The babies of a first-time possum mother must have names that begin with the letter A
. This explains to half sisters and half brothers, cousins and aunts, uncles, grandparents, and other relatives how they each fit into their own possum family.
Second-batch babies (according to possum tradition) use the letter B
. Not many possum mothers reach G,
but there's a clan on the edge of the city dump that claims enough litters for the babies to have Z
names. There are rumors that they skipped ahead and there's no way of knowing for sure, but it's a fact that there is a group of possums at the dump named Zeke and Zack and Zelda and Zoe and Zita and Zalman and Zehra and Zeus and Ziggy, which makes them very, very special.
The A-babies recently born under a rotten log in the middle of a cold night live in their mother's pouch on a lifeline of liquid food. Their eyes open, their fur grows, and so do their bodies.
Two months later they are strong enough to be out in the world. Mama Possum is a free thinker and she encourages her babies to find their own names. So far there is an Antonio and an Alisa. Plus Abdul and Ajax and Alberta and Angie and Allan and Alphonse and Atticus and Alejandro and Augusta.
And there is an Amlet (he wanted to be named Hamlet, but he wasn't an H-baby). But the last one to enter the pouch, the littlest possum that almost didn’t make it to safety, still has no name.
She is seventy-seven days old and must learn possum life, which means she is taking acting lessons. The other possums watch as she wiggles around on a patch of dirt. She's rehearsing being a snake.
Mama Possum, who is a natural theater director, instructs her: "Your tail looks believable. But you need to feel more like a snake in your body. Move from the inside."
The littlest possum raises her hand. Her question isn't about technique; while squirming, she has gotten distracted. That happens to her a lot. "I want everyone to know that there's something hatching above us on the tree," she says.
Antonio calls out, "Those are apple blossoms. And they don’t hatch. They’re flowers." Antonio has answers. Hes just a natural born thinker.
Her brother Ajax starts to laugh. But not in a good way. "She thinks a flower is alive! She's
an apple blossom."
Alberta giggles. "No, she’s not!"
Mama Possum claps her hands together and that signals that it's time to take a break, or at the very least that Ajax should watch his mouthy attitude. But the littlest possum doesn't mind. She knows what Ajax said was meant as an insult, but she likes the way the word sounds: Appleblossom. She raises her voice so that they can all hear: "Today I take the name Appleblossom."
No one answers. So she adds, "Don't try calling me Allison."
Ajax sputters, "We won’t."
And from that moment on, she is Appleblossom the possum.
It isn't long before the break is over and it's time to return to theater class. Appleblossom is happy that it's another possum's turn. Her eyes focus on her sister Angie. She doesn't have to be a snake. She's more advanced and she's doing a scene with Amlet. All of the possums are quiet. This is a very dramatic scene and Angie is a very dramatic possum. She puts her hand to her forehead and moans, "No. No. The drink! Oh, my dear Amlet. The drink, the drink. I am poisoned."
Angie falls to the ground. Her breathing slows to next to nothing. Then her neck stiffens, her arms and legs extend straight out, and her tongue rolls from her mouth.
Appleblossom is horrified, but Mama Possum claps and the rest of the group cheer. There's nothing these possum babies like more than to celebrate a worthy performance. And this is an excellent death scene!
Appleblossom's voice quivers with concern: "Are you sure Angie's okay? She really doesn't look good. Maybe we should check on her."
The smallest possum turns away. She has tears in her eyes. Mama tries to comfort her as she explains that "acting" is a vital part of being a possum.
But none of them has any idea why.Chapter 3
Possums are born into darkness and they stay that way.
They are, as the thinker Antonio says, "nocturnal." And nocturnal things sleep during the day and are awake at night. There is a whole world of creatures that only appear when the sun goes down, and that means that the darkness is very much alive. Lots of birds, along with the small mice in the fields and the rats that creep out of the clumps of ivy and heaps of trash, are also nocturnal.
So are the bushy-tailed raccoons that come down from the hills after the sun sinks into the horizon. Skunks sleep until nightfall unfolds, snuggled underneath porches, or concealed behind rusty gardening tools stacked in the corner of backyards. Many types of spiders emerge from cracks in the bark of trees or the undersides of outdoor furniture only when the sky has gone dark.
Bats take to the air. Moths and black beetles edge away from the camouflage of mottled branches and pitted fences. Enterprising badgers squeeze out from openings behind trash cans and stacks of firewood. Deer hop over fences, entering yards to eat rosebushes and the newly green tops of hedges. Crickets and toads and frogs open their mouths and call out to announce the arrival of darkness.
