by Jessica Groenendijk
I watched the boat head up the Las Piedras river towards me, the forest behind it hulking black in the gathering dusk. Spray leapt from its bow and the steady hum of the engine grew louder. Above, swifts jinked in a lurid sky already pricked with stars. I wondered if the men were returning with fish for dinner. As the canoe slowed and veered towards the shore I could hear Chachon’s high, querulous voice over the motor. With a gritty hiss, the boat ploughed a furrow up the sloping beach and came to a stop. Wilfredo, the tripulante, jumped off, the painter and tangana in his hands. He pounded a hole in the sand with the long pole and looped the rope around it to secure the boat.
I stood and brushed off my trousers. Frank joined me and together we walked to the canoe.
“Any luck?” I asked.
Smiling in answer, Wilfredo leant over the side of the boat and, arm muscles straining, half-lifted a large zungaro for us to admire. The mottled, olive-green catfish grunted deeply, its small eyes blank.
“Que belleza.” I stroked its glistening flank with regret. But we had already been in the Peruvian rainforest for two weeks and needed the protein to supplement our food supplies. Together, Frank and Wilfredo carried it up the beach to camp.
Chachon began to rinse the floorboards, sloshing water from a rusty tin can. He kept his boat in meticulous order. In his early fifties and a born river man, he was compact and agile, had rheumy, currant eyes and a Sean Connery lisp, and relished a good story.
As he worked, something small and dark caught my eye, moving against the wet wood. It looked like a fluttering leaf but the air was still. I moved closer. Yes, it was definitely alive. I bent forward to touch it and a tiny mouth opened in mute protest.
A bat. I grouped my fingers around its bedraggled body and gently placed it in my other hand. It shivered, and damp, naked wings clung and spread like an ink stain across my palm. I marvelled at the thin film of skin. Its forearms and ears were also hairless and a tiny tail protruded from a membrane attached to its hind legs. There was no sign of any injury.
“Mira, Chachon. Un murcielago.”
Chachon interrupted his bailing to look.
“Pucha! That’s good bait. I should put it on a hook and catch another juicy fish.” His voice was scornful as he turned away. “Those things are demonios. They bring bad luck.”
I cupped the soaked bat and brought my hands to my chest.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Míralo! How can that bring bad luck? I’m going to look after it.”
Inside the tent I shared with Frank, I clamped my torch on my head and rummaged amongst my things until I found a clean t-shirt which I fashioned into a snug nest. I deposited the bat in the middle, where it looked more helpless than ever. Perhaps it was a baby. How on earth did such a scrap manage to find itself in the bottom of the boat? And how was I going to keep it alive?
I decided my first priority was to get the bat warm and dry. We had set up camp an hour earlier and the sand under the tent still radiated the sun’s heat. It wasn’t enough though. A hot water bottle, that was what I needed. I crawled out and headed to the grandly named kitchen. The thermos stood on the folding table and I hefted it in my hand. It was almost full. In our basket of cooking implements, I found an empty plastic bottle and filled it with hot water from the thermos. I had to juggle the bottle as I carried it back to the tent. Gingerly, I balanced the nest against it and folded a sleeve over the whole to keep in the warmth. A drop of sweat fell from the tip of my nose and a dark spot bloomed on the t-shirt fabric below me.
I left the tent and stood at the entrance, enjoying the cool, night air. A mosquito pinged in my ear and a tinamou, the forest’s avian wood instrument, hooted forlornly on the other side of the river. The men had started a fire to cook the fish. Sparks spat around their faces as they took turns to breathe life into the embers. Chachon’s gleeful cackle rang out and I suspected he was telling another of his tall tales. So far, we’d heard about the thirty-kilo, horned, fanged frog that lurked in the jungle, and the time he’d prepared ceviche in his rubber boot for a bunch of high profile visitors because the expedition had neglected to bring cutlery and tableware. It was difficult to know how much was fact and how much imagination. He spoke with such earnest conviction, yet his eyes sparkled with devilry.
I sat next to Frank and stretched my legs towards the fire. “What do bats eat?” I asked.
“Depends on the bat, I think. Some sip nectar and others eat fruits. And vampires, of course, drink blood.”
He looked at me. “Why do you ask?”
“We’ve got a baby bat in the tent.”
“We do? How did it get in?”
“I found it in the bottom of the boat. I’m going to raise it.”
Frank was silent. I knew what he was thinking. But I also knew what he would say.
“Well, you can try, I guess.”
I smiled at him gratefully and pointed at Chachon with my chin. “If it was up to him he’d use it as fish bait.”
“Probably the kindest thing.” Frank wasn’t sentimental about animals either. Then he caught sight of my frown and sighed. “Okay, how and what are you going to feed it?”
“Don’t know, I’ve no idea what this bat species eats. It’s a pity we left our mammal guide behind.” I leaned back and watched a satellite track across the Milky Way.
