I. Statement of the Problem
They were everywhere, hundreds if not thousands of them, speckling the kitchen counter and walls, basking in the tepid leftovers on the unwashed plates and bowls, sunning themselves on the wandering Jews, the devil’s ivies, the long-leafed figs and the Madagascar dragon trees; they’d crammed the edges of Hector’s water bowl like Japanese commuters until Kyle had to move it outside and install a cat door.
Nikki and Kyle had checked all the usual sources — the drainpipe in the kitchen sink, the trash cans in the pantry and washroom, the jungle of potted plants in the sunroom — and were no closer to discovering the source of the infestation when Nikki, on a whim, decided to give the nursery a thorough going-over.
Baby Nkunda was asleep, his face turboted in a helix of blankets. When they’d first brought Nkunda home, his sleep position concerned them to no end. They researched the risks: adopted babies were seventeen percent more susceptible to SIDS than non-adopted babies; African-American babies (there were no statistics available specifically on African-born children) were four times more likely to suffer crib death than Caucasian or Asian babies; babies who slept on their stomach faced a higher risk (less than 0.2 percent, but still) than those who slept on their backs. The fact that he was such a sound sleeper did not help ease their minds. For the first six months, Nkunda stayed in a crib in their room, as per the American Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Institute’s recommendation, going down every night at eight o’clock and sleeping through until eight the next morning. They slept in fretful shifts despite Dr. Wasserman, the paediatrician, assuring them that there was no such thing as a “typical” sleep pattern for infants and that well-rested babies were at no greater risk of succumbing to SIDS than cranky, overtired ones.
“It’s a blessing, really,” the doctor told them. “You are the envy of ninety percent of the parents I see.”
Still, they would softly roll Nkunda onto his back every hour, only to find him curled up face down at the start of the next shift.
It didn’t take Nikki long to find what seemed to be the source of the infestation: a mist of fruit flies hung over the deodorizing filter in the diaper bin lid. She lifted the lid to find a thick paste of flies coating the soiled and folded disposable diapers. The motherload. Some of the flies scattered as Nikki prodded their mass with the scouring pad, but most of them remained, a black caviar of flies congealing for warmth or comfort or sexual congress or whatever it was that compelled these creatures to do what they do. Nikki snapped the lid down, moved the bin to the back porch, and gave the nursery — and house — a thorough cleaning.
But at dinner that night, they returned. First the odd fly appeared, strafing their spoons as they brought a helping of chicken stew to their lips. Then, the flies were at it again, swarming around their mouths like frozen breath, hovering over the stew pot, patrolling the cornbread moonscape, imperceptibly weighing down the napkins. Nikki gave up trying to feed herself and focused on keeping flies away from Nkunda’s eyes and mouth. The fruit flies covered his little fingers and baby spoon; they collected in the moist folds at the back of his neck.
“This is insane,” Nikki called to Kyle, who had, by now, got the vacuum cleaner out and was tracking down fruit flies with the intensity of a Kalahari huntsman.
“This is crazy. We need to call the pest control people again.”
Kyle nodded, but was not paying attention. He was on his hands and knees, peering into the gap between the refrigerator and the sideboard, slowly deploying the vacuum hose.
And that’s when Nikki noticed something odd; they appeared to be congregating by the side of Nkunda’s head, the flies, lining up, almost, in orderly holding patterns, and just as one flew in the infant’s ear, another flew out. Nikki leaned closer to get a better look.
II. Review of the Literature and Research Questions
“They are children, these Americans. They wear jeans to work: jeans!” Betty Obote sat behind a stack of manila file folders, carving the flesh from a heel of mango with an aluminum spoon. “They are infants, Mildred, big infants who need to be taken care of.”
“No refunds, Betty. Did you tell them that?” Mildred Kamugasa, who was crafting an email to an agency in London, England, did not look up. “Tell them to read the warranty.”
“No refunds, girl …” Betty Obote laughed and leaned back in her chair, allowing the breeze from the ceiling fan to cool her face. She read the letter one more time, every once in a while waving her hand unconsciously at the fruit flies circling the discarded mango skin.
