The End of the Beginning

In the Sonoma dusk, bats swoop above the winding road to our gate and around the garden pond below our bedroom window. I cannot see their faces; only the outline of wings and ears. The bats mostly stay away from me, in their hunt for nighttime insects that cluster in the shadows of the house. 

One evening last July, though, my husband went up to bed earlier than I did. I knew what he would do. He would lie in bed with the covers shoved down, and stare at random news of life that popped across the iPad he had propped against his bent knees. He would be wearing large, black headphones, and all the lights would be out, except for the dull bedside lamp on the brown side table, while Jim nodded in, nodded off, and finally fell asleep despite the flashing screen in front of him.

It’s bleak, for me, to find Jim this way. I hate to do it, and so I come to bed later and later at night. I bum around in the kitchen, eating nuts and cookies. I mess with a jigsaw puzzle or skip ahead to the last five paragraphs of a magazine article I want to finish. I take the dogs outside with a flashlight, and think about walking the garden, but I come back in almost right away because of the skunks and the possums that wander close when it’s late, and also because I’m afraid of the dark.

When I came upstairs that late July night, I mostly found what I thought I would: Jim’s glasses were still on and his chin rested on his sleeping chest. The headphones framed his face, the lamp cast its useless pool of light on the table edge, the iPad flashed blue along the bottom of his nose. But there was a swift flicker overhead as I watched my sleeping husband, a darting and flashing, a fast shadow that swooped and fled. And when I looked up, I saw it: the swirling, hunting bat that circled, and circled again, above my husband’s head.

*

I saw a bat once inside another house, too. Or not in a house, exactly, but underneath the gabled ceiling of the gothic eating hall at my son’s boarding school.

We had arrived in Concord the day before to drop Will off; it was a tense and awful time. Will was just fourteen, and I imagined we were abandoning him to an unparented, unloving education, that he would be unguarded and unguided for the four long years that stretched ahead. I didn’t want him to go, and I believe Jim did not, either. But Will was insistent —“I need to go away,” he begged, “I need to be independent”—and somehow, unaccountably, we did not manage to refuse.

A young chemistry teacher in khakis and wire-rimmed glasses walked the new parents away from their children and toward lunch, distracting us with stories about orientation week, dormitory life and, at last, about the dining hall we were in.

Looking up, the teacher said, “Ah, there’s a bat.”

And there it was. High above the mahogany-paneled walls, exposed from above by light that was broken and filtered through stained glass windows, a little brown ball, wings wrapped around itself and hanging upside down from a ceiling beam.

“Bats are wonderful creatures,” the teacher assured our restive group, parents alarmed by the presence of this feral creature in a place their children would soon take daily meals.

“Bats are filthy,” one father objected, “and vectors for disease.”

“I study bats each summer in Maine,” the teacher told him, “because their population is declining. We think there’s a virus that jumps between hosts while the bats roost together in the caves and trees. In actual fact, bats are more dangerous to themselves than anyone else.”

The troubled father frowned.

“But don’t worry,” the teacher promised. “I’ll get this one out of here before the students come for dinner.”

“How did the bat get in?” I asked the teacher later on, after we had left the dining hall and crossed the green to visit the Old Library.

“Well,” he answered, “bats are ingenious.”

*

I watched Dark Shadows on television as a kid. The show aired every day at 4:00 p.m. and, while I was not allowed to watch afternoon television at my home, my best friend, Jeannie, experienced no such restrictions at hers. Jeannie lived four houses up the street from me and, for the entirety of fourth grade, we scrambled from the school bus stop to the low, orange couch in her family room to watch the daily horrors unfold.

Jeannie and I were never entirely clear as to the show’s plot or timeline. Many of the stock actors jumped from role to role, as did the action from present-day 1969 to the wispy and gothic year of 1897. But we were rapturously terrified by the ghosts and werewolves that often populated the screen, and absolutely fascinated by the vampire: the undead, unscrupulous, and utterly mercurial Barnabas Collins.

Barnabas haunted relatives who occupied the dark, paneled halls of Collinwood Manor in craggy, ocean-side Maine. Barnabas had been bitten by a bat two hundred years before and was now, himself, forever biting the pretty young women in town. Barnabas’s victims often went crazy after he drank their blood, or they fell under his romantic spell, or wreaked equivalent havoc on those around them. The Collins family fought, sons killed fathers, diseases spread until the family finally caught on to the fact that Barnabas wasn’t your average visiting cousin from England.

“I’m going to find him,” an outraged Edward Collins promised his brother, Quentin. “And I’m going to drive a stake through his heart!”

