What the Bats Say
… an excerpt from A Million Fragile Bones, out later in April 2017 from Twisted Road Publications. A Million Fragile Bones details the beauty and peace of Alligator Point, Florida, before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico spewed an estimated 4.9 million barrels (210 million gallons) of oil, affected 68,000 square miles of ocean, and washed ashore along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, and Florida. Connie May Fowler had spent sixteen years in the haven of Alligator Point before being immersed in the year-long nightmare that was the Deepwater Horizon spill.
We are one decade into the new century and spring is glorious on the sandbar. All manner of new life—winged, finned, footless, and four-footed—is emerging on land and in the sea. The estuaries and marshes are alive with activity as birds mate, lay eggs, tend to their young. The water churns with promise: baby fish, newborn dolphin, tiny sharks. Life below and above the surface is abundant. It’s as if my known world is throwing a party.
The frog that lived in my shower all winter has moved to my garden. The banana spider (AKA “Banatula”) is spinning a splendid, huge orb just outside my living room window. In the early morning it shimmers with dew diamonds. Cedar waxwings were here for one delightful day, ascending and descending in balletic perfection from the pines towering above my studio. Purple martin scouts arrived three days ago; their families will soon follow. I dig in the dirt on the kitchen-side of the shack and discover a cache of pearly white, oval eggs the size of my little fingernail. So, it seems, the lizards are doing their part to keep up with the promise of spring. A rat snake has taken up residence on the back deck. The dogs keep their distance. Wrens fly in the house, swooping, darting, as they hurry to find the perfect nesting site. A pair of mating osprey obsessively brings sticks to the platform at the top of the osprey pole where they are engineering a very messy, large, but functional nest.
Nearly everything out there in the deep blue sea is heading my way.
Embattled, overfished blue fin tuna are spawning. We’re only one of two marine nurseries on the planet that host the blue fin. They favor the Gulf’s northern slope, which is a critical habitat for them. Indeed, as the Gulf goes, so goes the blue fin tuna population.
Gag grouper, other species of grouper, snapper, and spiny lobster are also spawning. And all their babies, over the course of the next few months, will migrate to the estuaries and marshlands of the northern Gulf where they will find safety and nourishment. They will grow. Life abundant will happen. Again.
Brown shrimp are at their reproductive best April through May and September through November. Their eggs float through the Gulf, eventually turning into larvae. Plankton is the larvae’s manna. As they grow stronger, nourished by plankton, they, too, travel into the northern Gulf along with their seafaring cousins. There, amid the nutrient-rich estuaries and marshes, they will begin to resemble shrimp.
Bottlenose dolphins, full-timers in the Gulf, are giving birth right now: March, April, May.
Oysters, the beleaguered lifeblood of my zip code, are spawning in the waterscapes of my front and back yards.
Some sea life remains in deep water as they trek northward, but those requiring oxygen, such as sea turtles and the twenty-eight species of dolphins and whales that make the Gulf home for at least part of the year (twenty species are full-time residents), necessarily spend much of their time near the water’s surface.
To celebrate the Gulf’s bounty—its vibrant cycle of life, life, life—nearly every coastal village and hamlet hosts seafood festivals. There seems to be one close by every weekend. Oh what I would give to be crowned Panacea’s Blue Crab Queen! But I’ll settle for a T-shirt and the knowledge that nature’s delicate balance appears steady, prolific, bountiful.
In the midst of all this new life I, too, have given birth of a sort. How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly, my seventh book, is winging its way into the world. This inevitably means I have to follow it out there to places far from the sandbar. I hate leaving the Point in the spring. And I also still feel very much like a newlywed, which makes sense given Bill and I have been hitched only a few months. So I bop back and forth, spending as little amount of time on the road as I can, always hurrying home so I can measure how much progress the jasmine has made (a lot), if baby mullet are jumping yet (yes), if the baby osprey are flying yet (no), if we have any crabs in our traps (sometimes yes, sometimes no), if Bill’s blue eyes still make me shiver (yes).