“Don’t they know we have better things to do?”
“Like you said, Betty. They are children. They only think of themselves.”
“There are two million orphans in this country, Mildred. Do they think it’s a department store? You just come and buy a child and take it home and if it doesn’t fit with the decor, you exchange it for another?”
Betty Obote folded the offending letter in half and got a container of dental floss from her drawer. She had beautiful teeth, and flossed and brushed them several times a day.
“I need another word for ‘temporary,’ Betty.” Mildred Kamugasa had paused mid-type, her fingers arched over the keyboard.
“No. My brain is stuck. More of a legal term.”
“That’s it, girl: ‘interim.’” Mildred Kamugasa talked silently to herself as she typed, trying to weigh the impact her email would have on Mr. Anthony DeLuce, solicitor for the Families First Agency, 66 Newhams Row, London. “Everybody wants to ignore the residency requirement, Betty Obote. You would think Mr. Anthony DeLuce would know better.”
“It’s a wonder we still have the residency requirement, Mildred.”
“The judges need their money, girl.” Mildred Kamugasa rubbed her thumb and forefinger together. “You get rid of the residency requirement, that’s money out of a lot of pockets.”
“They’ll find a new way to get their pound of meat, Mildred, don’t you worry. The judges, they are good at that.”
Betty put her hands on the arms of her chair and pushed herself up. She was a big woman, and since turning fifty, both standing up and sitting down had become more difficult. Her knees ached on the way up, her left hip ached when she walked, her knees, both hips and her lower back ached when she sat down. The doctor told her she needed to lose forty-five pounds, and had given her a brochure — Weight Loss for Postmenopausal Women. Betty had taken it seriously for a time, and had even joined a lunchtime weight-loss club sponsored by the Uganda Child Welfare Bureau. But she had no time for things like that now.
Betty creaked down the short hallway to Mr. Elijah Ngologoza’s office. She could feel the humid air fusing to her skin, and would have liked to wash her face and hands at that very moment. But there was work to do.
Elijah Ngologoza smiled at Betty and moved a stack of files from the guest chair to the floor. He was lighter skinned than Betty, a galaxy of freckles spotted his face and bald head.
“How is your Alfred, Betty Obote?”
“He is as comfortable as can be expected, thank you, Mr. Ngologoza.” He was her third cousin, and even though they had known each other their entire lives, she felt uncomfortable talking to him about Alfred’s condition.
“He’s a good man, Betty Obote. You take good care of him; that’s an order, you understand, woman?”
Betty smiled and nodded and handed the letter to Elijah Ngologoza.
“I don’t know what to make of it, Mr. Ngologoza.”
Betty watched Elijah Ngologoza scan the letter.
“Mildred Kamugasa says I should tell them that there are no refunds.”
Elijah Ngologoza looked puzzled for a moment, then pushed his head back and laughed. It was a wonderful sound that echoed down the quiet hall, and Betty Obote laughed too.
“No refunds; that’s beautiful! I must remember that. No refunds!”
“What do you want me to do, Mr. Ngologoza? I am really at a loss. I’ve tried to write a letter but I don’t know where to start. I don’t know what to say. These people, they are children sometimes.”
Elijah Ngologoza nodded and brought his hand to his chin.
“They wear jeans to work, Mr. Ngologoza: jeans!”
Elijah Ngologoza tapped his hand on the desk. He folded and unfolded the letter. Betty Obote sat quietly, watching him reread it from the beginning. Occasionally, he frowned and shook his head. Finally, he lifted his eyes. “What we need to do, Betty Obote, is file this in the appropriate place.” He smiled once again, then slowly crumpled the paper with one hand. He was laughing still as he flung the letter into the wastepaper basket, and his bubbling laughter continued as she pushed herself to her feet.
“Remember, Betty Obote,” he called, as she made her way back down the hallway. “No refunds! That’s official bureau policy now, Betty Obote; you pay your money and you take your chances!”