But not one of these nocturnal animals is like a possum. Because as Mama Possum explains, "None of the other creatures are marsupials
When they first hear this news, all of the possum babies cheer. Alberta starts a chant: "WE ARE MARSUPIALS! WE ARE MARSUPIALS! WE ARE MARSUPIALS!" All of the baby possums join in, and they make a possumid,
which is a pyramid of possums. The cheering goes on for some time before Appleblossom stops to ask: "But what is
The other babies fall silent. Even Antonio, who knows a lot because he likes to investigate, doesn't have this answer. Mama Possum explains: "Marsupials have pouches where their babies live after they are born. Kangaroos and koala bears are marsupials."
Amlet is confused. "What’s a kangaroo or a koala bear?"
Mama Possum's long nose twitches. It does that when she's uncertain. "They don't live around here."
Appleblossom suddenly worries that the kangaroos and koala bears might be lost and need help. She asks, "Should we try to find the other marsupials?"
Mama Possum's ears point skyward in alarm. "No. Absolutely not! You should try to find snails, earthworms, eggs in nests, and fallen apples. Our job is clear. We spend our time digging for beetles and ant colonies. When that doesn't work, we sniff out birdfeeders stocked with seed. We do our best to remove chicken bones from trash cans and the uneaten remains from sticky wrappers flung to the ground. We are hunters, yes, but we are also great scavengers! We are the cleanup crew that comes in after the mess. And speaking of messes, there is no better place than a football field after a big game. Or at least that’s what I’ve heard. We are neighborhood
possums. This is our area. I've never actually been to a stadium parking lot after a sporting event, but from the chatter I hear, there’s nothing like it."
Antonio raises his hand. He's just had an epiphany, which is like saying a light went off in his mind—but because they live in darkness, this is more like saying the shadows got bigger and so did his understanding.
Mama Possum looks pleased with her clever possum baby. "Yes, Antonio?"
"Being scavengers explains why we have so many teeth. With all the different food sources, we need a full jaw to grind the grub."
Murmurs of "grind the grub" circulate among the possum babies. They like the way it sounds. Mama Possum beams with happiness. "This is true, Antonio!"
Appleblossom points one of her fingers up into the sky and waits for her turn. Mama nods to her. "Go ahead, Appleblossom."
The littlest possum takes a moment to collect her thoughts. What she wants to say feels very important. "Having a full jaw means that we have great smiles!"
Appleblossom thinks she hears sneezing behind her. But when she turns around, Allan's making a crazy face, and Alberta and Alisa are laughing.
Mama Possum stops the commotion. "Thank you for sharing, Appleblossom. Now I’m off to find our next meal. You possums stay together right here and do your improvisational exercises. I'm going to have each one of you stage something for me very soon. Remember, whatever you do, you have got to be convincing. Use your imagination! That's the key to a great performance."
And with that, Mama Possum disappears into an overgrown hedge and leaves her thirteen babies to rehearse. They are hopeful that she’ll come back dragging a piece of rotten fruit or a paper sack with the remains of cold, greasy French fries.
Either option would be a truly tasty delight.Chapter 4
They are nomads.
Or as Mama Possum explains: "Ours is a road show. At the end of every few nights we find a new sleeping spot. Some are better than others, but don’t even think about hanging your hat and calling
any place home
Appleblossom wonders what that means, because they don’t wear hats, although she would like to.
Now that they are out of the pouch, they travel on their mother's back whenever they relocate. All thirteen of them. And this always happens when the sun goes down. Mama Possum has rules, but one is more important than all the others put together. This one rule cannot be broken. Ever.
It's called bedtime.
Nothing matters more than following her exact instructions when Mama Possum says that it's time to burrow under a log, squeeze into a drainpipe, or slide under a seldom-used barbeque. When the sun starts to change the color of the dark sky to something close to a ripe plum, they know that they need to disappear.
Bodies safely hidden.
Then wide eyes shut.
All the nocturnal animals do the same thing. They vanish from view. The raccoons return to the hills. The bats find hollows in trees and rocks.
The skunks slip away like magicians. The beetles and the moths simply stop moving.
Mama Possum's knowledge has been passed down from possum to possum. Now it's her turn to be a teacher. Darkness fully falls, and her babies, awake again, huddle in a circle. Her brood is three months old when she reveals her most important information: "We are awake only at night because when the sun is out, monsters rule the world
Amlet was the last one to stop sucking his thumb, and now he can't help himself. He puts his whole hand in his mouth, but not before saying, "Monsters?"
Mama Possum tries to make her voice sound comforting, even though what she says isn't: "Yes. Now, there are three kinds of monsters, and all three kinds are terrifying. They are present at night, but they really own the day."
Appleblossom’s brothers and sisters move closer to one another as Mama Possum continues: "The first kind of monster is made of metal. They have wheels and bright eyes when they are out after dark. These eyes are blinding."
Antonio interrupts. "We've heard the metal monsters before. They are loud!"
Mama Possum nods. "Yes, Antonio, the metal monsters roar. And honk. And they move very, very fast. They can flatten an animal in an instant if one gets in the way."
