the night visitor
In Ecuador they call them vampiros. In English they are vampire bats. Our woeful story begins at latitude zero degrees on a little farm of 10 hectares precariously perched on a steep Andean mountainside. Something out of the ordinary came to my attention in the sparkling, misty dawn of the Valle de Vilcabamba where we lived and farmed. I happened to be milking Clara Bella at the time. She was a strong, beautiful, good-humored Holstein who generously gave us liters of sweet creamy milk each day. I had never had milk this fresh or rich in flavor and aroma. Drinking Clara Bella’s milk was like sipping dessert.
While milking her that morning, it troubled me to discover a rather large smudge of dried blood on the tip of her ear. When I took a closer look, I saw the skin had a small slice in it, a neat incision, oozing a bit of blood. How mysterious. How could this have happened? She didn’t seem bothered by it, to my relief. I intended to find out what had happened to her in the night. I didn’t want it to occur again. What sinister night visitor had done this? I wondered.
Time passed and I forgot about Clara Bella’s bloody ear. It simply slipped my mind. We had other animals to care for, crops to plant and sow, chickens and ducks to see over, and a rowdy rooster we called Barabás. His morning routine began below our window at 4:00am each day and lasted until sunrise. We grudgingly admired his majestic prowess; he made sure the hens happily delivered, for which we were grateful. Next, there was Clara Bella’s nursing calf named Amor who needed to be kept safe from falling into ravines or off the mountainside. Last but not least we had to feed and coddle our other milk cow. She was so ill-tempered it turned her milk too sour to enjoy. We named her Gladys after my brother-in-law Jaime’s ill-tempered girlfriend who lived her life in a permanent bad mood and wore the scowl to prove it. For reasons we never could understand, nothing ever pleased either one of the Gladyses. Even Jaime called our cranky cow “Gladys.”
Then it happened again. This time the night visitor went after our beloved duck, El Pato Donald, a fine male specimen with a cheerful attitude. He liked to greet me in the mornings with his happy quack and spunky personality. When I opened the kitchen door, he’d let himself in and wait for his morning treats of papaya and banana. Pato Donald had a pretty little partner named Patita Daisy. Together they gave us the most perfect eggs. Large, with shells translucent aquamarine in color, the yolks creamy and buttery to the taste, thanks to a diet of foraged insects and the fruit that ducks have a yearning for. The egg yolks came encased in whites that you could whip into a snowy froth for baking airy cakes and breads to enjoy with Clara Bella’s milk.
One morning shortly after spying the blood on Clara Bella’s ear, I opened the door to our little cottage, and what I saw made my heart sink. Pato Donald was missing. He wasn’t there to greet me like always. After a brief search I found his limp, shrunken body just steps from the entrance to our house. He had been drained, it seemed, as if his blood were missing, all of his color gone, the life literally stolen from him.
I picked him up. He was cold to the touch. I knew he was dead, but I didn’t know why. It made no sense; he was still young and had been so full of life. Oddly, on the back of his foot was a noticeable smudge of dried blood. How curious. First Clara Bella and now El Pato Donald. I looked closer and saw the tell-tale slice into the hind toe. Something had come in the night again, and this time it went for a spot on the back of our little duck’s foot. Why, I wondered? What blackhearted thing is lurking in the dark, waiting to strike?
After a burial ceremony for Pato Donald under the papaya tree, I busied myself with farm chores and went to bed that night tired and eager for a good night’s sleep. Before blowing out the candle, my husband Raúl and I talked for a bit about our day. I told him about Pato Donald’s eerie demise, and we expressed our thanks for having had such a sweet little spirit in our lives. We vowed to find Daisy a new partner. We put her in the hen house for the night to keep her safe from attack. We hoped to find out from the local people what thing was coming in the night, and why was it biting our livestock? We didn’t know of any nocturnal predators in our whereabouts. As we talked by candlelight and readied ourselves for sleep, I remember looking up at the rafters of our house and watching their undulating crisscross shadows created by the flickering candlelight. There was no electricity in the region at that time, and it would not arrive until many years later. We pulled the blankets up to our chins to keep the evening chill at bay, blew the candle out and drifted off to sleep. There we remained in deep slumber well into the night, undisturbed by any sound or movement, as was usual on our remote mountainside. What we did not know was that tonight was marked for a dramatic disruption.
