Playing Possum

Carnival time, and there are all sorts of scary things in the dark
Carnival time, and there are all sorts of scary things in the dark

It was the last night of Brazil’s four-day Carnival celebration. Indeed, it was the day itself – it was Mardi-Gras, or Shrove Tuesday as we know it in England – and so we planned to go ashore and watch the revellers. According to the official programme the action was supposed to begin at eight, but we know the score well enough by now to understand that this was just someone’s fantasy; just a statement of what-ought-to-be rather than of genuine intent. If we got ashore by midnight that would be just fine; things would just be getting off the ground. So, we duly had supper, and we duly got ourselves ready.

The long-drop, with the head of the self-steering just visible on the left
The long-drop, with the head of the self-steering just visible on the left

Well… I was sitting on the long-drop, minding my own business, so to speak, and getting myself ready, when I became aware of something moving about on the head of the self-steering unit, close alongside me.
You know how it is when you catch something out of the corner of your eye in the dark, don’t you? Sometimes these things make us jump but on this occasion the first suggestion which popped into my mind was the most mundane: “It’s something blowing about in the wind,” I said to myself. Except that there wasn’t any wind; not even a teensy bit of a breath.
“Okay, well then it must be a bird.”
We do occasionally get birds roosting on the self-steering gear – and, indeed, on the long-drop. A couple of years ago we had a noddy tern spend a few hours on the long-drop while we were at sea. And just a month or so ago a little night heron, or garlin, spent some time using the head of the self-steering gear as his hunting platform.

Night heron perched on the wind vane
Night heron perched on the wind vane

“That’s what it is; it’s a garlin. But it’s funny that he doesn’t just fly away. I’m scarcely an arm’s length away. He ought to be afraid…”
All of this passed through my head in a split second, and during this same time my eyes adjusted to the darkness and I saw – “Blimey! It’s an animal!”
Hunched still, even as he toddled off along the stern rail – a biggish, furryish animal… on our boat!
“Roxanne!” I hollered, “There’s an animal – with four legs and a long thin tail; a sort of a huge rat-thing – and it’s walking along our taff-rail! What the heck is it?”

What's THAT???
What’s THAT???

These words were spoken with astonishment rather than alarm, and as I voiced them the shadowy character who shares my mind said, “Whoa! Steady on there! You’re imagining this. There cannot be a quadruped as big as a cat ambling around on our boat. We haven’t been alongside in months. And there cannot be anything in existence which looks as weird as this little fellow. Blink your eyes and you’ll find that it’s just a plastic bag blowing around. You oughtn’t to let the children know that you’re seeing things; they’ll say you’re off your rocker.”
But Roxanne hopped up from the cockpit where she had been sitting with our Brazilian friend, Gean; she leant towards the rail, and she said calmly, “It seems to be an opossum.”
“What! Roxanne! It’s walking around on our boat! How could a…  a what?”
“An opossum; I always wanted an opossum.”
“We’re anchored in the middle of the bay. We’re half a mile from the town and we’re as much as a mile from the nearest wooded shore. This creature hasn’t got any wings, so far as I can see (although it’s so weird-looking that it wouldn’t altogether surprise me if it did have wings). It doesn’t seem to want to jump in and swim away. How could an opossum be aboard our boat? How could it get here?”
Clearly, it was quite impossible for there to be an opossum aboard the boat – the odds were as good as those of you finding a unicorn hiding behind your freezer – but there it seemed to be, regardless.

