Where the Bats Go
We were sitting on the porch and watching the sunset. It was late summer and the nights were getting cooler every day.
“Where do all those bats come from?”
They were out, flapping their leather wings and chirping as they hunted.
“Caves I guess,” I pointed at the hills, “up there maybe.”
We watched them for a while until it got too dark, and then we only listened to them.
“Let’s be done,” I said.
“This place. I don’t know about you but I’m feeling ready to retire.” It wasn’t quite true, but Angie had been on my back for the last couple years to sell the ranch and move down south, and I was slowly getting used to the idea.
“Are you joking with me?” She tried to hide how excited she was by glaring suspiciously at me.
“No ma’am. I’m fed up with cattle. Let’s sell the ranch and move down to St. George.” I would miss this place. I’d spent nearly my whole adult life working this ranch, but Angie was right. It was time to move on.
She hugged me tightly, and that was that.
I should have sold it years before. I don’t know, maybe things wouldn’t have gotten as bad as they did. Sitting next to Angie right then things were ok, good even, and it seemed crazy to think that a few years earlier we were just a couple of harsh words away from getting divorced. It started with our daughter.
I finally boxed all her things up and put them in the attic. It had been over five years, and one day I just knew it was time. Angie hadn’t liked it when I told her what I meant to do. Well, she was furious. It was the final straw, the one that nearly broke our marriage. We had our last big fight, the one where she stormed out of the house and went to stay with her sister up in the city for a week.
It’s unreal when I think about it now, how angry we both were. At that moment right before she slammed the door on her way out I honestly think I hated her. I said something I’d never even thought before, but there it was. I didn’t say it to her face, but once the doorframe stopped shaking and I was sure she couldn’t hear me, I called my wife a bitch.
I know I can’t take it back. It wouldn’t be fair because I meant it, I really did. I hated that she refused to move on. It was like she clung to our daughter’s old things like if she loved them hard enough and soaked them with enough tears, then maybe it would bring her back. I tried to understand, to be patient with her but after a while, even though I hated myself for it, I just thought she was pathetic. It made me angry to see her wallowing the way she did, every day visiting our daughter’s room sitting on her bed, refusing quietly to leave when I tried to get her to come out, or just ignoring me completely.
It may have been selfish of me. Maybe Angie wasn’t ready to move on, but I knew I couldn’t take any more, and the next morning after she’d left I went up to Milli’s room and began to put everything in boxes. It wasn’t easy, taking apart our daughter’s room, but it had begun to feel like a tomb inside, and each time I walked by it depressed me more and more to see it empty like it had become.
The first thing I put away was her hairbrush. It was pink with groves worn into the wood, the paint faded where her fingers had held it. My father had carved it for her himself and put in the horsehair bristles. Milli had loved it, and it was hard setting it down in the bottom of the box.
It got easier as I worked. I began smiling at memories I had of each thing I put away. There was her boom box, a present I gave her for her thirteenth birthday and regretted right away. It seemed that Milli had no idea that the volume knob went down as well as up, and every day for four years until the day she disappeared she tested the tensile strength of the coils inside those speakers.
I stacked her CD’s alphabetically, the same order she’d always kept them in. I read the unfamiliar names half wishing I’d gotten to know more about my daughter’s favorite music. Alien Ant Farm, Bouncing Souls, Built to Spill, Face to Face, MXPX, Pennywise, Rage Against the Machine, Weezer. All of them were unfamiliar to me. I couldn’t say which one was her favorite or what they sounded like.
I remembered Milli, suddenly sixteen years old, begging us to let her make the two hour drive up to Salt Lake to go to a concert. We hadn’t felt good about letting her go, especially not with Beth, her friend from school. Beth was one of those kids who couldn’t spell discipline let alone give you a definition. The kind of kid Angie always called a product of lazy parenting. Eventually we’d caved, and when Milli hugged me I felt like it was worth the stress of letting her drive so far. As it turned out, we had nothing to worry about. Milli was a responsible kid, and when she did disappear about a year later it wasn’t on a trip to Salt Lake.
I started in on her clothes, the main reason for all the fights she had with Angie. Plaid shirts ripped at the elbows, worn jeans ripped at the knees. T-shirts of some of the same bands as her CDs, with pictures that were just plain offensive if you asked Angie. Their arguments were fierce but short, like a summer thunderhead rolling down off the mountains, miserable while it lasted but leaving everything clean and fresh in its wake. They were so alike, mother and daughter, hard headed and passionate. I’d smile to myself every time Angie came in after one of their fights and say, honestly I don’t know where that girl gets it. They’d butt heads harder than two mountain goats and then twenty minutes later you’d think they were best friends instead of mother and daughter, and I suppose they had been.
The next thing was a pair of Converse All-Stars, high tops. They had been a gift from Angie, a peace offering after one of their arguments. Angie had done well. Milli loved them, because instead of the normal black color the other kids wore, they were bright green. Angie must have had them ordered special. Milli hardly wore anything else on her feet for months after she first put them on. We even caught her trying to wear them to church one week, and I don’t have to tell you how quickly we put a stop to that. I told her one day that I had had a pair myself when I was her age.
