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Know the West

Wallowing the flies away


Ouch! A fly bit me in the soft spot under the lobe of my ear. Gripped with insights about trees and rocks, I'd stopped moving for too long. While even the sheep slept that I'd come to herd, I walked back to stand in the opening of the tent. My brother mumbled inside and the flies continued to zoom and circulate through the late afternoon. If each fly had trailed a silk thread, like a spider, I'd have been immobilized in a white cocoon.

The big flies were frank predators: They bit out a chunk of flesh, leaving a red point of fire. Their eyes had three stripes - copper, leaf-gold, or tinsel green - black-edged and floating in a nervous polychrome. Their bodies were clad in overlapping scales. The pressure of your hand wouldn't kill them. You had to stun them with a slap and then, as they twitched in the dust, grind them with a foot; otherwise they'd rise again. The dog simply snapped them out of the air and chewed them up.

The big ones were horseflies. The medium-sized ones were deerflies, and a tiny breed which had no sense of danger roamed boldly into nostrils and ears. My body offered them both grand scenery and hot meals.

In day's heat, the flies reached a sizzling peak. Some tactics I learned: Shimmy, twitch, flinch, flail, flap and curse. Tuck your shirt, button your cuffs, tie a bandanna around your neck, and drape a dishtowel over your head. Rip up wads of fresh pennyroyal and rub yourself green. Create new words like phwabbbb and fnooop. Lie down in a stream with only your lips exposed. Haunt a cliff-edge with a breeze and when it fails, resist the urge to jump off. Or jump. Either way, the flies will have you.

My younger brother, Chris, emerged from the tent, flapping his hands. "If I get under a blanket, it's too hot. If I don't, they chew my skin off."

"Let's wallow in the mud," I said.

"Mud," he said uncertainly.

I had a spot in mind, where beaver ponds flanked this Wyoming creek. We stacked our clothes and smeared ourselves a bilious gray-green. I slathered his back and he slathered mine. The mud was dark-olive, cool on our skins. I noticed a cutbank with a streak of ochre, so I daubed yellow stripes on my legs, and made two bold handprints on my chest, a flying bird. Chris got into the spirit with a yellow target, centered on his navel.

"Good thing Mitch is gone - he'd think this is pretty weird," he said.

"Cowboys keep things buttoned up," I said.

His eyes and teeth shone through drying mud as we shambled up and down the creek, trying the textures - rush, sedge, sand, silt. I paddled my bare feet in the lovely ooze, blip-blap-blup, and hooted. Chris shrieked and jumped on a hummock.

"Bugoonzi," I yelled, my kid-password; "potty-buzumbo!" That was his. We spun, slinging mud and ripping up tufts of grass, and hollered until we got dizzy and had to lie on our backs. It was nice to let the sky spin over us, slowing to a calm and perfect blue.

We washed off in the cold stream and started fresh, looking for different colors. I painted his face and he painted mine. We noticed that the flies didn't follow us across the water. So, barber-poled with red and yellow clay, we lounged midstream on the mossy crest of a gravel bar. The mud was like a set of tights, constricting gently in the sun.

"Nice place you got here," my brother said.

"Amen," I said. "Land of the flies, home of the bees."

C.L. Rawlins is editor-at-large for HCN. This excerpt is from Broken Country: Mountains & Memory, to be published by Henry Holt & Co. this October.