A group of flies were scattered throughout the kitchen, buzzing around, exploring everything. One landed on the fridge. Erratically, he wondered across the cold metal until the sudden whiz of a red swatter cut through the air towards him. He tried to escape at the last minute but—WHAP—was smeared across the fridge before falling to the floor.
Another fly explored the dining table. As she approached the basket of fruit in the center of the table—WHAP—the swatter crushed and flicked her flattened body onto the floor.
One on the cupboard—WHAP.
Two on the wall—WHAP, WHAP.
Three on the windowpane—whap … whap … WHAP.
Sarah trotted down the stairs, beaming because getting out of bed was her favourite part of the day. But her smile quickly faded when she stepped into the kitchen to find her mother, red fly swatter in hand, tiptoeing slowly around the dinner table, searching the air like a crazy person who saw things others didn’t.
“Yes dear,” she said without turning towards Sarah.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m swatting flies honey.”
“Oh mum. Don’t.”
“You know why I do it. Flies aren’t supposed to be in the house.”
“Then why are they called houseflies, mum?”
Sarah sat down at the table in a huff. Her mum was always killing stuff. She sprayed the ants and trapped the mice and flushed the spiders; she even caught the squirrels and made them disappear later saying, “I set them free in the country.” Sarah tripped over the squirrel trap once when playing in the backyard. It was right after nobody was allowed in the yard for forty-eight hours because her mum had sprayed all the weeds. A starved squirrel was in the cage, on its side with its mouth open. It looked poisoned by weed killer. Sarah wanted to bury it in the backyard, but her mum threw it out and left it for the garbage man. Sarah sometimes saw the little, fury face when she closed her eyes to go to sleep.
“Mum why do you have too …”
“Quiet Sarah, I’m listening for them.”
“Why don’t you just let them outside?”
“Flies aren’t smart enough for that dear.” She continued her methodical search of the air. “Are you hungry?”
“Yeah. I’m gonna have cereal with brown sugar and finger toast.”
“I’ll make you your finger toast just as soon as I get the last fly.”
“Did you hear that Sarah?”
“Shh … There it is again. Did you hear it?”
“Uh-uh.” Sarah yawned. It was getting harder and harder to fall asleep at night. She had to doze off on the couch with a movie playing now and then crawl to bed too tired to think. It was the only way. Otherwise she’d just lie there, staring at the ceiling with her heart pounding, not wanting to face the darkness lurking behind her eyelids. But she was awake and wanted to stay that way, so she shook her head, got up from the table and stomped past her mother.
After fixing herself a bowl of cereal covered in heaps of brown sugar, she sat back down at the table and ate a few spoonfuls of the sweet, crunchy o’s. Then she looked up from her bowl and saw a fly buzzing through the air and heading straight for her.
“There it is again. Do you hear it?”
“I don’t hear anything.” Sara stared at the fly and raised her palm up towards it.
Her mother faced the other way, so she didn’t notice the fly land on Sarah’s hand and crawl up under the long sleeve of her blue shirt.
“It’s okay little fly. I’ll save you,” Sarah whispered into the fabric.
Sarah’s mother continued scouring the kitchen with swatter at the ready while Sarah sat quietly eating her cereal. “Well that’s weird,” her mother said, standing up straight and lowering her weapon. “I thought I heard another one.”
“I think you got ‘em all mum. Can I have my finger toast now please?”
“May I,” her mum said, finally turning to face her.
“May I? Pleeeeeease.”
While Sarah’s mother made two pieces of toast buttered and sliced them into long fingerlike pieces, Sarah looked under her sleeve and saw the motionless fly tucked between the fabric and her skin. “Don’t worry little fly,” she whispered. “As soon as my mum goes upstairs, I’ll let you outside.”
Sarah let her arm drop when her mother walked up with the plate of toast. “There you go honey,” she said, placing the plate on the table. “Bon appetit.”
Sarah munched on a long finger of toast. She stared at her mum, wishing she’d go to her room. When her mother’s footsteps echoed up the stairs, Sarah dropped her toast.
“Alright little fly. Now’s our chance,” she said, springing to her feet and wiping the crumbs from her mouth with the back of her hand.
She moved quietly to the patio in the living room, slid open the door a crack, and put her fly arm outside. Sarah could feel the tingle of the fly’s tiny feet scampering down her arm and hand, where it emerged from underneath the fabric.
