Archive for December, 2003

  • Hi-hos and Ho-hos

    Published in Mental Contagion, online arts and literature magazine

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

    TIME HAS LOST TRACK of me here in my office. This is my hour of peak efficiency, or so I tell myself every time I prairie-dog up to look across the other empty cubicles toward the window gone dark. I’m systematically checking things off today’s to-do list which somehow never stops scrolling off the bottom of my screen. Any loneliness that might curl in my door on an air-conditioned current on this Friday night is instantly zapped by the glow of my monitor, by the intensity of my concentration. The atmosphere in here is warm and productive. And I am alone—

    —until one of those air-conditioned currents curling in my door brings me something very different than loneliness.

    “… fueled a boyish thirst for danger and discovery that drove me down the tomb’s corridor, hunched in my swiftest shuffle, flashing my light haphazardly across the ceiling …”

    I am so intently typing sensitive emails (I will file them to send Monday morning at a more godly hour—wouldn’t want anyone to know I work this late) that I finish several more sentences before looking up at the two guests perched upon my monitor. In my peripheral vision I can see something unexpected about them—even more unexpected than the intrusion of two bats into my workplace. There’s something funny up there. But my concentration and resolve is so strong that I avoid looking up until the paragraph is complete.

    Now that I’ve made them wait this long, I stall a moment more, close my eyes, lift my head, and before opening my eyes again say: “Hello you two.”

    Opening my eyes now, I see two grinning bats, Hikoki Nezumi and Esmerelda, perched atop my monitor, on either side of the photo of Beth and me. Their eyes are amused and each one wears a little red Santa hat—the funny part I’d sensed. We all grin together. My calm amuses me—if they had meant to surprise me I’m slyly foiling their attempt. This is my hour of efficiency, of authority, of ego. There are no surprises at this hour. But Hikoki and Esmerelda are a welcome break and my self-amused grin melts into a mouth of contentment before I speak again.

    “What are you two up to? You look like trouble tonight.”

    Esmerelda answers: “I was worried I turned you off of bats with my last lecture about facts and fiction; I gave you grief for not studying up on—what was it?—our kinship?”

    “Hardly. I’ve actually been feeling very creative lately. I think you helped kick my brain out of hard-fact mode and into the more exciting realm of imagination. Although I must admit I did break out a couple books I bought recently to bone up on kinship and other behaviors of bats.”

    “What did you learn?”

    “I skipped to the section on sexual intercourse.” And this directed to Hikoki: “Do you really bite the scruff of her neck to hang on?”

    Hikoki shifts a little, uncomfortably. “Well, not her specifically—” he glances sheepishly over at Esmerelda who actually laughs out loud. It is a sexy feminine laugh. It is a jubilant and inviting laugh. I think she has just given Hikoki a telepathic message: “You can bite the scruff of my neck anytime.” This emboldens Hikoki and he conjures a little sauciness back at me: “How do you hang on?”

    “Touché. I gotta admit: the book did nothing for me. It was full of scientific names, charts, maps, practical advice, concise histories of the bat in literature and fable, and even examples of the bat as a logo and icon. There were bibliographies, references to scholarly works, and lots of black and white figures—not pictures or drawings, but figures, like: ‘Figure 1. Early drawing of Vampyrum spectrum (Giant Spear-nosed Bat).‘ I had to put the book down. It just wasn’t what bats are to me.”

    With an air of indignation Esmerelda snorts: “well we certainly aren’t vampire bats.”

    Hikoki is back to me quickly with: “What are we to you?”

    “You are those swaying creatures on the roof of the corridor in Humayun’s tomb in India—those little maligned creatures that inspired in me a mystical skittishness and at the same time fueled a boyish thirst for danger and discovery that drove me down the tomb’s corridor, hunched in my swiftest shuffle, flashing my light haphazardly across the ceiling—like a bad horror movie—terrified to look (looking anyway); warmed at the thought of you little furry fliers all around me; and humbled by this mysterious and ancient place you called home. We must have both shocked each other: my flashlight no doubt burning the nocturnal eyes of your Indian counterparts; your teeming, swaying multitudes filling me with intimidation and awe, all the while far more intrigued with the life all around me than with the last resting place of Humayun under that marble slab at the end of the corridor.”

    Hikoki takes a slight breath in through his nose and says: “Oh. Is that all?”

    Esmerelda’s at a loss for words and merely looks sideways at Hikoki with an expression of mild disapproval.

    There’s a moment’s pause during which Hikoki adjusts his little Santa hat to scratch his head. I ask: “Where’d you get the hats?”

    Hikoki’s quick with: “Sometimes we commission silkworms into slave labor before we eat them.”

    “Very nice work. They’re cute.”

    “Umm—” Our banter seems to be snapping Esmerelda out of it. “Where is everyone else?”

