“There,” said Bedelia, stepping down off the ladder and dropping the hammer and extra nails back into the toolbox. “I’ve always wanted some bats in the yard.”
Patience frowned up at the side of the house. Mid-way up the second story, a tall, narrow box now hung in the full afternoon sun. “You’ve never said so before.”
Bedelia pulled the ladder away from the wall and admired her handiwork. “I meant that I’ve wanted some ever since I learned about bats. Quiet, gentle, fond of eating insects . . . The perfect neighbors!”
The bat house was three feet tall and two feet wide. Its black paint didn’t match the periwinkle siding on which it hung, but Bedelia had claimed that bats preferred dark colors. A long, thin slit for ventilation crossed the front of the box, and the roof was covered in spare shingles rescued from amid cobwebs in the garage.
“And just how many bats will we be having for neighbors?” Patience suppressed a shudder as she asked the question.
“I’m not sure . . . I changed the size of the house to fit the wood we had. Maybe three hundred?”
Patience’s mouth dropped open. “Three hundred!”
But Bedelia only waved her hand, already heading back to the garage with the ladder. “It’ll be lovely. You’ll see!”
Some weeks later, Bedelia stood under the bat house in the cooling evening, peering up at its open bottom. “I wonder how we’ll know if any bats are living there?”
Patience sat in the shadows of the porch, newspaper on her lap. She’d been reading with disgust about murders, plagues, famine, and death. Earthquakes in the Pacific had killed ten thousand or more, with aftershocks to follow. It was better here—better in their own little house. Better, that is, except for this endless talk of creeping, clinging bats.
“Why couldn’t you have put up a bird house instead?” asked Patience through gritted teeth.
“Birds!” cried Bedelia. “Noisy, dirty things! The fledglings do chirp in the bridal wreaths before dawn, and they do eat the honeysuckle berries and drop the seeds on the porch steps.” Bedelia made a face. “You aren’t the one who scrubs that mess.”
But Bedelia wasn’t listening, for she was now watching a small shape floating jerkily around the yard on flickering wings, its body just barely visible against the indigo glow of the twilight sky.
“Oh, look!” she cried. “I told you they were lovely! I do hope the house is full by autumn!”
It was on the tip of Patience’s tongue to ask why autumn mattered. But then she thought uneasily of the clear round crystal that Bedelia kept in her garret, and the book of foul recipes, and the deep trances she’d had since girlhood, and the endless stream of far off visions, breathlessly described.
Patience bit back the question and rose silently to go back into the house. It was better—always better—not to know. All that back and forth through time and space, all that roaming around the world. It made life feel small and inconsequential, like the journey of a maple seed spinning down from its branch above—a brief thing, random and accidental, meaning nothing and over soon. It made Patience hate their little isolated house and garden all the more.
That was why she had made Bedelia promise never to tell her anything she saw, with a binding charm to make the promise stick. Somehow, this bat house was meant as a message, but Patience would refuse to hear it.
On warm fall evenings, Bedelia stood on the porch at her sister’s elbow, watching as the bats dipped down to drink from the small pond in the yard. Every evening for an hour or more, they slipped out of the bat house one at a time—secret and mysterious, stealing away into the night to catch their dinners miles away.
But always there were three or four in the yard, circling awkwardly, seeming to patrol at random, but silently visible from the moment the sun began to set until it grew too dark to see. They made Patience’s skin crawl when she saw them, and she felt almost harried out of her own yard.
“I think I’d like to be a bat,” said Bedelia suddenly, “out of anything, most of all.”
It was strange, Patience thought, how calm and rehearsed Bedelia’s voice sounded as she said it. A chill stirred up inside her at the sound, like autumn leaves borne on a whirling eddy.
“Don’t you think so, too?” asked Bedelia carefully. “I don’t say you’d rather be a bat, but maybe you wouldn’t mind, just for a little while . . . A couple of years . . . ”
The chill rose higher, and panic swirled in its wake. Patience knew that her sister, with her books and charms, had a way of getting what she wanted. “Yes,” she said quietly in answer. “I certainly would mind.”
“No,” said Patience, her hands now gripping the wicker arms of the chair tightly. It was strange, she suddenly thought, how very dark the yard had become. “Promise me you won’t.” Bedelia moved as if to speak again, but Patience plunged on, firmly and coldly. “I don’t care what it means, and I don’t care what you see. I’m not a fool—I know there must be some reason for this obsession of yours. But promise me you won’t. Whatever it means, whatever happens—promise me you won’t.”
Bedelia sighed bitterly. She was only a black silhouette in the shadows of the yard now. “Please don’t make me promise, Patience,” she said. “I only wish you’d let me tell you—”
“But,” said Patience firmly, ending the conversation then and forever. She was still the elder sister, and she knew how to be firm. “I won’t.”
It was a bright autumn morning when Bedelia failed to come downstairs for breakfast. Patience searched throughout the house, her voice calling into one empty room after another, echoes ringing off the pale, flat walls.
Somehow, the rooms looked different that morning. Somehow, the house wasn’t the same. Patience even felt a shiver climb up her spine as she stepped into the living room with its hard-cushioned sofa and old cabinet television.
