Palo Alto Weekly 26th Annual Short Story
Third Place Adult
DO THE MATH
About Michele Raffin
I run a bird sanctuary called Pandemonium Aviaries. We breed endangered exotic birds for eventual release to the wild. I normally write about birds and I hardly ever write fiction.
This story, Do the Math, appeared fully formed and was somewhat of a surprise. I felt it knocking at my psyche, tried to shove it away by going to sleep, woke up at 3 am and knew that the only way to get rid of it was to write it down. It was written in one sitting (and then I went back to sleep).
At the core of this story is an exploration of how someone copes with loss when they have no family support, no friends, no realizable dreams and a lack of reliable information upon which to make decisions. The answer for this girl is to find meaning in action. She becomes committed to some how making a difference in the world, even if it's in a way that appears strange to others.
Here's the background. I had been researching flies earlier in the week. They are a disease vector for birds (as well as humans). I didn't want to use pesticides (bad for birds) to get rid of them, so I was exploring other options. Pandemonium is somewhat unique in this regard; we sometimes have to get creative in our problem solving because there often are no established solutions that fit our needs.
In the process of learning about flies, I became intrigued with their physiology, life cycle and habits.
I was also struck by how much contradictory and incorrect information is given about them.(One article that I found stated that flies are born full size).
In the midst of researching, I remembered long ago seeing a photo of an African girl whose eyelids were covered in flies. At the time, I questioned the difference between her life and my own, her relationship to nature and mine, her attitude towards control and mine. These questions remain unanswered.
by Michele Raffin
“You’re crazy,” she says the first time I tell her how many I have killed.
A few days later I tell her again--don’t know what I’m thinking--except that after she whacks me hard across the bottom, I say to myself, She’s right. I am crazy. Shouldn’t have told her. She’s not the boss of me.
But I can’t stop doing it, and I can’t stop counting and I don’t stop thinking about it even though people think I'm weird.
I don’t know why I do it. I don’t start the day thinking how many am I going to kill? It happens. I see the fly swatter and I pick it up and think just 10, max 20. I get to 100 and there still are so many left, and my aim has gotten really good, and then its 200 and 250 max to 300, and my head hurts because I’ve been out in the sun so long, and my mouth is dry and I think no more but then I see an easy one and tell myself this is the last one, but it isn’t.
“You, innocent flies?” my best friend Louisa says when she sees how I’m spending my time after school. Miss-don’t-eat-anything-that-has-a-face-on-it, I tell her that I am careful not to torture them. That if I swat at the same fly and miss three times, I let it go. I don’t want to traumatize them. Get rid of them is the idea.
I don’t tell her that I say a prayer before I go in for the kill. “May you go to fly heaven,” I say and then I swat.
I can’t go to the mall the next time Louisa stops by even though her mom is driving and I haven’t been anywhere except this alley, school and home for weeks. My swatter is broken. The yellow plastic top got a rip in it and next thing I know, the swatter is in pieces. Swatters cost $3.98 at the grocery store, but they are two for 99 cents at the dollar store.
“That’s less than 50 cents each,” I tell Louisa. I only say this because I want to give her reasons to convince her mom to drop me off at the dollar store on her way to the mall.
It is a crazy thing to say. I am the boss of me and I should know better.
Louisa had to do 7th grade math over again. The teacher who flunked her was my grandma.
I wish I were in Africa because then I wouldn’t have to buy a fly swatter. I’d make one out of grasses. In Africa, no one has grandmas who are math teachers and mothers who drop out of school when they are 14 in order to have a kid.
This becomes my new plan: go to Africa. I tell my mother about it. We’re having a family dinner, or at least that is what she calls it. She has a new boyfriend and he’s brought over Kentucky Fried Chicken. I pretend I’m not hungry and only eat a biscuit and some coleslaw.
“I’ll buy you a bus ticket,” my mother says after I tell her about Africa. The boyfriend thinks this is hysterical and soon my mother is laughing, too.
When I don’t join them, he thinks the reason is that I don’t understand the joke. “Africa is across the ocean. You can’t drive there,” the moron explains to me.
I look at him straight in the eye, the way my Grandma said you should look at people. I’m so eager to tell a joke, any joke, that I make one up on the spot.
“Flies can smell dead people. Since flies smell with their feet, this must mean that they have smelly feet.”
I realize my mistake right away. Flies taste with their feet; they don’t use them to smell. If my grandma were here, she’d laugh and laugh until she got the hiccups. She’d probably even make up her own joke: “And their feet taste good, too.”
“I don’t get it. Do you get it? my mother asks the boyfriend. He shrugs.
Says it’s a school night. He should go and let me get my beauty rest.
After he leaves, she turns to me and says, “You ruin everything. Can’t you at least try to be happy for me? ”
I don’t answer. I’m thinking about flies and why it’s so easy to kill them.
Could it be that they are suicidal?
