It’s winter now, but it was summer then.
One hand planted on either arm of his recliner, Warren stands. He already has on his coat: a quilted gray and black flannel shirt. Sized extra-large to fit over his belly, its tails hang nearly down to his knees, its sleeves, rolled up to their elbows, dangle near his wrists. He grabs a red bandanna from his pile on the table by the door and ties it around his neck like a necktie. The tails of the knot he ties are shorter than they were forty years ago. He yanks his gray knitted cap from his chest pocket and pulls it onto his head, tugging it over his ears. I stand up from my chair, too, standing still a moment to steady myself.
He walks out of the living room to the kitchen – he rolls now when he walks. I follow him to the kitchen. Warren opens the door to the back porch. He steps down and crosses to the stairs. He picks up the long stick he’s cut to use as a cane from where it leans against the railing. I watch him from behind the closed kitchen door. Holding the rail the entire time with both hands, cane hanging between interlocked thumbs, he steps down again, right leg leading the way to each step, three more steps to the back yard. He makes his way across the ruts of our driveway, to the trail that goes past the greenhouse and the garden.
Warren and his cane disappear where the path curves between peach and apple trees. This means that he’ll be working by his barn at the far end of the garden. When the sun gets lower, I’ll find him there, scraping wax off old honeycomb, or nailing together a bat house, or maybe sitting nearby, beer in hand, watching the snow melt off his garden, waiting for his winter rye to sprout. I sit back down at our kitchen table and open my laptop.
Yesterday, I read about a man who’d been bitten by a bat, but refused treatment, not thinking he needed it. The bat had rabies. The man died.
When I told Warren about it over breakfast this morning, he informed me, gravely: “Bats around here don’t bite. That should have told him right off he was in trouble.”
I consider how much has changed in the forty years we’ve lived here, in this tiny old house with the big yard. Our first winter here, the yard was a moonscape. The previous owners liked yard work even less than I do. Their solution was to cut down all the trees and mow down any other vegetation that might dare emerge. When we arrived in January, a white blanket of snow hid the true state of the yard – brown dirt and mostly brown grass.
Warren fixed all that. He started that spring by laying out most of the yard in garden, tilling half an acre of the sandy soil, fertilizing it well, and planting corn and cabbages, beans and tomatoes, eggplants and watermelons. He built a big greenhouse at the front end of the plot, and a four-room shed at the back end – a little house, really, sided in green, with concrete foundation and floor, an attic and its own lean-to shed on the far side. He planted trees everywhere, fast-growing golden rain trees to break up the bareness right away, and cultivars – redbud, red maple, magnolias, camellias, witch hazel – to greet each spring and summer with successive waves of color and scent.
Even as an old man, Warren is still hardy, but in those days, nobody could match him. Many days, after work, I’d pull into our driveway to find Warren, back from working his bee yards in faraway fields, already in his garden, barefoot, hoeing out weeds, or, booted, pushing his big rototiller. Black-bearded, fur-chested, and trim, in those days he favored short, cut-off jeans, and blue tank-cut undershirts, if he wore a shirt at all. I’d wave to him from the car and holler. He’d look up and wave back, then pull his red bandanna out of his back pocket and mop his face and chest, before tying it in a pirate band around his forehead. Then he would turn back to keeping his green charges safe.
Now, as then, on hot summer evenings here, bats emerge just after sundown from their roosts, looking to feed on flying insects. A garden in bloom provides a special attraction to bats. They swoop down and scoop up the moths that make a gardener’s life hard – coddling, cabbage, cutworm and squash borer – and any other fliers or hoppers caught out at nightfall. Even swarming mosquitoes, if there are enough of them, can make a meal.
You can hear bats soar above the garden in the dark. Their echoing calls are too high-pitched to hear as notes, but you can detect their cries as clicks, a leisurely tch-tch-tch as they glide overhead, seeking prey, then a sudden rush into tick-tick-tick when they spot something tasty and swoop in for the catch. If they they come in close enough, you feel wing-beaten air push against your skin as they rush past. Then, successful, they doppler back into their sleepy tch-tch-tch.
This winter afternoon, the shadows growing long, I shut down my laptop, collect my own coat and head outside to join Warren, to remind him it’s time for dinner. I walk down the soggy path to the back end of our yard. I find him slouched back in his chair by the barn, holding his walking stick upright by his side, like that famous photo of Walt Whitman. Our backyard tabby cat rubs up against his legs, her curled tail quivering. Warren stands, bracing his arms on the chair, and walks over next to me where I stand at the corner of his frosted garden. I step behind him and drape my arms around his shoulders. We look together up into the darkening sky, our cold breath smoking before our faces. No bats fly here on this cold winter evening.
Holding the old man tight, I close my eyes and recall one particular summer night that summer we moved here. After supper, Warren returned to his garden to hoe tiny weeds between the rows of winter squash just emerging in their rows. I cleared the dishes and then I joined him out there, watching as he finished up the last furrow. He leaned his hoe against the barn door, and we stood there together, watching the sky darken.
“Damn!” I made a face and swatted at my right arm, where mosquitoes were already landing. I got a couple, but more flew off, only to return to feed again. I swatted again, at both arms, and now at my bare legs, too. “I have to get inside!”
“Wait a minute!” Warren insisted, “Hold still!” Keeping bees, Warren never cared about bugs biting him. I grimaced, but I didn’t move.
Then the bats appeared. Tiny flashes of movement at the corner of my eye, they appeared as fleeting as meteors at the beginning of a shower. Then, like meteors, they were everywhere in the glowing sky, darting and weaving way above the newly disturbed dirt. I stood next to Warren for a few moments, hearing metronomic clicks, watching the wonder in the sky.
My legs itched all over. I looked down, to see a horde of mosquitoes feasting on my calves. I yelped, and ran toward the house, slapping at my arms and legs as I ran.
But when I got to the greenhouse, I stopped. I turned back to see Warren standing by the back edge of the garden, looking skyward, lit by dying sunlight. While I watched, he peeled his tank top off over his beard and the bandanna-bound tangle of his hair. Holding his shirt at his side, he stepped forward, to stand barefoot in the dirt. Still looking upward, he spread his arms slightly out from his hips and lifted his sweaty chest, offering himself as sacrifice to the mosquitoes drawn to his end-of-day smell of sweat and dirt and hair and skin. He stood, a garden statue cast in bronze.
Then, all around Warren, in the last light of day, I made out the flash and flurry of bats as they swooped in to feed on the motes that swarmed his sweating body. They found the feast their benefactor provided. They drenched my love in sonar. They fanned his shining skin with their soft leather wings.
David Milley has written and published since the 1970s, while working as a technical writer and web applications developer. His work has appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, Bay Windows, Friends Journal, and Capsule Stories. Retired now, David lives in southern New Jersey with his husband and partner of forty-five years, Warren Davy, who’s made his living as a farmer, woodcutter, nurseryman, auctioneer, beekeeper, and cook. These days, Warren tends his garden and keeps honeybees. David walks and writes.
© 2022, David Milley