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It's Only a Possum Moon
November 14, 2010 - 6:15am


Many small mammals in the Midwest are driven mad by fall lusts. Not just undergraduates, either: A whole new crop of out-of-season juvenile squirrels with thin coats and skinny, hairless tails has been roaming the neighborhood, causing our children to shout, “Look at the rat in that tree!” Dogs bark all night, coons maraud and scream, and our housecats dash for doors that smell of freedom. Dust, warmth, and leaf smoke quickly change to cold equatorial downpours. It’s pneumonia weather.

Countess Tolstoy loves this time of year. She’s the barrel-chested dog we adopted to keep our Lab company, and she’s very sweet, gentle, and slow-moving. But at night she impatiently shoulders aside the sliding door before I can get it fully open and leaps off the top step into the backyard to look for intruders in the dark. The people at the shelter told us she’s part English Shepherd and that the breed is known for “vermin-killing.”

To be fair, the Countess doesn’t kill all the possums she finds standing around chewing garbage they drag into our yard from a nearby dumpster. She grabs them by their backs, shakes viciously, and drops them for dead, but many will wake from their possum-comas an hour or two later and waddle off, sniffing with pink noses, to graze another day. The ones still lying there the next morning have had their necks neatly broken, I’d guess, and it’s left to me to pick them up by the rope of their tails with my hand in a Ziploc and heave them into grocery sacks.

The dog doesn’t hold it against me that, after a full day of walking kids to and from school, walking to and from campus, teaching, fixing dinner, herding kids through homework, baths, and bedtime, and grading or writing to the wee hours, I resent the drama of the hunt. The rest of my family is long asleep, and in the solitude of the quiet kitchen I try to explain.

“Listen, Sofie,” I say. “I’m tired. What you have going with them grosses me out. They’re like a metaphor for the underworld, the thing you didn’t want to find behind your house grinning in a matted fur coat in the moon glare. Sure, they’re asking for it, but they know the death game, they play at it, taunt you into this thing, tease you by going limp, and leave you smelling like musk and pee; in the end most of them are resurrected anyway. Leave them alone. Come on, have a biscuit.”

The dog looks at me. I refill my drink.

“Ah’m gon’ git madder’n hail if yew go killin’ thim thangs,” I say. “Rory cain’t eat but one er two at a tahm.”

Fall is my favorite season, but possums are only the start: Allergies, ladybug infestations, late-night vomitings from the top bunk, bubonic colds. Recently Mrs. Churm, who’s been student teaching in the elementary schools, woke up with pinkeye so bad that one eye was swollen nearly shut. “I’m deformed,” she said. She went downstairs to brew coffee and let the dogs out, and the indoor cat escaped and hid in the bramble of a shrub rose. While Mrs. Churm was struggling on her hands and knees to pull the cat out, Countess Tolstoy caught a large possum a dozen feet away, shook it good and hard, and tried to carry it into the house. By the time I woke up, Mrs. Churm had caught the cat, dislodged the possum, finished sani-wiping blood from the dog’s muzzle and was sick to her stomach. She told me I needed to go pick up the corpse.

“Maybe it’s okay,” I said. “They know what they’re doing.”


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