Before the Falls: Never fear

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November 7, 2011 // UPDATED 8:34 am - November 7, 2011
By: chuck terhark
chuck terhark
// Weak and weary, a bat came scratching at my kitchen floor //


“A baby has been born in the Philippines, becoming the seven billionth person in the world.”
– BBC World News


“Steve’s final words were: OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.”
– Mona Simpson, delivering the eulogy for her brother, Steve Jobs




I know the time for scary stories will have passed by the time this is printed, but it’s Halloween as I write this and I’m in the mood for one. Well, not a scary story per se. But a story about being scared.

Last night, at some ungodly hour, somewhere in the darkness of my house, something went bump. As would anyone who wakes up to such a noise in the middle of the night, adrenal glands gushing like fire hydrants, I imagined the worst.

Intruders, I thought, looking around for a baseball bat and finding only pillows.

They jimmied the lock. They’re in the kitchen. They’re stealing the new coffee maker. (I was still a little groggy.)

It wasn’t intruders of course. At least not the kind I’d envisioned. It was a bat. A tiny, hairy, leather-winged monster, the sort of creature that clearly evolved in the dark.

It was on the kitchen floor, near the far wall, in a spot reserved for the unfinished butcher-block table I began building four years ago — a long un-kept promise made to my girlfriend when we first moved in together. The bat’s wings were splayed and clearly injured, and it was chittering away in some extrasensory register I could barely hear.

I would love to report that at this point my heartbeat slowed, that I sighed with relief, that I calmly went about my homeownerly duty of shooing the bat outside. But alas, I cannot. Here’s what happened instead: I turned on the kitchen light, and the bat slowly — sloooooowly — turned its horrible little face until our eyes met. And we both froze, the bat and me, it prostrate and vulnerable, me in my underwear and without my glasses. Both of us squinting half-blind, fearing one another.

Fear, the novel “Dune” tells us, is the mind-killer. So neither the bat nor I was likely thinking very clearly during the absurd midnight showdown that ensued. The bat’s fear was simple: This giant is going to kill me. My fear wasn’t so clear: It began shapeless and vague; then, registering the bat’s slow movement, it morphed into a fear of rabies; then I realized that even if I managed to get this bat out of my house, it was not going to survive the night, at which point my fear lied in the cold certainty that  am going to kill this bat. Which, I knew, I had to do. So I opened the front door, donned a $10 pair of Home Depot utility gloves I lovingly call my “All-Purps,” and, heart still pounding, grabbed a broom.

I’m not sure how to translate the scream that came out of that bat when I brought down my broom of death, but I like to think it was something to the effect of:

“OH WOW.”

Then a little miracle happened. I picked up the broom … and the bat flew out the door. Its fear of dying, my fear of killing it — neither came to pass. Perhaps the thwack I delivered shook the bat’s fear long enough for another thought — flee! — to enter its hideous little head. And perhaps it got outside and somehow managed not to die. One can hope.

I woke up this morning still hoping for the best for my little midnight visitor. I was wondering whether it had lived or died when I read the Steve Jobs eulogy in the Times, and later when I read that the world’s seven billionth human being had recently opened his eyes. Talk about perspective. There it all was: Life and death, sunrise and sunset, all before breakfast. This Halloween had already brought me no shortage of fears great and small, from the awe of the afterlife to the prospect of our tiny planet failing to feed its outsized humanity all the way down to something going bump in the night. It occurred to me that the bat was perhaps the least deserving object of my concern. Underwater mortgages, widening income disparity, asbestos in the ceiling, the discontinuation of the Twist Cone — these are worthier fears.

One of my greatest fears — and a tiny part of me believes the bat knew this when he took up residence in that particular corner of my kitchen — is a relatively small one: That I’ll never finish that table. I’ve procrastinated four years, after all. What’s another 10? I’ve thought a lot about this, having celebrated another birthday last week. (A handy widget on the BBC website informs me that I was just days short of being the planet’s 4.4 billionth person — probably the last time I was early for anything.) And it’s not just the table; I put off even the smallest of jobs, like getting a bat out of the house (that ordeal took at least an hour) or writing a column (this one was due three days ago) for far too long.

But no more. There may be more life on this planet than ever before, but take it from the bat, and from Steve Jobs: It’s still short, and brooms loom. I’m going to finish that table, just as soon as I get to the end of this paragraph. But first I’m going to look up something — honest, just one thing — on the Internet. What is the incidence rate of rabies in bats? Ah, here we go: Less than one half of 1 percent. See: Nothing to be afraid of.

Chuck Terhark writes about life in Northeast.