Something woke me up in the middle of the long night. My nose was stuffy and itching. I picked at it for a bit until it felt better and then closed my eyes, wrapping myself against the cold air of the bedroom. Rocking there in the dark, I felt my breathing slow again until a calm oblivion settled into my bones.
It seemed an instant later that I woke again – I knew it must have been some time, but in that dreamless torpor it felt like none. I felt terribly congested now. I sneezed and scratched at my nose, but it would only partially unclog. And as I scraped at it, I realised the horrible sensation of something growing, creeping up my face; a rough hairless texture. I almost screamed. What was I going to do? I couldn’t wipe or scrape it off.
After spending a few minutes silently panicking, I calmed down. Flapping about wouldn’t solve anything. The only thing to do was to go back to sleep and wait for the long night to be over. It’s common sense, I told myself. I’d feel better in the morning.
The next time was worse.
The entire front of my face around my nose and mouth felt like it was burning. My ears had started to itch fiercely as well. Perhaps it was psychological, but something seemed to be wrong with my wing membranes too. Please God, not my wings. There was definitely some kind of crust on my face and the thought of it on my fine, smooth wings made me feel sicker than anything else. I had to stretch at least. Just a few flaps to make sure they were all right.
Close your eyes. Close your eyes, I told myself over and over. Morning had to come.
The next time, I knew it was still too early and worse, with a sinking feeling, that I had already woken up more often than I should. We were still deep into the long night, the night when we should sleep in our big bedroom for months until the cold went away, but my belly and chest already felt too hollow.
The colony stirred. My roost mates were shifting restlessly around me. Some launched off and flapped in circles for a few wingbeats. It was usual that we would wake up now and then, fidget and stretch a little, pee, but then settle down again for the big sleep. Not all of us at once like this, crying and complaining.
I groomed and groomed but couldn’t get the horrible stuff off my wings even though it coated my tongue. Finally I gave up and tried to sleep, willing myself into the depths of unconsciousness against the nagging itch. But even as I wrapped my arms around my body again, I felt the cold consciously, in a way I had not since the first winter without my mother. It would get into my bones and devour me.
I woke up again.
I woke up again. There was very little left.
I woke up again. The urge to move was irresistible. To fly from the pain. I unfurled one wing but it was stiff, the membrane itself swollen thick. I tried to launch but couldn’t get lift and tumbled, like a clumsy baby, to the floor of the bedroom.
The soft thing I landed on was a friend.
The fall hadn’t hurt but I was too exhausted to make the effort of crawling all the way to the wall and climbing back up to any kind of reasonable launch point. I tried to scratch the now all-consuming itch, but only managed to twitch and flail.
The ground shook. The bedroom which had always been our safe space was being invaded by some big animals. From their voices, they were humans, which I had only ever seen from a distance.
There was a white light, and a presence lifted me up.
Backstory: Two days ago I heard a talk on bat physiology and diseases by DeeAnn Reeder, which included an update on the White-Nose Syndrome epizootic in the USA, a fungus imported from Europe which is killing bats by the millions. She showed some microarray data of infected versus uninfected tissue, in addition to a word cloud of keywords related to the upregulated genes (presumably the keywords are based on the homologues of those genes in humans and more familiar mammals). I thought the word cloud/tag cloud was a pretty cool way to show an understandable overview of what was going on, as opposed to a grid of coloured rectangles. But the two big words were “pain” and “itching” and she said that this is how we can guess what the bats feel. It’s haunted me in a way that pictures of the poor things with fungus all over their noses or little dead bodies on the ground don’t.