“Okay, you’re free.”
The fly took off and instantly flew back at Sarah.
“No no no no no.” She waved her hands towards the outside air, trying to push it out, but the fly flew inside. “Mum was right you are stupid.”
She made her hand into a landing pad, but the fly landed on her head beside her ear. “I take offensive to being called stupid,” he said.
“What? Did you just?” Sarah put her hand to her ear slowly, careful not the crush the fly.
The fly climbed onto her finger, and Sarah brought him in front of her face; she looked down at the fly, her eyes slightly crossed because of how close her finger was. “Are you really talking?”
“Of course I am. And you call us muscoids stupid.
“Wow, you are talking.”
“All muscoids talk. We just choose who gets to hear us.”
“What’s a muscoid?”
“That’s what I am. You humans call us flies which we don’t like very much. It’s quite insulting. That’s why we don’t talk to humans. That, and they never give us a chance really, what with all their swatting.”
“I’m sorry about my mum. I told her not to swat you.”
“Don’t be sorry. It’s not your fault.”
“Well, why didn’t you fly away? You must be scared.”
“I can’t leave now. I have to thank you for saving my life.”
“Well you’re welcome. Now get out of here before my mum comes back downstairs.” Sarah flung her hand outside again, but the fly just flew back in and landed on her shoulder.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“But why? Aren’t you worried about being swatted … scared to die?
“Death will come for me when it comes for me. It is far more important that I make peace with you. But first of all, what is your name?”
“I’m … Sarah.”
“It is my very great pleasure to meet you Sarah. I am called Septima.”
“That’s a weird name.”
“I was the seventh born and was name after my birth.”
“Wow, seven. How many brothers and sister do you have?”
“One hundred and forty-seven.”
Sarah stared at the little fly. She could have crushed Septima if she wanted to, squeezed the life right out of him with two fingers. It was a horrible thought that she tried to push out of her mind, but there it was all the same. And Septima knew it. Sitting there waiting, he didn’t seem to care about his vulnerability. “Why aren’t you afraid to die?” Sarah asked.
“Why are you afraid to die?”
“I … I never said I was …”
“You didn’t have to.”
The little fly stood still. Sarah couldn’t speak.
“Tell me how you feel at night Sarah. Before you go to bed. Tell me what you think about.”
“I … I …”
“Go on. It’s okay. I understand.”
Sarah shook her head. “I don’t think about anything.”
“More like the fear of nothing, isn’t that right Sarah?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Yes you do. You think about death don’t you? You’re the one afraid to die aren’t you Sarah?”
She shooed him off her shoulder and started to stomp away. “Go away. Leave me alone.”
Septima buzzed in front of her face, floating and blocking her path. “It’s okay Sarah. I understand and I want to help you.”
Septima landed on her shoulder. “Please sit down Sarah.”
Sarah reluctantly sat down on the couch and then stared at the tiny fly on her shoulder. She didn’t know how he knew, but she was relieved. She’d never told anyone. Always kept it close. But now it was out.
“What is it about death that you think about?”
Sarah looked back towards the stairs. “How did you know?”
“I can taste your fear with my feet.”
She wondered what else he could taste, if he knew all her secrets. “Well can’t you taste that too.”
“I can’t taste thoughts. Only fears. I want to help you. Please tell me Sarah.”
“Well I … I lie awake and don’t want to fall asleep.”
“‘Cause if I fall asleep, I think I might not wake up. I think I’ll die in the night and never wake up again,” Sarah felt lighter. Somehow saying something out loud, something she had never told anyone before, made her feel almost weightless.
“Do you think this every night?”
“But every morning you wake up and you are still alive.”
“But how do I know that for sure. I’m scared that the sickness will kill me and then I won’t really wake up. And if I do wake up, I’ll never know if I’m dead ‘cause my mind might just keep going. It might just be playing out what it thinks would happen if I were still alive. So I’d never really know, you see.”
“What sickness do you have?”
“I don’t know.” Sarah shrugged. “Sometimes I see spots. And sometimes I feel really funny, like Jell-O. And sometimes I’m really tired but don’t know why.” She felt silly saying it out loud; it was easier just to feel them.
