The Strange, Brief Comfort of Wings

I don’t know who it was — but the person responsible for making Austin’s bat colony a tourist attraction was a P.R. genius.

Somebody like me, say, would have looked at a colony of 1.5 million bats hanging under a major bridge and thought, Ick! Rodents! Flying rats! And, aren’t bats rabid? But the unnamed PR genius saw an opportunity that’s become one of this city’s great tourist attractions.

At dusk, from March to November, crowds gather at the Congress Avenue Bridge to wait for nightly departure of what is now the largest urban bat colony in the country. That’s where my husband and I were last night — waiting with tourists and locals who sported cameras and leaned expectantly on the railing. On either side of the river, small crowds had gathered, too, sitting on the grass. Two boats populated with onlookers hovered just on the other side of the bridge.

As it grew darker, camera lights flashed from every direction — tiny points of light. My husband and I couldn’t get a place at the railing, so we stood on tiptoes, craning our necks. Nothing. Just an iridescent sky, with silvery clouds, easing into night as the sun set. We have the most beautiful skies on earth in Texas; it’s a world you can lose yourself in, that makes even the most determined agnostic think there might possibly be a God — otherwise, where did this vast and gorgeous sky come from?

But my husband and I were here to see the bats, not the sky. We figured the bats owed us one, since they hadn’t shown up last week when we came here with friends from New York. But here we were, once again, waiting. The wind picked up a little and it grew cooler (the kind of coolness we will pine for, come July and August) and we waited, with everyone else, for the show to begin.

Still, activities aren’t always that simple and straightforward. We were here because I had to leave the condo, had to move, had to try to divert myself for a little while. We had just heard the kind of news that crushes your soul and reminds you of how merciless life can be: A young man from our old neighborhood, who had often played at our house and hung out with our son, had been killed in a car wreck.

I kept seeing him, with his sweet, dear face, I kept seeing his mother and aching for her. The death of someone my age is sad, but the death of someone young is something entirely different and unbearable.

So there we were, waiting for the bats that weren’t showing up yet again, hoping for what I don’t know. Just a little release for a few minutes. Couldn’t we have that? No, we couldn’t.

So, we turned and walked back down the sidewalk on the bridge, when a sudden murmur rose up and people applauded and cameras flashed. We moved back toward the railing, peering through it, as a dark flood of wings swept out and disappeared into the night. They poured out endlessly, occasional wings illuminated by camera bulbs — just an instant of light on one small winged body, almost like the curve of an envelope flap — then the darkness again.

Even when the camera flashes had extinguished and you couldn’t see much any more, you knew that rush of movement still went on as more than a million little bodies hurtled on, guided by sound and instinct into the night. After a few minutes, my husband and I left, walking slowly, finding our own way home.

We returned to a world where hearts had broken and lives would never be the same and no one was safe. But for a few short minutes, we had escaped, we had flown, we had seen the bats.

(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)


18 comments… add one
  • I am sorry for your loss and grief, Ruth.

    I have also on occasion found watching those bats in flight as evening falls a meditative experience.

  • This is beautiful. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  • Thank you for sharing this. There are so many things that are incomprehensible and terrible in this world and we have to try to make sense of them or at least muddle on somehow.

  • Sometimes it’s the bats and other earthly creatures that provide the only escape possible after such heartbreaking news. Love to you, Ruth.

  • So sorry for that you lost this young man. This is a beautifully written post.

  • Cindy A Link

    Sorry to hear about this life unlived. It is a hard blow when someone so young passes.

    Sometimes I feel like the only one in the world that doesn’t appreciate the Austin bats. A few months ago, after 25 years in the Austin area, I went to see them for the first time. The sight was kind of okay, although, as you know, you are basically trying to see them in the dark. But it was the smell that will ensure that I never go back!

  • There are many grieving people all around me these days. I think watching the bats fly is as good a coping mechanism as any. I’m so sorry to hear this news.

  • What happens in life is sometimes so hard to understand, isn’t it? This post was beautifully written. It has remained with me all morning.

  • Beautifully written. So true about the sensations and emotions around the loss of young loved ones.

  • Such a beautiful tribute. Nature is restorative after loss.

  • merr Link

    I am so sad and sorry. What Vera says in her comment is so true.

  • Ruth, I am so sorry for your grief. What a tragedy. But, I know that when I’ve experienced losses of all sorts, I often find solace in nature, as you did, at least briefly.

  • This is so beautiful. I’m sorry for your loss.

  • I’m glad you found a moment of magical comfort in the midst of your grief. Thinking of you, Ruth.

  • I’m so sorry Ruth. Sometimes it seems like life should just stop at least for a moment when something like that happens–it feels unreal that the world keeps going.

  • Cindy D. Link

    So sorry for your loss. My heart aches for his family. Nature and art are the only things that make the loss bearable.

  • Truly felt, beautifully written, and so sad.

  • Sheryl Link

    Ruth, I swore I left a comment long ago on this post, but I don’t see it here. I am so sorry you and the boy’s family and loved ones are dealing with this grief. It’s so big that it tends to overtake everything., doesn’t it.?

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