Archive for November, 2003

  • The Bats

    Published in Mental Contagion, online arts and literature magazine

    Platypi: Warm-blooded, Egg-laying Stories
    Column 2, November 2003
    Jump to: Table of Contents … 1 … 2 … 3 … 4 … 5 … 6 … 7

    MY SHOE SLIDES back into the pedal clip with a satisfying click and my bike seems to find acceleration almost before I’ve brought any pressure to the pedal. The air cools as I pick up speed and the dusky night still casts a soft inviting glow on the path ahead. I seem to be the only one riding tonight. I know an involuntary smile is slipping slyly across my mouth. There will be mosquitoes between my teeth soon.

    Two riders go past without any lights and I welcome a brief wave of nostalgia for the old Night Owl hikes at summer camp where flashlights were banned. Another pair approaches and I hear one say “—I said: isn’t it gorgeous out tonight?” The boy had pedaled hard to hear better and is disappointed that she’d only said that. He grunts. They pass by.

    I look up, surprised she’d been so enthusiastic about the night. The night certainly is gorgeous, but not in the expected way. The sky colors are drab; it’s too dark to distinguish subtleties; haphazard clouds obscure the moon and stars. Doesn’t she get out much? Is this the best nature experience she can muster? Is she gushing—forcing conversation with the boy? Or does she really have such a subtle and accepting appreciation of nature?

    The path is mine again. And there one goes. I scan the sky and soon enough another bat zooms by. My grin must now run ear to ear. I am a little child. I love bats. They make me smile. I imagine them as they fly, maneuvering frenetically; tiny ears perked up, sonar scanning; scrunched faces grimacing with effort and concentration; gaping little mouths snapping up ‘skeeters with ravenous precision.

    There are dozens overhead—probably thousands throughout town. I wonder where they all hole up in daylight. I picture every tree along the creek teeming with legions of upside down little hangers-on, each one hugging itself, a thousand little caped Draculas sleeping. These trees had always seemed so serene and—photosynthetic by day; who would have pictured them as bustling hostels for creatures of the night?

    The bats are all heading the other way—appearing out of the dusky sky just ahead, zipping over my head, and vanishing behind me as I ride. Just as I wonder why none are heading the other way, one pulls up overhead and seems to be shadowing my course. I can see the frenzy of its wings, the shape of its body, and I abruptly exclaim: “Hikoki Nezumi!”

    The bat shockingly swivels in mid-flight, still flapping frantically, still keeping pace with my bike, now flying backwards and facing me. It lowers closer so I can see that it is staring fixedly right at me. My legs pedal casually and I actually forget the process of pedaling or steering for a while. I am on auto-pilot. The bat speaks:

    “Excuse me. Did you just say ‘airplane rodent‘?”

    I can’t really make out her features in this light, but clearly this isn’t the bat I’d hailed. Do they all speak? It took me a moment to reply. “Umm—well, yeah. Well, actually I said ‘airplane mouse’ in Japanese—it’s sort of a joke, my way of saying ‘bat’—I thought you were—”

    “I know.” She is still keeping perfect pace with me, still flying backward. “We’re not rodents.”

    I can’t believe I’m having another conversation with a bat. I have no idea how I stay so composed and reply so quickly: “Nor are you an airplane. That’s kind of the joke–I didn’t know the word for bat in Japanese, so ‘airplane mouse’ was as close as I could get. Would you rather I’d said hikoki nantoka [‘airplane whatchamacallit’]?” She’s too far to see any expressions, but I imagine her pruny face has gone prunier with disapproval. I’m quick to add: “Come on, are you really that different from a mouse?”

    “Our physiology is far more similar to other mammals than to Order: Rodentia. It’s your taxonomy that classifies us where we are.”

    “Not my taxonomy. I don’t even know the guy who came up with that taxonomy. I know Order: Rodentia are the gnawing animals and Order: Chiroptera—or whatever he called you—are something else that doesn’t gnaw, but as far as I’m concerned, you’re a little furry thing that happens to be clever enough to fly. I’d place you in the same category with my favorite other little furry things—flying or not, gnawing or not. Why should I care how you masticate or how you do whatever it is that makes you–” and here I summon the pronunciation: “Chi-rop-teran?”

