Seven at One Blow

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.

The ears have it

All fall I’ve had an annoying tickle in the canal of my right ear. They say that when your ear itches or rings or buzzes, that means someone is talking about you. Can you imagine how annoying that must be for people like President Obama and Taylor Swift? People are constantly talking about them.

I surfed the internet to learn more about that old saying. It turns out that it is very old—the first writer to mention it was Pliny, and he wrote about it roughly two thousand years ago. There are Chinese versions of the saying as well as Roman versions and American versions. One version says that if your right ear itches or rings, people are saying good things about you; but if your left ear itches or rings, people are saying bad things about you. At least I have that going for me: only my right ear is feeling tickled.

Many of the internet pages about buzzing or ringing described the symptom called tinnitus. I am familiar with tinnitus, as I have that symptom off and on since childhood. I hear a high-pitched steady tone, but I generally I only notice it when things are otherwise quiet. I also have “floaters,” small clumps of matter floating inside one or both of my eyeballs, creating the illusion that large pieces of dust are moving around in front of my face. I’ve had those since childhood, and when I was young I learned to play with them, moving my eyes to make the floaters change directions. Because of floaters and tinnitus, I have learned not to trust my senses absolutely; I often see and hear things that are not really there.

I do not “hear voices” in the sense of hallucinations, but my mind does convert random sounds reported by my ears into language. We have one kind of bird in our neighborhood that I call the “secret bird” because its call sounds like “secret, secret.” Another kind of bird must be from India, since I hear it calling, “Krishna, Krishna.” When the air conditioning or heat comes on, sometimes the motor sounds to me as if a radio or television is on in the house. Only if I concentrate do I realize that the sound I hear is not voices speaking words or music playing. We have a vent on top of the house that turns in the wind to air out the attic. Under certain conditions it creates a buzzing sound. Until I tracked down the source of the buzz, I feared that a swarm of bees had somehow entered the house and started creating a hive—more than once, I walked all the way around the house to try to find where the bees were entering and exiting.

Several members of my family—including me—can hear sounds too high for most people to hear. We can hear noises from light bulbs or from refrigerators that other people insist must not be happening, since they can’t hear them. Some members of my family can even hear the dog whistle at the end of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. It is a mixed blessing to hear sounds other people don’t hear. I can usually anticipate when a light bulb in our dining room chandelier is about to burn out, because those light bulbs emit a high whistle for a day or two before burning out. On the other hand, when some of us hear the refrigerator sing while others cannot hear it, people can start losing patience with each other because of the difference.

I am who I am and I hear what I hear. I’m grateful not to be President Obama or Taylor Swift, whose ears ring constantly. I shall endure this mildly annoying tickle, especially since it is in my right ear. And if the whistling in my ears gets too annoying, I’ll just start singing to drown it out. J.