“The fire seems about ready,” Frank said. “Wilfredo’s almost finished cleaning the zungaro.”
“Mmm. Are we having it fried or in a tomato st— Wait, I’ve got an idea!”
I leapt to my feet and ran to our medical barrel. Flinging off the lid, I scrabbled among the contents until I found what I wanted.
“A syringe.” I brandished it under Frank’s mystified face.
“What are you going to do with that?”
“No time!” I yelled over my shoulder, and ran to where Wilfredo was cutting up the fish.
“Wilfredo,” I panted, as my knees thudded into the sand next to him. “Do you have any blood?”
He sat back on his heels, knife in hand, and looked at me in alarm.
“Esta bien, never mind.” I sifted quickly amongst the ragged pieces of flesh and spotted a small pool of blood. Even as I sucked it up with the syringe it started to congeal.
Thanking Wilfredo, I ran back to the tent, fumbled the zip up, and threw myself in. The bat lay huddled in a fold of the t-shirt, its grizzled fur now dry and fuzzy. Wagging the tip of the syringe under its nose, I allowed a drop of the gloopy blood to touch it. A sliver of tongue emerged. I tried again. Again, the bat licked its sharp nose. But too soon the blood became a sticky, glutinous mess and seemed to exhaust rather than revive it. I gave up. It needed rest. The bottle was still warm so I tucked the bat in, rinsed the syringe carefully with soap, and returned to the fire.
Sitting on a piece of driftwood, Chachon was in full flow, his deeply furrowed face animated, his cheap, shiny green shorts gaping under hairy thighs.
Wait, had I imagined it? Was that… I glanced at Frank to see if he’d noticed.
“Oye, Chachon! You’re giving your balls an airing!”
I squirmed with embarrassment; trust Frank to be blunt. But Chachon merely looked down, grinned sheepishly, and dropped his legs. The men burst into gales of laughter. Chachon’s eyes glinted at me in the firelight. He loved nothing better than a good joke, whether on him or someone else.
“Speaking of which, let me tell you how Wilfredo and I caught that fine fish you’re about to eat.” He gestured with his fork at the steaming plates of rice and stew Wilfredo was handing out.
“We couldn’t find any good pools along the banks, so when we spotted the trunk of a tree sticking out the middle of the river, we decided to tie the boat to it and fish in the channel. But I didn’t have enough space to cast my line; the tree got in the way.” Chachon paused as he manoeuvred a fish bone in his mouth and spat it out. He sucked air through his teeth, then cleaned his moustache with his lower lip.
I looked around the glowing, friendly faces of the men and heaved a sigh of contentment. Smoke from the fire smudged the indigo sky, the river murmured its secrets nearby, and tomorrow would bring more of the same.
“I thought I’d try climbing onto the tree. It was a bit tricky to get up there, but I found a good spot to sit. As I bent down, there was a ripping sound.” Wilfredo snorted. Chachon’s expression was more impish than ever.
“I checked my shorts; everything seemed normal,” he continued. “So I tried to make myself comfortable because the bark of that tree was corrugating my ass. And then I heard the ripping sound again, followed by a splash. A piece of the bark had come loose and fallen in the water.” Chachon began to giggle.
A large moth blundered into the flames and flailed briefly before shrivelling to a husk. I winced.
“Carajo, next thing I knew, a cloud of bats spurted from under my balls!” Chachon thumped his knee in delight. He was the only person I’d ever known who giggled like a character in a comic book.
“Hundreds of them! Darting between my legs in all directions. I was so surprised I flipped over backwards into the water!” Now Chachon was almost incoherent, tears seeping along the wrinkles on his cheeks.
“Wilfredo had to help me out,” he spluttered. “And that’s where that demonio of yours” –here he looked at me– “must’ve come from. Somehow, it fell off its mother and got stuck in my… my… hee, hee hee… my… sho-oorts!” This last with a loud, wailing gasp. We were all rolling in the sand by now, an island of hilarity in a moonlit sea of rainforest, tickled as much by the image of a startled Chachon with bats flitting around his groin, as by the spectacle of his own mirth.
Later, I mixed some milk powder with lukewarm, boiled water and brought it into the tent with me. I’d decided the bat was male, though it was impossible to tell, and that I’d call him Demonio, just to tease Chachon. I knew babies needed to be fed every few hours so I set my alarm, and re-set it several times during the night. It was difficult to see if any of the milk was ending up inside Demonio but he seemed more alert. In between syringe feeds I curled my body around his nest to help hold in the warmth, and worried about squashing him.
