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I decided to go for a walk. I had been bedridden for several days from a fever and general malaise. Cause unknown. I felt being outside in the oppressive heat might rid me from the burden of my thoughts. So I set out on my journey, hobbling like an invalid. My hips tight and sore from lack of movement.
I tried to look at everything with different eyes. As if I had never seen any of it before. Which was quite the contrary. I had taken this route for several days before the illness had taken hold and left me housebound. But I was surprised to find that actually, there were so many new things to be discovered on this walk. On this day.
I noticed a pair of bright teal doors to a two-family flat I’d passed by many times. But now they stood presenting themselves to me, as if installed just yesterday. My eyes just never saw them. I continued on my journey, eager to know what other hidden treasures remained undiscovered by my negligent eyes.
My gait was awkward. Each step felt unnatural and forced. Like a quadruped made to walk on its hind legs for show. I was almost certain my legs would collapse underneath the weight of my body at any given moment. I wasn’t heavy, my legs just felt abnormally weak. And they were, as was everything else in my body. I just didn’t know it yet.
Feeling spontaneous, I diverted from my usual path. I turned right down Lovella Avenue. What a strange name. I assumed I could cut through this street to reach my regular trail a block or two down the road. There were two small squirrels, I’m almost certain they were babies, running back and forth in the street. Flourishing. This made me happy. Babies make me happy.
As I approached, they scurried off to clear the way. Further down the sidewalk I saw two more obstacles. A pair of black cats. But unlike the squirrels, they were anticipating my arrival. They sat and stared, waiting for me to approach them. When I finally did, the scruffy black one asked to be petted while his friend looked on from a safe distance talking to me in meows. I spent a few minutes with them. Contemplating their life. Hoping they were safe, okay, loved, well-cared for. If I was more insane than I already was I would have taken them home, but their presumed owner was standing in the doorway. So I kissed them on their heads and went on my way. That’s when I saw it.
An opossum. Blonde, not gray. Small. Strange to be seen out in the middle of the day. I thought they were nocturnal. It didn’t notice me, so I called to it. Making kissing noises to get its attention. From what I knew about opossums they were aggressive, so I was surprised that this one did not seek to engage with me despite my best efforts. I watched it cross the street. It didn’t look well. Each step it took seemed to take a great effort. It seemed tired and I understood. My heart hurt, but I continued on my walk. Past deceased worms on the sidewalk, bloated from the heat of the sun. Whenever I saw them alive, I tried to save them. But for so many, it was too late. This, I also understood.
Two blocks further down and I’d reached a dead end. There was no indication of this when I made the initial right down Lovella Avenue. I felt conned. All this walking for nothing. Just another dead end, like my life. I turned around in frustration, ready to return home when I saw it again.
It had made it across the street and was sitting by a truck in the driveway of a pristinely manicured lawn in front of a pristinely manicured house. Something I knew I would never have the luxury of owning in this life. I said hello to the opossum as I had to the squirrels and the cats, but the opossum said hello back. I paused. Unsure if my insanity had reached its apex under the blistering sun and days of fever. But it continued on. It was a she, I could tell by the voice. She asked me to stop for a moment and listen to her.
I sat down on the lawn under the shade of a Dogwood tree. She came closer and sat next to me. I was silent, waiting to hear her story. She told me she was old, nearly two now, and tired. Not much longer for this earth. Her last litter of babies had been poisoned by people and died. She was dying from the poison, too. I felt sad for her, I could tell she was hurting and I wanted to ease her pain. I asked her to sit in my lap and let me hold her for a while as she talked. I would listen to her endlessly, for as long as she desired.
She told me about her youth. She was born not far from here, near a dumpster behind the supermarket off Clayton Avenue. She was one of twenty-two joeys, but her mother only had thirteen teats and nine of her siblings perished from starvation in infancy. Nature is cruel. Her childhood was short-lived. She witnessed the death of her mother at four months old, hit by a car filled with teenage boys having their idea of fun on a Midwestern Friday night. “People hate us,” she said, “and I don’t know why. We just want to live, is that too much to ask?”
Humans are cruel. I began to quietly weep and my tears fell onto her matted coat, covered in dirt and fleas. I didn’t want her to die, she was special, but I could feel the shortness of her breath and her weak heartbeat. I told her I wanted to take her home and rehabilitate her and maybe we could live together, happily ever after.