    She’s palpably frustrated with me, but clearly intent on getting to the bottom of this. The path has hit a dark stretch and I focus for a moment on my steering as she prepares her response. I’ve shifted back to auto-pilot when she speaks: “Do you shun everyone’s logic except your own? Most of your species accepts the taxonomy of the animal kingdom. I thought humans prided themselves on building—evolving—upon the knowledge and wisdom of their predecessors.”

    “No, I haven’t got it all figured out, but the animal taxonomy, for one, is hardly a flawless system. Look at the platypus. It defies all kinds of rules of the system: a warm-blooded egg-layer. It was one of only a couple oddball creatures that colored outside the neat little lines that the scientists drew. It gave the taxonomists fits. And it wasn’t doing anything different than it had ever done before humans tried to fit it into their little categories.” I sense her attention has drifted slightly and at that very moment feel an itch on my forehead just below my helmet. I brush my hand across and she darts quickly, snapping up the hapless mosquito. Her delicate little wing brushes my cheek as she swivels, then zips back to her position, pivoting again to face me. “But you’re right: we all need taxonomies and categories. You, for instance, need a system that identifies, distinguishes, and categorizes food from non-food or trees from the spaces between them—otherwise you might be zipping along the creek plowing into every other tree.”

    “Look at the platypus. It defies all kinds of rules: a warm-blooded egg-layer. It colored outside the neat little lines that the scientists drew.”

    “Mmm,” she murmurs. Her snack seems to have distracted her momentarily. I nod and flick my eyes to the sky, trying to give her clearance to dine. On cue, she executes a crooked arc of flight in front of me, darting left, right, up, and down almost without pause between each buzzy mouthful. In seconds she’s settled back in front of me and–though it’s still too dark to see—I sense an air of discomfort about her. Then, with an almost imperceptible ‘puff’, she belches. In that instant she is relieved and once again attentive: “Go on,” she says.

    “Taxonomies are like computers,” I continue. “They’re only as smart as their human programmers, but still they are useful. Except–I was reading this editorial today by the Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft who just seemed too damn pleased with how much more handy computers could be than older organizational systems—like keeping photographs in a shoe box, or even the human mind—and—”

    She interrupts with: “—and you were thinking of the guy who wrote about how valuable card catalogs could be over modern computers and search engines—.”

    I’m taken aback. “You know Nicholson Baker’s work?”

    “No, but I could tell you’d taken issue with that other article.”

    “Are you reading my mind?”

    “We’re communicating.”

    “Yes, but how did you pick up on the Nicholson Baker ‘Lumber’ article I’d been thinking of today while reading Wired?”

    “This thing you call ‘telepathy’ or mind-reading isn’t as woo-woo as most of you think. Again, your various taxonomists didn’t quite pin down this natural phenomenon in their theories and explanations. You humans are all about the big exciting explanations for things and sometimes it’s a little more simple and even dull.” As she speaks, I’m almost instinctively sensing where she’s headed. It’s as if I could finish her sentences for her, much as she keeps interrupting me with my own thoughts.

    “So telepathy is really just an advanced form of reading body language or using inference?”

    “Exactly.” She seems pleased that we’ve begun finishing each other’s thoughts, even if our lines of reasoning haven’t yet seemed to converge. Where is she headed with this? She continues: “It’s more than that, of course—and less at the same time. I can’t really read all that’s in your mind right now–neither can you, I suspect. That little—uhh—Knickerson Baker? tidbit wasn’t even a current train of thought for you–it was something that occurred to you earlier today. And I can’t exactly travel in time to see what you were thinking earlier today while in the can reading that Wired article—”

    “But you know I was reading it in the can.”

    “Yep. Well not exactly. You could have read it anywhere, but it might as well have been in the crapper. If I was wrong on that exact detail, you could have let it slide, taking ‘in the can’ as a metaphor for reading on your free-time. Basically I just sensed, from the words you used, the way you were saying them, the line of thought you were traveling, along with my own line of thought and my knowledge of things like humans’ reading and thinking habits—” “Sometime I’d like to ask you how you came by that knowledge of human habits—”

    “Yes—well, in short, I caught your drift. It wasn’t really telepathy or mind-reading, as you say.”

