It was a pleasant fall day as I tootled down Highway 136 on my way to Red Cloud, Nebraska, where I would meet with five other members of my writers’ group. We planned a retreat about every 1-2 years and this year we were staying at the historic Cather home. Willa Cather, author of My Antonia, O Pioneers, Death Comes to the Archbishop and One of Our Own, lived in Red Cloud as a child and her family remained there even after Willa became a well-known Pulitzer Prize winning author. The place we would be staying at was the second Cather home in Red Cloud.
I arrived in front of the two-story Victorian house on North Seward Street. The house looked like many others in the unassuming small town neighborhood. The semicircular wrap-around porch reminded me of my childhood home in Cozad, Nebraska. Built in 1903, the house was the second home owned by the parents of Willa Cather. Willa was not a permanent resident by then, but she came home to Red Cloud for Christmas and summer vacations. It is reported that she was often seen reading or writing on the upper front porch during her visits. The front porch was inviting and I imagined summer guests arriving, greeted by Mrs. Cather with pitchers of lemonade.
I pulled into the long driveway on the south side, most likely a new addition to the property as the Cather’s would have had little use for a large paved driveway when they dwelt there. Cheryl’s car was parked in the drive. I knew she was bringing Joyce and Karen with her, so three of the writers had already arrived. Two more were yet to come—Janet and Nancy who were leaving home later after work.
As I unloaded my car, Cheryl greeted me, offering to help with my luggage. We entered the house from a side door that led into the sitting room. A second side door right next to it provided quick access to the sun room. Once inside, I saw Joyce and Karen sitting at the dining room table, already at work.
Although the house held many antiques, modern furnishings provided convenience for overnight or weekend guests such as our group. The kitchen contained a dishwasher, microwave, modern stove and refrigerator, obviously not the original setup Mrs. Cather would have had. Shiny new oak cabinets lined the kitchen wall.
A large table big enough to accomodate eight people comfortably sat in the middle of the adjoining dining room. An antique buffet cabinet sat against the wall. There was plenty of room to navigate around the table and through the rooms. Beautiful winged-back overstuffed chairs graced the sitting room I had just retreated to. Books lined the built-in book case and the surrounding tables.
I gathered my writing supplies and returned to the dining room, placing the notebook and pens on the table while noticing the next room, a large open living room or parlor. To the south, a second doorway in the parlor exited into a narrow hallway connecting the sitting room with the front door. A guest book lay open on the small desk near the front door. People from all over the world had commented on the Cather home. “Beautiful home,” someone from Seattle, Washington, penned.
“We enjoyed our stay very much” wrote Julio and Isabela from Brazil.
“Lovely!” came from Princeton, New Jersey.
“No ghost sightings” signed Melanie, a seemingly disappointed guest from Liberty, Missouri.
Hundreds of comments from nearby states like Colorado, Kansas and Iowa as well as faraway places, Japan, Greenland and France, filled the book. I noticed only a few signatures from Nebraska guests. Was it because we take our own for granted?
While planning the retreat several weeks prior, we drew names for the five bedrooms available in the refurbished home. I drew the Frankfort room, Willa Cather’s own bedroom. I was excited to check it out. The bedrooms were all named by the Willa Cather Foundation for the towns in Willa Cather’s books. Frankfort was the name of the town in “One of Ours,” her Pulitzer Prize winner. The other writers in the group teased that they expected great things from me after our stay.
The first day of the retreat went well. As usual, we did writing exercises and read. We had time for writing on our own and for exploring the museums in Red Cloud. A couple of us chose to go to a local establishment and watch the Husker game on television.
For our group retreats, it is customary to have what we call “bedtime stories” on the last night of the stay-over. We gather in a common room after putting on our pajamas, maybe bring a cup of tea and some snacks, get comfortable and take turns reading stories to each other that we have written. It is my favorite part of the retreat as we share our thoughts and stories.
We gathered in the large parlor or living room, all except Janet. Janet went upstairs to retrieve her laptop computer where her story was stored. We chatted as we waited for her. Suddenly, we heard a blood-curdling shriek. Soon, Joyce’s cell phone rang. Just as Joyce answered her phone, there was another scream. “It’s a bird! No, it’s a bat!” Janet screamed. Joyce spoke to her husband who had called. “We have a bat,” she said. She took the phone from her ear, covering the receiver and turning to us, said, “Doug wants to know if anyone brought a ball.” No one laughed.
More screams. I sat in the comfortable rocking chair near the north window. Nancy was a few feet away from me in a chaise lounge, a chair she had claimed earlier that day. Joyce, Karen and Cheryl sat on the sectional sofa. All of us listened to Janet. “The only bat I’ve ever seen was behind glass at the zoo.” Thoughts ran through my head, “Someone should check on Janet.”
