Raymond, stout little boy with a loud mouth, popped off first: Dead rat in the trash can! Dead rat in the trash can!” The scream caught my ear. And even from across the playground, I could hear and see him pointing into the dented can. He kept up the racket:
Dead rat! Eww!
Six seconds later, two children ran to him. Then three more. Then nine and soon a knot of little bodies closed in a ring around Exhibit A. Screams bounced off screams. The crowd grew beyond thirty, and now the situation required a direct response.
Crossing our playground from corner to corner, even at a brisk pace, can take a minute. Much can happen in sixty seconds. Here, even as I crossed, a string of pint-sized town criers approached to provide me with a shifting report. First, the story of a dead rat. Then, an account of a dead bird. Last the rumor of a cat. “Dead” remained a constant. All else was in flux.
Three girls dashed into the building to bring out Mr. Anthony, our custodian. He made a slow approach toward the crowd, and brought along a short-handled shovel and broom. We arrived at the scene together and leaned in for a look.
There, beneath a stack of potato chip bags and boxed juice containers, I saw a big, pink tail, too big for a rat but motionless for sure. Looks dead to me, I think I said. You got this? I said to Anthony. I got this, Principal.
He jabbed the shovel through debris as children sucked in air and held their breath. When he got underneath the critter, he could then pull it up. A wet matted body rose up, and new screams went out. There, flat out on his shovel, lay what looked to be the biggest dead wet rat we had ever seen.
See, blurted Raymond. A dead rat!
That ain’t no rat, Anthony said. It’s a ‘possum! No such thing as a rat that big.
He lay his dusting cloth over the little animal, paused, and with shovel extended front-ward, made one slow 180 degree turn. Then, we marched in a slow-jazz processional, all fifty of us, onward to the dumpsters on the other side.
Stay back, boys and girls. Anthony shouted. Step back.
When we reached the dumpster’s edge, Anthony lifted the little body, and paused again. But here we should have known we were not finished. Not at all. In fact, in the midst of Anthony’s pause, one more surprising thing happened. The opossum, thought to be dead, sprang up, locked eyes with the crowd, and jumped from its shovely funeral bed. The screech that rose up this time – as principal and children dove for cover – may have been unprecedented.
When we lifted our heads, our matted, wet friend had fled.
It came and went like that. Discovery, death, and revival. Anthony, sudden minister, now stood silent. But his grade-school congregation began story telling and bean spilling across the yard. ‘Possum’ became monster, able to jump twenty feet, a creature that could fly and become invisible. For me the moment stood on its own terms. Anthony’s first words following the silence: We don’t die till we do.
Gratitude for the critter that can play dead. Awe for a creature that can rise up. The miracle of a death-bed revival. Such are the wonders and mysteries I’ll carry home today, more alive for having witnessed it all.