By Mike Riley
In a corn field two hundred miles from home and Theo, I set goose decoys out in snow this January morning, the earth lit by a wolf moon, so close I think I can walk to the end of the row and polish it with my hat. My black Lab Mac stares at it and howls seconds before the sun begins its magic act, and I think of my father, how far he was from me because of his addiction to alcohol, and my mother, who died so young. But now, I tell myself, I have my grandchildren, and Theo, and I need to live closely with them like this wolf moon with the earth before it has to go.
When I look at the old brick house across the road, I understand I am drawn back to the Yellowstone Valley by my love of the river and its life. For more than forty years, a melancholy has always weighed on me when I have left the Valley, and I do not understand that, except that I know I’ve felt a terrible loss. I know the feeling is anchored in the succession of deaths in my immediate family while I was young, but the land itself remains aloof, unrequited, never offering me the fulfillment I expect, no matter how beautiful I find it.
The house I have bought is empty, dead. I own it, and I know I must begin this dream of not being alone in the Valley, of creating a place I can share all that I love with my family. The house will prove me. Renovating it will renovate me, the unkempt, skinny little kid who lived with his grandmother in the tiny house by the river. We managed on her meager Social Security payment and the fish and wild game I could muster. I will restore this house to the mansion it once was, and I will shake the melancholia, the shame, and the loss out of those dark alcoves of my mind. I will own my own place, and it will be something of a value I’ve never known here. This Valley will re-pay me because of the house.
Start at the top and work down, H.R. had said. Go in the attic.
Good advice, I discover.
In May, I crawl up the built-in ladder under the attic access and push on it. Little black pellets fall down to the floor. I vaguely think it is mouse dung until I push the access to one side and the tiny ebony capsules cascade like a coal shower onto my arms, face and shoulders. The stench is unbearable, pungent like sweetly rotten cabbage, and I nearly vomit. My eyes adjust to the dark and I see something moving directly above me. It chitters and flickers. Wings unfold and close. Heads turn and tiny eyes glimmer.
At the apex of the roof, directly above my head, a football-sized brown cluster of the furry little critters pulses and ripples. I close the access door and jump onto the floor. I look closely at the black droppings.
Bat shit. It is elongated and segmented, tapered at the ends.
Now what? I think. I have no idea.
After a few minutes of telling myself no one is coming to my rescue, I get a flashlight and crawl up again, push the access door aside and scan the whole attic while holding my breath. I see at least five more clusters, and the guano is eight inches deep. Several bats become agitated with the light and flutter around their communal mass. They squeak and chitter at an increasing rate.
I know nothing about bats. My grandmother told me they could get caught up in my hair. I caught one on a fly line once while fishing at night under the Higgins Street bridge in Missoula. Backcast. Thunk. Thought I hooked a tree at first, but it was different. I beat it to death by grabbing the line and whipping it on the rocks. Cut the tippet. I used to find dead ones in windowsills of the old Alexander house before they tore it down. Alexander was one of Forsyth’s forefathers. He died from a lightening strike. Everyone said the abandoned Victorian house was haunted, so we had to go in there. I picked the dead bats up, took them to school, and my second grade teacher told me I could get rabies from handling them.
That is about all I know concerning bats. Except for the vampires. When I was in Mexico, I heard about vampire bats sucking the blood out of babies and goats at night.
I ask around, “How do you get rid of bats in your attic?”
One local tells me he’ll go up there and suck them into a big vacuum cleaner.
That’ll be fun, he says, I can just hear them thunking into that canister.”
Several people tell me to put mothballs up there. They won’t come back, they say. They hate mothballs.
Sulfur candles. That’ll get ‘em.
Use electromagnetic ultrasound.
A woman who knew my mother tells me to spray them with water. They’ll leave in a hurry, she says.
One old timer who grew up out north by my Dad has a biologic strategy. “Get a bull snake,” he says. “Put it up there, and it’ll eat all of ‘em. Take care of the mice too.”
After listening to these and several other remedies, I am skeptical and call about ten pest exterminators, finally finding one who will handle bats, a guy I call Batman Biff.
At first he tries to talk me into waiting until after July because of the baby bats.
“It’s still a bit early,” he says, “but if they have pups in there, they will die. You don’t want a bunch of dead baby bats on your hands.”
I tell him I need to get started on renovating the house, that I don’t give a damn about the baby bats. I just want them all gone as soon as possible, and ask him about the various methods I’ve heard. He scoffs at them.
