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The Bat

(Eugenio Montale — Il Pipistrello)

At about midnight, the man was just about to turn out the light when an ominous fluttering shadow, a scribble on the walls of the room, a zig-zag quick as a flash of lightning, passed over his head, before shooting towards the curtain which surrounded the wash basin. The most piercing squeal was immediately heard.

‘A bat!’ she shrieked, writhing in horror. ‘What kind of a hotel have you dragged me into? Get the filthy beast out of here! Get it out of here!’

She was screaming from under the bed sheet, for fear that the repulsive flight would brush against her. Her words were muffled and agitated; she told him to chase it with a stick, with an umbrella, holding the window wide open with the light out. Perhaps the lights outside would attract it, you never know…

In the dark, in pyjamas, his head protected by a towel, he went back and forth across the room, stumbling over the chairs, waving the wrapper of an illustrated magazine (‘The umbrella!’ she howled, uttering inarticulate noises — but they had no umbrellas); until, finding himself within reach of a switch on the wall, he flicked it, causing a beam of light to shoot forth from a transparent lampshade shaped like a seashell, situated high up, very high up.

‘It must have gone,’ he said, trying to seem calm; and he approached the window to close it. But suddenly a sticky dart brushed against his forehead; the crazy shadow fluttered on the wall again before disappearing onto the unreachable heights of a black wardrobe.

‘Help! Help!’ squealed the lady, peering out from under a pillow which she had placed over her head. And then, in a calmer voice, no longer seeing the zig-zagging on the wall, ‘Has the monster gone? Tell me it’s gone.’

‘I’m afraid not,’ he said, trying to soften the brutal truth (the shadow was trembling on top of the wardrobe as if the ‘monster’ were under stress, and ready to take flight again). ‘I’m afraid not, but now I’ll get rid of it. Put your head under the covers. Don’t be afraid.’

He climbed up on a chair, wrapping his head in the towel again, and with a carefully aimed throw dropped his magazine wrapper onto the top of the wardrobe; from which, with a thump, there arose a cloud of dust and the blind, convulsive flight of the little monster, a brief parabola which finished, quivering, in the waste-paper basket.

‘Help, help!’ her raving continued; but now the man, armed with a leather slipper, wearing an entire tablecloth over his eyes, advanced cautiously towards the wicker basket, saying more calmly, ‘I think what I am going to do is overturn the basket and imprison it. Don’t move; don’t make a fuss.’

When he thought he was within range, though he wasn’t, he gave the basket a kick: a kick which according to his calculations should have upturned it without allowing its contents to escape. Another, lighter thump was heard, the basket rolled over on its side, spilling out eggshells, ash and spent matches, and a hurtling shadow took its leave of those remains, arriving at the alabaster shell-shaped lampshade in which, like a pearl in the oyster, shone the ceiling light.

‘It didn’t work,’ he confessed, sitting down on the edge of the bed. ‘It doesn’t want to leave. Don’t move. I’m going to rest a moment before resuming the hunt.’

‘Ring the bell,’ she sobbed from the depths of the two blankets thrown over her head. ‘Call the maid; she’s the nincompoop who opened the window. Let her deal with the vampire…’

‘Calm down, darling. We’re not in Italy. No one would come at this hour. But perhaps we could, now I come to think of it, we could…’

‘Phone the porter,’ spoke the agony from the depths. ‘Throw something on your head, lie down next to me, don’t uncover me.’ (Further screams.) ‘Pick up the receiver. Speak to him. You know languages.’

‘Languages,’ he said, half suffocated by the tablecloth and half reclining on the bed. ‘How do you say… how the devil do you say “pipistrello” in another language?’ (From below, someone was barking ‘Hello? Hello?’ into the unhooked receiver.)

Chauve-souris, pipistrello, perhaps bat,’ sobbed her submerged voice.

‘Ah, novels have been a bit of use to you,’ he replied, peering out from under the cloth. And, bringing his mouth close to the receiver, ‘Hello! Hello! Chauve-souris, pipistrello, perhaps bat. No, I’m not mad (he says I’m mad). Chauve-souris, perhaps bat, in my room. Please come. Help! Help! Au secours! Hello! Hello!’ (From the funnel there came blasphemings and incomprehensible words; then the click of the receiver hung up.)

‘What did he say?’ asked the voice from under the bedding.

‘He’s coming straight away, no, not straight away, but he’s coming… perhaps he’s coming. I don’t know whether he understood. But wait, dear, wait a bit.’

