Christopher Sessums CC
Right as the preacher was sermonizing on Daniel, a ruckus broke out in the entryway. Mrs. Brockle in the back row started screaming, shielding her hair, fresh from its Saturday fluffing. Something brown and furry zoomed over the pulpit, bulleted up to the stained glass behind the altar, then streaked back to the entrance.
“It’s a sign,” someone yelled from the front pew.
“It’s a bat,” I said. We’d just had a unit on them in my freshman science class.
Some cowered squealing in the pews, others sat dumbstruck as the bat skimmed over the congregation towards the entryway, trying to find its way back through the dimness to its perch in the old belfry. Next to me, my grandma watched, narrowing her eyes behind their steel frames. It was a look I recognized. That bat had fallen short of her expectations for behavior. As she frequently told me, it wasn’t acting “church.” Things that weren’t church: chewing gum, fidgeting, craning to see the back pews, dropping the hymnal, speaking the Lord’s Prayer too loudly, wearing lipstick, eye shadow, high heels, earrings bigger than a dime (she measured mine), or skirts above the knees, looking at the pastor’s son in the front pew, keeping eyes open during prayer. The list went on. I seemed to add to it every Sunday since I’d had to come live with her.
The bat made another pass, perched momentarily on the cross behind the altar before flying back towards the bell-pull rope and the big double doors closed against the sunshine.
“Stay calm,” the preacher boomed in his microphone.
The screams grew louder. Funny how bats are always screeching in movies, but in real life the bat’s cries were too high-pitched to be heard, while the people shouted down the rafters.
I got up, unwinding the shawl I’d thrown over the sundress that had not been church enough for my grandmother. She gasped, but I ignored her. The bat rattled against the wall and then perched along the molding above the little closet where they kept the candle snuffers. The bat opened its mouth, screaming soundlessly, showing its teeth as I approached.
I tossed the shawl over the bat, catching it in the folds while the ushers stood frozen. I gathered the material up carefully. Bats look fierce but are actually fragile. The bat struggled against the smooth cotton, as anyone would, restrained.
“Open the door,” I called. One of the ushers, ducking low as if the bat would fly at him, flung open the door. Light streamed inside. I ran with the struggling creature to the grass at the base of a sycamore. Behind me, the church door slammed shut. As I set down the shawl, I unfurled it, freeing the bat.
I backpedaled, in case it flew at me, but it only lay there, a fluff of brown fur and leather wings. I hoped it was just stunned. Behind me, the organ started up, and the bat-less congregation belted out the hymn with improved gusto. Out here in the sunshine, the music was softened, like a parade marching band heard from far away.
On the shawl, the bat shifted one foot, then the other, like stretching after a good sleep. It crawled off the cloth, into the grass, and a bit up the tree, where it perched for a second before taking off, rocketing upward until I lost it in the light.
The sun felt deliciously warm on my bare shoulders. I couldn’t go back inside, even if I wanted to—without the shawl, I wasn’t church. I took deep breaths of the new-mown grass smell, of the perfume of the hot oleander. I wondered if my mother could smell flowers in her rehab center, or if it always smelled like Pine-Sol and cigarettes and sweat. One month had turned into two, and whenever I visited her, despite her tough biker jacket, she looked worn thin, with flaking lips and blue shadows under her eyes. “You like staying at Grandma’s, right?” she’d asked last time I was there. I knew it didn’t matter what I answered. Both of us were stuck where we were.
The door creaked ajar behind me. Grandma stood on the steps, not even trying to zoom free. Straight, squinting in the sunlight, skinny arms braced against the railing, brown skirt rustling, mouth open. Calling to me words I was unable to hear.
Ann Hillesland's work has been published in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Sou’wester, Bayou, and SmokeLong Quarterly. It has been selected for the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions, nominated for Pushcart Prizes, and presented onstage by Stories On Stage in Davis and Denver. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Queen’s University of Charlotte. Her website, including her blog about vintage hats, is at annhillesland.com.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.