Tisza river project
an artwork by Susan Silas


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© 2013 by Susan Silas

The Dreamlife of Mayflies; A Treatise

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You were content before you were born. Believe me, I know. You may not remember, but that doesn't prove anything. I was content too. I know that for a fact. If you only have three hours of daylight to live, you remember everything, every last thing. You may feel sorry for me upon hearing that; but don't. I'm a happy camper.

If we begin at the beginning, or at least at my beginning, I was a microscopic fertilized egg soaring from the sky toward the water. I was very small and the water looked very far away. I was a bit nervous; not unlike the way you might feel if you found yourself at the door of an aircraft about to step out into the open air, and I didn't even have a parachute. But I was light and I didn't hit the water hard.

So here's the setting. A beautiful lowland river in an Eastern European country. It's dusk. My mother is carrying a lot of eggs. She was "taken" by dozens of males, kind of like in wartime, and I have no idea which of them could have been my father, but whichever one he was, there's no point in wasting a lot of energy thinking about it now because he's already dead. With what little energy he had left, after what might be described as one of nature's biggest open air orgies, he would have headed back to the shoreline. Maybe he was in search of his former self; after all, that's where he emerged into the light during his final molt. A bit like humans wanting to crawl back into the warmth and protection of the womb. But there is no getting back into that beautiful white skin now, even if it is still clinging to a tree branch in the dying light.

So my mother is on her own, widowed so to speak, and pregnant. She is flying in formation just like a B52, surrounded by her squadron. She will fly upstream a considerable distance. That's because she wants to be sure that even if all of her eggs, including me, drift downstream with the current before sinking, I land in her ancestral homeland. When she is securely over her target she will release her eggs, just as fighter pilots release their bombs. The bomb bay doors will open and eggs will descend toward the water. Carpet-laying, you might say. From the banks of the river it might look to you like a magic carpet flying by. There are so many females; they form a dense cloud, moving in unison, leaving us to float through the air and down to the water. Leaving us on our own.

And it won't be long before my mother is gone too, drifting down river. She molted on the water's surface and never ventured very far from the water. By last light the surface of the water will be awash in dead females, she among them. If the birds don't eat her, the fish will. Once I land on the surface of the water it's a slow journey to the bottom. I try to relax and just let gravity take over, after all, I'm an egg. I have no arms and legs to propel myself. I just have to sit back and let nature take its course. It takes a while. When I landed, the water's surface felt warm. Even though daylight was fading and the sky was pink but darkening, the water felt welcoming. I felt cradled. Then I got really wet and started to sink. For a short distance I could still sense the light illuminating the first few feet of water. It's hard to tell whether the blackness that met me next was the sky fading into night or just the gloomy dark due to having descended further below the surface. The water got a lot colder.

I kept drifting. Eventually I felt the cool muck of loam at the bottom. I had landed. This was to be my home for the next forty-five days. I got to sit around in the silt just waiting for the next stage of life to begin.

It will be a lonely forty-five days just bobbing around here on my own. Then I get to hatch. Once I do, I get to meet other young hatchlings like myself. We're now referred to in science books as larvae or nymphs; the toddlers of the mayfly world. We will meet up and join forces and together we will create colonies. You know, like those hippie communes in upstate New York—everyone banding together for the good of the group. Totally idealistic, because we're young, and of course, we don't know any better. And everyone actually does work together to burrow into the silt. We create tunnels and I get to call my tunnel home for the next three years.

So ask yourself what I'm going to do down here in the dark for three years, without a flashlight. It's not like I can read War and Peace. I'm an opportunist. I eat the organic stuff that floats by, some algae, some bacteria. If you examined my stomach now, it would be full. There's really not much else to do but eat down here. But once I break out, my stomach will be empty. In fact, when I molt someday, I won't be able to eat at all. Not that I'll have the time.

So we're all down here, about sixteen feet below the surface in the U-shaped burrow we built for ourselves and we have three years of this; eating and not doing much else, because that's how long it takes for us to mature. The weird thing is, we, as a species I mean, hatch out of the river every year, so that means that somewhere nearby there's a colony of one year olds, a colony of two year olds and a colony about to move out. And we're all down here together but we never get to meet each other. It's like being in a school where the first, second and third grade kids never see each other, let alone get to play together on the playground at recess.

I can't explain how I know it's time. I just know. If there's an alarm clock it's internal. Nothing rings or clacks when it's time to go. Very slowly I feel myself float from our tunnel into the current. It's still really dark. They say that you have to just let yourself rise. Some larvae fight it. They're afraid of the big change and they squirm around and then sometimes they sink back down to the loam and that's that. They just can't rise up again. So it's important to just lie back and let this thing happen. I think when I'm ready my intestines seal up on both ends and the air bubble that forms in my gut raises me to the surface. I get there pretty fast. We're an old species, really old, and we've been doing this for a long time. In fact, one of my ancestors knew Aristotle. He mentions us in his writings. He called us “ephemeron.”

Males emerge first. I guess it's because we have to molt twice, and that takes time. As soon as I get to the surface I head for the riverbank and grab onto the first branch I see and hang on for dear life. The next part is kind of gross. You know how you get that feeling in your insides like a giant wave when you are about to throw up. Well it's called a peristaltic wave. It's the same for me. I get these peristaltic contractions and they help me rupture my outer skin. My wings start to make their way out and then I find that if I turn myself upside down, just like the time I was drifting into the loam as an egg, gravity will help me out. Once I'm free I can head to the water and wait for the females to start bobbing to the surface.

From there it will be a total frenzy. It's all about mating as many times as possible in the little time I have. So what does that amount to really? Is my purpose here to feed the fish or the birds? Am I an ultimate sacrifice? Just a link in the food chain? What can it mean to be here for three hours, fuck and die? I hear an awful lot of talk about sacrifice but can that really be what I mean?

You know how people talk about sacrifice. Well, it's pretty ingrained to think like that. Critics will tell you there were maybe three movies ever made and those three movies just get made over and over again. Well imagine now, before movies, even before photographs, not much in the way of newspapers—there are paintings. There's definitely no tv and very few books, and besides, most people can't even read. But all the same, there's a story, not three this time, just one (although it has a threesome as part of it). Jews didn't go for "graven images"- "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." Funny, that bit about in the water especially when I find myself referred to in books as an imago.

I think the Jews underestimated the power of images or they understood only too well and opted for the wrong strategy. Churches, meanwhile, are full of them. And talk about the same movie over and over again. No wonder it's the story that stuck. No matter where you go there are pictures of him, hanging there on his cross, having made the ultimate sacrifice. He's hanging out in ornate cathedrals in Paris and small churches dug into caves in the middle of Turkey. So back then, you saw the same story wherever you were. And even if you couldn't read the Latin inscriptions, you could follow the basic narrative. Sometimes an entire story laid out across the ceiling and along the walls. Kind of like a graphic novel nowadays.

Am I a sacrificial lamb just here to make it so that someone else can live? My life is short, really short and my dead body will feed a bird or a fish. But my species has been doing this since before that story even got started. So really, what's the point? The truth is, I have no idea. I just know that I'm about to go and fuck my heart out and I'm about to die. And if the river isn't poisoned with pollutants and it doesn't dry up, my grandchildren will do the same.



Females gather to lay their eggs.

Dead mayflies floating down river near nightfall.

Male subimaginal skin clinging to vegetation on the shoreline.

Female molting on the water surface.

Heading for the water.

The arrival of birds signal the start of the mayfly swarm.

“Bloom” on the water's surface.

Nearing exhaustion at dusk.