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Field & Street

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Ears are one of those body parts that strike us as funny--silly, floppy pieces of boneless flesh of infinite varied designs, colors, and contours. All the actual hearing hardware is deep in the ear canal, so you get the idea we could do without these things. Yet we know to cup our hand into an extension of the ear when we need to hear better. We find that the ear is a wonderful place to hang ornaments. And which of us hasn't come to appreciate this delicate thing gazing back at us from our lover's pillow?

Two boys were standing out front of the library on one of those recent deep cold days. I was idling in a toasty-warm car waiting for a friend. These boys had large, naked ears shooting out from their close-cropped heads like red flares, like flame throwers, like great, flapping Soviet flags. The abuse! I invited them into my car to warm up but they wisely refused, preferring the known danger of frozen ears to the horrible possibilities of a stranger's car.

Seeing those ears throb and flutter in the wind reminded me of a walk I took last fall with my friend Karen and her kids, my ma, and my sons, Jamal and Eli, through woods at Sauganash prairie, part of the Labaugh Woods forest preserve. The flickering and blinking of a soft Indian summer sun through golden elm and red oak leaves made it hard to believe we were in the middle of one of the world's great megalopolises.

Eli was on my shoulders, an immensely heavy 30 pounds, holding onto my ears for reins. Jamal had drawn his head into his shirt to escape the mosquitoes that had come out to greet us. Karen's daughter Emily sort of guided Jamal down the path, since he couldn't see. Like the best intentioned of us, they somehow strayed and Jamal found himself entangled in some woody shrubs.

"Aaaahhhhh!" Jamal whooped. His head popped back out through the shirt hole. Every cell in his body seemed to leap away from the frightful thing he'd seen. And right after his scream came the weird, otherworldly yodel of a young possum--"Yeehhhayk!"-- disturbed from his sleep, his mouth opened so wide it was all Jamal had seen from his side of the cotton mesh T-shirt: two beautiful triangles of pink mouth, edged with sharp, tiny teeth, yelling like E.T. discovered by the little sister. He lounged on a spindly branch, hanging on with one humanoid hand, one nonhumanoid foot, and one muscular prehensile tail. Funny little ears tipped in black, he glared at us all and then relaxed as we backed off, this lovely creature in this flickering light.

Months later we saw a cousin of this possum reclining on a yew branch outside our front door, just off the river near Montrose. He seemed relaxed, and we felt proud that he'd selected our home and that he didn't run.

Didelphis virginiana, the Northern or Virginia opossum, is our only native marsupial. Its ancestors crossed north over the newly risen isthmus of Panama some three million years ago, as did many other mammals in a great continental interchange. Opossums and armadillos are the only two real success stories among the South American mammal-emigre population, the opossum extending its range even across the frigid Canadian border. The greatest cause of death for this charming creature, after the automobile, is frostbite. Possums can't tolerate deep cold. When temperatures dip below 17 degrees Fahrenheit it must scurry to its den, curl up into a tight, furry ball, nestle in leaves and litter, and try to wait it out. But because opossums don't hibernate they're often faced with the dilemma of choosing between hunger and freezing. Its delicate pink ears, which curl and fold up when it sleeps and reinflate slowly after waking, are often black-tipped--nibbled by frostbite. This itinerant, crepuscular omnivore, which needs at least 14 acres of riverine woodland to sustain itself in the wild, has somehow adapted successfully to a peripheral, urban-woods niche, undoubtedly supplementing its traditional woodsy diet with table scraps.

D. virginiana mothers, like all marsupial females, have two vaginas (Di delphis = two vaginas) through which 20 or more peanut-sized embryos emerge, usually in February, just 13 days after conception. These tiny neonates haul themselves up with their well-developed forelegs in a race to the marsupial pouch, following a path marked by the mother's saliva. There the young seek out and suckle 1 of the 13 maternal teats. Once the baby is firmly attached, the tip of the nipple swells, latching the tiny possum securely in place. Any that don't reach a teat perish.

