I searched my father's tattered winter coat and found a notebook in a pocket. The notebook was spiral bound, palm size, with my father's hand-written notes on the front ten pages: three romantic verses he'd labeled “Songs;” the lyrics to “My Blue Heaven;” a recipe for making corn mash whiskey; and in imitation of “Casey At The Bat,” rhyming descriptions of his baseball teammates, including their names and positions.
Those things implied something about Dad. I stared at the five acres in the valley where he'd left us. They seemed as inscrutable as he did. I knew he'd played the piano and liked music. In our house were two ukuleles and an old guitar. Mom had said he could play those too, but I’d never seen him do it. The baseball poem included surnames of people I'd heard him mention but never met. That recipe seemed only curious. Much later I would learn that he'd been arrested, convicted, and locked up in Chillicothe's federal prison for moonshining.
I read everything again. Then a picture fell out from between the last page and back cover. In the photo Dad looked as dark as the coal I'd helped him take from old tipples, where trains had uploaded coal. He had a baseball cap jammed inside a rear pocket of shapeless black trousers, the bill flopping down wrong side up on his hip. He also wore a gray, wrinkled polo shirt and dusty clodhoppers. I noticed a date in black ink on the back—7/4/32.
I ran inside and showed my mother, who clapped a hand over her mouth—“Oh my!”—then tears. It was just too much for her to talk about then. She opened up, though, a few hours later. She'd taken the picture herself. My father was 19, having quit eighth grade six years earlier.Decades later I would figure out that, there being no jobs, he was already earning some cash by working a still set up in a hidden mine shaft.
I studied the picture again. His head was cocked as if listening for guidance, posing so the woman he loved could focus her Brownie. Their marriage was a month ahead. His arrest would come two years after that. He would be imprisoned while his wife gave birth and while those for whom he bootlegged, his father and brothers, stayed safely hidden in the hills that had formed him and his family.
Those hills were in the background. They surrounded him. Stunted shrubbery and a few mature trees hid the scars of strip mining. He was standing in a rut on Harrison Road, and one of his eyes gleamed, as if he were dreaming about his future: marriage, business, home, property, children. There were no negatives implied, like prison or death.
Bats weren't part of my world. They were nocturnal. They flew. They hung upside down, slept, gave birth and nurtured their young in that odd position. I'd seen pictures. I'd read a little. I'd heard about vampires. They came from somewhere else, an alien place, a different planet. They were invaders.
I noticed them circling my home and thought of miniature vultures lurking in the dusk. I mentioned them to friends. The guys told me that whole colonies of bats lived in caves, in hollow trees, in belfries, in abandoned attics, in the spookiest buildings. Opened gables, bell towers and spires let them in. Sure. Why not? Who would allow them to live anywhere else?
One evening I watched them soaring, silhouetted against the blue sky and white clouds in the early evening. Our valley had lost the sun, but the bats in the same shadow were frolicking. My dad saw me and encouraged my interest. They were catching insects, he said, using sonar more than their eyes. What weirdness.
I wanted to see one up close, so I moved over by our garden, out of the sight of my father reading a paper by the front window, and repeatedly shot my pump-action air gun at the bats overhead. They may have caught the BBs for the turns they flew. Their jagged acrobatics convinced me to load three BBs at a time and shoot behind them. I did it many times until one finally fell: a lump of darkness at first, limping awkwardly on ground and grass it might never have touched before.
One leg, the ribbing for a wing, was broken. When I reached to pick it up, it spun and bit at my fingers. Carefully, I held its wing tips apart, stretched them taut under light in our garage to see the bat's details, and it threw its sound waves in my face and knew me. Shivering in the cool of the evening, holding hands with a creature of darkness, I imagined its want, of circling on invisible currents above the earth, throwing ahead of itself those sounds that reflected back an auditory alteration meaning food or danger.
It had a human-looking nose, elephantine ears, an open mouth that screeched at me, teeth like pins or needles, or fangs. Brown fur on its back, gray fur underneath. And nipples. It was a she.
I understood her screaming then. It meant she was in pain. She wanted help.
What could I do to heal her? I didn't know how to care for a bat. I was the one who'd hurt her just to see what she looked like.
Ashamed, I used my BB gun to end her suffering. Buried her in our garden. Instead of vampires or Dracula, I pictured my writhing little victim and realized our meeting had taught me more about myself than her.
Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folkdances. His poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and Five Star Mysteries published his novel Old Town in 2005.