Bill doesn’t waste any time. As soon as I hit the road for my book tour, he takes it upon himself to paint the interior of the shack, put up new shelving, and renovate the kitchen, including the addition of recessed, built-in shelves. I call him from a central Florida hotel room that smells like wet swimsuits and stale beer.
“I miss you,” he says in a southern drawl that confounds me since he is a Midwesterner.
“I miss you, too.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“You sure do have a lot of things.”
“What do you mean?” I thought I lived the life of a frugal hermit.
“Your altars. I’m having to disassemble them so I can paint.”
“Oooooh.” I imagine my poor husband collecting all the bits of bones and shells and dried flowers and spell books and feathers and more, gathering them into assigned portions of the kitchen table so he doesn’t lose anything, so the altars can be reassembled just the way he found them.
“Pile it all up and I’ll deal with it when I get home,” I say, sensing his unease at the responsibility he feels for the ephemera of my life. But I also know the painting, the building, the renovating: It’s his way of nesting, of making the shack ours, not just mine, of him working his way into the mysterious nooks and crannies of married life and paradise.
The newlywed in me has decided to cook a five-star worthy dinner every night, using homegrown ingredients whenever possible and creating every morsel from scratch. Though it looks like I’m cooking (and I am), I’m also casting spells. I whirl through the kitchen, seeking spices and solutions. Heart, home, love. Heart, home, love. Heart, home, love.
I’ve just finished kneading my dough for tonight’s dinner bread: Cuban bread complete with a palm frond down the vertical length of the loaf. My whole body—crown of my head to tips of my toes—is dusted in a thin layer of fine flour. I think about working my way up to pain de campagne, a daunting recipe in Julia Child’s Baking with Julia. It requires “capturing and nurturing airborne wild yeast” which floats in the air only after many days of tossing yeast about as part of the bread-baking ritual. I’ve never had the nerve or need to “coax wild yeast and bacteria and harness their energy.” That sounds like a job for a physicist. I sneeze. Flour, if not yeast, flies through the air, resembling dust motes. I catch my reflection in the mirror that hangs on the wall closest to the living room. I appear painted, ready for battle. I study the birdfeeders hanging from the rafters of the deck. A bevy of hummingbirds sup. My back aches. My hands hurt. Why didn’t I just pick up a loaf of French bread when I was in town? Who am I trying to impress with all this homemaking mania? He’ll be home soon and I’ve got to get this place cleaned up … oh my God.
I tiptoe over to the door, snowing flour as I go, trying to make less sound than the wind. Perched at the same feeder are a rose-breasted grosbeak and a blue grosbeak. The blue grosbeak could easily be mistaken for an indigo bunting, but the grosbeak is larger and has broad, cinnamon wing bars. I don’t think there is any other bird one could mistake for the rose-breasted. Its deep crimson shield glimmers against its white belly and black head.
These, like the avocets, are two birds I thought I’d never see—individually or together—unless I move to Mexico where they winter or the Great North where they breed in the summer. Once again, I experience the thrill of living on the edge of the world, a cusp where water and forest meet, a dynamic wonder-ground.
I do not take lightly the responsibilities of living at a migratory crossroads. Seed in the feeders. Parsley for the swallowtail caterpillars. Milkweed for the monarchs. Bee balm and hibiscus and honeysuckle for the hummingbirds. Clean gourds for the purple martins. Bat houses for the bats. Seashells placed in the birdbaths so butterflies can drink without risk of drowning.
It is April 20, 2010, and all seems right with the world.
The following day, April 21, as the sun descends into the Gulf’s blue horizon, washing the cumulus-slurried sky in ribbons of purple, gold, aqua, and radiant hues as yet unnamed, Bill and I are enjoying what we call “bull bat hour”—cocktails amid the bats newly emerged from their slumber, mammals on the wing feasting on mosquitoes and no-see-ums.
