In my mind, all leather-bound books have full mustaches and conservative values. Their smell can establish any room as an office, but I’m not a fan of their overall aesthetic. I’d recently moved with my boyfriend, Abe, and his lot of old books, into a crumbly house in Morgantown. With him in law school and me in graduate school, moving felt a bit like transporting a library. When we were unpacking, he lined the top shelf of my bookcase with the kind of antique legal publications that look perpetually dusty and mean.
“I don’t really care. I just hate those books. But we can keep them there if you want,” I said. I’m trying to be more comprising. I’m 23 and it’s our second year living together. He makes me embarrassingly happy, so I’m trying to budge on more issues. “Or just move all my journals and then the bottom shelf can be for your undusted books.”
“Come look at this,” Abe said. He didn’t seem interested in my shelving system. He pointed at a small black mass under a huge antique journal. It resembled a shriveled-up portabella mushroom. He lifted the journal to reveal a small bat carcass.
I decided that I was done unpacking for the day. I ran upstairs to listen to Woody Guthrie and reestablish my enthusiasm for our new home in West Virginia.
Our orange attic was enormous and full of comfy old leather couches. There were two nooks with bay windows that jutted out from the main room. We each got one for our easels and paints. Upstairs on the couch I googled, “What should I do if I find a dead bat in my house?” This counts as helping, I thought. Before that moment, I had never considered dying of rabies. Yahoo Answers changed that. I yelled down to Abe, who was still unpacking, and asked if he noticed any other signs of bats. He walked upstairs and told me this was the second dead bat he’d found. I threw myself on the floor.
I met Abe five years ago when I was a freshman in college. We spent a year being awful to each other and talking about books. The next year we indulged ourselves in complications. I spent the following year or so traveling around India and France, trying to become my authentic self. We finally got back together two years ago. This was the nine-millionth iteration of us and by far the best.
“We just have bats,” he said and rubbed my head. I pulled my laptop off the couch and rested it on my stomach. I googled
“Why are there dead bats in my house?” and then “Family of bats living in my house.” This was when I found out that a bat can bite you in your sleep, exposing you to rabies, and you won’t even feel it. You won’t even wake up.
“What does a bat bite look like?” I googled. “How long does a person live after exposure to rabies?” Google handled my litany of fear-based questions calmly. I didn’t have such grace.
These days all of my fears stem from being alive. At least six times every day, maybe I’m eating soup or feeling a breeze, I think, being alive is the best. Because I was dead for a billion years before this moment, and I’ll be dead again for a billion more after it, everything, even the bad bits, feels like such a treat. When I think of death as a loss, a step out of the world met with nothing, I wiggle around and think this is so dope, being alive is so dope. And it really is.
After I finished using the internet to work myself into a frenzy, I shared everything I’d learned with Abe as he played a computer game on the other side of the attic. The computer screen glowed a green halo around his head. He looked like an e-angel.
“Your jaw locks up so you can’t swallow and that’s why you start foaming at the mouth. But at first rabies feels like nothing special. The symptoms are like ‘sore throat’ and ‘headache.’ Did you know that rabies is 100% fatal? Didn’t you think we had cured this?” I asked.
“Do I look like I have rabies?” Abe asked me, mouth flat. I’d worried him.
“No, you look good. And from what I gathered, you should get the shots as soon as possible, but you have a two-week window. Basically, we just have to take our bat to be tested,” I said, in an effort to comfort him. So we stuck our bat in purple tupperware and promised to get it tested first thing in the morning.
Writing something down helps it to feel real. Rabies is preventable. Death is natural. Rooibos tea prevents cancer. My body can get sick and recover. Fear feels like hot goo against the bottom of my throat. Name it and release it.
Lots of people don’t think about death constantly, and it’s hard for me to chat with them. What are they barreling towards? How do they go about cherishing? My therapist is one of them. She cites stories of people who have died and been brought back to life by doctors. She claims they all report a feeling of peace and welcoming, across cultures and religions. That’s persuasive information. If I thought there was something similar to being alive that was going to happen after I died, then I probably wouldn’t be afraid of death either.
The next day we slept till 1 p.m..
