Bats had taken refuge from the Savannah heat that summer in the attic. Memaw had announced this loudly during lunch that afternoon, while Masie and Ruth sat at the kitchen table. The two sat quietly, listening to their grandmother go on about the vermin taking advantage of the shade just above their heads. Occupied by fried bologna sandwiches, the girls offered the occasional nod when their Memaw threw a question or comment in need of response in their direction.
“Can’t y’all hear them at night?” Memaw turned slowly from the stove, pointing the spatula in their direction. “Well, I don’t know about y’all, but I can hear them at night, coming and going as they damn well please.” Memaw’s drawl hung in the air for a brief moment, while the girls considered the idea of these foreign invaders. Ruth bowed her head and rolled her eyes, careful to not let her grandmother see. The older of the two, she was not as readily interested in the idea of bats in the attic as her younger sister was. Ruth had spent many nights lying awake while her sister slept soundly beside her in their queen bed. She listened to her grandmother move restlessly in the other room, disturbed by a noise that was entirely nonexistent. Not a scratch, screech, or scuffle disturbed Ruth at any hour.
“I don’t hear them,” Ruth offered this up, eyes locked on the black and white linoleum tile, “I doubt there’s any up there at all.” She pushed her plate forward in front of her and returned to picking the nail polish off of her right thumb nail. As she dug one finger nail into the other, she left behind tiny flakes of black polish on the wooden table.
“Don’t contradict me, Ruth. I know them bats are in the attic. I can see scratches along the sides of my damn vents.” After what she argued was due to one of many sleepless nights because of the pests upstairs, Memaw had spent dusk patrolling yard with a pellet gun the day before. She had been pacing up and down the side of the house, eyes locked on the gable vent that blended into the siding. It was an older home, and Memaw argued that bats had made their way in and out of this vent, wedging their plump bodies between the slits early in the morning, and at all hours during the night. Memaw estimated that by now, at least thirty bats had made this their nightly routine, though Ruth had never heard, nor seen, a bat near or around the home.
Since the passing of her husband and the girls’ grandfather over 8 years ago, replacing the old gable vent and siding had fallen into a heap of never-to-do’s. Every summer, the girls visited for a few weeks at a time. Their mother maintained that this was time for the girls to bond with their Memaw, and despite their protests, she left them there each summer without a fleeting glance in their direction. For a while, their mother insisted that this was for everyone’s benefit; one summer, it was a little “mommy time” away in Cape Cod with John, and the next it was a trip to Daytona with Tim. After a while, the justifications stopped, and this just became routine. Without a father to protest on their behalf, the girls spent their allotted time with Memaw and small portion of her neglected tasks became their nagging responsibility. For Masie, it was weeding the garden and watering wilting blooms that were melting in the southern heat. For Ruth, her primary responsibility became talking down her grandmother from these bizarre moments of impulsive determination.
Last summer, Memaw became entirely engulfed by the idea of ridding the neighbor’s pond of a snapping turtle that had made its home there. It’s eating all the fucking goldfish! This seemed to be Memaw’s only motivation. Despite Ruth’s constant insistence that the pond didn’t belong to them, Memaw sat on the edge of that pond in a lawn chair each afternoon, the same pellet gun in hand. Every mid-morning, Memaw would wait patiently for the neighbor to leave, embarking on their morning commute to a 9-5 job 45 minutes away. When the neighbor was safely out of the confines of the cul-de-sac, Memaw would grab her chair and reassume her post. Ruth was left to make the girls lunch, and then assume her spot next to her grandmother, mainly fearing the idea of Memaw unsupervised with a pellet gun. After their 15th consecutive afternoon of surveilling the pond, Ruth watched in horror as Memaw took the pellet gun, lined-up its cross hairs, and spit in the dirt before firing a shot. Memaw demanded that Ruth grab a rake from the shed and fish out the floating carcass.
Now, Ruth watched her grandmother flip another sandwich on the stove. The only thing that had salvaged the afternoon was the fact that Ruth had hidden the pellet gun. Despite her Memaw’s protests and constant grumbling, Ruth had managed to convince her that the she had simply misplaced it. This kept Memaw occupied for a few hours. She’d overturned the couch, twice, removed all the linens in the upstairs closet and one in the laundry, and had removed the draws from the dressers in all three bedrooms. Linens scattered the floors and were strung down the halls. Towels, socks, pants, all thrown haphazardly in a panic in desperate pursuit of what Ruth had stashed in the crawlspace under the basement steps. It wasn’t the idea of a missing firearm that disturbed Memaw, Ruth suspected, it was the realization that without it, she wasn’t able to get to the nonexistent bats.
