On a Hand and a Wing

Design by Cleo Maloney

The work starts before sundown. In the dusk we untangle our nets. The scientist is small, with fine bone structure and a loping gait. He is my friend, by now. When he asks me to hold out my hand, I stretch my fingers as wide as I can. What a little, little hand, he says, somewhat absent-minded as he slips the net’s loops onto my fingers. His hands are the same size as mine, but I don’t point that out. Small men are sensitive. Then, he collects the net and I watch him, holding the posts as he tries to rig them up with knots. When he fails, he unties everything and starts again, then again, until the sun is long gone. Now, he tells me, we wait. 

In this landscape, nothing is familiar to me. The grasses are taller than I’ve ever known them, and the trees are spiny and squat. Different birds wake me in the morning, and sometimes in the middle of the night. There are parasitic worms that glow in the dark. It is purple in a new way, and new stars roll into view. But I’ve seen the black shapes rising and falling against that purple before. Here is what we have been waiting for: bats. And as the sky darkens, it fills with them.

Still, it is hours before a bat falls into our net, and we approach it with the hushed anticipation of visiting a newborn. It struggles a bit, in the net’s pocket, and my friend puts on a thick glove. Bats carry diseases, he says. He has a teacher’s voice, suddenly. They carry rabies, but we’re still unsure if Covid originated in bats. Well, rabies is enough for me. My friend is slow to untangle the bat, and it fights him, tangling itself further. I hear him whispering to it. Be calm, my friend. When it emerges from the net, my friend smiles.

A vampire bat, a female, he says. Her jaws open and close, trying to bite at him. Her furred belly rises and falls with incomprehensible speed. Her little pig nose twitches. I am delighted. Vampire bats, I know, engage in reciprocal altruism. If one bat shares blood with another, then that other will share blood back, whether or not they are kin. This is a relatively rare kind of cooperation in the animal world. It is almost heartwarming, until you remember they are sharing blood.

My friend is showing me the bat’s little feet, the uropatagium that connects her feet to her wings, the claws that help her pull herself up animals to drink their blood. Then he pulls out her forelimb and shows me her wing.

I am silent. Her wing is a hand. A thin, wrinkled membrane is stretching between her fingers. The fingers – the not-fingers – are long and articulated at increasingly fragile junctures, and the pink muscles of her arm seem naked. The bones seem impossible. They are miraculously thin and slightly shiny and I expect them to clatter to the floor like a dropped set of silver earrings. Instead, they are shockingly powerful; the bat tries to flap her wings to escape my friend’s grip. Is this how the bat flies? With hands?

Yes. I knew this, of course. Homologous structures are basic biology. From one mammalian ancestor came bats, and whales, and people. Anyone with access to Google Images could describe a bat’s wing just as well. But it doesn’t compare to seeing it, understanding its delicacy and force. It’s barely real. 

The bat did not survive the night. My friend gently folded her into a velvet drawstring bag and tied her to a loop inside his coat. She rode along with him, against his chest. And then he asphyxiated her and she died. In the night, he skinned her and stuffed her. Pinned to a piece of cardboard, Christlike with arms outstretched, here she is. By sunrise, her body is preserved for the sake of dust collection, and probably not much else.

Leave a Reply