I had known about the woman they called The Bat Lady long before I met her that Spring morning at her place by the river. She was one of those characters who seem drawn to the dusty little Texas settlements along the Rio Grande; habitat of failed prospectors, wanderers, mystics, fugitives and lotus-eaters of various appetites. Her name was Dr. Lena Cloud. She had been a research professor of biology, at Yale, before she escaped to South Texas to live among the subjects of her research. She lived in an adobe house not far from the Lajitas cemetery, a house she shared with a colony of Mexican Free-tail Bats.
Dr. Cloud and I had corresponded for months, often spoke on the phone. Her work with bats was germane to my effort at MIT to develop Isaak I, a robot with the ability to see in the dark and react to its physical environment in the way bats do.
As an incurable romantic, I had pictured Dr. Cloud as a beautiful young recluse who had abandoned fame and fortune to live a life of simplicity and penury in the vast desert solitudes of South Texas. On the telephone, her voice was soft and silky, evoking a tall, willowy Latina, an engaging eccentric, who bathed naked in the river and on occasion might be found in the watering holes of Terlingua, mysterious and untouchable, driving the local desperados mad with unrequited lust. I suppose it was this mythic image of Dr. Cloud, perhaps more than her scientific knowledge of bats, or that I had some work to do in Austin, that led me to make the long pilgrimage to the Big Bend Country and the little town of Lajitas.
I parked my van in the shallow shade of a stunted mesquite, made my way to her door. It was open. The room within was dark, perhaps in deference to the dozen or so sleeping bats hanging upside-down from the beamed rafters. The walls were adobe, mud-colored, unadorned. There were a few pieces of furniture, a table, two chairs, roughly made, probably by local artisans. Shelves rose from floor to ceiling along one wall. They were overflowing with files and miscellaneous supplies. Along a far wall was a large table laboring under the weight of what she later revealed as her nursery, padded cigar boxes each holding a newborn orphan bat pup being fed and nurtured until mature enough to be returned to the wild. But by far, the most interesting thing in the room was Dr. Lena Cloud. She was hanging upside-down, like an enormous bat, from the rafters.
“Dr. Adamson!” she called in that voice that had fueled my fantasies. “Welcome to my home.” In a quick athletic move, she flipped over and down, landed on her feet before me. Just as quickly my fantasy of the bat lady as a ravishing enchantress took wing. She was perhaps five-foot tall, with long wild grey hair. The most charitable way to describe her was handsome. Her face held the fierce stillness found in old photographs of Indian Chiefs, high, sharp cheek bones, deep set eyes. Geronimo came to mind. She was barefoot and wore hammer overalls and a strangely distant smile. She was a woman of an uncertain age, somewhere between thirty and eighty, I thought.
“Inversion therapy,” she said, stretching as distant runners do. “Something I learned from the bats. Hanging upside down is good for the respiratory system, the circulatory system, the immune system and…” She began counting off the advantages of inversion therapy on her fingers. “It slows the aging process, improves blood circulation and prevents constipation.” She paused. “But enough about health care. Tell me about Isaak I. Have you made any progress?” She led me to a chair, sat beside me.
I told her I had just come from a lab in Austin where we were working on a prototype. “But it’s more than frustrating,” I said. “With all our computing power and cutting-edge sensory systems, artificial intelligence and sophisticated cameras, we still have failed to give robots sight, at least not in the sense that we humans see our world.”
“Maybe that’s because it is not meant to be. Perhaps yours is a Sisyphean task. And there is no meaningful goal at the top of the hill.” I had long been entranced by her words on paper, now, more so, by her words spoken in person. Her skepticism was not surprising. It had been at the heart of our correspondence.
As we talked, she occasionally, with apologies, rose to clean up the small brown rice-like waste dropped by the dangling bats. “Come nightfall,” she said, spraying the room with Febreze, “the bats will leave to go hunting and we will have the house to ourselves.”
