Holly Day has been an instructor at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis since 2000. Her writing has recently appeared in Hubbub, Grain, and Third Wednesday, and her newest books are The Tooth is the Largest Organ in the Human Body (Anaphora Literary Press), Book of Beasts (Weasel Press), Bound in Ice (Shanti Arts), and Music Composition for Dummies (Wiley).
I. BAT MASS
Catholic Mayans in Belize once had a ritual called a Bat Mass. Whenever the local population of bats seemed excessive, a priest would capture a bat, calmly tell it why all the bats were making people nervous, and ask it to tell the other bats to leave them alone. They would then release the uninjured bat into the wild.
I don’t know what it’s like to have too many bats. When I worked as a tour guide in Wisconsin, I’d take guests down into the tight darkness of the subterranean box caves that honeycombed the limestone sheath just below the wheat fields, turn all but one or two lights off so that the tiny forms of the half-dozen bats clinging to the walls could be seen. A friend of mine who still works in the caves says those bats are all gone now, too, killed off by fungal growth tracked in from the outside.
If I ever found myself in a place with too many bats, I would tell people about the Catholic Mayans and their Bat Mass, and I would tell them about all the bats I knew that died from the white fungus cracking the skin of their wings and the insides of their noses. I would volunteer to be the one to whisper things to the bats, each clutched tight to my chest, before setting them free to move on to another part of the world.
II. THOUGHTS ON UMBRELLAS
In 16th century Europe, the umbrella was considered such an important status symbol that the Pope himself had to confer rank on a person before they were allowed to carry one. The Pope's umbrella is called "the umbraculum," which is Latin for "big umbrella," even though it’s really not that big compared to modern standards, and since it was designed well before the invention of folding metal ribs or modern synthetic fabrics, it’s very heavy and looks more like a little circus tent on a pole than an actual umbrella.
Because people liked the Pope's umbrella so much, the Vatican began making copies to send to other churches to use in their parades, and if your church was lucky enough to get one of these umbrellas, then you were no longer just a church--you were a "basilica" (a term independent of architecture until recently). So if you were a peasant in the 16th century, and you decided to go on a pilgrimage of basilicas, most of your trip would involve visiting a lot of little country churches with fantastic red-and-yellow umbrellas that could not open or close perched next to the altar. Later versions could open and close, but by that time, the term “basilica” came to mean a specific type of building and umbrellas were not necessary to impart the title.
In the 1700s, Persian traveler and writer Jonas Hanway carried and used an umbrella publicly in England for thirty years. He popularized umbrella use among men to the point that English gentlemen often referred to their umbrellas as a "Hanway." I think I’m going to bring this one back. “Don’t forget your Hanway,” I’m going to say when people step outside into a rainy day. “I have an extra Hanway if you didn’t bring your own."
III. IN SEARCH OF HOLY
Hugh of Lincoln once bit off a piece of the bone of Mary Magdalene while venerating it. "If I can touch Christ's body in the Mass, I can certainly chew on the Magdalene's arm," he said to his congregation who looked on in horror, disgust, or maybe some kind of envy. After all, if one’s cancer could be cured by just touching Mary Magdalene’s bones, what wonders awaited a man who actually ate part of her skeleton?
That night, Bishop Hugh prepared himself for anything: unexpected flight transfiguration, some kind of out-of-body experience, the spontaneous healing of the bloodied toe he’d smashed in the door earlier that day. “I await the tremors that come with Rapture,” he wrote in his journal, knowing that later generations of priests would wonder at the validity of eating the earthly remains of the original followers of Christ. “I expect only wonders.”
IV. THE FIRST LANDING
When the first buckets of ballast were flopped over the side of the Mayflower, the stowaway earthworms, brought all the way from England, wriggled free onto the shore—tiny harbingers of the ecological destruction they and the rest of the Europe would bring with them.
What a surprise it must have been for the tiny shrews and velvet moles to see these new creatures living beneath the earth alongside them, rustling through the dead leaves previously only consumed by fungi.
When Henry Hudson first sailed up the Hudson River, he claimed there were mermaids and sea rabbits living in Hudson Bay; wrote about them in great, exhaustive detail. Maybe the earthworms had something to do with nobody ever seeing them anymore.