    “Ah, but it was. It may not have been executed the way our extremists imagine it—it may be more benign—or dull—as you say, but you still read what was in my mind before it was on my lips and you beat me to my own thoughts.”

    “Mmm.” Her combative attitude has come around to a friendlier sort of mutual admiration. Why is it that I have richer conversations with imaginary bats than with all but a remarkable minority of the real humans I meet? This thought, rather than bumming me out, somehow returns me to the giddiness of my ride earlier: at least I’m having this conversation.

    “Where do you hang out during the day? Do you hang from trees or do you burrow somewhere?”

    She smiles. I can’t see it, but I finally understand why I know her every facial gesture even if my eyes can’t: it’s telepathy. “The trees. They’re positively teeming with us. Some of us sleep all day, except for each patrol’s sentinels, but there’s always plenty of activity going on up in the bushy parts that no one ever sees–other than your occasional tree-climbing human child or binocular-clad birdwatcher.” She pauses for a moment, as if uncertain if her next question is appropriate. “Why can’t you fly?”

    “Us humans?”

    “Yes.”

    “We can. We have airplanes and rocket ships and—well, lots of ways that we can fly.”

    “But I mean, why can’t you fly without all that hardware? Why can’t you just zip up to the tops of trees during the day and answer for yourselves the question of what bats do during the day? With all you’ve accomplished in your species’ history, shouldn’t you have figured out that flight isn’t as prohibitive as your taxonomists once contended? I mean look at us—and the bumble bee—according to your rules there’s no way we should be physiologically fit for aviation—”

    “I am flying right now. I’m zipping along with the wind in my face, chatting with you, letting the physics of the natural world—and of human devising in this lovely bike of mine—carry me along at speeds faster than my legs alone could handle. And I’ve found the answer to what bats do during the day—so I might as well be flying. What’s more, I’m time traveling. It’s night and I’ve answered the question of how you spend your days.”

    She’s smiling again. “Clever. Kinda like my explanation of telepathy. But what other humans do you know who can fly?”

    “My best friends. All of them. And each in their own clever ways. I know people who fly though photography, though painting and sculpting, through hosting parties, and through having insightful conversations. I know people who fly everyday at work and others who fly as soon as they get home to their families. I even know a few people who can fly but have been doing it so long that they play with totally different things–things where if they asked us why we don’t do them we’d be hard-pressed to say why not—like you asking me why we can’t fly.”

    “Yes, we haven’t even hit the tip of it, have we? Flying is hardly even the beginning of our potentials for—Oh shit!—” She pivots forward in panic, but I’m already negotiating a radical swerve to avoid the lumber that’s jutting out across the sidewalk just a foot or two from my front tire. I’ve pedaled far past my turn for home and actually diverted onto a residential sidewalk. My swerve drops me off the curb and into the street, but I regain my course and look back to my new friend with unnerving calm.

    “What’s your name, my friend?”

    She takes a moment to recompose, then swivels around again to face me. She’s closer now, and in the streetlights I can actually see her face as she mouths her reply: “We aren’t good with names. It’s the telepathy,” she says with a wink. “When you communicate deeply and are truly sharing and empathizing with each others’ thoughts, names seem sort of superficial. What do you think my name should be?”

    “I’m not good with names, either. Let’s call you Esmeralda.” She smiles approval and seems to be mouthing the syllables with relish. “You can call me Gre— err, what do you think my name should be?”

    She hovers there for a moment thoughtfully, then zooms down and whispers something in my ear. It’s either that I am truly bad with names—or that her little delicate wing was caressing my cheek and distracting me as she whispered—or that I thought that maybe it was just a belch and she was screwing with me—but I can’t for the life of me remember what she said.

    References to:

    • Wired article by Microsoft CTO David Vaskevitch in 08.2003 issue
    • Nicholson Baker’s “Lumber” from Thoughts and other Lumber
    • Platypus example liberally regurgitated from Robert Pirsig’s Lila

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