I brought the subject back to Isaak I. “A sighted robot would be a world-changer, Dr. Cloud. It would be like the invention of the wheel, electricity, the computer.”
“Perhaps it would change the world. But would it change the world for the better?” I could hear the scratching and chirping of bats in the walls. “With their sighted robotic slaves, the rich would simply get richer and more powerful. People would be put out of work and there would be massive unemployment. The political-military-industrial complex, having access to robot soldiers, would not hesitate to promote foolish wars at the drop of a hat. It would be a mess. A technological breakthrough but devoid of humanity. No. I believe we should use our knowledge and skills not to make robots see, but to give humans sight. There are some 170 million blind people in the world. Human beings whose lives are locked in darkness. What if we could give the blind the gift of sight?”
“But is that even possible?”
“Do you know the Marvel comic strip character Daredevil?”
“According to the story, a boy named Matt Murdock was hit by a truck carrying radioactive waste and was blinded. He came under the sway of a strange martial arts guru who created a special mask that allowed Matt to see by analyzing sound waves. With this ability, Matt went on to become an attorney and superhero fighting for justice in New York’s notorious Hell’s Kitchen.”
“But that’s fiction.” I smiled at the thought of a world-class biologist basing her theories on a Marvel comic strip.
“Well, consider the reality of how bats navigate their environment. They emit sound waves that bounce off nearby objects and return. They listen to those echoes, decode the sounds and determine how far away the object is by considering the time it takes for the sound to return. The longer it takes for the sound to return, the farther away the object. From the echo, bats can also determine the size of the object, whether it is to the left or right and if it is moving and in what direction.”
“Why don’t we create Matt Murdock’s special mask? A devise that mimics the echolocation of bats. With your robotic skills, and my knowledge of bat biology, surely it could be done.”
For the next few hours we discussed the possibility of creating a wearable sound-based module to provide vision not for machines, but for people.
At noon, our discussion was interrupted when Dr. Cloud had to milk her goat. “It’s time to feed the orphan pups,” she said. “Something I do every two hours. We walked outside to the goat enclosure where she captured the goat, Amelia, and set up her stool and bucket. She moved slowly, carefully. “They reject regular milk. I’ve tried every kind of formula, but this seems to work best.” She bent to her task. Her fingers on the goat’s flesh were nimble and sure, as if she were playing some exotic musical instrument. Beyond the goat enclosure of ocotillo stalks, beyond the sun-swept desert, willows rose along the river.
The little orphan bats, with their unexpectedly cute fox faces, eagerly nursed from Q-tips. Then, with a small syringe, she fed them another fluid. “It’s an electrolyte substitute to keep them hydrated. When they’re older, I’ll feed them crushed mosquitos or beetles or moths. Then, later, whole insects.”
While she was feeding the bat pups, I had to go to the bathroom. She gestured to a nearby door. It was an unsettling experience. The bathroom was alive with sleeping bats. They hung from overhead beams and from the shower curtain rod. Some hung in clusters, like old battered baseball gloves, draped in their wings. As I sat, they watched me with their little brown eyes, and I wondered if it had been a mistake to come on this strange, even outrageous errand.
When I returned from the bathroom, Dr. Cloud took my hand and led me outside to a courtyard shaded by a palapa woven from the ubiquitous ocotillo plant. She brought out two cold Lone Star Longnecks and we sipped our beer and watched a pair of hawks hunting along the river. I asked her how long she planned to stay in the desert.
“I’m not sure I will ever leave,” she said. I love it here. The simplicity of life. I feel free as those hawks up there above the canyon. Academia no longer appeals to me. The conformity. The unbending routine. The sucking up. I began to feel I was in prison. Here I am free to do my work, to live my life, without interference.”
Dr. Cloud’s words struck a chord. Although I loved the challenge of my work, I had been doing it for more than thirty years and I had begun to feel a sameness in the flow of the days. I was becoming like the robots I invented, hollow, detached, and I wondered if there might be something more important than creating tin men who, unlike the one in Oz, would never have a heart, maybe not even sight, certainly not a soul. Perhaps, it was my frustration with Isaak I or listening to Dr. Cloud talk about the freedom she had found among her bats that brought back how dissatisfied I had become with my life. Maybe I was feeling the lure of the canyons that had drawn so many unhappy people to the desert.
