Who’s Afraid of Vampire Bats?

“My mom was bitten by a vampire bat! For real! Mom, please mom, tell the story.” My nine years old child insisted with pride. She wanted to impress her friends, as she had seen myself doing many times.
Well, this is how the story starts. In July, when the rain season is over and the forest is dry, we have the summer vacation in the Amazon, north of Brazil, although it is winter for the rest of the country. As usual, my mother sent her five children – me, my two sisters, and two brothers – by boat to a remote village in the middle of the jungle to stay with our paternal relatives. The village had no electricity, no telephone lines, so satellite dish, no potable water, no bathrooms. The houses had no beds, no sofas, no gas stove, and no walls, only beautiful circular roofs, woven from palm tree leaves. My mother packed our hammocks, big sacks of rice, beans, and crackers, placed the five of us in a boat, and hoped to see us again in one month.
My siblings and I complained that in the village our days were a bore. There we had to catch fish, immerse our bodies up to our belly buttons in mud to catch swamp crabs, get rid of snakes, climb palm trees to get açai berries, dry cacau seeds to make chocolate, build enormous fires, and sleep on hammocks under naked sky. None of these we, city kids, considered fun. We hated those trips.
One night, after dinner, my two older brothers and older cousins went with my uncle to hunt. They would sleep out there, they said, I didn’t know where “there” was, but I wanted to go. My uncle would not take me, I was too young, he said. I climbed a pitanga tree and said that I would sleep up there. My aunt Agripina, already on her hammock, started to tell us, the ones left behind, about the enchanted river that could be reached by walking a couple kilometers inside the forest. Its water was cold, pale green, and clear, like a liquid emerald. It had white sand in the bottom. But no one could ever reach its bottom. One hot night, Potira, a native woman from the village, decided to cool her body in the river. Her brothers and sisters told her not to go, because it was a full moon night, and Iara, the goodness of the rivers, could be there. If you are in a river in the Amazon and you see a naked indigenous woman, with long hair, seated on the middle of the river, please, run away, because Iara can seduce you to live with her in the bottom of the river. She is merciless. Potira didn’t listen to anyone and went to the river. Well, she never came back. People say that in nights with full moon, aunt Agripina continued, Potira walks around the village, if she finds somebody wake, she will imitate the owl’s call and sing three times as a signal, if the person persists, she will throw a spell and take the person to the bottom of the river.
I was nine years old, but I knew when a story had the goal to make ourselves so afraid that we would not make any trouble. My sister Tuca, almost two years older than I, believed in every word that aunt Agripina said, she was terrified, she begged me to sleep with her in her hammock. While she used the thin sheet to cover herself from head to toes, I kept my eyes open, my ears tuned to the small sounds. As the forest gets darker, the sounds seem to get bigger. Frogs, pacas, cotias, simians, owls, mosquitoes. They are the orchestra of the forest. I tried to be wake, I listened and mocked the owls’ calls, in the end I succumbed to sleep.
When I woke up, my hammock was soaked in blood around my feet. Tuca and I screamed “Potira!” My aunt came to see what had happened. It didn’t take long for her to see two tiny holes on my left foot. She said that I was bitten by a vampire bat. They never bit people, my aunt said. I knew that I had provoked Potira, that’s why the bat bit me, but I didn’t say a word. She called for an elderly woman from the village, who confirmed the diagnosis. The elderly woman left and came back shortly chewing some leaves, then she picked up my foot and spat a green paste on it. Several times. It was repulsively disgusting! Minutes later, the green paste was hard around my feet, like a cast, and she said that I could go on with my day. But before, she made me eat a live, wiggly, slimy, white worm called Turu, found in wet rotten wood, she said that it would clean my blood from rabies. It was triple disgusting! At night, my aunt tied a vine from one end to the other of my hammock, on it she hanged dried banana leaves. It was a kind of curtain. “The bats will leave you alone,” she guaranteed.
You know, vampire bats have anesthesia in their saliva, which they use to numb their prey. And the banana leaves curtain tricked the bats’ sonar apparatus, signaling that my hammock could be a tree, instead of a warm blood body. This is the story. I survived the attack of a vampire bat, the curse of Potira, and kept the memory.
Or, so I thought.

Two years ago, I traveled back to Belém, my hometown in the Amazon, where I grew up, to take care of my old father. Most of the day my father was groggy because of his medications for dementia, other moments he was talking incoherently about the past. One day, he was particularly agitated. He was very frail, but inside his mind, he was a young boy paddling a canoe. He made me walk with him for thirty minutes around the small living room of his house, while he was navigating the rivers and trails of the jungle. He was looking for a man who would sell him tools to make furniture. My father was a carpenter. But, he alerted me very forcefully, that we had to be careful to avoid the boys who would steal from him. I was holding his weak body and, at the same time, trying to calm his mind. I tried singing his favorite songs, but he asked me to be quiet. I tried saying that he was not back in the village but in his house, this upset him. I tried pretending that we had arrived in an ice cream parlor and we should sit down to have some ice cream, to which he replied that the boys had taken his money. He started running. Urgently I took hold of his arm, I screamed “No, I am not going there. There are vampire bats in the jungle!” He stopped. He listened. He smiled. A wave of relief washed over me. I regained control, I was able to take him to sit on the sofa. To calm his mind, I told him my story of the vampire bat. I told it in as much details as I could. When I finished, he said that he remembered the day a rat had bitten Tuca really bad, he drove her to the hospital, and how she screamed on her dreams many nights afterwards. “But it was me who was bitten by a vampire bat. It was because of Potira, she casted a spell. We were in the jungle,” I said exasperated. He looked at me and shook his entire body with a loud laugh. “You always made things up.” Then he asked me to take him back to his bed, he was very tired.
A few months after that my father died and I could not put that day out of my mind. For some fear that I have no words for, I could not I bring myself to ask my siblings about that summer vacation. What if my father was right, and I was not even in the village that summer? What if I was there, but it was Tuca who was bitten? Did I lie to myself and everybody else all these years? How reliable are our memories? I have no answers to these questions. But, I really love that my father, who by the end of his life could not remember my name, recalled that I used to make up stories. In the end, aren’t we all editors of our own memories and narratives?
“Mom, now tell the other story about your friend whose father is a magic river dolphin. Please mom, tell this one.”