Although she knew all about them, our ship’s naturalist had never met an opossum in the flesh – or in the fur – but Gean confirmed the ID; or at any rate, he concurred with Roxanne. But in so doing he also confused the issue: “Sim! Es uma gamba.”
“A gamba!” I cried. Gamba is Spanish for prawn. The Portuguese for prawn is camarao, but I tend to communicate in uma mixtura of los dos.
Gean explained that there were lots of prawns – sorry; lots of opossums – on the island where he had been working. I recalled that he had told us this before; and I dimly recalled Rox saying that she wanted one… “Hold on a minute,” said the voice in my head…
“Gean! You didn’t….!”
Was it possible? Gean had already been aboard for three days; could the poss have been hiding out for three days, unbeknownst even to the dog? Maybe…
But Gean had arrived with just one small rucksack into which were shoved his jeans, his shoes, and his Nexus tablet. There was no room for an opossum.
And besides, Gean would surely have been delighted to hand her new pet to Roxanne; he would not have played possum games with us.
“Gean, you didn’t…? Did you?”
That ruled out that possibility; but it left us none the wiser. How on earth had the creature come aboard? “It surely didn’t swim… Did it?”

Opossum on the flag pole
Opossum on the flag pole

While we pondered the mystery of its arrival, the camarao – sorry; the gamba – became nervous . Unlike a rabbit or a mouse or a cat he had shown no inclination to go darting for cover, but when faced with the five of us, all gawping and pointing torches and flashing cameras, he retreated along the rail and suddenly shinned up the flag-staff. Of course, this only allowed him to climb to the height of our heads, and what is more, the poor little chap was now “treed”, as the saying is. We pressed in and cut off his line of retreat.
The opossum now looked more like a long-nosed monkey than a rat-come-rabbit, and we gazed at him admiringly. “Ooh – look at his little toes! Look at his piggy-wig nose! What big round eyes he has! What wonderful whiskers! What funny ears! He’s so sweet!”

What big ears you have!
What big ears you have!

Caesar happened to be on-line when the stowaway revealed himself, and he now took the opportunity to gen up on opossums. “They have prehensile tails,” he said.
We peered at the visitor’s tail. It was extremely long and very thin, and it was scaly rather than furry.
“They play possum,” Caesar continued. “When threatened, they drop down as if dead and they foam at the mouth. They emit a smell like a dead animal.”
“Yi! Let’s not threaten him!”
“They stay like that for up to four hours.”
“Gosh! That’s not a very good survival mechanism, is it? If we’d found a dead-seeming, smelly possum we wouldn’t have waited for even one hour; we’d have just tossed it in the sea!”

The opossum is one of Nature’s little flights of fancy. It’s not quite so weird as the duck-billed platypus, but it seems to have been designed by the same frivolous mind. Like the kangaroo, opossums are marsupials: the female gives birth to an excessive number of ridiculously tiny young who crawl into her pouch and fight for the use of a very limited number of nipples. In the case of the South American opossum there are 49 young but only 13 nipples. I tried (and failed) to picture 49 babies crawling around on this kitten-sized creature. And how sad to think of those 36 babies who are born to die… What a terrible waste!
But, as Roxanne pointed out (observantly) there was no danger of this particular opossum dropping dead babies all over the place because it was a boy.

Rox prepares to make her arrest
Rox prepares to make her arrest

Since the opossum had placed himself, so conveniently, within our reach we decided that the best thing to do would be to gather him up and put him in a big box. That way, he wouldn’t get attacked by the dog – or vice-versa – and we wouldn’t have the worry of waking up with a smelly opossum on the pillow.
Once he was safely tucked away in a box we could decide whence he came and whither he should be taken. But who would be the one to reach up and prise the poss off his post?
Happily, Roxanne is up for this kind of thing. After all, this isn’t the first time she’s had the job of gathering up the stray wildlife which finds its way onto this boat. Last year it was a snake, which got loose in her bed. And at one time she had charge of eleven toads, three frogs, two terrapins, and a tortoise, all of which lived on the table in the main cabin.

Poss struggling to escape - but so would anyone be if held in this grip!
Poss struggling to escape – but so would anyone be if held in this grip!

