I vividly remember a story I read several times when I was young. It was called “The Brave Little Tailor,” or sometimes “Seven at One Blow.” The story is in the collection of folk tales gathered by the Grimm Brothers, and it also is in the Blue Fairy Book collected by Andrew Lang.
The story begins with a tailor fixing himself a sandwich. His jelly draws a swarm of flies, which he swats, crushing seven of them with one blow. To celebrate the achievement, the tailor makes himself a sash adorned with the words, “Seven at One Blow.” He then sets out upon a series of adventures, during which people frequently assume that the sash refers to seven people rather than seven flies. With a combination of fast thinking and deception, the tailor is able to increase his reputation for strength and daring. Finally, completing a series of seemingly impossible tasks results in his marriage to a princess. When the tailor talks in his sleep about sewing, the princess realizes that she has married a commoner and plots with her father to have him killed. Word of the plot reaches the tailor, and the next night he pretends to be asleep and talking; he lists his exploits and announces that he is not afraid of the men hiding behind the door. By this final deception, his life is spared.
I remember the story vividly because the opening premise always seemed improbable to me. In my experience, houseflies are rapid and elusive. Generally, when trying to kill flies with a swatter, my experience has been one in seven blows rather than seven at one blow. Sometimes I get lucky and squash a fly with a single blow, but that success is rare.
Sometimes a fly gets into the house during the day and becomes annoying while I am reading at night. In response, I create a trail of lights to the nearest bathroom, turning them off one by one to draw the fly into the bathroom. Then I close the door and the match commences. Sometimes I manage to knock the fly out of the air with the swatter, then crush it on the floor or in the bathtub. Other times I deliver the killing blow after the fly has landed on a wall or on the mirror. I don’t give up until I have won, but seven blows or more are not uncommon in these battles.
This spring a bag of potatoes spoiled in the kitchen. Before we realized what had happened, a family of small flies had bred in the bag and were scattering throughout the house. I don’t know how momma fly and poppa fly arrived; perhaps they had already visited the potatoes before they were bought and taken into the house. It took several days for us to locate the source of the flies inside the house, and meanwhile we were taking several measures to try to reduce their population without threatening our health or that of our cats.
One of our precautions was to try to keep the kitchen as clean as possible. We wiped down counters, rinsed dishes if we were not immediately ready to wash them, and tried to keep food packages sealed. Where they found moisture, though, the flies gathered, and if the liquid was sweet they were especially interested. Sometimes I would walk into the kitchen, see a group of flies gathered on the counter, and give them a swift swat with my open hand. Soon I was matching that fabled tailor, and then even exceeding him. My proudest moment was when I eliminated twelve at one blow. “Bring on that wimpy tailor,” I said to my daughters.
After we removed the potatoes, the fly population diminished, although it took some weeks before the house was finally fly-free. Since I am not a tailor, I did not make a sash to boast of my accomplishment. But at least you know now that I am capable of twelve at one blow. And I am not afraid of those men hiding behind the door. J.