“Tell me about Isaak I,” she asked.
“I have a prototype in the van. You can see for yourself.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Why not?”
“You haven’t noticed?”
“I’m blind as a bat,” she said.
I was shocked. “You must be kidding.”
“My eyesight began to fail about ten years ago. That’s one of the reasons I left Yale. Actually, blind as a bat is a misconception. In daytime, they see fine. Much more than what I see.”
“What do you see?”
“Absolute black. Dimensionless night. God’s deepest dreamless sleep.”
“You don’t see the hawks above the canyon?
“I have seen them. When I first came here. Before I lost my sight. Maybe I don’t see the hawks as you do, but I have a powerful visual memory. And I hear the pair calling to each other. I sense the joy they must feel riding the thermals, their freedom. I feel the vast space and solitude of the canyon.”
“But how can you do your work?”
“For years, I have studied how bats navigate by echolocation. Now I experience it myself. It’s a huge advantage. With echolocation and my other senses, I rarely feel handicapped at all.”
Dr. Cloud rose. “I’ll bring us another beer.”
I watched her walk to her house and return with the beer. Now I could see what I had missed before. A certain slow-moving guardedness, her motions deliberate, not unlike a drunk pretending sobriety. I recalled her distant expression, a smile that seemed to be smiling at someone standing behind me. But I also saw her now as the woman beneath her storm of grey hair and hammer-pocket overalls. She was not unattractive in a wild and mystifying way. Like Geronimo’s portrait, she radiated a kind of animal stillness. I wondered if it was pity, affection, or envy I felt for her as she handed me my Lone Star Longneck. Maybe a bit of each.
Now I want to hear about Isaak I. Does it look like a human? I’ve never understood why you people always create robots in your own image.”
“I guess it establishes a sense of familiarity. It’s easier to empathize with a machine that looks like us. Actually, from an engineering standpoint, it’s easier to build a robot with four legs, or one that moves like a grasshopper or a lizard. But Isaak I has two legs, stands and walks upright, can grasp and manipulate objects with two hands.”
“But it cannot see.”
“It cannot see.”
“Do you know the author Anthony T. Hincks?” she asked.
When I shook my head, she quoted: “A robot will never appreciate the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, will never shed a tear for those they love.”
“But that goes without saying. It was never my intention to create a robot that could be human.”
“I wonder, Dr. Adamson, if, deep down, that isn’t precisely what you are trying to do.”
I felt a tug of irritation, then, had to admit that her accusation, if that’s what it was, probably was true. Maybe I was playing at being God. I wasn’t sure whether I felt awful about my long-buried motivation, my thirty years of self-deception, or an unforeseen relief that the truth was out.
“Now that that is out of the way, let’s talk about what is truly important. My idea of creating Matt Murdock’s mask.”
I had been intrigued by the concept when Dr. Cloud first mentioned the Marvel story. But now that I was having this epiphany about my work and motives, it was beginning to seem like a good, or as Dr. Cloud had said, a truly important idea. After some thought, I outlined how it might be done. “A wearable sound-based module. It wouldn’t have to be a mask, but it could be. An ultra-sonic sensor that would measure the distance to nearby objects and then relay the measurements to an Arduino board. The Arduino board might then process the measurements and play a tone, maybe every five milliseconds. From the echo, the module would provide basic spatial awareness, give form to objects in the environment, just as the brains of bats do while flying in the night. It would be the traditional white cane on steroids.” Dr. Cloud grew more and more excited as we examined the possibilities.
“You have to do this!” Dr. Adamson. “You have to do this! Why? Because you can. And because it will be so important for so many people.”