“Do you think you could take the lead on the bat thing while I get the garbage set up?” Abe asked, on our walk to get coffee. I released an audible sigh. But I agreed to handle the bats, because I do little to help around the house. I hate small tasks. It shows. I have a very marsupial face that showcases sadness well. Abe got me a breakfast cookie as thanks for helping out.
Abe helped so much with moving that week. Maybe I was starting to appreciate him more, or maybe the appreciation was a symptom of rabies. We’d spent lots of money at Target in the last few days. Maybe that’s why life seemed so pleasant and organized. Or maybe the Target splurge was caused by rabies. How could I know anything anymore?
I googled “phone number for dead bat” when we got home. I realized that I needed to be way more specific. “Dead bat Morgantown rabies.” The first article was about a cat in Morgantown that had tested positive for rabies. I sipped my coffee. I didn’t know people wrote news articles about that kind of thing.
I added “.gov” to my search to find something more reputable. I found an official looking page that said to call my county health department within 24 hours of finding a bat. Great, now the government’s going to know about my bat, I thought.
I called the wrong county on my first try. But the woman on the phone seemed nice. She spoke in pure notes. Her sentences were long with a cheery flip up at the end. Some time later, I found myself on the phone with the correct person. Her voice sounded like the other woman’s voice run through a garbage disposal.
“So do you think I should bring it in and get it tested for rabies or do you think it’s just one of those things, like, no one really does?” I asked.
“Uh, I can’t answer that,” she said, voice full of scattered tones.
“Like, isn’t rabies one of those things that never really happens?” I asked her, looking for any excuse not to deal with this.
“You know, I’d say it’s always better to be safe than sorry,”
“Totally.” I was feeling slightly embarrassed for trying to get out of the rabies test. “That makes sense.” If you get rabies, you will 100 percent die. And it’s completely preventable through a vaccine. But only two people in America died from rabies last year, which signaled to me that I didn’t really have to get my bat tested.
The woman at the health department gave me directions to their office. It was near the alumni center, which wasn’t so bad. I thought about how unlikely it was that our bat would have rabies as I ate my cookie. It’s hard for me to trust my judgment, because sometimes I’ll trick myself to get out of work. I passed the baton to Abe.
Crow Folk would be a great band name. We agreed on this over Sleepy Time tea. It was only three in the afternoon, but that was the clip Abe and I planned on going that day. We were going to wake up early tomorrow to hand in our bat at the building by the alumni center. That was going to be the worst, so we decided to go easy on ourselves today.
It felt like I’d done something the day before because I’d put on that facemask. But that doesn’t really count. I decided to start holding myself to a higher standard. I bought a big glass jar to keep cotton balls in. That’s a start. And I’m turning my bat in first thing tomorrow morning.
Everything I’d read online confirmed it was too soon to tell if I had it. With rabies, you could go months without showing any signs. The symptoms don’t really matter, anyway. By the time you show any you’re already a guaranteed goner.
While lying in bed that night, I imagined trap doors opening from my ceiling and bats pouring out. I pictured them whipping their wings around my coatrack and stabbing my toes through our lavender top sheet. I’d tell Abe to put “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” on the cover of my funeral pamphlet if I die of rabies. That would be a class move, I think.
I turned to face Abe. He sleeps like a loaf of uncooked sourdough. He’s more considerate than I am. He won the “Most Caring” award in 5th grade. His mind has always been a populated place. I’m still internalizing the idea that the Earth is covered in other people. Earlier Abe pointed out that, all things considered, being crushed by an enormous antique blank journal is an okay way to die. It would be very Terry Tempest Williams. It strikes me how bizarre it is that Abe put thought to that subject. He worried about the pain involved in the bat’s death. That’s why he’s nice and asleep. I picture myself super thin, dying of rabies. That’s why I’m mean and awake.
When I asked Abe what he thinks happens after a person dies, he answered that the person begins rotting. The grossest part about his answer is it’s true. One day my thighs will rot off the bone in a casket no one will open. My boyfriend takes the rotting thought in a different direction. My body will no longer be an important part of me after I die. I’ll be finished with it. Who knows what’s next? But my body’s done and so it’s going away now. I still can’t quite wrap my head around the idea of life without a body.
