|Uncommon Objects, Austin, Texas, June 2013.|
a single downy feather rests on top of a pale blue dresser in a shop housing uncommon goods. a feather not meant as part of the display but a random one descended from who knows what, who knows where. who knows what, who knows where? everything in the shop is either weird or old or wonderful or all three: dolls and parts of dolls—heads, arms, eyes— bleached animal skeletons and skulls, china, silverware, furniture and antique jewelry. it smells in here, but it's not actually a bad smell. it's just that this stuff has been around long enough to have witnessed plenty of good times and plenty of bad times—and probably plenty more times it would rather not have witnessed at all—that it can't help letting off the whiff of time, of tomb, the aroma of accumulation, of year after year scratching each surface, the scent an extract of tired eyes and gnarled hands and limping breath.
next stop, downtown. we descend the streets—eighth to sixth to forth to cesar chavez and finally the lake and the bridge. we wait and wait for dusk and one of austin's famous performances. in the end, we are disappointed. the night we position ourselves on the bridge black clouds slide in and block the backdrop of the sky. lightning excites the southwestern horizon. tall, bright street lamps throw enough light so we manage to see them if we stare directly below us into the river. here they come: at last, on their own unfathomable schedule, they are starting to wake up. first a few, then, slowly, surely, many, many thousands of mexican free-tailed bats emerge into the night. they glide low over the water. they do not soar above our heads as i expected, as i was warned, but weave in and out in a smooth, silent follow-the-leader formation under the bridge. the looping stream of bats is tight and circles together in the same direction, their fast fluid motion like the opening of flood gates. with a gush, their little light brown and gray bodies become a waterfall that pours down the warm spring evening.
hundreds of thousands of bats. hundreds of thousands of small beating hearts and flapping wings turn east into the night (but we can't see them!) along the texas colorado river—one gigantic body with many moving parts—to zero in on the heat and shimmy of fresh batches of hatching insects. they will devour zillions of them until the dark diminishes down and a new light crawls over the bats' fur and some ancient instinct forces them to thrust themselves into reverse and back across the land and the ravaged rip of night toward caves or, in this case, the underside of the congress avenue bridge, to succumb yet again to the lure of another day's deep sleep.