Wonderment

From beneath one of the bridges spanning the river in the heart of town, they came, so few at first I mistook them for bits of trash, rags, paper blowing on the wind.

I crossed that bridge at least twice a day, always driving, never at that particular hour. My car was in for repairs that would take at least another hour , and that late afternoon I decided to stroll over for dinner at a restaurant on the other side of the river. Toward the west, upstream, the setting sun poured melting gold into the water. Three stories below me, this rippling gold curved toward the approaching night, becoming paler and paler until just at the horizon it solidified once again . . . into a rising moon. It was a magical time of day.

The breeze died. ''Trash'' kept blowing. The moon suddenly vanished . . . no, not vanished . . . was blotted out by a billow of smoke rising from under my feet. The superstructure of the bridge was on fire.

How could it be? A steel bridge? Yet what other logical explanation was there? Then, I looked again and saw - bats. Dozens of bats streaked from beneath my feet, responding to some cosmic cue I had not heard or felt. More bats. Hundreds. They began to rise from the western side of the bridge, too, swept up and above four lanes of traffic, like shavings from the black metallic bridge drawn toward a magnetic moon.

Still more streams of flapping flesh appeared ahead of me, behind me. Thousands of bats. Everywhere, columns of black twisted, coiled, straightened out, dove, soared. The sinuous processions were entrancing. I could not move.

Pushing bicycles across the bridge walkway, a family of three stopped near where I stood. The wife shuddered and moved against her husband for a reassuring embrace. He looked a trifle unsettled himself. We stood, speechless for a moment , within the eye of a whirling hurricane of dark, fluttering wings and stubby, blunt-nosed bodies. Their numbers, as much as anything, were frightening. How could so many creatures congregate under one bridge, unseen during the day, in the center of downtown?

The eastern sky was laced with black streamers, and still, they kept coming. Traffic rolled by, car radios and tape decks blared, passengers carried on with conversation apparently oblivious to what transfixed us, four pedestrians. Was all that spectacle staged for only an audience of four? For no one?

''They're hideous,'' said the woman. ''I'm scared.''

''Probably constitute a public health menace,'' said the man.

Their son exclaimed, ''It's like the joust is about to begin, and we're standing on top of King Arthur's castle. Mom, look at all the banners!''

We adults could not share his glimpse of chivalrous tournaments. Too literal, we saw bats. Yet before the tag-end of the mammal ribbons undulated into the darkening sky, after surprise, alarm, discomfort and revulsion had run their course, what remained was the memory of an encounter with beauty.

We had crossed the bridge - stood suspended between day and night, the familiar and the strange - at exactly the right moment for being reminded that, even in the heart of downtown, there are flutterings between heaven and earth never dreamed of by urban planners. The idea that there are creatures and forces belonging to a world beyond our creation and control might be hideous or beautiful, as you choose, but the munificent gift of their existence transcends our preferences.

How many other marvels do we drive over at least twice a day and never notice?

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