprays of violet; which, against the jet of space above, created an eerie threnody of light.  As black holes the flies spotted the night like specters of dying evil; strobe implosions bursting open then collapsing with the ooze of their juices fried patina, canary yellow, then violet — sprayed against the infinite palette of the night.

Rupert watched the expanding gold in the grid’s center as one might the birth of a star.  His guilt, with the whole world, suffered eclipse.  He could see himself again and followed in awe the peeling colors from the core of the burn. The self-conscious rich kid escaped his own island.  Aloysius too forgot his cardboard box guise — the dirt poor dandy without mirrors or money evaporated and left no ashes.  The striated greens which looped and intertwined the mauves then crimson invaded the atmosphere above their heads.  The caldera water oozed a mercuric mist and the scent of sulfur gave way to the salt sea air and a honeylike aroma, like alyssum, as the island, Oia, in the caldera re-appeared from a cobalt shadow in reflective mist under the emergent moon like an irregular pearl.

Rupert found he had bitten his own tongue. His front teeth were spattered with blood and the salt of blood was on his breath.  Yet in the light, in the wind’s tranquil backwash, with the frying flies, he remembered the strange dream he had while drowning, that after-image of Atlantis.  It was the same as the imprisoned academic’s wet dream — the same as Tiresius’ story:  canals radiating, gilded temples wavering — the city which went under, a city that no survivor would ever see — more beautiful for being softer, and insubstantial like the flames before him.  And even if the paste had created both the fear of the creatures, or their existence, the less wild profusion before them felt like a cooler burning of a lucky dream.  Indeed, they had been lucky to survive.  And it was then that he remembered Paris.  And his love for Undine.

Yet when they peered around to confirm that everything was all right, they could see Tiresius waving painfully, blindly bowing for some reason.  He was not bowing in their direction, however, but toward Diogenes, who had risen and walked away from his cabinet — limbs stiff, hobbling with his no-hurry left-side-down-at-each-footfall gait, heading for the light, and strangely, to the edge of the cliff.

The easing of the burn peaked like a phoenix exploding in mid-flight right at the point where Diogenes appeared as he staggered to the sheer cliff of the caldera, over its dark water below.  It looked like a pilgrimage, but could have been an ornery trick, a spoof.  Or suicide.  They instinctively checked back, suspecting their eyes, but Tiresius somehow knew or felt that it was happening, circling the air ritually with his hands, as if in admiration, or awe.   The orange smoke, the fireworks over the dead volcano’s caldera slowly eased, rolled back, then shrunk, shriveled into tiny strands, into donut shaped smoke-rolls, disappearing with the back of Diogenes’ heels.  And he vanished!

At first Rupert stood still, mesmerized, then ran to the caldera’s edge looking down to the darker waves now reflecting multiple images of moon-discs.  The flies were gone, the bay splashed by the extinct volcano’s undulating water, smooth, nearly silent, no rustle against rocks nor scrambling for foothold. An eerie silence mingled with the sneaking suspicion that it was a prank.  One gull winged white over the cinder bay as the peace from the burning off of the flies washed back, with the first fowl again fluttering along the horizon.  He had to force himself to fight the strange calm which settled around his every movement.  He found himself watching his hands, remembering the birds of his drowning dream, then Diogenes’ phrase, about being “buried in the sky.” He called Diogenes’ name.  It echoed.  The waves lapped.  Wind played on the cinder cliffs. The gull flew without reply.  Again, he repeated softly to himself ” … buried in the sky.”

The primary way down over the caldera’s edge meant body blows, a noisy fall in the new silence of the black rocks and cinder below, lapped by dark, anonymous waves.  Yet he could almost hear the gull’s wings flapping and could not accept that Diogenes would just walk right over the cliff to his death.

Rupert ran crunching on the carcasses of flies which had fallen in the inky night.  He peered over, Aloysius caught him up.  The waves were dashing against the black rock and silhouetted cliff but no Diogenes, no body lay there broken at the bottom to see.  He began to scramble down the sheer cliffs, hanging on maniacally to crumbling rocks, fearing that he had “screwed up” again.  Aloysius shouted from the cliff that he would run around to reach the shore, trying to persuade Rupert to play it safe and join him.  Rupert refused, sliding down quickly in case he could find Diogenes alive.  Aloysius took time before racing down a safer way to inspect the ground around the cabinet and he found footprints in the cinder.  For a moment it flashed into his mind that Diogenes could be hiding in one of the buried chambers of rubble, or scrambling under the lip of the caldera, so Aloysius resumed running, praying it was not suicide.

Rupert feared he would find Diogenes’ body mangled at the bottom of the cliff, yet he decided against poking into reasons why, until thin dawnlight touched the rocks around the bay.  For Aloysius, it was a long, circuitous walk down.  He passed Tiresius, who still wore on his face the delight of having rid the island of flies.

“The birds are returning, did you hear the gull?”  Tiresius said, gumlessly smiling.

“But what of Diogenes?”  Aloysius asked, anxiously waiting for clouds to pass beyond the horizon, so that he could see Rupert.

“Rupert will not find him!”

