Eugene yawned. He dreaded another day of banging his head against the glass.
His friend Leslie, however, was eager to get started.
“Yesterday that precocious young fly Skip said he felt the glass in the upper pane softening a little. Let’s get cracking! Today’s the day, I can feel it.”
Eugene stretched his wings and nibbled on sun-dried bacteria. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
Most of the flies stuck between the storm window and the regular window were already banging away.
Eugene stretched his wing again.
His world measured approximately 64 inches by 26 inches by 5 inches. The majority of flies were banging on the glass facing the interior of the house, and not on the storm window to the outside. That’s because the curtains in the little shack were usually closed, which made the interior window into a weak mirror reflecting the trees and fields across the road. And that’s where they wanted to go.
And all memory of night, when they had banged away on the storm window facing the dark fields and trees, had by then faded into legend.
“Eugene thinks he can sit there all day and reap the benefits of our hard work!” a fly named Bixby complained, when he saw Eugene slowly crawling his way towards them.
“Yeh, but guys, how many generations of flies have been trying to get out of this window?” Eugene said, looking down again at the piles of corpses on the sill.
“Oh, listen to Mr doom and gloom!” Bixby said. “Legend has it that a fly named Boris flew out this very window and into those yonder trees!” Bixby shifted a wing to point at a shimmering mirage of a tree. “So how’d he do it? Not by moaning, but by banging that’s how.”
“So why are his children’s children out there trying to get back inside?” Eugene asked, looking in the direction of a cluster of flies banging away on the other side of the glass.
“Ungrateful and degenerate decedents, no respect for the banging that got them there,” Bixby said.
Eugene drifted away and banged a little here and there, but mostly for show. And then he crawled around the perimeter of the upper left pane inspecting the caulk. “Guys,” he said. “This window looks pretty firm, I don’t think it’s gonna budge.”
“There he goes! The great prophet of doom!” Bixby yelled.
“It was right here,” Skip was saying.
Leslie yelled: “Right here! Let’s get cracking!”
“It felt like the whole window turned to jelly,” Skip said, staring off into the reflection of the trees.
“Maybe your forehead was caving in,” Eugene said.
“Oh, now he’s a medical expert!” Bixby said.
“Come on Buddy,” Leslie said. “This could be our best chance in hundreds of generations.”
Eugene tapped lightly on the pane for a few minutes and then flew off on his usual circuit.
On one of his circuits he felt a strange thrill. What was that? He asked himself.
It was a circular spot which seemed to generate something for which he had no word (a “breeze”). He crawled closer, but didn’t dare look over the edge.
“Hey friends,” he yelled. “Is this what they call a ‘hole’?”
“Oh, listen to the heretic!” Bixby said. “He’s spreading that old myth about ‘holes’!”
“What’s a ‘hole’?” Skip asked.
Several big thick flies came over and put their wings around Skip. The heaviest one said: “Nothing to fret over. It’s just a primitive belief that there are places in the world where glass ceases to exist. Some call it a ‘hole.’ They claim that glass can “break”, which doesn’t jive with our modern understanding of glass as a liquid with a very strong surface tension.”
Another thick fly chimed in: “Yes, primitive flies used to imagine that glass could “end”, if you will!”
“But then there’d be nothing, nothing at all!” Skip cried.
“Precisely. And through what window would we see this lack of glass? It was all too absurd. At any rate, the legendary Plato Glass came up with a somewhat more tolerable ‘onion’ theory, whereby we’d fly through the surface tension of these liquid barriers and discover larger realms, and then discover another barrier of glass a little farther on. And then another beyond that — a nested hierarchy of ever more perfect windows, ad infinitum, so that our world would expand and not simply disappear, as the primitives used to think.”
Another thick fly said: “Let’s ask Watson if he’s ever heard of glass disappearing or breaking. He’s the oldest fly in the world.”
A large, gray fly was guided into their midst.
The old fly said, “my memory stretches back nearly 2 weeks!”
There were murmurs of astonishment.
“Well, scientists say we can only remember things for about five seco…,” Leslie interjected.
“…And Never in all that time have I felt an end to glass! Glass is infinite!”
There were murmurs of assent.
“But sir, how often have you seen flies dive through glass?” Eugene asked.
