A short story
Light from the full moon glared across rolling meadows causing acres of icy jewels to serenade my eyes as I walked swiftly from the forest shadows toward my target, a set of three persimmon trees growing along an old barbwire fence line. The day had been warm for late October, but with lowing sun had come a chill which quickly condensed air into dew and by a few hours after nightfall, the dew transformed into a layer of shivering frost across the world of farmland and low East Tennessee hills I called home. As the hour approached midnight, I shoved my hands deeper in my coat pockets as meadow grasses crunched beneath my boots; I made a beeline for the tallest fruit tree. I carried no weapon save a small folding knife in my pants pocket and an old tater sack tucked beneath my heavy coat; I intended to take my quarry live. Little did I realize that the next 18 hours would test me religion and my tolerance for my fellow man.
My quest began that same afternoon when my grandmother stated that she would like to have a possum for supper and not for one moment in my mind’s eye did I see her and a guest critter sitting at the eating table enjoying a meal of beans and taters. Nope, I knew that the guest critter would be sizzling in the frying pan before he ever saw granny’s checkered table cloth. Granny was the only person I have ever known who admitted a liking for possum. Not that possums aren’t good to eat; they are just plain too ugly to want to eat. They are nocturnal marsupials having a layer of short fur and wiry bristles like a hog wears and for some reason they look half naked all the time. In fact, their tails are mostly hairless and are prehensile; they can wrap it around a limb and swing in the breeze like an autumn leaf.
Possums are endowed with a permanent grin; their mouths curve slightly upward at the back and a row of needle-sharp teeth are always showing on each side. Fortunately, the critters are not very aggressive and the grin is mostly a ruse just like their ability to “play dead” when they feel threatened. Possums also make various sounds, mostly hissing, growling, snorting, and grunting when they are agitated and, on my midnight quest, I expected to hear plenty of everything they could say. I was going possum huntin’ for granny’s supper and by doing her this favor, I was proving to myself that I was not absolutely worthless.
Now possum hunting isn't supposed to be a big challenge and I reckon that is the reason you don't see many of the stuffed critter's glassy-eyed stares in your local taxidermist's display window along with deer heads, bears, and that bald eagle Billy-Bob "accidentally" shot. My plan was to first find a possum up a tree enjoying a midnight snack of 'simmons, climb up, and grab him by the tail and sack him. That was my plan.
Eventually I crossed the wide pasture and came to the smallest fruit tree and without using my flashlight, could see that no possums were dining in it. I moved up the vine-tangled fence row until I came to the next tree which was by far the largest. Most of the leaves had fallen from the berry-laden branches and the ground was thick with fallen 'simmons, one of which landed beside me as soon as I got there. I ate a few of them; they are delicious and when perfectly ripened, can easily be made into jelly, preserves, and pudding. Probably make a good side dish for granny's fried critter.
Persimmon trees are not very large even when full grown with a trunk that can easily be climbed especially when a lower limb is reachable from the ground. I flicked on the flashlight and sure enough, two sets of possum eyes were peering down at me as the critters munched on the wild delicacies. I lit a cigarette and carefully looked them both over, electing to go after the one nearest the ground, he being closest to the tree trunk and only 10 feet above my head. I removed my coat so as to make climbing easier, then stuck the tater sack inside my shirt. Lighting the cigarette was probably not my best move as both possums became a bit agitated when the match flamed; one gave a menacing hiss. I waited a few chilly moments and they settled down as I finished my smoke.
Reaching a lower limb where it joined the trunk was a stretch but I jumped a little and was able to get a good hold on its frost-sprinkled surface. With my other arm wrapped high around the trunk, I used my knees to grasp the bark and slowly inch-wormed my way up until I could grasp an even higher limb which happened to be the one below where my quarry was becoming mighty suspicious, once again hissing a waning in my direction. I finally was able to get my foot on the lowest limb and stand up where my eyes were just above the possum which I intended to become granny's supper; he was within reach but was inching away from me. I pulled the sack from my shirt and made ready for the capture.
Above me I heard the other possum hiss and he sounded too close to my ears. I looked up and he was easing down the tree head first and was only about a yard above my hat with a "move it bub" look in his eyes. He was determined to keep coming and I made a quick decision to grab the possum I wanted, sack him, and quickly shinny back down to the ground before I was evicted by the descending critter.
