The Hindoo Fly

I swatted a persistent fly this morning and it fell with a broken wing, and some internal rupture no doubt, and lay on the ground on its back, desperately moving its little black legs. I gazed down at it with something of an Indian conscience, or at any rate with that fearful fellow-feeling with which we are likely to regard even our worst enemy at the approach of the common foe.

Nearby, a colony of ants had its home, and there was a great coming and going round the entrance, where the colonists were taking in stores of the crumbs that had fallen from my table. Running hither and thither in their spasmodic spurting way, sometimes quite erratically it seemed, as though they relied upon some other sense than sight, they hurried off with their burdens into their mysterious underworld, the entrance to which was a narrow cleft between the flagstones of my verandah pavement, or emerged, often as many as a dozen at a time, suddenly, like a puff of dark smoke, or as though shot up in a lift.

The fall of the wounded fly, almost into their midst, with a pretty deafening thud one wouId have thought, did not seem to discompose them in the least, and one or two of them, unburdened, passed and repassed quite close to it on their indefatigable journeyings without appearing even to notice it, though above their own small noises, scuffle and patter of ant feet, shrill of ant voices, it must surely have been kicking up the most infernal rumpus.

At length, however, a solitary ant approached the fallen giant, and was at once repelled by a convulsive movement of the struggling legs. But he was not deterred. With remarkable courage, I thought, he returned and, single-handed so to speak, leapt boldly upon the fly. A fearful battle ensued, the details of which I could not clearly see, but the ant seemed to fasten himself upon the fly's head, perhaps with the object of putting out its eyes. He was again repulsed and again returned to the assault, making for the same part of the fly's anatomy, and was then flung off so far --- a distance of quite two inches --- that he apparently came to the conclusion that this was not a one-ant job and went off in search of help. Soon he returned (though I confess I could not swear the identification) with some comrades, and in a business-like manner they divided their small force, some climbing nimbly on to the fly, whose struggles, weakened no doubt by its recent exertions, were growing feebler and feebler, others crawling beneath it to loosen it from the paving stone to which its own blood was causing it to adhere. This done, a single member of the band began to drag the fly off by one wing --- a notable feat of strength --- while its legs continued to wave and twitch.

Looking down on this gruesome scene, I was suddenly back in the dawn of May 3rd, 1917, advancing under fire with my orderly against the German position in the village of Cérisy in France. It was twilight, and we were following our barrage up the slope of a hill, darting from shell-hole to shell-hole in short spurts as the curtain of fire lifted and moved forward. Resting in one of these shell-holes in this inferno with my orderly, of whom I was both proud and fond, I noticed a strange movement on the crepuscular skyline of the hill, some fifty yards ahead, and regarding it intently for some time, made it out to be the moving arms of a man, presumably a wounded German who must be lying on his back. I could not see his body, only the arms, which rose high in the air and fell, rose and fell, in the most strange and desolate rhythm, like a man trying to keep warm in slow motion, or the last wing-beats of a dying bird --- or the weak wavings of this fly's legs. Then I noticed that my orderly had left me and was rushing up the slope ahead. I was astonished and angry; his strict duty was at my side. I yelled at him, but he paid no heed --- if, indeed, in that appalling racket, he ever heard. What on earth could he be doing?

It was soon and shockingly evident. Quite careless, apparently, of danger, which, as he approached our barrage, became doubly grave, I saw him, silhouetted against the flashing explosions, reach and stoop over the wounded German, poke the muzzle of his rifle into the man's body and pull the trigger. The rising arms hovered for a moment, then finally fell. Even then I did not entirely twig, until my orderly came leisurely back to rejoin me, a smile of deep satisfaction on his handsome face, and held out to my inspection a German officer's revolver, field-glasses, wristwatch and cigarette case. He had murdered the wounded man in order to rob him. "Souvenir!" he said, smiling at me.

When the ant had dragged the fly close to the entrance to its subterranean abode, other ants came forward to help carry it in. But the fly was too bulky for the narrow crevice, and after some attempts had been made to squeeze it through, it was rapidly dismembered outside, while it still lived, and carted down in sections to the underworld.

--- From Hindoo Holiday
J. R. Ackerley
©1932 Chatto & Windus
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