2013 Barthelme Prize Winner: Bats

Lawrence Coates

Winner of the 2013 Barthelme Prize for Short Prose, selected by Robert Coover

In November, all the women in Northwest Ohio have bats in their purses. They hang upside down within the purses, no matter the size, silent, peaceful, their tiny claws clinging to the cell phone pocket, or the built-in coinpurses or checkbook covers, or the zipped interior compartment filled with tissue, lipstick, antacids, breath fresheners, analgesics. The bats are furry, large-eared, pug-nosed, their leathery wings folded about them like comforters, their neat and sharp fangs hidden, their near-useless eyes closed and calm. They sway inside the bags as women walk, rustle subtly.

The women in Northwest Ohio carry purses of blue buttersoft lambskin to bank lobbies in Toledo, or canvas shoulderbags to convenience stores in Risingsun, clutches of black leather to grocery stores in Defiance, large totes with bright patterns to offices in Napoleon, Van Wert, Archbold, Bluffton. In towns surrounded by the flat fields of cornstalks paling to gray in November, or the sickly yellowing green of soybeans, towns defined by a railroad track and grain silos, or in cities with small factories making parts that are shipped to larger factories and assembled into automobiles, or in the larger cities ringed and split by freeways with dark warehouses at their core, the women carry purses with bats hanging hidden within, tranquil and waiting.

The bats have names that they do not know: they are called Red, Hoary, Silver-haired, Eastern Pipistrelle, Northern Long-eared, Big Brown, Little Brown, Indiana. They hang unconscious that they are hanging, and they dream.

Ask the women of Northwest Ohio in November if they have a bat in their purse, and they will deny it. They will think it a ridiculous question, absurd. And they will open their purses for inspection, red satin-lined or raw canvas, show that their purses are innocent of small winged mammals, empty of the living, the sleeping, the dreaming. The women have no time for such foolishness as the sun declines and the sky darkens, and they walk away, busy and purposeful.

Yet as they walk, the almost unnoticeable rustle commences. And as they walk, they dream the dreams of bats. Awakening into spring with their hands webbed and wing-like, finding their way between trees at twilight, furred in red, orange, brown, black, silver frost, dipping from the sky to taste, or skimming a still pool and catching, at the edge of the mouth, a single perfect pearl of water.