“It seems like a big ask,” I said to Nic.  I was worried about our planned date. On Monday, Nic would be returning to Australia after a six-month stay here in Florida. Sunday night, she had planned a great last date for us. She was taking me out to dinner plus a special event: releasing a bat that has been in the wildlife sanctuary where Nic has been a volunteer for six months.

“What does?” she said.

“The bat. It’s been in that little box for, what, two months? And now it’s supposed to make its way in the world? It’s been hand fed grubs and now it has to find someplace to live with a colony it doesn’t know, and fend for itself.”

“That sounds just like me!” Nic said.  She is going home to Melbourne with no job and no place to live: she’ll be sleeping in the extra rooms of friends or family for a few weeks, trying to find her place…so in that sense, yes, I could see why she empathized with the bat and the big ask. On the other hand, she hasn’t been kept in a box here, and she’s stretched her wings plenty. Also, she’s a large and intelligent mammal who can speak the language fluently and already has friends waiting for her.

I was more worried about the bat, which hadn’t so much as stretched its wings out for weeks.  According to Gail, who runs the wildlife sanctuary, it did get out of its cage once and fly around the room in the sanctuary, but for all I knew its muscles might have atrophied since then. It’s a tiny bat, not much more than a baby,  its body about 3 inches long at most, plus a tail of about 2 inches, and its head the size of thimble – plus big ears.  It’s very dark brown, though not black. At the wildlife sanctuary it lived  in a plastic box inside an incubator. The box was big enough for the bat to crawl around and try to clamber up the sides, but not big enough for flight.

After an early dinner by the water, we went back to the sanctuary, and Nic brought the bat in its box to my car. Nic drove, and I asked her to roll the windows up and not talk loudly. “The bat has very sensitive hearing,” I reminded her. As we drove, the bat moved around its box as if eager to get out. Again and again it tried to climb up the plastic sides, but found nothing to hang onto, and slipped back down into the folds of a thick cotton cloth.

We were taking the bat to a bridge over a river nearby where bats were known to hang out, and we would arrive there at dusk. The plan was for the bat to hear its friends-to-be squeaking under the bridge and join them.

About 7.45, just after sunset but with plenty of light still in sky, we got to the park, which is in the middle of an upscale residential area. The waterway is popular with manatees and small boat owners.  The river goes out to the bay there, under a bridge, and the sides of the park slope down towards the water, which is deep and black. I carried the box to a grassy spot, trying not to attract any attention from the few people left around. There were lots of bird noises and a few black crows and white seagulls heading home to their safe places for the night. There were also a lot of cars going over the bridge, which seemed disproportionately loud. The bat, which had been crawling disconsolately around its cloth bedding, hid for a while in a fold of the cloth. It stayed still for quite a while, maybe listening.

Nic and I made out  many different birdcalls, and some other high noises that might have been bats, and might have been insects or other birds. At one point the bat grew as animated as a bat in a box can be – it came out from a fold in the cloth and stretched out one large flat wing. Then it groomed itself a bit, then crawled towards the far side of the box and up the side. It stretched the other wing.

Nic went to look for other bats, trying to spot the colony whence the bats would depart at dusk. She went to the far side of the bridge, by the bay, and then walked back to another bridge a few hundred yards inland.  I sat there watching the bat and watching the sky get darker. The green grass and trees turned to gray-green and then gray. Nic came back reporting no bats. But just as she did, I saw something swoop under the bridge: it was time.

We’d been warned not to let the bat fly out over the water, in case its first flight wasn’t successful. So we carried the box across the bridge to a set of big banyan trees a dozen yards from the water. After we got there, on a bit of land that was between the banyans (on someone’s lawn) and the river, we saw more bats swooping out from under the bridge.

Nic held the camera and I opened the lid of the box. The bat did nothing. After months of trying to escape by climbing up the sides of the box, once the lid was removed the bat seemed to want to go to sleep. The woman who ran the wildlife center had said if the bat didn’t fly off, we could bring it back, but she said usually she just released bats by leaving them in a tree. I wasn’t sure about this – she doesn’t seem to have any evidence that the bats so released ever fly again.

After a few minutes, we lifted the cloth and bat out together, and set them on the grass, at which point that bat took off like a bat out of hell. It stretched its wings a bit but  didn’t fly … it refolded its wings and crawled, at a rapid pace, directly towards the banyan trees. The grass was deep and dark, but we saw the tall grasses moving and so watched the bat’s progress, faster than I’d expected, towards the big trees. It seemed intent on getting there – perhaps there were other bats in the trees and it could hear them, or perhaps the bat was just hastening in the opposite direction from us and the box. It moved as fast as a cat walking, and it was heading directly towards the iron fence. We watched with some alarm, because If it got beyond the fence we would not be able to get it back. I’d told Gail that we’d bring it back if it didn’t seem able to fly. But neither of us wanted to return the bat to the box.

“Well, maybe we should pick it up,” I said.

“Maybe,” Nic said.

As we stood there mumbling and watching the movements in the long, swishing grass, the bat trundled through the railings and onto the private land. Once there, the grass thinned out, and the bat  emerged from the underbrush and took a few trial hops, maybe a foot or so each, in the manner perhaps of the few flight of the Wright brothers’ Flyer at Kitty Hawk, but also in the manner of a creature that can no longer fly properly.  Then it continued crawling. We couldn’t see it anymore but we heard it. We stood listening for a long time, and the noises grew less distinct. There were about five huge trees with long roots hanging down and many dead leaves rustling, but in between the other rustles, every now and then we seemed to hear sounds like a bat crawling.

After a while I moved to another vantage point, and there I saw a creature with a tail  up in the branches of the tree. I saw something stretch a wing out on the ledge by the water. Nic heard bat-crawling noises at the base of the tree.

Well, I was disappointed. It would have been much more satisfying if the bat had swooped up and take a victory lap around our heads, then flown off into the sunset. Maybe in parting it could have given a slight tilt of the wings to acknowledge its appreciation for all Nic and the wildlife sanctuary and I had done  to save and rehabilitate it and give it its freedom. Instead, we stood in the increasing darkness staring through some iron railings and wondering if the rustles we heard were a good sign.

We went back to the car, and drove home. Nic is leaving tomorrow, and I don’t know how she’ll be.