Volume 69, Number 1 · Fall 2019

Power Animals

I noticed the dead opossum during my descent on my bike into the valley, but I gave it little consideration, other than to refrain from breathing as I passed its body, since I had no desire to inhale what I imagined to be the kind of foul odor I associated with its decay, and which I have had cause, during my bike rides, to frequently smell. Moreover, I thought of the opossum as a kind of menace; after all, the mere sight of the animal—what with its beady eyes, snarling expression, and naked-looking tail—was something of an affront to my senses. I was up and out earlier than usual, as the day’s heat was expected to grow quickly and reach dramatic heights. I coasted into the valley without incident—no deer leapt unexpectedly from the woods, no obstacles appeared in the road, no vehicles tailed me impatiently, suddenly gunning their engines, honking or giving me the finger as they passed me on blind curves. The enormous green wedge of Paris Mountain loomed in the distance, blurred by haze. I passed the silver, square-shaped sign imploring drivers to drive safely, which, according to a smaller, rectangular-shaped sign below it, had been dedicated to the memory of one Haydn Woodall, a name that I knew, thanks to a search engine, had belonged to a Virginia Tech student who’d been the unluckiest of several passengers riding in a car piloted by a young show-off who, according to a newspaper report, had announced to the occupants of his car, as they approached an oncoming curve, that “this was the fun one,” and then—after downshifting, or yanking on the emergency brake, depending on whose story you believe—attempting to “drift” around the corner. Instead, the vehicle fishtailed and flipped over; the driver was now serving a ten-year prison sentence, because Haydn—only twenty years old—had died at the scene of the accident. According to his obituary, Haydn had been “a bon vivant, a stylish dresser, and an irrepressible free spirit. He was kind, compassionate, witty, intelligent, curious and charming. Haydn viewed the world through a kaleidoscope of his own colors and never met an article of Comme des Garçons clothing that he didn’t like.” Now, a wreath of pine boughs and a stuffed cartoon character from the show Adventure Time hung from the sign bearing Haydn’s name; a ceramic angel, neck ringed with a necklace of withered flowers, stood at its base. I wondered what effect, if any, such a sign might be said to have, and how many people had read the name Haydn Woodall and registered absolutely nothing or had wrongly assumed, as I had for years, that the name belonged to a woman or girl. Whatever the case, it seemed to me that the traffic was heavier along the road that cut through Ellett Valley on that morning, and I figured it must have something to do with the time of day—school buses, landscaping trucks hauling trailers that caged enormous mowers, and dump trucks roared past me, often with little regard—or so it seemed from my perspective—to their close proximity to me, and I imagined, as I often do when I hear the unmistakable sound of the approaching engine of an extra-large vehicle, that I might be living my final moments. I did my best to ride on the road’s shoulder, which, in this particular valley, happened to be extra wide—nearly as wide as the dedicated bike paths in the city on the plateau from which I’d come—and I clung so close to the absolute edge of the asphalt that, every so often, long blades of grass, topped as they were with floral spikelets, whipped at my legs. I turned around at Gateway Baptist Church, a massive building with multiple Tuscan-style columns and a digital sign that announced the temperature, the time, and the date of the church’s upcoming events, and began pedaling my way home, winding through the valley, and then up the mountain. As I approached the dead opossum, I was now traveling at a much slower speed, and noticed that more than one had been hit: two babies, one on either side of the mother, lay dead beside her. I thought immediately of the film I’d seen recently that featured an opossum, one that someone had recently shared on social media: a mother, wobbling through a yard, carrying a backload of babies, had disappeared into a crawlspace, after entering a hole barely big enough for her to pass through, which meant that the last two babies got knocked off, and were then forced to scramble like mad to catch up. I remembered the essay I’d recently assigned my students to read by a writer whose entire purpose had been to seethe with indignant fury about how much he hated opossums. The essay opened by addressing its subject directly: “You’re a NIGHT-RAT-BOY the size of ONE POINT FIVE CATS, you have mistooken [sic] up entirely the size your species is supposed to be, and your head is too much a circle at the back end and a point at the front part, like a drawing of an ice cream cone in a clown’s hand. I don’t care for that.” I had chosen the essay because it was, I thought, a wonderful example of how a writer could channel their personality in order to perform a unique voice on the page, and because his argument, which could be accurately summed up by the title, “Everything What’s Wrong of Possums: It’s All of Them,” was not unconvincing. Now, as I considered those dead babies in the road, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the opossum, but then, as I pedaled slowly past—I was on the steepest and longest part of my ride—I noticed movement near the mother: two live babies were huddling against her body, in a position that suggested they might be trying to nurse. “Oh my god,” I whispered, and kept pedaling, wishing I hadn’t looked, because I immediately knew that particular image wasn’t one I’d soon forget: two tiny, shivering oblongs of fur seeking shelter next to a blood-caked body that’d been blown gruesomely open. The closer I drew to my house, the more convinced I became that this story wasn’t over. My first thought, and I know it’s not kind, was that I should return to that dead mother wielding a shovel and put those babies out of their misery. But then I reminded myself that there were people in the world whose job it was to take care of foundlings, whether domestic or wild. Back home, in the kitchen, my wife was preparing the lunch that she would take with her to work. I debated whether to tell her; so soft-hearted was she concerning the sufferings of animals that she refused to watch even thirty seconds of a nature documentary, fearing it might mean witnessing a weaker animal’s harrowing demise. So, instead of simply reporting what I’d seen, I said, “Should I go rescue the baby opossums I saw just now in the road?” She followed an emphatic “yes” by closing her eyes and shaking her