Saturday, 28 October 2017

Vampire Fruit Bats

The flight was hell. We spent more time in the airport than in the air, and I sat next to a mother with a baby. It didn't cry, but its mother doped it on something to keep it quiet, instead it just threw up. I got some on my trousers, it smells like sour milk.
And now that we're here, it's pouring rain. I'm used to rain, I'm an Englishman, but our dingy, little hire car has a hole in the roof which is pooling water in the backseat, so I'm huddled with my briefcase and jacket in the passenger seat, while Gary drives. We pull up to the driveway beside a van which sat in front of a dark grey slab of cliff that looms over us like a gothic cathedral.
  “Nah-three-apeba Nekh-ha?" read Gary, looking at the red letters on the green gate that guarded the cave entrance "The bloody hell does ‘at mean?"
  “That's not what it says," I say, opening the car door. "It's Serbian, I'm sure it says 'Zlotska cave'."
I step out, kick the door shut and run to the small, door-sized gate within the larger gate, to get out of the rain as quickly as possible.
  “Come on Gary!" I call back.
Gary squeezes out of the car and waddles as quickly as he can to get under shelter, but even in the short run, his short hair and the shoulders of his polo shirt were sodden.
  “Oi, mate, my legs aren't as long 's yours," he says, fetching his glasses out of his shirt pocket and drying them with a handkerchief from his trousers. The cavern proper was lit by some standing floodlamps, with tables set up near the side, where two men were already working at a table covered with books, and what looked like cooler boxes and thermoses of water and coffee. I recognized one of them as Doctor Markis, I worked with him in college once.
  “Robert?" I say, heading over. "So, what's the project this time?"
He turns to greet me with a wide grin.
  “Neobiology," he says, with an outheld hand. "Nice to see you again, I'm glad you could make it."
I shake his hand and he turns to Gary.
  “Mr Longfield, is it?"
  “Call me Gary," replied my colleague in his slack, Liverpudlian slur.
  “And, this is Doctor Radmilo Kovac, doesn't speak much English," said Markis, turning to the fourth man. "Radmilo, upoznajte moje kolege. Gary Longfield, i Theodore Waites."
  “Hello, good," said Radmilo, smiling at us. “Bat man?”
  “Wha’?” said Gary.
  “Have you been teaching him about your comic books?” I ask, wryly.
  “No, he wants to know if you’re the expert in bat-borne diseases.”
  “I’m an expert in viral microbiology and infectious diseases . . . Yes. I Am Bat Man,” I say slowly, so the poor fellow can understand. He nods, and gestures for me to follow him to another table, set up away from the food.
  “Should I . . .?” I ask Robert.
  “Yes, this is what you’re here for,” he says. “Drop your stuff here first.”
I set up my briefcase by the table, then walk to the other table with a dedicated flood lamp, I catch a glimpse of the eviscerated, bloody corpse and jump back.
  “For goodness sake!” I curse, seeing the bat, splayed out and pinned, so that its insides are showing.
  “Are you alright, Theo?” asks Robert.
  “You could’ve given me a heads-up,” I growl, stepping closer, “Ugh . . . that’s disgusting.”
  “Ona je pala sa plafona,” said Radmilo, putting on a pair of gloves. “Eh . . . Fall. Dead.”
  “Radmilo here is a local veterinarian,” said Robert. “I called him into sex some of the specimens, but some of them started just dropping dead on us. Even after an autopsy, he’s still not sure what’s killed them, but he suggests it could be viral.”
  “Necropsy,” I correct, “autopsies are done on humans. ‘Auto-’, ‘self’.”
I grimace, leaning forward, watching Radmilo pick up a scalpel from the table.
  “Ona gostili zaražene krvi . Posmatrati . . .” says Radmilo, he made an incision in the pink balloon I recognized as the stomach, immediately blood spills out of the cut, filling the whole cavity where she was cut open.
  “A stomach full of blood?” I say. “That’s one hell of an infection . . .”
  “That wasn’t caused by the infection, that’s the cause of the infection,” says Robert. “I think it drank the blood.”
I can’t help but chuckle, nervously.
  “Robert, I thought you were a biologist,” I say. “Even I know that this isn’t a vampire bat. It’s too big, I’ve seen an Attenborough documentary about it, they’re smaller than cricket balls, tiny.”
  “Postoje komada povrća takodje,” said Radmilo, picking out small, bloody chunks from the corpse.
  “Yurk! Get that away from me!” I yell, jumping back. “I don’t want to wear it!”
  “I know they’re not vampire bats. As Doctor Kovac says, it’s a fruit bat. But they’ve also been feeding on blood,” Robert puts a hand on my shoulder and looks me in the eye. “Fruit bats aren’t native to this region of Europe, and this facial structure bears unique features. We could be looking at a new species. Perhaps a hybrid. A ‘vampire/fruit bat’.”
  “Just, hold the phone,” I say, brushing his hand off my shoulder. “let me get my equipment and I’ll take a look before we start declaring a new species. Alright?”
  “Of course,” said Robert, beaming. “That’s what you’re here for . . .”