“How do you know?”

“A wise man does not commit suicide.”  Tiresius suggested after some reflection, feeling satisfied he was right.

“Then where is he?”

“If he wanted to hide there’s plenty of places.”

“But suppose he did jump over the cliff?”

“If he did, Rupert would have seen the body.  Perhaps if we’re lucky, he’ll still be alive and we can save him.  Or he can save us?”

“Save yourselves, that’s what Diogenes would say.  I’m going down to meet Rupert.”

“I know.  I’ll join you soon.  Just want to  … enjoy this moment.”

“Right.”

After passing an hour scouring the beach Aloysius caught up to reassure Rupert.  He had not given up when Aloysius reached him.  Rupert was bruised, cursing, stumbling along the shoreline, glancing up as he scrambled, as dawn lit the beach, now in full relief, to see if it were possible for him to follow a fatal leap.

After an hour, Tiresius, with mumblers in tow, ambled up to them.

“You have to let him go, Rupert.  Give him up — if he left you.  I don’t think what happened was a joke.  If he’s alive, and it seems to me he is, because I don’t think he’d commit suicide, then he deliberately used the smoke as camouflage to go his own way, even as he saw exactly what you saw.”

“You got us to take him to the cliff, Tiresius.  It’s your fault!”

“Remember, Rupert — think don’t blame!”  Aloysius interjected.

“Shut up!”

“Rupert, could you focus on a more fundamental emergency here?   Do you have the presence of mind to ponder something bigger?”  Tiresius pressed on, “If you don’t get on that helicopter, the expedition will search for you, and they’ll find you, and me, and the mumblers, and Diogenes — and kill everyone on Santorini.  You heard those girls — they’ve got to report to that evil slob Nebuchadnezzar, in Prague.  If you pull it off, you survive, get a look at the enemy himself, examine the heart of evil, which can be very educational, and get a free ride to Paris, and meet Undine exactly as planned.”

“You mean to tell me, I’m supposed to dress up as a woman?” Rupert yelled, after pondering it, “Is that what you’re saying? Aloysius too?  Impersonate someone who has tried to kill me — and you — and leave Diogenes, if he is still alive, here?”

“I think Diogenes overheard everything!  He knows what he wants!  Save yourself.  Save us, save him, meet Undine on time!”

“How could I know anything after smoking your goddamned paste!  Every experience on this island could be bogus!”

“Where are the fucking flies, Rupert?”   Aloysius countered,  “Can you hear them?  Can you smell them? And what’s not bogus is this man’s reasoning, I mean Diogenes spoke, I could have sworn he tripped Dora in the jet, and whether we were so high we both heard him speak last night — he left the cabinet.  I saw his footprints!  Nothing else was going to lift him out of here.  And, you can see for yourself — there’s no body down here!”

“The flies could have got him!”

“Bullshit!  We saw the flies burn! Just as he saw what we saw.  Besides, what’s wrong with wearing women’s stuff like costumes — or do you have doubts that you are a man?”

“You filthy son of a bitch!”

Rupert punched him hard in the chest but Aloysius got up, and brushed it off, patiently enduring the absurdity of the situation.  Meanwhile, the mumblers, sensing violence, were becoming terribly agitated, several of them falling down with Aloysius, some of them weeping, and fidgeting, working themselves into a frenzy, howling like wolves, until Tiresius screamed, “Shut up!’ and banged his cane several times, shattering a block of pumice.

“Choose Rupert.”  Tiresius warned.

“Alright!  We do it.”  Rupert walked down the beach kicking stones, followed by mumblers, who also kicked stones.

“Get away from me!” He screamed back at them.

It wasn’t long before Rupert relented, having pulled the clothing crate close to where Tiresius advised that the copter would land, trying on women’s dresses, with Tiresius watching, and the mumblers approximating a giggle.  They were both embarrassed, and at the same time knew, that if they tried to impersonate Dora and Alex, and failed, they would die.  It was the only way off the island, to put Nebuchadnezzar off their tail, yet the necessity, like a snake biting its own tail, included meeting the fiend, reporting to him that they had killed themselves, then finagling a flight to meet Undine on time, in Paris.  Tiresius shook his head slowly as Rupert tried on an ill-fitting pants suit:  “You’ll have to go all the way to convince anyone that you are a woman.  That’s what he will expect: dresses, cosmetics, the works.  I remember now, when I was a woman.  Ah!  It was so long ago!”

“Must you?”  Rupert pleaded.

“I didn’t have sex for three years, felt shamed of my voice, hid my breasts in big sweaters. But you see these attributes of women — these physical tokens — are fake. That’s why it can be done.  Many men think they’re everything: dresses, make-up, a figure, a soft voice and discard what’s essential, what is impossible to mimic.  If the man you meet recognizes more in women you are doomed.  But if he does not, if he’s a sex maniac, no matter how powerful he is, he will be vulnerable as soon as he believes you.  Remember this Rupert:  The key to a man’s destruction is the desperation behind his pleasure.”