The possum young develop rapidly in the marsupium, never leaving the nipple for almost two months, by which time they have grown to a length of 3.8 inches and a weight of seven-tenths of an ounce. About this time they first leave the marsupial crib to crawl over and explore their mother's body. At about 100 days the young are weaned and strike out on their own. A second litter is common 100 to 110 days after the first.

Opossums have a very short life span, usually two years in the wild. A solitary, originally arboreal species, it has adapted to life on the woodland floor, puttering about awkwardly on five-fingered paws. The rear set includes unclawed, opposable thumbs. Most of us have heard of the possum's unique defense against imminent attack: playing dead. Less well known is the actor's dedication to the part. In Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals Patricia Major says the animal "lies on its side...its tail rolled up, mouth and eyes gaping open, hands and feet partially closed as though they were about to seize hold of something. It almost seems as if the animal actually knows what a dead opossum looks like." Major distinguishes the opossum's routine from the "freeze" technique many animals use to avoid being noticed. Possums apparently have a physiological switch that turns off any potential "live" signals that might inspire attack. "The opossum that revives needs to recuperate a while before continuing on its way," Major notes.

I went to the river for a few chilled, silent moments last November, under a portentous late sun, the trees shaking loose their last remaining leaves. A pile of debris choked the river's edge near where I sat. I leaned over the bank and recognized it as the burnt-out hulk of a plastic city garbage can, supporting, raftlike, a charred cargo of beer bottles and fused domestic detritus. It was too bulky a load to haul out from my perch on the riverbank, so I went home for some rubber boots and gloves.

When I got back, I stepped through the reflected sky to the river's muddy bottom through a growth of aquatic weed that must have been dumped from someone's aquarium. A condom floated by like some horrible, blue, gosssamer cephalopod. Trying to loosen the garbage bin from the bank I grasped it by the rear wheels, still intact and stabilizing the craft like a rudder. It heaved easily away, exposing what I at first thought was a garment but quickly realized was a corpse, a possum, possibly the same one that had visited me a few nights before. Its eyes were gone, but otherwise the body was whole, the fur a thick and bristly silver, grading to black and white markings. And that prodigious tail.

A neighbor helped me carry the wreckage to the alley for disposal, and I brought back a shovel, scooped out this possum brother, and buried it with the most insignificant of eulogies: a glance at the sky, at the waters, the soil pressed down, dry leaves and twigs scattered on top.

I guessed this: someone had seen the harmless creature squeeze its way under a garbage lid to munch on someone's discarded cauliflower leaves, maybe, and mistook it for a huge rat. And with a sense of urgency and purpose not unlike that felt by Klansmen and vigilantes everywhere, and having too much time and not enough smarts, doused the bin with gas and struck it afire. Later, my friend Jerry told me that the Fire Department had responded the night before to a call about a trash bin on fire on Pensacola Street.

I sat on a bench for a moment, and it crossed my mind that maybe the animal was just doing a great job of playing dead. But then I remembered the missing eyes and the pink snout submerged in water. I sat, myself passing for dead for some lonely moments, then uncurled my ears, cleared my head, and lumbered off on my own itinerant way.

And now here I sit on the bench again, vapors screaming off the surface of the river. A river made unfreezable by the radiator additives poured down floor drains and sewer grates. The vapors congeal and cling to the skeletal remains of riverside shrubs and weeds, shrouding them in white. And I think about the possums hiding here somewhere, waiting it out. Not belonging here. Not really designed for this terrible cold. But nevertheless patching together a living, paying their dues in frostbit ears. Creating sacred ancestral claims to this patch of woods, acquiring lifesaving familiarity with each tree hollow and garbage bin. I think of all the creatures--people living in these parts holed up and shut down, their most pink, fanciful, and delicate accessories ragged and exposed like flowers in the snow.

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