A Horsefly in the Ointment

A Horsefly in the Ointment

By Richard Boughton

One of the best things about Bali is that there are no horseflies. Not as far as I’ve seen anyway. It strikes me that this may also be the case in locales other than Bali, and so I should preface any further remarks with a description of the horsefly and why its general absence is to be preferred, such that the otherwise happily ignorant reader will understand what I’m on about.

The horsefly is a special sort of fly, in the order Diptera, family Tabanidae. It is, according to Wikipedia, the world’s largest “true” fly. Whether this means that there are other bugs flying around that only pretend to be authentic flies, or whether something is conveyed herein about some basic sincerity in the character of the genuine horsefly, I am not sure. For all I know, there may be pompous flies among us who, like government ministers for instance, make a lot of noise but are bereft of legitimacy, and there may be honest-to-God flies of integrity and honour, not to be mistaken for blowhards and pretenders, lest you discount their presence and feel their sting.

But I wander.

The horsefly – which, by the way, does not proceed from a horse – is known to be extremely noisy during flight – rather like a flying horse might be. This was the case also with the World War II era Stuka dive bomber. The Stuka’s noise was intentional. The plane was built that way. The object was to strike terror into people on the ground. In like manner, as I suspect, the noise of the horsefly is also intentional, designed to terrorise, confuse and demoralise its targets while diving to inflict the actual sting. We should say, so as to avoid putting the cart before the horse, that the Stuka must have come after the fly, and that it is the fly that should be credited with the original concept.

How often indeed are we humans, like the counterfeit fly, found to be merely pretentious. The Blackhawk helicopter, for example, is not at hawk, but merely named after the hawk. A phantom jet fighter is not a phantom, and in fact is anything but a phantom. The horsefly on the other hand is what it is, and has proven itself quite inimitable. There is no helicopter, no plane, no rocket, no missile named after the dreaded horsefly. Not to date, anyway. And God forbid that there ever shall be. The fly itself is perfectly sufficient.

When I was a boy I spent every summer with my family in the high Cascades of Oregon, where we would hike and swim and fish and play. They were wonderful times, those summers, almost idyllic. But for the horsefly. For the horsefly itself spent its summers there too, and seemed ever committed, with unmatchable fervour, to attending our every activity.

Whether we were swimming or fishing or sunbathing or climbing, the horsefly was there as well, harassing, pestering, injecting vexation to our every pursuit, the proverbial snake in our garden of simple contentment. Why, I wondered? We were not horses, after all; nor did we bother the private peace of the fly. And yet the thing came loudly buzzing, circling the head, crawling on the neck, landing on the naked back at that exact point which cannot be reached by the hand. It was the closest thing I knew, as a boy, to evil – that which terrorizes and harms without reason.

I learn, however, in these more tolerant years, through the employment of the modern magic of the internet, that the hated horsefly, so long thought merely malevolent and unreasoning, does in fact have a purpose in mind. It is the female of the species which bites animal flesh in order to extract a “blood meal” before she can lay her eggs. Whether the male does not bite at all, or bites just for the hell of it, I cannot find. But in any case, in order to lay eggs and thus produce further swarms of noisome bugs, the female horsefly must have blood.

There seems to be something of essential meaning in this, although I cannot quite put my finger on what it is. And though this elucidation of reproductive habits does not fill me with new compassion for the horsefly, an understanding is yet imparted, and a faith in a reasoning creation renewed. Moreover, a certain encouragement and sense of thankfulness attains, given that like bloodletting is not needful in the human female. I don’t say that it doesn’t happen, merely that it is not required.

I have said that there are no horseflies in Bali, but I should amend that I do not know this for a fact. Perhaps it is too hot for them, perhaps too oceanic; and yet it seems just possible that if I were to go looking for horses I might find also a horsefly or two. And perhaps in an equitably measured dose some nostalgic pleasure might arise in the sight – for the bad has a way of remembering the good, and the good the bad, being both so inextricably entwined in the fabric of this worldly life.

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