Out here on the sandbar, twilight shimmers. Dragonflies stir the air with the metallic thrum of transparent wings; they hover and flit, dive and ascend, resembling tiny bursts of tumbling stained glass, occasionally resting on a stem, a limb, a blossom, my hair. Purple martins pierce the jasmine-laden breeze, competing with the bats—the former eating supper and the latter breakfast. Seabirds return to their roosts. Overhead, terns chatter so raucously my dogs bark at them. As the birds glide out of sight and earshot, the dogs exchange satisfied glances. I believe they think their barking drives away the noisy aviators. My favorite pair of great blue heron plaintively squawks, their voices calling each other home to their nocturnal rest in the sentinel oak at the edge of the harbor.
If one is lucky enough to be on the water at bull bat time in a calm wind, you will hear the creak of the pelicans’ wings as they skim the water on their way to the western end of the Point where they gather in a great feathered conclave, on a beach populated only by ghost crabs and what the surf brings in—star fish, sand dollars, sea urchins—until daybreak when they take to the sky again.
But it is the bats I watch. Their scientific name, chiroptera, means hand-wing, surely one of the more appropriate and poetic designations ever made by science. Evolution has gifted these animals to the point that it is only a minor exaggeration to say, physically, bats are exquisite wings attached to tiny faces.
I have had many close encounters with bats, the first being when I was perhaps eleven or twelve. It was a blistering August evening and I was watching Sanford and Son with my mother when I happened to look down and see a saucer-sized bat resting atop my sweaty bare foot. I said, “Oh, oh!” instead of “Holy shit!” because my mother was the only person allowed to cuss in our house.
Fear spiking, I was trapped in a quandary: stay hidden and still while hoping for the best (translation: maybe the bat would just fly away) or run into the world—visible, shouting, flailing (translation: risk the ridicule of my mother and all humanity). Inaction versus action and its attendant but unknowable results is a puzzle that confounds me to this day.
Mother, steeped in her own time zone, laughed as Redd Foxx grabbed his chest and delivered his classic quip, “Elizabeth, I’m coming to join you!” With her cigarette bobbing between clenched teeth, she glanced at the bat—the whites of her eyes flashing with Bette Davis flair—and muttered out of the left side of her mouth because the right side was in charge of the cigarette, “Son of a bitch! Goddamn it. Don’t move.”
She marched into the kitchen—I remained immobile, fearing any movement would inspire the winged Fury into a feeding frenzy—and then returned with her pine-handled broom, which she held aloft with fierce conviction, her pose reminding me of the Joan of Arc prayer card I kept hidden in my top dresser drawer beneath a nest of fading underwear.
I was terrified Mother was going to beat the bat to death and, in the process, reduce my foot to pulp (she swung a mean broom), but instead she simply proceeded, her cigarette fashionably akimbo, to chase the bat out of our roach-infested rental, screaming “Out, out, you bastard!”
Fearing my foot might be infected, I dabbed it with what was left of my Coca Cola (the boys down the street had told me Coke could take rust off a radiator, so surely it would fizz bat germs from flesh). I looked up. Mother was back, her hair on end from the struggle with bat and broom and screen door.
“How do you think it got in here?”
“How the hell do I know?” She tilted the broom against the doorframe, flopped onto the couch, lit another cigarette using the ember-end of the old one, and that was that: my first bat encounter.
But it would not be my last. Indeed, walking at twilight remains hazardous. Bats simply don’t see me. When foolish enough to take an evening stroll, I bob and weave in an attempt to avoid head-on collisions, looking as if I’m performing a spastic imitation of Mohammed Ali’s graceful ring dance.
My theory (untested and probably without a shred of scientific merit) is that the bats’ echolocation bounces right through me, rendering invisible my corporeal self, this being a result of low blood pressure (mine, not theirs; I’m not even sure if bats possess blood pressure).
And, yes, surely there are other explanations: the bats are drunk, having feasted on fermented fruit; a rabies epidemic; they just like to fuck with me. I don’t know. I’m sticking with the low blood pressure-echolocation theory because it makes a good story.
