|Little brown bat, photo from Wikimedia Commons, by Enwebb.|
I was eleven years old, a sheltered suburban child, oldest of five and used to responsibility for the other kids ("You're the oldest, you're supposed to keep an eye on them!"). Incredibly, because my mother knew the camp director, I had been signed up for three weeks at a girls' camp out in the green forested part of New Jersey, among quiet mountains and clear blue lakes. If I'd known more of what would take place—archery lessons, modern dance, first taste of musical theater, the mystic power of singing around a campfire—I wouldn't have understood any of it. Facing the three weeks, the notion of swimming lessons (I hated getting my face wet) and sleeping away from home (I'd never been away from Mom for more than a few hours) terrified me. My mother, ignoring the emotions, made lists, stitched nametags into T-shirts, counted off stamps for me to write to her. And dropped me off with nearly a hundred people I'd never met, and one that I had: the camp director. Call her Lee.
The fifth night? Maybe. Supper in the dining hall, songs at the tables, some evening activity that kept us out among the stars and fireflies. I followed my cabin mates back, aware now of each one's name but still uncertain whether any of them liked me. A scream erupted from the first stacked bunks where a girl named Carol slept on the bottom bed, her best friend Michelle above her. It was Michelle screaming, waving her arms toward the ceiling. "A bat! A bat!"
Three counselors told us to each grab a sweatshirt, pull our hoods up over our hair, wait out on the porch. Armed with brooms, they struggled to shoo the flying mammal out the door, but it kept going back up into the eaves. Finally one counselor struck it with her broom and, stunned, the little winged body tumbled to the floor. Someone wrapped it in a towel. Ugh.
Who summoned the director? I don't know. But she brought a large lidded jar with her, maybe a gallon size, and deftly dumped the bat into it. And vanished into the night.
I woke early the next morning and, newly curious, trotted down the slope to the back porch of the director's house. I saw her sitting there, and called out, "What did you do with the bat?"
"I'll show you, if you want," she offered, eyeing me sideways.
What else could I say? "Yes, please. I want to see."
She fetched the jar, where she'd punched holes in the lid. That seemed familiar to me—at home, we also punched holes in jar lids when we held fireflies overnight, admiring their flashing.
But the grotesque furry face with its exposed needle-shaped teeth made me shudder, and the wings, cramped inside the jars, looked leathery and ugly. I asked, "What will you do with it?" I suppose I was thinking it would get released someplace else, away from the camp.
"Watch," the director replied. She took the jarred animal to one of the big sinks we used for cleaning up after crafts (already one of my less successful areas of learning), and turned on the water. Placing the jar under the tap, she let the water stream into it through the holes in the lid.
I only managed to watch until the jar reached about three-quarters full of water, the winged animal inside drowning in the process.
Maybe I said something. I can't recall now. But I remember running, running, and finding my cabin empty, and racing to the dining hall, late to join the others at the long table, gasping, unvoiced.
Now that I look back, I'm amazed I finished the three weeks. And I sing the camp songs. Sang them to hush my first and second babies when they were colicky and I sat in the rocking chair for hours, struggling to stay away enough to keep rubbing the arch of the warm little baby's back, waiting for a burp or a long fart and relief. I don't believe I thought about the bat, as I sang.
But now, as the virus from Wuhan spreads across the globe, and my grandson has suddenly reached the age when I went to camp ... I remember. May he never see a bat killed that way, even in this frightening pandemic. May his fears be small ones, easily comforted. May they be shared.