Here’s the thing: you get at least two tries to get a fly if you miss the first time. Flies always go back to the same place they were when you swatted them. That’s crazy.
Plus, you’d think that an insect with lots of eyes including ones on top of its head, would be better at escaping the swatter. But a lot of them just stand still as if they are waiting to be swatted, especially when they land next to a fly that is already dead.
I always leave a few dead flies around for this reason, although it can get confusing when you leave the body because then when you look at the spot again and see a black fly like object, you don’t know if it’s alive or dead. I’ve swatted lots of flies that are already dead.
Chantel, who lives upstairs and who used to be my friend, passes by one Saturday when I have just killed 427 flies. I forget she isn’t my friend anymore so I say, “Guess how many flies I’ve killed today? 427!”
“Quite an accomplishment,” she says, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
I look away. It crosses my mind that I’ve been counting swats, not dead bodies. A lot of times, the bodies fall behind the garbage cans or in back of the black bags from the seafood restaurant. Maybe I haven’t killed 427.
Maybe I should only count those whose dead bodies I see.
I don’t look at her as she walks away. There are three flies lined up on a garbage can lid. I figure I can take them all at once if I act right away.
That’s it with flies. You can’t hesitate. No thinking Can I? Should I?
You just go for it. Don’t wait, just swat.
I want to improve, to get really, really good at this fly killing. Maybe I’ll be a professional fly killer when I grow up. I’ll never be without work. There are always flies.
I decide I need to think like a fly, feel like a fly. I can’t change my body: can’t develop sticky feet and hang upside down from the ceiling. But there are things that I can do, like eat like a fly. Flies don’t have teeth. They eat by soaking up fluid. If a food is solid, they spit enzymes on it to change it to liquid. I promise myself no eating, only drinking for a month which is how long a fly lives. I last two days. I’m a failure.
Not keeping promises to myself is not the only thing at which I’m failing. I’m failing math. I can’t believe it. My teacher can’t believe it. Only my mother is not surprised because when she’s around she doesn’t talk to me. She doesn’t know that things at school are not going so well.
The last time we talked to each other, I told her that African kings sometimes have many wives. The Kentucky Fried boyfriend was married and she’d just found out. I then told her fly eggs hatch in one day if they’ve been laid in a warm place. I thought she was interested because she was staring at me so I continued talking. I explained that I’d read that flies never grow; they’re born the same size they are when they die, but I found that hard to believe. She looked at me as if I’d come from another planet and left the apartment.
“Do you think that you started killing flies around the time that your grandmother died?” the school counselor asks me. I had made the mistake of telling her the truth when she asked what is my favorite activity.
I shake my head “no,” and then I tell her I have to go back to class even though we both know that it isn’t time yet.
National Geographic. That’s what gave me the idea. My grandma had a copy at the bottom of her bed, under the covers. When I took the sheets off, I found it there. Before I put the bundle in the bag of things to give to Goodwill, I took the magazine out.
One of the pages is turned down on the top corner. I open to this page and read the article. It is about some poor village in Africa where people suck the blood from their cattle. Disgusting!
Then I turn the page. I see what grandma saw. I understand what I need to do.
A photo of a little girl. Her arms folded across her chest. She looks straight at the camera, eyes wide. Her eyelashes. I stare at these lashes.They are covered with flies.
Why isn’t she swatting the flies away? It doesn’t make sense. I mean, she isn’t even trying to improve her life.
One day, Louisa gives me the answer. I already know it, but now I know that I know it.
I don’t see Chantal and Louisa until they are right behind me. They are all dressed up and happy like.
“Do you really think you are going to kill all of the flies in the world, all by yourself?” Louisa calls out. Her voice which used to be really soft and
gentle sounds a lot like Chantal now. Underneath what they say, I hear what they are thinking: I am not their friend. I am not ever going to be their friend again.
If I were a fly I’d have 300 to 400 hundred brothers and sisters. I wouldn’t need friends. And if someone in my family died, it wouldn’t matter so much because I’d have lots more family left.
Don’t think. Just swat. I tell myself. I have two swatters now; one for each hand, but the flies seem to have disappeared. There are four, max five flying around in a circle. But the garbage can lid fly kill zone where I can always count on a couple of moronic flies to land to check out their fallen friends does not have a single live fly.
I watch Chantal and Louisa walk away, their heads are leaning in to each
other, whispering and I remind myself of my plan, I’m going to go to Africa.
I’m going to find that girl and I’m going to teach her how to kill flies. I’m going to have her count every fly that she kills even if she doesn’t want to because she needs to learn math. If she kills a hundred flies a day, and if everyone in her village each kills a hundred flies a day, and if the village next to them kill flies and all the little girls learn math, the flies will go away.
Yes, that’s what I’ll do.
The fascinating main character in "Do the Math" seems to teeter on the brink of insanity until, when the reader finally comes to understand the reasons for her actions, the story takes shape as a moving and original portrayal of a young girl's struggle with the ugliness of the world.