Nancy said that she was in Europe on a trip with the high school kids once and in one particular village, the bats came out in the evening. Strollers didn’t seem to pay any attention to them as the bats flew overhead. Karen commented that bats don’t really get in your hair. “Their radar can tell the top of your head,” she said, reassuringly. Meanwhile Janet screamed again. Nancy went out to see if she could be of help. Soon Nancy screamed, too.
Cheryl, the clearer thinker and organized one of the group, said, “Someone open the front door! Maybe he will fly out! Turn on the lights. Bats are blinded by light.” Karen moved to action. She ran into the entryway and opened the front door. Cheryl ran around shutting doors. “We need to contain the bat.”
I remained seated, rocking. Joyce remained on the phone in the living room. Someone said that her husband should come to our rescue. Unfortunately, Doug was over one hundred miles away in Fremont, Nebraska. Joyce hung up the phone while Cheryl continued to shut the doors to the dining room and kitchen (and most importantly, to her bedroom.) The bat continued to fly up and down the entryway to the sitting room where Janet was. I saw him as he flew down towards the front door. “Please don’t come in here,” I thought, keeping an eye on the black creature as he flew back and forth.
Karen wasn’t back yet. I heard either Janet or Nancy yell that Karen was trying to open the backdoor, from the outside, but it was locked. One of the two, most likely Nancy, unlocked the door. That gave the bat two options for exiting.
Suddenly, the bat flew into the living room. Oh, no! Joyce, Cheryl and I screamed. Back and forth the bat flew, from the living room to the darkened entryway to the sitting room and stairs where Janet and Nancy remained. The screams reminded me of the “wave” at football games. The sound started in one room and then another and then another. Back and forth the bat flew. Back and forth the screams echoed.
Cheryl and Joyce resorted to platitudes, making comments to the bat. “Go out the front door, you stupid bat!” “Turn left, turn left!” I just sat and rocked, screaming at the sight of the bat. I was surprised because I am not a screamer. I don’t believe I have ever screamed before in my entire adult life and probably not that much as a child (although my mother may not agree.) Not only was I screaming as loudly as everyone else, my scream sounded like everyone else’s scream. It must be what mass hysteria sounds like.
Cheryl ran into her bedroom, the only one on the first floor. She told Joyce and I that she was going to call the manager. Good. Someone was taking some action. I remained in the rocking chair, now with a manila folder guarding my hair just in case Nancy and Karen were wrong about bats landing on heads.
My cell phone rang. It was in my purse about 3 feet from the rocking chair. I reached for my purse, but the bat flew into the living room again. I cowered in my rocking chair and joined Joyce in screaming. The bat quickly made an exit, returning to the entryway. Was the screaming scaring him? It certainly was me. Thinking the rocking chair was my safe haven, I didn’t answer my cell phone. Soon Joyce’s cell phone rang again. “It’s Cheryl,” she said. “She tried your phone first. She called 911. The sheriff is on his way.”
A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door and a young deputy came in. He was a nice-looking young man with a big grin on his face. He probably thought he was dealing with a group of crazy old ladies. “Do you have a net?” he said. Of course not. Who brings a net to a writers’ retreat? He pulled out a pair of baby blue latex-free gloves from his pocket and put them on. Joyce looked at him and said, “Aren’t you afraid the bat has rabies? He could bite right through those gloves.”
“I’ll put on a second pair,” said the smiling deputy. “Where’s the bat?”
“Follow the screams, “I said, rocking in the chair and still holding the folder over my head.
Using a flashlight on the darkened entryway wall, the deputy corralled the bat. Suddenly, it was over. From the other room, we heard Janet and Nancy thank the deputy. The young man returned to the living room and informed us the bat was now outside.
“Are you crazy?” said Karen who had returned to the living room after escorting the deputy into the house. “It will just come back.”
The deputy assured us that the bat would be out all night, feeding. “He will return in the morning,” he said, probably meaning to assure us, but didn’t.
“Why didn’t you kill it?” asked Cheryl.
“It’s against the law to kill them,” he said. “Bats are an endangered species.”
“Well, they should be,” said Cheryl.
“Do you think he has friends?” I said.
“He could,” said the deputy, smiling mischievously as he exited the house.
We agreed that the young man probably couldn’t wait to go tell the guys back at the sheriff’s office about the rescue of five screaming women from a little bat that they described as the size of a chicken.
Our bedtime stories weren’t the same that night. We still read our stories to each other, but all the while wondering, “Does the bat have friends?” Going to our rooms, we slept with the lights on.
Our writers group has been together for over 15 years and we have had many experiences, joys and sorrows. The bat is just another episode that we can write about.