Death is just how a body breaks. But I’m really attached to my body and that’s not very Buddhist of me. Maybe this body is holding something eternal that will keep living after I die. I don’t know, but I hope so. But I don’t know, and I’m not banking on it.
I left bed to get a drink of water. Our tap water had the same aftertaste as Benadryl. This was because we have tons of discarded mountain tops lying around West Virginia. I pictured their particles in my water making it muggy. Brita filters work, I wrote down in my journal when I got back to bed. My flashlight woke Abe up.
Bodies are ephemeral and that’s the worst because I love mine. It’s grown on me, with its constellation of freckles across the stomach. My rib cage takes its job seriously, never lets things poke my lungs or heart. And my lungs and heart are always doing something so I try to pay attention to them and learn about consistency. It feels wrong to tell my body it’s not as holy as my soul. Why does it have to rot while the rest rises to do something new?
“I don’t want to have rabies,” I said to Abe. I hadn’t realized I was on the verge of crying until I heard the quality of voice that was escaping me. I tucked my head into his neck. I felt safer. I was an ostrich hiding from predators.
“Come here. You’re fine.” I loved his voice when it was deep and half-asleep. “You’re not going to die till you finish paying off your student loans.” He turned my hair with his fingers. I whispered what I wanted on my funeral pamphlet and which friends I wanted to have which of my scarves if I died.
“And don’t give the gold one from Switzerland to anybody. Just destroy it in a theatrical way,” I ended, before realizing he had gone back to sleep. He made being kind look so appealing. I tried to mimic his breathing and the way he held his hands.
The next day, Abe came home to me hanging some mosquito netting over our bed. I’m just under five feet tall. I was doing a terrible job because I couldn’t reach the ceiling.
“What’s all this?” he asked. “I don’t like it. It looks like a princess’s room.”
“It’s to keep the bats out. This way they can’t bite us when we sleep.”
“We’ll just close the doors and windows.”
“They could come in through the vent or the closet with the water heater. They can fit through a nickel-sized hole.”
“Baby, I don’t think you need to be so worried about this.”
“I’m too worried to even sleep in my own bed.” I dropped down and the mosquito net fell over me.
“OK, I’ll call the landlord.” This was a huge compromise on Abe’s part. He hated getting the landlord involved. Meanwhile, I didn’t mind forcing my landlord to grapple with the fleeting nature of life alongside me.
Later that day my landlord left a message saying he was “sending his bat man over.” I loved everything about that sentence. If I understood the transitive properties of batmen, because I was his tenant, his batman was Batman too.
A few hours later a man wearing a baseball hat and a sleeveless black tee showed up at my door. His body was round in unexpected ways. He was a series of connected circles, like a snowman. His pink cheeks, also round, were covered in gray stubble.
“I’m here about a bat,” he squeaked. I invited him in, happy that someone was as excited to talk about bats as I was.
“So, where’re the bats living?”
“Well, they’re mostly dead, but they live in my bookcase.”
“It’s not just mine anymore. I have to share it with Abe now.” After I said that I led him into our study. “Those books are his,” I said pointing to the top shelf.
“Well, there’s your culprit.” He pointed to an uncovered vent-hole in the wall by the bookshelf. That made sense. He went outside, clanked around in his truck, then returned with a mess of netting to cover the bat’s entryway.
We agreed it was best if he checked the rest of the house. The exterminator saw himself as a bit of a ladies’ man. As I led him around, he said “I’ve got this situation under control” and called me names like “little lady.” It came across more old-fashioned than creepy.
In the attic, he opened all of the closet doors to check for bat roosts. He shined his flashlight into the corner.
“Just what I thought. Bat droppings.” I was so happy about being right that I almost passed out. “This must be where your bats are living. I’m going to plug it up with Gorilla Glue and clean it out. Then you should be good to go.”
“Did alive bats or dead bats live there?” I crunched my eyebrows down past the start of my nose. I shared what I’d learned on google. “So does it seem like these are megabats? Is it a megabat situation ... that we have here?” It became clear he wasn’t going to answer my question. I pressed forward. “Do you think these bats have rabies?”