“Why, that young savant Skip, there, he dove through glass just this morning!” the old timer said. And there was a chorus of assent.
“But he got knocked ou…,”
“Oh listen to the cynic!” Bixby cried. “And yet he wants us to believe in an absence, which, by definition mind you, is something that doesn’t even exist!”
“Youngsters like you,” the old timer said, pointing a wing at Eugene. “You waste your heads thinking up all this nonsense when you could be out there banging it!”
“Now, now, Watson, don’t get riled.”
“I’m old now, but 20 minutes ago I’d have been on him like flypaper!”
“I know, but we can’t live in the past,” his guide said, trying to steer him away.
“And now I feel like falling on my back and spinning in circles…”
“Hey, what are you doing, OK, that’s not seemly…”
“Oh, that’s good!” the old timer said, spinning vigorously on his back along the sill.
“OK, well, he’s senile now, thanks a lot Eugene, just let him go.”
“Meanwhile, we got a pane of glass up there that needs some banging!” Bixby said.
“Young fly, I urge you to stop frittering away your precious seconds thinking about holes and concentrate on the practical realities of glass!” said one of the big thick flies.
Eugene flew an inch or two away and started banging lightly on the storm window.
He could hear the routine of the day resume: One fly yelled, “maybe if we tried to push!” and then he heard the vibration of many wings. And after a while, another yelled: “Hey, let’s try banging!” And then he’d hear the pitter-pat of fly heads on glass. And then a few seconds later somebody yelled: “Hey, have we ever tried to push?” And so he’d hear the vibrations of many wings, until somebody else suggested banging. And so on, until he saw a group of Skip’s most ardent supporters leading their protégé right past the hole to the lowest pane in the window, right above the sill, and as far from the upper panes as they could get. “Now if you start here and bank your flight at the last instant, you might obtain sufficient velocity to plunge past the surface tension,” one said. And a moment later Skip flew over Eugene’s head and then they all heard a very loud crack, and saw Skip falling past them and landing on the sill.
Everybody stopped what they were doing and stared at Skip:
“Another breakthrough!” Skip yelled, still groggy. “No, wait, my memory is going blank. Yeh, it’s fading. It’s all blank, who the hell am I and what am I doing?” Several thick flies helped Skip back to his starting point and explained everything again.
“Oho! Another breakthrough!” Bixby roared. “Sorry to disappoint the Philosopher down there, but banging and pushing is how real work gets done.”
An excited Leslie flew down to where Eugene was still crawling around the edge of the hole.
“Big doings up there,” Leslie said. “Anything new here?”
“No,” Eugene said, who was still staring into the abyss from a safe distance.
“Do you believe in dragonflies?” Eugene asked dreamily.
“Of course not,” Leslie said. “Why are you asking about dragonflies?”
“Didn’t you once tell me that your grandfather saw a dragonfly land on the outside of the window?”
“Sorry, my memory only lasts a few seconds.”
“I thought you spoke of your grandfather seeing a dragonfly.”
“I remember remembering something about my grandfather, but I don’t remember anything else. I only remember remembering something about him. And I have to keep telling myself this or I go blank. And, what’s worse, I can’t seem to remember to keep telling myself anything.”
“Well, I may have seen a dragonfly, but I don’t remember what they look like,” Eugene said.
“I dream about worms,” Leslie said. “I dream I’m laying eggs on worms.”
Just then Bixby flew down with a cluster of thicker flies tagging along.
“Still fishing for nothing?” Bixby tut-tutted, strutting around the hole, but keeping his distance from the edge.
“It’s hard to look away” Eugene said. “What is it?”
“It’s precisely nothing,” Bixby said.
“But nothing means something, I just don’t know what,” Eugene said. “It’s confusing.”
“No, it’s not confusing, you’re confused!” Bixby said, and then edged closer to the hole: “Like all dogma-pushing morons you demand that we pay attention to this one little spot of interest to you, when we’ve got all this glass to explore! How reductive!”
“He thinks he has the only answer,” another fly said.
“There are no other opinions in the world but yours,” Bixby continued. “Meanwhile, in the real world, we approach things from a diversity of perspectives. We invite everybody to choose their own pane and bang on it any way they like. But you’d have us all just sit here and contemplate Nothing.”