    I look around, as if realizing for the first time I’m still in the office. “Oh, it’s Friday night. They’ve all gone home to families or out to party.”

    “Why are you here?”

    I’m about to give Esmerelda a very practical answer about the projects I’m working on and their importance in the bigger scheme of things (as I might give an acquaintance) but there is something in the buzz of telepathic energy between me and these bats that tells me I need to go deeper. These are my friends. I can be frank. “My work is a mixture of things I have to do, things I want to do, and things I won’t quite get around to. I’m pretty tough on myself, so I do really well the things I have to do, even if I don’t want to do them. I’m not cocky enough to think that I’m above working for someone else. But if that was all I did—the things I have to do—then I would be nothing more than your doomed little slaves—your silkworm lunches.”

    “—Breakfasts,” Hikoki chimes in, licking his lips. “Our silkworms weave at night. We eat them in the morning when they’re done.”

    “Nice. Anyway. That’s why I also make sure my job includes things I want to do; things I’m passionate about. Things where I can finish the day with a sense of progress and accomplishment. It’s sometimes challenging to see progress in this kind of work,” I say, gesturing at my computer monitor as if it was a pile of potatoes to be peeled. “In construction, the progress was easy: every day we made a bigger pile of lumber; or a deeper hole in the ground; or finished another section of bridge—and as days and weeks went by, we could see a permanent piece of the infrastructure—of the landscape—taking shape. That was easy satisfaction.”

    Esmerelda: “So this line of work isn’t satisfying?”

    “It’s not quite that simple. Once when I was working construction, I wrote about how the scrapes and bruises and calluses of manual labor seemed like medals or trophies—symbols of my efforts and accomplishments. I wondered if I would miss the aches and pains when I settled into a less physically demanding job—” I pause for a moment to pull up on-screen my old journal entry and the bats hop down to my desk to read it. There is something absolutely ridiculous about their two little heads turning in synch as they read:

    All the little sore parts

    When they’ve turned back to me I continue: “I knew I would settle into a job that used my mind more than my body. This is a better place for me here.” I flick my eyes up to the pile of potatoes on my desk. “And I still abuse my body on a regular basis—whether I’m skiing, dancing like a freak, or clumsily opening a beer bottle with a staple-remover and peeling off part of my fingernail.” I show them a mangled fingernail to illustrate.

    Esmerelda: “But is opening a beer bottle as noble as building a bridge?”

    “I think obsessing about nobility in everything we do is absurd. And cocky. Who are we to think we are noble and above certain things?…”

    Hikoki seems to have bored of this line of thought. He’s hopping around the office fiddling with my stuff. He finds a wrapped gift from one of my clients and puts his ear to it, jostling it slightly with his wing. He doesn’t realize Esmerelda and I are watching him until she clears her throat with a matronly “ahem.” Seeing he has successfully diverted our conversation, he addresses me with a new question: “It’s almost Christmas. What kind of gifts are you giving this year?”

    “Something sharp. To break through the wrapping of gifts that people already have inside. Some people need to unwrap their courage—to stand up to a boss or open up to a lover. Some people need humility—to strap in and do things they don’t want to; things that need to be done. Some people need confidence—to believe in themselves. Some people need trust—to believe in things larger than themselves—”

    Hikoki: “Nice speech, Miss America.”

    “Aw, fuck off. I’m trying to be serious here.”

    Esmerelda is flashing Hikoki a look of disdain. He’s unfazed: “That’s exactly your problem: you’re too serious. Lighten up. It’s the holidays! What would you really like to give as a gift?”

    “A box of Ho-Hos. For everyone.”

    “Not everyone likes Ho-Hos. Some people like Ding Dongs, and some are allergic to chocolate and go for Twinkies. Some prefer chocolate-coated silkworms.”

    “Ho-Hos are better than Ding Dongs. Every bite has an optimal balance of chocolate coating, cake, and filling. With Ding Dongs you gotta take too big a first bite to get into the filling—it’s almost impossible to make every bite good. It’s Ho-Hos for everyone. If they don’t want ’em, more for me.”

    With that Esmerelda offers Hikoki a look no doubt backed by a packet of telepathy that says they should leave me to my work. I bid them farewell and “happy holidays” (wondering which holidays bats celebrate, anyway) and return to some piece of correspondence. Down the hallway I can hear those two smartasses singing: “Ho-ho, Ho-ho, it’s off to work we go …”

    • Reference to: Vampiro: The Vampire Bat in Fact and Fantasy by David E Brown
    • All references to snack cakes contained herein are purely fictional and any similarity to real snack cakes is purely coincidental. The bats, however, are real.

