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The Bat With a Human Face
Richard Lee Fulgham
A Georgia Boy’s Memoir
One of the most sad but most exciting possibilities about
exploring the woods of the deep South is the discovery of an abandoned cotton
You’ll know immediately what it is by the tall white columns still standing in
front, usually supporting the remains of an elegant veranda where Southern
Belles once sipped mint tea and entertained their dashing young men in grey.
Behind these columns, the great mansion itself is most often on the ground or
caved in, ringed behind with the remains of smaller one-room houses which served
as slave quarters just over a century ago. You know you are gazing at a culture
based on grace which was wiped off the face of the earth in its prime. Sadly,
you also realize that such grandeur was made possible only by slavery, that
shame of the South, which demanded its destruction.
The ruined mansion I found in the summer of 1964 had been abandoned so long ago
that it was completely covered with blossoming honeysuckle vines, wisteria, and
thorny rose bushes, all descendants of what must have been in 1860 a splendid,
carefully tended garden. Where the cotton fields had been 125 years ago, now
stood a forest of loblolly pines.
Such places are dangerous, of course, and you have to take every step with
caution, less you stab yourself on a nail, trip on rubble, or fall into an
ancient root cellar. And, most dangerous, you might fall into the plantation’s
abandoned well, which is almost always around the ruins nearby and covered with
deceptively solid vegetation or rotting wood. Most have been filled with debris;
but others are still open.
This was a thrilling event for me because I had heard legends about desperate
plantation owners throwing gold, silver, jewelry, coins, and weapons into their
wells to keep family wealth out of the bloody hands of Yankee looters.
I found the old well underneath the remains of the old well house, right where
it would be expected to be found. Lifting the roof aside, I peered down into a
deep black hole which seemed to pierce right into the earth’s dark millennial
heart. By dropping stones, I could tell it was about 75 feet deep but
There was nothing more I could do, so I rushed home to prepare for the next
day’s exploration into the dark hole. The following morning, I arrived with 200
feet of stout rope, 500 feet of thin but strong nylon cord, two six-volt,
waterproof flashlights with an interchangeable red filter, a small collapsible
spade, and a police whistle. That was my standard spelunker’s kit.
I tied one end of the rope around a strong tree and dropped the other end into
the well. I had knotted the rope every yard to make it easier to climb.
Carefully, I descended to the bottom to see what I could find, my heart beating
wildly. The thought of treasure was forever the epitome of my hope. But I found
nothing on the bottom but a small stream of water inhabited by a few frogs.
Looking up, the large hole I had entered now looked like a full silver moon
suspended in a starless night. It reminded me of the Chinese concept of “well
vision”, with which a human being could see only a fraction of existence but
remained ignorant of all other reality. Those who believed they understood
existence from that tiny glimpse of light were fools, their minds swollen with
pretense and self-delusion.
So there I was, buried in my own delusion, pompous in my teenager’s well-vision
of the world. The well was dry, and there was no treasure; therefore, there was
nothing at all. I was to be proven wrong.
It slowly occurred to me that the tiny stream had to come from somewhere and go
somewhere. To my left, the water seemed to seep from the wall of the well. But
on my right, the stream emptied into a chamber about the size of a pumpkin.
Squeezing through, I found myself in a small muddy chamber which emptied through
yet another small opening. I managed to get through it also, with a little help
from my spade.
But there I discovered a chamber so huge my flashlight would hardly reach the
opposite wall. It was about the size of a double-wide mobile home, maybe 12 feet
wide and 50 feet long. The trickle of water turned into a fair-size stream about
four to six feet across, so clear I could see what looked like jewels scattered
on the bottom. A close look at some of these ‘jewels’ revealed they were
polished quartz crystals.
Dozens of massive stalactites enameled with folding skirts of limestone hung
from the ceiling, gleaming and dripping, glimmering with prismatic colors. Many
were larger than me, joining thick, ringed stalagmites rising up from the floor
to form a stone forest of unearthly hourglass pillars. Its roof and walls,
though slimy and wet, nevertheless shimmered as if made of eerily translucent
and shimmering green glass, a frozen crystalline waterfall welded to the
There was no sign of treasure, so I crossed the chamber, getting caked in mud
from head to toe because in many spots I had to crawl on my belly to slither
under ledges or climb over giant slabs of slippery rock blocking the path. I was
exhausted by the time I had crossed it – mostly on my belly like an alligator –
and I drank deeply from the stream when I finally reached the other end.