I held the sack in my left hand along with a small branch of the tree for steadiness, then reached for and grabbed my prey by his tail and tried to pull him back to me. He was hanging onto the limb tighter than I thought possible so I moved my right foot a bit farther out on the limb for more leverage and it hit a heavily frosted patch of smooth bark, slipped, and down I went still holding onto the desperate possums naked tail, foolishly hoping he had enough grip to hold us both; he didn't.
My straddle banged hard across the lowest limb, the possum was falling and growling just above my face, and I was painfully and verbally losing my religion from the squashing my groin had just endured. However, a semblance of luck was on my side; I landed hard on my back where the breath was knocked from me and there were extra stars twirling in the sky, but I was alive. The possum also landed hard on my chest but apparently unharmed; I must have turned loose of him somewhere in mid-flight because he quickly scurried off into the undergrowth of the fence line.
As I regained my senses and began inventorying body parts, I realized I was probably going to escape with no broken bones but there was still a dull aching in my straddle which peaked with each heartbeat. I found my flashlight and saw that the other possum once more easing back onto his fruit-covered limb for another snack; I figured that was a good place to leave him. I also saw my tater sack and hat hanging on some low twigs and after catching some deep breaths, was able to retrieve both. I shined my light around where the critter had disappeared into the tangles of honeysuckle vines and barberry bushes which all but obscured the fence, and about 20 feet from me I caught glimpses of his eyes moving through the tangles.
I'll get granny's supper yet, I thought; I was on a mission.
Knowing that possums don't get in much hurry, I lit another cigarette and thought over a new plan of action. It looked like the critter was heading downwind along the fence toward the woods and I knew I would have to sack him before he got there for up a big tree he would go and I wasn't in any mood for more climbing. Then I heard a noise; something big was making its way along the fence in my direction. At first I figured it was a wandering cow but I remembered the farmer wasn't using the pasture in winter. I jumped to my feet ready to run away; I was a 14 year old boy with a creative imagination and at that moment I was creating a lot of things which could do me much harm in a cold, lonely field at midnight. I flicked my light toward the noise and saw my uncle walking toward me and the burden of imminent and lingering pain or death was lifted from my shoulders
.“What are you doing out here, Roy”, I squeaked?
“You go first”, he replied.
“I'm about to catch a possum for granny.”
“Havin' a possum toss you out of a 'simmon tree is a unique way of catching one.”
He squatted on his heels beside me and lit one of his long Pall Mall cigarettes.
“Well, yeah I guess he won the first round” My voice had become meek.
“I was over to Rick's and just started toward home when I saw someone coming across the field in the moonlight so I headed over. Didn't know it was you 'til I heard you cussin'.” Rick had been his buddy and neighbor since childhood.
“The critter has gone off down the fence toward the woods,” I told him.
“Well, get your coat and let's get to the house; it ain't getting any warmer out here. Don't you have to go to school tomorrow?”
“Yep, I'm going to school but I ain't leaving this field without that critter.”
“You better not stay out much longer or your mammy will skin you; she'll be home soon.”
“This won't take long,” I said.
I thought I heard him snicker as he turned toward home.
Roy was right about it not getting any warmer so I put my coat on and headed along the tangles to the point where I last saw the glowing eyes of my quarry. I stopped and listened, but heard nothing but a freshening breeze slipping through the barberry thorns. Easing on, I flashed the light into every place he could hide, but saw nothing. Then a few yards ahead of me, I caught a glimpse of a small animal daring out of and quickly back into the messy growth and dark moonlight-shadows along the fence. Got him now, I thought. I made my sack ready and moved a little quicker to near where I saw him and then shined the light into the bushes where two eyes glowed back at me. He once again came into the edge of the field and began ambling away from me. He looks different, I thought but my lust for the capture had my mind set on one track. Being upwind of the critter, I didn't realize there was another, very strong smell in front of me, and I did several things at once; I flicked my light on him just as I made my running lunge to put the sack over him, I saw that I was about to bag a skunk, I tried to stop in mid air, and I thought, Oh, shit!
