IN the sudden June heat that always surprised him after a long Maine winter, Max trudged up the hill along old Mary Wicker's property toward home. An unexpected breeze lifted the leaves of a nearby euonymus bush that grew on the great gray trunk of a beech tree. The cool green-blue leaves sailed on the dusty air just long enough for something underneath to catch Max's eye. Surrounded by the afternoon's stillness, it seemed to him that the branch had moved on purpose, to show him something. Puzzled, he ed ged toward the bush and carefully raised the branch.
There it was - an old metal mailbox. Rust had worked delicate holes in the top. It had been attached to the tree for so long that layers of smooth gray bark had grown around it. Its bent door probably hadn't been opened for ages. Digging his fingernails around the edges, Max pried until the door gave enough for him to fit his hand in to force it open.
Two moths fluttered out, leaving behind a pile of rotting leaves and dirt. Maybe nests for something, thought Max. On top of the litter sat a piece of dingy white cardboard. Gently pulling it out, he recognized its familiar feel immediately - an old baseball card. But he couldn't make out the picture or the famous name printed below it. After a moment's hesitation, he slipped the musty card into his T-shirt pocket.
Max did not think again of the mailbox or the baseball card until he passed by the beech tree the next day. He reached behind the euonymous bush and opened the mailbox for the same reason he opened the refrigerator nearly every time he passed by it, looking for nothing in particular.
As he peered in, he was surprised to see a worn baseball. The stitching was ragged, and as he weighed the ball in his palm and stretched his fingers around it, it had the same feel as one of his own baseballs that he'd used for a couple of years. He was about to shut the box when he suddenly realized that the ball had not been there with the baseball card the day before. He looked around. Someone had put these things here. They were gifts.
He felt guilty now, just closing up the mailbox again as he had the previous day. Searching his pockets, he found his new Star Trek click pencil; in his backpack were half of a chocolate cupcake and a beat-up tennis ball he used for street hockey. After some deliberation, he decided to leave the pencil.
The next day, during odd moments, he wondered about the mailbox. After school he raced up the hill, lifted the euonymus branch, tugged open the mailbox, and peered inside. The pencil was gone. In its place was a yellowed, heavy-paper envelope with a fancy deckled edge. Inside rested a curled lock of fine, strawberry- blond hair. Beside it was a note:
I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you - Nobody - Too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Tracing his forefinger along the length of sunlit hair, Max calmly - even happily - accepted that he'd been trading with a girl.
He recognized the "nobody" poem from last year's language-arts class. Stephy O'Riley was in that class, he thought. No, her hair is too dark. Then he dropped his backpack and rummaged around until he found the poem Mrs. Allen assigned to memorize that week. He hadn't read it yet, but somehow a poem seemed appropriate and this was all he had. So, folding it neatly in half, he placed it on the nest of leaves, shut the door, and headed home with thoughts of possible girls.
"Ciao, Max!" It was his neighbor Mr. Rosiello waving from Max's porch. Startled, Max looked up and found himself already in his yard. "Just wanted to remind you - full moon tonight - should be the night for turtles," Mr. Rosiello called.
Max had nearly forgotten. This was one midnight outing he was looking forward to. He'd begged Mr. Rosiello to show him where the turtles nested down by the river. Mr. Rosiello was waiting for the "turtle moon."
That night Max went to bed early to get a few winks before Mr. Rosiello whistled for him from the back yard.
* * * *
F-F-F-F-TTT W-h-u-h, whuh wh, wh, wh. Max jerked out of a dead sleep.
Something was flitting and scudding above his head. A bird? It darted by again, sounding like a toy helicopter. Too small to be a bird. Then an awful thought occurred to him: bats.
He had heard stories about bats getting into houses. As he yanked the covers over his head, frightful pictures from Mr. Whittle's science unit on exotic mammals played in his mind. He recalled the flying fox - a bat with a six-foot wingspan. They live somewhere near the Indian Sea and southeast Asia, Max thought as he frantically searched his faded memory for more details, but do they ever migrate to America? He couldn't remember. No, he tried to compose himself, this is a little bat. Couldn't be a flyin g fox.
But then, an even more chilling thought, it could be a vampire bat. As accurately as Max could remember, the vampire bats were small, like the one over his head. "These bats," he clearly remembered Mr. Whittle saying, "are only interested in blood - they sip the blood from cuts on cattle and horses - mostly out west."
Just then he heard Mr. Rosiello's whistle from the back yard. Desperate as he was for Mr. Rosiello's help, he couldn't consider making the dash to the window to tell him. Instead he lay frozen in his bed. Finally, after a few more whistles, he heard Mr. Rosiello creak open the back door and pad up the steps.
"Max!" Mr. Rosiello whispered, not accustomed to the dark. "Venga, Max! We'll miss the turtle nesting. Max? Are you there?" From under the covers came Max's muffled voice: "Look out, Mr. Rosiello! There's a vampire bat in here. Maybe more than one. Maybe a whole flock!"
"Come dice?" Mr. Rosiello always lapsed into his native Italian when he was confused. "What are you saying, Max? Vampire bats don't live in Maine. Only little brown bats. They can't hurt you."
F-f-f-f-f-ttt! The bat buzzed by Mr. Rosiello. "Si, that's what we have here. Buono. We skip the turtles, heh? Tonight we do bats."
"No way, Mr. Rosiello. I just wanna get out of here!" cried Max in genuine terror.
