Tails to Go by Bill LaRocque
All that’s left of the old forests of Asheville’s Montford neighborhood are occasional stands of eighty foot oaks whose long, leafy branches furnish welcome shade and homes for a few native wildlife.
Just listen to the morning’s opera libretto — choruses of song birds, woodpecker percussion, and high branch solos from sentry crows. Carefree squirrels love all the acorns, and chatter their news as they play. They take every chance to arouse any remnants of gray wolf DNA in the many barking pet dogs walking on leashes, captive behind their smart fences, or imprisoned on screened porches.
Some of the animal’s stories began long long ago. While their tales have been retold for thousands of generations, there’s always room for a new chapter.
In a cozy den in a crawl space underneath a student cottage at the edge of Montford live John and Paula Opossum. The “O” is silent because about 225 million years ago the great mega-continent Pangaea slowly separated to form the continents of the Americas, Europe and Australia. Opossum’s marsupial ancestors wanted to follow their cousins the O’tters and the O’striches to live in Ireland. But they only got as far as Alabama where they became roadkill and their neighbors just called them the “Possums.” But the Montford possums kept the “O” because they still dream of getting to Ireland one day.
Their life is easier now that John and Paula are both retired. They live on crickets and acorns and Chipotle scraps the students throw away. Still nocturnal, they don’t party as much now, and at Paula’s urging both are now attending the Retired Appalachian Critters’ School. Three nights a week they follow the brook and culverts up the big hill and take classes on history, hang by your tail yoga, old music, and playing dead. During breaks, they chat with friends about their aches and pains and how the kids never visit.
Thicker woods can still be found nearby on the shores of the French Broad River. Evenings, some raccoons, opossums, white-tailed deer, brown bats and a few weary trash can urban black bears come down for a drink, and to tell stories about the old days and the great times they remember. High up in their dreys, the squirrels are all asleep, exhausted from their day of taunting the neighborhood dogs, laughing and acorn-tossing.
Old John wanted to go down by the river again tonight to look for his raccoon chum, Murray.
He and Murray had gone to school together and he was the “best bud” at John’s wedding to Paula. Whenever John leaves for some time with his pals, Paula tells him to be careful and stay away from any queen snakes.
Near the river bank John spots Murray laughing it up with two crows, his thick striped tail twitching.
“Hey” said John. “What’s so funny? Why are these crows down here on the ground?”
“Just be-caws,” Murray smirked. “They’re just raven about being charged for their carrion luggage.”
John groaned, then laughed. “Your crow puns murder me.”
Most critters have some sense of humor and the smartest ones enjoy a little wordplay, but the bad jokes were too much even for the bats. They squeaked overhead and returned to hunting fireflies who quickly scattered, turning off their tail lights.
In the evening moonlight John and Murray watched a great buck drinking warily, pausing to sniff for danger. His doe and fawn were close by in the underbrush. Then suddenly he bolted and disappeared into the dark.
“Uh, oh deer” said John.”Not your puns, this time”
“Damn, I’m outa here,” echoed Murray.
A pack of hungry, tattooed, hillbilly coyotes were sneaking up with noses close to the ground and tails low and stiff. “Fresh possum and coon will taste good tonight, eh boys?” snarled one.
“Not tonight,” thought John.
“Let’s go,” snapped Murray. The crows had disappeared.
Up into a nearby chestnut oak the opossum and raccoon scampered alerting a pileated woodpecker who was trying to nap. The coyotes circled the tall tree, looking up and whining.
“Billy Joe? barked Jeb, the coyote pack leader. “You forgot the durn ladder didn’t you?”
Billy Joe just lowered his head and said nothin’.
“They’ll have to come down,” growled Jeb. “We’ll jes’ wait.”
Meanwhile, John wrapped his strong naked tail around a high branch and lowered himself headfirst. With one eye slightly open he whispered,“I’m dead if anyone asks.” He grinned.
Murray climbed up three branches higher, scanning the evening treetops, looking for his crow friends. Nothin’ yet.
Then, after a few minutes, they heard, “Caw, caw, caw,” and saw a small group of crows circling their tree. The crows settled and roosting nearby.
“Hey Murray,” cawed the head crow, “We see you and those stupid dog things down there. We’ll wake up the squirrels be-caws they hate dumb dogs and they’ll be happy to distract them so you won’t be caw-t and can get away.”
“Much appreciated,” said Murray. He ignored the puns this time.
“Can they do that?” asked John, now with both eyes wide open.
Squirrels sleep very lightly and so were soon gathered in the branches just above the coyotes. They chattered insults and some really nasty taunts so that even a few of the crows blushed. Some of the younger squirrels dropped to the ground and ran close to Jeb.
One of the squirrels snickered, “These red-neck dog cousins are even dumber than those Dobermans and Labradoodles up the hill.” Hah, hah, this is fun.”
Jeb hollered, “I can’t stand these friggin’ little pests. Let’s get ‘em boys!”
The coyotes ran off in all directions trying to catch the squirrels, who were all laughing.
“That’s it.” said Murray “Time to get outa here.”
He and John scooted down from their tree. They knew a secret way up the hill back to Montford. After a little branch hopping, Murray was back in his home territory, checking pet dishes left out on porches.
John told Paula all about his great time with Murray — minus the coyotes, the crows and the squirrels.
“And no queen snakes,” he said to reassure her.
“Yes dear,” Paula murmured.