“No way! Really? I didn’t know they had All Stars when you were a kid.”
“Are you kidding? Chuck Taylors, they were the best basketball shoe you could buy. Mine were blue though.”
“Sweet Dad! I wish you still had them so we could match.”
“Yeah right,” I teased her, “and have me look like one of you skater kids. Forget it. I’ll stick with my boots thank you.”
But despite her skater streak, there was no stamping out the cowgirl in Milli. I laughed to see her in the saddle dressed like she did. I’d seen other girls dressed the same way over on Todd Hansen’s dude ranch looking miserable on family vacations. But Milli was as at home on horseback as any seasoned trail hand. In the summer she’d get up early and saddle Reggie, and the two of them would spend the whole day out exploring, sometimes not coming back till after dark. Then one day they hadn’t come back at all.
Angie came home the next week and we both apologized. We still almost didn’t make it. We’d look at that empty room and see different things, and neither of us could understand what it was the other one saw. But when it came down to it I guess I still loved her and she still loved me. She turned the bedroom into a guest room, put up new furniture and repainted the walls a color less vibrant than the electric orange tone Milli insisted on.
After that, the room stopped haunting the rest of the house. A few more years passed and Angie and I kept healing, bridging the gap that Milli’s disappearance had brought between us. I went up to the attic every now and then, always alone, and went through the things I’d put there. I don’t know why I never took Angie with me. Maybe we both wanted to remember her alone, exactly how we wanted. Our relationships with her had been different, no less loving one than the other, but different. It became a sort of ritual to me. I’d open the boxes and lay everything out on the dusty floor.
One day in early June I was upstairs in the attic going through boxes before the move. I wasn’t sure what to do with Milli’s things. It seemed to me they didn’t belong where we were going, and I thought maybe it was time to give them to the Goodwill store over in town. But I knew Angie would want to take them, and I didn’t want to risk the argument. So I put Milli’s boxes with the others I’d set aside to take with us to St. George.
“Tom,” it was Angie calling up from downstairs, “phone, hon.”
“Alright, I’ll get it in the bedroom, one sec.”
I climbed down the ladder, went down the hall into our bedroom and picked up the phone, “Hello?”
“Tom, it’s Mitch.”
Mitch was our foreman, and he pretty much ran the place now that I was only a month away from gone.
“Hey Mitch, what’s the bad news?”
“How do you know it’s bad?”
“Can hear it in your voice. How bad is it?”
“Well the barn didn’t catch fire or nothing, but we just got the herd corralled and we’re missing some.”
“One of em. I ain’t sure which.”
“They all look the same, don’t they?”
“That they do, Tom.”
I smiled. Mitch never knew when I was joking with him. He was a damned good foreman, but he had a lousy sense of humor. We hired him on a few years after Milli had gone missing, and he’d been a good friend in a rough time. We never really talked to him about it. He knew we’d lost our daughter, but just how or to what he was never sure, nor did he ask.
“Alright I’ll be right out. We’ll cut along your back trail and see what happened. Probably she stopped off to have a calf.”
I went downstairs and found Angie waiting by the door with a sandwich and a bottle of Gatorade.
“Guess you’ll have to take lunch to go.”
“Guess so,” I took the sandwich and stuffed half of it in my mouth in one go, then tried to kiss Angie on the lips.
She laughed and turned away, “Yuck. Swallow your food, Tom!”
I did, and took a swig from the Gatorade to wash it down.
“Cow’s missing. We’ll go see if we can’t find her.”
“Aren’t you glad you won’t have to deal with this anymore?” Angie asked.
“Yes Ma’am,” I nodded, but it wasn’t the truth. The closer we got to the sale the more I realized how much I’d miss the place.
I kissed Angie, this time without sandwich in my mouth and promised to be home soon.
Out at the stables I met up with Mitch who had already saddled up Boxer for me.
“Ready?” he asked.
“As I’ll ever be,” I swung up into the saddle, though not as easily as I used to.
We rode out along the herd’s back trail to where they’d been grazing. Mitch was good to ride with. He was a silent fellow and never forced any kind of small talk. I kept thinking about Milli. It had been eight years almost to the day that she disappeared.
I’d seen her that morning, go out to the stables. I’d waved and she’d waved back and called something out to me that I didn’t understand. So I just waved again and she’d gone into the stables. I’ve always wondered what she said, and if I’d heard it maybe she’d have come back.
What if she’d said, hey dad want to come riding with me? Then I’d have been with her, and whatever it was that had happened wouldn’t have happened. But I’d gone back inside to take care of something that had seemed important at the moment. I didn’t even see which way she went.
That was the most frustrating thing about it. The not knowing of it. If we’d have found her body we’d have some kind of peace, but we never did. By the time we got around to looking it had rained, and there was no sign, no tracks on the ground. We swept the whole property and even further but found nothing. We could only guess what had happened.
