Monday, May 28, 2012

Brucie Bruce Wayne, Baby Gargoyle of St. Louis

Yesterday, out for a warm afternoon walk, we run into Beth Bombara unloading gear from the trunk of her car, just as Regan from Junque drives by on Lemp. He pulls over, covered in grime from work, and tells us about some free wood he'd just put out along the Broadway side of the brewery. We have nowhere to be, so we head over that way and find a big stash of good old wood—not that we need any, but there are some long, beautiful planks that had been painted blue and teal a hundred years ago and are gonna be great for something. So we pick those up and start walking back to the studio. The Lemp Brewery is monstrous, overgrown, dilapidated, irreplaceable, a giant historic hulk atop an ancient cave, and walking along its shadowed edge over uneven bricks, St. Louis feels old and unbeatable.

I'm looking across the street at the DeMenil Mansion, all tall columns and green leaves and southern elegance, trying not to accidentally clonk Paige with my planks, when she stops, staring down at the bricks. "What is THAT?" she says, and points. I'm a few steps ahead, so all I see is a dead black...beetle? Frog? What IS that? I get closer and we kneel down and the thing only gets less familiar. It looks like we've found a crashlanded, tiny alien. There's a snout, some teeth, some tiny clawed toes, and skin like Golum, darkly humanish. Suddenly it's obvious: this is a bat, a bat dead on its back on the concrete. We step back and see another little crumpled black shape between some bricks, and beneath a chained-up black iron door in the wall another one. What happened? We look up at the wall, the door, the loose bricks. Rat poison? We've been hearing for a couple of years now about how bat populations have plummeted, and how crucial they are to our ecosystems, and how there are people working full time just to keep bats alive so they can help control the mosquito hordes and keep the whole natural food pyramid balanced...and here are three, oh now four, there's another one, dead bats on this little corner of St. Louis. We get pretty close, just to see one of these creatures up close—I was always fascinated by bats as a kid, but I focused on their wings primarily, and maybe their giant ears, but hadn't ever really thought about their bellies, or their chins. And then the one under the door shudders, grips weakly at the concrete, chirps a quick blast of high-end notes, and collapses.

Oh. My. Suddenly these aren't just artifacts from a mysterious nature drama that just ended: that little guy is alive, probably just barely. Now the question: do we walk away, and let nature do whatever it was in the middle of doing before we got there, or do we intercede? I finally put the planks down and rub my dirty hands on my jeans. Paige fishes her phone out of her pocket while we try to remember what we've been half-hearing on the radio about bats, fungus, rabies, marsupials, mosquitoes, animal rescue... The things are so tiny, and so WEIRD. They really truly look like baby gargoyles, part newt and part dog and part monkey and part spider, and the guy gives another little struggle and Paige sees him pull himself up and yawn with his tiny little jaw and sees his teeth and his tongue and it's pretty much decided we're going to figure something out. She finds the number for the Missouri Wildlife Rescue Center (, who are improbably manning the desks on a beautiful Sunday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend, and we tell them about these bats on the ground, and the one still alive. Can we send a picture to them? We can. Include something in the photo for scale, and under no circumstance touch the animal. Got it. Paige puts her key ring down by the little bat—her studio key and the bat are about the same size—and we take a photo and text it to them. Here we stand beside a century old, mostly abandoned brewery made of brick and steel and rotting wood, and we're pulling devices out of our pockets that let us find phone numbers, take photographs, make calls, send our location... We spend a moment amazed on behalf of every human who came before us, and my phone rings.

"It's a baby bat," says the woman. "Very young, probably orphaned. Bats need to drop from something in order to fly, so if they're young and unprotected, they may have not been able to get back up to somewhere to try again." Fascinating. As she's talking the bat gives another heave and for a split second its wings are extended, we hadn't even really seen its wings yet, and now it makes sense as a creature. It still looks mainly like a baby gargoyle, somehow especially the back of its tiny head looks like a stone gargoyle from the heavy eaves an old church, but the wings are definitely recognizable: this is indeed a little bat. They're gone again in a flash and it's still helpless on the concrete beneath the door. "Can you bring it in to our center in Ballwin?" asks the woman. We look at each other. We haven't got a thing to carry it in, we're supposed to be going to a barbecue right this minute, we don't even know if it's got a chance... Oh man. The woman says she'll try to find a volunteer who can get out to us.

We're still talking it out as we walk briskly toward our studio. What else is there to do? We grab a cardboard box that once held an external drive, pop some holes in it, grab a couple of scrap tshirts, and jump in the van. When we get there the little guy looks like he might be all done—but when I get the tshirt around him, he grabs ahold of it with his half-grotesque, half-adorable weird arms and clambers into its folds. There's a little confusion as we try to stuff the shirt in the box, but we manage and pretty quickly we're back at the studio awaiting the volunteer animal retriever. His name is Stan, and he's dropped whatever he's doing on this beautiful afternoon in North St. Louis to come find us and our little bat. We wait out on the loading dock, periodically getting up to lift the lid and sneak peeks at the little guy. Now that he's got something to hang onto he looks a little less deathly, and a lot cuter—more monkey, less spider. He appears to prefer to back his way around the cloth when crawling, which I guess makes sense if you're an animal oriented toward hanging upside down. Even though he's only going to be in our care for another moment or two, he gets a name: Bruce Wayne, which morphs into Brucilla as well. We can't stop looking. There's an occasional burst of sonics. I know I'm not supposed to, but I really want the little guy to wrap himself around my finger. He would, if I let him. I don't, but man do I want to.

Stan shows up, and we hand him the box with Brucilla inside. Seems like a very nice guy, says he's 74 and retired but he'll never retire from helping animals. "I still climb trees and scale fences," he says, and I wonder if he's disappointed that this particular rescue is just a hand off. Probably not: there's a lot that's going to happen after he gets back to the shelter. I wonder if the bat's going to cling to Stan's finger while they're eye-droppering him some water. I wonder what other animals are getting fixed up there—what exactly has Stan been climbing trees to retrieve? He gives us a form and I fill it out, and we shake hands and he takes the box and jumps in his car to get the bat to safety. The form was simple and reassuring, and if there's a form there's a record now attached to the bat, and I can already tell that means I'm going to be calling in a week and see if he made it through OK. It was just a couple hours out of one Sunday in our lives, but both Paige and I now feel a sense of connection to this strange little beast—probably to the whole species, really—and we're going to be wondering a long time at the bizarre beauty of this formerly invisible neighbor, this baby gargoyle of St. Louis.

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