When did the intruder enter our house? We didn’t know. Maybe it had been there during the day, sleeping in deep repose, hanging, inverted, from the rafters, undisturbed, awaiting the dark. Equipped with echolocation and pinpoint vision, it had to have found its source by slipping in through the cracks of our roof’s clay tiles and rough-hewn wood rafters.
While we quietly slept, it made its move. Using its thermoreceptor powers located in its nose, it easily sensed the heat of the closest blood source: mine. With wings spread wide, I heard and felt the creature’s rapid descent toward my head. Flapping wings created an ominous wind. Before I could duck my head under the covers, I felt the weight of the night visitor’s wings entangled in my hair.
I don’t recall ever having screamed in fright before. At least not like I did that night. Not at that amplitude. During the madness of my screams and the flapping of the batwings around my head, I heard Raúl bellowing at me to STOP SCREAMING! There was a strike of a match and light from the candle. No longer screaming, but now shaking and whimpering, I glimpsed our shadows creating a scene projected onto the wall lit by candlelight. I trembled at the scenario of Raúl’s expanding shadow: he stood upright on the bed next to me with a broom in both hands, swiping it in wide arcs through the air, swatting at batwings, clearly trying his best to disable it. Somehow the bat broke away from my hair, flapping madly in its own panic, dodging the broom and looking for its escape route. The drama unfolded in front of us, on the wall like a hand-puppet show lit up from behind a bedsheet screen. In three dimensions, there we were, the three of us, husband, wife and vampire bat battling it out.
The next morning, all was peaceful in the dawn of the Vilcabamba morning. Barabás had performed his usual too-early-in-the-morning serenade, a distant donkey brayed, the hens clucked, Patita Daisy came by the kitchen door, Clara Bella called to be milked, and Raul and I, nerves frazzled from the previous night’s drama, arose to face another day and each other. The night visitor had mastered an escape at some point the night before during the chaos of Raúl’s fight to oust it. The night’s spectacle had concluded, but the aftermath left us with the moody residue of a terrible nightmare. Nerves were on edge.
Though the sunrise lit the valley below us with the hope and promise of a brighter day ahead, a dark cloud of feelings hung heavily over our heads. Without a word or a nod or any reassurance that a better day had dawned, Raul mounted his horse and silently, moodily left for the village. I spent the day busying myself with farm chores and feeling a bit anxious about a possible return of the night visitor.
Several hours later, Raul arrived home with a new visitor, one much to my liking. He brought a friendly feline, robustly healthy and with a good amount of cat attitude. We dubbed him Garfield. He came to us on loan from sympathetic villagers. He would board with us temporarily as our guard cat. His purpose in life while he was with us was to scare off unwelcome flying nighttime interlopers. Garfield, being a muscular intact male cat, had no fear of bats. Rather, he had quite a taste for hunting. No doubt no bat could successfully trespass on Garfield’s watch.
While Raúl went to work in the ceiling rafters to build a cat-size loft bed with look-out space, Garfield made himself comfortable lounging on a kitchen shelf and watching the goings-on in the farmhouse. Being a cat, and loving all things cat, such as high dark spaces with cozy beds and pleasing viewpoints, that evening he happily settled into his new digs, perching patiently in the rafters to await the bat’s nocturnal return. In the night we heard a scuffle above us in the roof timbers, but not once, and I must repeat, NOT ONCE did a flying, echolocating, thermoreceptor, blood guzzler invader dare to prowl our peaceful home or feast on any one of us. All of us, Raul and I, Clara Bella and Amor, Daisy, Barabás, the gaggle of hens, and even grumpy Gladys were each left to enjoy a return to peace, free from the terror of blood sucking nocturnal vampiros …and from my hair-raising screaming.