It tasted of lime and time, more time than I could imagine, enough time to
create a thousand earths and evolve a billion creatures. The tiny stream had
carved this hollow intestine through the fossilized gut of the planet, turning
it into this resplendent green cathedral.
There was no outlet on the other side, so I backtracked and found one leading
off to one side where the stream forked. At this point, I tied my nylon cord
around a stalagmite and let it trail behind me. But I didn’t need it, for as I
entered the next chamber, I saw a shadowy myriad of shapes fluttering around. I
heard a shrill chattering filling the air and smelled an intense, awful odor of
methane gas and ammonia. I had crawled into a colony of bats.
This chamber was a little larger, about the size of a large living room, and
there were hundreds of bats. The floor, instead of being muddy, was covered with
bat droppings. Oh, I was startled, all right! But having studied bats in their
own territory before, I knew they were harmless and wouldn’t touch me even if I
turned the light off. Their echo-location systems (sonar) were so perfected that
they could “see” me as well in the dark as in the light. Probably better, as the
flashlight must have been painful to their eyes.
I was filthy anyway, so I stuck my arm into the dung pile and was amazed to find
I couldn’t find the bottom. The colony must have been there hundreds, maybe
thousands, of years. Hearing a swishing sound, I looked just in time to see a
large black snake trying to escape the light. It probably visited the bat
chamber regularly to feed off the old, injured, and very young which
occasionally fell from their roost on the ceiling.
I turned off the light and lay there a few minutes contemplating what I had seen
and where I was. These were creatures of darkness, yet made of atoms comprised
of radiation, of light, heat, the energy of the stars. They cast off no light of
their own, but if I had been able to see it, each bat would gleam with the
pulsating energy from which they were created. If I could but see it, the black
snake would look like a ribbon of light.
As soon as the light was out, the colony settled down except for a continuous
chirping, no doubt in anger at my intrusion and a request for me to leave. I
could feel the moisture seeping through my clothes.
I thought too that the basic element of life was present in the stream. All
living things are comprised mostly of water, carrying as it were the aquatic
environment where they were first spawned with them in their waterproof skins.
And what is water? It too is made of atoms cooked in the hearts of stars, a
vital component of all flesh, the very basis of all existence and evolution. It
is liquefied light, providing the malleable substance of ever-changing forms of
It was at this point that the acrid, overpowering smell of ammonia forced my
mind off cosmology and back to this flesh and blood reality. I was getting cold,
and my eyes were watering. A man’s mind can escape the earth, but his body is
forever chained to it.
I have never been afraid of the creepy-crawly creatures which seem to frighten
most people; rather, man is the animal I most fear. So I was in no hurry to
leave this secret colony, despite my discomfort.
When looking for wildlife on the surface at night, I had discovered that a red
filter over my flashlight seemed to be invisible to most animals, while allowing
me to watch their actions. That’s why I had brought one with me into the well,
so I could see in the darkness without disturbing any interesting life forms I
may find inside.
Slipping it over the lens of my flashlight, I pointed the red light up at the
surface. Though the colony had quieted down, most of them seemed to be looking
at me with their mouths open. Actually, they were making sure I remained
harmless by keeping their sonar fixed on my person. They apparently did not see
the red light.
Their devilish faces were truly demonic apparitions. But I knew their
expressions were evolutionary adaptations which enabled them to hear the sonic
and subsonic echoes of the cries they continually emitted through their noses.
The horrific expressions were necessary, and only mankind judged them as evil
because of their appearance.
I studied the colony carefully, noticing that the clever little mammals lived in
a highly structured society, just like most other gregarious species, including
mankind. Along the edges were the large dominant males guarding their harems,
which consisted of as many females they could guard at one time. The other
males, who had not been strong enough to win mates or territory, lived in
clusters alongside the harems, careful never to cross the border into the big
To my surprise – and I’ve written about this before – there appeared what seemed
to be a “day-care” center, in which many immature bats were watched and cared
for by one or two “nurse” bats. To top this off, the bats shared food with each
other, like man and bees, a phenomenon simply not seen in the animal kingdom
except among bats.