But the plot thickens. On a sultry summer night in 1996, I walked to my downtown Nashville hotel after a book event. I felt pretty full of myself. I’d given a good reading and signed lots of books. The storeowner was delighted. Even the sales rep who’d made a surprise visit seemed appropriately satisfied. So I might have had a bit of a swagger. I might have even caught my reflection in a skyscraper’s plate glass window and not recognized myself. In short, I was happy.
As I approached the civic center, which was a mere two blocks from my digs, chaos splintered the placid evening. People driving home after a production of Carmen honked and cut each other off and made obscene hand gestures and behaved, generally, the way folks normally do in a traffic jam: as if their very lives depended on them being the ones to lead the elephant parade.
The cast and crew milled about on the sidewalk, waiting for buses to take them to their next tour stop. Their hump-backed equipment, scattered hither and yon, resembled brooding prehistoric snails. I noticed most in the gathering were male which, probably due to anthropological reasons, made me both fearful and excited. When this realization tumbled to the front of my brain—poof!—Confident Connie was gone, and in her place stumbled a gal haunted by her past, riddled with self-conscious angst.
No longer buoyant, I threaded my way through a Gordian knot of noisy masculine chatter—all of it in Spanish or Italian, I wasn’t sure which, maybe both—bodies and shadows in motion, cased musical instruments, suitcases, props. I felt unmoored, as if the night had suddenly been infused with a bad case of buckle your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a dark shadow glide through the air and then felt it unfurl in a soft embrace against my neck. It fluttered, gentle and feminine, in the light Southern summer breeze. An image of Isadora Duncan (whom I desperately wanted to be once I got over the shock I would never, ever look like Sophia Loren no matter how many hours I lay in the backyard dirt while slathered in iodine-laced baby oil) wafted through my consciousness: Isadora dancing through life, a fabulous long scarf floating in her wake. One of the men—they were yelling and wildly gesturing—must have tossed into the Tennessee Williams night a crepe paper streamer.
In addition to hoping the paper was yellow or pink so it would complement my pale linen suit, I did what my mother taught me to do when men acted the fool: I ignored them.
But it didn’t work. Their catcalling escalated. Still, I marched on. Don’t you dare look at them, you little heathen.
The crepe paper caressed my skin in a rhythmic beat normally reserved for something with a pulse. Since when, I wondered—my fear nebulous, unfocused—did crepe paper possess cadence? I grabbed at my neck, took hold of something soft and warm—the men screamed—gazed at my hand, and delivered (at least in my emotional mind I did) a shriek that scarred the night.
In my very own hand—a hand that only moments prior felt very ordinary—I held a small bat. Or rather, it held me. The creature clung to the fatty rise of my palm, pinching my skin with something tapered and sharp. Fang or claw? I did not know. I flicked my wrist as hard as I could. The bat’s talons—or were they teeth?—dug deeper. Its wings fluttered in black vampire perfection against my chunky, yellow Bakelite bangle. The goddamned bat, as my mother would have said, wasn’t letting go.
The teeming mass of male humanity shouted what I assumed was advice. I did not speak their language because, though I made As in high school Spanish, I retained very little knowledge except that one should never develop a crush on the new guy, at least not while he’s still new and untested.
Clueless as to the meaning of the men’s swift phrasings, the rapidity of their words in all likelihood fueled by fear, I continued to vehemently shake my arm. I could not bring myself to pick off The Creature of The Night, which was unfortunate because no matter how hard I shook, flung, or gyrated, this demon seed of Dracula remained attached to me like a black diamond wrist corsage.
There, amid the heat and wavering light and cacophony of male counsel, I brought the bat closer and inspected, faintly fascinated, and praying I wasn’t bleeding. Its little face resembled that of a wee dog with giant ears.
The bat looked at me as though I was a mere curiosity and it held all the power. The good news: It had not fanged me. The bad news: I realized bats possessed tiny, powerful thumbs crowned with flesh-ripping claws.
I am superstitious. Of this, I am unashamed. After all, I was raised by a woman who believed she spoke to demons. How could I not believe in signs, ghosts, spells, Barnabas Collins, and the possibility that all bats are secret goatsuckers? I didn’t need a refresher course in the occult to know a clinging winged rat was not a good omen.
