The King of the Flies


Malachy had spent the morning climbing Knocknarea's Holy Mountain, to pay respects to the great ladies and valiant lords who are buried under the turf at the top of it. Some wisdom had governed the laying of them there after their last struggles, though it had been a laborious thing to do, for there was power in their presence still, and you'd want only those people in contact with that power who knew what they were getting into and were willing to exert a little effort getting there. Also, as in life you'd wouldn't have invited them over for a casual snack in the breakfast nook, you didn't especially want those austere shadows hovering about in the afterlife. One does too many thing on a daily basis which a Saint or a Hero does not need to witness, particularly ghostly ones who may or may not be bound by the laws or swayed by the under- standing tolerance of folly which mark a living person.

So, Malachy had communed with the illustrious dead and was descend -ing the Holy Mountain. On top there had been such a blast of wind and summer light that Malachy was able to keep his mind on high and dreadful things. Lower, though, berry-covered brambles began to struggle up the slope. There stood white and yellow flowers, a few blood-red poppies. It grew warmer, and Malachy loosened the buttons that had held a heavy gray shirt tight around his shoulders since the first cold light of morning.

Finally he stopped his progress down the hill. The day was growing quite warm, and the idea of plucking a few berries and stretching out in the yellow grass to savor them had entered Malachy's head.

Even as it did, Malachy noticed the flies. In their rounds on the slopes of the Holy Mountain, they had just come to the spot where Malachy was about to stretch out and enjoy a handful of berries after a rough climb, before which he had, naturally, fasted, and after which he was as ravenous as one so perfectly in control of himself could be. As the flies launched over the bridge of his nose Malachy deliberately did not raise his hand to swat at them. "They have their labors too," he said, deciding to move on to a place out of range of this particular tribe of buzzers.

Down the slope Malachy went, a little faster than he had intended. Down with him went the tribe of flies, buzzing around his ears and landing on the lids of his eyes. Malachy gave up his earlier resolve and swatted wildly at them, even rejoicing in a way unlike himself when he crushed one between his descending hand and outstretched wrist, and watched its still body fall into the grass. He was drawing in breath to exult at the victory when he felt a fly come in with the breath.

"You have come into my very mouth," said Malachy to the fly.
"I have done that," said the fly.
"You know I could crush you, swallow you, spit you out, make you as though you never were."
"I would not if I were you."
Malachy was intrigued. There was an authority in the tiny creature's voice that amused him, and, should he have told the whole truth, disturbed him a little.
"All right then, you just fly on out and we'll call it quits."
"I will not.
"Why?"
"I have come to bite and sting, and that is what I'll do."
Malachy recognized a certain justice in what the fly said. Biting and stinging is what flies do, and to expect them to do otherwise, or even to forego the doing of it, was unjust. Nevertheless, being taught justice by a fly, and that one on his mouth, peeved the good man, and he said,

"Prepare to be spat out, through my teeth, so there will be nothing left of you for your widows to mourn over. I am a man. I swat and kill what bites and stings."

"I would not if I were you."
"I am Malachy the Just. I am known far and near for the wisdom of my judgments. I judge that you have no right to be in my mouth, and that, furthermore, I have the right to do anything proper to get you out. I would like to know why you would not, if you were me, crush you to oblivion."
"I never heard of you, Malachy the Just. Anyway, the wisdom of men does not impress us. I am the King of the flies on all this Holy Mountain. Hear my words. Prepare to be stung and to take it as a blessing."
When Malachy opened his mouth to make reply, a gust of wind pushed the King of the flies deeper in, so he teetered on the very brink of the throat.
"Prepare to exit," said Malachy, arranging his mouth for a mighty spit.
"I will not. You will be stung, here where I stand. That is the command- ment of the king of flies. If you do not allow me to sting and go free, such plagues will come upon this country, such passages of dark magic, such inroads of the Invisible World that Malachy the Just, whoever he might be, will be called Malachy the Unlucky, and be jeered on the roadside wherever he tries to flee."

Again there was such authority in the little creature's voice that Malachy hesitated. Surely some compromise could be made. He would open his mouth and the King of Flies would fly out and all would go their own ways on the slopes of the Holy Mouspot in his throat where the nerves commanded, swallow or die, and Malachy swallowed.

Vanishing forever into the innards of Malachy the Just, the King of the Flies managed one last warning, "You'll be sorreeeeee---" Then there was silence.

A terrible silence settled over the slopes of the Holy Mountain. Malachy looked where the tribe of flies perched along the stems of the brambles. They were staring at him, dead still, as flies almost never are. He could see himself multiplied in their thousands of little eyes, each eye sealing him in its memory for some terrible retribution no doubt customary among their people in such circumstances. As he edged past, they made no motion, either to prevent him or to get out of his way.

Malachy continued down the mountain, his heart drowning in the dreadful quiet above the yellow grass, waiting for it to be split by a crack of thunder.

As he reached a ledge that was the last ledge before the valley, he felt a sting on the back of his neck. Without thinking, he swatted at it, made contact, and the body of a fly bounced once off a stonecrop and vanished among the spears of grass. It has begun thought Malachy, hurrying down toward the valley, with his gray shirt pulled up over his head. At least, he was thinking, I will perish among friends.

The flies followed him. Three. Five. A dozen. They landed on his back, on the exposed knuckles that held the shirt in place over his head. He neither swatted nor paused in his descent. Finally, though, he was tormented past enduring.

"O flies! I know I killed the King of the flies of the Holy Mountain, but I didn't exactly mean to, and I am sorry. What can I do to make it right?"
The flies stopped to regard him. One on the knuckle of the pointing finger of his left hand said, "We never heard of any King of the flies of the Holy Mountain. That one over there, the especially handsome one on the mullein leaf, he is the King of the flies of the Second Cow Pasture. He's the only king we know. Isn't that right, fellows?"
Here all the flies nodded and whispered on the ridges of Malachy's body.
"As far as what you can do to make it right again, you can just stand there, pretty much as you are doing, and let us sting and bite."

As the flies set to again, drawing blood from his hand and ears and the point of his nose, a truth concerning the proportion of things occurred to Malachy the Just. With a yelp he tore the gray shirt off his head and began swinging it terribly through the warm air. Flies scattered, leaving their compatriots broken and dying amid the spears of the yellow grass. Yee-haw, sang Malachy, swinging the shirt as the heroes of old upon the mountain had swung their glittering swords.

When Malachy came back among his people, his face was shining and flushed. They knew he had seen a great portent, a great and happy one by the looks of it. They waited for him to reveal it, as was his custom, in his own sweet time.

- David Hopes