All is lost. I am far from the road, and several times during the nocturnal hours, when my eyes were wide and no sound broke the stillness, I imagined I heard wagons in the distance, like the uncanny creaking of ghostly ships. A hunger dream —I imagined it was a supply of provisions. The cries of the men were punctuated by the cracking of whips, the clatter of hooves and wagon wheels. The sky was lit by a full moon and a host of stars, but I only saw gray silhouettes moving in the night. Animals, riders, whole caravans that flew from my eye when I tried to view them dead-on.
When dawn broke and the crying of the coyotes ceased, I was exhausted. I built a shelter against the sun with my blanket and some straight branches from a desert plant that has no name I know of. During the day and much of the night I vacillated between sleep and waking, trying to rest my weary mind. The sun is large and vibrates heat without ceasing. There was no shade in the desert, and the condition of my skin worsens.
I have few eggs left. I greatly desire water, but no pool or river has appeared for many days now. I have one canteen with a ration of only a few days. How relieved my skin would be if I could wash it in cool water. It was with this purpose that I ventured forth as the sun set, and it was then that I made my first true discovery.
I left the flatter land and made toward the mountains in the distance, thinking they might hide streams of runoff or secret pools. It was just as the sun set, a red sliver into the mesa, that I saw it.
At first, I thought it was smoke. There was a single tree out in the desert and I nervously climbed it to afford myself a better view.
Up top, the wind whipping about me, I still could not discern the source of this great black cloud looming on the horizon, the size of which might indicate a wagon train or perhaps a shack completely aflame. It was rising quickly, throwing a dark mass against the sky, interwoven with gold and pink by the setting of the sun.
I worked my way through the brush and the rocks slowly, fearing some marauding creature or Indian attack. The light was failing and, against the clouds gone dark, I began to worry that it was another one of my imagined silhouettes born of an overtired mind. Almost in answer to my thoughts, it shifted and became dark, so full of menace and purpose that it could not be anything I had dreamt.
When finally I crested the hill that blocked its source, I was close enough to see the bats. I couldn’t estimate the number, but it must have been hundreds upon thousands. They turned over one another and tumbled through the sky as if they were being twisted up in a tornado of their own making.
Their sound was that of burbling water rushing over smooth stones. I stood still, listening to them throb against the dusk, until the wind, or perhaps the bats themselves, shifted direction quite rapidly and began to stream over my uncovered head. I crouched and looked up, and at once was in their great dark cloud, their wings pushing the air about me. My heart beat against the inside of my chest, as though one of these wild scraps of night sky were also trapped inside me.
The whole sky was blacked out. If I could have guessed how many passed by in a second, I could have figured the number in the flock, but they moved too erratically for any estimate to feel certain.
Presently their fl shifted to the east, and I crawled forward over the ledge to find myself staring into the gaping maw of a cave. It was a great crack in the face of the earth, black and wide, and the bats boiled forth without ceasing. I wouldn’t have guessed one could be so large.
Though it seemed a fearsome thought, what might have been hiding in the darkness of this massive hole, I had to stay. I knew that any room that could house such a great storm of bats must be the entrance to a cavern of immense size. I scraped along on my belly through the sagebrush until I came to the edge of the cavern. Looking down into the dark, I saw that there was no end in sight. The destined feeling of doom it gave me lingers still.
Retreating, I quickly gathered some dead prickly pear and built a small fire just near the edge. The plants were green and about as good for fire as wet tea leaves, but I managed to ignite them. When they were all aflame, I pierced one of the fiery pads with a stalk and flung it down into the hole. I bent carefully over and watched it fall until at last the flame disappeared. A few sparks finally flared against a wall of rock, a hundred yards down if I make my guess.
I kicked the rest of the cactus fire toward the mouth of the cave to light things better. It was a great mess of flames, and it scared the bats, which for a short while stopped their ascent from the hole. When the little flames died, a few brave bats risked the flight out and more followed, and soon they were pouring forth again. Millions, there must have been.
Because of the wonderment of it, there I sat for a long while. A cool air rose from the darkness of the cavern and felt miraculous against my burnt skin, a sorely needed respite from the echoless waves of desert heat. The breeze snapped me back to life, reinvigorating me. I thought on what was down below me in the depths of the cave.
I don’t know how much time passed but the Milky Way became bright, again a river of silver birds. The last fleeting glimpse of Sirius, that far star alone, seemed to wink at me. This image gave rise to a whole constellation of your visage. I saw your face, your eyes marked by two bright lamps hung in the ether in just the right spots. It seemed a beautiful and haunting farewell. Our entwined fate is a path lost to me now.
I have found myself looking in a new direction — straight underground. After pulling myself up, I hiked back to the tree I had climbed and hacked off a low branch with my sword. I used the post, along with my blanket, to improvise a tent, and have made my own little camp not far from the hills that hide the cavern. Tomorrow I mean to explore its depths.
ZACH DODSON co-founded featherproof books in 2005, a small press in Chicago. He is most often a book designer, but sometimes an author too. He went to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and lives in Helsinki now.
Adapted from Bats of the Republic, by Zach Dodson. Copyright © 2015 by Zach Dodson. With permission of the publisher, Doubleday.