The Night Of The Winged Death
By Dave Benneman
Our small fishing boat rode gentle swells below a blood red sky. The sea bore the squeals of bats waking from their days rest with a voracious hunger. Stillness hung in the air like a wet blanket over this speck of an island in the South Pacific.
“It’s getting late. Cook and Marsella not comfortable so close to mangrove.” He gestured with a slight nod of his head.
“How about you Captain? Are you comfortable?”
“I am paid many American dollars. Comfort will come tomorrow.”
“You’re right about that. What will you do with all that money?”
“Take my family from Mortiya, maybe go Tonga? Much good fish there.”
“What about your crew?”
“Together, we fished these waters as boys. They are family.”
Cook said something in his native tongue. Pointing toward the mangrove. His gentle nature had left the building along with the Elvis music he continuously played in the galley.
Captain turned to me and forced a smile. “You are sure about this?”
“I am. Are you?”
“No one has ever spent the night so close to so many devils.”
“But you’ve lived with them all your life.”
“When they reach my village they are fewer than a hundred. You can fight off six or ten. But so many?” He waved his unlit cigar in a sweeping arc. “No one knows.”
“This is the last piece Captain. Tomorrow you’ll be on your way to Tonga and I’ll be out of your hair.”
“Cook will miss you.”
“And I him.” I’ll be glad to leave Mortiya, I thought about this unrenowned archipelago floating in the South Pacific. Unknown, except for the presence of The Giant Vampire Bat. This mangrove is the only place in the world this species of bat is known to nest. And the locals are determined to exterminate it.
Cook’s compact muscled body hurried passed me speaking in short bursts. The Captain pointed to the sky. One lone speck circled above the mangrove. The sun was below the horizon, twilight had arrived, and night was close behind. They say you can smell fear, but I’ve never put much stock in such things. I could however see it in the eyes of my new friend, Cook.
The engineer stood by the Plexiglas enclosure he had built for me and called. “Miss Jasmine, please.”
I joined him. He struck the enclosure with a small sledgehammer. The blow resounded in my ears. “Is good, no?”
“Yes Marsella. Very strong like you.”
He smiled and turned his milky white eye on me. For two weeks I have been a guest aboard the boat. I’ve come to know these men. They have treated me with respect and indulged my wishes without complaint as we visited the chain of islands they call home. Without complaint that is, until the last. The heated discussions over my wish to film the bats as they leave the nest to hunt, has driven a wedge between us. No one wants to spend the night in the shadow of hundreds of thousands of ravenous Giant Vampire Bats. But these proud men are embarrassed to say so.
Marsella grabbed the corners of the six by six by six foot enclosure he has attached to the wooden cabin cluttering the little space that used to be the foredeck. He shook it showing me it’s strong.
“I’ll be fine. It’s only one night.” In spite of my confidence, I took a moment to look it over. “Marsella, Would you clean the top for me one last time.”
The clear roof was the most important feature of my glass box. Filming the creatures as they flew overhead in the dark would prove difficult enough. Doing it through bird shit would be a waste of time. He hoisted himself onto the top and wiped off the shit that had collected just today with a greasy rag. I retreated to my equipment bag and handed him up a clean cloth and some glass cleaner.
“It is very important.”
He shook his head, but complied anyway.
It’s foolish, but his bad eye always seemed to hold me in contempt. During the two weeks I’ve lived aboard this vessel you’d think I would have gotten beyond such a childish reaction. I’ve filmed in the most remote corners of the planet, some were beautiful, some were cesspools. There are horrors beyond imagination in many of these places. Nothing got in the way of my work. Yet, poor Marsella’s diseased eye creeped me out. And I thought myself so worldly.
A handful of dark specks circled above the mangrove now. The crew was anxious to get inside, but pride kept them on deck. They were waiting me out.
“Cook, let’s go inside.” I said. “You play Blue Suede Shoes for me?”
Relief washed over his face. “The King, yes?”
I nodded and ducked into the cabin where we took our meals. Tonight the crew would be sleeping in here while I filmed the bats from my glass castle. The crew probably referred to it as my glass casket, providing they have such a word in Mortinese.
I took my accustomed seat on the bench and waited for dark. Elvis sang about a cold grey Chicago morning, and layers of blue smoke mingled with the musty smell of unwashed bodies.
Marsella manicured his nails with a serious looking knife ill suited to the task. The eight-inch blade reflected light beams around the cabin off its polished surface. His good eye focused on his task, but the strange filmy eye remained trained on me.
Cook sat at the table and shuffled a deck of cards as though he were trying to wear the spots off them. An unfiltered cigarette burned from the corner of his mouth.
Only the Captain seemed relaxed, leering his brown-toothed grin in my direction. His weathered complexion matched the teak chair he leaned back in. Catching my look he tilted his head back and blew a chain of smoke rings.
“So Captain, if you’re country is bent on destroying these bats, why are you moving to Tonga?”
“The scientists,” he spat on the floor, “have always found a way to stop it. They sent you, didn’t they?”
“My job is to film the bats, not protect them. The work on the island is done. Tonight, I’ll shoot the migration from the mangrove. Then you’re free to kill every last one of them as far as I’m concerned.”
Marsella startled me by stabbing his knife into the table. “Tonight you see the gates of hell thrown open.”
“Yes,” the captain spat again. “We planned to kill these devils many times. The scientists always cry, please wait until we do this or study that. Another year my people hide from the dark.”
“Over the centuries your people have revered the bats. Some of them still make sacrifices to them. The Scientists think it’s wrong to exterminate any species of animal or plant for that matter.”
