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December 24, 2014 / nicolespokane

You Are 60 Percent Fruit Fly

by Kathryn Smith

First, Marion insists I take her peaches. A few weeks later, the pears start falling, and Meredith and Blake hand me bags of them over the back fence. Then, from the corner of the backyard, enough plums overhang that I could never imagine needing a tree of my own.

Such is late summer’s bounty of fruit I did not tend or cultivate, fruit I did not harvest. It’s the overflow, the nobody wants it, the too much of a good thing.

And with it, the fruit flies.

The flies overrun my kitchen, though I’ve been trapping them for weeks, setting out jars of molasses-spiked vinegar, covering all the ripe fruit so they’ve nothing to feed on, nowhere to lay their eggs that I can see. Somehow, they proliferate. It’s what they excel at: eager reproduction and robust survival.

As a student, I never cared much for science. I did well enough, but it didn’t inspire me. It was something to be learned, to be passed, to move beyond. Now, I watch fruit flies and wish I’d learned more. Insecta seems so far removed from mammalia—wings and metamorphosis versus flesh and veins. Yet both are animal. Both are common. Both eat the same fruit.

Humans and fruit flies share about 60 percent of their DNA. Some human genes and fruit fly genes are identical. This has ramifications for scientific study, for research into the treatment of certain diseases and the cause of certain birth defects. The specifics of this are beyond my ability to explain; my grasp on what genes and DNA and chromosomes even are is tenuous. But I know that these things, to some extent, make us who we are on a biological level. And so I am like the fly, and the fly is like me.

We share the genes that tell cells what to become. The Hox gene mutates, and the human embryo grows a sixth finger. The Hox gene mutates, and the fruit fly grows an extra pair of legs where its antennae should be.

Sometimes I wonder if I try too hard to make connections between living things. I envy the simplicity of insects’ lives: the concrete, complex social order of ants, the singularity of purpose that determines the fruit fly’s course. To know where I’m going and to go—no such thing as second-guessing, no such thing as awkward. Insects look for what they need, and nothing else, nothing more.

But this thing I envy, this thing I desire to resemble is the thing I strive to kill. To live wholly by animal instinct is to resign oneself to death beneath a sneaker sole, death by drowning in sweet, pungent vinegar.

Scientists consider the fruit fly a “model organism”: its four sets of chromosomes, the ease with which it’s cared for. And I am 60 percent the same. I look for these connections to better understand myself, but the parts of me that confound me are not viewable under a microscope. They are not dissectible or diagrammable.

I’m relatively symmetrical: the standard numbers of limbs and digits, just one foot slightly longer than the other, one eyebrow higher, my smile a tad crooked. Sometimes I wish for the mutation: the malformed arm, the extra set of wings. This seems like it would explain things, though I’m not sure what “things.” Why I sometimes feel misshapen, I guess. Why I sometimes feel wrong in the world.

Is this in the other 40 percent of my DNA? Not likely. I know I am more than my genes, my chromosomes, more than the microscopic bundles and spirals that swim within me. Being human is confounding stuff: chemical, biological, yet somehow spirit. Somehow we know to avoid the trap. Thanks be for that. Thanks be this perplexing condition, the thing within us that makes us neighbors with our fellow humans, that calls us to wave over the fence, to say “thank you” and to smile our crooked smiles, to share a fruit tree’s bounty and to accept the gift, even if it means welcoming the pest.

Kathryn Smith received her BA from Whitworth in 1999 and her MFA in creative writing from Eastern Washington University in 2004. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Third Coast, Rock & Sling, The Cresset, Floating Bridge Review and RiverLit, as well as local anthologies. She sometimes thinks she might have been an entomologist were it not for the existence of earwigs.

Drawing of an adult female shoepfia fruit fly was made by the Division of Plant Industry.

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