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  • Esmerelda

    Published in Mental Contagion, online arts and literature magazine

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

    THE SKIES HAVE BEEN LONELY of late. Except for yesterday’s snowstorm with its big storybook snowflakes drifting down lazily, there has been little life in the crisp Colorado winter air. I catch myself foolishly scanning the wispy clouds for the telltale maneuvers of my bat friends. I see only the lingering fog and the clear, cold, starry sky.

    I am an idiot. It is wintertime in Colorado. The bats are holed up in caves and crooks of trees, hibernating, their pulses slowed to wait out the winter. How vast and silent the winter can be; how distant is the chatty warmth of blossoming spring.

    How will I converse with the bats this season? I’ve been pinning the pressure on these poor bats; but what I really feel is a simple yearning for their company again. I’ve tried Esmerelda’s “telepathy”, trying to strike up warm conversation and conjure her company from across the space between us, even as her body and mind have essentially shut down for the winter. I’m met by only my yearning thoughts. I am no student of meditation; my mind is no glassy pond reflecting the world around. I am saddled with earthly attachments and they weigh down my thoughts. I cannot fly like Esmerelda.

    I am biking again and the air is not as frigid as I expected, following last night’s cozy cold snowstorm. Abruptly I veer for the creek and am soon upon the stretch of path I know best for bats. I pedal the length of this section, looking up all the while till my wheels crunch frozen grass by the path, and I veer back on track. I pick out prospective trees; then circle back for the best.

    That’s it. That’s the one: it’s the tree’s density that picks it—and a nearly full moon’s appearance, like an omen, through a thin spot up high. I lay down my bike and shinny up the trunk. Sometimes my body is a clumsy buddy and together we bumble through our motions. This night I am arboreal, slinky smooth. The bark is brittle cold on my fingers, but I barehand my way deftly up and up. Soon I am high in the upper, darker reaches of the tree, surprisingly far off the ground. In the moonlight I see this is as high as I can go. I am stopped, watching my breath, marveling at how winded I am. Fatigue and cold begin to tickle me and suddenly my slinky smoothness eludes me. I shudder with sudden fear: “What the hell am I doing?!”

    The reality of where I am and how I got here is just starting to soak in with embarrassment. On a cold winter night after a long day’s work I’ve veered off the path home and climbed a big ole frozen tree to try to find—of all the things one might look for in a tree on a cold night when he should be home and warm—bats. I’ve lost my friggin’ mind. Is this what they mean by “going batty?”

    At this moment, there is a very subtle motion behind me. It is something very different than the disco-ball moonlight dancing across these wind-rustled leaves. My gut tells me there’s something else up here.

    There! And there! Bats! They are all around, hanging from the innermost branches like little cave stalactites, bunched up, swaying ever so subtly as if their heartbeats were fueling an almost imperceptible pendulum swing. They are miniature grandfather clocks, ticking away the minutes until spring. I marvel a moment more.

    I imagine a touch on the back of my neck. She speaks. Her voice registers. My panic vanishes. It is suddenly quite warm atop that tree. “Welcome,” she says.

    “Hi” says me, craning my face around to try to see her better. She hops out to my left shoulder then along my arm a ways so we can see each other. It is Esmerelda. Esmerelda the bat. Her little feet curl ever so slightly into the fabric of my biking windbreaker as she steadies. I indulge—for just a moment—the imagination of those same feet curling atop the soft flesh of my bare arm. Would my muscles tense, fearing the gouge of little claws, like those of the massaged cat whose affection would turn me to scratching post? Or would I be soothed into delight at the touch of another living being?

    And as those thoughts warm the very arm she is perched upon, I hear, with newfound comfort and calm, a flutter from all around me. In a moment I can feel a couple dozen of those same little feet curling into my jacket and my hair as the clan all find their own perches on me here in this tree. I am robed in bats.

    Sometimes my body is a clumsy buddy and together we bumble through our motions. This night I am arboreal, slinky smooth.

    “Hi,” says an eager chorus.

    “Hi—” I reply. While this scene is certainly extremely cool, somehow I’m more put off than by my two previous bat encounters. It’s taking me a while to get my brain around this situation. Perhaps that’s because I must have left my brain behind to get here in the first place: I am surrounded by bats in a frozen tree.

    “What’s up?” says Esmerelda, no doubt sensing my hesitation.

    I start my reply without turning my head from the half-dozen bats on my right arm: “Umm, I wanted to see where you lived.” My gaze works slowly up the bats on that arm till I go cross-eyed at my own shoulder. My scalp tells me that three more bats are shuffling lightly atop my head. My eyes refocus down my other arm to five other dainty bats who have settled next to Esmerelda. They all stare at me with the wide-eyed interest of a child. Even Esmerelda. There is a resemblance between them all. Not the “hey these are all bats” resemblance, but something—aww hell, this is Esmerelda’s telepathy working again. I ask: “Are you all family?”