He had stood up with a courage and decisiveness which amazed him. He pulled the tablecloth from his eyes and sat down in an armchair of floral design, the only one in the room. The convulsing shadow continued to flutter in the alabaster shell, and the light all around the room was intermittently dimmed, to the accompaniment of slapping noises.

‘Wait a moment,’ he repeated. ‘Are you sure that “bat” means pipistrello? Are you quite sure? Yes? Even that donkey of a porter repeated “bat” as if it were an understandable word. Calm down. He’ll come now with una scopa, a broom. He must have said “broom”, in English, and he’ll sort everything out.’ But The Bat, — tell me — wasn’t that the restaurant where we got to know each other, the first time? I seem to remember that there were black wings painted over the entrance.’

‘Yes, yes,’ came the tearful voice, filtered through the subsoil of the stuffing material. ‘It was Il Pipistrello, exactly.’

‘Strange,’ he continued, keeping an eye on the shell. ‘You don’t know that the bat is the only beast that I’ve killed. They told me it was impossible to hit it, because of its erratic flight. You just need one small shot to bring it down, to make a hole in its sticky wings. But who could manage it, who could fire that shot? They all took a shot, two, three, four people, and no bat fell; in fact, even more of the creatures arrived. It seemed they were making fun of us. Then I shot, almost at random. It was the first time I’d fired with a 12-bore rifle. And the bat fell. It flapped to the ground like a flimsy handkerchief, it moved about for a little while longer… and it died.’

(Sob, sob, sob.)

‘They’re not horrible, you know? After all, they’re just poor little mice with spider’s-web wings. They feed on mosquitoes. They don’t harm anyone. And mine unfortunately hadn’t died; it was trembling, like this one.’ (Sob, sob.) ‘Don’t cry. That other beast, the porter, is coming now. We’ll need to give him two or three shillings; perhaps more, depending on how long the hunt lasts. Don’t cry. It won’t cost too much. But let me think: this isn’t even the second, it’s the third important bat in my life. The first you know; the second… is you, or almost, don’t be offended; the third has descended on us here this evening, and this is the welcome we give it, throwing glossy magazines at it, slippers, rugs; before long, if it’s half dead, it’ll be finished off with blows from a broom. I don’t know if that would be right, I don’t know… I don’t know.’ (Sob, sob.) ‘No, don’t cry; I’m just talking. Now we’ll see what to do. The only way would be to catch it gently and put it outside. If it were to come back and deposit itself in the basket, for instance. If we could chuck the whole lot — container and black soul together — out of the window. Hmm, hmm. Let me think…’

He had thrown himself onto the bed and pushed his head through the heaped-up blankets until he met her head. ‘And could it be,’ he whispered in her ear, ‘could it be that my father has come to visit me?’

With a howl she threw the blankets and pillows into the air and sat up straight in bed. She was hardly thinking any more about the black soul still quivering in the shell.

‘You really have gone mad,’ she said, looking straight into his face. ‘Right; we’re going to throw some clothes on and go downstairs. We’re going to change rooms, or spend a couple of hours in the garden. It’s warm, and there’s no one down there. I will speak to the night porter. Your father? Why? A bat?’

‘I don’t know,’ he said, almost weeping. ‘It’s the only animal I’ve killed, apart from a few flies and ants, of course. The only one, and my father was greatly upset about it. I think he comes back looking for me, in one disguise or other. “We’ll find each other again somewhere,” he said to me the day before he died. “You’re too stupid to get by alone. Don’t worry; I’ll find a way. I’ll think about it.” But I’ve almost forgotten him; only sometimes, seeing one of these creatures fluttering around, I lift my finger, take aim, and bang! I see it fall like a bit of rag. And then I remember him…’

He lifted his finger towards the shell, and the quick, frightened flight rose immediately upward; it banged against the ceiling and left through the window, swallowed up in the dense and sultry night. With another scream she sank back amongst the pillows. At that moment someone knocked on the door.

‘That’ll be the porter,’ the man said, hurrying to close the window, and shouting loudly, ‘Just a moment, please. Just a moment.’ Then, in a low voice, ‘See if you’ve got half a crown, some silver, but small change. In the end that half-wit hasn’t done anything.’

He took the money, opened the door and mumbled at some length in the corridor. She stared wild-eyed at the shell-shaped lampshade, now still, and thought about the restaurant with the black wings; then, suddenly remembering that, a few years before, her desire to attend a performance of Strauss’s Il Pipistrello had saved her from death, from the bomb which had destroyed her house, in another fit of emotion she threw herself hopelessly onto the heap of blankets, with a long, convulsive laugh.