© Nicole Phillips
Bracing my feet so as not to slide, I sat on the steep bank with the box in my lap. The bat, which had been crawling disconsolately around its cloth bedding, hid for a while in a fold of the cloth. It stayed still for quite a while, maybe listening.
I listened, too. In between the osprey's calls, the seagull shrieks, and the cricket buzz came some other high noises that might have been bats. After a few minutes, though not at any cue that I could perceive, the bat grew as animated as a bat in a box can be — it emerged from a fold in the cloth and stretched out one large, flat wing. It refolded that wing, groomed for a minute, then crawled to the far side of the box and up the side. There it stretched its other wing.
The sky got darker, fading from brilliant sunset orange to dark beige. The grass and trees turned from gray-green and then gray. Something small and sudden swooped out from the bridge: it was time.
We'd been warned not to let the bat fly over the water, in case its maiden voyage wasn't successful, so we took the box to a stand of big banyan trees a dozen yards from the water. Nic held the camera and I opened the Tupperware lid. The bat did nothing. After weeks of trying to escape by climbing up the sides of the box, once the lid was removed the bat seemed to want to sleep.
Gail at Wildlife, Inc., had said if the bat didn't fly off, we could bring it back, but she usually released bats by leaving them in a tree. I wasn't sure that was the best idea — she didn't offer any evidence that bats released that way survived.
On the other hand, it seemed better for the bat to have a shot at a natural life than to remain in a cage for another month. I didn't want to take it back to the shelter. Using two hands, I lifted the cloth and bat out together, and set them on the grass, at which point that bat took off like a bat out of hell.
It stretched its limbs ambitiously, like someone warming up for tennis. But it didn't fly: instead it refolded its wings and crawled, fast, towards the banyans. The ground was deep in weeds and grass, and it was nearly dark, but as the grass-tops bent and moved under the bat's weight, we could follow its impressive progress towards the big trees. Maybe the bat heard other bats in the trees, or maybe the bat was just hastening in the opposite direction from us and the Tupperware prison.
It was heading apace towards the iron fence, which separated the park from private land. If it got beyond the fence, we would not be able to get it back. I was nervous about leaving a flightless bat on its own in a strange place: how would it eat or drink? Would it be attacked in daylight if it couldn't fly under the bridge?
"Maybe we should pick it up," I said.
"Maybe," Nic said.
As we stood mumbling and watching the grass swish, the bat trundled through the railings, onto private property, and out of reach. On the far side of the fence, the grass thinned out, and the bat emerged from the underbrush and took a few trial hops, a foot or so each, in the manner perhaps of the first flight of the Wright brothers' Flyer at Kitty Hawk, but also in the manner of a creature that can no longer fly properly.
Then it crawled onward. We couldn't see its path through the long, dangling roots of the banyans, but we heard it. For a long time, we stood listening, and the noises grew less distinct. Dead leaves rustled in the breeze, and a couple of squirrels or birds swished through the canopy, but in between those rustles, we heard sounds that might have been a bat crawling.
After a while I moved to another vantage point, and there I saw a bat-shaped creature up in the branches. By the water, something in silhouette stretched out a wing out. Nic said she heard something crawling at the base of the tree.
Well, I was disappointed. It would have been more satisfying if the bat had swooped up to make a victory lap around our heads, then flown towards the rising moon. We would have liked it if, in parting, the bat had tilted its wings to acknowledge appreciation for all we humans had done to rehabilitate the creature and give it its freedom. Instead, Nic and I stood in the increasing darkness, staring through some iron railings and hoping the rustles we heard were a good sign.
And then, we headed back to our paradisiacal, overcrowded island, wondering if we'd helped the animals at all, wondering how many of us will be okay.
Gillian Kendall is the author of Mr Ding's Chicken Feet, which the New York Times Review of Books considered one of the "notable" travel books of 2006. She also edited the anthology Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The Sun, Glamour, Curve, Girlfriends, and many other magazines, and she's won a number of obscure awards.
Photos by the author and the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center except where indicated.
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