Published in Mental Contagion, online arts and literature magazine

Platypi: Warm-blooded, Egg-laying Stories
Column 5, January 2004
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WE HUMANS SOMETIMES FORGET what it’s like to be at the mercy of the elements. I’m not thinking of merciless elements, like a mudslide that buries a village, a hurricane that flattens an island, or even a snowstorm that makes it a challenge to bike to the bar after work. I’m talking about a good steady wind like this Encinitas ocean breeze right now, not catastrophic by any means—unless you’re a 3.8-ounce bat trying to have an ordinary conversation.

As a 170 pound human, though, I love it. The chill plucks at my armhairs, reminding me I’m alive. As the cold spreads across my flesh and sinks ever so gradually inward, I feel less like one living creature, more like a community of hairs, skin cells, organs, sensations, thoughts, all working together, but each with its own voice and personality. The armhairs right now are the most vocal of the bunch—they each seem to be booming little soliloquies: “I AM ARMHAIR! SEE ME STAND TALL AGAINST THE WIND. I MAY BEND BUT I WILL STRAIGHTEN, READY TO DO THE OTHER THINGS AN ARMHAIR IS CALLED UPON TO DO. WHEN THE WIND HAS DIED WE ARMHAIRS WILL STAY EVER VIGILANT, EVER STRONG. STAND FAST, FELLOW ARMHAIRS, STAND FAST!”

There is the same defiance in the bat at my side as we talk. His mind is focused and our conversation sharp and witty; but all the while his little body is reeling against the gusts. The wind comes steadily up the beach from the south, firm and cold, blowing Hikoki’s fine hairs out so he appears to be balding in spots. He’s fighting it, stubbornly trying to stand his ground. Meanwhile I, big lug, am grinning at him and his predicament, not paying much attention to our actual conversation. He’s trying so hard to be like a man in this wind that his bat-telepathy has slipped and he can’t tell that I’m laughing at him.

The specific vision that is tickling my imagination is the possibility that a particularly lively gust may sweep Hikoki from his perch here on the beach, tossing him between the spray of the waves and the howl of the gulls till he plops in the surf and comes out coated in sand. I shouldn’t laugh, but the world’s mirth populations are endangered; so I smirk.

“We wonder what else there is, what lies beyond, what we haven’t seen or dreamed yet, what we may never see or dream. And that’s what we talk about when we converse.”

It’s terrible but I can’t for the life of me recollect what Hikoki and I had been discussing in the wind on that beach. He had just been so damn serious, so determined to stand there against that wind like he had put on 169 pounds and eleven-odd ounces at the Christmas dinner table to match my bulk. If he’d succumbed for just a moment to this wind, letting it whisk him from this sandblasted shore, it would have played right into his mammalian aeronautic talents, so subtly but ingeniously different than the flight of birds. Imagine playing the wind with your own living flesh, like the bat’s wings, instead of flapping around in a bird’s clumsy quill coat. Imagine feeling every nuance of the sky, knowing it like Robert Randolph knows the strings of his pedal steel. Hikoki would have coaxed sweet music from the wind; soared, swooped, and performed a gorgeous ballet, the likes of which no seagull has ever imagined, not in its wildest seagull dreams.

But there he stood—or tried to stand—petite hairs wagging everywhich direction, ears folded down low against the whistling gusts, trying to have a calm, deep, human conversation with me. Only humans converse like this. Sure, animals interact and communicate, but we’re the only ones who flap our jaws about the nebulous thoughts that flicker across our brains. Those squawkings between birds? Belly rumblings, warnings of predators, bickering over turf; noise pollution. The chatter of squirrels? Acorn belches, catcalls for a furry piece of tail; peabrain rantings. Dolphin squeals? Echolocation, drill calls for the pod’s movements; all too fiercely practical. They’re all just making noises to fulfill needs. What about desires? What about imagination?

Below the shady undergrowth of the woods, deep under the fertile loam of the forest, further still beneath our bedrock continent, churns a ferocious ball of stone fire, a swirling molten soul of the planet that has a grip on every human child who’s ever read Jules Verne. Out there past the treetops, above the fogs and high clouds, maybe among the stars and maybe beyond, there is the edge of our perception and our imagination. We think as creatively as we can, we stretch our imaginations to the deepest depths, the furthest reaches, and yet in our lifetimes we can only travel so far. And so we gaze out beyond, at the spaces between the things we can understand, at the blackness between the stars or the parts of the atom that don’t behave as they should. And we wonder what else there is, what lies beyond, what we haven’t seen or dreamed yet, what we may never see or dream. And that’s what we talk about when we converse.

. . .