“You’ve got a real genius for worry, little lady.” And with that, the batman shut the closet door and fled like a prophet to get the Gorilla Glue from his car.
I wasn’t trying to be his protégé. But I would have appreciated a little more information about the rabies situation in my attic. I’ll just never go in that closet. That’s fine, I thought.
I’ve got a knack for knitting tiny worries into solid fear. My batman noticed. I wondered what will happen to the batman when he dies. My guess is the same thing that will happen to me. We all probably get the same deal.
For Christmas, we left Chez Bats and headed to Jamaica with Abe’s family. An hour after arriving at the hotel, I was sipping a Red Stripe oceanside with Abe. The sun sunk into the ocean shedding orange tones, making everyone’s complexions glow. Abe put his arm around me. It was a moment too romantic to live up to itself.
I started to notice that my blinks were leaving a trail of darkness. The scenery began to look like a movie slowed down enough to see the black lines between the stills. This isn’t normal, I thought, and then, it’s probably all in my head.
Dizziness followed, then an awareness of my heart, bulging and condensing. There was something crude about feeling my heart thud so bodily. I stood up to get a drink of water. My vision was missing. On my way to the bar I walked into a festive lantern.
“Didn’t see that there?” a man said, whose tan revealed he was near the end of his vacation. My lips sneered up at him. What did he mean? Then another bit of blackness.
In my dream, I was somewhere futuristic. There was a lot of neon blue and orange action. I was riding motorcycles with a Jamaican man and we kept taking off our helmets and shaking our hair in luxurious ways. On one of our breaks, an enormous pair of fingers crashed through the skyscrapers and started heading toward me. I felt them prodding around my mouth. Who would do such a thing? I realized I was sleeping and licked the fingers to tell them to help.
I heard a voice ask if I’ve ever had a seizure. Then I heard my carsickness mentioned and saw Abe’s face dangling over mine.
“Why did I take a nap here?” I asked Abe, but so many people hovered above me it looked like a Baroque church ceiling, titled something like: Jamaicans and their tourists ascending to heaven.
“You passed out and had a little seizure.” Abe’s voice had so much worry in it that it stirred me like smelling salts. Luckily, his parents were medical professionals. They walked me to a bench to diagnosis me.
The sun finished setting in a drizzle of silver across the horizon. It was firmly night now. The mosquitos noticed and attacked us in swarms, then the bats swooped across the sky. Normally, I hate the way bats make my body feel temporary. This time I found the reminder pleasant. As my vision disappeared, and my heart gasped, my attitude towards death became: it’s going to happen one day.
My vision disappeared again and I just wanted to go back asleep. Abe’s mom kept me talking to her. Abe prodded her to do more, quicker. He was coated in a fear-based sweat that smelled sweet.
I was fine. My blood sugar dropped so low from a day of traveling without snacking that my nerves had seized up to get my body going again. But to Abe and me, my fall was tragic. Even after I felt better, we stayed in the hotel room, making astonished eyes at each other.
“I can’t believe that happened. I hate that festive lantern,” I said.
“You were so white. I hated that. I couldn’t handle it if anything happened to you.” Abe hugged me for existing, held my head against his chest. “Oh my goodness, I’m so happy you’re OK.” He tightened his hug till it was uncomfortable. “This is the best. You being alive is the best.”
What surprised me about fainting was the seamless transition between the two states. For the moments I was unconscious in Jamaica, nothing felt out of the ordinary. I think death will be similar. That’s not too bad. I’ll be in this other state, relaxing, not knowing any better, like a drunk in a pool.
Bodies are ethereal; I love mine. I’m sure death plays a part of that. And I love Abe. I don’t think death could change that. And I could even learn to love my attic bats.
Sadie Shorr-Parks lives in Shepherds-town, WV, where she works as a lecturer at Shepherd University. Her writing has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Sierra Nevada Review, Defunct Magazine, Blueline, LINES+STARS, and in two anthologies: Gutters and Alleyways: Perspectives on Poverty (Lucid Moose 2014) and Best of LINES+STARS: 2009-2010 (L+S Press). Reprinted from Witness (Spring 2017), a quarterly magazine of the Black Mountain Institute.