35mm photographs by Andrew Bartram and The Neptune Project

Risley Moss is a wildlife reserve in Warrington famed particularly for its array of insects.  It is a reserve dominated by various dragonflies which buzz in the air, bullying many insects from the territory; an echo from a Jurassic past.  I was taken there when younger on a day that, with the help of an expert giving dragonfly-themed tours, was meant to be all about dragonflies.  I had been enamoured with the insect since being given a chrysalis of the old skin of a nymph that my father had found on a reed.  I had kept this delicate, brown skin for many years, staring in awe at this insect ghost.  It was the ability of the insect, and several others for that matter, to overtly have evidence of their former self that I liked. 

Unlike people, they could not deny that a change had taken place for a ghost was shed and left on various reeds, leaves and plants as evidence of a lesser formed self.  I used to have long, strange fantasies surrounding a human potential, pleasurable daydreams of walking out of an older skin, leaving behind the former self in place of a fresher, newer one.  Risley Moss, with its vast array of re-flooded plains, seeping into past glacial memories, had in itself gone through this process, being a previous military ordinance site before becoming an area of scientific interest.  I imagined, in my youthful imagination, that the reserve, which was undoubtedly filled with many chrysalis ghosts of old insects, functioned like an entomological graveyard.  With the hindsight of adulthood, the reserve itself fulfils this role with the phantom of a military chrysalis of its own; one that lost its wings, so to speak.

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In spite of the day being ordained as being about dragonflies, my memory of it is one dominated by another insect; the horsefly.  I had a deep fear of these insects derived from being bitten by one when even younger than I was during my visit to Risley Moss. I had watched the insect at first with bemusement, surprised by this fly’s lack of timidity as it crawled along my arm, its wide eyes zigzagged with a manic lightening pattern as it found the perfect place to feed.  I had let it bite but almost regretted it instantly as the pain soon shot up my arm, shaking the fly off in panic before a worried parent looked on as my skinny arm slowly inflated as is typical when horseflies bite.  I had sworn to avoid horseflies in the future and each trip to a reserve with my father was haunted by the memory and the potential for the scene to occur again.  This was especially so in moss-based landscapes for the first bite had occurred in a similarly boggy reserve in Norfolk.  We wandered the paths of Risley Moss, the land sweltering with the lack of cover and the constant buzz of insects all around.  I was glad of the dragonflies then, hovering around as guardians against any horseflies that could be about.  A patch of forest was eventually found and the ranger who was leading the tour decided that we should stop for lunch on some wooden benches. 


The adults had sat eating their food while I had sat nervously waiting for a potential attack from a horsefly.  The worry had eaten away at my pleasure of the day but I had kept it a secret.  A horsefly landed on our table and my worries seemed confirmed.  I could see it, in its malevolent posture, its eyes almost demon-like with the demented thirst for my blood.  And then, with a swift movement, the dragonfly expert simply placed a white plastic cup over it.  My fear was diminished within seconds and the danger was averted.  We sat happily eating, as if the dragonfly expert had caught and confined every horsefly on the entire reserve through this one action.  The adults were suddenly alerted by the presence of an interesting insect passing further down the clearing, the expert jumping up in excited glee as he insisted people follow him to see what I later found out to be a southern hawker; the dragonfly my father had especially wanted to see that day. 

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I was left with the horsefly under the plastic cup, eating my lunch and feeling powerful.  I could, so I thought, crush this white plastic cup and horsefly inside it if I so wished.  Somebody came up behind me who I assumed to be from our group.  I could not see who it was as the sunlight was directly behind me.  It was a man but I could not tell anything more.  “Let it bite you,” he said.  “It’s very important Adam, that you let it bite you.”  He wandered away, stopping to watch from the darkness of the other edge of the clearing.  I remember thinking how odd it was but also how correct the stranger’s instructions had seemed.  My father was still some way away and, in spite of my fear of the horsefly underneath the plastic cup, I felt the urge to do as the stranger had instructed.  I could see the horsefly’s body up against the thin white plastic, desperate to escape the strange trap it had found itself within.  I slowly lifted up the cup and assumed that, having been trapped, that it would flee in fear.  But the horsefly did not flee.  I watched as it crawled up my arm, unsure as to how to react, worried that the stranger may be angry if I tried to escape from its bite.  The familiar sting ran its way up my arm as the horsefly began to feed, taking its time with an unnerving knowingness.  I took the pain for as long as I could before having to swipe it away.  My arm was slowly turning red and I knew that in mere minutes it would balloon up just as it had done several years before.  I remember beginning to cry as the adults returned, my father confused as to how the horsefly had escaped.  He asked me if it was a different one but I foolishly told him that it was the same one.  Why had I let it out? he asked.  I told him of the stranger but he didn’t seem to believe me, looking briefly around the clearing but not seeing anyone about. 

