Hikoki Nezumi

Published in Mental Contagion, online arts and literature magazine

Platypi: Warm-blooded, Egg-laying Stories
Column 1, October 2003
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IT IS AN EXCEEDINGLY pleasant evening. On the darker side of dusk I sit on my front porch happily chewing a hearty meal. The air is cool and thick from the afternoon’s torrential downpour. The sky must be buzzing with little bugs invigorated by the moisture. The stars twinkle through a thin veil of moisture—then one winks out entirely. It pops back on and the next star winks, and so on. My eyes zigzag across the sky and suddenly I realize I’m tracing the erratic path of something flying up there in the murky dusk. One descends low enough to trace its frantic shape: a colony of bats has joined me this evening.

With each bat’s appearance I mouth a quietly delighted mmm through a broad smile. One exceptional bat must have sensed my pleasure, interrupting its dinner to join me.

The bat flits down to my porch and settles briskly on the arm of the next chair. After assuring its footing and folding two dainty wings gracefully behind it, it looks at me with calm eyes. It takes me in for a few moments and I return the gaze, oddly unfazed by this surprising little visit. When a little time has passed—but not yet enough to qualify as an uncomfortable silence—the bat speaks. It is a male voice: unfamiliar but warm.

“Hello,” he says.

“Hello, Hikoki Nezumi,” I reply. This quick, calm response betrays that I am exceptionally at ease. I’m playful, too, invoking my old novice attempt at a Japanese word for “bat”: Hikoki Nezumi—airplane mouse.

This odd response surprises him and he takes a few more moments to gaze at me in silence. His expression, at first slightly baffled, gradually resolves into a friendly smile and he speaks again: “I noticed you were watching us eat.”

“With delight.”

“Thank you. It is good that you can delight in such things.” His gaze is penetrating, but tonight I feel like a happy exhibitionist, more than pleased to show off whatever he might see within me. He continues: “Hang on to your delight. Don’t forget to appreciate the world’s simplest, but most sublime pleasures. We and so many of our fellow creatures so often go unnoticed or unappreciated. Fear and superstition discolor so many of your people’s perception of us: the nocturnal, the reptilian, and all those of us who are different from your kind.”

“We have the same shortcomings when viewing even those of our own kind who we perceive as different.”

“True.” He pauses for a moment to ponder. “What, do you suppose, would it take to regain human appreciation for the natural world?”

Fear and superstition discolor so many of your people’s perception of us: the nocturnal, the reptilian, and all those of us who are different from your kind.

At this point a sudden shiver runs down my spine. I am distracted for a moment with sheer giggly delight at this conversation. I am flattered and giddy that such a bright, thoughtful, beautiful creature would converse with me as an equal. It takes me a short while to let this elation run its course before I return to Hikoki’s question: “Perhaps it will require a resurgence of those things that delighted us as children: fables, games, toys, art. We need activities that inspire playfulness, creativity, and imagination. Without them, we get caught up in their antitheses: work, logic, duty, and conformism. We adults struggle with egotistic self-perception, trying to fit in—and paradoxically to be unique and exceptional. And yet a child’s wide-eyed appreciation of Nature faces none of these egotistic paradoxes. A little regression to childhood could do us all well.”

“Look at it this way,” my new friend seems anxious to contribute to this line of thought: “We bats, as just one example from the animal world, have far fewer options than you. As pups, we must simply learn to survive and to employ our instincts. Sure there is the pleasure of living, but what you may perceive as delightful play—such as our flitting about munching bugs—is less play and more a necessary gorging in case the rains should stop and our food supply dwindle. Other animals may have a little more insulation from this survival instinct, particularly certain of our fellow mammals. You can see this in the play of otters or dolphins. But until you reach the mental power and sophistication of your fellow Homo sapiens, all of the rest of us animals are, to some degree, slaves to survival. Humans, should they employ their talents and wisdom properly, are better suited than anything else on earth, including the unshakeable mountains and buoyant rivers, to reap the joys of living.”

“It’s a shame so many of us squander such a gift so often.” Suddenly realizing I may be taking his glowing estimation of my species too much for granted, I quickly add: “Do you really think we humans have such potential?”

“Of course. While much of your science, religion, and resulting self-perception may be laughably egocentric, your history, biology, and culture speak for themselves. Your bodies and minds are great organic machines. Of course with all this potential for greatness has come devastating misfire after misfire. The tyrants, atrocities, and wanton abuse your species has spawned and wrought over the millennia may dishearten you, but I prefer to view these as the unfortunate side effects of such great potential. Yours is a great power that can be harnessed for good or evil—or may simply be squandered ambivalently. I’d almost prefer the atrocities—as a sign that you understand and are attempting to harness your potential—over being ignorant of, or ambivalent toward, such a gift.”

“You are too hard on your fellow species,” I insist. “You, for example, are a mammal, who, against all odds has learned to fly. If that’s possible, what’s to stop the slugs from developing time travel or the rhododendrons from tapping into E.S.P.? Why so much emphasis on humans?”

“Well, thank you. I, like many of my brethren, do indeed harbor some delight in our unusual aeronautics. The living world is full of innovation and adaptation, but again, it is mostly channeled in the direction of survival. In an uncertain world with a future still to be written, there is no single list of traits that qualifies as ‘fittest’ to survive; so we all simply gamble on one niche or another and then, over generations and millennia, develop our particular peculiarities. If there were one niche that seems dramatically more promising than others, it would be a general adaptability, a biological creativity, and a hugely diverse set of talents. There is only one species, born in the equatorial heat, which can survive the deep arctic. There is only one terrestrial or amphibious species that can survive for stunning durations under water—and in outer space, for that matter. There is only one species that can manipulate its environment and physical attributes for ultimate comfort, adaptability, and survival. Do you know which species this is?”

“The banana slug?”

Hikoki had been on such a roll that I have caught him entirely off guard. He rolls with it admirably: “Yes, and their experiments in time travel are coming along swimmingly.”

By now it has gotten quite dark and, in a sudden reversal of the food chain, the bats’ dinner is descending on me, plunging after my blood supply. I swat a mosquito toward Hikoki, who gratefully inhales it with a gulp. He licks his lips with a tiny tongue surprisingly unlike the long, sticky appendage I had expected of a bug-eater. The snack seems to remind him of other callings and he begins shuffling his feet and unfolding his wings.

“It has been a pleasure talking with you,” he says through a breath of mosquito mouthwash.

“The pleasure was all mine. Visit again sometime.” Giddiness is returning, engulfing any regrets at his departure. “May your slavery to survival be rewarded with the joy of its reward: Life.”

“Thank you my friend. Good night.”

I watch him zigzag into the night, vanishing quickly in an inky sky. A couple stars wink brighter as the moisture thins and the darkness thickens. I grin and mutter another contented mmm.

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