August heat brings the bats down from the attic, which must be an oven. Obviously, they prefer the cold of the caves that they seek out to hibernate in (the only thing I knew about bats till they started to visit us). Apparently, my attic will do in a pinch. We’re in a row house built by an Albany oil baron in 1871; there are nine in a row on tree-lined Elm Street. We moved in six years ago and didn’t see our first bat till three years ago. They never come earlier than midnight (I swear). First, a scratching noise as they squeeze their elastic bodies through the smallest of openings. That’s in the tiny corner formed by a floor-to-ceiling bookcase with the wall; adjacent is a big window that looks out on the yard, always open except in the dead of winter because Bridget spends a good part of her cat life stretched out full length on the sill taking the sun, when not peering into the night darkness (at what she sees and I don’t). I’m told that the local cats stalk and kill bats, but not our Bridget. At the first flap of wings, she flattens belly-to-the-carpet and flees down the stairs to the safety of the middle parlor floor.
She’s one smart cat because the bat just flies the length of the bedroom hallway and back again, swerving away from my head before collision as I pursue it wielding a long-handled dust mop to knock him out of the air, then throw a bath towel over him, scoop him up and out the window into the night. (Don’t think for a minute that I’m knowledgeable about bat gender: I think of him as a him because of the chestiness displayed in invading my castle at night like a common cat burglar.)
It’s not as hard to bring him down as it used to be. Of late, the bat, once descended, almost immediately runs into the four-and-a-half-foot span of the oscillating ceiling fan over my head as I sit at the computer writing. In fact, if I don’t hear the scratching that announces his visit, I will the thud as he runs into the fan’s blades, then again on his return flight. I don’t see him at first because I work with the lights off, by the illumination of the computer screen. This is new behavior on my bats’ part; in past years, they always avoided the whirring fan blades, owing to their marvelous sonar. And I would chase them up and back in the hallway, into the guest room if the door was open and, occasionally, down the stairs and around the parlor and basement floors till they tired enough that I could connect with the dust mop. It was never a sure thing who would tire first, me or the bat. But, of late, they appear to be flying blind. Are they sick or just youngsters on their maiden flights?
Amazingly, Bat #10, my nemesis, is only stunned by the fan’s blades. But I have a problem: I’m unprepared, lacking an essential tool, a large bath towel. As the bat crawls under the radiator under the windowsill, I rush into the bathroom and grab the hand towel hanging from the ring above the sink. Reaching for him under the radiator, I immediately withdraw my hand as I feel the touch of a fang on the inside of the ring finger of that hand. I persevere, rooting him out with the long handle of a backscratcher, scooping him up gingerly in the hand towel and out the window. I wash the finger with soap and water and pour rubbing alcohol on the area although I can’t detect that the skin is broken.
Before I tossed him out into the night, it occurred to me that I should hold onto him for testing for rabies by the Albany Health Department, but that seemed beyond me just then. Although they can test a dead bat as easily as a live one—so long as the head is intact--I don’t intentionally kill bats. Besides, it felt more like a friendly nuzzle than a serious bite.
Funny thing occurs to me: after I evict them, I never look to see where they go. In the early days, I’d toss them out still wrapped in the towel, then collect the empty towel in the morning. I’ve perfected the technique: now I just shake them out like a housewife airing the bed linen.
Next morning, my doctor insisted I go to St. Peter’s ER to hear that they can’t tell if the bat fang pierced my finger so they recommend a series of rabies shots, to be on the safe side. That’s because once infected, there’s no cure; once the disease reaches the central nervous system, death occurs within days. I’m told that if a bat is at large in a bedroom, for instance, while its occupants are asleep and consequently can’t be sure they haven’t been bitten or come in contact with bat saliva, the shots are recommended. The resident listens to my story, then tells me he has to talk to the County Health Department to get their guidance.
I’m waiting now going on three hours. Will I consent to undergo the vaccinations? I’m of two minds since Bat Control of Greater New York—the young man who rappelled down the back of my house from attic to the second floor three years ago to bat-proof the brick face—told me that upstate bats are rarely rabid. My ponderings are cut short when the resident reports back that Health said I don’t require shots. Go home. Hooray!
I’m at work when Health calls me that afternoon: Ooops! Go back to the ER for shots. I say no, thanks; that bat looked okay to me. A week later, I consult Google and read this description of a rabies infection: In the early stages, malaise, headache and fever, progressing to acute pain, violent movements, uncontrolled excitement, depression and hydrophobia; finally, periods of mania and lethargy, eventually leading to coma and death. I decide I didn’t know the bat all that well.
Back in the ER, as the doctor is poised to inject the immunoglobulin vaccine at the site of the bite—the inside of my right ring finger—I ask, in a wee small voice: Doesn’t hurt a lot, right? She just smiles and sticks me a dozen times under, on top, and at the base of my poor finger. My wife Rose is present, holding my good hand, so I do not cry out nor do I swoon. Then, an injection in the muscle of each arm and in both thighs, and I’m done. The nurse pronounces me a brave boy and Rose drives me home.
Over the next 14 days, I get one shot in the arm on three occasions at the local Health Department (easypeasee). Where you sign in, the women clerks have a life-like hawk-sized bat suspended from the low ceiling. Really sets the tone. August is still young so I get two more visiting bats. No drama, except #12 alights on my First Edition of “The Boys of Summer,” Roger Kahn’s history of the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950’s. When I remove and liberate the bat, I notice that he has left behind a half-inch, elliptical stain on the dust jacket. I’m still pondering its meaning.
© 2013 Robert Knightly