Appleblossom can't even think about something so frightening. She tries to close her ears, but it isn't like closing her eyes. She can still hear her mother's voice.
"The metal monsters are called cars and trucks. The ones that live around here only go on certain paths. Some of these paths, ones far from here, are so wide and so filled with cars and trucks that at night they look like ribbons of white and red light. Only a fool would ever go near those huge metal monster paths. Only a fool, or someone with no other option."
Appleblossom promises herself to always stay away from the wide monster paths. Antonio makes a comment. "But the cars sleep. And then they are harmless as boulders. You've taken us near a car when its chest was cold and its eyes were dark."
Mama Possum rubs her hands together. "Yes, this is part of what you must learn. When is a car awake and when is it asleep?"
Appleblossom raises her hand. "So what we need to know is what wakes them up?"
It takes Mama Possum a long time to answer. Her nose twitches and then she finally says, "The second kind of monster has formed an alliance with the cars and trucks. So our understanding of both enemies is important. The monsters work together. The second
monster wakes up the first."
Amlet follows with, "What’s the second kind of monster?"
Appleblossom asks, "What’s an alliance?"
Mama Possum steadies herself. "Now is as good a time as ever to spill the beans."
Allan looks around. "What beans?"
Amlet gives him a small kick. "It's a saying, Allan. It means she's telling us the whole story."
Allan looks disappointed. "Oh. I like beans. Especially the dark ones that have spicy sauce."
Suddenly Appleblossom is very, very frightened. Mama Possum wraps her long tail around Appleblossom and pulls her close. "The second category of scary creatures walks on two feet. They smell like dead flowers, salt, and grease. Everything scares them. They are always angry. And they don't have tails."
Not having tails seems very sad to the babies. Angie shakes her head. She is dramatic and is acknowledged now as being the best performer of the group. She strikes her signature pose, which is a hand to her forehead, as she wails, "An animal without a tail is so sad."
At her side Alisa adds, "Maybe that’s why they are angry."
Whispers of "so sad" and "angry" buzz throughout the group. Mama Possum waits until they've quieted down and then continues. "The second monsters are called people. The people cover themselves in layers of cloth because they have very little fur. They scream when they see a night creature. They are noisy and unpredictable. They are dangerous, and not very smart, believe me!"
All of the possum babies stare at their mother. It's clear they do believe her.
"Now, the people don't like to share. That is their biggest problem. So they set traps, and they use weapons and poison. They are sneaky and mean. But the good part is that most of the time they don't climb trees at night. Or go into hedges or dig holes."
Sighs of relief come from the babies. And they are big sighs.
Mama Possum adds: "The people are awake for part of the night, but they go into their houses and stare at boxes there."
Appleblossom is confused. "What kind of boxes?"
Mama Possum's eyes narrow. "The boxes have light and sound, and the people watch these contraptions for hours. Some of the light boxes hang on the walls of the houses. Some are just off the ground. And others are held right in their hands."
Antonio waves his tail. "I think the light boxes might be telling the monsters what to do."
Mama Possum looks as if she's giving this idea some thought, but the discussion is over and no one objects when she says, "We've had enough for one night."
Appleblossom can't fall asleep after her mother's Big Talk. The world's a scary place, and she needs to learn so much to stay safe. She isn't sure that she's up to the job. Her acting skills aren't as advanced as her brothers' and sisters'. She doesn't have any special talents like dancing or singing or speaking with an accent. She’s good at smelling night-blooming jasmine, and watching the bats swirl in the dark sky as they circle the streetlight. She’s good at observing the world. Does that count?
In the distance, the sun edges up over the treetops and Appleblossom feels her tail tremble. Her whole family is hidden in a mildewy umbrella that's on its side in a garden not far from where she now realizes people live. At a distance on one of the paths is a car. It isn't moving. But that doesn't make her feel any better.
Appleblossom squeezes her eyes shut and tries to make the bad thoughts go away, when Antonio whispers, "Appleblossom, I’m awake."
Appleblossom whispers back: "I'm afraid."
"Me too," he says.
A few moments later, another voice says, "I'm not afraid, but I can't sleep either." It's Amlet. Appleblossom wonders if he's just acting brave right now or if he's being truthful. He's a very good actor.
Appleblossom doesn't want to cry; she might wake everyone up. Or worse, she might wake up a monster. "So what do we do?" she asks.
Antonio whispers back to her, "We watch out for each other. I’ll keep my eye on you two. And you do the same."
Appleblossom's mouth wobbles into a small smile. "We could snuggle closer."
Amlet pushes his way in between Antonio and Appleblossom. "Good idea. You two can be lookouts. I'll handle the middle." Appleblossom and Antonio are quiet, but they feel better.
And before they know it, all three possums are sound asleep.
Copyright © 2015 by Holly Goldberg Sloan; Illustrated by Gary A. Rosen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.