“I don’t know about you,” he says, “but I don’t think I want to be in an attic with a vacuum cleaner or a hose and a bunch of pissed off bats.”
“So what’s the strategy then?” I ask.
“Well,” he finally says, “the first thing you need to do is find where they are exiting the house in the evening. There might be several spots. Try to get a count on how many leave. Watch the place for three or four nights.”
I can’t be there, having commitments in Cody, so I enlist my niece Tracy, her husband Paul Evan, their son Tanner, and their daughter Taylor, to go on Bat Patrol. I also ask Jack if he’ll give it a looksee.
During the first night of standing around in the tall grass, they are covered with ticks, and they count at least sixty bats flit out of the attic around the chimney Bill had built on the east side of the house, the one H.R. said had to go. About ten or fifteen more crawl out and fly from the screened porch where the ceiling has rotted and fallen down. They use flashlights, and the bats do not like that. They pause and chatter when they emerge. One wings Jack in the shoulder.
“It came right at me, “ he says, “whacked the top of my arm here on my shoulder.” He was wearing a Levi jacket, so nothing penetrated his skin. I told them to stop the Watch and called Batman Biff.
“That’s unusual,” he says of Jack’s incident. “They’re incredibly expert flyers, so it must have been highly irritated to brush him like that. They have a claw on their thumb they use for climbing, handling their food and grooming. It might have brushed him with one, or it might have been trying to bite him. A lot of people never even know they are bitten. Lucky it didn’t hit him on the ear.”
He has a look around the house as I show him the exit points the Bat Patrol observed, and after looking in the attic, he says the good news is he didn’t see any pups yet or sick ones flopping around erratically. The bad news is there are a lot of them. He gets his ladder off his truck and we carry it around to the east chimney.
“The majority of them are using this chimney point,” he says, showing me the pile of guano at the base of it. “And they’ve been in this house a long time.”
After getting on the roof, he tells me whoever built the chimney did not flash it correctly. There is a three-inch gap between it and the roof.
“All they need is a three-eighths inch gap,” he says, “about the width of a pencil.”
I think of Bill. He must have built the chimney after he had the roof replaced, or the roofers did not flash it right.
Biff begins duct taping around the opening and runs a two-inch flexible hose from the opening into a little box with a plastic, S-shaped tube inside. The box has small circular screens on the sides, and he nails it to the roof.
“They follow airflow,” he explains. “The screens on the box allow for that. They’ll crawl out their regular access, down the hose and fall through the plastic tube. Once in the box, they won’t be able to get back up the slick tube.”
“They don’t like change,” he says, “but a lot of them will come out tonight. You’ll hear them plop into the box through the tube, so stand out here just before sunset and count how many plops you hear for a couple hours.”
He fashions another box on the outside of the porch and tapes up several holes so they will have to use the only opening available.
“Call me tomorrow to let me know how many we have in the boxes,” he says, and gets in his truck.
“DO NOT try to remove those boxes yourself,” he warns, “just count how many bats you hear going into them.”
“Don’t worry,” I say. “Messing with those boxes is the last thing I’d do.”
I spray myself with insect repellant to ward off the ticks and mosquitos, and stand at the southeast corner of the house just before sunset. It is only a few minutes before I hear the first plop in the box by the chimney. Then more in a staccato beat – five, ten, up to thirty-two, and it stops. A few in the porch box, four, then two more. I shine my flashlight on the box, and I can see them through the screens. They chatter and flap around.
I’ll be damned, I think. It’s working.
Biff returns the next day and slides a gate over the opening to the hoses, removes the boxes and brings them down. He shows me the night’s catch – they lie motionless for the most part, crawling a bit and chittering.
Hairy little devils, I think. We got your asses..
He puts on thick gloves, opens the gate to one of the boxes, shakes it and catches one in his hand, then closes the gate.
“Look at this,” he says. “See the blood on her vagina?”
He holds her by the back, stretching a wing with his other hand. I see the drop of blood around the opening in her fur and wonder how menstruation would be while hanging upside down.
But I learn it is most likely not menstruation. Bats copulate in September or October, just before hibernation, or even during hibernation for some, and the female holds the sperm in her uterus until spring, when fertilization occurs as the sperm becomes motile and the eggs are ovulated. Delayed fertilization or ovulation, as the bat experts call it, allows for about a two-month gestation period so the pups are born in early summer, when insects are abundant. The blood on this female is probably from a failed pregnancy or a recent birth, both very rare at this time of year.
