One night, I buried a dead baby opossum behind my father’s hammock in the backyard with a heavy, rusty digging shovel.
The only plausible murder suspect was my luckless cat, Ernest. Mom had always wanted a dog – a Great Dane or some other kind-hearted, monstrous mutt. But our backyard was too small for a big, beautiful dog, Mom told me. Ernest was a settlement.
Now, he was a murderous fugitive.
It was July. I barely weighed more than the shovel, and colloquially describing the night air as “muggy” would have been a kindness. It was downright oppressive, and it mingled with the sweat, rust, and earthy smell of the disturbed soil. A breeze was a hot, breathy exhalation in the face.
Mom – who was quite hysterical at this point – held a dim flashlight over my shoulder so that I could see where I had carved out a grave for the tiny creature. She gurgled a noise of disgust and jerked her head to the side. Then she giggled.
“Jack,” she said, “I can’t believe we look like – this looks like a crime.”
Mom’s interest in the crime scene was surprising. She found things like hammocks and opossums and rotting corpses – especially rotting opossum corpses – to be very vulgar. She also found this true of the color orange and white wine, but not red wine, of which she had had four glasses that night (she is not a heavy drinker).
I realized Mom was hopeful that our midnight prowl would foster one or two complaints from the Homeowner’s Association, or at the very least some suspicion from the nosy, retired couple catty-corner us. It’s good to keep those retirees entertained and on their toes, she always said. Mom flickered the beam of light from our dying flashlight playfully.
“Can I have the flashlight?” I asked.
She nodded. I dropped the shovel and swiped the flashlight from her hands. This was supposed to have been a speedy disposal. I turned behind me towards our small patio and targeted the opossum. Its body was so small, so gruesome against the yellow light and the concrete. It looked too fresh, too clean, I thought, for Ernest to have killed it more than two hours ago. Perhaps it was just playing dead, as opossums do, I thought.
My eyes focused on the inhuman thing. I crouched lower to the ground. Hundreds of black ants meandered in and around the little body – through the empty black slits where its eyes should have been, on its pink tongue, around its teensy paws, cleaning out the inside through to its bottom. They congregated on its sinuous tail. The ants were thorough.
The hair on my arms raised at the prospect of hundreds of ants rooting around every pore on my skin. I actually pitied the normally-despised opossum – it was killed in such a defenseless condition. In some states, there are statutes that outline how one should go about burying (or burning) the carcass of a “domesticated beast or bird”. Luckily, this dead beast was not on the “domesticated” list, so there was no proper burial service we had to provide for it.
Suddenly, a window lit up. Someone heard us – rather, they heard Mom’s boisterous chuckling or were annoyed by a mysterious light flashing in their window. I hurriedly turned back towards the hole.
The benefits of Ernest’s presence around our house now seemed unclear to me. Why are so many suburbanites so enamored with cats? Sure, from an evolutionary standpoint, cats hunt and kill vermin, and it’s quite enjoyable to bleach, bury and clean the remains, but our feline friends are an invasive species. Over 2 billion small, furry mammals similar to Oscar the opossum on our patio are killed every year by domesticated cats. Unconditional love or increased Youtube account subscriptions are adequate reasons to house a cat, but this makes it seem as if the domesticated cat is, in truth, an accessory to disappointment and unfulfillment.
Call me dramatic, but Ernest’s presence in our house was an aching (and cuddly) reminder of life’s setbacks. I realize it is unfair to label the existence of every domesticated cat in this manner – it’s just not truthful. I loved Ernest. But if my mother had not given up her career to raise two dysfunctional offspring, she might have had a house with a big enough backyard for a Great Dane, and there would be no cats, no vulgar hammocks, and no deathly depressing baby opossums to dispose of.
At the time, I did not understand that little niceties like these could trigger such downward spirals.
To be clear, there was nothing unlawful or innately disturbing about burying a small, dead animal carcass. Four neighbors have always surrounded us, living and breathing behind festering, ligneous fences that only a middle-class gated community could maintain. It was easy to overhear or be bothered by trifles such as this.
“Go to bed!” a haggard voice called.
Mom widened her eyes in mockery and grinned. I watched the ants scatter over the little opossum like water droplets on a hot stove. I shoveled it into the two-foot hole, which is actually up to standards for “domesticated” animal burials.
The next morning, we found another baby opossum lying dead in the grass. Ernest was nowhere around. I picked up the shovel and began to dig another empty hole.