The Secrets of Bats
Alice Leung has discovered the secrets of bats: how they see without seeing, how they own darkness, as we own light. She walks the halls with a black headband across her eyes, keening a high C--cheat cheat cheat cheat cheat cheat
--never once veering off course, as if drawn by an invisible thread. Echolocation, she tells me; it's not as difficult as you might think. Now she sees a light around objects when she looks at them, like halos on her retinas from staring at the sun. In her journal she writes, I had a dream that was all in blackness. Tell me how to describe.
It is January: my fifth month in Hong Kong.
In the margin I write, I wish I knew
After six, when the custodians leave, the school becomes a perfect acoustic chamber; she wanders from the basement laboratories to the basketball courts like a trapped bird looking for a window. She finds my door completely blind, she says, not counting flights or paces. Twisting her head from side to side like Stevie Wonder, she announces her progress: another room mapped, a door, a desk, a globe, detected and identified by its aura.
You'll hurt yourself, I tell her. I've had nightmares: her foot missing the edge of a step, the dry crack of a leg breaking. Try it without the blindfold, I say. That way you can check yourself.
Her mouth wrinkles. This not important, she says. This only practice.Practice for what
, I want to ask. All the more reason you have to be careful.
You keep saying, she says, grabbing a piece of chalk. E-x-p-e-r-i-m-e-n-t, she writes on the blackboard, digging it in until it squeals.
That's right. Sometimes experiments fail.
Sometimes, she repeats. She eyes me suspiciously, as if I invented the word.
Go home, I tell her. She turns her pager off and leaves it in her locker; sometimes police appear at the school gate, shouting her name. Somebody, it seems, wants her back.
In the doorway she whirls, flipping her hair out of her eyes. Ten days more, she says. You listen. Maybe then you see why.
The name of the school is Po Sing Uk: a five-story concrete block, cracked and eroded by dirty rain, shoulder-to-shoulder with the tenements and garment factories of Cheung Sha Wan. No air-conditioning and no heat; in September I shouted to be heard over a giant fan, and now, in January, I teach in a winter jacket. When it rains, mildew spiderwebs across the ceiling of my classroom. Schoolgirls in white jumpers crowd into the room forty at a time, falling asleep over their textbooks, making furtive calls on mobile phones, scribbling notes to each other on pink Hello Kitty paper. If I call on one who hasn't raised her hand, she folds her arms across her chest and stares at the floor, and the room falls silent, as if by a secret signal. There is nothing more terrifying, I've found, than the echo of your own voice: who are you? It answers: what are you doing here?
I've come to see my life as a radiating circle of improbabilities that grow from each other, like ripples in water around a dropped stone. That I became a high school English teacher, that I work in another country, that I live in Hong Kong. That a city can be a mirage, hovering above the ground: skyscrapers built on mountainsides, islands swallowed in fog for days. That a language can have no tenses or articles, with seven different ways of saying the same syllable. That my best student stares at the blackboard only when I erase it.
She stayed behind on the first day of class: a tall girl with a narrow face, pinched around the mouth, her cheeks pitted with acne scars. Like most of my sixteen-year-olds she looked twelve, in a baggy uniform that hung to her knees like a sack. The others streamed past her without looking up, as if she were a boulder in the current; she stared down at my desk with a fierce vacancy, as if looking itself was an act of will.
How do you think about bats?
She joined her hands at the wrist and fluttered them at me.
People are afraid of them, I said. I think they're very interesting.
Why? she said. Why very interesting?
Because they live in the dark, I said. We think of them as being blind, but they aren't blind. They have a way of seeing, with sound waves--just like we see with light.
Yes, she said. I know this. Her body swayed slightly, in an imaginary breeze.
Are you interested in bats?
I am interest, she said. I want to know how-- She made a face I'd already come to recognize: I know how to say it in Chinese
--when one bat sees the other. The feeling.
You mean how one bat recognizes another?