“The scientists,” he spat again, “don’t have to bury the drained bodies of their children. Tonight you film them. It will be something else, tomorrow. I would bring you for nothing if I believed the devils would be destroyed.”
“I understand,” I said solemnly. We’d had this discussion before. Elvis crooned Love Me Tender, but the atmosphere was anything but tender. Heroine by The Velvet Underground would have been a more appropriate sound track based on the tension in the cabin.
“It has begun,” the captain said.
Cook’s hands faltered spraying the cards across the rough-hewn tabletop. Marsella put his knife away, rose and motioned for me to take my position. He opened the steel door, another modification to accommodate my work. As I stepped into the enclosure I glimpsed Cook kissing a crucifix he wore around his neck. The engineer closed the door sealing me off.
I took a deep breath and stretched. Tension eased out of my muscles as soon as I lifted the camera to my shoulder. I laughed out loud, realizing how oppressive the cabin had been. The infrared motion sensors on the two tripod mounted cameras checked out and they immediately started to search for activity. I loved my high-tech gear, the technology built into these cameras would capture extraordinary photos whether I was present or not. However, the camera on my shoulder would be the one with the money shot. My reputation for getting great footage in impossible situations paid my bills. Tonight would be no exception.
The routine of checking my gear relaxed me until the image of Cook kissing his crucifix returned to me. The Mortyans have blended their original beliefs with the Christianity missionaries brought to them over a hundred years ago. They are superstitious by nature. The older islanders still believed these simple carnivores to be gods and actually offered them sacrifices. Today they used cattle, but the oldest residents retold legends of human sacrifices – stripped and tied between two sacred trees. It was supposed to be an honor. I bet no one volunteered for that honor.
My thoughts swirled around the many conversations I’d had over the last two weeks about the winged devil that reigned death over them nightly. I heard them before I saw the first of the bats. The air filled with a kind of high pitched whistling that was balanced by the dull flap of their leathery wings. The sound both chilled and hypnotized simultaneously.
With my eye pressed to the viewfinder, I fell into a rhythm as the first wave of bats passed low over the boat. My camera softly whirred, as the night sky turned into a living mass of brown so thick, you couldn’t see a single star in the heavens ordinarily peppered with celestial bodies. The migration tapered off. I lifted the camera off my shoulder for the first time in hours. The boat was covered with the creatures.
They looked at me quizzically. Their distinctive chocolate-brown fur highlighted by two scarlet stripes down the chest and those cute little rounded ears, made them hard to fear. “I was surrounded by teddy-bears.” I laughed out loud. The sound echoing off the glass walls startled me. The bats were quiet in small numbers, but tonight I realized how much noise they made in mass. I could hear a kind of cooing sound now coming from the hundreds that stared at me.
Other sounds were starting to register as well. The most annoying was an intermittent thumping as if someone was bouncing a tennis ball off the cabin wall. I dug out my still camera and started shooting portraits of the bats pressed up against the Plexiglas enclosure. They shuffled around, but mostly they just stared. I moved around my space shooting as many of their faces as I could. The thump continued. At one point I risked chasing off my models and banged on the wall and yelled, “Knock it off.”
My actions created a minor stir, which offered up still more great shots. I banged on the glass again to see what kind of response I’d get. My heart stopped in my chest. A crack had appeared where it was fastened to the ship’s cabin. One of my fury visitors gnawed at it with his sharp teeth. Instinctively I banged at my, would be, attacker. The crack grew longer still. Okay, okay, it’s just a stress crack where Marsella drilled the hole to attach the bracket. Don’t overreact like some helpless blonde. No more banging. I tried to put it out of my head.
The thumping continued as I checked the crack often. It didn’t seem to be growing. Switching back to video I filmed them staring at me. Between the thumping and the stares my nerves were getting frayed. Maybe they didn’t understand being able to see me and yet not being able to get to me.
Several bats worried the crack now. I filmed their relentless attack when I noticed the bracket wiggled a little as well. I glanced around for a weapon, a tripod would make an adequate club if necessary. Of course I could always retreat into the cabin like a frightened woman. That would put a smile on Marsella’s face. Pre-dawn light showed on the horizon. Another hour tops, and they’ll all be leaving. Hold it together.
As if on cue some bats flew over the boat returning home. They appeared to be so bloated with the blood of their victims their powerful wings barely kept them aloft. My camera whirred in my ear as I zoomed out to capture the images overhead. I hummed the Teddy-bear Picnic song as I worked.
Finally my fur covered shipmates started to move around. One by one they lifted off into the brightening sky. I filmed this last bit less than enthusiastically. I’ll be glad when this assignment is in my rearview mirror.
The thumping continued even as I packed up my gear. Stuffing a camera into a case I noticed something oozing under the door. It was red.
I banged on the door. “Is everything all right?”
I turned the latch, but the door didn’t swing open. Instinctively I reached for my camera, pressed it against my face, and hit record. Pushing my weight against the door it moved a little. The milky eye of the engineer was the first thing I saw through the crack. It stared at me from the floor. I pushed against the weight of his body until I could squeeze through. His tattered blue overalls exposed the bites covering his body. Dozens of dead bats lay around him. One was still impaled on the knife clutched in his dead hand.
The captain’s shredded face poked out from under the over turned table. He’d apparently tried to take shelter there.
Cook was wedged in a hole in the roof of the cabin, as though the bats were trying to pull him out.
Each gentle rock of the vessel caused his dangling foot to strike the wall.