Playing Possum Far Too Early On the Porch

Long before daylight one morning last fall, I automatically opened the porch door to let out my cat, Hank. The normal, still darkness was interrupted by a low growl. Hank, as astonished as I, froze long enough for me to scoop him up, take him back inside, and slam the door.

A search for the flashlights turned up - predictably - the one that dims and flickers out whenever you tilt it. When I shone it through the door's glass panel, its beam was too weak to penetrate the hazily reflected image of Hank pacing at my feet. I cleaned its battery contacts, doused the house lights, and aimed a somewhat brighter and steadier beam onto the porch. There, between the chair and the hibiscus I'd just moved in from the deck, was a possum.

My consciousness has been raised with respect to possums, the only surviving marsupial on the North American continent. I don't like seeing them dead on the road - and there are many such in the North Carolina Blue Ridge, where I live. When my headlights pick out a living one, I slow to give it time to get off the tarmac. There's something poignant about the defeated curve of their backs as they scuttle off into the weeds.

My sympathy for them evaporates, however, whenever possums and I are forced into an up-close-and-personal interaction. Over the years I've evicted a number of them from my henhouse, including a recumbent individual I discovered in the darkest recesses of one of the most popular laying boxes. Such a large array of flattened eggshells surrounded it that I wondered whether the wily animal had been there for days, playing dead while one foolish chicken after another climbed in beside it to lay its breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

One thing I knew from my henhouse encounters: Possums are never gracious about being shown the door. They bare their teeth, hiss, growl, and as a last resort curl into bulky, immobile balls. But I had found that if I kept my wits intact (hard to do in semidarkness among squawking chickens) and wielded a hoe judiciously, I could usually scrape the interloper out the door.

Getting a possum off the split-level screened porch presented a greater challenge. The upper level was cluttered with furniture and potted plants I'd moved in when the weather report predicted an early frost. Just to wedge open the inward-opening door to the deck, I would have to push everything together in the center of the small sitting area. The resulting welter would, I knew, create an enticing new haven for my quarry. And if the possum opted to head down the stairs toward the lower door, chances were excellent it would detour into the hodgepodge of garden equipment and supplies that had been accumulating on the porch's lower level during the summer.

As soon as I began moving the furniture and plants, I made a disheartening discovery. I was dealing with not one but two possums: the small one I'd seen, and a large, very irritable one. It looked as though the skirmish I'd anticipated was escalating into a war. I retreated to the house to pull a down vest over my nightgown, shut the back door firmly to restrain Hank, and propped open the porch's lower door. I armed myself with a nearby mattock - a handy though lousy choice of weapons, with its too-short handle and an unwieldy business end that immediately hung itself up among the table and chair legs.

NONETHELESS, I finally got the small possum moving. It chose the escape route down the stairs, but opted, as expected, for the garden equipment rather than freedom. Meanwhile, the large one wedged itself securely behind a table in an inaccessible corner and assumed the familiar bowling-ball position.

Suddenly my bare ankles felt vulnerable. Though I was pretty sure I'd looked everywhere, I wondered whether a third and possibly a fourth possum lurked somewhere, ready to come to the defense of its kin. Daylight was still two hours away. I was getting cold. In a flash of inspiration, it occurred to me that the possum- eradication project might be postponed until daylight. I had nothing to lose out there but a handful of yesterday's cat food Hank would turn up his nose at anyway.

Then a second, even happier thought crossed my mind: If those two possums had managed to find their way onto the porch with the doors closed, with them open they might find their way back out on their own.

Which, I guess, is what happened. At daybreak they were gone.

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