“They’ll start having their pups in a few weeks,” he says. “And will continue into July. I didn’t see any pups in the attic yet, and that’s good, because they can’t fly for several weeks and the mothers need to nurse them.”
“How are you going to kill them?”
“It’s up to you,” he says. “It’s not illegal in Montana, but it’s the wrong thing to do if you can help it. This little thing will eat up to a thousand mosquitos in an hour. And she only weighs about seven grams.”
“And from the looks of the attic,” I said, “she can shit fourteen grams.”
He explained how he could set up a bat house close by, so the maternal colony wouldn’t be more stressed than it was, and I would still have the benefits of their being around.
“I need to find a south facing pole or tree with plenty of sunlight,” he said. “You might have them hanging from your soffit for a while, but they’ll eventually use the houses.”
“I don’t want them hanging anywhere but from a noose,” I said. “Get them the hell out of here.”
“Well if you feel that way,” he said, “I’d have to take them at least fifty miles from here. They can easily fly that far in a night, and they will be back otherwise.”
“Take them to Alaska,” I said.
“They might just become a problem for other people if I displace them,” he said. “And they’d be messed up.”
“Disoriented. They wouldn’t know where they are.”
“I want them dismembered,” I said.
He laughed and said, “Yes, I understand. They have to come out of there. You most likely have a problem with your roof beams too.”
“Their urine. It softens the wood.”
Well that’s just great, I thought.
“And remember this,” he said. “Once a bat house, always a bat house. No matter how clean you get the house, you have to make it tight as a drum or you will have them back.”
Over the next few days, he manages to get about sixty bats out of the house, and there are no pups yet. He guarantees that no more will get in the attic, but he doesn’t know about the porch. He says they could use too many entry points there, with the torn screens on the windows and the house’s south chimney running down inside it.
“You might have a real problem with that chimney,” he says.
Bill had tightly covered the fireplace in the living room by taping plastic around it and covering it with rolls of pink fiberglass insulation. I haven’t even taken it off yet to see what is under there.
“I think something broke in there,” Bill had said. “It started pouring smoke out one night when I had a fire going, so it must be blocked or something.”
“And one more thing,” Batman Biff says. “I noticed bat bugs around the opening they were using.”
“They’re a parasite on bats,” he says, and he takes me upstairs to the bedroom Bill used before he couldn’t make it up the stairs. He searches the wall by the ceiling, which is directly in front of where the east chimney goes up the outside of the house.
“Right here,” he says, picking a bug off the wall. “This is a bat bug, and it’s full of blood.”
It is about the size of a big tick with a red abdomen. He pinches it between his thumb and forefinger, the bat blood popping out. Almost identical to a bed bug, the bat bug never evolved to dine primarily on humans like the bed bug did after the humans left the cave, or so the theory goes, and while they certainly might not be averse to a few sips of Homo Sapiens protein, they prefer Chiroptera’s.
“How do I get rid of those?” I ask.
“Spray everything with Tempo SC Ultra,” he says. “Wear goggles, a good respirator mask, rubber gloves, and a full bio suit. Do NOT get it in your eyes. Wait at least twenty-four hours before you come in the room again. I would spray the entire upstairs and attic, and after you tear out the ceiling and walls, spray it again.”
And where do I get that stuff?”
“Most feed stores. It is about forty-seven bucks a pint. Double the recommended strength – five ounces to a gallon.”
“And I’d get rid of those swallow nests under the north soffit,” he adds. “They can carry as many pests as bats. People think it’s cool to have a bird nest next to their window, but they don’t realize how many pests can invade their house from it.”
I do not admit I like having about thirty Cliff Swallows’ mud-daubed nests on the north side of the house. I’ve always admired their fighter jet acrobatics, and I love watching them swoop into the nests’ openings.
“One more thing,” he says, and I wonder when this is going to end. “I would call a disaster restoration company to remove all that guano in the attic.”
“I can just vacuum it out myself,” I say.
“Not worth it,” he says. “It’s rare in Montana, but you can get histoplasmosis from a fungus that grows in the guano. You need a mask that filters at least two microns, and the amount up there is just too much for you to handle. You’ll take the mask off every time you come down with a full vacuum canister, and that will increase your risk of exposure. Hire the pros to do that – they have the big equipment and they follow the correct precautions.”
“Yeah. Dry cough, fever, vision problems, organ failure sometimes, and death.
Oh goody. Great. Fantastic.
I tell my step-son Matt, a virologist doing post-doctoral research at Princeton, about the Batman’s suggestions.
What do you think? I ask. Histoplasmosis?
