'Well, that was unexpected.'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.


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7 Responses to Revival

  1. Charles October 30, 2014 at 1:19 pm #

    Principal John —

    I wonder how many of your students have heard of the phrase, “Playing possum?” Probably not many. And of those who have, kids and adults, I’ll bet fewer knows what it means, or seen where it comes from. Consider yourselves among the lucky few.

    The possum (or opossum, if you want to be dictionary correct about it) has a unique defense mechanism: when it feels threatened, it plays dead. Not your peaceful, rest in peace, dead, but a matted dirty half rotted looking dead. Most predators won’t eat something they haven’t killed themselves, and even the hungriest scavengers won’t eat rotten meat, lest the bugs and other creepy crawlies in the carcass start in on them.

    So when he’s scared or cornered, the possum plays dead until the danger is past, or they can see a way out. Then they get up and run for the nearest bush or tree. Scares the daylights out of the witnesses, as you experienced.

    Congratulations to you and your class, Principal John. You are now officially country folk. Of course we have to make allowances for your living in the city, but I’m sure we can work that out.


  2. Miriam October 30, 2014 at 1:21 pm #

    Absolutely charming story. Must be included in your book…including that butterfly!

  3. Collin October 30, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

    Great story, well told. Everything is pitch perfect until I get to the last sentence. I’d be inclined to try something like: Such are the wonders and mysteries I’ll carry home today, more alive for having witnessed it all.

    Obviously slight tinkering. The whole thing felt like a song and the perfectionist in me wants it to fly all the way to the last line.

  4. Em October 30, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

    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 a mysteries that I?ll carry home in my shoulder bag today, lucky to be living and witness to it all.


  5. Elizabeth October 30, 2014 at 1:24 pm #

    Grateful for your eloquence & storytelling. What a wonderful gift!
    Thank you! May I share (or is this the beginning of a series of short stories you will one day publish)?

  6. Peggy October 30, 2014 at 1:25 pm #

    Have I told you lately how much I love your writing??? This is wonderful, I was laughing out loud at work, bringing curious glances!! You have such a gift..

  7. Kay October 30, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

    I LOVED this one! I am still giggling!! The playground is so great for this and many more reasons! Keep up the good writing!
    See you soon!

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