"Na, na. Wait a minute. All we need is Betty's bat nets. You stay here, I'll be right back."
Max bolted out of bed right behind Mr. Rosiello, nearly knocking him over at the doorway.
Fifteen minutes later, the two were back - each draped with nets the size of ladies' shawls. Max had every intention of simply assisting Mr. Rosiello from the hallway. Over and over, he watched the old man throw his net into empty air as the bat deftly escaped.
"What an acrobat!" laughed Max. "All those dips and turns, and sudden stops and reverses. Wish I could do that in soccer."
"You stand by the wall," whispered Mr. Rosiello, who was trying to balance himself on the bed. "We'll never catch him flying. Bat wings are like long fingers with silky-thin webs between. They just flick their fingers and change directions. And they have their own kind of radar that tells them where a single strand of hair is. Hah! We must seem like slow-moving mountains!" When the bat flew by Max, it took a dip and did a flip turn to hang on the wall upside down - which is right side up for bats.
"Now!" cried Mr. Rosiello.
Impulsively Max heaved his net against the wall. It plopped heavily to the floor. Mr. Rosiello and Max just stood there staring. Neither had really expected to catch the flying wizard.
"Now what?" asked Max, his eyes huge.
Mr. Rosiello scurried across the room. Carefully gathering up the corners of the net, he handed the prize to Max.
"No, no. You take it." Max waved his hands in the air.
"Max. There is nothing to fear. Just hold it out in front of you." He shoved the ball of net into Max's hands and strode out.
Max did not blink or talk all the way down the stairs. When he finally reached the last step, he whispered frantically, "Mr. Rosiello, where are we going?"
"To the bat nursery. In Betty's barn."
"What? That's a 10-minute walk! Let's just free him here."
"No. I think `he' is probably a mother bat who belongs with one of the babies in the nursery. We've scared her. The least we can do is return her to where she belongs."
Two shadows moved under the still turtle moon: a man of long, easy strides with his bat net flapping around his shoulders and a boy of awkward, quick steps with his twitching net held way out in front.
When they reached Betty's three-story barn, Mr. Rosiello pointed up into the crevices between the upstairs floor boards. "See all the baby bats snuggled together? They're pink in the daylight. Right now the mamas are out hunting for mosquitoes and mayflies. They send out little clicks that echo back at them - they're too high-pitched for us to hear, kind of like dog whistles. When they swoop down on an insect the clicking goes so fast it's like a buzz. They can eat 600 mosquitoes in an hour."
"That's better than the bug-zapper," Max chirped.
"Hear their tiny squeaks?" Mr. Rosiello asked. "Each baby has a special voice the mother recognizes."
"Can I let her go now?" Max asked.
"Eh? Just a minute. This is a rare opportunity. You don't often get to see bats up close and still. See, she has little mouse ears. Try to think of her as a cute little mouse. She's not nearly as ugly as the horseshoe bat in Asia or the crested bat in Africa. They have faces that make dinosaurs look like beauty queens."
The bat was still for a few moments as Max peered down at her in a shaft of moonlight. Mr. Rosiello kept right on talking. "You should never pick up a bat," he warned. "But sometimes experts pick them up when they're hibernating. The first time I liked bats was when I visited a cave. Hundreds of 'em were hanging like moss from the stone ceilings. The guide plucked a little sleeping bat and put it in my hands. He didn't wake up. His fur was soft and fluffy, some of the nicest fur I've seen."
Then, Max stood safely behind the net and opened it.
The mother bat zigzagged up to the nursery.
On the way home, the moon floated low in the sky. "Sure was some turtle moon, huh, Mr. Rosiello?"
"Hah! Sure was," the old man echoed.
As the two shadows climbed the hill, Max noticed some movement up ahead near the beech tree. He and Mr. Rosiello stopped dead in their tracks.
"What's that?" asked Max. Focusing his eyes, he could see a small, bent person shuffle toward the tree and lift the euonymous branches.
"Hey," cried Max. But Mr. Rosiello hushed the boy's mouth with his hand and steered him behind some shrubs.
"Shh-hh, Max! That's old Mary Wicker. Don't disturb her."
"But, what's she doing?"
The two watched silently as the old woman opened the mailbox and pulled out a piece of paper that glowed white in the moonlight. She took something from her baggy coat pocket and placed it in the box. As she gathered the leaves back into place, she glanced around, then hobbled back through the trees. Max continued to stare vacantly at the beech.
"Max, are you OK? You shouldn't be afraid of old Mary Wicker."
"It's just that I expected someone else," he said sadly. Then after a moment, he added, "I've never seen Mary Wicker. Some kids said she's scary - her mouth is all twisted, and she talks weird."
"That's why she's a creature of the night," said Mr. Rosiello. "Even when she was a young girl, people were repulsed by her looks. But I remember one beautiful thing about her - she had long, curling, strawberry-blond hair."
After a minute, Mr. Rosiello stood up and stretched. "Shall we go home now?"
Later, as Max settled into bed, he thought about lonely Mary Wicker. Even in his disappointment, though, he was wondering what the old woman had left for him behind the leafy-green euonymous bush.
His thoughts drifted toward the mother bat. Mr. Rosiello had said that in China bats were thought of as a symbol of wisdom and good things to come. As Max fell into the arms of sleep, he wondered if that could be true in Hallowell, Maine, too. `Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, usually on Tuesdays.