I can’t tell you for sure if the bat bit me; it seems important to establish that up front. What I can tell you is that when I woke it was circling my head, letting out those high-pitched squeaking sounds reminiscent of a loose wheel on a shopping cart. It was dark, but I could hear it thumping into the wall above my head, circling lower and lower and then rocketing up to the ceiling in short panicky bursts. I never learned how the bat got in. Maybe it crawled through a few feet of insulation and popped through the hole above the bathroom sink. It’s possible it tore its way through the window screen, tiny bat teeth preternaturally strong against metal wires. What feels most likely though, is that the bat slipped in while I wasn’t paying attention—as I left the door ajar while lugging in grocery bags or as I walked outside to sit on the porch. I would not have noticed the soft, paper-thin wings as they glided in behind me with the disturbance of a soft breath.
I have racked my brain over these next two minutes extensively. As I stood up out of bed did the bat throw itself repeatedly against my chest or was it just once? I was drowsy and oddly panicked, sleep fuzz still crowding the corners of a world that might have been a dream. I opened the back door, grabbed a towel and shooed the bat out into the night. This would prove my first and most fatal mistake, a doctor would later admonish me for not killing the bat on the spot, the better to be sent to a state lab for testing. On its careening way out the door, the tiny bat-body collided with my arm. Did it bite then? I spent the next half hour holding my arm under fluorescent bathroom lights checking and re-checking for two tiny pin pricks of blood, two small holes in the skin. Some evidence that we had made contact. I would lay down and stare at the ceiling for only a few minutes before getting back up to check again, circling around and around in a panicked blur.
* * *
That probably should have been the end of it. There is a better, less anxiety-ridden version of me that gets up the next day and forgets about the bat altogether, a person who doesn’t agonize over an uncertain bite that has only a small chance of spelling certain doom. But at that point I already had a passing knowledge of rabies. A few years earlier I’d heard an episode about rabies on the podcast Radiolab. The podcast features the screams of rabies sufferers spliced under the host’s calm voice explaining that the infected person fluctuates between moments of lucidity and madness. “So, the infected are able to describe their pain and understand with utter clarity that they will soon die,” the host says. Lying in bed after a bite that did or didn’t happen, I tried not to think about that episode or about the host’s soft voice. I tried not to think about the fact that once you are infected with rabies there is a 100% chance you will die, that I might not know I had been infected at all until a few weeks had gone by, until I began to exhibit an involuntary twitch that would start in my fingers and slowly work its way northward.
I remember caving. I remember looking up the Wikipedia page for rabies and reading about the virus, about how it enters the bite or scratch wound and travels ever-so-slowly towards the brain. Most viruses hit the bloodstream and then replicate themselves, but the rabies method—slowly crawling hand over hand up the nerves until reaching the brain and wreaking havoc—is infinitely more chilling. Rabies sometimes results in the same, foamy saliva packed with the virus that appears in rabid animals. There is also hydrophobia, originally the name for rabies because it was the most recognizable symptom. Rabies-infected humans develop a fear of water despite a growing thirst. Despite a mouth overflowing with froth and foam they are unable to swallow, unable to even look at water without experiencing violent convulsions.
The Duke of Richmond, one of the most famous documented sufferers of rabies, began to suspect he was infected when a glass of wine was placed in front of him and he was unable to drink. “I feel that if I were a dog I should be shot,” he apparently said. It would be confirmed a day later when he found he was unable to step into a boat, instead ordering his men to take him as far inland as possible. I imagine his men picking him up and carrying him away from the shore and not stopping. They know he is dying, that he is slowly losing his grip on reality, on life, but they are going to respect his final wishes. They carry him through woods and fields with tall, thin blades of grass. They don’t stop until he is as far away from water as he can possibly be, until there is nowhere further to go.
* * *
In the summer of 2018, my mother had a stroke. My sister, Kat, home in Northern Michigan at the time, came downstairs after hearing a loud thump and found our mother splayed out on the floor at weird angles. She called me thirty minutes later from the emergency room.
“Hey,” she said. “Mom had a stroke.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I’ll call you with updates.”
“Should I come up?” I asked. “Is it bad?”
“I don’t know dude,” she said, and hung up.
* * *
I often wonder if I’ve always been prone to catastrophizing, or whether that’s something that I’ve developed over time, growing it slowly in my mind through tender care—like a potted plant receiving the right mixture of sunlight and water. I had begun to catalogue the number of times I had to circle back to my front door because I wasn’t sure if I’d locked it, couldn’t help but wonder if I’d left the kitchen sink on or if the stove was still spitting gas into the apartment. I imagined scenarios where I came home to water overflowing in the sink, a biblical flood spilling out the front door and unwinding in the neighbor’s yard. The summer of 2018 was the first moment I really began to consider whether the world might end. The signs were everywhere: profiles in the New York Times about the insect apocalypse, a growing understanding from the scientific community that climate change was moving faster than anyone could have predicted, and surrounding all of that dread a sense that nobody was doing anything—that we were all going about our lives as though we weren’t minutes away from tipping into the abyss.
When faced with the early signs that climate change would be a direct result from carbon emissions, researchers at Exxon Mobil developed a series of proposals for reducing emissions that wouldn’t impact their bottom line. One of the methods included putting “whitening chips” into the world’s oceans, the better to reflect sunlight back out into space. Another idea involved surrounding the earth with thousands of space mirrors; one more idea posited that floating millions of balloons in the atmosphere would do the trick. All of the ideas are improbable at best, flagrantly disrespectful to the field of science at the very least. Some of it I understand, though. When faced with a radical shift in our lives, with the end of things as we’ve always known them, of course we reach for any solution we can get our hands on, no matter how obscure or half-cocked.
