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- The Life of the Fly - 40/49 -

for instance, shall I obtain the same results? Logic says yes; and logic is right. I dilute with a few drops of water a little Liebig's extract, that precious standby of the kitchen. I operate with this fluid on six Cetoniae or rosechafers, four in the grub stage, two in the adult stage. At first, the patients move about as usual. Next day, the two Cetoniae are dead. The larvae resist longer and do not die until the second day. All show the same relaxed muscles, the same blackened flesh, signs of putrefaction. It is probable, therefore, that, if injected into our own veins, the same fluid would likewise prove fatal. What is excellent in the digestive tubes would be appalling in the arteries. What is food in one case is poison in the other.

A Liebig's extract of a different kind, the broth in which the liquefier puddles, is of a virulence equal, if not superior, to that of my products. All those operated upon, Capricorns, sacred beetles, ground beetles, die in convulsions. This brings us back, after a long way round, to our starting point, the maggot of the flesh fly. Can the worm, constantly floundering in the sanies of a carcass, be itself in danger of inoculation by that whereon it grows fat? I dare not rely upon experiments conducted by myself: my clumsy implements and my shaky hand make me fear that, with subjects so small and delicate, I might inflict deep wounds which of themselves would bring about death.

Fortunately, I have a collaborator of incomparable skill in the parasitic Chalcidid. Let us apply to her. To introduce her germs, she has perforated the maggot's paunch, has even done so several times over. The holes are extremely small, but the poison all around is excessively subtle and has thus been able, in certain cases, to penetrate. Now what has happened? The pupae, all from the same apparatus, are numerous. They can be divided into three not very unequal classes, according to the results supplied. Some give me the adult flesh fly, others the parasite. The rest, nearly a third, give me nothing, neither this year nor next.

In the first two cases, things have taken their normal course: the grub has developed into a fly, or else the parasite has devoured the grub. In the third case, an accident has occurred. I open the barren pupae. They are coated inside with a dark glaze, the remains of the dead maggot converted into black rottenness. The grub, therefore, has undergone inoculation by the virus through the fine openings effected by the Chalcidid. The skin has had time to harden into a shell; but it was too late, the tissues being already infected.

There you see it: in its broth of putrefaction, the worm is exposed to grave dangers. Now there is a need for maggots in this world, for maggots many and voracious, to purge the soil as quickly as possible of death's impurities. Linnaeus tells us that 'Tres muscae consumunt cadaver equi aeque cito ac leo." [Three flies consume the carcass of a horse as quickly as a lion could do it.] There is no exaggeration about the statement. Yes, of a certainty, the offspring of the flesh fly and the bluebottle are expeditious workers. They swarm in a heap, always seeking, always snuffling with their pointed mouths. In those tumultuous crowds, mutual scratches would be inevitable if the worms, like the other flesh eaters, possessed mandibles, jaws, clippers adapted for cutting, tearing and chopping; and those scratches, poisoned by the dreadful gruel lapping them, would all be fatal.

How are the worms protected in their horrible work yard? They do not eat: they drink their fill; by means of a pepsin which they disgorge, they first turn their foodstuffs into soup; they practice a strange and exceptional art of feeding, wherein those dangerous carving implements, the scalpels with their dissecting room perils, are superfluous. Here ends, for the present, the little that I know or suspect of the maggot, the sanitary inspector in the service of the public health.


Almost as much as insects and birds--the former so dear to the child, who loves to rear his cockchafers and rose beetles on a bed of hawthorn in a box pierced with holes; the latter an irresistible temptation, with their nests and their eggs and their little ones opening tiny yellow beaks--the mushroom early won my heart with its varied shapes and colors. I can still see myself as an innocent small boy sporting my first braces and beginning to know my way through the cabalistic mazes of my reading book, I see myself in ecstasy before the first bird's nest found and the first mushroom gathered. Let us relate these grave events. Old age loves to meditate the past.

O happy days when curiosity awakens and frees us from the limbo of unconsciousness, your distant memory makes me live my best years over again. Disturbed at its siesta by some wayfarer, the partridge's young brood hastily disperses. Each pretty little ball of down scurries off and disappears in the brushwood; but, when quiet is restored, at the first summoning note they all return under the mother's wing. Even so, recalled by memory, do my recollections of childhood return, those other fledglings which have lost so many of their feathers on the brambles of life. Some, which have hardly come out of the bushes, have aching heads and tottering steps; some are missing, stifled in some dark corner of the thicket; some remain in their full freshness. Now of those which have escaped the clutches of time the liveliest are the first-born. For them the soft wax of childish memory has been converted into enduring bronze.

