The Student News Site of San Luis Obispo High School




The Student News Site of San Luis Obispo High School



On Opossums, Jesus, and Shady Deals with Russians


  The opossum is an animal with two names.

Opossum and possum.

Opossum is the correct spelling—it’s an Anglicization of wapathemwa, an Algonquian word meaning ‘white animal.’ The O, however, is usually not pronounced; doing otherwise, I imagine, would sound a lot like the beginnings of an epic poem dedicated to the opossum: O possum, O oversized rodent!

  Describing opossums is difficult; not only do they seem unnaturally large, but their features are so jumbled that any description reads like that of an Ancient Greek monster: the ears of a bat, the teeth of a shark, the hands of a human. John Smith, the famous womanizer, was the first European to attempt to do so. “An Opassom hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignes of a Cat,” he wrote in 1609. “Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein she lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh her young.” He is talking about her pouch; when a opossum’s pouch is agape she looks like a stone cracked open. Inside that she is arranged like a clock—one central teat with twelve others in a circle around it. The opossum divided up our days long before we did.

  I have been reading about opossums because of an event that happened to me in a church, which you shall hear about later—essentially, a opossum (which is, I believe, the correct grammatical formation) invaded an organization I was a part of. But opossums have always had a knack for finding themselves at the center of organizations.

  It was Frank Basil Clarke, the Mayor of Clanton, Alabama, who founded the Possum Growers and Breeders Association back in the 1980s (he declared that the O in opossum was not just silent, but invisible). Larger than life, with an insatiable taste for opossum meat and a vehement opposition to opossum conservation groups, he was effectively the Joe Exotic of yesteryear. Once, while in Washington DC for a conference, he talked his way into the Russian Embassy and convinced them that he could solve the USSR’s starvation problems through opossums. In exchange for starting up their ‘possum ranches,’ the Soviets were going to source two pandas for him from China, which he wanted to display at his hybrid drive-in movie theatre and opossum breeding facility. Unfortunately the deal fell through when the Russians realized the difficulty of obtaining panda bears, and upon leaving the embassy Clarke was picked up and questioned extensively by U.S. intelligence officers. 

  But the Possum Growers and Breeders Association was very successful, and presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan were all members. Jimmy Carter in particular was a big opossum enthusiast, and a true lover of the opossum hunt. In those hunts, dogs would chase the opossums up trees and trap them on the highest branch. A person would then climb the tree and shake it until the opossum fell—the opossum, upon hitting the ground, would drop into that unconscious form of ‘playing possum,’ and pretend to be dead. The hunters would scoop up the opossum and go on hunting. They would either eat them the next day, separating the good inner meat from the ‘fatback,’ or feed them cereals and milk for ten days before killing them.

“Jokes and moonshine somehow let/the ones who didn’t get their meat/believe they liked the cold and wet/and just fatback to eat,” wrote Jimmy Carter in a poem. These hunts must have been great equalizers—even a president looks ridiculous when he’s hanging upside down from a tree, trying to shake down a small rat. Benjamin Harrison was another president fond of the marsupials—he was said to have two pet opossums, one named Protection and one named Reciprocity. The names were said to represent the two pillars of the Republican party. In reality, he ate them both after the first winter frost. 

  I first saw a opossum during Easter of 2014, and I shall never forget it.

  At St. Joseph’s Greek Orthodox Church in Washington, the church I was going to at the time, Easter is ushered in by a midnight service. It begins around 11:00pm, and at midnight a slow procession goes outside and gathers in the parking lot beneath a raised patio which holds a makeshift altar. The priest then proclaims the resurrection, and sings some songs, and then you go back inside to the warm church and participate in the undeniable excitement of the early morning hours. 

  When we were younger it was quite an event; the early bed, the church clothes hung on the chair. The gentle awakening and the hushed procession into the car, then the quiet anticipation of the drive through the night. College students dressed in bright clothing emerged into street lights then fell back into shadows. You were supposed to drive back from the service with a candle still lit, and use it to bless your house, and that’s what I remember best about the whole thing; the game of keeping a steady hand, of holding the flame in the backseat of the car and watching its reflection bob in the window panes. If you blurred your eyes it looked like the eye of an animal staring at you from the outside, tracking your every movement.

  When we got to the church my brother and I would go around to the altar and dress in blue robes—our friend’s dad was the priest, so he was forced by lineage to be an altar boy, and we were forced by bonds of friendship to join him. Our jobs were easy; one of us would carry a candle at the front of the procession, one at the back, and one would hold the censer. All of us would look a little ridiculous in the painted candlelight.

  “Blessed is our God, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages,” the service began. We exchanged tired glances in the altar—the service, before the outside section, was always tinged with a feeling of unreality. We would march, somnambulant, around the church, with stiff legs and fixed eyes, waiting for the cold outside air to wake us up and deliver us back into the warmth of the church. 

  “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us,” the congregation chanted. 

  When it came time to go outside, I was chosen to go ahead of the procession and make sure the outside table was in order. Grabbing a candle, I exited the church and made my way onto the patio. The table sat like a tomb, draped in a red tablecloth that spilled over each side and layered luxuriously on the ground. For a second I thought the corner of it was being seized by the wind, but when I turned the corner I saw something else. A blur of motion. A flash of fur. A opossum!