Because of my former writings, I will not repeat myself here except to comment
that we seriously underestimate the intelligence of bats. They are devoted
parents, loyal to their neighbors, share food amongst themselves, keep
themselves scrupulously clean, groom each other, show affection to each other,
and seem to have a communication system as yet beyond our comprehension.
So it was with great interest I watched the colony. But several yards from the
colony’s border, I noticed what seemed to be a white cocoon of some insect.
Moving to within a food of it, I saw it was a white bat wrapped completely in
its wings. I had never seen an albino bat, so gently tapped it with a finger.
Instantly it unfolded its wings and glared at me with fangs barred and making
little screaming sounds.
At these sounds, the rest of the colony dropped from their upside down perches
and again filled the air, a seemingly mass confusion but with no collisions.
Could the white bat have been a sentinel? The answer proved to be yes and no.
Peering as closely as possible at the white bat, I was shocked to see it lacked
the devilish facial expression of the others. The ears were only half the normal
size and hairless, with translucent skin. There were no facial appendages, and
its face was strangely flat, like an ape’s or human’s face. But what amazed me
most were the eyes, which were three times bigger than the tiny eyes of the
others and a pale blue in color. True albinos have red eyes, so this had to be a
freak of nature.
But as I stared into that humanesque face, I was moved in an inexpressible way.
She had two breasts like a human and a worried expression, with wrinkles over
her brow. Her face was that of a concrete angel. As the colony began to settle
down again as she stopped screaming, she suddenly made a break for cover and
scampered upside down across the ceiling toward the safety of the colony.
But as she reached the edge of the bat town, the regular residents began
chattering and snapping their jaws at her. When she tried to physically break
into the community, she was beaten off by vicious swats from the insiders’
wings. Dropping off the ceiling, she circled around in the air a few minutes,
then returned to where she had been when I’d first noticed her. Landing about a
yard from my head, she walked back to her original roost only a few inches from
To the devil-faced bats, she was the monster. To me, her face held a wonderful
and unexpected beauty. She jumped toward me several times, flapping her wings
and snapping her jaws and chattering in that shrill, wild cry. I realized she
was ready to sacrifice her life to save the colony, fighting me with only the
bravery in her heart and delicate membranoid wings, even though the colony had
I wanted to calm her, letting her know I was harmless. I also wanted to capture
her and keep her safe in a darkened cage with plenty to eat, warmth, and nothing
to fear. And that’s when I made the mistake.
Not being able to frighten me off, she hung upside down again and wrapped
herself once more in those white wings. She had given up, and no one from the
neighboring village of bats would help her. She must have felt at that moment
absolutely abandoned and doomed to her fate. So I very gently cupped my hand
around her and was gong to slowly enclose her in my hand without harming her.
But at my touch, she went limp, and before I could think, was slowly fluttering
like an oak leaf to the floor. No sooner had she hit bottom than the black snake
had her by the head. She flapped her wings a few times, giving the snake the
appearance of a flying serpent, then gave up and disappeared forever down the
I did not blame the snake, who was only disposing of the dead. I did not blame
the colony, which was only protecting the integrity of its genetic pool. Of
course I did not blame her. If there was a villain, it could only be me, though
I had acted out of mercy and sympathy for an outcast.
It was Nature’s laws at work again, against which I could not fight. The thought
that she was made of light and was now free did not lessen my guilt nor sadness.
A rare and beautiful and selfless creature had died at my mere touch. Just as
she could not rise above the instinct to love and protect the colony, I could
not rise above my human belief in compassion and justice. I had learned to rise
above the instinct to kill, but in the end Nature had her merciless way just the
As the years have passed, I have seen the same thing happen in school, on board
ship, in barracks, in college, and at work. The outsider is isolated from the
crowd, ignored, and rejected, no matter how hard the outcast tries to fit in.
Eventually the outcast is left alone and vulnerable, prey to a thousand dangers.
It is Nature, and only a complete lifting of the human spirit can beat that law
of Odd Man Out. When we can accept the odd, the strange, the sick and injured .
. . then we can begin our ascent to that higher consciousness which I pray is
Copyright 2004 by Richard Lee Fulgham
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