raised hands frantically. I retrieved a plastic tub from the garage, and lined it with the rattiest towel I could find, placed it in the passenger seat beside me, imagining the cars, the dump trucks, the school buses, the trucks hauling trailers of lawn equipment, and the cement trucks speeding past the mother’s dead body, and thought to myself, Hang on, lil opossums. What could those babies be said to know? Had they perceived a difference in the temperature of their mother’s body? Were their tiny hearts nearly worn out from beating so fast? Were their eyes closed to block it all out? I supposed I would soon learn. I donned a glove, in case the animals were carrying disease, or if somehow one of them managed to bite me; I remembered the image that had accompanied the aforementioned opossum essay: the opossum depicted therein had been baring its teeth, which looked dangerously saw-like. I remembered, too, the opossums that my father found raiding the dog food bowls on our back porch when I was a kid, and how they’d writhed and hissed as my father, who never seemed to be afraid of any animal, gripped their naked tails and dangled them upside down. As I approached the dead mother, I pulled off the road, into grass, but not too far, as the ground angled quickly away, and gave the impression that I might be parking on the edge of a wooded cliff. No cars were approaching. I hit the hazard button, got out, and ran to the mother. The babies were still there, still trembling. I grabbed one, but its little hands—I realized then that an opossum’s paws or whatever actually do resemble and act like hands, as they do have fingerlike claws and opposable thumbs—were tenaciously gripping its mother’s fur, and I had to tug hard to remove it, after which the baby seemed to have taken an immediate liking to the glove, and I had to shake and pry it free to set it inside the box. I returned for the other baby, noted how it was perching next to some kind of organ or gland that had been exposed after the mother had been opened up by whatever had hit her, and was now ballooning outward grotesquely. Again, I had to tug and pry to pull the baby, which was making a kind of chattering noise, free. After using folds of the towel to tuck them safely in, I drove away. I would later upload a video of the babies, snug in their little beds, to social media, along with a caption announcing what I had done and that the babies would be taken care of at the Roanoke Wildlife Rescue, where a woman had informed me that she and other employees would care for them about a month and then release them into the wild. “Thank you for helping them,” said one commenter, a man I had worked with two decades ago at the Mission Hills Record Exchange in Raleigh, North Carolina. The woman who schedules courses for the department where I work also expressed appreciation for what I’d done, to such an extent that she promised me that, as long as she held her position, she would personally see to it that I would get whatever courses I wanted, at whatever times I wanted them. The mother of my son’s best friend asked me if I knew that opossums eat up to five thousand ticks a year. I was grateful to hear it, since, whenever I think of ticks, I think of Lyme disease, and of a friend of a friend who contracted it, and who had to undergo weekly bee sting treatments, which involved doctors or nurses or whoever taking live bees and enticing them to sting the flesh of his back. Later that night, after the comments began to die out and I put away my phone, I placed a pork tenderloin upon the grill, while observing a sky darkening with purplish black clouds, flashing with thunder and causing the limbs of the weeping spruces that line my property to undulate. I thought about the dead mother and the dead babies, and wondered whether the buzzards I often see picking apart carcasses during my bike rides had arrived. I wondered what kind of cage or container the babies were now living in, and if their bellies were full of milk, or cat food, or scrambled eggs, or whatever it is that baby opossums eat while staying at wildlife refuges. As the meat hissed on my grill, I entered the word opossum into a search engine on my phone, and discovered that the male species of didelphimorphia has a forked penis and the female, a fur-lined pouch for carrying infants. According to spirit-animals.com, if you discover that the opossum is your so-called “power animal,” you should consider yourself “highly intelligent and prefer to use your brains and your wits as opposed to your physical strength to get what you desire,” and that you should “understand the use of diversion and strategy in all situations.” I also learned that if you see an opossum in a dream, “you are being asked to lay low and blend into the fabric of your surroundings” and that “things are not entirely what they appear to be at this time so simply say nothing and do nothing” and that you should “allow yourself the space and time to see things for what they really are.” I had enjoyed a number of interactions throughout the day with many people regarding the baby opossums, and the majority of them had insisted on the fact that I had done a good deed, but the truth was that I had done what I’d done in order to save myself from the thought that those little babies would be nursing—or attempting to nurse—from their mother until some driver slipped up and hit them. But there was another truth, too. Those babies had lived because they’d clung to their mother, and they’d been lucky enough that she’d died in the exact middle of the road, right on the double yellow lines, making it easier for all those passing drivers—the majority of whom, I had to imagine, wanted to avoid the resultant backsplash of gore that would accompany the hitting of roadkill—to swerve slightly away. And the real reason I’d come to their rescue was because I’d wanted a chance to play a minor part in a miracle, and afterward, to be able to tell a story about it. What I hadn’t expected, though, was that my own tightly shut eyes, like those of the babies huddled against their mother’s lifeless body, might be opened, and I would begin to understand the ways in which an animal—one I’d once thought of as unlovable—could teach me the power of revision: that if you have occasion to stare into the face of death, the fictions you’ve built about the world begin to fall away, and if you’re lucky, you begin to see things as they really are.

Matthew Vollmer is the author of two story collections—Future Missionaries of America and Gateway to Paradise—as well as two collections of essays—inscriptions for headstones and Permanent Exhibit. He teaches creative writing and literature in the English Department at Virginia Tech, where he is an associate professor.