Kyle was bivouacked in a fortress of blankets and pillows. He had cordoned off an area outside Nkunda’s bedroom, and was on his back ready to deploy the vacuum.
Another pest control guy had come and gone. He had been helpful in his way.
“This is very unusual. In North America we commonly see Drosophila melanogaster — vinegar flies.” The pest control guy had looked directly at Kyle as he spoke. He wore an orange jumpsuit with a large Capital Exterminators logo on the back — a cartoon wasp in handcuffs — and the name “Marcel” embroidered on a patch above his heart. Marcel was about Kyle’s age, late twenties/early thirties, with very straight, sandy hair — Kyle had wiry hair and hated it — and gold-coloured, wire-rimmed glasses that made him seem quite serious. “Or members of the Tephritidae family: Ceratitis capitata, the medfly; Anastrepha ludens, or Mexican fruit fly — these are not uncommon. But this, I have never seen anything quite like it. Look —”
Marcel handed Kyle a Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass, and clamping a single fly with a pair of tweezers, held it up for Kyle to inspect. Kyle lifted the magnifying glass to his eye: light brown head and body, brown turtle-shell plates on its back, translucent wings freckled with black spots.
“My best guess: Ceratitis cosyra. The mango fruit fly. They are invasive, not native to North America. Usually hide out in produce: mango, papaya. Hence the name.” Marcel took the magnifying glass back. “I will have to take it back to the office, do some research before I can give you a definitive ID.”
Kyle nodded. “It’s so strange to think that there is a whole world of creatures around us that we never see.”
“Scientists think there are something like ten million undiscovered insect species in the world.”
“No shit. It’s like these alien creatures from outer space — fantastic creatures — all around us, but invisible.”
“Sow bugs, carpet beetles, dust mites, book lice …”
“You just see something moving out of the corner of your eye, but never think to take a closer look.”
“Exactly. That’s exactly what I was thinking.”
Later, they smoked a joint in the garage, and Marcel told Kyle to drop his resume off at the head office. They were always hiring new guys, Marcel said: I’ll put in a good word for you, man. They bro-hugged at the doorway before Marcel left. Kyle watched the pest control guy walk away, lilting slightly to the left to compensate for the weight of the tool box. And then Kyle remembered: the fruit flies.
He spent the rest of the morning patrolling the apartment. The flies had quickly come to associate the sound of the vacuum with death. Kyle wasn’t sure how they did this. Perhaps they had a rudimentary communication system, releasing a certain chemical or flapping their wings at a particular speed, to signal danger. It made sense, evolutionarily speaking. Even tiny creatures needed to have a way to warn each other of danger.
Whatever the communication system, the defence strategy was ill-suited for Kyle’s brand of attack. At the sound of the vacuum, the flies would take to the air and scatter, fleeing from whatever food source they were congregating around. But then they’d land and cower in the most obvious places: in the corners of the ceiling, in the cracks between the wall and the cupboard doors, on windows and mirrors. In flight, they actually had a chance: Kyle had to time it perfectly to catch them. But when he found them, laying low, they were doomed.
Kyle was still a little buzzed when Nikki came home from Dr. Wasserman’s office. She was carrying Nkunda in the detachable shell of the car seat her mother had given them for Christmas. His parents had been really supportive, and even paid the legal fees. But her parents had been against the adoption from the start, not only because they felt there were inherent difficulties when white parents adopted black babies — they weren’t racist, just from a generation that seemed to care more about these sorts of things — but because they thought it was too soon. Nikki and Kyle had only been trying for a few years, and these things take time. They should relax, her parents said, stop worrying about having kids. Kyle would find another job, Nikki could cut down her hours at the bank, and nature would take its course.
“You’re still just lying there?”
“The pest control guy just left.”
“He was cool.”
“Cool, but what did he say.”
Kyle told Nikki about the mango fruit fly, and Nikki told Kyle about the doctor.
“Another prescription, something called Albendazole.”
“It sounds awful. What does it do?”