On that day, wealthy and leisured, with an apple for my lunch and all my time to myself, I decided to visit the brow of the neighboring hill, hitherto looked upon as the boundary of the world. Right at the top is a row of trees which, turning their backs to the wind, bend and toss about as though to uproot themselves and take to flight. How often, from the little window in my home, have I not seen them bowing their heads in stormy weather; how often have I not watched them writhing like madmen amid the snow dust which the north wind's broom raises and smoothes along the hillside! 'What are they doing up there, those desolate trees? I am interested in their supple backs, today still and upright against the blue of the sky, tomorrow shaken when the clouds pass overhead. I am gladdened by their calmness; I am distressed by their terrified gestures. They are my friends. I have them before my eyes at every hour of the day. In the morning, the sun rises behind their transparent screen and ascends in its glory. Where does it come from? I am going to climb up there and perhaps I shall find out.

I mount the slope. It is a lean grass sward close-cropped by the sheep. It has no bushes, fertile in rents and tears, for which I should have to answer on returning home, nor any rocks, the scaling of which involves like dangers; nothing but large, flat stones, scattered here and there. I. have only to go straight on, over smooth ground. But the sward is as steep as a sloping roof. It is long, ever so long; and my legs are very short. From time to time, I look up. My friends, the trees on the hilltop, seem to be no nearer. Cheerily, sonny! Scramble away!

What is this at my feet? A lovely bird has flown from its hiding place under the eaves of a big stone. Bless us, here's a nest made of hair and fine straw! It's the first I have ever found, the first of the joys which the birds are to bring me. And in this nest are six eggs, laid prettily side by side; and those eggs are a magnificent blue, as though steeped in a dye of celestial azure. Overpowered with happiness, I lie down on the grass and stare.

Meanwhile, the mother, with a little clap of her gullet--'Tack! Tack !'--flies anxiously from stone to stone, not far from the intruder. My age knows no pity, is still too barbarous to understand maternal anguish. A plan is running in my head, a plan worthy of a little beast of prey. I will come back in a fortnight and collect the nestlings before they can fly away. In the meantime, I will just take one of those pretty blue eggs, only one, as a trophy. Lest it should be crushed, I place the fragile thing on a little moss in the scoop of my hand. Let him cast a stone at me that has not, in his childhood, known the rapture of finding his first nest.

My delicate burden, which would be ruined by a false step, makes me give up the remainder of the climb. Some other day I shall see the trees on the hilltop over which the sun rises. I go down the slope again. At the bottom, I meet the parish priest's curate reading his breviary as he takes his walk. He sees me coming solemnly along, like a relic bearer; he catches sight of my hand hiding something behind my back: 'What have you there, my boy? ' he asks.

All abashed, I open my hand and show my blue egg on its bed of moss.

'Ah!' says his reverence. 'A Saxicola's egg! Where did you get it? '

'Up there, father, under a stone.'

Question follows question; and my peccadillo stands confessed. By chance I found a nest which I was not looking for. There were six eggs in it. I took one of them--here it is--and I am waiting for the rest to hatch. I shall go back for the others when the young birds have their quill feathers.

'You mustn't do that, my little friend,' replies the priest. 'You mustn't rob the mother of her brood; you must respect the innocent little ones; you must let God's birds grow up and fly from the nest. They are the joy of the fields and they clear the earth of its vermin. Be a good boy, now, and don't touch the nest.'

I promise and the curate continues his walk. I come home with two good seeds cast on the fallows of my childish brain. An authoritative word has taught me that spoiling birds' nests is a bad action. I did not quite understand how the bird comes to our aid by destroying vermin, the scourge of the crops; but I felt, at the bottom of my heart, that it is wrong to afflict the mothers.

'Saxicola,' the priest had said, on seeing my find.

'Hullo!' said I to myself. 'Animals have names, just like ourselves. Who named them? What are all my different acquaintances in the woods and meadows called? What does Saxicola mean? '

Years passed and Latin taught me that Saxicola means an inhabitant of the rocks. My bird, in fact, was flying from one rocky point to the other while I lay in ecstasy before its eggs; its house, its nest, had the rim of a large stone for a roof. Further knowledge gleaned from books taught me that the lover of stony hillsides is also called the Motteux, or clodhopper, because, in the plowing

The Life of the Fly - 40/49

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