Vampires, it seemed, could only be killed in this fashion, and only while they slept the daylight hours away in some dark coffin or crypt. Otherwise, their supernatural powers could be temporarily checked by the brandishment of “holy relics,” or strings of garlic whose pungent odor seemed to offend vampires as much as it did my mother.

What fascinated me about Barnabas wasn’t so much the horror of his deeds; it was the suddenness, the unaccountability of his presence in the storyline. 

“Out of the falling dusk,” the beautiful governess Victoria Winters noted when Barnabas first arrived in town, “a man has come. A stranger who is not a stranger.”

Without provocation or purpose, without reason or explanation, a vampire had materialized to ravage and destroy the wealthy complacency of Collinsport’s inhabitants. 

*

Bats have an unusually high tolerance for the many viruses they host: Rabies, Hendra, Entebbe, Sokoluk, Hipah, and Guama, among others. The Ebola virus was traced to a flourishing bat colony in West Africa, and coronaviruses can blossom in bats without harming them. 

Bats feed on insects, fish, fruit, pollen, and blood. As they hunt and eat and are, in turn, hunted and eaten, the viruses they cloak can jump to other mammals, to cattle and pigs, wolves and humans.

Bats are the only mammals who have adapted to true and sustained flight. While their flying looks frenzied, it is, in fact, radically precise. To avoid colliding with each other and the many other obstacles that bar their twitchy paths, they use a combination of echolocation and sense receptors to locate and strike their prey. Bats  are often quietest when they fly, whispering rather than yipping, chirping instead of screeching, softly propelling their sonar-guided journeys.

Scientists do not understand how bats thrive despite infection, and they cannot predict when and which of the viruses bats carry will spill over to other species. The important thing, they say, is to leave bats be.

“Let them get on, doing the good they do, flitting around at night,” scientists assure us on podcasts and in dryly illustrated journals, “and we will not catch their viruses.”

*

There were many things beyond watching afternoon television that I was not allowed to do growing up. My parents, particularly my mother, were demanding of my time and my imagination. Idleness and daydreaming were the devil’s work, and my mother harried me if she felt I was slipping into either mode.

“Your mother is on the phone,” Jeannie’s mother would announce, while her daughter and I played Marco Polo in their shaded gray swimming pool, or hunted for lost kittens in the hedges behind the house.

“Come home now,” my mother insisted in her clipped and persistent voice.

“Read a book!” she demanded on my return. “Play tennis! Do something meaningful with your time! We did not raise you, we did not teach you, to waste your day.”

When I was young I was afraid of my mother, and I did not resist as she pulled me out of the world I wanted to explore, and back into the order of routine and obedience upon which she insisted.

“Help your sister with her homework,” my mother directed me. “Water the plants. Walk the dog. Rake the leaves.”

When I grew older, though, I protested. I suggested with increasing frequency that my time and my thoughts belonged to me.

“Are you crazy?” my mother would respond, eyes wide and disapproving. “Don’t  forget what side your bread is buttered on.” 

My mother frightened me, yes, but she also enraged me. It felt, to my heightened teenage imagination, as if she wanted to own every part of me, as if she did not ever want me to think for myself, act for myself, serve myself.

“She’s a succubus,” I raged to one intellectual friend.

“A succubus,” my friend replied, “is a goblin that seduces men. Your mother is not a succubus.”

“Okay then,” I said, “she’s a vampire.”

*

I yelled, or maybe I screamed, when I saw the bat circle my dormant husband’s head, when it dove close in and then swung away, dove close again, and then flew at the ceiling.

“What?” Jim asked, startled awake by my voice.

“That’s the loudest noise,” he noted, “you’ve ever made.”

He looked at my face, and then he looked up, and saw the creature flying about the room. 

“Oh,” he said, and rolled quickly off the bed to open the hallway door.

Out flew the bat, and he slammed the door behind it.

“Okay,” Jim told me. “it’s gone.”

“It’s not gone,” I said. “It’s flying around outside our bedroom door.”

“We’ll take care of it in the morning,” Jim offered.

“No,” I answered, “we’ll take care of it now.”

*

I learned to keep my distance from my mother long before she started talking to me about losing her mind.

“I’m going batty,” my mother ventured, as we stood in her kitchen a decade ago.

“No, you’re not,” I replied.

“I’m forgetting things,” she advised some months later.

“I’m sure you’re imagining it,” I answered.

“I’m losing my train of thought,” she proffered on yet another occasion.

“I do that, too,” I noted.

“I know what’s happening,” my mother insisted. “I know my brain.”

“It’s the end of the beginning,” she claimed.

“You mean,” I corrected her, “it’s the beginning of the end.” 

*

I had the occasional cup of coffee with the chemistry teacher when I came from California to visit my son at his New Hampshire school. 

“How are your bats?” I asked.