But Septima didn’t laugh or tell her she was wrong. He just said, “Well, it’s the muscoid way to make peace with anything that saves our lives. So it is my obligation to make peace with you.” Sarah felt much better. She jumped to her feet and said, “Thanks Septima. Peace out. Now you better take off before the swatter finds you.”
Septima shook his tiny fly head and rubbed his tiny fly hands before saying, “I’m afraid it isn’t that easy Sarah … Tell me, do you like music?”
Sarah nodded. She loved the Beatles. Ever since her Auntie Meghan played them in the car that time. She could listen to them all day.
“Well, listen very closely.”
Septima took off and flew around Sarah’s head seven times before landing behind her right ear. He tucked himself into a small indentation; it was perfect for him. Then he began to sing. His song started off as just a low buzzing sound, but then it grew more intense. The music grew and faded and grew again. Sarah had never heard anything like it before; the song was beautiful and sweet and made her feel like she was looking at a flower and eating honey at the same time. As she listened, her eyes began to blink slowly. Each time her eyes closed they took longer and longer to open until they finally couldn’t open at all. Eyes closed and body slumped down in the chair, Sarah swayed gently from side to side. But then, the blackness behind her eyelids started to move. The motion picked up speed like a carousel. Round and round it went, moving faster and faster. Sarah rocked back and forth and her head moved in small counterclockwise circles. She squeezed her eyes tighter and tighter as the spinning accelerated. Sarah grabbed her head with both hands, trying to steady herself, trying to stop the twirl. But just when Sarah felt her cereal and finger toast rising in her throat, the spinning moved so fast that she felt nothing at all, like she was still. Then the music and the whirling suddenly stopped.
“You can open your eyes now Sarah.”
Sarah did but saw only blackness. She blinked and rubbed her eyes but still saw nothing. Then she heard the sounds of a busy street. People walked past her in both directions, talking, laughing, or just walking silently. She could hear traffic noises beside her, but she couldn’t see anything.
“Septima … Septima,” Sarah shouted.
“I’m here Sarah. I’m here.”
“Where? I can’t see you. I can’t see anything.” She felt the air in front of her, her right hand griped around something long and thin.
“I’m behind your ear.”
“Why can’t I see? You forgot to turn on the lights.”
“There is no switch for this darkness.”
“What do mean?”
“You are in the body of Eugene Price. And Eugene is blind.”
“I’m going to make peace with you and this is the beginning.”
“But what do I do.”
“But how. I can’t see.”
“You have to see a different way. You have a cane in your right hand. Use it to feel the path in front of you.”
Sarah held the cane straight out in front of herself like a sword. She swung it to the right and hit a lamppost. She swung it to the left and hit a man.
“What was that?” Sarah whispered.
“You just hit a guy walking by.”
“I did? Oops. I didn’t mean to. Sorry Sir,” she shouted after the man. “That was weird. He didn’t even say anything.”
“Being ignored is part of being blind. Just keep your cane on the ground and move it from side to side in front of you. And try not to hit anyone else.”
“Like this?” Sarah asked, feeling her path with the cane.
“That’s good. Now start walking.”
Sarah moved slowly and with high steps as if she were climbing invisible stairs. She wanted to drop to the street and curl up into a ball. Hearing everything and seeing nothing was like being in hell. After thirty seconds and five arduous steps, she threw her cane down. “Septima. I don’t like this. I want it to stop. I can’t even walk. It’s too hard.”
“Fine Sarah. Close your eyes.”
She tried to shut them. “I can’t even tell if they’re open or shut.” She wished she had her cane again so she could hit something.
“They’re shut now. So count to seven and open them again.”
Sarah counted and opened her eyes at seven; she could see but everything—the radio playing, the print of the book she held in her hands, even the wrinkled hands themselves—appeared as if she were under water.
“Where am I now?”
“You’re in the body of Baxter Allan.”
“Well this guy’s almost blind. But it feels great to see again.”
“How do you feel?”
“Tired. And there’s an awful taste in my mouth too. And … oh my back. It hurts but not as much as my feet. Oh god. My feet kill.”
“Baxter is a very health seven-two-year-old man.”
“Healthy. I feel bad. Really bad.” Sarah rubbed her forehead with her wrinkled hand. “I thought my eyesight was bad, geez.” She hated Baxter’s body even more than the blind guy’s. At least the blind guy was healthy. Baxter felt like he could die any second. She felt nauseated. “Can we go somewhere else please?”
“Close your eyes and count to seven.”