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I looked towards the clearing, in between the pangs of pain now emanating from my arm.  He was right, there was no one around and I wondered where the stranger had vanished.  It ruined the day for I moaned incessantly afterwards, but it was a justified complaint for I felt dizzy almost instantly from the moment the horsefly had bitten my arm.  After putting some ointment on the bite when back at the car, my father was none too fussed about the wound.  It would be fine, he said, and I believed him but I still felt dizzy.  I found in the coming days and weeks that the dizziness began to become more and more under my control, that I could control the feeling which was, at first, a disorientating lightness in the head.  By controlling this feeling, I felt as if I were leaving my body, so to speak, or at least my body in its present state or time.  I found with practice as the days went on that the feeling could be made to give the impression of a forwards or backwards motion and, with even more practice, I found that my sense of place entirely changed; as if I was somewhere far away.  I began to become lost in these visions, so much so that my parents took me to see a specialist doctor, worried that I had contracted some illness of the brain.  But the doctor suggested that I simply needed a change of diet and that it was just a passing phase of absentmindedness.  But my experiments with this dizzy feeling continued until, some time later, I could finally see myself in places in the past and places in the future; I was a traveller exploring all places, taking advantage of such a state by learning a great deal very quickly about the future of places and enjoying the past like a tourist.  I could slip into these states – which I had nicknamed my horsefly state after the benefactor who had gifted such an ability upon me – whenever I chose and, though I had to make sure I was in a safe place when travelling, I could venture temporally whenever I pleased.  It was my secret that I kept for many years, taking full advantage of the foresight I gained from it and making a great success of myself, first as a businessman and then later as a writer. 

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I would often think back to the day on which the horsefly bit me, pondering the possibility of not having let it bite my arm, such a thought causing me to shudder.  The mystery of the horsefly intrigued me; how had it given me such an ability.  I felt, as my life went on, that I was determined to find out, perhaps even gift my abilities to others if I could work out the secret of the horsefly.  One day, much later in life, I decided to slip back, forcing my dream state into visiting that day at Risley Moss, perhaps to capture one of the horseflies.  I had never returned to the reserve before, and considered simply going in the present day but then further considered the likelihood of finding the exact same horsefly.  I ventured back in my horsefly state to the reserve, careful to make sure the day was right.  I wandered around the clearing for sometime in search of the horsefly but not a single horsefly would show itself.  I considered then that the stranger, which had clearly been myself on this later journey, would be the instigator of being bitten by the horsefly; I had to do it myself.  Worry and panic about my potential of not getting bitten by the insect crept upon me.  I thought about the potential of this happening, losing my abilities to a great degree and concluding that it would not be worth risking leaving until I had seen myself be bitten by the horsefly

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I sat in wait in the trees, hidden by the bushes and plants.  The memory of what the stranger had said to me, the stranger who was in fact me, came to mind.  I must, so I thought, say the words exactly; “Let it bite you Adam, it’s very important that you let it bite you.”  I watched my earlier self wander pathetically into the clearing with the dragonfly-watching group, watched the leader of the group put the plastic cup over the horsefly and the group rush off after the southern hawker.  I wandered over to my younger self, still sat at the table but, just as I was leaving the edge of the clearing, I tripped and fell loudly.  My older self turned around, looking scared at this strange individual coming towards him from the forest.  I then watched my younger self panic and run but not before knocking several things off the bench including the plastic cup with the horsefly trapped underneath.  My younger self ran off and I was left standing there.  My body felt strange as I remembered the great poverty of my life, my lack of success in anything I had done and my desperation in coming to this reserve, for what? so I thought.  Why on earth, I began to say to myself out aloud, would I want to come here, a prime area for horseflies; an insect I had always harboured a great fear of since I was incredibly young after being bitten by one in a reserve in Norfolk.

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3 thoughts on “Fictions: The Horsefly

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