“Kills things. Like insect larvae. They use it on tapeworms. It’s supposed to be good.”
“Is it covered?”
“The pharmacist wasn’t sure. I’m going to have to check my plan.”
Nikki put the baby on the cushionless couch. Nkunda was sleeping with his head on an angle and a cookie in his hands. It looked very cute. Nikki took out her phone to take a picture. His birth name had been Joseph Kahwa, but she wanted something more traditional. They found Nkunda in an online baby-name site. Nkunda Joseph Kahwa-Kingstone. Had a nice ring to it. Maybe he would be a great man someday, a writer or politician.
“He can’t take the medication with milk.”
“I don’t know. But the pharmacist was very clear: no milk.”
Nikki went to the kitchen counter to check the mail. She skimmed the small stack of bills and fast food flyers.
Kyle called from the living room: “Pizza Planet has a two-for-one; just saying.”
“Nothing from the agency?”
Kyle did not respond. Nikki stuck her head into the living room. Her husband had his headphones in now and was listening to some of that music she hated.
Nikki walked right up to him, and put her hands over her ears. He pulled the headphones off and smiled: Nikki could hear the tinny guitars and drums.
“Nothing from the agency?”
“You’d think they’d respond? You’d think they’d be concerned that something like this is going on.”
Kyle shrugged again: “You’d think.”
That night, Nikki searched the Internet while Kyle played with the baby. The computer screen was dotted with little flies; Nikki hypothesized that they liked the heat the screen gave off.
“Ewww, gawd,” Nikki was looking at a picture of a milk-white ribbon, laid out in coils on a black table. “Says here that tapeworms can grow up to twelve feet long and live in a person for years without them ever knowing.”
Kyle didn’t say anything. He was once again on his back, now holding Nkunda in both hands, lifting him up as far as his arms could go, then quickly dropping his arms, pretending to let the baby fall.
Oh noooooo, he’d say in silly high voice each time. Nkunda babbled and giggled, like a happy fountain.
“OMFG. There’s a thing called a hookworm that gets into your intestines and feasts on your blood.”
“I heard about a lady — oh noooooo! — who was bit in the head by a spider, and she got a big welt on her head and like five weeks later the welt burst open — oh noooooo! — and all these little spiders came crawling out.”
“That’s an urban myth, Kyle.”
“Really? ’Cause I read it somewhere or saw it — oh noooooo! — on TV.”
“I should Google it.”
“You should, Baby. But I bet you a blowjob I’m right.”
“Ha! You wish.”
Later, they made love on the futon bed as Nkunda slept soundly in the crib next to them. Kyle whispered in Nikki’s ear as he rubbed his naked body against hers, graphically describing a three-way with the two of them and Marcel, the pest control guy.
“We should totally make this happen,” he said, as he finally slide inside her.
“I so wanna be your slut; I so wanna make this happen for you.”
They could hear Hector outside, meowing in the moonlight.
“Cat wants in,” Kyle said, without missing a stroke. Nikki, ignoring the cat, spread her legs a little wider and dug her nails into her husband’s shoulders.
“We should try earplugs,” she said, just moments after she climaxed. Kyle was already almost asleep. “Earplugs would plug the little holes; they might really make a difference.”
The bus ride home was longer than usual. A delivery truck had run into a tourist coach outside the Rubaga Cathedral; the street was blocked with pilgrims and loose chickens. When the thunderstorm came, the road flooded over and traffic had to be rerouted.
Betty Obote was further delayed when she stopped at the confectionary to buy poppy seed cake. The girl in the bakery waved the flies away with one hand as she cut three slices for Betty.
“How is Mr. Obote, Madame?” the bakery girl handed Betty her treats in a greasy paper bag.
“He is doing well, Miss. Thank you very much for asking.”
It was late when Betty Obote got home. Juliet, her daughter-in-law, was in the kitchen, preparing dinner: ugali, beans, fish. Betty placed her briefcase and bag of cakes on the counter, and plugged the kettle in. She would have liked to sit and talk with her daughter-in-law, but Juliet had to rush off to start her shift at the hospital.