Over the next days I subjected Demonio to a diet of fish blood (when I could get hold of it), milk of various dilutions (was bat milk rich or thin?), sugared water, and essence of crushed insect. I figured varied was best. He not only survived, but thrived. During the day I kept him in my shirt pocket or in a sock hanging from the roof of the boat and at night I hung his sock from a hook inside the tent. Somehow, though his eyes were the size of linseeds, he recognised me, and only me, whenever I came near, and squeaked with excitement. I had no idea bats could be so endearing.
Chachon mocked me relentlessly. “I don’t know why I put up with that bat in my boat. Give it to me now so I can catch a nice fish for dinner,” he’d say. “What a useless animal. Why waste so much time on it? It’s just a pest!”
I ignored him but kept a close eye on my bat. Demonio grew rapidly and became more active. One day, about a week after I found him, he seemed restless, half-spreading his wings and making feeble, flapping motions. Was he in pain?
I called Frank over. After a few moments he rolled his eyes at me. “Call yourself a biologist. Your bat’s getting ready to fly, you nitwit.”
Of course! I grimaced at Frank and focused on Demonio. His attempts at lifting himself into the air were pathetic. How could I help him? He needed somewhere high from which to launch himself. My eye fell on the tangana, jammed into the sand to tie our boat. Slender and two metres tall, it was just what Demonio needed. And the sand would make a soft landing.
I grasped the bat between my fingers and perched him on the top of the pole. Then I stepped back. Demonio clung desperately with his splinter-like nails, teetered, and dropped to the ground like a rotten fruit. I shook my head.
“No, no, no. Come on, Demonio. You’re a bat. Bats fly.” He squeaked plaintively. Hardening my heart, I picked him up and we tried again, with the same result. It was no good. He wasn’t ready. I wondered if mother bats taught their young to fly. If so, we were in trouble. Our journey was drawing to a close. I had ten days left in which to rehabilitate Demonio, ten days before we’d return to civilisation. What if he didn’t learn to fly in time? I couldn’t take him with me to Lima, where we lived, and yet I couldn’t abandon him in his own home, the rainforest, either.
The following morning I tried again. But it was clear his wings were a mystery to Demonio.
Chachon’s voice startled me. “Como esta Demonio esta mañana?”
I turned around, scowling, expecting another jibe about the evils of bats. But Chachon was silent as he looked down at Demonio.
“I’m worried,” I said, smoothing the bat’s velvety forehead with the back of my finger. To my surprise, Chachon nodded in sympathy, then walked away without further comment. I stared after him.
Over the following week I exercised Demonio at every opportunity, turning a deaf ear to his frantic protests, spreading his wings over my palms to show what was expected of him and tossing him lightly into the air, over and over again. The men watched with inscrutable expressions.
Then, one lunchtime, instead of simply allowing himself to fall, Demonio rustled his wings and landed in a tangle of limbs a couple of metres from the bottom of the pole.
“Yes!” I shouted. The men jerked their heads up from their dishes. “Look! He’s trying!” I was bursting with pride.
After that I doubled my efforts and Demonio made rapid progress. He was stronger now, his wings beating with purpose. He finally knew what to do.
The afternoon before we were due to arrive in Puerto Maldonado, it was my turn to cook dinner. All we had left was a bag of pasta, a large onion, two tins of tuna, and a mouldy tomato. I put water on the stove, and began chopping the onion while the men finished setting up the tents. A thin, malicious whine emanated from the forest, and I imagined mosquitoes in their millions, biding their time. It would be sheer bliss to sleep in a proper bed tomorrow, after a cold beer and a pizza.
“Ouch!” Blood welled from my finger. I was distracted and irritable and I knew why. Looking down at my shirt pocket, I saw Demonio’s black eyes shining up at me from its depths. His pointy nose made small questing movements. He still hadn’t flown properly and I was at a loss what to do with him. My dilemma made me grumpy.
Chachon sat next to me, wordlessly sipping his coffee. I put the second half of the onion face down on the chopping board and began to hack at it. My eyes stung. When I’d finished, I rose to drop the knife and board in a bucket of water standing nearby. Bending forwards, a small gust of wind brushed my throat and I glimpsed a movement out of the corner of my eye. Turning, I watched Demonio waft into the air, like a dark flake of ash. He wobbled and lurched sideways, then gained height steadily. We stared after him in wonder and my eyes burned.
Soon he had vanished and I knew he would not be back.
Sensing Chachon’s bright gaze on me, I glanced at him and sniffled.
“Damn, those onions are strong.”
Jessica Groenendijk is a Dutch biologist turned conservationist and writer. She was born in Colombia, have lived in Burkina Faso, Holland, Tanzania and England, crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice on a sailboat between the ages of 6 and 10, worked with black rhinos in Zambia and giant otters in Peru, and now lives in Cusco. She is a keen reader, adventurous traveller, and amateur photographer of people, wildlife and landscapes. She is also a big believer in reconnecting children and their families to nature – www.jessicagroenendijk.com