I ask Radmilo to collect from the dead bat and Gary begins preparing a Giesma stain, while I set up my microscope, glass slides and utensils on a cleared section of the first table. The other two watch me put on gloves and sit at the microscope. Peering through the viewer, I can’t help but be confused. It almost looked like Robert was right . . .
  “This is odd,” I say, adjusting the viewer. “This looks like human blood. The cell-count isn’t right for a bat . . .”
  “I told you as much,” says Robert, grinning. I look away from the sample to glare at him.
  “Don’t jump to conclusions, Doctor.”
  “Thee? Stains ’re ready,” said Gary, hobbling over holding two glass slides in each gloved hand.
  “Thank you, Gary” I say, taking them from him. I mount the slides, and peer through the viewer. After adjusting the placement, I find what looks like little, red worms on the pink-stained slide. “Ooh, that’s . . . T. rangeli? Gary, what do you think?”
I stand back and he hunches over, he steps back, shaking his head.
  “Cruzi,” says Gary. “It look’ like Tryp’ Rangeli, but you assume T. cruzi, ‘cos there’s a risk o’ Chagas disease.”
  “Well, Chagas would explain why some of them are dropping dead,” I say. “In chronic cases it can cause the heart to stop. Do you have protective clothing around here, Robert?”
  “Not really,” says Robert. “Why?”
  “Because this can transfer to humans. it’s bloodborne, but there’s still a significant risk. Gary and I brought ours, but you and Radmilo should suit up if you want to keep handling these bats, just in case.”
  “Right,” says Robert. “But, doesn’t this confirm my theory? Large vampire bats, drinking human blood?”
  “I don’t know, Robert, it doesn’t add up,” I say. “I mean, it looks like a fruit bat, the teeth are suited to gnawing, not nipping, ripping or suckling. And Chagas can cause facial swelling, that can explain away the unique facial features . . . besides, it’s too big to subsist on blood.”
  “Well, it might not be their main food supply,” says Robert. “Vampire moths usually consume juices, but they drink sweat, tears or even blood, to transfer the salts during mating season. This could be a feature of this new hybrid, this could very well be mating season.”
  “At the same time as the rainy season?” I say, shaking my head. “You’re reaching, Robert. Don’t presume your hypothesis, that’s just bad science.”
Robert sighs. “Alright, that is a fair point. But, this isn’t clouding my judgement, it’s just motivation. Even if I’m wrong, and these are just fruit bats with Chagas, I will still write a paper about fruit bats with stomachs full of human blood. But come and see the colony, you’ll see, these don’t act like regular fruit bats.”