“He was good today, mother,” Juliet said, as she put a pink cardigan over her flowered dress. “Quiet, but he seemed to have a bit of an appetite.”
Betty set aside a bowl of ugali and beans; fish did not agree with her. She took one of the cakes out of the bag and cut it in half, placing one half on a Wedgwood saucer — the dinner set had been a wedding gift from her father’s uncle, a very wealthy Kampala importer. She set the other half aside, for later.
Alfred was in the living room, sitting in his armchair, a blanket cocooning him from the shoulders down. The TV was on but the sound was off; one football team was playing another.
“How are you today, old man?”
Alfred looked at her without turning his head. His eyes were moist and red, not from crying, Betty supposed — her Alfred did not cry — but from exhaustion.
“I bought some cakes for you. Shall I set them here?” She put the plate with half a slice of poppy seed cake on the side beside a cup of water. Alfred half nodded, to thank her.
“There was an accident at the cathedral again. They should shut it down to coaches. It’s always the coaches. They are pilgrims. Let them walk a little. A little walking will not kill them.”
Alfred nodded again. They were lucky in their way. He had worked for almost thirty years at the Department of Agriculture; he had a pension with medical benefits.
Alfred reached out, his hand shaking, and for a moment Betty thought he was going to take the cake. But instead, he grasped the cup of water. He brought it very slowly to his lips, water splashing on his chin, Betty resisting the urge to help. He took a very long sip, his Adam’s apple straining with each gulp.
The cancer was eating him from the inside. They had found the tumours early enough, the doctors thought, and removed the prostate. But Alfred had never seemed to fully recover from the operation. The nausea persisted, incontinence was a problem; he had neither the desire nor the ability to function sexually. Now it seemed his vital organs were wearing down, his liver and kidneys failing, his heart weakening; the last time the doctor came, he had to search for several minutes just to find a pulse.
“Such a day at the office. Mr. Ngologoza said he’s going to give me a day off next week. I’ve been working too hard, he said. We’ll say I’m working at home, he said. No one will know, he said.”
Alfred was trying to set the cup back on the table. He was very focused on this simple task.
Betty had seen it before. When she worked the AIDS clinic in Masaka years ago, it happened all the time. People would come, sickly but not sick, but once they found out they were positive, their bodies would turn on them.
“You haven’t tried the cake, Alfred. You must try the cake.”
Alfred shut his eyes, and drew the blanket further up his neck. Betty tried to imagine what it was like for him. Most of us go through life fearing death or pushing it out of our minds, like an inconvenient and unnecessary appointment. Alfred lived it, every moment. Death was inside him, outside him.
Soon, Alfred had sunk into an uncomfortable sleep. His arms and legs moved fitfully; he seemed to gasp for every breath.
Betty pushed herself up from the chair, and while her knee did not hurt as much as it usually did, the pain was still there. She picked up the cup and plate and carried them to the kitchen. She put the half cake slice back in the bag and placed the dishes in the sink. She made a cup of tea, and looking at her beans and ugali, decided she no longer had an appetite for them. She fancied something sugary and went to the pantry to get a mango. It was plump and soft and Betty could imagine the taste of its sweet juice. But when she cut it open, there was the faint smell of rotting fruit, and instead of pulpy flesh, Betty found a generation of wriggling creatures, animated grains of rice.
She set the mango aside, and went to the pantry to get another.
