I can’t pretend that I spend a great deal of time contemplating the ten plagues of Egypt. I may have hummed along to When Israel was in Egypt lan’ a few times over the years, but that has been as far as it went. Locusts, I recall from my distant school-days. Frogs. Rivers of blood.
However, when we returned last week from a short family holiday in Barcelona, we found, to our horror, that in front of every window inside the house, from basement to upper floor, lay a thick black carpet of fly corpses with more and more live ones appearing when we so much as blinked. There were literally thousands of them. A veritable plague of the things, something which caused me to turn to the Bible (after I had Hoovered up the dead). Not, I’m afraid, for spiritual guidance, but to remind myself of what happened in Egypt.
You will remember that time after time, Pharaoh refused to let the enslaved Israelites leave his country and return to their own, despite the fact that the twelve tribes had thrived in numbers to such an extent in Egypt that their military potential was becoming a possible threat to the kingdom. “Let my people go,” Moses pleaded, time after time, but Pharaoh was adamant. The Israelites were good workers and contributed plentifully to the economic prosperity; he was not about to free them. So Moses asked God for help, and Jahweh turned all the waters of Egypt into blood!
Sounds dramatic, but biologists now believe that due to rising temperatures at the time, the rivers of Egypt were infected with a fresh-water algae which turns water red when it dies. It’s called Burgundy Blood, and is toxic to any organism which inhabits the waters it has infected, so all the fish died, to the consternation of the Egyptians. Pharaoh remained adamant, however, even in the face of the next plague visited upon his people: frogs. Forced to leave their natural habitat by the lack of healthy water, the frogs took refuge where they could, including in peoples’ houses, ovens, cupboards and beds. There can be few things more unpleasant than getting under the covers after a hard day of tilling the soil and pruning the vine, only to find dozens of frogs in there with you. And of course they eventually died or were killed along with the rotting fish, thus attracting the next plagues of lice and flies.
I’ve written before in this blog about the rampant animal life I’ve encountered in this area of rural France, but I have not until now been driven to go down to the Mairie and ask what I can do about the home invasion of flies. When there are hornets, the pompiers come to the rescue. Likewise with wild bees. But with these pesky flies, the answer is, of course, nothing can be done. Except keep the vacuum cleaner at the ready. While I stood talking to the mayor’s chief assistant, another woman in the room joined in the discussion, as did the assistant’s assistant. I gathered that this is the worst year for flies in over forty years. Words like ‘Infernale!’ and ‘Diabolique!’ were freely lobbed about. My chief reprieve came from finding that we were not alone. Others were suffering too. It wasn’t, after all, my careless housekeeping that had caused such numbers of insects to congregate round the windows. Someone mentioned the fact that the ancient farmhouses we ex-pats live in when we’re in France had once been used as cow byres and for years – centuries, even – the insects had been establishing themselves in the very fabric of the walls and were therefore ineradicable.
Back in Egypt’s land, Pharaoh stood firm, despite many promises to the contrary. He brushed off plagues of boils and disease, undoubtedly caused by the fleas and lice. He reneged further in the face of fire and hail and the three days during which darkness covered the face of the earth. The latter can’t have been a new phenomenon, since the ‘hamsin’ occurs quite frequently, being a wind which blows in from the southern deserts and is full of sand and reddish dust. At its worst, it can be as dense and disorientating as the ‘pea-soupers’ which used to disrupt London before the days of smokeless fuel.
It was only when Jahweh sent down a plague which killed the first-born of every family in the land, that Pharoah was finally persuaded to let the Israelites go free. The rational, as opposed to the Biblical reason, for this cruel selection is probably down to the fact that any food left after the locusts had departed (swept away by the red wind) might well have been contaminated by them, or by some warehouse mould. It was the custom to give the first-born the first go at the meal prepared each day, which would mean that this unfortunate person had the strongest exposure to any toxins or disease which might be lurking in the food.
I’m not going to pretend that my infestation of flies in any way compares to far more serious contemporary plagues, such as cholera, or AIDS. Especially not in the face of Ebola, which is killing hundreds of sufferers every day. Nor does it rival the Black Death, or the Great Plague in 1665, the last big outbreak of bubonic plague in London.
Meanwhile, I get up each morning to deal with the fresh wave of dead insects which has accumulated during the night, while my husband goes down to the stream along the bottom of the property to check that it hasn’t yet turned into a river of blood.