Mommy! Mommy! It wasn’t his tone that set me running. Everything’s urgent when you are six. Instead, it was the wide-eyed look I caught on his face when I saw him standing beside our grand silver maple. He was pointing—his arm rigid—at something I couldn’t see behind the tree. When I reached him and saw what he saw, I froze too. Like the lopped off head of a crazy old man, a body of wiry gray hair lay motionless in the grass.
The home we found when we moved here wasn’t as important to me as the yard. I wanted my children to have a yard like I had growing up. I wanted them to have maple trees to climb and hide behind, space to build snow forts in the winter and grow strawberries in the summer. I wanted their lungs to grow large with outdoor air and their feet to toughen from going barefoot. I wanted them to play in puddles and make mud pies, to hold dandelions under their chins and burn holes in leaves with a magnifying glass. I wanted them to come home with dirt on their faces and grass stains on their knees. I wanted them to play, wild and free, so I could wash them clean and tuck them exhausted into their beds each night. The home we found offered all of this including a mighty silver maple whose limbs would grant my wish for a tree swing.
We spent that Saturday afternoon rolling and giggling in the grass, debating what shapes the clouds formed in the sky. The Illinois wind whipped our skin and dried our eyes as it swept across the surrounding cornfields. The freshly cut lawn released a fragrance like herbs baked in the sun. Discovering the possum in the middle of this was startling, yes, but not completely unwelcome. Here lay a true backyard adventure. Something wild and not of our world had crept into our lives and lay itself down under the tree that held my cherished swing.
Everything stopped when we made this discovery, except for my heart, thudding in my ears as we stood there clinging to each other.
“Possum.” I whispered.
“Is it dead?” my son asked.
“What’s a possum?” my daughter squeaked.
We all had questions. Quietly, I shared what I knew. “Possums are nocturnal.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means they come out at night.”
“Then why is it here now, under our tree?”
“They play dead,” I added, my brain randomly recalling facts.
“Is it just playing? Is it alive? Will it bite us?”
“I think we should go inside,” I whispered. “I think we should go tell Daddy.”
We backed away slowly, still holding on to each other, as we left behind this intruder, this backyard beast. Step by step we retreated, until we felt safe enough to turn and run, back to the house, back to the kitchen, back to the bay window over the sink where we watched, our chests heaving from the run and our breath fogging the pane, as my husband walked out to the tree, a shovel in his hand. We watched as he scooped up the corpse and carried it—long, white tail hanging limp, tongue lolling out of its mouth, sharp teeth grinning—to its grave in the dense bushes that lined the boundary of our play space. We watched this procession of death, this disposal of a body, as our own bodies, pumped with adrenaline, reminded us that we were alive, so alive.