She told me she was ready to die. After watching her babies succumb to the poison she didn’t see a reason to go on. All she asked was that I sit with her and listen for as long as I could. She told me about her adventures. After her mother died, her and her siblings had to fend for themselves. Some set off on their own and she never saw them again. She stayed together with three of her sisters and for some time they lived peacefully in a vacant lot. She raised her first litter there in paradise, but land developers purchased the lot shortly after and began construction so they had to move again. With babies in tow, she was too slow to keep up with her sisters, so they parted ways and she began her journey alone.
By then she was nearly eight months old. She had seven babies in her first litter. She was successful in raising them all to adulthood, which was an extraordinary feat for a first time mother. Now and then she would cross paths with them around the neighborhood. Many had families of their own now. They would stop and chat for a bit, but everyone was busy just trying to survive. Not much time could be spared. She told me one of her sons died from an attack by a dog. He was her first born son, Ico. I could hear the sadness in her tone as she told me this. Her voice trembling and weaker by the minute.
For many months after her first litter she lived alone, taking refuge in a feral cat colony near the Recplex. People felt bad for the stray cats and would feed them regularly. No one ever feels bad for opossums. The cats were kind enough to share their food with her despite their differences. Then one rainy day the local animal control came by and rounded up all the cats, never to be seen again. Shortly thereafter, the food stopped coming and she moved on.
She made many friends along her short journey, but many of them also perished. Hit by cars, attacked by animals, hurt by humans. Life seemed so unfair she questioned why it had to be like this. She struggled for many months, deciding whether or not to conceive again. It didn’t seem right to bring more babies into this world of chaos and suffering. But then she met Aris.
They fell in love quickly and lived for many months near the outdoor Home and Garden section of Home Depot. Eventually she became pregnant and when she told Aris, he was elated. It was his first litter. He left that evening to go forage for food to bring back to her and the growing babies, but by sunrise he hadn’t returned and never did.
Alone and pregnant, she needed protection. She had seen several neighboring opossums in the area and reached out for help. An older female named Kaiza took pity on her growing belly and agreed to take her in. Kaiza was almost three years old when she met her, ancient for an opossum, and refused to have more babies. She had seen the horrors of man and could not allow for the possibility of more suffering than already existed. She stayed with Kaiza until the babies were born nearly two weeks later.
Not wanting to be a burden on her elder, she decided to leave with her five babies in her pouch. She felt strong and hopeful she could fend for them alone and set off to live in a nearby park. Her babies grew in the park and played and had many experiences exploring the wonders of nature. She had discovered a bag of food near the playground, a prize, that she took back to her offspring, now big enough to venture outside her pouch. She fed the five of them a cheeseburger, fries, and chicken nuggets. They were happy at the feast their mother had brought home to them.
That evening two of her smaller ones fell ill. She stayed with them the whole night, not wanting to leave their side to find more food. By sunrise she awoke to her greatest horror. All five of them were cold, lifeless. They died in their sleep from the food they ate that had no doubt been poisoned. She stayed by their side all day. Crying. Feeling incredibly guilty for feeding them the food that killed them. She found the scraps from the bag and ate them ravenously. She didn’t want to go on in a world like this.
And now here she was, almost lifeless herself, laying in my lap. To me, a small little baby. I cradled her and cried with her. I told her I was sorry people were so cruel and that her babies were no longer suffering. I told her I had so much I wanted to share with her if she would only let me take her to a vet, but her breathing was labored and she told me the end would be soon. I told her I would take her body and I would bury it in my backyard so she would never be alone again, she would always have a place with me. I asked her name to put on the tombstone and she replied with her last breath, “Nila.”
I sat there motionless for some time. Sobbing into her fur. Feeling like I’d lost an old friend, perhaps the only one in the world who ever truly understood me. Eventually the owners of the house came outside to move the car. I must have been a strange sight, crying with a dead opossum in my lap. I stood up, holding her still warm body, and began to walk home.
About two blocks down the road I crossed paths with a dead bird. Its head bent upwards unnaturally towards the sky. I didn’t have a chance to meet the bird while it was still alive, but I picked it up all the same and placed it gently on top of Nila’s body as I continued my journey home.
Maybe her name was Nila, too. Like the opossum.