That was another far-seeing crystal, Patience suddenly realized. She hadn’t even had it on since September, when the news had been great waves washing over Hawaii, leaving Honolulu and a dozen other towns in ruins—skeletons of great hotels tottering on the beaches, and lines of stark white body bags on the dark volcanic soil.
If only Patience could have turned off Bedelia’s crystal as well . . . If only she could have made her see that the outside world didn’t matter . . .
Up in Bedelia’s garret at last, Patience found something.
It was only the window thrown open, the long curtains dancing on the breeze above a table. And two red candles set on either side, their cold black wicks bent crookedly over the remains of their now-puddled wax. The last of the honeysuckle flowers were laid out against the sill, tied in a loose bouquet.
And there, on the table, was the arcane book that Patience had seen Bedelia study so often. It was opened to a pair of pages filled with dense, illegible writing and horrible geometric designs. Across the page, Bedelia had dripped intersecting lines of red candle wax.
Patience brushed her fingers across the open leaves, feeling the bumps of the wax. Then she peered out the window at the roof of the bat house below. There was a sudden pang of loss, a sharp stab of despair in Patience’s breast. Oh Bedelia!
She suddenly wondered if she had been too harsh, too stern. Perhaps she should have agreed to go with Bedelia—even in a horrid bat body—if it meant they could have stayed together. At least she could have listened—!
It was then that Patience noticed the little dish with the small sticky black cake sitting on it. It looked like a mixture of molasses and suet and hair—and Heaven knew what other vile things. A note on the plate read: “Last chance. Please.”
Shuddering, Patience threw the cake away—tossing the plate and all violently out the window as if it were a dead mouse. That put the end to that sentimental lie. Despite all her love, despite the pang of loss, she couldn’t do that for Bedelia. No matter what, she could never—
From below the window, a distant sound of plate shattering was heard, and Patience was shocked to hear a hollow despairing cry rise from her own lips in sympathy.
Later that afternoon, Patience stood below the bat house, staring up at it with something like hatred. She had half a mind to knock it down—but she couldn’t bring herself to do it, not if Bedelia were really somehow in there. Probably the hated thing would hang there forever, growing uglier and more weathered as the years rolled by. But how long did bats live anyway? How long would she have to wait?
“Good afternoon, Miss Patience,” called a quiet voice from the sidewalk. She turned to see the old postman standing in the side of the yard.
“Oh, hello,” said Patience in reply, confused and embarrassed at the intrusion of mundane life into her thoughts. She tried to straighten her face. “You’re running late today.”
The postman smiled weakly as he handed over a bundle of bills and circulars with a trembling hand. “Most of the carriers didn’t show up today at all,” he said. “But I haven’t anyone at home anymore. And I wanted to get out, to say goodbye . . . ” His voice cracked and trailed off.
“Why,” said Patience. “Has something happened? What’s the matter?”
“On the news last night, miss. You heard about the volcano—the explosion in Indonesia? First those earthquakes and tsunamis earlier this year, and now this. It’s going to cover the Earth they say.”
Patience shook her head. “I haven’t had my television on in weeks—”
“A huge eruption—hundreds of thousands killed. And they say the cloud will cover everything, spread by the wind all around the world.” The postman glanced up at the sky and pointed with a shaking hand. “No light—not for years. If anybody lives to see it shine again, it won’t be me.”
Patience only gaped on the sidewalk as the postman made his way down the street, his walk a broken shuffle. And yet, the sun beat down, hot and bright, from the pale blue sky. It seemed impossible—a joke! A cloud of soot and dirt to cover the entire Earth? No sun and no light, a night that would last for years? Surely it was a joke!
At that moment, a dark shape passed in front of Patience’s eyes. It was a black little ball, suspended on leathery wings, clumsily fluttering through the air in the afternoon sun. Patience let out a cry. Bedelia had known! She finally understood.
After circling once around the yard, the bat flew back to the house and dropped against the roughened grooves of the landing board. As the little thing crawled back up into the warmth and safety of its huddled brothers and sisters, Patience finally closed her mouth.
That was the joke, the real joke.
Who knew what would really happen to the bats in the dark, cold world to come? But at least they wouldn’t panic and turn against each other. And perhaps they would have a better chance of surviving these next years, among the darkness and death, the famine and decay, the billions of maggots molting into flies—
Then the sun suddenly dimmed and the yard slipped from light into shadow. Patience looked up sharply to the sky.
It was just a cloud passing across the sun—just a small, white, fluffy one. But she was chilled, chilled to the bone, and nothing seemed able to lift it. Even when the cloud passed and the sun shone out again, still Patience shivered uncontrollably.
Her eyes darted to the ground below the garret window, under the bat house. If only it were still there—the cake, the charm, the last chance. Patience fell to her knees, her hands scrabbling among the grass, now swarming with ants. If only, if only, oh please!
And as Patience searched, the sun went slowly down until it glowed behind the rim of the horizon, pale streaks illuminating the vast cloud that now rolled across the sky, a fantastic sunset of red and orange and violet, more fantastic than any Patience had ever seen. But still no cake could be found.
Then, dark and dark and dark, as the bats slipped silently out into the night once more, dark and dark and dark.