Chapter One: Birthquake
At 3:26 a.m. on April 17th, a young Mexican Free-Tail bat was born. His name was Sam.
The moon was full and round in the sky that night; it looked like a balloon filled with whipped cream, one breath from bursting. Sam began his life with a deep yawn, sucking the night air into his tiny lungs, soaking up a bit of that unusually enormous spring moon. Sam was so new that the effort of taking that first yawn was too much for him, and he closed his eyes, exhausted. Wrapped in his mother's leathery wings and cradled against her warm belly, he had a good, long rest. There was no way Sam could have known it, but this was the last time he would find himself sleepy or asleep at 3:26am for the rest of his life.
The night he was born, Sam was only one inch long, and weighed no more than a marshmallow. Together, Sam and his mother lived a contented life in a warm, tar-black cave in the Southern California desert. He lived with about eighty-four thousand, six hundred and ninety-two assorted relatives and friends, the cave like a bat city of chatter and laughter and the daily commutes of all those wings bursting in and out of the cave with the sun's settings and risings.
Every morning, as the earth spun lazily on its axis toward daylight, and the sky went from black to navy blue, Sam's mother would tell him a bedtime story. Each tale was about a cousin, auntie, or great-great-great-grampa's amazing bat adventures. Sam's family had lived in this cave since bats could fly, and Sam's mother knew every story there was to tell about them.
"One night, long ago, Cousin Edith strayed too far from home and decided to spend the day in the old farmhouse past the ironwood trees. She found a quiet corner to spend the day, and had just closed her eyes to sleep when she heard a loud THWACK against the wall. She was so frightened that she lost her footing and swirled like a feather toward the hardwood floor. She spread her wings just before the business end of a straw broom would have given her a sound squashing. She spent half the morning diving and ducking from the farmer's wife. People are terribly inhospitable and downright rude to bats.
"What happened to Cousin Edith, mama?" Sam clung to his mother's belly even more tightly. She felt safe, and warm. "Did the Broom Wife kill her?"
Sam's mother chuckled softly. "You have to remember, Sam, if you find a way into a place, there must be a way out. Cousin Edith flew in through a hole in the screen door. Once she collected herself, she remembered the screen door. She flew back out and didn't stop beating her wings until she reached the cave."
Sam was quiet, thinking about the story. It didn't really make sense to him. He already knew about all sorts of predators that would like to eat him or his mother. But people didn't eat bats. Why would you try to squash something you didn't plan to eat?
"Why do people hate bats, mama?"
"Well, you have to feel a bit sorry for them, Sam. They can't fly. They're like snakes, stuck to the dirt and crawling on their bellies to pick their food out of the earth. But the thing about people is, they like to believe that they're the only animals that matter. They like to eat vegetables, and work very hard to tend to their crops. Moths love to eat the sweet leaves of the lettuces and tomato vines that people plant, and that makes people angry, because people don't like to share. You'd think people would be grateful to us for all the moths we eat, but they can't seem to tell the difference between bats and bugs. Perhaps they don't see very well, either."
Sam snuggled closer inside his mother's wings. He was drowsy, and his eyes felt heavy. She shifted her claws and wriggled him awake.
"Before you sleep, little one, there's something I want you to remember. Where there are people, there will be food. If you're ever lost and hungry, listen for people. They're everywhere. Stay a safe distance from them, because they can be awfully cruel to bats, but wherever there are people, there are bugs. Follow the people, and dinner won't be far behind."
"Where there are people, there is food. I'll remember." Sam yawned. "G'night, Mama."
By the time he learned about how his Great-Great-Great Grampa Ricardo avoided becoming lunch to a hungry owl by steering a swarm of locusts right into the beast's path, Sam was too big for his mother to hold through the day. The night he learned that Auntie Enid, Uncle Ethan, and Cousin Eamon all met a terrible demise when each didn't notice a tomcat sneaking up behind them until he was in mid-pounce, Sam was strong enough to flutter about the cave on his own.
Sam's favorite story was a tale of adventure and mystery that had become legend in the cave amongst all the baby bats. As Sam's mother told it, long ago, a horrible drought had turned all the surrounding farmland into dust, and food had become scarce. The roost was slowly starving, and having to fly further and further in search of moths, mosquitoes, any bug at all to fill their bellies.
As the summer wore on, fewer bats were returning each night from the hunt, exhausting themselves before they could make the journey home before daybreak. Mothers struggled to feed their babies. The colony had never seen such desperate times.
"We had two choices, Sam: Starve, or separate. Those without babies to feed sacrificed the only home they had ever known, and set out to find a new cave. They gathered together in a flock so thick they blotted out the night sky. Instead of heading north toward the farms, they flew east, toward an unknown future.
Sam's eyes widened. He opened his mouth to ask the half dozen questions swirling around in his head, but his mother continued before he could draw breath to speak.
"With only half the mouths to feed, we survived, but no one felt much like celebrating. Cousins, grandparents, and siblings had disappeared into the night, and they were missed. Everyone feared the worst, until a small search party of five bats returned to the cave just before the winter crept down from the north, with news of our lost family."
Sam's mother paused, getting sleepy, but Sam would have none of it. "Finish the story, mama! Where did the bats go? Where they eaten by cats? Or owls? Or cats with wings like owls?"
She laughed and kissed Sam's nose. "Well, as it turned out, they did find a new home, far, far away. But it wasn't a cave at all. One morning, desperate for rest before the sun rose, the colony had no choice but to roost under a bridge. Water rushed by below them, and the footsteps of people thundered above. That first day was a little scary, but when they woke to hunt the following evening, they found themselves in the center of a land rich with moths and mosquitoes. They ate so much they thought their bellies would burst. They came to like watching the boats sail by beneath them, and the breeze from the river. And that being close to the water meant they would never have to suffer drought, ever again."
Sam imagined a cool wind from the river teasing his ears and the scent of tall grasses filling his nose. He shivered a bit and nuzzled deeper against his mama's chest, warmed both by her and by the musky, spicy smell of the bats deep in the hot cave.
"Are they still there, mama?"
"As far as I know, they are. My mother always told me she was happy to know she had relatives far away, and that sometimes, when she was just a baby, she dreamed of visiting 'It sounds so glamorous,' she would say, 'living over a river, falling asleep with the sound of the water rushing by.' But I love our cave, Sam. Still, whenever someone doesn't return from the hunt, the older bats like to say that they went to live under the bridge."
Sam was quiet. He tried to imagine what it would be like, roosting under a bridge, feeling that fuzzy, drowsy sensation come over him while the river rushed by, counting the leaves floating past, but he was asleep before he could get to three.
Every night, Sam's mother went out to hunt with the other grownup bats, and every morning returned with a full belly, listening for Sam's own special little song so she could find him in the dark of the cave. Sam would have his supper and she would begin a new story about his vast and colorful family. As the time grew near when he would have to fly and hunt for himself, Sam often wondered what his own life story would be like, and if it would involve a tomcat, a river, or an owl.
The first time he left the cave to hunt on his own, he carried his mother's stories with him. He always kept a watchful eye for owls and other beasts while munching on crispy, fluffy, delicious moths, which are like powdered jelly doughnuts if you happen to be a bat.
But it wasn't an owl, or a cat, or even an old woman armed with a broom that would change the course of Sam's life. A tiny burp that had begun deep in the belly of the earth would send Sam on a quest that would become the most requested bedtime story by baby bats around the world, from the agave fields of Mexico to the eucalyptus trees of Australia.