“Not me. I have my own way of seeing. It would be for those human beings who have been blind since birth. For them, it would be a miracle. How much better this would be than giving sight to a machine that doesn’t give a shit.”
Her enthusiasm was infectious. I found my spirits spiraling as I pondered the algorithms, software, electronics and optics, and then how to miniaturize the entire system into a wearable form. I realized that I had never been happier than drinking beer with this strange little woman in Lajitas, Texas.
It turned out we drank several more beers that afternoon. The day was hot, the beer was cold, and we listened to Willy Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and Jerry Jeff Walker’s Viva Terlingua. As the sun began to go down behind the Chisos Mountains, Dr. Cloud asked if I wanted to stay the night.
“I could sleep in my van.”
“No, you can sleep with me.”
“Do you sleep like bats?”
“Well, yes. It’s good for you. I told you about the benefits. I can rig a place on the rafters next to me.” Then she laughed, as if it were a joke, but I wasn’t sure it was.
After a supper of tamales and a couple of tequila shots, she led me outside to watch the daily exodus of bats from the caves in the canyon walls. As we walked, holding hands in the gathering dusk, she told me how her Apache ancestors believed that bats caused the sun to set, bringing on the night. “They kept the sun in a jar and set it free at dawn.”
“Is it true the Apaches had hoards of gold stolen from prospectors?”
“You must have read J. Frank Dobie.”
“I did. But those stories are fiction, aren’t they?”
“Not at all. But the Apaches didn’t steal the gold. They simply took back what the prospectors had stolen from us.”
“Nuggets as large as hen eggs?”
“Dobie had a gift for exaggeration. But they did have gold. Still do. Down there in those caves in the canyon walls.”
“You know where?”
“Of course. I suppose I’m the last of my people to know. I used some of it to pay my way through college, then to get my doctorate at Yale. But most, as Geronimo promised before he died, is still there.”
“You and J. Frank Dobie, I don’t know which of you is the better storyteller.”
By the time we reached the canyon rim, the first bats were streaming from the caves, then more and more, millions, like a roiling, coiling cloud against the vermillion sunset. “Do you see them?” Dr. Cloud asked, squeezing my hand.
“Yes. I have no words. They’re wonderful.”
“I see them, too.” After a pause, she said, “In the beginning, The Great Spirit pitied the bats. All the other animals had special abilities. The bear had power. The fox was smart, the bobcat could climb trees, the badger could swim, humans could walk upright on two legs. Yet, bats didn’t fit into the natural order of things. Like me they were somehow apart. So, The Great Spirit gave them wings. A unique gift. They became the only mammal on Earth that could fly.” She leaned into me then and said, “I wish I could be with them, flying crazy aerobatics up there in the night.”
When I returned to my van, I worked feverishly, joyously, through the night scavenging parts from Isaak I to build Matt Murdock’s Mask. I opened up the robot’s pliant, life-like polymer skin and stripped away miles of electronic wire, optics, memory chips, capacitors and transistors, searching for the components I would need for this new project. I made an inventory of what I could get from the lab in Austin. As I worked, I was torn by both exultation and dread. On one hand, I knew I was doing something that was right and good. On the other hand, I knew by destroying Isaak 1 and abandoning the project, I would lose the funding and support of MIT. By dawn, I was exhausted. I moved to the house, hoping to score a cup of coffee from Dr. Cloud.
When I entered, it was obvious she was gone, as were her bats, all but the orphan pups in their cigar box cradles. There was also a note. It read:
“Dear Dr. Adamson. We couldn’t take the pups with us. So, could you please take care of them until they can care for themselves and when you leave, release Emelia. I am proud of you and trust that you will keep your promise about Matt Murdock’s Mask. I also left a little something to help with the financing.” She signed it, “Your friend and colleague, Dr. Lena Cloud.”
It was then I saw the burlap bag of nuggets. Dobie had overstated their size. But they would do.
If you enjoyed this story, maybe you’d like reading my latest novel, “The Lost Caravan.” It’s available on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble and on my website Marshall Riggan Storyteller.