“You can’t bang on it, and you can’t even eat it!” said another of Bixby’s companions.
“And it’s got no business being here,” Bixby said, eyeing the hole warily.
“Come on,” said one of the other flies. “Let’s join Skip. That’s a fly who knows how to use his head.”
Skip had become a veritable genius in the eyes of most. Several times over the past hour he hit the glass hard enough to “break the surface tension”, although he had to be revived each time.
Eugene shook his head in irritation as Skip made yet another low pass over their heads en route to the upper pane.
“I can’t help thinking Skip’s a moron among flies,” he said to Leslie. “But I hate to give him credit for excelling at anything.”
“Well, he’s got spunk,” Leslie said admiringly, as he watched Skip falling past them once again.
“I doubt his brain has any more than a dozen neurons,” Eugene said, as he listened to Skip being cheered for yet another “transcendental” collision.
“Intestinal larvae have about 230, according to scientists,” Leslie said, trying to be helpful.
“Well, that’s more than he has,” Eugene said, sulking.
He watched Skip being carried from the sill by a cluster of flies. And then he looked more closely at the reflection of trees and fields in the window.
“We keep banging on the window trying to reach those trees. But what if they’re not ‘there’?”
“But I see them there,” Leslie said.
Bixby overheard the conversation and landed nearby.
Eugene said, “Maybe they’re there, but not really “there”, if you …”
“Here we go again!” Bixby said. “Eugene’s entering another fugue state!”
A cluster of flies gathered.
“Look, I’m just wondering why the trees seem to be in front of the curtain, and yet …”
“Yes, the trees are farther away than the curtain, what a genius!” Bixby said.
“… yeh, but the trees are in front of the curtain, which is closer…”
“…because the curtain is closer, that’s right, give the boy a rotting apple!” Bixby said.
“…but how can a tree grow behind a cu….”
“…spit it out! What is our clever little detective trying to say now?”
“…well, maybe the trees aren’t really where we…”
“…Oh, you and your absences again!”
Two fat flies had been listening closely. “Son, take heed,” The thickest fly said. “If you want to waste your life contemplating the absence of everything worthwhile – the illusions of glass, trees and fields – then at least have the decency to stop trying to lure the rest of us into your befuddled cult.”
And then they flew off to start banging on the upper panes.
Bixby stayed behind.
“The problem with you,” Bixby said, “is you’re a Utopian dreamer. You fantasize a world where there’s no glass confronting us at every turn. You never learned that glass is the measure of a fly; ‘the harder we hit, the bigger we get,’ as the saying goes!”
“Well, the bigger the bruises,” Eugene mumbled. “And I don’t remember saying…”
“Stop your bellyachin’!” Bixby said, stepping closer to the hole to get a better look.
Bixby felt an exciting chill when he came close to the edge. A rhythmic flow of air was moving in and out. It felt like bodies were pushing past him one way and another, but invisible bodies, like spirits.
And then he stuck his head entirely over the edge and was lifted from his senses by a rush of dizziness, fear and euphoria. He inhaled the fumes and saw visions of trees and dung and worms. And all 150,000 fly neurons sparked and flamed inside him, until he fell away from the hole, dumb and numb.
“What happened, what is it?” Eugene and Leslie were pestering him with questions. But he lay in a delicious daze for a long while, and then went back to the hole for a second inhalation.
After that, he was a changed fly.
“The hole is a portal to another world!” he proclaimed. “It’s Utopia! Eugene was right!”
“Well, I don’t remember saying it was Uto…”
But Bixby was already back at the hole.
For the next several hours, Bixby, Leslie and Eugene took turns inhaling the emptiness. They’d pull each other back from the abyss and give each other time to recover, and then the next fly would have a go.
And soon the gasps and exclamations of their little group distracted attention from Skip’s ongoing breakthroughs.
Several thick old flies eventually approached the group:
“We’ll have no more of this Cult of Absence! The banging rate has plummeted over the last five minutes. We’ll never get anywhere if we don’t all get back to banging!”
But like any new convert, Bixby couldn’t be stopped. “It’s a portal to another dimension!” he proclaimed to all who would listen.
“Alright, alright” Eugene said. He was embarrassed by Bixby’s sudden fervor. “Look, they’re gonna put guards around this thing if you don’t keep quiet.”
