Black Flies and Milk Snakes
by Bruce H. Mero
It was only the first week in May and already the black flies were making it difficult to stay out of doors for any length of time. The abundant snowfall of the past winter had slowly melted with the gradual onset of warmer days and streams and creeks were burgeoning with the fresh, icy cold water that black fly nymphs thrive on. And thrive they had. In places around the farm this spring, the air was thick with the damnable pests.
Black fly thirst for blood is insatiable and their frenzied search for a meal of blood is an annual spring scourge in these parts. The female fly requires a diet of blood to enable her to lay her eggs and ensure the hatching of the next generation of flies. Thousands of the bugs can descend upon a blood source at the same time in a feeding frenzy. Birds and animals serve as the blood host. Horses and cows are frequent food sources and often can be seen, this time of year, running and madly crashing into trees and shrubs, attempting to shed clouds of the flies. Humans provide a ready target, as well. Human blood sources can be observed rushing about with arms flailing and hands beating face and neck. The stoic of us who must endure the tiny beasts for any time are usually identified by panic stricken eyes and streaks of congealed blood emanating from the backs of ears and necks. Black fly bites are painless when first administered. Often the only early sign that one has ensured the breeding success of the next generation of flies is the crusted blood in the back of one’s ears, followed shortly thereafter by the most maddening itching sensation ever experienced. And the itching can persist for weeks, the itch toxins revived each time the hapless bitten scratches the spot of the black fly’s meal.
A myriad of salves, lotions, repellants, oils, perfumes, greases, slathers and ointments are sold which attest to their ability to repel the black fly. We had tried most of these potions over the years and found that they either didn’t work or smelled so bad that taking one’s chances with the biting flies was more desirable. Our most effective deterrence, if we wanted to be outside this time of year, was to cover as much exposed skin as possible with impenetrable clothing, and to wear a wide-brimmed hat.
Thus appropriately attired, Mitra spent hours playing outside. In her time away from school and the second grade, she was a free spirit and roamed the farm and neighborhood as she pleased. The black flies were a minor deterrence to her activities and only the cowgirl hat her parents insisted she wear to keep the flies at bay inconvenienced her. She wore an ancient pair of black cowboy boots her Grandma Skip had given her to complete her outfit. Last seen, she was bounding across the grass on her broom horse, whooping and swinging her free arm as she herded imaginary cattle into the front field.
Then the screen door slammed and she came into the kitchen very excited.
“A horse is coming,” she said. “A real horse is coming up the road, can I ride it, Daddy? Please, can I ride it, Daddy?”
I looked out and, indeed, there was a horse and rider coming up the road. Actually it was a Shetland Pony, a very small one at that, slowly walking toward our place, ridden by a very large, young woman. The pony had long shaggy brown and yellow hair and was walking with its head down. The lady was wearing a red, short-sleeved shirt and black shorts, and no hat. She held the pony’s reigns in one hand and was flailing the other arm around, occasionally slapping her ample bare skin. She was continually kicking the pony with her heels to keep it moving along, but it was obvious that the animal wasn’t in any particular hurry. The pony was moving along as fast as it could with the load it was carrying. It was also obvious that the black flies had overtaken the rider and they were feeding.
Mitra ran out of the house and into the road, where she stood in front of the pony as it approached. The pony stopped walking. Boldly, she asked the lady rider if she could have a ride. The woman dropped the reigns and began slapping herself with both hands, all over, in response to the buzzing flies. She didn’t answer, she just kept slapping as the fly cloud darkened around her. I approached the lady and intended to apologize for the boldness of Mitra’s inquiry. I could see that the woman was in distress and rather than apologize, I offered the lady a few minutes shelter in the doorway of our barn, out of the flies. She conceded that this would be a good idea and she slipped from the pony’s back and ran to the open barn, arms flailing, leaving the horse standing in the road. Before I could react, Mitra was upon the pony and in the saddle.
“Can I have a ride, please, Daddy?” she plead.
“Go ahead,” said the woman from deep within the barn. “She can ride as long as I can stay in here away from the bugs.”
So, for the next half-hour or so, a grinning little rider trotted the pony around the yard and the field next to the barn. She rode as though she had done so a hundred times before, though I wasn’t aware of any previous horse rides she’d ever had before. At first, I attempted to walk the pony holding the reins, but soon this was too slow for the little rider and she took control of the pony herself.
Gretchen emerged from the house with a glass of ice water, which she offered to the lady standing in the barn. She could see at a glance that the bugs had been feeding on our visitor, as red welts swelled on her arms and legs.
"You don't have any snakes, do you," asked the woman? "I hate snakes."
"To be honest," replied Gretchen, "I haven't seen any snakes so far this year. It is pretty early in the summer for them to be active, although it shouldn't be long before we'll be seeing one or two."
"That's good," she said, "I hate snakes. Those bugs are bad."
The two chatted a while. When she tired of the pony, Mitra ended her ride in front of the barn. The lady stepped into the daylight and took the reins of the pony. Immediately the black flies charged, as though they were waiting in ambush for the bare arms and legs to reappear. Arms flailed once more and the lady attempted to mount the pony, but was unable to get her foot into the stirrup. Undeterred, she asked if we had something she could stand upon to get a little boost onto the pony and Gretchen suggested a cement block at the trash burner we had in the side yard. As we led her to the blocks, she asked twice more about snakes and told how she hated them. Mitra heard this and told the lady, to her astonishment, about her pet Milk Snake last summer and how the snake had bitten her in the nose when she tried to give it a kiss. The lady cringed, but was reassured somewhat when Mitra said that she thought her friend Hank had killed it by scaring the snake to death. She hadn't seen it since she showed it to Hank under his hay wagon, last summer.
We reached the cinder block pile and arranged a couple of cinderblocks into a step. The woman got up onto a block. We thanked her for sharing her pony with our little girl and asked that she come back again sometime. The lady said that she'd come back and thanked Gretchen for the glass of water. She slapped her neck, then lifted her foot toward the stirrup.
At that exact moment, Mitra exclaimed, "There's my snake! Oooh! You've gotten a whole lot bigger since last year." She bent down and picked up the Milk Snake and started walking toward the lady and the pony.
What occurred next is a little fuzzy, because it happened so fast, but I remember that the lady shrieked and leaped into the air. Her foot never touched the stirrup. She actually left the cinderblock step and seemed to fly. Both arms flapped. Somehow the airborne lady managed to descend into the saddle. The little pony groaned and nearly fell to its knees as the lady crashed onto its back. In an instant she was urging the little horse to a gallop. Looking back toward Mitra and the Milk Snake, she rode quickly down the road.