That's a good idea, I said. You can keep a journal about what you find. Write something in it every day.
She nodded vehemently, as if she'd already thought of that.
There are books on bat behavior that will tell you--
Not in books. She covered her eyes with one hand and walked forward until her hip brushed the side of my desk, then turned away, at a right angle. Like this, she said. There is a sound. I want to find the sound.18 September
First hit tuning fork. Sing one octave higher: A B C. This is best way.
Drink water or lips get dry.
I must have eyes totally closed. No light!!! So some kind of black--like cloth--is good.
Start singing. First to the closest wall--sing and listen. Practice ten times, 20 times. IMPORTANT: can not move until I HEAR the wall. Take step back, one time, two time. Listen again. I have to hear DIFFERENCE first, then move.
Then take turn, ninety degrees left.
Then turn, one hundred eighty degrees left. Feel position with feet. Feet very important--they are wings!!!
I don't know what this is, I told her the next day, opening the journal and pushing it across the desk. Can you help me?
I tell you already, she said. She hunched her shoulders so that her head seemed to rest on them, spreading her elbows to either side. It is like a test.
In the courtyard rain crackled against the asphalt; a warm wind lifted scraps of paper from the desk, somersaulting them through the air.
The sound, she said impatiently. I told you this.
I covered my mouth to hide a smile.
Alice, I said, humans can't do that. It isn't a learned behavior. It's something you study.
She pushed up the cover of the composition book and let it fall.
I think I can help you, I said. Can you tell me why you want to write this?
Why I want? She stared at me wide-eyed.
Why do you want to do this? What is the test for?
Her eyes lifted from my face to the blackboard behind me, moved to the right, then the left, as if measuring the dimensions of the room.
Why you want come to Hong Kong?
Many reasons, I said. After college I wanted to go to another country, and there was a special fellowship available here. And maybe someday I will be a teacher.
You are teacher.
I'm just learning, I said. I am trying to be one.
Then why you have to leave America?
I didn't, I said. The two things-- I took off my glasses and rubbed my eyes. All at once I was exhausted; the effort seemed useless, a pointless evasion. When I looked up she was nodding slowly, as if I'd just said something profound.
I think I will find the reason for being here only after some time, I said. Do you know what I mean? There could be a purpose I don't know about.
So you don't know for good. Not sure.
You could say that.Hai yat yeung
, she said. This same. Maybe if you read you can tell me why.
This is what's so strange about her, I thought, studying her red-rimmed eyes, the tiny veins standing out like wires on a circuitboard. She doesn't look down. I am fascinated by her
, I thought. Is that fair?
You're different from the others, I said. You're not afraid of me. Why is that?
Maybe I have other things be afraid of.
At first the fifth-floor bathroom was her echo chamber; she sat in one corner, on a stool taken from the physics room, and placed an object directly opposite her: a basketball, a glass, a feather. Sound waves triangulate, she told me, corners are best. Passing by, at the end of the day, I stopped, closing my eyes, and listened for the difference. She sang without stopping for five minutes, hardly taking a breath: almost a mechanical sound, as if someone had forgotten their mobile phone. Other teachers walked by in groups, talking loudly. If they noticed me, or the sound, I was never aware of it, but always, instinctively, I looked at my watch and followed them down the stairs. As if I too had to rush home to cook for hungry children, or boil medicine for my mother-in-law. I never stayed long enough to see if anything changed.
Document everything, I told her, and she did; now I have two binders of entries, forty-one in all. Hallway. Chair. Notebook
. As if we were scientists writing a grant proposal, as if there were something actual to show at the end of it.
I don't keep a journal, or take photographs, and my letters home are factual and sparse. No one in Larchmont would believe me--not even my parents--if I told them the truth. It sounds like quite an experience you're having! Don't get run over by a rickshaw
. And yet if I died tomorrow--why should I ever think this way?--these binders would be the record of my days. These and Alice herself, who looks out her window and with her eyes closed sees ships passing in the harbor, men walking silently in the streets.26 January
Sound of lightbulb--low like bees hum. So hard to listen!
