The Feejee Mermaid Falls to Earth

by Heather Diamond

Look at this strange creature, she says. My elderly mother is leaning over one of the potted rosebushes she keeps on her deck to protect them from the deer. I think it’s some kind of frog. She points at a pinkish brown mound in the mulch. When I nudge it with a fallen rose leaf, it waves a sticklike appendage and tumbles sideways over a shard of bark. Peering closer, I spot a small head with tiny tabs like the felt ears on my cats’ toy mice. Scrabbling on its elbows, it tries to right itself, and where its leg meets its body, a small flap unfolds. It’s not a frog, I say. It’s a baby bat! Its lungs and heart throb beneath translucent skin. More membranous bubble than animal, it reminds me of  plastic biology models designed to show the inner workings of the body. I’ve heard bats can carry rabies, but I’m the daughter of a veterinarian. I umbrella the leaf over the ugly baby to block the sun.

I text a friend who refers me to a bat specialist on the island. My mother loses interest and wanders off as I fuss over how long the bat has been in the sun and whether it’s dehydrated or injured. With a paper towel, I lift the bat into a box like we always do with birds stunned on the many picture windows. Searching for bat rescue information online, I learn that the babies are called pups and that they cling to their mothers. Sometimes they lose their grip and fall.

I drive to two stores on the island to find goat milk and ransack the house looking for an eye dropper. When I don’t find one, I try dipping a cotton swab in warmed milk, but the pup turns away. Then I read one should never try to feed wildlife.






In 1842, P.T. Barnum displayed the Feejee Mermaid—a mythical marvel, proof, he touted, that storied wonders exist among us. In a monkey head and torso cunningly taxidermied to the tail of a fish, spectators saw what they wanted to see—a fabulous freak of nature. Gullibility or capacity for wonder? Chimeras, mermaids, centaurs, werewolves, vampires, a pantheon of anthropomorphic deities—the human imagination rife with half-human monsters shaped to our fears of the dark.

A bat is a hybrid invented by nature. Fully grown, it looks like a fox with the leathern wings of Russian angels. Part mammal, part flying machine, a liminal creature that emerges at dusk, that cave ledge of sleep where miracles and monsters are born.






When I post a photo of the bat pup on Facebook, I am deluged with vampire and Batman jokes, rodent disgust, and rabies warnings. The reactions make me more protective of the pup. Even an ugly baby deserves love. I think of all the times I’ve used the word batty as a pejorative. Bats in the belfry, we used to say when we were kids, circling a finger over a temple. I wonder how Batman can be so popular if people are repulsed by bats.

Once a bat flew into my grandparents’ house in Seattle. My grandmother trapped it under a throw rug and beat it to death with a broom.






Humans who die from viruses are often killed by their own overactive immune systems. Bats are virus carriers with an ingenious immune system that doesn’t engage. Bats are the scapegoats of the Covid-19 pandemic. As if they destroyed their own habitat, invited themselves into the human world, volunteered for research, or invented bat soup.

In the natural world bats are essential workers. They’re nighttime pollinators. They eat their weight in mosquitoes while we sleep.






I deliver the bat to Sarah, the bat expert a few miles north in Coupeville, along with a donation to the bat education and rescue foundation for which she volunteers. I drive away in relief, but within an hour Sarah calls and asks for directions. She and her husband will arrive before sunset to comb our neighborhood for the hollow trees or unguarded attics favored by the little brown bats—myotis lucifugus—common to the Pacific Northwest. She hopes the pup’s mother might come back for it and asks if they can sit on my mother’s porch at dusk and watch for the bats to appear. I wonder if I have made a mistake leading them to my mother’s isolated house on Whidbey Island. The term batshit crazy crosses my mind, yet I trust animal people more than most.

When I meet the couple in my mother’s driveway, they show me a cellphone app that can pick up bat sonar. Later, I can see the tops of their heads from my upstairs bedroom. They’ve placed the pup in the middle of my mother’s glass outdoor table, on a hand warmer because the night is chilly. They have their headphones tuned to a world of night sounds beyond human hearing.

I remember that my ex adopted a bat with faulty sonar. When a janitor at Harvard discovered it in the dorm closet, the bat was exiled to a sonar research lab. I imagine sound waves ricocheting between the Douglas firs. I will them to be true, for the pup to contact his tribe.






It’s difficult to see bats in flight, and for years I didn’t see them at all.  You have to recalibrate your eyes and focus on the middle ground instead of the horizon, use the kind of seeing it takes to spot falling stars or comets. Watch for movement in your peripheral vision. Find a spot between the trees and stare into the middle distance, wait for the telltale dart and swerve of something moving so fast it looks more like smoke than bodies. More shadow than thing.






The next day Sarah reports that the pup cried out and a female swooped low and circled a few times, but the pup remained unclaimed. Perhaps, Sarah speculates, there is something wrong with him. She and her husband return for a second vigil with the same sad ending. I can neither hear the orphan’s cries nor bear to think of them.

Sarah names the pup Dobby, after the bat-eared elf in the Harry Potter films, and forwards photos of its progress. Within a few days, she transfers Dobby to a young veterinary assistant off-island who has bat formula, a bat incubator, and another, slightly older pup in her care. A photo shows the two pups clinging to a felt ball and each other. Seeing the bats on the fuzzy ball gives me a fuzzy sense of satisfaction. In the nest, I read, bat pups huddle together, and a nurse bat attends to their needs while the parents hunt. In another photo, the assistant cuddles Dobby and his friend with felt batwing mitts in psychedelic colors that remind me of a Grateful Dead tee-shirt. Sarah’s signature is followed by a row of stylized bats:  ⌃o⌃  ⌃o⌃   ⌃o⌃   ⌃o⌃






In China bats are considered auspicious. The Chinese words for bat and wealth are homonyms, and images of bats represent prosperity and longevity. Lucky bats, some with vaguely human or pig-like faces, are carved into lintels and bedsteads. By the same reasoning, bats are trapped and caged in backstreet wildlife markets, where they are sold to be made into bat soup.

In sympathetic magic beliefs, a representation of a thing can convey the qualities of the thing. Contagious magic, on the other hand, relies on the thing or a piece of the thing for its power. To ingest a bat is to embody good fortune. Of course this kind of thinking goes all goes wonky if we remember the bat=fortune belief depends on a homonym and not the bat. The consumption of wild animals in whole or in part—rhinos and elephants, bears and bats, wild cats and pangolins—is a delusion of hybridity. Mermaid magic. A monkey skull stitched to a fish.






What happened to that critter you were trying to save? a Facebook friend asks. The kind, she adds, that she puts in the rodent category and does her best to kill. I tell her Dobby didn’t make it, knowing she will think Good.

I don’t bother to explain how sad I am that Dobby failed to thrive, or how I draw consolation from knowing there are people in the world willing to lean into the night and listen, to tend to and return the wild things that drop through. Who understand that the dark teems with creatures far more astonishing than ourselves or the monsters of our making.

Heather Diamond has worked as a bookseller, university lecturer, and museum curator. She is the author of Rabbit in the Moon: a Memoir and her essays have appeared in Memoir Magazine, Sky Island Journal, Rappahannock Review, Waterwheel Review, Hong Kong Review, and New South Journal. She lives in Hong Kong.