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An Unusual Guest


Unfortunately, as it is the busiest part of our family day, with dinner, homework, and bath all crowded onto the schedule during these hours, early evening is not the relaxed time that I would like it to be. I fully expect chaos in the mornings. My two teenage daughters lie in their futons as long as they can, with one eye on the clock, calculating the last possible moment at which they can get up, and still eat breakfast, fix their hair, prepare their school satchels, etc., without being late for school. The result, of course, is mayhem, lasting until that moment when the door slams behind them, and they disappear from my life until mid-afternoon. The mornings, for me, are written off in advance.

But it is a great regret to me that I have 'lost' the evenings as well. Daytimes are a constant buzz of activity, either carving or printing woodblocks, working on one or another piece on the word processor, or dealing with correspondence and what have you, and not so suitable for what I have in mind. The late evenings, after the girls are asleep, are too dark and gloomy. Too gloomy for what? For a pleasant evening stroll around the neighbourhood.

It's during that half-hour just before sunset, and the half-hour just following, that I like to go. Our apartment is on a busy, very noisy main road, but once safely around the corner and into the back streets, things are more serene. In spring, summer and fall, really the only suitable seasons for such strolls, the temperature at this time of day is always comfortable. The neighbours are out walking their dogs (and the occasional cat), and middle school kids and a few salarymen are making their way home from the station (high schoolers and a lot more salarymen come later, much later).

One would think that a person who really had proper control over his life should certainly be able to take a walk when he feels like it, but there just doesn't seem to be any way to get things to work that way. The three of us have tried going for walk together at this time, and delaying dinner for an hour, but inevitably the entire evening schedule thus gets pushed back, the girls are an hour later than usual heading for bed, and then the next morning ...! No, the increased stress in the morning is too high a price to pay.

But I seem to be getting side-tracked here, because it was not actually evening walks that I had in mind when I sat down a few minutes ago to start this little piece. It was rather, one of the reasons I particularly enjoy evening walks in our neighbourhood, on those rare occasions when I do manage to get out. It is those delightful little animals that come out at this time of day to look for their dinner, the bats.

There must be hundreds of bats living in my neighbourhood, for I usually see dozens of them during the course of a stroll in the evening. Anywhere there is an open space, preferably with some greenery, one can see a few bats flitting around, in the small parks, the school sports ground, even over the asphalt parking lot outside my window.

Just why it is that bats inspire so much dread in most people, I really can't understand. Yes, we're all familiar with 'vampire' stories and legends, but surely any intelligent person knows that such tales bear absolutely no relation to the behaviour of the tiny flying mammals we see in our own community. Given the general tendency of most Japanese (at least the female variety) to find small furry animals 'adorable', it's a bit of a puzzle.

This isn't the only thing about our local bats that is a puzzle for me. Try as I might, I have never been able to discover where they go when they are finished catching their dinner each evening. Where do they spend the daytime hours? If this was an old village, I could readily believe that they might fly up under the roof of an old thatched farmhouse, or into an abandoned barn, but here in this modern town, there are just no such buildings to be found. Everything is concrete and new. We don't even have any wooden temples or shrines that would presumably be suitable. But they obviously do find places to stay, and must find this area congenial, because there are always lots of them around.

As with most of us, my acquaintance with bats has been necessarily a rather distant one. That is, up until one day last spring, when I finally had a chance to meet one at close range. I nearly stepped on her (I'm quite sure it was a 'her') while coming in to our apartment. A small little brown ball, about two centimeters across, just at the edge of the concrete sidewalk. I thought it was a dead mouse at first, but when I looked closer, I saw that it was a tiny bat, and then when it moved slightly, realized that it was alive.

On any number of occasions, the kids have brought home injured birds, and we've had infant mice, and once, an abandoned cat, just a few hours old. So we've always got the equipment standing ready for use, the eye-dropper, shoebox, cotton wool ... But with the single exception of that baby kitten, who is still living here happily, those other 'rescue' attempts have of course all ended the same way, with an interment under the bushes in the back garden. So I wasn't optimistic about this one. As she was presumably either damaged or diseased, simply feeding her some warm milk and providing a box to rest in, was not going to help the situation much. But one has to try ... especially once ones young daughters get involved.

She took some of the milk quite readily, or seemed to, as it was hard to tell how much was going down. Not much I'm sure, but then just how big could the stomach of a two centimeter ball of fur be? Her face was incredible ... unbelievably fierce in aspect. Oversize pointed ears, tiny beady eyes, and a mouth bristling with needle-like fangs, none of them longer than a millimeter, but appearing huge in her tiny visage. She kept her wings folded, and we didn't try to inspect them for damage, as her limbs were so tiny and seemingly fragile. We didn't want to cause more problems than may have already been there.

We mostly left her alone, huddled in a corner of her dark shoebox, and every couple of hours offered some more milk, which was usually taken. At intervals, she made a mess of the tissues in the bottom of the box. This same pattern continued for a couple of days, and she seemed to be maintaining a stable condition, somewhat surprisingly to me, as I had really not expected her to survive beyond a few hours. As she was doing so well, after one of the feedings, I held her in my hands for a while, and then so as not to let her get chilled, slipped her down into my shirt pocket. She explored a bit, turning this way and that, and then settled down quietly, hanging from the fabric by her tiny claw-like toes.

Well, I wasn't about to disturb her, but I did have work to do, so I settled in at my bench, picked up my knife, and started carving. Quite the 'motherly' feeling! Some time later, she stirred, hunted about a bit, and then inched her way up and out of the pocket, slowly climbing this huge mountain, to finally end up on my shoulder. And then, to my astonishment, she took to the air.

My workroom is a six-mat room, full of bookcases and all manner of junk, so it doesn't really offer much in the way of flying space, but up and away she went. She flew this way and that, from corner to corner, and then after about half a minute or so of circling around, came to rest high up on one wall, near a corner. A few minutes later, she was at it again, zooming around the room. I called the girls in, and the three of us watched in fascination. Her flight was absolutely soundless, at least to us. I hoped I might be able to hear a faint squeaking noise as she navigated around the various obstacles with her 'sonar', but I could make out nothing. Either she made no sound at all, or it was just too high-pitched for human ears to pick up.

The 'exercise' session went on for a half-hour or so, as she alternately rested up on the wall, and flew around the room. As it seemed that she was obviously now recovered from whatever her problem had been, and was presumably trying to get away, to return to her normal life, I slid open the large door leading on to the balcony, and sat back to see what would happen. It didn't seem to make any difference to her. The pattern of resting and flying continued. Surely, she could tell that the door was open, couldn't she? Outside was the open evening sky, and perhaps even just at that moment, the other bats were out catching their meal.

And then her flight pattern altered, and she swooped down once very low, right down in front of my face, before perching back up on the wall. A minute later, again the same thing, close enough for me to hear a rustle sound from her wings as they swept the air by my head. This time, she didn't resume her perch, but swooped around the light, dipped down past my face one final time, and then flew out the window. Passing between two of the veranda railings, she disappeared into the night. Our adventure with this little guest was over.

Had we really 'saved' her? Had our care-taking finally been of some use to a little animal? My daughters think so, but I suspect that perhaps she had never been sick in the first place. Maybe she was a very young bat, who had become disoriented at sunrise that day, and who had simply been trying to 'hide' during the daylight hours. Maybe we had actually 'kidnapped' a completely healthy animal. We will never know. But of course we do like to think that we did indeed help her out a little. After all, why else would she have flown down so close to me to whisper "Good-bye, and thanks for the milk!", just before she left?