I was able to barely twist my body and pull the sack away from the stinking devil which had just reared on his front feet with his tail high in the air and was turning loose on me with his most potent perfume. The only good thing to come out of my peculiar situation was that the sack blocked most of the disgusting spray, especially from my face and particularly from my eyes. However, most of my coat, pants, hands, and boots caught some large droplets of hellish foulness.
When I hit the ground I was rolling and kept doing so until I figured I was far enough away from ol' stripe that it would be safe to get up and run and run I did right in Uncle Roy's tracks until I was home. It was obvious in my brain that my life as a free human being might just end when the family was awakened to my careless escapade; I would be grounded at hard labor until I was 50.
Roy was was opening the side door to the covered back porch as I ran clopping down the hard packed dirt and gravel road. He paused until I got up close, asking “where's the possum”. Suddenly he knew what had happened when he got a whiff of me from about ten feet away.
That's far enough; if you go in smelling like that they'll have to burn the house to get rid of your stink.”
He was in deep thought for a few seconds and then said “You're going to have to stay in the smokehouse tonight and we can try to figure out what to do with you in the morning.”
I thought he would go into the house and get me some blankets but I should have know better.
He said “Stay right there”, opened the smokehouse door and went inside. I heard him rattle about inside for a few minutes and he came out grinning and said “Your bed's ready”.
Before embarking on my noble quest, I put Luke, a young and overly enthusiastic beagle and my best friend, on the back porch. His presence in the field would have upset the possums. When Roy was opening the back door, Luke jumped outside, sampling the air with nose held high. After a couple of sniffs and a glance in my direction, he went to the coal pile, cocked his leg on on a big hunk, then made a wide circle around me and headed for his digs under the front porch. I was abandoned by my best friend; he would have no spiritual advice for me on that night.
About the same time, my mother, Dot, came into the yard, having gotten off at midnight from her job at a textile mill in Johnson City. A special bus ran to Jonesborough for the many employees who lived in the area and she had exited about a mile from home and walked to the house.
She started to say something, sucked in a stuttering breath, and finally let out an “Oh, God! Wayne I hope it's Roy stinking and not you!” When Roy laughed she realized the truth; her son had been baptized by Mother Nature. Roy quickly sized up the situation for her and at the same time granny came to the back door, having heard the voices. She took one sniff and slammed the door shut.
Dot and Roy stood well back as I eased into the smokehouse to see what accommodations he had prepared for me. I found the old, rust encrusted fold-away bed with a pile of feed and tater sacks laying on it; my penitence was beginning. Dot thought about coming in to help me, but the stench was just too much. She said “I hope the sacks are enough to keep you from getting frostbite and I hope you remember this lesson for a long time.” I for one was sure the lesson would be permanently engraved on my brain's blackboard.
Thankfully my stinking coat was thickly lined with flannel and cotton batting so that it would ease the discomfort of the bed springs. For a pillow, I wadded up a ratty smelling flour sack that had at one time held a ham for curing, laid down on the bed, and arranged the pile of sacks over me the best I could; the musky malodor from the ham sack barely tempered the stench of skunk still in my nose. The bit of sweat I worked up in my exertions was beginning to chill my bones and there I shivered the 25 degree night away as even colder moonlight sliced between ill-fitting boards of the airy shed and I thought over a long life as a daydreaming wastrel, wondering if I had a future or would soon die from pneumonia complicated by sin and exposure; in the back of my mind I could hear the church bell tolling my 14 useless years. No one would want to attend the wake and funeral of a boy who smelled so gamey.
Once in mid-shiver, I got off the cot and placed more of the sacks beneath me; not only were the springs tormenting my flesh but I was feeling a lot of coldness on my backside. After laying back down and rearranging my pitiful covers, I felt a little less cold; real warmth was the Gordian Knot plaguing the stillness. Another time I had to get up to relieve my bladder; I thought about doing it on myself just for the warmth but reluctantly decided it'd be best if I didn't have ice forming against my skin. I peed through a crack in the back wall of the shed.