A week ago I dreamed of bodies breaking apart, arms and legs and torsos, fragments of bone, bits of tissue. I woke up flailing in the sheets, and remembered her immediately; there was too long a moment before I believed I was awake. It has to stop, I thought. You have to say something.
Though I know I can't.
Perhaps there was a time when I might have told her, this is ridiculous
, or, You're sixteen, find some friends. What will people think?
But this is Hong Kong, of course, and I have no friends, no basis to judge. I leave the door open, always, and no one ever comes to check; we walk out through the gates together, late in the afternoon, past the watchman sleeping in his chair. For me she has a kind of professional courtesy, ignoring my whiteness politely, as if I had horns growing from my head. And she returns, at the end of each day, as a bat flies back to its cave at daybreak. All I have is time; who am I to pack my briefcase and turn away?
There was only once when I slipped up.
Pretend I've forgotten, I told her, one Monday in early October. The journal was open in front of us, the pages covered in red; she squinted down at it, as if instead of corrections I'd written hieroglyphics. I'm an English teacher
, I thought, this is what I'm here for
. We should start again at the beginning, I said. Tell me what it is that you want to do here. You don't have to tell me about the project--just about the writing. Who are you writing these for? Who do you want to read them?
She stretched, catlike, curling her fingers like claws.
Because I don't think I understand, I said. I think you might want to find another teacher to help you. There could be something you have in mind in Chinese that doesn't come across.
Not in Chinese, she said, as if I should have known that already. In Chinese cannot say like this.
But it isn't really English either.
I know this. It is like both.
I can't teach that way, I said. You have to learn the rules before you can--
You are not teaching me.
Then what's the point?
She strode across the room to the window and leaned out, placing her hands on the sill and bending at the waist. Come here, she said; look. I stood up and walked over to her. She ducked her head down, like a gymnast on a bar, and tilted forward, her feet lifting off the floor.
I grabbed her shoulder and jerked her upright. She stumbled, falling back; I caught her wrist and she pulled it away, steadying herself. We stood there a moment staring at each other, breathing in short huffs that echoed in the hallway.
Maybe I hear something and forget, she said. You catch me then. OK?28 January
It is like photo negative, all the colors are the opposite.
Black sky, white trees, this way. But they are still
shapes--I can see them.
I read standing at the window, in a last sliver of sunlight. Alice stands on my desk, already well in shadow, turning around slowly as if trying to dizzy herself for a party game. Her winter uniform cardigan is three sizes too large; unbuttoned, it falls behind her like a cape.
This is beautiful.
Quiet, she hisses, eyebrows bunched together above her headband. One second. There--there.
What is it?
A man on the stairs.
I go out into the hallway and stand at the top of the stairwell, listening. Five floors below, very faintly, I hear sandals skidding on the concrete, keys jangling on the janitor's ring.
You heard him open the gate, I say. That's cheating.
She shakes her head. I hear heartbeat.
The next Monday Principal Ho comes to see me during the lunch hour. He stands at the opposite end of the classroom, as always: a tall, slightly chubby man, in a tailored shirt, gold-rimmed glasses, and Italian shoes, who blinks as he reads the ESL posters I've tacked up on the wall. When he asks how my classes are, and I tell him that the girls are unmotivated, disengaged, he nods quickly, as if to save me the embarrassment. How lucky he was, he tells me, to go to boarding school in Australia, and then pronounces it with a flattened A, Austrahlia
, so I have to laugh.
Principal Ho, I ask, do you know Alice Leung?
He turns his head toward me and blinks more rapidly. Leung Ka Yee, he says. Of course. You have problem with her?From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Train to Lo Wu by Jess Row. Copyright © 2005 by Jess Row. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.