Short story from Mary Mackey

Vampire Bats Make Strange Bedfellows

The moment I woke up, I could hear the bat crawling toward my cot, dragging itself across the wooden floor of the tropical field station with a low hiss and an occasional squeak. That’s how I knew it was a vampire bat. Unlike other bats who fly at your face like teenagers on motorcycles playing chicken, vampires like to use their wings like paddles so they can sneak up on you, nip you on a bare toe or exposed shoulder, inject an anesthetic under your skin, and then bite down and do what vampires in horror films do: drink your blood. Unfortunately, unlike Dracula, vampire bats can be rabid, and getting medical attention if this one bit me would mean flying out of the Costa Rican jungle on a small plane held together with bailing wire and duct tape if I were lucky enough to be able to contact San Jose on the shortwave radio which never worked when you needed it to.

Okay, I thought. What next? While researching my first novel, I had read dozens of stories of tropical explorers who had looked down and suddenly realized a vampire bat was sucking away happily on their big toe. Unless I could get away from this thing, I might never know it had bitten me until it was too late.

If I get up in the dark, I thought, I’ll probably step on the bat and make it angry and if there’s one thing you don’t want to do, it’s piss off a vampire bat. I might also trip over that big snake that has been trying to get through the screens —a sort of two for one deal. So what are my options here?

If this place had electricity, which it didn’t, if my flashlight batteries hadn’t gone dead two days ago, if I had even been able to get up and light a lantern, I could have scared the thing off, but the lantern was downstairs, being knocked around by jungle rats, and the room was pitch black, as only a room in the middle of a moonless rainforest can be.

Squeak, squeak. Hiss, hiss. The bat was getting closer. Could it climb up onto my cot? Of course it could. The damn thing could fly up to the ceiling if it wanted to. In fact, as I considered this, I realized I could hear more squeaks coming from the colony of bats that hung from the rafters above my head. My god, were they all vampires! I’d figured they were harmless fruit bats. The tropical biologists who had been in and out of the field station over the last month had also thought they were fruit bats. Ladders were in short supply, as in, nonexistent within a range of thirty miles, and no one had been interested in shinnying up to the rafters to check.

The bat continued to shuffle closer. Much closer, as in, now, at the foot of my cot and climbing. There was only one way to avoid being bitten and that was to hide.

I jerked the sides of the sleeping bag up around my body so I was folded inside like a banana in a banana skin. I would have zipped it up, but the far end of the zipper was too close to the point where the bat was planning to hop up on top of me.

It was a good sleeping bag, guaranteed warm down to 35 degrees, and it had been a godsend when I was up in the Costa Rican cloud forest at Cerro de la Muerte living in an unheated truck stop where the puddles outside sometimes froze over at night. But down here in the lowland jungle, where the temperature was somewhere around 90 degrees night and day with 98 per cent humidity , I’d been sleeping naked, using the bag both as a mattress and as a shield against the wooden sides of the cot which had been inadvertently constructed out of a tropical wood related to poison ivy.

I stuck the tip of my nose out of the bag and took a quick breath hoping that that tiny part of me wouldn’t become bat bait. Surely I would notice if the bat bit me on the nose. I mean, how could I not notice a furry rat-like thing with razor sharp teeth and a seven inch wing-span dangling from one of my nostrils, for the thirty minutes it would take it to finish its dinner? Dinner, being me. Dinner, being my blood, which I was very attached to and did not wish to share.

God it was hot inside the bag. I felt as if I were suffocating. I pushed apart the sides a little more so my mouth was exposed, and then slapped them shut immediately. The bat was no longer on the floor. It was now at the foot of the sleeping bag, crawling steadily toward my head.

Don’t panic, I thought. You must not panic. You will not suffocate. Right?

Squeak, hiss, scrape, scrape.

Think of other things. Think how much people back in Michigan pay, for a sauna this time of year and you, you lucky girl, are getting one for free. Think of how, if this were a movie, the U.S. Cavalry would be riding up to rescue you, except that this isn’t a movie, and even if it were, the Cavalry horses would bog down in the jungle, die, and be eaten by carnivorous beetles before the rescue party made it to the field station.

Think of sex. Impossible. There is definitely nothing more off-putting than hiding from a vampire bat in a hot sleeping bag.

Okay then, think about how you got into this predicament in the first place. Why aren’t you in a first class hotel, sleeping under clean sheets, eating chocolates, and ordering piña coladas from room service? When did this start? How did you get here?

I thought for a while, and realized that I had been doomed to meet this vampire bat, the moment I stepped on that dead donkey skin in Golfito , the one that had been thrown flesh-side up over the railroad crossing. I had been on my way to the dugout that would ferry me across the Gulf to the field station and was too busy imagining all the adventures that lay ahead of me to look where I was going.

A brave woman, a woman who knew how to deal with a vampire bat in a pitch-black room, would not have screamed and clutched at the air like she was about to go mad when saw the horror she had stepped on.

What is that! I had shrieked.

A donkey skin, Señora.

What did the donkey do? Why have you executed it?

The donkey did nothing wrong. Her skin keeps cows off the tracks.

How often do you kill a new donkey and skin it?

Every time a train comes by, Señora. The donkey skin, it is not durable.

The bat had made it to my waist. Squeak, squeak. Hiss, hiss.

That’s the trouble with getting into the jungle, I thought, a real jungle, a jungle that has not been logged for lumber or tamed for tourists and renamed a “rainforest.” The real jungle is beautiful almost beyond description, but it’s inaccessible. To get into it, you almost always have to step on the equivalent of a skinned donkey, and what will happen next is anyone’s guess.

I had plenty of time to think about this. All night long, as I lay suffocating in my sleeping bag vowing to mend my ways, return to Indianapolis, and get a job in an air conditioned office as a Certified Public Accountant, the vampire bat crawled back and forth over me, searching for an opening so it could get in and drink my blood.

Finally, when the first greenish light seeped into the room and the jungle began to sing its great morning song of birds and frogs and monkeys, the bat paused beside my nose hole, took one last hungry look at me, and then flitted off to join the colony of vampire bats that hung just above my head.

The first thing I did when I threw off the sleeping bag was take a deep breath of fresh air, check out the floor for snakes, and move my cot. Then I went downstairs to make breakfast where, as usual, I found a line of ants carrying off the cheese and a jungle rat swimming around in the coffee pot.

As I stepped outside to set the rat free, I looked up at the second story of the field station where the vampire bat colony was enjoying its daytime siesta. I only had twenty-three more nights to go.