At 4:00 am, I heard some stirring inside the house; granny always got up at that time and built a fire in the living room coal-burning fireplace. I heard the back door creak open, heard her sniff the air a couple of times, go to the coal pile where she picked up a few pieces of kindling wood and a bucket of coal and went back inside. I could imagine the warmth of the fire soothing my frigid body and a cup of coffee easing the chill from around innards. However, I knew I might as well be on the back side of the full moon for all the sympathy I would get from my loving family; it would still be several frigid hours before I could expect any relief.
Somewhere around seven o'clock, the house began coming to life as Roy and Uncle Fred had a cup of coffee in a warm kitchen and granny laid out their breakfast at the small kitchen table. Biscuits, gravy, and some of the last jar of the previous year's canned pork sausage. My goose-pimpled mind's eye could see me with them, slicing open a hot biscuit then applying layers of freshly churned butter and fresh-made apple butter. My repenting gained in seriousness as I heard the activity and smelled the goodness of country life from inside.
As the sun broke over the hill, the old, gray dominecker rooster darted out of the hen house long enough to pathetically flap a couple wing beats and bleat a single cock-a-doodle before rushing back inside to the warmth of his harem. Fred and Roy came outside and checked to see if I had weathered the night. Opening the shed door just enough to see if I was moving, Fred gave me his fake scolding look and Roy grinned from one big ear to the next. “You can come out and sit on the sill and get some sun if you want to” he said in his most sympathetic tone. As quickly as I could unlimber, I did just as he advised but I kept the ham sack wrapped Bedouin-like around my head to keep my nose and ears from falling off.
Fred removed a round washtub from the side of the smokehouse while Roy squatted and built a fire beneath the iron outdoor kettle-stand near the coal pile. They both got buckets from the back porch and began drawing water from the cistern near the house corner and pouring it into the tub which was now perched over the cracking fire; the flames and soon warming water were very attractive to my still chattering teeth.
In a while, granny came out and shaved some lye soap into the water which was just beginning to mist. I hated washing with lye soap; it left me feeling as if I had been skinned and ready for the frying pan myself. On a large chunk of nearby felled tree trunk, she placed the remainder of the bar of soap, a wash rag, a fairly stiff brush more fitting to curry a horse than to clean a human, and a couple of worn out towels.
Uncle Roy, a wannabe sadist, timed everything just right. He had me reluctantly stripped naked just as my school bus came by and stopped in front of the house. About 25 of my peers rushed to the near windows to see that my pitiful pale body had not yet grown one hair other than the ones atop my head. I heard giggling screams from the girls and hooting guffaws from the boys as the windows were lowered and the bus door swung open. The boy I disliked most in the whole world jumped out the door, pointing and laughing at my embarrassment which caused my body to flush away the last vestiges of the cold night. Fortunately and before I swooned, my uncles had lifted the tub to the ground and I jumped into it, not caring if it was hot enough to scald my already ruddy skin. Not quickly enough to suit me, the grinning bus driver waved, closed the door, and drove off with my future history besmirching the faces of 25 kids aged from six to eighteen. I would long rue that day.
I grabbed the rag and soap and began washing while granny closely watched. As soon as I had enough scent off me to be approachable, she picked up the brush, soaped it good, and began scrubbing; again I had to stand up, naked to an uncaring world. This went on for three tub-fulls of hot water and scrubbing. My mother finally came out to help descent her only child and when I was declared legally if not morally cleansed of skunk perfume, I was given old and ragged clothing and instructed to spend the remainder of the day repenting my sins and washing the stink from my good school clothes. The coat never did come clean enough and had to be buried behind the coal pile. They did allow me to go onto the back porch for meals but I was not let into the house proper until that evening after getting a good sniff test from granny. It took several days and many more baths before I was finally and completely cleansed.
Granny's stern gazes mellowed a bit when Uncle Roy told her what I had been trying to do when I misjudged a skunk for a possum. My family never punished me for my crime, but I was never allowed to forget it either. Even now, the sight of a roadkill skunk brings back memories of that gall-bitter autumn night.
The minute I boarded the yellow bus the next morning wearing a hand-me-down coat, my hatred for school and burning dislike for many of my fellow students began, which of course made things worse for me until the day I graduated. From then on, I could never make eye contact with any of my female classmates but I could imagine the disparaging grins on their faces.
As far as I know, granny never had her possum for supper but she didn't again mention craving one, at least not when I was within earshot.