Mayan wood sculpture of a bat from the highlands of Guatemala

Rafael (front view)

It happened in the Guatemalan highlands almost ten years ago.

“¿Qué es eso?” I asked the Mayan shopkeeper. The wooden sculpture, obviously carved from the round trunk of a tree, seemed to me to have the face of a dog.

“Es un murciélago,” he replied in Spanish. “You hang it on your house, and it protects your animals from the flying things that come in the night to suck their blood.” He was referring to bats—vampire bats. There are no vampire bats in that region of Guatemala, but in the humid eastern jungles, it’s quite another matter. This creature’s red mouth curled up in a smile. With simple flattened feet and rounded arms crossed over its chest, this earthbound bat seems more given to hunkering than to flying.

Mayan wood sculpture of a bat from the highlands of Guatemala

Rafael #2

We bought the bat and named him Rafael. In our home, Rafael has become our dark angel. My husband, Jon, jokes about taking him along for protection when anticipating a contentious meeting at work. The vampires are out there, surely, and don’t we need protection?

Rafael remains in our living room, giving off some primitive aura that pleases me. He is one of my favorite objects in the whole world. Sometimes I cross my arms just like Rafael, especially when I feel defensive and want to say: “Well!! This is off-limits!” My own wings are sometimes dark wings, corporeal wings that block the light.

My little sculpture also tells me something about the nature of a work of art. The Mayan shopkeeper may have been pulling my leg. Rafael might have been a carving made simply for the tourist trade, and his authenticity as a protective talisman is certainly suspect. But all that doesn’t matter because we make his meaning every day.

As an icon, he is a perfect representative of the dark side of life but always with a touch of humor. Rafael seems to be licking his lips in anticipation. His expression is enigmatic, watching the parade of life before him, as if ready to choose his next meal.