Ancient rabies sufferers were no different. They made pilgrimages to see gods and saints associated with healing rabies. They made poultices of crushed almonds or seared the bite wounds closed with a hot iron and hoped for the best. One of my favorite cures, outlined in Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy’s Rabid, involves plucking the feathers from around the anus of a rooster and then applying the plucked butt directly to the bite wound. Another, recorded by Roman naturalist Piney the Elder in 79 AD, includes stuffing the burnt hair from a rabies-infected dog directly into the bite wound—a cure that lives on in our modern expression for hangover cures: the hair of the dog that bit you.
All of these solutions, in the end, feel preferable to what I did, which was nothing. After receiving—or maybe receiving—a bite from a bat, I didn’t immediately seek treatment. I knew, logically, that was a thing that you were supposed to do, but I didn’t do it. And, after receiving a call from my sister about my mother’s stroke I did not drive the two hours north to Petoskey to see her in the Emergency Room. I don’t know how to explain either of these things other than how they felt: that doing something would have made them real. Before I went to the hospital I either did or did not have rabies. Before I visited my mother, her stroke was and wasn’t fully real. Maybe she was still frozen, a moment before collapsing on the floor, the TV chattering away amicably, a tendril of steam held over her tea like a knife.
* * *
In Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, the protagonist is inoculated against the vampire plague that ends the world by a bite from a bat. It’s hard to know if that’s really a win for Robert Neville, who spends most of the book staking former humans through the chest and generally trying to keep it together under a constant onslaught of loneliness and terror. Finally, he accepts that there’s no point in being the last person kicking it on a vampire murder planet and hands himself over to the slightly-more-humane vampire society that has begun to set itself apart from the crazier vampires he’s spent his days staking through the heart. The point being: maybe surviving as the only unchanged person in a world made wholly unfamiliar isn’t worth it.
The end-Permian mass extinction was a little like this. It was the most thorough extinction our planet ever went through—wiping out a staggering 96% of all life. For reference, the most famous death-by-asteroid extinction at the end of the Triassic took out a meager 75% of plant and animal life. Kid stuff. The end-Permian planetary apocalypse, one of six major wipe outs thus far, happened because of an all-to familiar trigger: a sudden spike in greenhouse gasses. Specifically, a super volcano erupting beneath a 252-million-year old Siberia, vomiting tons of carbon dioxide into the air and turning the earth’s atmosphere to poison.
I read about the Permian extinction in Peter Brannen’s book, The Ends of the World, while struggling with my personal the-world-is-ending depression. On a whim I emailed him to see if he’d be open to an interview about the book. Within a week we were talking over the phone about the many modern similarities to this ancient apocalypse. Finally, I cut to the chase and asked if the world was going to end in our lifetimes.
“No,” he said, flatly.
“But the carbon we’re pumping into the atmosphere.”
“Oh, it’s not good,” he laughed, his voice blasting static at the beginning of each chuckle. “But we’ve got a long way to go before we hit Permian levels. Society will probably collapse before we eradicate all life on earth, if you care about that sort of thing.”
“I mean,” I said, and thought all of the things about society I had become deeply attached to. “I’m not in favor of societal collapse.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Me either. But I don’t know, I almost see the end-Permian extinction as a hopeful thing. Humans might be gone 10 or 20 million years from now but the Earth will be just fine. It’s come back from much worse.”
“I mean the end of humans seems bad.”
“It’s not great, for sure. But there’s something comforting in knowing we’re not destroying the world forever, right?”
I couldn’t argue with that.
* * *
I drove north. It was two weeks since my mom’s stroke, a week since she’d been released from the hospital and put on heavy anti-seizure medications. She could barely string her thoughts together into words. Her sentences were heavy and slow, as though she was unsure where they would end. As though a black hole was placed between each word and she was fighting against gravity to push them out.
“It’s good to see you,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. My dad was less impressed.
“What took you so long?” he asked. He had grown thin in a few short weeks. His skin was grey and drooped from his face like folded, fleshy sheets. I would later learn that he’d suffered couvade while my mother was pregnant with me, that his anxiety about her well-being had always manifested as something physical.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m sorry.” It was enough. We moved on to other things. We talked about things that weren’t seizures. I mentioned that I had begun to read about the end of the world.
“Man,” he grimaced when I told him. “What’s the point of thinking about stuff like that? It makes you feel bad, and for what?” I didn’t know how to explain to him then that it felt like reading about all of the different ways the world could end was protecting me somehow, like an antibody.
Later, I took my mother to see Mary Poppins 2 in Harbor Springs. We bought a bucket of greasy buttered popcorn and a bag of Reese’s pieces. We sat in the back row and watched as real people tried to dance with cartoon foxes, as Dick Van Dyke tap danced, as Lin Manuel Miranda tried to stop time. She fell asleep just before the credits rolled, her head resting on my shoulders. We sat there together as the theater emptied out. Waiting.
* * *
When I finally went in for the rabies vaccine it was a day before the window for getting the vaccine would have closed forever. I explained my trepidation to the nurse, how I didn’t know if I’d been bitten at all.
“It’s stupid, right? I should be fine without it.” She shook her head.
“It’s hard to know you’ve been infected if you don’t even know if you’ve been bitten,” she said. “I mean if it were me, I would have gotten the shot too. Seems better than being wrong and dying, right?”
I wondered, for maybe the last time, how the bat got in that night. I wondered whether it was carrying rabies or whether it was just trapped and terrified. I imagined a world, some 10 million years from now, inhabited exclusively by bats. A whole civilization of bats swooping through the night sky and speaking to each other in sharp chirps and the gentle flutter of fleshy wings.
“Yeah,” I said. “Definitely better.”
* * *