Sometimes, on nights like these, when Nikki couldn’t sleep, she imagined Uganda. In her mind, she thought of huts made of mud and straw, and pictured little pygmy men, in their National Geographic loincloths, carrying tiny wooden spears and blowguns, tracking antelope or water buffalo through the high, porridge-coloured grasses. She knew it wasn’t like that, of course. Nkunda had been born just outside Kampala, a city with a million-and-a-half people or more, very modern, according to the guidebooks, with high-rise hotels, shopping malls and Internet cafes. She liked to imagine what life would have been like for Nkunda, had they not adopted him. Would he have grown up in an orphanage, like the ones you see in those English movies, with leering, preening, whiskered men and shrill women, who always seem to fundamentally hate the children in their care? She wondered what Nkunda’s birth mother and birth father had been like. Nkunda’s eyes were very distinctive, wide and asymmetrical. Did he get them from his mother and father? Of course, Nikki would never know the answer. No one knew who Nkunda’s father was; his mother, according to the records, died of AIDS shortly after Nkunda was born. Nikki wondered what they would have been like, Nkunda’s birth mother and father. If they’d lived in America, had been Nikki and Kyle’s neighbours say, would they have been friends? And what of Nkunda himself? What opportunity would there have been for him in Uganda? Would he have gone to school? Would he have been sold at a young age to one of those child labour companies, chained to a work bench to make sports shoes or ladies fashion accessories? The thought of little Nkunda forced to work like that — that any children were forced to live in those conditions — made Nikki very sad. She had an urge to hold him.
Nikki lifted the blanket and slowly rolled out of bed. Kyle had an early morning, and she didn’t want to wake him. He had a job interview at the pest control place, and had been up late, studying.
Fruit flies feed on decaying garbage like peelings and food scraps.
Nikki had quizzed him. He was very smart, when he applied himself.
Fruit fly larvae need standing water and organic waste material to survive.
By the time they’d gone to bed, he’d memorized facts from the article on the pest control website called the “Top 10 Most Common Household Pests,” everything from rats and woodlice to spiders and cockroaches.
Nikki got up very slowly. Hector, who was sleeping at the foot of the bed, lifted his head slightly, yawned, then quickly went back to sleep.
Nikki went to the crib and lifted the mosquito-net cover Kyle had bought from an online army surplus store — not so much to keep the flies from getting at Nkunda, but more to keep them contained so she and Kyle could get a good night’s sleep.
A female fruit fly can lay up to 500 eggs at a time.
She brushed a few flies from Nkunda’s cheek. The earplugs seemed to be working. Nothing could get in or out. The medication too. Every day, there seemed to be fewer and fewer flies.
She leaned over, and as she lifted the baby from his crib, he let out a startled cry. Nikki drew him to her breast and, lowered her head, singing very lightly, hush little baby, don’t say a word … Nkunda smiled, and snuggled against her. Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.
Nikki wanted to keep singing, but realized she didn’t know any more of the words. She hummed instead, and as she did, she thought once again of the people at the Uganda Child Welfare League or whatever it was called, who didn’t even care enough to respond to her letter. She was walking to the living room and, as she sat down on the couch, she thought of writing another letter to some international agency — there must be one — that monitored these sorts of things. She leaned back and put her feet up on the coffee table. She wanted to turn the TV on, but she didn’t want to wake Kyle. She wondered if they had cable TV in Uganda, and how many channels they got. She wondered if you could get KFC there and if they celebrated Christmas and, if so, if their Santa Claus was black? There were so many things she didn’t know about Africa. Nikki leaned forward and kissed her sleeping baby. She brushed one fruit fly from Nkunda’s cheek and watched as another fly circled his ear, searching for a way inside. The fly buzzed around and around Nkunda’s head, making a few aborted attempts to go in his ear, bumping into the sponge plug each time. Finally, the fly landed on the almost-white tip of Nkunda’s ear. It walked around and climbed off and on the ear plug. But there was no way in. Her baby was impenetrable, like a fortress, like a jungle.
CHRIS GUDGEON is an author, poet and screenwriter. He has written eighteen books, from critically acclaimed fiction including Greetings from the Vodka Sea and Song of Kosovo, to celebrated biographies of Milton Acorn and Stan Rogers, to a range of popular history on subjects as varied as sex, fishing and lotteries. His latest book, Assdeep in Wonder, is a collection of poems about love, sex and dynamite. Gudgeon, who is bisexual, has been in an open relationship with musician/self-help guru Jasper Vander Voorde since 2009. They divide their time between the wilds of British Columbia and Los Angeles.