a short story by Patrick O'Leary
Until the day the boy brought home the bat, he had never surprised his father.
The boy hadn't been exactly dumb before. Not exactly. But why not admit it? he hadn't sparkled, either. He hadn't shone. He hadn't punched his way outside his ordinary mind. True, he could sing at will any number of TV theme songs, and he displayed a scholar's rigor in the way he examined, plucked, jarred and observed insects. He had an eye for detail. He might someday make a scientist, his father hoped.
"Where'd you get the cage? Where'd you get the bat?" he asked the proud boy.
The bat had been winged, the boy explained. He had found it flopping on the sidewalk. He had secured a golden cage from a garage sale down the street. He had trapped the bat. He had brought it home to show his father interrupting as he sat smoking and reading the important new voice in fiction in the lawn chair in the backyard with the leaves still unraked.
"What are you going to do with it?" the father asked reluctantly, sensing obligations.
"Keep it," the boy said determined. "Feed it liver like the polliwog we grew in the plastic cube."
My life, the man thought, will not work as a story, he thought.
No one would believe it, he thought, remembering how he fed it with a toothpick, the green frog lunging eagerly at the shit brown flecks of liver, his face becoming mostly mouth.
See, this was the problem.
Having grown a frog in your kitchen, what do you do with it? What then? That was the difference, he concluded, between children and parents. With children there are no third acts. There is Polliwog. There is frog. And who cares after that? It's time for a commercial. They don't think about ohhh entrance exams. Wisdom teeth. Tuition payments bigger than a mortgage. What happens when sex stops? When you forget how to love?
What had they done to the frog? He couldn't remember. Had they left on vacation and forgotten to assign a caretaker? Had the frog leaped out of his safe cube and perished on the tasteless linoleum? Anything can happen to a frog. They're like children. They don't think. They don't know about...things.
He remembered his birth day the day he brought his father tools into the Birthing Room: the stopwatch, the bottle of Mateus, and the cassette deck with the tapes: programming he'd labored over for just the right Amniotic ambience: Mozart. In A Silent Way. Early Judy Collins. He rehearsed the routine: Keegling. Kissy breaths. Hold and push. They were ready.
They weren't ready.
His wife wrenched into what the Instructor had dubbed "Transition" in the grand tradition of "Surgical Strike," "Police Action," and "Expletive Deleted." Every push the blood vessels popping on her cheeks till they were rosy. They had never been rosy before. The contractions like Laocooan as he held her from behind and felt the serpent hidden in her belly coiling. He hadn't known a body was capable of that. And the pain, which he didn't want to remember. And how it went on. Which he didn't want to remember. And how, after a time, he became very angry, then very tired of being angry, and then it was all he could do to hold his wife's hand and not snap at her: "For God Sakes! You wanted this Baby! Get it out!"
And those ridiculous hairnet booties.
The baby had erupted purple from her ripped place: smeared with blood and cheese, tugging a yellow coiled balloon like you get at the circus and dragging an ungodly alien jellyfish Blue Brain In A Baggie and she had stopped crying, and someone had turned the lights on and the pain had stopped like a bad joke the interminable set up, the cringing punch line, the relief oh the relief. And this small lubricated human folded on her wrecked belly like a frog.
These things never happened in books. Or if they did they had a point. After that, he could never quite figure the point. Everything seemed to be half a metaphor. Or a dream that evaporated as you tried to pull it into focus. A thought with potential which refused to grow into an idea.
He remembered now. The frog had disappeared.
He recalled: It had ceased to be interesting once it had achieved its mature form.
And then: (Cringe) talking to his unborn son through the pregnancy, through his wife's enormous belly and reciting poetry and saying its name. Adopting the voice adults only used with children. And doing the same in the Birthing Room after it was out in the world. A scrunched-up traumatized buddha on her belly, listening for her heartbeat, dying to get back in. And he had said again, only this time without the barrier of mom, the boy's name. And the dark frown loosened and the dark new eyes looked directly into his own, as if to say: "Oh. You're out here, too?"
Nothing prepares you for happiness.
"Have you named the bat?" he asked his son, amused by the idea.
The boy rolled his eyes. Something this "cool" was obviously beyond the convention of naming, outside the realm of pets.
