One spring, while ferrying a load of guests to our sporting camp in northern Maine, we passed a man standing in a bog, waving his arms wildly in the air. The sports concocted various explanations for this bizarre behavior. One said the man was tracing the trail of a snake across the rocks. Another guessed he was battling hallucinations. Another thought the gesture a quaint, ritualized greeting common among rural folk.
We stopped beside a meandering brook. For a moment the sports relaxed and breathed in the fresh air and the intoxicating aroma of pine and spruce. Then, suddenly, they took up “the Maine greeting” as if by instinct. They added a dance, a war whoop, and a speedy flight to the cover of the truck while a swarm of kamikaze black flies gave chase.
Maine will never become a land of saints and mystics. Not even they could survive the trials of the black fly season, which brings out the devil lurking in all of us.
In Maine, killing flies is an art. We practice with a vengeance bordering on madness. Huddled in cafés and diners, the locals defend themselves by arguing that killing black flies helps keep the homicide rate low. We take out our rages every season by murdering hundreds of thousands, even millions, of flies, some of us sizzling them to ash with backyard bug zappers, others using more ingenious methods. Once I saw a fisherman stop by a gas station to show off the carnage littering his silver hard hat covered with a thin film of Vaseline. “Gits ’em every time!” he said with satisfaction.” The shine attracts ’em; the grease kills ’em.”
My grandfather used to sit in the dining room of our sporting camps along the Allagash River swatting flies landing on the table, until the cook kicked him outside. Sitting in the sunlight, honey on the arm of his chair, he baited flies the way he had once baited bears. He waited, his flyswatter, which he pronounced flice water
, cocked like the hammer of a gun. The smack of that fly swatter meeting its target thrilled him, but only his sly smile revealed his predatory rapture.
My wife, Rosanne, is more forgiving. Usually she whisks away flies as she would a troublesome puppy. She won’t smoke a cigar, sit in the smoke of a smudge pot, or use repellent with the stench of pine tar or more recent formulas that melt fishing tackle. She uses a fragrant bath oil that happens to repel flies. I would think her a saint or an angel if I had not seen her after a long, breathlessly muggy day cussing black flies and swatting them violently.
A whole class of characters spurn fly repellent. These Bunyanesque men claim they have lived so long and deep in the woods that they are immune to black fly bites. But I myself have seen even Maine Guides bat one fly and then another, until in desperation they drop the worm can, whirl their arm like eggbeaters, and claim with pompous authority, “The fish won’t bite when the poplar leaves turn their gray backs to the wind!” Then they haul in the anchor and start the motor and race for the shore before the sport can reel in the trout flopping in the wake.
Excerpt from “Flice Water,”
Yankee Magazine, June 1992.