“Not only that,” he says. “Eighty viruses have been identified in guano. They’ve traced the Ebola virus to a bat cave in Africa. It’s bad shit, no pun intended.”
I see that Matt has not lost his sense of humor since his immersion in academia, but it sobers me. I did not want to pay some body to run a vacuum. But Ebola?
“It’s a simple virus,” Matt says, “but a subtle one.” He talks about genomes and glycoproteins, how Ebola tricks cells into making them produce the proteins it needs – ones that trigger the immune system to create what he calls a “cytokine storm” – blood vessels leak, organs fail, blood pressure and core temperature drop, and the body goes into shock.
I am always amused at Matt’s love for and admiration of viruses. “They are the smartest things on the planet,” he says. Ever since he was a little boy, he exhibited a brilliant mind, so it did not surprise me that he chose to study what he considers the most intelligent life form.
“It actually was first found in a nun’s blood sample from Yambuku,” he tells me, “but the Antwerp virologists named it after a local river, the Ebola, to keep from stigmatizing Zaire.”
“Well that helps,” I say. “Remind me not to become a nun in Yambuku.”
“It’s not funny,” Matt says. “Get the pros to take care of it. Bats carry more zoonotic viruses than rodents.”
“Animal diseases communicable to humans,” he says. “But rodents have twice as many species, so you should be careful of them too.”
“How many species of bats are there?”
“I’m not sure,” he says. “I think somewhere between 900 and 1200.”
I readily accepted that he knew what he was talking about. I realized how smart he was when he was about eight and claimed he couldn’t afford the time to mow the lawn. I was in graduate school in Missoula all week, and came home on weekends to Chester, where Theo worked as a clinical psychologist in Community Mental Health. She’d asked me to talk to him about shirking his chores, which included mowing.
“So your mother tells me you refuse to mow the lawn,” I’d said.
“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t have time.”
“What do you have to do that is more important?” I asked.
“Practice basketball,” he said.
“You think practicing basketball is more important than doing your chores?” I said, using the paraphrasing-rather-than-blaming skills I’d recently learned in a parenting class. “How is that?”
Well,” he said, as though trying to explain to a dummkopf, “you played basketball in college, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” I said.
“And you wanted to play pro, didn’t you?
“Well,” I said, “of course, but I wasn’t good enough.”
“And you mowed lawns when you were a kid, right?”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s how I earned any money I had. That and shoveling snow.”
“Well,” he said, “that’s where you went wrong. You should have practiced basketball more instead of mowing lawns and shoveling snow. Then you would have been good enough to play pro.”
I eventually won that Socratic dialogue, but I decide now to take his advice on the guano, so I hire a restoration company out of Billings to get rid of it. Three guys bring a vacuum on the bed of a one-ton truck, and they run six-inch hoses through an upstairs window to the attic. Two of them wear bio-suits, rubber gloves, goggles and masks. I can’t see any part of their bodies. The other guy runs the hoses into bags twelve feet long and three feet in diameter. They fill four bags and get ready to haul it away.
“You have to have a special permit to dispose of it,” the guy on the ground says.
One of the boys in the suits tells me the rafter joists are discolored from bat urine, and they will need to be sanded down to the bare wood or replaced, depending on how deep the rot is.
“I scraped a couple of them just to see, and they weren’t too bad, but who knows about all of them?” he says. “Do you want us to take care of it?”
“I imagine that would get pretty pricey.”
“Oh yeah,” he says. “It would be what they call labor intensive.”
I decide I’ll use a hand sander and do it myself. I thank them for a great job, pay them $1500, another deposit in the money pit, and they leave me with a half-way clean attic, at least one I can enter now.
I realize after they are gone that I need a porta-potty, one of those fiberglass outhouses. Every time I take a crap in the grass around here and bury it, squirrels or raccoons dig it up, and I have ticks crawling up my legs. Anyone who works out here will need one too, so I rent one from Miles City at a hundred bucks a month. I figure each dump will cost me about $5.50.
That night at the poker table in Buff’s Bar I tell the story about the guano. Two notorious pot-heads in the game respond.
“You got guano?” one says. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
“It’s the best fertilizer in the world for grass.”
“They sell that stuff on the internet for ten bucks an ounce.”
“Maaaaan, why didn’t you tell us? We would have done it for nothing!”
“How about the stuff in my porta-potty?” I ask them. “What will you give me for that?”
They actually wonder about it for a few seconds, and finally one says, “Nah, too many chemicals in it.”
I tell them I am hurt that they do not appreciate my efforts to help.