“Still dying,” the teacher answered.

“What’s it like,” I wanted to know, “when they leave the caves at night? Is it crazy, when they’re flapping all around you?”
“There’s nothing crazy about bats,” the teacher assured me. “There is nothing random in their flight.”

“Well,” I observed, “it looks random.”

“In all chaos there is a cosmos,” he replied. “In all disorder a secret order.”

“Okay,” I said.

“At least that’s what Jung says,” the teacher grinned.

*

I heard my mother’s voice when she told me she didn’t recall favorite words, could not follow cocktail party conversation, or access the perfect riposte during an encounter with the difficult patrolman who ticketed her badly-parked car. But I discounted her fears. I could not imagine any moment in time when she was not fully in control of herself and those around her. I could not accept that my mother was not steering her course with the confident deftness and  absolute certitude which had characterized her every turn in life.

When her Parkinson’s diagnosis was confirmed, though, I paid closer attention. I watched my mother read her menu at the Japanese restaurant, untroubled by the fact that it was brightly and fully aflame from the candle sitting on the table in front of her. I listened when she hazarded a strongly held opinion, only to stop, mid-sentence, and frown at the space in front of her. I noticed her voice grow softer and weaker. I saw her smiling at me, felt the novel and remarkable absence of judgment, of command in her demeanor while we sat together in her beautiful, blooming garden.

When she was still able to write, my mother catalogued her madness fears on sheets of paper stowed in a cabinet at the foot of my parents’ curtained bed.

“Look what I found,” my sister, Emily, texted me one afternoon while she kept loving vigil at my mother’s sleeping bedside. 

Emily had attached a photograph of a lined sheet of paper covered in my mother’s handwriting. The top half of the page was written in messy print. The bottom was a verbatim copy of the printed words on top, but in my mother’s neater cursive.

“Panic,” the page began.

Very confused

panic, panic

can’t recall anything

can’t process info

can’t spell

can’t add or subtract

writing getting lighter

can’t develop a point – forget

I did not know my mother had been writing about herself. I did not know that she was keeping track, preserving the evidence, recording her decline even as her family, even as I, had refused to credit it.

*

“What do you do when there’s a bat in your house?” I typed into the search bar on Jim’s still-flashing iPad.

The online advice was copious and conflicting:

Stay close to the walls.

Keep low to the ground. 

Open the windows and doors on one side of the house. 

Open the windows and doors on all sides of the house.

Turn all the lights on. 

Turn all the lights off. 

Avoid the bat. 

Confront the bat. 

“I’m going out there,” I told  Jim, and he let me.

I opened the door and, immediately, the bat swooped from above, swooshing past me and back up to the peaked ceiling, then at me again, close enough that I could see its pink face, the little dark eyes, the pale, piggy nose, the black and open mouth. I screamed and then I laughed, and I was surprised to laugh because, while the encounter was absurd, surely it wasn’t funny.

The animal came at me again as I descended, then veered away when I flung open the front door. Laughing still, I crouched on the floor and, looking up for the creature, instead saw Jim emerge from our bedroom door with a tennis racket in his gloved right hand.

“Anne,” Jim said, as I cackled from the floor, “this is not a joke.”

We crawled and scrambled to open doors and windows, the bat buzzing us and whooshing away, frenzied and uninterested in the multiple escape routes with which we struggled to provide it.

“We’re going to die,” I told Jim.

“No we’re not,” he said. 

And then, suddenly, the bat was gone. It left as it came, through some unseen gap, through some unmonitored window into and out of our smugly impregnable lives.  

*

“How will you children manage when I’m gone?” my mother fretted to me before she lost the ability to speak in coherent sentences. “What’s going to happen,” she asked, as if I knew how the earth could spin without my mother controlling its axis.

“Don’t worry,” I lied to her. “Everything will be fine.”

*

After the bat was gone, we closed the doors and fastened the windows. We had a glass of water, and climbed back up the stairs. We got into bed and turned off the lights.

Before falling asleep once again, Jim turned and looked at me.

“What was that all about?” he asked.

“That,” I said, “was the end of the beginning.”

Photo Credit: USFWS – Pacific Region from Flickr

About the author

Anne Kenner was a 2016 Fellow at Stanford University’s Distinguished Careers Institute, and has worked as a law professor and high school educator.  From 1986-2000, Ms. Kenner served with the United States Department of Justice as an Assistant United States Attorney. Based first in New York and then in San Francisco, she specialized in narcotics, organized crime, and white-collar fraud prosecutions. “The Lower Layer,” a companion piece about Ms. Kenner’s investigation into her brother’s death, was published in 2018 by The Gettysburg Review, and listed as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2019.  Her work also appears in The Southwest Review.
 

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