05 Aug Bat!

At three this morning, as I was readying for bed – flossing my teeth – I noticed Sophie, our tabby, had joined me on the third floor, which isn’t unusual, except she was looking too alert for the hour. I’ve seen this look before. It means something’s up. In this case, “up” was literal, for no sooner had I hatched my suspicion than Sophie flinched, her eyes widening, and we both ducked as a bat swooped down the hall. Immediately my mind screamed Bat! There’s something about a bat’s silent herky-jerky flight that thoroughly creeps me out. I love the little things but, my god, what miniature monsters.

Chills spilling down my back, I ran for the windows to open them to the welcoming night. But our bobbing, swooping little friend couldn’t find his way and, instead, dove into the upper shelf of a bookcase, where he began to scratch around, much to Sophie’s great interest. I suspected that this was a “little brown bat” (myotis lucifugus), though he didn’t look so little in flight. I gathered up Sophie, closed the library doors behind us, and went looking for some leather gloves. We’ve had plenty of visiting bats in our old house. But I’ve never had to handle one. My mind kept yelling Bat!

Mind you, I’m neither strong nor brave but necessity sometimes compels me to do things I thought I could never do, like the time I had to dig out a rat’s nest (full of rats) from our back yard. You can hire people (at great expense) to do such things for you but, at three in the morning with a bat scratching around behind your books, who you gonna call? So, yes, I fetched some leather gloves and a ladder. Five minutes later, in the closed up library, I was gingerly lifting books from the bat’s shelf and talking to him in my most reasonable voice: “Come on now, I don’t want to see you up close any more than you want to see me. Let me remind you that the windows are wide open . . . .”

A small bat, I have learned, can eat as many as 1,200 mosquitoes an hour. This is a comforting thought nowadays since mosquito-borne West Nile virus has made inroads to temperate zones like Baltimore. Bats themselves are not susceptible to the virus. Remember too: some insects can hear a bat’s approach from 100 feet away. This means that the mere presence of bats sends the peskiest bugs packing. Oh, and the rabies thing? Ninety percent (90%) of all rabies cases are caused by dogs. Only one species of bat gets rabies. And that species isn’t anywhere near your house.

With every book I removed, I took a deep breath. It’s not that I feared the bat. I feared what might become of him. I didn’t want to hurt him and I hoped he wasn’t hurt already. Okay, I did fear looking him in the face. Bat! I didn’t want to look him in the face. And I didn’t want to hold him in my hand, gloved or otherwise. Bat! Laddered and nearly breathless at the bat shelf, I gingerly removed my three-volume facsimile edition of the 1771  Encyclopedia Britannica (which was originally called the Edinburgh Encyclopedia), then my collection of vintage Babar books, then my Time/Life “History of Man” series, which I got at a flea market for $5. Then I lifted a volume of Metropolitan [Museum of Art] Miniatures and that did it: I heard the rapsy rattle of a dry leaf in the wind. And there he was, the bat in all his batty gruesomeness, grimacing toothily and scrambling in his batty hunker. Suddenly, he was in flight. Bat!

I clambered down the ladder and saw that Sophie had sneaked back into the library. I clutched her and sat, hunched, on the floor as the bat circled again and again. “Come on, you can do it,” I coached. “Window’s right there.”

But he didn’t do it. Instead, he abruptly latched onto the wood molding near the ceiling. The molding was precisely the same color as he—dark brown. He hung upside down in that classic topsy-turvy bat manner. And I could see that he was withdrawn into himself, his face covered, his wings tight against his furry body to make himself as small as possible. He was in hiding. This was the best he could do, poor thing.

I went looking for a hand towel. If he would stay put, I might be able to swaddle him in a towel and toss him to his freedom. A few years back I erected a bat house on our roof. It’s like a bird house but specially built for bats. Apparently the roof is just too high for the bats. None came. They prefer 15-20 feet from the ground, not 40-50. Jill and I have been talking about erecting a bat house in the back yard—on a tall pole. Bats need places to sleep.

A towel in my gloved hand and standing four rungs up on my ladder, I reached out to my visitor. He lay very still, clinging to the molding high on the wall. He probably had no idea I was closing in. I hesitated. I didn’t want to hurt him. But I’ve captured birds this way. I moved closer, dreading his sudden escape and the prospect of my chasing him all over the house for hours. I lunged and grabbed gently and got him, a hot handful. He chittered a trilling twitter of alarm. Then I released him out the nearest window. And he winged away. “Don’t fly over here!” I cautioned, racing to shut the windows.

Downstairs I found the front door wide open. That’s how he got in. It’s a big door, eight feet tall. Why wouldn’t a bat enter what seems like a warm cave? The bat episode ended, it took me a while to cool down. Everywhere I looked, I thought a saw the velvety dervish of another bat, flitting from the shadows. And even now, in the glare of morning, I can’t help anticipating surprising guests and scaring myself with visions of little things that aren’t there.