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"Once," my mother said, "there was no true darkness. Even at night, the moon was as bright as the sun. The only difference was that the light was blue. You could see clearly for miles and miles and it was never cold. And this was called twilight."
"Why twi?" I asked.
"Because it rhymes with sky," my mother said. "It’s a code word for blue." Code blue was what they said when someone died, I remembered, and this, too, had to do with the sky.
One day God called the bat to him and gave him a basket to carry to the moon. The basket was filled with darkness, but God didn’t tell him what it was. Instead, he said, “Take this to the moon. I’ll explain everything when you return.” So the bat set off for the moon with the basket on his back. He flew toward the sky, but the moon saw him and hid behind a cloud. The bat grew tired and stopped for a rest. He put down the basket and went off to find something to eat. While he was gone, other animals came along. (Dogs and wolves mostly, also a badger with a broken paw.) These animals thought there might be food in the basket and pried the cover off, but inside there was only darkness, which they had never seen before. The dogs and wolves tried to pull it out and play with it, but it slipped away between their teeth and slithered off. Just then, the bat returned. He opened the basket and found it empty. The other animals disappeared into the night. The bat flew off to try to recapture the darkness. He could see it everywhere, but he couldn’t fit it back inside his basket, no matter how he tried. And that is why the bat sleeps all day and flies all night. He’s still trying to catch the dark.
“Which part of the story was the part about Africa?” I wanted to know. I had asked my mother to tell me about Africa and instead she had told me about the bat. “It’s all about Africa,” my mother said, frowning. “Everything except the part about God.”
When my mother was very young, she lived in Tanzania and studied birds. It was there that she met my father. He had come to Africa to set up a fishery and she had taught him some Swahili and that was that. “Before you were born, I met him,” my mother said. “Before you were even a gleam in my eye.” This made her laugh. I laughed too. I had seen a picture of my parents in Africa, standing on the beach, holding a giant silver fish between them. When they lived in Tanzania, my mother said, village boys would wait near the trees at dusk and scoop bats out of the sky with nets.
In my notebook, I wrote:
a bat is not a bird = mammal
My mother spelled out each word for me and later I added “idealistic” to the list, which is what she said my father had been once. I kept the notebook because I thought that I might want to be a detective someday. I wrote down everything I heard, and when the pages started to fall out, I stuck them back inside with glue. I had an idea that someday someone would come to me with a mystery and I would open up the notebook and all the clues would already be there.
My mother told me that another name for detective was P.I. and that this was the word for a number that no one could ever finish writing. I said, “What if you wrote all day and all night and never slept for a hundred years?”
“Even then,” my mother said, “you wouldn’t be done.”
About the bat, I wanted to know: Why was the darkness in a basket? Why did the moon hide from the bat? How did the badger hurt his paw? What do bats eat? Where did the darkness run? What happened to the dogs and wolves that started everything?
“Bats eat fruit and insects mostly,” my mother said. “The darkness ran everywhere at once.”
“Do bats eat people?”
“No,” she said. “But there’s a kind in South America that drinks the blood of sleeping things. Sometimes they bite people without even waking them because their touch is as light as a kiss.”
My mother turned off the light and closed the door. The room became its night self then, full of deep corners that swallowed up the dark. Shadows moved across the wall, chasing the lights of cars. I closed my eyes and tried to dream in another language. My mother knew five languages by heart and could dream in three. Her father had been a linguist and once she had wanted to be one too. Sometimes she spent all night translating what one person in her dream said to another. When she woke up, she was so tired she could barely speak. That was why she slept all day and wandered around the house at night.
In Africa, my mother said, there is a secret city where no one ever sleeps. If a traveler stumbles upon it and falls asleep, he will be buried alive before he wakes. The villagers have never seen sleep before and would think he had died in the night. If he woke up while he was being buried, they would think he was a demon and beat him to death. The only sign you have entered the sleepless city is a certain unceasing murmuring even in the dead of night. Otherwise, it looks like every other place. Travelers are advised to wander through each city, asking passersby, “Where can I sleep?” because in the sleepless city no one knows the answer.
My mother had taught me a little French. “What is your name?” I knew and “Please, can you help me find... ?” Once 1’d asked my mother to teach me Swahili and she said, “You already know one word. Can you guess what it is?” I had guessed “detective,” but this had been wrong. “Safari,” she said. “It’s an old Swahili word for travel.” This was the word for the shows my father liked to watch on TV. “Yes,” my mother said. “That’s exactly right.”
Later I wrote “safari” in my notebook next to the word “Sophie,” the name of my mother’s other daughter, the one who died in Africa before I was born. Once I asked her if Sophie could speak Swahili before she died, but my mother said she had been too little to speak anything at all.
Another time, my mother told me that when I was born every language in the world was in my head, waiting to take form. I could have spoken Swahili or Urdu or Cantonese, but now it was too late. “Where did all the words go?” I asked.
“They just wasted away,” my mother explained, “like a leg you never walk on.”
My mother kept a notebook too; hers was black with shiny rings. I had torn a page from it and hidden it under my bed. Sometimes when I couldn’t sleep, I took the page out of its hiding place and read it:
Betwixt trumpeter pebbly complication vigorous tipple careen obscure attractive consequence expedition unpunished prominence chest sweetly basin awake photographer ungrateful.
Tea realizing most so the together home and for were wanted to concert I he her it the walked.
Sun was nice dormitory is I like chocolate cake but I think that book is he wants to school there.
Family was large dark animal came roaring down the middle of my friends love books passionately every kiss is fine.
Went to the movies with a man I used to go toward Harvard Square in Cambridge is mad fun for.
Road in the country was insane especially in dreary rooms where they have some books to buy for studying Greek.
Easy if you know how to crochet you can make a simple scarf if they knew the color that it.
More attention has been paid to diet but mostly in relation to disease and to the growth of young children.
A moth flew into the room and fluttered against the shade. I wondered if this might be the same moth that had tried to fly to a star. But that moth had died, I remembered, or maybe it was the moth who had stayed home and circled the street lamp. My mother had told me that story too and said the moral was that stars could not be trusted and moved farther away, the closer you came. “Poor moth,” I said again and again that day until my father put down the paper and asked me to stop. Later he explained that the nearest star was 93 million miles away and this made it unlikely that anyone, a person or a moth, would ever go there. When I asked what the name of the nearest star was, my father said, “The Sun, of course.”
But my mother said that that was only one way to think of it and that in some places (Africa, for instance) people knew how to leave their bodies and fly up to the edge of the sky, where they hovered like birds. The trick, she said, was not to look down at your body in the bed, or you might lose your nerve and fall.
I looked for the moth again, but it was gone. Outside my window, slow stars moved across the sky. I could feel myself falling asleep, into sleep, it seemed. This happened when the darkness in the corner pulled me to it like water to a drain. I closed my eyes and waited. Around me, the night buzzed like a fluorescent light. J’ai perdu mon chapeau, I dreamed. Something brushed across my cheek and I thought it was the bat, but when I opened my eyes, there was only my mother, kneeling beside me with her hands like fur.