Panicked to the point of nearly losing control of my mind and bodily functions, I flicked my hand so violently I distended my wrist. The bangle flew off, ricocheting into the tangle of men and equipment. Pain radiated up my arm and fissured in the maze of my elbow and shoulder. The bat, possibly suffering from thumb distension or shriek-induced deafness, did, however, release me, promptly disappearing—a shy apparition—into the chaos of moon-filtered chiaroscuro and city bustle.
Before I could begin to track down my Bakelite or worry myself into a frenzy over how many agonizing rabies shots I would have to endure, a young man jumped in front of me, danced an agitated jig, and said in a thick accent, his eyes wide with what I interpreted as both fear and wonder, “No worry, ma’am, no worry. Bat good luck!”
What the hell was wrong with this guy?
“It was a fucking bat!” I said, rubbing my wrist, the sensation of the creature’s claws and wings haunting my neck and hand. I triple-checked: no broken skin, which I was pretty sure meant (a) I didn’t have rabies and (b) I remained an outsider among the ranks of the vampiric dead.
“I know, I know!” His feet slowed as did his speech, and he repeated himself, allowing the syllables to hang in the air longer than necessary, each vowel oozing into a viscous slur. “Noooo wor reee. Baaaat goooood luck.”
Fourteen years and many trials later, I stand on my back porch, testing fate again, wondering what sort of luck I would have had without that bat encounter. Bill hands me a glass of wine as I watch the evening’s first wave of chiroptera flicker though the gathering twilight—black silhouettes shattering a prism sky. I take stock. Was life a series of mistakes and trials interrupted by small moments of joy? That would suck. Was it a mixture of luck and fate, good karma and bad, depending on a cosmic roll of the dice? Did cataclysmic things happen to decent people just because? Did the Old Testament God occasionally wake from his eternal slumber and screw with people simply for shits and giggles?
A bat swoops within a foot of me. I don’t flinch.
“That was close,” Bill says, bringing his Jim Beam on ice closer to his chest, as if he suspects bats have a proclivity for brown liquor.
“Do you think Job deserved those boils and plagues?” I ask, slapping at a no-see-um.
“Absolutely not,” Bill says, keeping his gaze pegged to the sky that is now quite crowded with winged creatures. I think Bill is about to expound on what he thinks of God’s treatment of Job and it probably isn’t complimentary of the Lord Almighty, as a faded relation of mine oft refers to Him, but our attention is snagged by a thread of conversation emanating from the house. We had, like poor earth stewards, left on the TV.
A CNN talking head reports that overnight in the Gulf, gas, oil, and concrete from something called the Deepwater Horizon oilrig exploded up the wellbore to the deck, where it caught on fire. Eleven platform workers are missing. Rescue and recovery operations are underway. A Coast Guard petty officer insists there is no sign of a leak.
“A rig exploded and there isn’t a leak? How can that be?” I ask Bill. I gaze out at Alligator Bay, worry mushrooming through every corpuscle in my body. I can’t survive the destruction of this pristine estuary, this amazing ecosystem where if you are a fish, a marine mammal, a land mammal, an insect, a bird, a mullet, you’ve found one of the greatest places on the planet to birth babies. Or, if you are a grown woman with a painful past, you find solitude and grace, states of being that if you’re lucky lead you down the path toward forgiveness and new love.
“They’re lying again,” Bill says, a matter-of-fact nonchalance lacing his words.
One of the herons glides to its roost in the big tree. It lands amid gnarled branches and squawks—a warning, an avian sigh, an issuance of old pain, a call to its mate (I’m home. Where are you?): Which one I don’t know. But I fear Bill is right.
I rest my head against his shoulder, watch the winged world feed, my memory flashing on a horrific ingrained image: oiled birds dying horrendous deaths in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster, and I find myself praying to whatever is out there. Please, dear God, no.
Then I voice a hope that makes no sense, at least not to my husband. I slip my hand into his and say, “The sky is full of good luck tonight.”