Ruth had given her grandmother a gin and tonic in an effort to distract her from her this distress. It had worked momentarily, at least long enough for Ruth to convince her to make them some sandwiches for lunch, before the topic of the bats reared its head again. Ruth watched her grandmother at the stove. Her curly, cropped, pepper-grey hair looked disheveled. There were strands sticking up-right on either side, as if Memaw had run both hands along her scalp, fingers entangling fine strands, and pulled. Ruth had seen this look before. When the stress of one failing relationship, one unanswered text or another, finally boiled over, Ruth often witnessed her mother, in the same fluid motion, use bunched fists to pull her hair from either side.
Now, Ruth studied Memaw’s hands that were anxiously twirling the spatula. Aside from the dirt and dust caked between her fingernails, her palms were surprisingly clean. Ruth could make out the faint freckles that were planted along the back of her grandmother’s tan, weathered hands. She looked down at her own hands, then her sisters, memorizing freckles atop smooth skin. On a good day, Memaw would joke that she was the Big Dipper, and they were her Little Dippers, the same freckles marking the backs of their hands.
“I’m going up to the attic,” Memaw grumbled as she smacked the spatula against the cracked, laminate countertop. Masie jumped, her attention momentarily diverted from her food. She looked at Ruth with small, silent pleas. Ruth tried to look reassuring for Masie’s benefit, but she was entirely confident that there would be no talking their grandmother of it this time around. “I can’t take the noise, dammit it all!” Memaw began to rummage frantically under the kitchen sink, throwing bottles of Windex and mason jars of bacon grease against the tile. After a moment of frantic searching, she emerged with a spray bottle enclosed tightly in a white-knuckled hand. There was masking tape plastered to the outside, on which “Bleach” was written in black permanent marker.
“Please don’t do this today!” Ruth shouted. “There aren’t any bats upstairs!” Her sister stared at her in awe.
“Ruthie, you take Masie outside! I’ve had enough of you today. I’ve got shit to do, and it’s not gonna get done if you don’t stop bothering me. Ain’t no one gonna get a wink of sleep ‘til it is.” Ruth shoved both hands against the table as Memaw hustled upstairs, right hand pressed firm against her weak hip as she jolted, with the spray bottle in hand. Unwilling to listen to her grandmother rummage through the attic, throwing her grandfather’s belongings aside like they nothing more than mere obstacles in the way of a greater pursuit, Ruth hurried her sister outside.
Once Ruth had ushered Masie onto the back lawn, she grabbed her by the hand and pulled her toward the side of the house.
“Ruthie, what are we doing?” Masie’s voice rang with confused concern, each syllable a mere squeak of a sound. Ruth stopped and pointed upward, finger fixed toward the vent just under the roof.
“We stood out here all day yesterday! There aren’t any bats!” Ruth dropped her sister’s hand in frustration. She pressed her palms against her temples and exhaled. Her sister watched her, eyes wide and frightened. Ruth sighed, running her palms through her hair. “I’m sorry,” she almost whispered. The vision of their Memaw, bleach bottle extended in a shaky hand, robe untied, meandering determinedly through the attic was engrained in Ruth’s mind. From the yard, they could hear her banging, throwing around box after box, and yelling. Ruth and Masie watched, and they waited.
As if their grandmother had simply turned on a faucet, thirty or more bats came pouring out of the gable vent and into the mid-afternoon sky. As they struggled to escape the constant spray of bleach, the bats crowded the vent, forcefully shoving their bodies through the slits, wedging themselves against one another in a heap of panic. From a distance, the girls could hear their claws frantically scraping against the siding as they tried to crawl their way out. Slowly, more and more bats made it out, and they began flying panicked, blind, weaving their way around one another in frantic figure eights. To Ruth, they looked like blackheads freckling the sky. She imagined her thumbs applying pressure to one, clouds pouring out of a dilated pore. Her sister stood at her side. Ruth grabbed Masie’s hand, and they stood there for a moment more, watching the panicked invaders with an unparalleled fascination. Ruth felt Masie tense, a small tremor rippling along her arm that was as momentary as the August breeze.
“They were there! I don’t like them, Ruthie,” Masie sputtered. Masie gripped her older sister a little tighter as she spoke, a dull sheen beginning to surface in the corners of her eyes. “They’ll bite us if they come down here.” The bats had begun to dissipate, seeking refuge in one tree and another. Ruth shook her head slightly and returned her gaze to the last few bats in the sky, eyeing them carefully before they disappeared from sight. For a brief moment, Ruth thought about Polaris and the Little Dipper. She thought about her sister, her grandmother, and the freckled constellations that bonded them together.
“Don’t worry,” Ruth reassured her, “they aren’t real.”