This flash fiction piece originally appeared in Issue 13.
The Augury of Bats
by Kiran Kaur Saini
Sheri tells me there are bats in her closet. “They’re diving and circling around and diving again.” Sheri is four and, as far as I know, has never seen a bat.
“Bats diving in a circle?” By the gleam of the nightlight, I slide the door back, peer inside. “I don’t see any bats,” I say, and turn the bedroom light on.
She is silent for a moment. “I can still hear them.”
I turn the vaporizer off. “How about now?”
She doesn’t say anything.
“I’m going to turn the lights off again. Let’s try it.”
Five minutes later, I am at the kitchen table grading papers and I hear her crying again.
“The bats?” I say, leaning against the door frame.
“Yes.” Her sobs lessen, but don’t stop.
I carry a table lamp with a 3-way bulb from the living room and plug it in near her closet. “How about this?” I put the light on low and hold her hand. “Do you still see them?”
She peeks towards the closet from the corners of her eyes, face tilted away, shakes her head.
“The light helps?” I ask.
She doesn’t nod.
The next day I go to the hardware store, buy a lighting fixture, and install it in her closet. At night I show her the string, which I have extended to the floor. I put its end in her hand. She tugs it on and off.
I tuck her in, tell her to pull the string if the bats come.
When the crying starts I go to sit on the edge of her bed.
“Do you want to try the closet light?” I ask.
“I can’t go to the closet,” she says. “Because of the bats.”
“Come on, I’ll help.”
We walk hand in hand across the room and I crouch next to her. Behind the wall of the closet I hear the faint sibilance of gas.
“It’s just the heat,” I say.
She hides behind my back. “Don’t you see them?” Her eyes strain upward, circling, as if following their path.
I pull the cord. Light floods the closet like water over a fire.
“See?” I say. “They’re not there.”
She looks at me like I’ve betrayed her.
Dav comes home from his physics conference the next day and hears Sheri that night.
“She’s crying,” he says, pulling his turban off and resting it on the night table.
“She hears bats in the closet.”
“Bats?” he says.
“I think she sees them, too.”
He gets up and goes to her room. The crying stops. I go and watch them from the doorway. He is sitting on the edge of her bed. Her eyes are red from crying, but shining now, and she is smiling. Giggling, almost. They lean their heads together, talking quietly, two dark halos of matching hair—his thick and rich, cascading over his shoulders, hers fine and wispy, like the wings of butterflies spread over her pillow. He sings to her in Punjabi, his voice soft and nostalgic. At the end of the song, he hugs her and starts to go. She pulls his arm back, and he leans toward her, waiting. She closes her eyes, fingers entangled in his beard.
Later I ask him, “She told you about the bats?”
“She didn’t mention the bats,” Dav says.
“Not at all?”
“When I asked her why she was crying, she said she didn’t know.”
When Sheri was born, there had been a moment of panic in the delivery room. As Sheri’s head crowned, the nurse had gasped and stepped back.
“What’s wrong?” I called out.
“Nothing,” the doctor said. “Nothing’s wrong.”
“Oh,” the nurse said, and stepped closer again.
Dav and I clasped hands, our hearts racing.
Later, as the nurse turned the water nozzle on her little body, I saw Sheri’s full head of dark hair, saw that it would be curly, that it already settled around her ears like quiet birds.
The nurse washed Sheri with her fingertips, as if unwilling to put her full hands on her.
“Is this normal for you?” she asked.
The time had not yet come when children in the neighborhood would pull that hair out in handfuls, when high school gym teachers would tell Sheri that such long hair was “unclean,” when graduate school feminists would accuse her of caving to male oppression, and shun her.
“Is what normal for whom?” I asked.
Dav gave me a questioning look.
“That your children have so much hair,” she enunciated for Dav.
Dav shrugged, not catching her tone. “This is our first child.”
We experiment for a few nights. Or, at least, I do. When she cries I go in first and she tells me about the bats. I close the valve on her radiator, push the closet door tighter, tell her a bedtime story. Nothing stops the bats. Then Dav goes in and they talk about nothing for a few minutes, he sings a few verses, she starts giggling, then drops off to sleep. This repeats, day after day.
“What do you sing to her?” I ask.
“They’re just songs my father taught me,” he says.
“Can I learn?”
He agrees to teach me some shabads.
I walked the post partum weight off. Miles with Sheri in the stroller every day. Women from the town would stop me on the street. “Whose is she?”
“Mine,” I would say.
“It can’t be.”
“I saw her come out,” I would tell them. “She’s my daughter.”
Their eyes would slide from Sheri’s face to mine.
“No,” they would say. “She’s not.”
I try the shabads one night, mouthing the words he has taught me, making sure to get my “t”s and “d”s right. Sheri only cries harder at my effort. The fluttering between the walls in the closet fills the silence between us.
“The bats,” she says.
“I know,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
Dav rescues me, laughing gently, stroking my hair. The glow in Sheri’s eyes grows, including me for a moment, then shifts onto Dav as our momentary unit of three dwindles back into our two sets of two.
After I leave, from the hallway I hear their hushed voices murmuring together, and then he sings.
In our darkened bedroom I sit in the glow of my laptop and search for the meaning of bats. They are bad luck, omens of death, spirit animals, good luck, vampires, guides through the darkness, a symbol of rebirth, untapped potential.
“You’re thinking too much about it,” Dav says. “I’m sure it doesn’t mean anything. It’s probably just a dream.”
“But she is awake when she sees them.”
“Is she?” he says. “She’s too young to separate dream from reality. Maybe she can’t tell the difference.”
I look at him for a moment.
“Can’t she?” I ask. “Or can’t we?”
After a few more weeks, when she cries I do not want to go.
“I can’t stop them from coming,” I tell Dav. “Go. It’s you she wants.”
He looks at me steadily, searching for a rebuttal, not finding one. He stands and goes, and I hear the hiss from between the walls.
“Do you hear it?” I ask when he returns. He shakes his head.
When we turn our own lights off, I feel his irrefutable gaze between us, and when he pulls me toward him, the sound in the wall steals out and settles over us like a first snowfall.
Afterwards, as he sleeps, as soundly as Sheri, and all three of us are still protected and whole, I lie awake, eyes open, feeling the chill of our advance into the future, and I face down the whispering wall, waiting, looking for the circling shapes to appear, listening for the wings of bats.
Reprinted with the permission of the author
Kiran shared these comments about "The Augury of Bats":
I admire my parents’ bravery to marry outside their respective cultures in the 60s, but it cost them. Children often feel things first and experience them in unexplained ways, so in this story I gave the feeling of foreboding to the child. On a more literal level, I actually saw such bats in my closet, and, as in the story, if I ever cried, nothing my mom did helped, while all my dad had to do was appear. I have no explanation for that (or the bats), but I can only imagine, later in life, how this must have felt to my mother. On top of the external disapproval they faced, each of my parents was an outsider to my relationship with the other, and both felt challenged and jealous while struggling to continue to love one another and me.
- Kiran is grateful to her parents for their sacrifices and for filling her childhood with music, art, and books. Her stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Pleiades, and elsewhere. www.kirankaursaini.com