ONE night my mother awoke to the sounds of an animal eating noisily. Looking out the window, she saw the vague shape of something munching on figs from her fig tree. Having witnessed this, she felt duty bound to shake my father by the lapels of his pajamas and say, ``I saw kind of a dog . . . or more like a pig, but with sort of a ratlike tail!'' Somehow the news failed to thrill him. The next day, in an effort to humor her, he waded through several volumes of the encyclopedia in search of an animal that fitted the description: a piggish dog with a rat's tail and poor table manners. But none of the pictures of various quadrupeds struck a responsive chord with her, and he didn't think the matter warranted the calling in of a police artist.
In the following days my mother became increasingly keen on the notion of photographing ``the Fig Eater,'' assuming it would pay another visit. This desire grew not only from curiosity about the animal's identity but also from the need to vindicate herself, for my dad had made a few teasing remarks to the effect that a person of stable mind should be able to look out the window without seeing mythological beasts.
Weeks passed, and it began to look as if the creature was not going to show up for its photo session. In light of this, my mother undertook what you might call a creative project (though you'd lose no points for accuracy if you called it a prank). She constructed a bogus Fig Eater, a replica made of material from old clothing and stuffed with the insides from a discarded pillow. She placed this anatomically curious-looking model in the shadow of the fig bush one evening and photographed it. Thereafter she presented my father with irrefutable evidence of the creature's existence.
A good minute or two passed before he detected the hoax nature of this snapshot. Ultimately, however, there was something in the creature's complexion that reminded him of a pair of pants he used to wear. Despite the fact that wildlife was not his area of expertise, he knew that, whereas you could find creatures with scaly skin or furry skin, corduroy skin was unlikely. Also there was something about the shape of its ears that was more reminiscent of a certain Vulcan TV character than of any four-legged beast he'd ever seen.
But the grandchildren liked this stuffed animal and inquired about the creature it so loosely represented. Thanks to them, the myth of the Fig Eater took on new life. As they saw it, the creature lived in the dark place underneath my parents' house. It had an ability to leap great distances from a standing broad jump position. It was also capable of speech, although it pretty much confined itself to the phrase ``I'm gonna get you.'' These new facts helped them fashion high adventure out of the otherwise boring endeavors of staring into the crawl space and yelling remarks at the house's foundation.
By the time the kids got into the act, four months had passed since the initial sighting, and I think my parents were content to let the Fig Eater pass into the realm of legend, alongside Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. But then, on Dec. 23, 1984 (I record the date in the spirit of one commemorating a historical event), they saw it.
The animal was slowly crossing their property. They managed to take several pictures of it and to toss it a piece of apple before it moved along toward its den. Throughout the episode, the creature exuded tranquillity and conducted itself with grace, insofar as something that swipes your figs can be gracious.
Guesses as to the animal's identity imparted a slight quiz-show atmosphere to the conversation at Christmas dinner. Comparison of the photos with illustrations in a book about wildlife showed conclusively that the creature was an opossum, the first my parents had ever seen.
Months passed before they saw the animal again, but, oddly enough, when they did, it was on the day before Easter. My parents are hoping that the opossum, a.k.a. the Fig Eater, will remain true to its apparent pattern and will put in an appearance before each major holiday.