Published in Mental Contagion, online arts and literature magazine
Platypi: Warm-blooded, Egg-laying Stories
Column 3, December 2003
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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 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.