The bat looked at them from his golden prison. He hung like a cliché, upside down. The body was mouse brown and fuzzy. The membranes of the wings were green and black and taut and puckered between the bones like a like a what, exactly? Its tiny claws gripped the golden bars with the wrong amount of fingers and they were positioned at an odd juncture on the wings midway between the wing tip and the belly. The snout was ugly. The teeth pronounced a double row of fangs. He could see it breathing.
Neighborhood children came and went, waiting for the bat to entertain them. Regular simian kids who provided none of the social incentives the boy so badly needed. Occasionally they would poke the cage and the bat would shudder.
And read the marvelous new voice in fiction.
And his son stared at the bat, leaning his golden hair on his golden arms, resting his head.
There are transitional moments which deny physics and taste: this is one of them.
The father noticed the bat was out of the cage. Or rather he saw that it was on the opposite side of the golden bars.
One moment it was inside, the next...
He wondered. Was it possible for reality to turn inside out? What if the intelligence imbedded in the world operated on assumptions we know nothing about? What if the world was as ineffable as god to an atheist, as hockey to a Brazilian, as a hickey to boy's neck?
The spaces between the bars were narrow safe things.
Like comfortable ideas no one cares to re-examine.
The Designated Hitter Rule.
How did the bat get out?
His son examined it sleepily.
"Did you see it get out?" he asked, amazed that he had missed something so provocative. "Did you do that? Did you see it?"
His son, who had never transcended the grade "C," who had regarded homework as the Definition Of Hell, who could not grasp the rewards of scholarship, who lived in a state of constant distraction, stomping, for example, the powder on the lines of the soccer field when he should have been charging the honeycombed ball like the rest of the team, who actually preferred to watch cartoons upside down while squirming on the couch, oblivious to the chocolate stains that ringed his mouth or how this reflected on his parent's hygiene, tugging his penis at random in front of company, dubious of the whole concept of Bedtime, and, without fail, incapable of putting together three words of wit or insight or even the childish wisdom supermarket magazines always quoted. His son gazed dreamily at the bat outside the cage, crawling downward like a man with no legs...
His son said:
"Father...The bat has bitten me. Do not look for the scar it has healed by occult means long discredited. And, though you won't believe me, I feel compelled to confess that I am transformed as an apple dipped into melted caramel. Only by the narrowest of margins have I escaped the obvious. For a bat cannot be said to occupy time and space as you and I. His is a changeling nature. I see not as you see but as a creature of the night. The world is a dangerous place. Ugly blue jays can nip your wing for spite, simply because they are bigger than you. My sonar reflects a world of great chaos and arbitrary beauty, with abundant clouds of juicy bugs. Blood is a good thing unlike math. I love you, so I would never bite you unless, of course, you under do it at Christmas or miss another Halloween. You do not reckon my sagacity: the bravery it took to snare the bat. The ingenuity it took to wrangle the golden cage off of Mrs. Hardington for next to nothing. You are blind. But I forgive you. I see your self-absorption. And I see how it will warp me as a man: I will play baseball with my children though I hate the game. I will take them camping though I loathe picnic tables and marshmallows. I will accept their mediocrity and they will grow to hate me because they will never feel as though they deserve my love. Charity is a crippling thing. Nevertheless, you are my father. You are in me as is the bat. I forgive you because the alternatives are grief and anger and an even more miserable than average puberty."
What can you say to a boy who has been bitten into genius by a bat?
"Son..." he said. "Wake up."
And his heavy lids are dragged open by his arching brows.
His father could barely contain himself. "Do you see? Look. Can you see? The bat is out of the cage."
"Awesome!" said the boy.
How it hurts him to watch his mind working, working, working.
O please, he prays.
Please. Please let him be special.
Whatever wounding is necessary, don't let him grow up to be normal. The father closes his eyes and watches his son grow blonde into dark brown, average into himself, boy into accomplished man, hungrily anticipating his inevitable excellences, his loneliness.
His life outside the cage.
© Patrick O'Leary 1998
Patrick O'Leary is the author
of two novels. Door Number Three ("One of the best SF novels of 1995"
Publisher's Weekly) and The Gift (finalist for the
1998 World Fantasy Award Best Novel). His stories have appeared in
Talebones magazine and his collection Other Voices, Other Doors
is published by Fairwood Press this year. His poetry has appeared in Literary
Magazines across North America. His non-fiction has appeared in Crawdaddy
and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He appears at Patrick
O'Leary's Home Page.
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