Sunday, May 15, 2016

Not Zen 185: The Possum Army

"Sisters, brothers, we must overthrow the bear." The opossum at the center of the gathering clambered onto a great rock. She raised her snout and her front paws.

"He takes one or two of us in most years." She leaned forward for emphasis. "That's as our mothers and grandmothers told us. But this spring, he didn't stop. This autumn, he's eaten more of us than we can count. He's killed our neighbors, friends, and strangers. How many of you have seen their pups grow to maturity?"

She turned to her left flank. Her snout swept to indicate the members of the crowd that she could see. Although she was near-sighted, she understood there were opossums in the crowd behind the range of her vision. She could smell them. She lifted her voice.

"Any?" she cried. The others knew that she had lost her litter to the bear. An account of it had made the rounds, as had many sorts of similar news this year.

The possums lived as nomads. They hiked well-established trails within their territories. They built temporary dens and leaf nests for shelter. Sometimes they used one another's dens and traded stories but that was as close as they came to being social. As a rule, they did not gather together in groups of more than four or five adults. There weren't enough snakes, slugs, and berries to eat for that. Only their dire situation with the bear had forced them into a community response. They risked going hungry every time they gathered to talk.

"We must act now, to flee or fight," she said.

"Flee," murmured a nearby female. "He digs open our dens and slays everyone inside them. He finds us in the trees. Even at night, he attacks. Lying like the dead appears to be no defense."

The opossums close to the center rose up on their hind legs to see the two speakers better. All of their kind bore fur that mixed brown, white, grey, and black hair. The female on the ground seemed to be gray and white. The one atop of the rock bore an unusual amount of brown streaks. The white around her snout and her black ears, however, seemed more dramatic.

"Individually, we are tough," the leader countered. "We all catch and eat lizards."

"I withstood a cougar," said one male, possibly just bragging.

"I fought off a fox," said another. The other males leaned closer. That seemed believable.

"Individually, we are smart," she said. She seemed to understand that the other opossums prided themselves on this. Even the female who had wanted to flee dipped her head in agreement.

"I don't just play dead," she spoke up to her cousin on the rock. "I can smell dead, too."

"Yes, but I find eggs wherever they're hidden," said another.

"I follow the squirrels and dig up their food," announced the male who had beaten back a fox. The other opossums in the circle turned to look at him. Many seemed to take note of his trick. They opened their mouths and panted in anticipation of cracked nuts. Surely, there would be a few more opossums following squirrels next fall.

"We are smaller than the bear," announced the leader. "But we are tougher."

"Right," the female below her tilted her body as she thought. "We stay awake all winter. We brave the snows while the bear hides."

"We could attack the bear while it sleeps!" a male shouted.

"Yes! Sisters and brothers, that is the way." Their leader twitched and danced on her perch. "We know the cave. The hibernation season is beginning. This is the time. Tonight at dusk, we must gather and attack."

That evening, a horde of opossums crept across a meadow to the mouth of the bear's cave. From above, an owl stared down in disbelief. The backs of the animals were visible as they parted the grass. How had they gathered into an army? They seemed to be a well organized one, too. The leader, in the middle of the pack, deployed her heaviest males to the front and to either side. The opossums, incredibly, seemed to be aware that they were advancing on the lair of their greatest predator.

Below, their leader reminded the males in front of her to claw at the bear's eyes. If they could reach them while the bear was asleep, they had a chance. Failing that, they had to drive their enemy crazy with bites and force it to flee their mountain. Let it sort out its territory problems with other bears. If even that proved impossible, their only hope was to infect the bear. The leader herself had gnawed on a decaying bird corpse in the hope of poisoning herself and the killer of her children. She felt prepared to die.

"Tell the others to block the mouth of the cave," she said to the female in front of her. The opossums communicated as they always did, relaying messages from one individual to the next. "Give the monster no escape."

The message passed down the battle lines.

At the mouth of the cave, the lead males could see the bear. The leader herself could hear it. She could smell the creature's mighty breath right down to the bits of rotten flesh in its teeth. She knew that it was time for the bear to hibernate but she feared that it had not yet settled. The opossums would not gather like this again. This was her only chance.

The males grew nervous. They hesitated to cross from the grass to the rocky shelf of the cave.

The bear huffed. He turned over in his sleep so that he faced the army of opossums. Their battle reflexes took over. For a moment, every member of the army thought of himself or herself first.

Then the bear awoke. His eyeslits parted. He gazed out from the cave. What he saw in the meadow beyond was a battlefield of opossums. That had all turned over in the grass. They appeared dead, flat on their backs, legs curled at their sides or in the air. 

The odd lay of the clumps of grass in the distance hinted to the bear that there were even more opossums that he couldn't see.

He lumbered toward them. He snuffled the closest body. How could this animal, he wondered, and how could all of them in a herd come to be poisoned or diseased? Why would they collapse together? He had lived alongside these animals for many years. He thought he knew their tricks. They didn't form groups. It took him a long time to understand what might have happened. 

"You are not a pack," the bear snorted. He nudged the closest one. It wobbled as if its limbs were locked by rigor mortis. "You are all individuals, really. You don't work together. This tactic can't apply to a whole team."

The leader among the opossums twitched her nose. With a tremendous effort, she threw off her instincts. Her force of will, powered by rage, overcame her fainting response. With a kick of her legs, she turned over. She faced her opponent.

"Today we are an army," she said.

"Oh brave possum," he replied. "Even if you trained yourself so that your body would not betray you, even if you trained all of your cousins, you would need more than this. I have met packs of wolves. I have followed the buffalo. I know that, in a team, not everyone gets to keep the honey they find. No one gets their own territory. Hardly anyone gets to spend their lives nibbling berries or singing to the trees. Most must do the work that the group needs done. So you can train mighty warriors. But until you learn to sacrifice for one another, you can't have an army."

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