  Face to face, the opossum is a frightening sight—a vicious leer, a bristle of teeth. The opossum has more teeth than any other North American land mammal. It outlasted the dinosaurs. These are the things you learn after the fact.

  In the moment, I froze. I was scared of the ungodly formation before me, this swollen rodent with pinprick teeth. I had heard of opossums, of course, but they are mostly nocturnal creatures, governed by secret whims and hidden in strange and unlikely burrows. You can never prepare yourself for a opossum. 

  We had startled one other into silence; we had ripped each other from the respective responsibilities of our tasks—me, participating in a religious service, and the opossum, being a opossum—and placed ourselves in some third sphere, where we stared at each other like gladiators in the arena. The moment felt loaded, like we were one movement away from chaos, but another movement, more subtle and perhaps in the opposite direction, towards some sort of understanding. I waited a heartbeat. I moved my leg forward. The opossum dropped dead. 

  In a moment of brilliant incomprehension, I thought he had been struck down by some ethereal and possibly religious force. Fitting, I thought, if there is a God, that they should demonstrate their power in such a dramatic fashion: striking down this surely evil creature at the altar. I barely had time to consider the various facets of opossum behavior when I heard a sound infinitely more worrying echoing from the direction of the church door. It was the swishing, the light bells, of a censer, slicing through the night air, coming in my direction. The procession was rounding the corner. 

  Panicked thoughts flew through my brain, worrying visions of the priest trampling the opossum body underfoot, or, worse, the opossum waking up and biting the priest mid-service. With little other choice, and with little real thought, I lifted up the tablecloth and nudged the opossum body under the table with my foot. I stood back with a quiet sigh of relief and waited for the priest to take his position.

  I felt like a graverobber—worse, I felt like a murderer, although by that time I had collected my wits enough to realize that the opossum was only playing dead. Here was the congregation, awash in the holy glow of candles, here was the priest, chanting in his deep voice, and under all their noses was the secret only I knew—a opossum body was stashed under the altar! Truly, I was the murderer returning to the scene of the crime, I was Lady Macbeth.

  My panicked thoughts were interrupted when the priest’s chanting broke off. He simply stopped, mid-chant, and sniffed. That’s when I smelled it too—some putrid odor, emanating from the spot where the opossum had collapsed. I later learned that the opossum, when it plays dead, releases a green and olid liquid from its anal glands; and that’s what the priest was stepping on. Out, damned spot, I thought. But the priest, a true believer if there ever was one, kept on going.

  “O Lord who lovest mankind, benefactor of our souls and bodies, for that thou had vouchsafed this day to feed us with thy heavenly and immortal mysteries,” he said. 

  Finally, after what seemed an eternity, we reached the moment of resurrection. The crowd smiled expectantly. The priest smiled too. He lifted his candle slowly. Christos anesti, he declared. Christ is risen.

  It must have been about that time that the opossum rose. Or maybe it was afterwards, once people had started singing the traditional hymns, that he righted himself in the shadow of the table, and retracted his tongue and batted open his yellow eyes—all I know is that after the first song, and before we trudged back inside, the congregation saw the red tablecloth rise and part. They saw a long snout, lined with short teeth, emerge, and they saw the rest of the hideous body too, gray and putrid. The opossum had risen from the dead—the hymns had summoned him, and he had rolled away his own rock. He ran to the side of the patio, and flew up the drainpipe, and disapeared onto the roof, and all he left behind was green anal fluid stuck to the priest’s shoes and a very shocked and frightened crowd. 

  In the church they like to say that Jesus, in his alleged rise from the tomb, conquered death. I think the opossum would say that you haven’t truly conquered something until you can repeat it. The opossum lives and dies a hundred times before its death. It truly has trampled down death through death.

  Does that also make the opossum a coward?

Remember Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.” Literally, perhaps. But I do believe the opossum lives its life nobly: rising, again and again, after each small death, and yielding to fear when it feels it.

  I also believe, especially given what is going on in the world today, that the differences between Jimmy Carter’s group of opossum hunters and the group of believers at the church are slim. In fact, I believe they can be summed up in one sentence: the presence of the opossum makes the opossum hunt, but it breaks the religious service. 

  Both groups worship the resurrection; both groups were formed in death. Both groups are as much social as they are practical; both hold worship services in the dark, at night. And in the end, both sit back together, chew the ‘fatback’ and talk happily. And who am I, after all, to judge another person’s rituals? We all have these altars on which we carve up our time. 

  St. Joseph’s is now empty, as are all the churches. Once it became clear that no one was coming back anytime soon, the priest set about replacing his congregation—or more accurately, memorializing them. He set up icons in the pews, matching the saint names to the names of the people who normally sat in each seat. When the lights are turned off, and it’s just the candles illuminating the old church, the faces of the icons become black and inscrutable. Only the gold backgrounds glow, framing the people, rendering them temporary silhouettes in the house of a muttering father. It’s just him and the opossum now, running down long white halls and hiding under tables. Do they know each other? Are they friends? How many times over has the opossum died on the altar? I can only wonder. 

  I have learned much from the opossum.

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