Not just one, which might be extraordinary—or two, which could be cute—not even three, a vaguely threatening almost-gang. But four. Four of them perch on the mosquito netting above me, claws gripping the fine, flossy strands that wind protectively around my head.
Four are points on a pirate-compass, ready to plunder.
You should know that these bats are not even a little ordinary. They came from the deep recesses of my childhood home in Vietnam, a thin, rectangular house on stilts, with rushing sewage below. My grandparents hired a man from the village to remove the squat toilet so that they could install a new, Western-style one for my benefit. For my convenience.
I find this place terribly inconvenient.
With the last clank of sledgehammer on porcelain, the bats emerged from beneath, angry and whitened by cement particles, their wings stuck together from lack of use. They took to the walls, they took to the ceilings. They fled into the dark.
My family gaped at one other. We thought we knew everything about this place.
The four bats are so close now I could reach out to touch their furry bodies, to poke them each in a beady eye. Bats can’t bully me. Instead, I shake the mosquito netting. I create myself a little tempest. They rollick back and forth and still they stay fastened. Their eyes bore.
Is this blame? Is this retribution? I told them my comfort was more important than their home and now they are here to get me. Sweat gathers in the crease of my elbow. I’m feverish.
Beyond my makeshift bed, my grandparents sleep in their tightly enclosed bedroom. Beyond that, my village sleeps, and beyond that—the entire country of Vietnam. There’s no sound except for the bats’ slow progress across the netting. They switch positions. They’re trying to find a break.
There is none, I say, shaking the netting a little more. Don’t you know this house has no windows. They lose grip. Or I lose grip.
Count with me now.
Three days ago, I was in Saigon, city of honking mopeds and steaming street food. City of distended stomachs and rats and the damp heat of tropical summer. Seven days ago, I was in the States, typing frantically at a coffee shop in the cooling Midwest. Twenty years ago, I was here, in this house—wasn’t I?—with bats scrambling beneath the bed where I slept. Now the bats are on top.
My grandfather promised that he would kill them in the morning, when they’d least suspect it. He said I could help. I imagine us with torches and nets, the flap of a wing close to my ear. What drives a bat out of hiding?
What drives a woman out of hiding?
The bats cross one another overhead, dignified, almost prancing in their delicacy. They think they are on their way to the opera. Hello, how are you. Hello, excuse me.
I’m the ground upon which bats tread. They aren’t trying to get at me. They’re trying to get past me. That difference is riveting. I am suspended between terror and its accompanying shadow, wonder.
Let’s start again.
Four bats. Three days in the village. Two hours of sleeplessness. One woman in one small country one whole ocean away from one home that sits calm and safe and quiet at the bottom of one green, blessedly familiar hill.
What comes before one?
Without warning, the bats loosen their claws and take flight.
I could unhinge myself too and fly with them, already hollow and high, in another place, another plane of unfettered existence. Somewhere along the way, I might ask, Where is the sky, that dark, dimpled ceiling of my world?
Nowhere, I tell you. Nowhere comes before one.
Thao Thai is a recent graduate of The Ohio State University’s MFA program. Her essays have been published in Arts & Letters, South Loop Review, Sweet: A Literary Confection, and Waccamaw. She currently lives in Cleveland.
Artwork by Gabrielle Katina