“No, no,” Bixby said. “This is a sacred place and has to be accessible to everyone!” And then he flew off again in search of converts.
“Boyo boyo,” Leslie said. “Let’s inhale while the nutter’s gone.”
“I don’t know. What if we get like Bixby?”
“But wasn’t he always crazy?” Leslie asked doubtfully.
“I can’t remember,” Eugene said.
Just then Bixby and Skip landed.
“Try it kid,” Bixby said to Skip, pushing him to the edge.
Several thick, old flies also landed.
Skip was saying, “wow, that looks swell…” and bending closer.
Several of the thick flies tried to stop Skip from inhaling anything, and accidentally pushed Skip into Bixby, who leaned into Leslie, who bounced against Eugene, causing all four of them to teeter on the edge, just as a swift current of air sucked them all out into the wide world beyond glass.
“Look, trees!” Eugene yelled. “Real trees!”
They were flying in loops, confused by the spaciousness, expecting to hit glass at any moment.
“Oh, this way,” Skip yelled excitedly.
“No, wait,” Eugene hollered back. “Don’t look there, that’s a … that’s a… those aren’t real!”
But Skip caught sight of the reflection of trees and fields in the window and started banging to get back inside.
Between the panes of glass, several of the thick flies caught sight of Skip on the outside banging to get back inside: “Hey, look everyone. It’s Skip! He made it, he’s out!”
A cheer erupted from inside.
“I knew that fly was something special!” several were saying.
“How did you do it Skip? How did you get out?”
“I don’t know, I must have banged the window really hard,” Skip said.
“That’s it, that’s the answer, let’s all start banging real hard!”
And as Eugene, Bixby and Leslie flew off they could hear the rapid pitter-patter of many fly heads hitting glass.
“Nothing we can do, don’t look back,” Eugene said.
They were carried along by a breeze and they could smell dung, trees, grass and mud. And they startled suddenly when a dragonfly, a real dragonfly! crossed their flight path. It was overwhelming.
“You’re wrong Eugene,” Bixby said. “This isn’t Utopia…”
“… I don’t remember saying it was…”
“…this isn’t Utopia, this is Paradise! Paradise demands a sacrifice of everything. Paradise is dangerous, because the stakes are real. There’s no paradise without knowing you’re going to die. That’s what makes it precious and profound!”
And just then a dragonfly caught him in its jaws and flew off.
“Ahhh”, he screamed as he faded from sight.
“Wow,” Leslie said. “I thought dragonflies were only legends.
“It’s funny,” Eugene said. “I don’t miss any of them, do you?”
“Well, according to scientists, we don’t have empathy,” Leslie said.
“Now that’s a frightening thought,” Eugene said.
“Yeh, and, don’t forget, our memories of everyone fade so quickly. Kind of makes you stop and think. But hey, Look! Worms! Real worms! I’ve always wanted to lay my eggs on real worms!”
“That’s odd. I always thought you were a male.”
“Oh, that’s alright,” Leslie said. “I mean, we’re flies, who can tell?”
And then she flew off.
And suddenly Eugene was alone in a world that could be described as a paradise or a hell, depending on whether it was seen through a glass darkly, brightly or not at all. But Eugene saw a tree, and the tree was beautiful.
And as he flew to the tree he was forced to swerve from a dragonfly.
“Aha,” the dragonfly said, circling around to land on a branch. “I think I saw a juicy fly land in that tree.”
Eugene kept still for quite some time, looking for the dragonfly, exploring the folds of bark. How magnificently textured everything felt. Nothing was smooth. And the food! The smells! The sun on his back!
“I want to sing and dance and fly loops and circles,” he shouted to himself. And then he dove into a gust of wind.
And the Amoral of the story is that we see the world and everyone we know through the old and distorting plate glass of language and thought, never meeting actuality in the flesh, contending primarily with only these tinted reflections of reality, stuck for millennia now between the frames of fight and flight; caught in a Literalism that confuses thought with thing. But lo and behold, under our feet, under our noses, there are holes in this plate glass, holes in language and thought, odd words, and negative knowledge, through which we can fly. This story is sacred to the memory of Imagine the Limits of the Imagination, which is where I first encountered a hole in language (mentioned in part II). Small and meaningless to most, but through which everything becomes real.