If she’d got bit by a rattler she would have started home and we’d have found her body at least and her horse. If she’d tried to cross the river and gotten swept away and drowned, she’d have turned up down by the dam. We checked the canyons and she hadn’t fallen down a chute or rockslide.
Maybe she just up and took off. That’s what I always hoped for even though it hurt to think she’d do such a thing. Still a kid couldn’t just run off without a trace like that, horse and everything. She hadn’t taken any supplies or camping gear. So unless she’d buried her horse and started hitching down to Mexico she probably hadn’t run away.
I prayed everyday that she hadn’t been snatched up by someone. That’s what the authorities said had probably happened. The thought of it made me sick and I didn’t like to dwell on it. She knew better than to trust a stranger and certainly nobody from town would do such a thing. I couldn’t believe that someone she knew and trusted had lured her off and killed her or worse.
But there was no trace of her. They never found a single clue.
Mitch brought us up to the field where the herd had spent the day grazing. It was at the very edge of our property and a barbed wire fence ran along the far side. The afternoon was getting on and the sun was at our backs, over halfway down to the horizon.
“Think she got through the fence?” Mitch asked, pointing to the other side of the field.
“Don’t know why she’d try,” I shrugged, “Still I guess it bears looking.”
On the other side of the fence was a shallow ravine with a wash at the bottom that nearly overflowed with spring runoff this time of year.
“Maybe she was thirsty.”
We rode across the field at a walk looking about for the missing cow. We were halfway to the fence when Mitch suddenly reared up and hollered, woah! His horse bucked some, and stepped back on its hind legs before settling down.
“What’s the matter?” I called over.
“Hell, Tom you’d better come look at this.”
“It ain’t a rattler is it?”
“No it sure ain’t.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a hole.”
And that it was. I rode up next to where Mitch sat, followed his look down to the ground and there it was. It was fair sized, rectangular, maybe eight feet long by six across. The grass grew right up to the edges which were lined with broken and rotting planks. The field wasn’t flat and it lay in a small depression so that if you were any further away than right next to it, you’d look right over it.
We were looking at an old mine shaft. I knew there were thousands of them across the state, and plenty of them down where we were. Still, I’d never know we’d had one on our land.
“Think she fell in?”
I thought that yes, she had. I got down off my horse and walked slowly to the edge.
“Fetch me down a flashlight would you?”
Mitch dug one out of his saddle bag and passed it down to me. I shone the beam in to the black hole. It went a ways and then faded.
“See the bottom?”
I shook my head slowly.
Mitch dismounted and squatted beside me. He dug a rock loose from the earth and dropped it in. It was some time before we heard it hit bottom. It was that sound that did it for me, and suddenly it was hard to stand.
“Well I think we know what happened to her.” Mitch started to dig loose another rock to throw in but I stopped him.
“I guess so.”
The world was slowing down. I felt dizzy like I’d been spinning in circles for years and was just now stopping and trying to walk a straight line.
“Reckon a drop like that would kill her?”
“Yeah. Unless maybe something underneath her broke her fall.”
“A horse maybe.”
“A horse? You alright Tom? You sound kind of funny.”
I wasn’t sure how I sounded, but Mitch sounded miles away. I just stared at that hole.
“Just give me a second.”
How long had this been here? A hundred years? A hundred and fifty? How long since they’d stripped everything they wanted from inside and boarded it up? I’d owned this land for almost thirty years myself, and I’d never seen it. I only came out to this field once or twice a year and when I did, I just sat on my horse watching the herd graze.
I scooted towards the edge and lay flat on my stomach.
“Christ Tom, what are you doing?”
I reached in as far as I could with the flashlight and squinted into the black. No bottom in sight. I think I’d started crying, because I was shaking and the flashlight slipped out of my fingers and fell down the dark shaft.
It spun end over end and I saw flashes of grey craggy walls as it fell. Walls that hadn’t ever felt the touch of sunlight, walls that led down to the deep part of the planet where eyeless beasts ate each other in the blackness and where nobody knew them. Down there they lived in endless caverns carved out inch by inch over the endless years by the steady drip of water. Then it hit the bottom and went dark with the echo of breaking glass. I felt Mitch pull me up and shake me gently.
“Tom, come on, let’s go. If she fell in there there’s nothing for it. Let’s just go on back.”
He was right. I took a last look at the cavern and stumbled up into the saddle.
The sun was half hid by the edge of the earth and sinking fast when we got back. Mitch offered to put up Boxer in the stable so I could get home. I walked up to the house and Angie was waiting on the porch. She smiled at me. It was the smile of knowing that soon we’d be somewhere far away from this place, a hopeful smile that comes from knowing that you get to start over.
“Hi hon, did you find her?”
“Nope.” I sat down and leaned against her.
We watched the sun sink over the hills. A cloud of bats rose against the blood red sky, wheeling, snatching insects from the twilight.