I was driving along our country road on my way home from dinner with a friend and there it was in the headlights; an opossum, seemingly dead and lying threateningly on the gravel shoulder next to a stubbly cornfield. It was curled, as opossums are when they play dead, with its mouth half-open exposing rat-like teeth and tiny claws curled atop its chest like wizened old lady hands. Its pink nose was not twitching and its beady, half-blind eyes shone like moonstones in my headlights.
I shivered when I drove by it, like I do when I pass by all dead things that have been splayed on the road – deer, hawks, rabbits, skunks, the neighbor’s cats. To me that shiver represents their animal soul entering and exiting my body like a painless gunshot.
Opossums get a bad rap. They hiss and act ferocious in our barn. We let the dogs at them because we are terrified by their ugliness and annoyed at their appetite for the cow corn. But in reality opossums are docile and shy. They would rather run and hide than stay and fight. The dogs find them cowering behind or between a tractor tire and the exterior wall of the barn. They are defenseless, marsupial Gypsies who scavenge and move on after a few days.
Most often, the opossums we find are female; impregnated by wandering males who quickly flee the scene. They carry their hairless babies in a pouch before the little ones, getting stronger and not much longer than seven inches, crawl out to hitch a ride on Mom’s back. Sometimes the babies fall off and are left behind for the hawks. Mom must keep scavenging in order to feed herself and the family. The baby opossum has two options in this scenario: Live or die.
Next time I hear an opossum hissing at me in the barn – after the hair on my neck has stood down – I will think twice before being fearful of something so disgustingly docile. I will not let the dog at it, though my son’s probably will. It’s not my turn to judge their ugly harmlessness or a mother’s instinct to feed and protect her young.
Instead, I will concentrate on the rats: I killed one today with my plastic grain scoop. It was lethargic and stumbling around in the chicken coop after having eaten the poison left by my sons. It only took one knock on the head to make it curl up like that dead opossum; its sharp, tiny, white incisors showing below its coiled rat lips.
No one can muster empathy for a rat.
Originally published in Danse Macabre