Six weeks ago, I stepped out into a rainy, dark night with Bo, our mixed-breed mutt, for the before- bed-dog-walk. Rivulets of rain pour down the driveway, small creeks converging into bigger ones. I'm visiting our family cabin alone this trip, with just Bo for company. As we walk along the edge of the woods, I hear a new sound. Even over the creek-roaring-sound, and rain-pelting-my-raincoat sound, I hear something else. The tiniest, sneeziest, loneliest, little "achoo" sound in the world, wailing somewhere in the dark.
Bo, enthusiastic squirrel terminator that he is, goes crazy, trying to locate the sound. He finds the first wailing waif, half-submerged in a puddle under the redwoods. Smaller than my thumb, with wet, silvery fur. Its pointy-white face, no bigger bigger than a blackberry blossom. Amazingly, Bo doesn't swallow it in one gulp. He wags his tail like a maniac and whines until I came over. Instinctively, I scoop up the tiny whatever-it-is, and try to warm it in my hands. I have the district feeling I've scooped up a baby fallen star. Oh my goodness, who are you? And where is your mama? The baby stops crying, settling into the warmth of my palm.
I look around and see nothing more. I slip the baby into my pocket and turn towards home. That's when I see the mom, dead on the road. She is not nearly so cute. In fact, she's about the homeliest road kill I've ever seen. A possum. She must have been hit by a car, rigid as a board when I nudge her, eyes wide open. I'll get a shovel for her tomorrow. Bo gives her a quick sniff and moves on.
Suddenly, the sneezy-wailing music starts up all around us, stopping and starting, in the woods, like that one chirping smoke detector in your house that needs a battery. Bo's shepherding instincts kick into overdrive. "Rescuing baby stars, are we ? I'm on it!"
The sound comes from everywhere and nowhere, impossible to localize, scattered far and wide. But Bo keeps at it, and soon, he's found a second, twinkly, sopping-wet baby in the berry brambles He raises his front paw, whining and yipping. I beat my way into the brambles and scoop this one into my pocket as well.
On and on we go, muddling around in the dark and rain, until we have five wet, (but no longer sobbing) babies in my pocket Finally it is quiet. I have no idea what I will do with these creatures. Wet and cold, I turn to go home. But Bo isn't finished. He dives into a culvert where two small streams converge, whining for me to follow.
Water and mud soak through my jeans as I crawl into the culvert, my flashlight illuminating a pitiful sight. One more scrap of life, clinging to the corrugated edge of the culvert, with only its tiny star face out of the water. This one also, wailing in that wild sneezy language I've never heard. I fish out the baby and try to warm it with my hands and breath for a moment, then plop it in my pocket as I climb out of the culvert.
In the warmth of my kitchen, I settle the babies into a towel, nested into my Grandma's straw hat. I set them on the heated floor tiles where they sleep, blissfully snuggled together. All but one. The culvert- star-baby no longer sparkles. No breath. Stiff and cold. Eyes closed, goodnight. After all that effort, I couldn't save this one. My heart feels heavy--even though I know it's foolish. Possums are considered varmints where I live--hideous looking cat-food stealers. Everyone despises them. I head to the trash can to dispose of this little fur scrap. but I can't toss it. It feels disrespectful to throw a baby anything in with the coffee grounds. So I wander, just around holding it, for lack of a better idea. I call, with one hand, the wildlife rescue hotline to make plans for the others. I get simple instructions from some animal-loving saint, to keep the orphans warm and safe until tomorrow when the experts will take over.
It's quiet and late now--I want to talk to someone --but everyone I know and love is long asleep. I make some tea with one hand. Bo lays down, guarding his nestlings, keeping one paw on either side of the straw hat, and I sit, listening to the rain, thinking g about the incredible fragility of life, holding the snuffed out star baby. Then, the tiny body stirs.
I think I have imagined this, but just in case, I start to breath on the fur-scrap in my palm, and after a bit, it shudders. The little star face opens its eyes and looks right at me, squeaking its sneezy sound. Astonished and a little horrified, I feel like I've witnessed a miracle. But mostly, I want to dance. Life is so uncertain and precious. Soon, the revived culvert-star-baby is sleeping soundly, snuggled with his litter-mates. I shower and fall into bed. I awaken several times in the night to check them, and they still sleep between Bo's paws. He is wide awake and vigilant each time I check.
In the morning, I tell all my people about our night. They are somewhere between horrified and amused. You did WHAT? You saved vermin? What are you thinking? In my defense, I think anyone would have done the same. Bo and I pack up the babies in the hat, and head for the wildlife rescue center, where they are scooped up and tended to by the kindest people in the world. Bo looks on anxiously. I am relieved, but feel somehow bereft as we drive away.
Back home, I am chagrinned to see there is no dead mama possum on the road. No trace of a squashed , stiff possum. That's when it hits me. Was that thing just "playing possum?" Was I a total dunce? Did I take away infants from a mom whom later "woke up" and tried to find her babies? I'll never know. I like to think she was really dead and the buzzards got to her before I did. But even if she was only pretending, I've gotta say-Bo makes a much more attentive mother.
Fast forward six weeks. I get a call from the wildlife rescue folks. The babies all survived. And now, by law, they have to be released back where they came from. So Bo and I drove to get them. And settled them down in their box, in a clover patch near the stream where we found them.
They snuggle in the safety of their box until evening, nibbling on the clover blossoms they could reach, for several hours. We watched awhile, then left them in peace. When Bo and I came back, at twilight to check on them, all that was left were six distinct paths, trampled through clover, down to the stream. Six sturdy little stars, setting off to seek their fortune.
Cool things I learned about possums since my adventure:
They can and do play dead--(convincingly and involuntarily,) when frightened. With bared teeth, rigormortis, and foul smelling chemicals leaking from them. They can be out cold for up to four straight hours. This convinces some predators that they are a poor meal choice. It can also fool do-gooders like me.
Possums are small super-herts immune to rattlesnake venom, mostly-immune to rabies, and they can eat ticks without getting Lyme's disease. Speaking of which--
Possums are terrific little sanitation workers--they can munch more than 5,000 ticks in one season, safeguarding us from Lyme's Disease. They also eat slugs and snails, and clean up dead animals that carry diseases. They will also chase off, or kill, rats and cockroaches that invade their territory.
(Possums do like cat food. But that's a small price to pay for their services.)
Welcome to Streamriffs.com, a place for fellow creek- walkers and nature lovers. Lori Fisher Peelen lives in California with her family.