Sarah did and when she opened her eyes, her left leg was really itchy. She sat up in her bed and leaned over to scratch it but her nails only touched air.
“This is Abbey Pascal. She lost her leg in a car accident a few months ago.”
“But why is it so itchy?”
“That is from phantom limb syndrome. She has an itch that she will never be able to satisfy.”
“It burns too. When will it go away?”
“She’ll have it for the rest of her life.”
Sarah made fists and grimaced at the unquenchable burning itch. She started scratching her other leg but nothing helped.
“Stop scratching and count to seven.”
Sarah had to hold her breath to keep from scratching. She squeezed her eyes shut and counted. When she opened her eyes, the itch was gone but it was replaced by an exhaustion that infected her bones. Lying down, she could barely move. Her head pounded and her throat ached. Her eyes throbbed and felt like someone was pushing on them with their thumbs.
“Who am I now?” she asked, her voice raspy and weak.
“You are Lois Melnychuk.”
“What’s wrong … with her.”
“Lois has chronic fatigue syndrome.”
“How … do people live with … all these … syndromes?”
“In pain mostly.”
“Take me out of here. This one’s … too bad. I can’t take it.”
Sarah closed and opened her eyes. She was hoping for someone better than Lois. Someone who could at least walk. But this time she couldn’t move and could barely breathe. A machine beeped beside her in a drab hospital room. Tubes and needles were all over her body, but she couldn’t feel any of them. Sarah couldn’t even speak; she could only roll her head from side to side on the sterol hospital bed pillow.
“This is Sharifa Abadoo,” Septima said. “She has cancer in almost every major organ in her body. Her body is shutting down and preparing to die. Sharifa can’t do anything but wait. This is death Sarah. This is someone who will fall asleep and never wake up. This is someone who is about to die …. Feel it Sarah. Take it all in. Feel death knocking. Feel death talking. You are soaked and dripping with death—you could drown at any moment.”
Sarah wanted to scream. To kick off the sheets and run out of the room. But her body said no. And in that disagreement between her body and mind she began to feel the serenity of Sharifa, letting it take over. Nothing mattered, but everything mattered. She could feel death and it was okay; it was like a warm hug from her mother. She wanted to reach for it.
“Now I want you to detach from it,” Septima said. “I want you to say to yourself, ‘this is me dying’ and then push it away.”
Sarah spoke the words in her mind and her eyelids fell shut. After a second that could have been an hour or a day, Septima said, “Open your eyes Sarah.”
When she opened them, Sarah immediately felt the familiarity of her own body. She stood up and spun around in her living room feeling the energy and excitement that raced through every single part of her.
“It’s me. It’s me. I’m me. I’m me.” She jumped up and down with her arms high in the air and a huge smile across her face. Then Septima landed on the bridge of her nose, and she stood still.
“You taste happy and health Sarah. And like your fear of death won’t bother you much any more.” He cleaned his head for a moment. “And now that I have made peace with you, I can go.” Septima rose into the air, buzzing and hovering. Sarah wanted to kiss the little fly, wanted to hug him and kiss him and tell him that she loved him. But instead all she said was, “Thank you Septima.” Septima flew seven times around Sarah’s head. She smiled and watched him round her cranium. Walking over to the patio door, Sarah felt so happy that she didn’t even really hear her mother stomping across the kitchen floor towards her. Sarah slid the large, glass door open, and Septima danced through the air toward the outside world. But before he could leave the house, the red swatter whipped towards him and crushed him into the glass. His body stuck to the windowpane for a second before dropping to the carpet.
“There! I got him,” her mother said triumphantly before stomping into the kitchen.
Sarah’s heart almost stopped as she watched her friend fall to her feet. Tears flooded her eyes. She picked up Septima’s crushed body. A breeze from outside blew the tears off her cheeks. She stepped outside, holding him in her palm, and a gust of wind swept him away. Sarah watched him; it looked like he was flying, like he wasn’t dead at all. She smiled but knew he was gone forever.
As she watched him float away, she thought about Baxter and Lois, about Eugene Price and Abbey Pascal. She wondered if Septima was with Sharifa Abadoo and hoped they were together. While thinking about all of them, Septima’s body disappeared and so did Sarah’s tears. She lay down on the soft grass in the backyard and, as the sun snuggled her like a warm blanket, she fell asleep.