I'VE arrived in Quincy, a mountain town in northern California, on the eve of giving a fiction reading. ``Do you mind cats?'' asks the teacher who offers her extra room with a futon on the floor. ``I love cats,'' I respond.
We agree what wise creatures they are, how much one can learn and how much pleasure one gets from watching them. And I see we will talk literature and philosophy into the night.
But just as we get home, the angora kitten with tufts in her ears like a lynx brings in not the usual mouse or bird, but alas, a bat. She drops it before me on the gray rug where he flutters and flops (I'm sure from the glimpsed face it is male, young, small as a country mouse) then disappears beneath a low shelf. I reach under but - ``Wait! What if he's rabid!'' cries my hostess.
While she clutches the electrified cat, I find an old yogurt carton, quart-sized, lie flat on the rug and push the slippery white container until it surrounds the bat.
He flaps in and I clamp down the lid, though he has no wish or power perhaps to escape as the cat waits for him to be freed so she can chase and catch him again and again.
Then I, wanting to save and also to study him, slide him into a transparent mason jar. The shock of cold glass must feel like winter to him, so I warm the jar against my side, then peer through the glass and catch his eyes - black, round as the head of a dressmaker's pin. Mine are speckled blue marbles huge as helium balloons. Can someone the size of a vole take me in?
His claws, like the shrivelled sepals of a cherry tomato, clutch at the glass.
Though he is surely too hurt by the cat to survive, I take the jar to the balcony over the orchard where the porch light is a naked bulb in a cell. I slide him gently onto the wooden rail (it might remind him of trees), while his lips purse open and shut. Is he trying to suck gnats, mosquitoes, or the appled night air?
I'd like to stroke his fur, gray and plush, as if this could reassure him, or me. But it might terrify or hurt him even more. So I wait for him to unfold his wings, silky and gray as Grandmother's gloves, and fly away. But he rests on the rail long after I go inside and switch off the porch light. By the kitchen's glow, I see him there, and then all lights go off and I lie on the mattress, the disconcerted kitten curled on my quilt.
In my mind, the bat huddles there all night, unseen by nighthawk or owl, then suddenly soars toward the moon, which drinks him up with secondhand rays.
In the morning, through fog caught between hills, I look out and he's gone, leaving me with only pages pierced with the braille of miniature claws and teeth.