The wind finally dies and suddenly we both fall silent and look out to sea. I guess I feel a little guilty for zoning out during the earlier part of our conversation. I strike up a new one: “Hikoki, what do you look for out past the horizon?”

“I was thinking how far out I could fly before I ran out of steam and plopped myself to a briny death on the gums of some sea monster. Most bats—most animals—don’t look past the horizon. They look only within the scope of their influence; they only care about things they can eat, things that can eat them, or things they can hump.” He paused for a moment and looked back out to the horizon. “There’s nothing out there for me. I think only humans get that faraway look in their eyes when they look out to sea.”

I’m antsy to reply: “Rats have been witnessed banding together to cross raging rivers, each taking the other by the tail in a long line, trying as a team to get somewhere they can’t possibly see or know. Geese pack their bags and fly across several horizons for a warmer winter vacation. Yaks, musk oxen, elephants, gnus all traverse savannah or tundra to reach places only their ancestors may have seen. Chickens cross roads. How is that different?”

“Those are all means to simple, practical ends. Rats swim to a better food supply in a flood. Geese aren’t fond of freezing to death so they head south. Yaks know the water will dry up and so they move on. Chickens must supply humans their punch lines. You looking out over the ocean and dreaming of someplace just for the sheer tourism of it—now that’s uniquely human.” Hikoki shifts to one leg and uses the other to scratch his rear. He frowns, seeing that he has scratched free some sand lodged in his hair. He is not a creature of the beach. He looks back to me, saying: “What do you see out there?”


He tips his head inland and says quietly “it’s the other way.”

“Only if you’re in a hurry. The earth is round. I’ll make it there someday. Mmm, Iceland—”

Hikoki noticeably shivers at the mere mention of it and says: “why Iceland? I thought you were a forest boy of the Pacific Northwest?”

“I’ve heard that Iceland is actually very green. Greenland is the one that’s supposed to be icy.” I pause for effect and sense we both are tempted to make some wry comment. The grin on both our faces says it as well as words, so we leave it at that. “I imagine a city, Reykjavik—” I see, with delight, that Hikoki is mouthing the name himself: ‘rey-kah-veek’. “I see that city perched on a heaving earthen engine, steam whistling from the ground when the pressure gets too high, I see soaring peaks where two parts of the planet crashed together and still grind each other into red hot rock soup. I see waterfalls and underground rivers and fiords, lush valleys, sheer canyons, a rugged landscape that will never allow its inhabitants to forget that they are riding on a volatile planet incalculably more powerful than all of its inhabitants combined.”

I’m speaking so enthusiastically that I see tiny spit droplets spraying out into the wind. Who cares? Onward I go: “I see a people who recognize all this, about their land, about the planet, and yet take heart in the fact that the planet has allowed them, so far, to roost in their beautiful but precarious perch. These people are deep, passionate, and aware. And often they are joyful. Once the terror of living under a live volcano subsides, there’s nothing for it but to take delight in the fact you’re still here each day, not bathed to the hips in lava. Once you realize the earth could swallow you up at any moment, I bet you kind of feel like fattening yourself up to make a better meal of it.”

“Sounds like more than tourism. You wanna live there?”

“I’m not so sure that traveling for the ‘sheer tourism’ as you called it is such a luxury. I think some of us need it like we need food, water, or air. You told me once that humans have unique talents for survival, talents unmatched by anything else in the living world—I believe those talents are wasted if we don’t keep exploring beyond mere survival. If, in my case, visiting Iceland will enrich my life wherever I live, then it is very much necessary, by my book.”

Suddenly, as if from nowhere, a fierce gust of wind slaps us from the left. It sprays me with sand, I snap my lids shut, and futilely throw my hands over my face. I can feel the grit in my eyes and figure it has found its way in my left ear canal, too. The wind seems about to fly me like a kite. Eyes still closed, I stand, trying, to rise above the sand storm where I’d been sitting. No luck: this is one hell of a wind. I rub my closed eyelids, as you’re certainly not supposed to do, and finally open them gingerly, feeling gritty eyejuice welling up at the edges.

My eyes smart as much open as closed, but I have to check on my poor friend. I turn downwind to the right, imagining the spray of sand at my back is trying to eddy out and loop back, on a singular mission to invade my eyes. Hikoki’s gone. I scan the beach and sky downwind and there is nothing but a beach, suddenly windswept and inhospitable.

Turning upwind, the sand again finds my open eyes and I squint, straining to look through the assault. I swear I can see something up there, swooping in the sky, a little black figure laying down calligraphic arcs and swirls like I’ve never seen. It may have just been the sand grinding away at my eyeballs, but it sure looked like Hikoki. And that sound I heard may just have been the wind, but it sure sounded like the howl of a Robert Randolph tune. Play, Hikoki, play.

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