I spent last summer in rural Pennsylvania, sorting through a collection of 30,000 books in my mother’s basement. Needless to say, I needed to time away from the basement, so I got back into the running habit. I ran pretty much the same routes every day – there weren’t too many options, either into the hills or out of them. Out of them was easier due to the decreased grade, but it had its moments too. Probably the most noticeable was that every time I ran in front of the Laurel Health Center at the bottom of the range I had to sidestep a big dead possum. Through the passage of weeks it bloated out, until it settled into a slow decomposition. Each time I ran by I thought I should move it, but I didn't.
I have a strict policy of not moving dead possum. The reason is simple and deep-seated. It goes back to possibly the first cliche I discovered the true meaning of, when I was five and living with my grandparents. My only real job was to take the trash out, but I always managed to put even that off until the last minute each night. So one summer night, right before my bedtime at 9:00, I lugged the garbage bag out to the trash bin, and when I opened the lid there inside was a dead possum curled up in a fetal position. I'd never seen one so close before, so I of course wanted to pet it. But when I reach my hand in, the second I felt fur that dead possum reared up, hissed loudly, and jumped out at me. They don't call it playin' possum for nothing. I screamed, my grandparents came running out, and the possum scurried off. The next week I got pneumonia; as my grandpa was dunking my head under the ice water in the tub he told me, "That's why you don't touch dead animals, son."
But I can't say it stopped me completely. When I was 10 or 11 I was riding my bike down the old highway to Tee Pee Junction when I saw another dead possum by the side of the road. I at least had sense by then to keep my distance, but I couldn't help stopping. It was pretty obvious this possum was a goner, as its head and chest were ingrained in the highway. But what made me stop was that its entrails seemed to be arranged in a line behind it across one lane of the highway. When I looked closer, I realized its entrails were still crawling away - four or five little pink possum fetuses had crawled out of the maternal pouch and were pulling themselves all in the same direction, further into the street. My curiosity combined with my undisciplined sympathy compelled me to pick each one of them up and pull them to the side of the road. But when I realized my parents would kill me if I brought another wild animal home (we won't even get into the copperhead, snapping turtle, squirrel, and rabbit babies I'd already tried sneaking in) I quickly deduced that the best I could do for them was to dig a hole, put them in it, and put some dead grass over the hole. Come to think of it that was maybe the worst thing I could do for them as they must have died a slow death of either freezing or starvation, but I was never much of a quick thinker. I did wash my hands profusely when I got home though.
That must have worn heavily on my subconscious through the years, because when I was a graduate student and crew coxswain in college I found myself in a similar moral quandary. We were on our way to a training camp in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and our van got lost. Now I don't know if you've been to that neck of the woods, but it's hairy. Our van driver got lost in the middle of the night, and we ended up at some police station so far into Bumfuck Egypt that the one cop in town had put a sign on the door saying he was out and would be back in less than an hour. When he returned he was lugging a trashbag over his shoulder and had a shoebox under the other arm. He apologized; he had a call to exterminate a pest under someone's porch. It was dead now, he said, but it had a brood. I knew what was in the shoebox before he opened it.
Six baby possum were wriggling all over each other in there, and I immediately asked if I could have them. My crewmen looked at me - well, you can guess how they looked at me. But I told them this was my responsibility and it wouldn't be any bother to them. The cop was strangely tender with them for such a big, gruff man, and it was with a little reluctance that he gave them up after rescuing them. The last thing he told me was not to get too attached, they'd die within a day or two anyway.
I was late for our first practice on the river in Natchitoches, as I got up early, found the nearest pet store, ran there, and got pet bottles to feed the babies with. At first everyone on the team was wondering aloud if I came down there to cox or to rear wild animals, but after the first practice I let my roommates at the hotel help me feed them, word got around on how cute they were drinking from the bottle, the girls' team started coming over to our room, and everyone was happy. We kept the shoebox on the heater to keep them warm, and they seemed rather comfortable with us.
The next morning every one of them was dead. I had to tell the news to every visitor who came to say good morning. I dated a girl on the crew team for a couple of months after that, and I think half the time we were together we were talking about those dead baby possum. I don't know whether to feel bad about that.
So every day when I sidestepped this big dead possum in front of the Laurel Health Center, I restrained myself from moving, poking, or otherwise disturbing the fate nature dictated for it. Well, I did take a picture of it - that's not too disturbing, is it?