A voice in the night

I awoke the other night to the sounds of some sort of exciting rumpus in the attic, followed by a piercing, rapid-fire chit-chit-chit-chit. It sounded like a Geiger counter, or one of those bloodless weapons out of old-school science fiction. It was impossibly loud.

A bat. Goddamn it. Of all the things the cat could be killing at three o’clock in the morning, this was the saddest: one of a tribe already decimated by white-nose disease, in the season when the mothers are just about to give birth to their single precious pups. It was surely dying, or about to be. I groaned as I rousted myself up out of layers of sleep, and went to view the crime scene.

There it was, on the attic stair, a little bat. She? – he? – was spread flat against the wood, wings stretched as wide and taut as they would go, a furious sprite of membrane and velvet with tiny grappling hooks for thumbs. My gray cat Barnabas was crouched a foot away, staring quizzically down at this defiant little cartoon Nosferatu.


The bat was in righteous full cry, singing for its life. Snout upturned, little needle fangs shining, it emitted a fantastic barrage of noises, hardly stopping for breath. Its tiny pink mouth was wide open, pushing out a solid, crackling wall of high-pitched sound.

The household was all awake now. We peered down at the scene, now part of this lopsided Mexican standoff, fretting about what to do. The bat chittered and raged and cursed like a pirate. None of us could get near it.

I sing shape-note music from the Sacred Harp with a group in Shady. Shape-note music is hair-raising stuff, raw and atonal, steeped in the language of blood and death and redemption. With a few strong voices, it’s eerily beautiful; with a few hundred, it rings you like a gong. Once, at a community singing in a Fleischmanns bed-and-breakfast, we sang “Idumea,” a real old backcountry barn-burner of a hymn, and a slight, sixtyish woman told us the story of the time that hymn saved her from a rapist. Having no other weapon, she sang, summoning up a voice of fearful power, and he quailed.

And am I born to die,

To lay this body down?

And must my trembling spirit fly

Into a world unknown?

I suspect our bat might have sung “Greenwich” instead: an anthem to the fall of the mighty, calling for “the wicked placed on high” to drown in fiery billows. O, their end, their dreadful end!

Or perhaps that’s just me, projecting. We profess no creed in the Sacred Harp, but more than a few of my fellow singers have been singing “Greenwich” with greater force and fervor recently. Since, let’s say, around November of 2016.

Ours is a world full of powerful wickedness, as we are reminded daily. We are small, and we are terribly fragile. Watching predators exult in senseless, shameless violence, it is easy to feel like prey.

Still — and this sounds like a hoary old chestnut, but it’s true — the voice of the small and frail is a mighty thing. And it is astonishing how ferocious even the tiniest combatants can be, when they decide not to surrender.

I called the cat, not really expecting him to come. He’s extraordinarily committed to the art of murder. But this bat was clearly too much for him.

As he came down the stairs, he gave me a querulous look, as if embarrassed to be caught in a moment of cowardice. Himself, Barnabas, the rabbit-killer, the terror of Orchard Street, defeated by half an ounce of scrap leather.

I closed the attic door, leaving the bat to its fate. There wasn’t much else I could do; it was too fierce to touch, and I didn’t want to risk sending it flitting downstairs, only to be caught by the cat again. It was probably injured. No doubt it would be dead by morning.

I woke up around 7 a.m. to another shriek — my wife this time. She’d sat down at her desk in the attic, and there, folded up small inside a sheaf of papers, was the bat. It was very much alive, if a bit meeker in the daylight, and when she put it out the window with a pair of heavy leather woodstove gloves, it flew.

I hope it’s still out there.