    “Nope.” Esmerelda says simply. I must be giving her a pained look, for she continues quickly: “Once we’ve reared our young, they leave the patrol and strike out on their own, joining up with other clans as fortune sees fit. It’s the same as your human incest taboo: scattering our children with the winds keeps shuffling the deck of the gene pool—it keeps us genetically diverse.”

    “Really?” I’m not sure why I say this—but it is a fortuitous response.

    “No not really,” she says.

    “Huh?” Is she teasing me? It doesn’t seem so. The first hint of panic returns—not the icicle-blood fear of falling but quite the opposite: the hot cheek-flash of humiliation. What is this all about? I simply don’t understand.

    “Truthfully, I don’t know whether this is my family or not.” Esmerelda is reading my thoughts—and mercifully this time. She continues before any more pained incomprehension plays across my face: “You see, in your desperation to continue conversations with bats while we are hibernating, you’ve extended out of the realm of fact and started creating a story.”

    “So this is fiction?”

    “No, you are definitely here and so am I.” She squeezes ever so slightly with her claws and the sensuality of it eases me back into some warmer shade of me.

    “So you really don’t know if these bats are your family? Isn’t that kind of sad? Don’t bats recognize one another or distinguish themselves somehow— or— oh, yeah, you said names weren’t really important because of your telepathy. But with telepathy, wouldn’t it be even more obvious who were your kin?”

    “No: I don’t know if these are my family because I simply don’t know anything about kinship behaviors of bats.”

    “But you’re a bat. You don’t have to know the academic biology jargon for things; you don’t have to know what ‘kinship behaviors’ are to know who raised you and who you raised.”

    “Who cares?” There’s something really odd about Esmerelda tonight.

    “Don’t you care about your family? It’s almost Christmastime. At least for us humans, most people reflect on their family roots at this time of year.”

    “Well, if you really cared about my family, you would have studied up on bat behaviors before climbing up this tree to ask about my family patterns.”

    I am suddenly very deflated, exasperated. Another “Really?” is all I can muster.

    “Yep: ’cause a little reading would have shown you that we don’t actually roost in trees through the winter here. We go a little way out of town into the hills and find a nice secluded cave—just like in your fables and horror movies. Plus it’s too cold for us to be having this conversation right now. Our bodies are in full hibernation.” As she says this I notice the fog of her breath, then gradually realize this whole group of bats is breathing calmly, shrouding me in a delicate mosquito-scented cloud.

    “Do you breathe this much in hibernation?”

    “I don’t know.”

    “Oh come on, Esmerelda. Now I’m getting discouraged. I was afraid to write anything about bats hibernating because, well, I don’t know anything about hibernation. Must I have all the facts just to write a story?”

    “Absolutely not! That’s exactly my point: facts are the death of creation. As a writer, you—yes, you are quite guilty of this—tend to halt your creation to go get facts. You often get obsessed with facts and never go back to creating. You become, instead, an organizer of other people’s thoughts, a librarian of things not yours, a curator of things long passed. And gone, then, is the artist’s spark, the true creativity.”

    “Can’t we use other people’s thoughts—or facts—as the seeds of creation?”

    “As long as something grows from those seeds of creation—something that is your own—something you create.”

    I’m eager: “Then what? Don’t facts make our creations more applicable to other people? Without facts, commonalities, things we can all agree on, how do we ever communicate? How would we share and defend what we feel and believe?”

    With no hesitation, she replies: “Use everything external as a springboard to what’s inside of you. Then create from what’s inside you so others may spring into themselves.”

    And me: “It’s like Pirsig’s rant on ‘philosophologers’—the people who get so deep into the academic field of philosophy that they end up not philosophizing on anything of merit or personal value, but rather on the thoughts of other thinkers … They chase their tails while others who know nothing of the field of philosophy actually ponder and grapple with the real dilemmas that they—and we all in our own ways—face.”

    “Except that—”

    “Except that you would prefer I took that idea of Pirsig’s and made it even more my own by personalizing it somehow? Just to prove that I’m not a curator of other peoples’ thoughts?” I suppose I’m proud to have intercepted Esmerelda’s line of thought and finished it for her, my own bat-telepathy being just a moonlight disco-ball shadow of hers. She smiles approval and waits for me to personalize Pirsig.

    Finally, with some degree of confidence that comes only with speaking what you know in your gut to be the truth, I say: “I actually always liked that passage because ‘philosophologers’ was fun to say in my head.”

    And with that, together we run our tongues over the soft consonants and abundant “awws” of “philosophologers.” We are still chanting it when the morning sun comes up in our tree there on that crisp new morning. Hey look at that: I can have a meditative mind. My mantra is—well, go ahead, say it.

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