“I’ll do my best.” Rupert could no longer listen to Tiresius.  Nor his homilies about why it would be a good experience.  He had to pull this off, hoping no one would ever remember or know what he did.  Fly in helicopters, meet this seemingly overblown damned fool druglord who contracted him dead, then make him pay or arrange for a flight.  Period.  Rupert lowered head shamefully after the transformation — into Dora — took his place, and tried to forget his choice, clearly miserable, as they walked from the brush to the X where the helicopter would land.

With Rupert feeling humiliated, and Aloysius sharing his more practical apprehensions, they had to leave Tiresius after he offered them his last advice, and after he agreed to search exhaustively for Diogenes, and to send him North.  He thanked them for ridding the island of flies, adding,  “I dreamt our lives would begin and end again with the wind, the foam, the sea — all for those ghosts who once sailed, fished and swam here.  Thank you.  And here.”  He handed a sheath of papers wrapped in a map to Rupert, which he did not recognize.  “These are the papers you saved when nearly drowning off Santorini … a mumbler found them.  I dried them out for you.  They may come in handy.  Study them when you have the chance.”

“Thank you, Tiresius.”  Rupert sighed, stuffing the map and papers into his pocket, and walked another hundred yards to the departure point.  They found the X painted in red, the landing-square, but no helicopter.  Rupert stood there tapping his foot impatiently, refusing to believe it could work.

“This is sinister!   They’ll never believe we are women!”

“You might pass for a woman, but you have no accent.  We’d better practice.”  Aloysius reasoned.

“What?  I’m going to practice acting like a woman?  All I remember … is how Dora puckered her lips, Comme Ça!”

“Ha!  Good.  And I remember how Alex screamed!  Yeiiiieeeeee!  Save us you assholes!

“They’re going to know we’re guys by the time we’re over the sea and dump our chute-less asses out!”

“Cut the shit!  We must pull this off!  Or else we stay here and wait for them to kill us, and everyone else!   It’s a caper!”

“Besides, we’re either leaving Diogenes here or we’re running away from our responsibility to bury him.”

“Yea?  Why didn’t you say that before we made ourselves up as women and placed ourselves in full view of an approaching helicopter, right on their landing strip?”

“I did!”

They heard the flapping of wings over the sea.  For a dull moment Aloysius and Rupert recalled the time before Rupert decided to announce he had killed Grabmaler back in Hoboken, as the helicopter slipped from invisibility to a shining object just over the dawnlit waves.  Their masquerade was sealed.  They were definitely spotted.

“Maybe we were supposed to set off flares?”

“What if they speak Russian?”

“Then we’re fucked!”

“What did they say they were?  What were those crazy letters?’

“From some defunct secret police, C.I.A.?”

“No!  You idiot.  Shit!  They’re landing!”

“K.G.B.?”

The two pilots kicked open the door.

“I hope they didn’t see Tiresius from the air!’

“Shut up and act like a woman!’

“How does a woman act?”

The pilots stepped out, stretching under slowing blades pinching little plastic bags of white power, smiling wide, ambling bow-legged, ready to pick them up, happy to fly women because they wanted a good time.   The pilots were Americans. They could see that immediately: latterday Fort Lauderdale beachboys in white shorts and dark aviator sunglasses without an inkling of the civilizations underfoot, nor apparently, of the world economic Collapse. The two young pilots slowed down, stopped, took stock of the women they expected to escort to Athens and declared that Rupert and Aloysius were “dogs”, saying  just that in English.

The pilots withdrew the bags into their shorts to save the “blow” for themselves, and scrutinized the highly cosmeticized features of the two assassins.  Since they were Americans the pilots assumed that the girls might look bad being representatives of a nationality which they knew nothing about. Rupert, flustered, offered his hand, which both pilots ignored.

“You dropped the jet — killed the marks?”  The first gruff, bearded American, maybe twenty-five years old asked, striking a match to an unfiltered cigarette.

“We did.”  Aloysius replied.

“Any trouble on the island?”  The other asked, far scrawnier and with flared red nostrils like a rat.

“No, we’re ready to ride.”

The two men, since these were not the beautiful women they had expected, shoved their bags of coke deeper into their pockets, and withdrew in obvious disgust.   Nothing was to be done but accept the burly assassins, albeit in the back seat, and without access to their coke.

“Alright jump in.” The first shouted.

“You said they were gonna be good-looking?” The second, asked, pawing a small voodoo head which hung from his leather  belt.

“Since when did you have taste in women?’  The first grumbled, flicking his cigarette ash on the other’s head.

Rupert and Aloysius slid into the back seat of the unmarked military helicopter.  The engine jerked on.  The blades spun.  They were suddenly scanning Santorini from the air.  Then Rupert spotted, hiding in a grove of wilted olive trees — Tiresius — waving, nodding.  But beside him, there bobbed another shadow, a waving of arms, from the bushes–  a figure — which stood very much like Diogenes.  Rupert leapt up, but was loathe to give himself away.  He squinted carefully and could have sworn it was Diogenes who stood in the shadows, just out reach of the blinding morning light, smiling, hiding behind bushes, tapping a finger to his temple, then pointing it at Rupert.