I put on my protective chemical hazmat suit, yellow rubber coveralls with boots, gloves and a facemask with a air filter over the mouth to breath. Robert gets into Gary’s suit, which is considerably more baggy than mine, but nonetheless covers and protects him. Then we head deeper into the cave each of us with a torch to light the way.
  “Are you sure the suit is necessary?” says Robert.
  “The risk of infection is small,” I say, patting him on his shoulder with my free hand, “But with these on, it becomes nil.”
  “Alright, Theo, you’re the expert,” says Robert, his voice beginning to echo as we head further down the tunnel. After a hundred metres or so, the tunnel peels away into a much large section of the cave. I wave my torch around to see that the room is at least thirty metres across, with more tunnels on the other side of the cavern leading further down. To my right was a pile of rocks and vegetation, but above . . . the ceiling was blanketed with bats. Most of them were fast asleep, curled up into leathery bundles, but some of them jostled uncomfortably as my torchlight fell upon them. There was easily one hundred bats, if not more. I pointed my torch to the floor, so as not to disturb them
  “Well, that’s quite a colony,” I said to Robert, speaking low, but my voice still echoed through the whole space.
  “That’s not what we’re here to see,” said Robert, walking past me to the right. I followed him as he approached the pile of vegetation. “This is what we’re here for.”
As we neared the pile, I saw a collection of vegetables, amongst unidentifiable muck in a lumpy, fly-ridden mound that was knee-high and a twelve metres wide, piled against the wall. When we stood within three metres of it, the smell of rot filtered through my mask, making my stomach turn.
  “Smells like rotten cold cuts,” I say, scanning it with my torch, and I quickly see why.
  “It looks like the bats pile up corpses and fruit within their nest,” said Robert, “I believe them to be omnivorous, and when they finish with their prey, they drop it here. I also believe they defecate by this pile, which has lead to the growth of larger vegetables, perhaps for further feeding. This could account for the spreading disease.”
  “No, that doesn’t make sense,” I say, “Most of these fruits require sunlight. Someone must have brought these in here, whole.” I say.
  “Well, whoever it was, he fancies himself a collector,” says Robert. “Pumpkins, apples, plums, and watermelons; rats, birds, hare, weasels and . . . eugh, other bats. I mean, honestly, this isn’t the work of some madman, an animal did this, Theo. I’m saying the bats did this.”
  “It’s compelling, I’ll give you that,” said Theo, stepping towards the pile. “But you’re reaching again, Robert. This is why we failed that Chem’ final, you stretch your evidence.”
  “This isn’t college, Theo, sometimes you need to presuppose, take a leap and test it.”
  “How do we test this?” I ask, kneeling down. Up close, the pile wasn’t any prettier. I could see the half-rotten clumps of fur on white bone, glistening eyes, beetle-shells, teeth & moist viscera amongst seeds, vines and growing fruits. My eye was caught by a large watermelon near the front of the pile, bigger than a bowling ball, which seemed to have streaks of red across it, like half-coagulated blood.
  “Check for bite-marks, perhaps evidence of a trail in here, find out where these animals came from, check for evidence of hunting bats in . . . Theo, what are you doing?”
  “Look at this thing,” I say, pointing my torch at the bloodied watermelon. “Doesn’t that look . . . odd?”
  “What do you mean?”
  “Well, look, it’s a bit like a face,” I say, pointing. “See, there’s two closed eyes, and this long streak here is like-” the watermelon snaps open its jaws and bites into my hand!
  “What the bloody hell!” screamed Robert jumping down. I start flailing and screaming, but the heavy fruit weighs down my arm. I can’t stand, I just smack at the green skin, staring into two deep, black, shiny eyes As the green melon growls, and bites deeper, vicelike, into my knuckles with inch-long white teeth, thin like a piranha.
  “Get it off!” I scream. Robert swings his torch down like a lumberjack swinging an axe. With a splortch! melon cracks and spills red blood all over the floor. I scramble to my feet, cradling my hand. The teeth were small, but the force of the bite pulled and ripped the bitemark wound so that it quickly fills my gloves with blood.
  “What the hell was that?” asked Robert, coming over. “That’s a nasty wound, we’ve got to get out of here.”
We head for the exit, but I shine my torch behind me, at the pile, and I swear I saw more black, shiny eyes staring back.
  “The bats . . .” I say, through gritted teeth. “It’s not the bats. Not vampire fruit bats. They’re vampire fruit, bats that eat it . . . vampire fruit bats!”

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