Dropping The Bat by George Merrill

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I killed a bat, once. I never felt right about it. It was wrong, so unnecessary, so driven. I discovered for myself how quickly fear incites violence.

Bats are mammals, warm blooded and hairy like dogs and cats. Their wings, fashioned of thin-skinned membrane are frequently translucent. Their skeletons are shaped remarkably like humans, except that their knees bend the wrong way, like herons. Bats see, but find their way about more effectively by emitting and receiving sound waves, not unlike sonar. Like musicians and whales, bats negotiate their world by sound. But unlike musicians and whales, bats are irrationally feared.

“Liminal,” Professor Gary McCracken at the University of Tennessee, suggests of these little creatures, attempting to explain why bats give so many of us the willies: “They do not fit into people’s view of the normal scheme of things. They tend to be in between.” The human mind remains uneasy with ambiguity.
Not everyone finds bats creepy. The Chinese saw bats as symbols of good luck and bat images regularly appear in their tapestries and rugs. The Navajo Indians venerated bats as mentors during the long night hours, associating bats with their deity, the ‘Talking God.’ However, enjoying status hasn’t necessarily been an enviable estate for some bats. The Chamorro peoples of Guam, while honoring bats at special ceremonies, express gratitude for their contribution to Chamorro culture by eating them. Bats, as a result, have grown scarce in the Northern Marianas; the Chamorro’s have taken to importing bats. Being without honor in ones own land can sometimes be a blessing.

I once saw a moving picture of a bat, a Lyle’s flying fox, one of the larger bats. The photographer had taken the picture as the bat flew past a strong light, which lighted the creature the way sunlight illuminates leaves. The light set the bat’s torso in sharp relief with stunning clarity. I could see that the bat looked just like a human being, head high, arms reaching out sideways, legs extended backwards. The entire body looked woven together by the translucent wing membrane surrounding its body, which from the light behind it, shone like a penumbra, a glowing halo. The bat looked like Jesus on the cross, ascending bodily to heaven, and going to glory.

One November evening my wife, Jo, and I were sitting reading in the living room. A bat swooped over our heads; making two more passes before it went out into the hallway and out of sight. In about five minutes it returned, making a second sweep, as if he’d forgotten something, and then was gone.

The thought of his return frightened me. I had resolved earlier, that should the bat reappear again in the house, I’d swat him with the squash racket. With a twist of the wrist, I couldn’t miss.

I went to the closet, took a racket and waited for the bat to appear again from the hallway. By then my heart was pounding; the racket shook slightly in my hand. I couldn’t help myself now; I was committed. I had a passing sense that I was possessed with fear, and behaving like a madman.

The bat soon returned to the living room. I was waiting, racket in hand. A second bat appeared. They flew opposite courses around the living room. Ducking and feinting as if the bats were after me, I swung wildly, but hit nothing. I disturbed the tranquil air.

I stopped for a moment and steeled myself against an impulse to run, long enough to imagine the bats as squash balls; I turned my fear into sport. And as one bat began passing slightly over my head, I aimed deliberately and swung the racket firmly, snapping my wrist at the same time. The racket struck the bat full bore with a sickening spongy ‘whump.’ The bat flew against the wall, and with tiny high-pitched squeaks fell to the floor on its back. The bat twitched, its chest heaved and one outstretched wing lay motionless.

I felt triumphant at first. I watched the bat on the floor. His eyes were large, open as though he were surprised, and wondering. He had a pug face covered with soft brown hair; the bat looked like a miniature pup. One wing was broken asunder, the other drawn next to him as if he had tried vainly to protect himself from injury; hearing the sound of the racket approaching at terrible speed, he could do nothing to avoid it. I was sure for a moment that he was looking at me, and asking me, “Why?” The tiny chest rose and fell for a minute or so and suddenly ceased moving. His world his ended with a ‘whump.”

My wife, Jo was standing next to me. She had suggested earlier that we open a couple of windows and following the drafts the bats would leave on their own accord. Of course she was right but by then I was possessed. For many men, violence arrives too quickly on the heels of fear. Jo looked at me the way women often look at the men they love when their men do things they don’t understand, things which men feel compelled to do–driven kind of things–and her eyes looked moist, gentle and terribly sad.

I felt a faint wave of nausea; I wanted to run and to hide, to avert Jo’s eyes and never see the bat again but as I turned my head, near the tip of the bat’s broken wing bone, I saw four tiny fingers and a thumb. The bat possessed hands, one of which lay open, as if he were waiting for me to reach out and take hold of it.

Jo walked across the room to open windows.

I felt hollow, empty.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

 

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