We waited for the bats to emerge from the cave below. Stephanie and I had backpacked all over that summer, out into nearby mountains and mesas—the Franklins, Sacramentos, Black Range and even thewindy wastes of Otero. In August we decided on the Guadalupes and Carlsbad Caverns. Being a fan of bats is part of being a westerner. It means standing under a bridge in Austin or El Paso to watch them emerge for the night’s hunt, fragments of dark gathering together among the stars winking on, and it means seeing a yucca or saguaro in bloom as a midnight feast. Most of all, loving bats in the early 21st century means knowing you’re headed for heartbreak.
That night it was a trickle at first, up and out of the cave they spiraled heavenward and shot off in all directions. Then more and more appeared, flying not at all like they were sleepy and very much like they were famished for night bugs, nectar from a thousand flowers and the wind over the West Texas plains.
The next day was sweltering and humid with the threat of monsoons. The trail to the backcountry campsite was straight up the mountain. We got up to the top, threw off our packs and found ourselves alone with the wind and the pinons.
The sprinkles began out of a clear sky just as we were setting up the tent but evaporated into the hot air by the time the last peg was pounded in. As we stood to survey our work, huge thunderheads began to arrive, cruising in from the south on the river of warm air flowing through and above the canyon below.Soon, they were nearly on top of us—50-story buildings or ocean-going vessels. The whiteness was blinding like snow in the sun. They grew as we stood and watched. The clouds boiled and burgeoned like a time-lapse explosion. Beautiful and menacing both, and we were sure that any minute we’d be drenched by these gorgeous monsters. Then the setting sun lit the thunderheads on fire. Gold, rose and amber gave way as night approached to soft blue-lavender and gray. We watched them until the glow was extinguished and then crawled into the tent knowing the drenching rain would be a festival of life for the desert below.
I woke after midnight in a spotlight. The peak was silent and the thunderheads were leagues away, cruised off to threaten and bless some other patch of desert. I unzipped the tent flap. The sky was clear and black. A wide summer moon hung golden and glowing. I lay back down. Projected on the side of the tent between me and the moon were the swooping shapes of bats. The resolution of black on yellow was perfect, I could see the points in their wings, their ear tips and even feet. I was watching a dance, complex and ancient, choreographed as much by poetry as physics.
Flash Fiction by Xanthe Miller
Xanthe Miller is an artist and writer living in New Mexico. Her art and writing have appeared in High Country News, Camas, Alluvian, Superstition Review and galleries throughout the west.