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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 plantation.

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 practically dry.

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 chamber’s surface.

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 life.

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 males’ territory.

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 my eyes.

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 rejected her.

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 serpent’s throat.

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 same.

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 our destiny.


Copyright 2004 by Richard Lee Fulgham

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