“It might be rabid,” I said, contemplating the very quiet, unrabid-seeming creature. “You’d better wear gloves… And even then, I’m not sure if…”
“I’d thought of that,” said Rox, donning Nick’s leather welding gloves. Rox pokes her fingers into funnel-web spider holes and strokes bees and wasps (“They seem to like it.”). She was not going to be put off by the possibility that Poss might be carrying rabies.
As she grasped the poor little fellow – ferret style, by the back of the neck – he bared his teeth and hissed; but he made no effort to attack. On the other hand, he jolly well didn’t want to let go of that flag-pole. Roxanne carefully uncurled each of his twenty gorgeous little black toes and fingers; and even then he was still able to hold on tightly – by his tail!
“So now we know what prehensile means!”
The opossum’s tail was as effective in maintaining a grip as his hands had been, and Caesar had to reach over and gently but firmly uncurl it from the pole.

Once inside the box the little chap made a very brief investigation, recognised the hopelessness of the situation, and curled himself into a crouched ball. However, the last thing that he did before he curled up was to lick at a little puddle of water which happened to be in the bottom of the plastic box. This is not the action of an animal which is under stress; a stressed animal might groom itself (displacement behaviour), but it doesn’t think of feeding and drinking.
We popped a piece of banana into the box. Lo and behold – out popped the pointed snout, with its rubbery pink end, and in a matter of two seconds the slice of banana had vanished between the sharp little teeth.

The all-purpose collapsible pen, seen here with the quails in occupation
The all-purpose collapsible pen, seen here with the quails in occupation

Roxanne quickly assembled her all-purpose animal house. It is made from fine-mesh plastic fencing and consists of a long flat floor and an arched roof which lace together. It was recently home to four quails, with which we hoped to become self-sufficient in eggs. (Unfortunately they all proved to be boys… and so we donated them to another quail farmer.) Quails are one thing – they have no teeth and, besides, no very great inclination to escape – but an opossum is quite another.
“Are you sure he won’t eat through the lacing?”
Caesar thought he might even chew his way through the plastic itself, but Roxanne was confident that all would be well. The floor of the cage was scattered with pieces of banana and tomato and mango, and a tray of water was placed there. The box was pushed inside the cage, its door was opened, and the end of the cage was laced shut.

Inside the box, inside the cage
Inside the box, inside the cage

The gamba-possum remained where he was, inside the box.
“He feels safe and snug,” I suggested.
“He can’t get out,” said Caesar. “The door isn’t big enough.”
Roxanne laughed…  And we all clambered in to the dinghy and rowed ashore.

Meanwhile, on the streets of Brazil, the party was just getting going.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Brazil, the party was just getting going.

By the time we got back from the party it was two-thirty in the morning. As a matter of fact, things were still going strong on the streets – the drums were pounding and the samba music was blaring from the speakers, and the people were all determinedly enjoying themselves – but we kept thinking of our little guest.
“Do you think that the prawn is still aboard?” asked Gean. (He’s supposed to be teaching me Portuguese, but he is so accommodating of my Spanguese mixture that I really haven’t a hope.) “I think we only dreamt him.”
“A mass hallucination,” I said. “Very likely.”

Even from the dinghy, the cage on the side-deck looked suspiciously empty. And it was. Of course. Rox had tied the door shut in the very same way that she had done for the past three months when the cage served as a quail pen, but opossums – as I have said – are not like quails and O Camarao had pushed his way out. We could tell exactly where he had wriggled through because that part of the cage stank of warm furry animal; and because he had untied the rolling hitches!
Opossums have an opposable thumb -that little detail which is supposed to make all the difference between humans and other, lesser primates.
“The darn thing is probably The Missing Link! It’s our long lost ancestor! It’s probably knocked up a rope bridge, by now – all nicely strung together with bowlines and netting knots – or it’s built itself a raft and sailed ashore.”

Our boat was much further out than any of these. Could the opossum really have swum all the way from the shore?
Our boat was much further out than any of these. Could the opossum really have swum all the way from the shore?

Well, we searched. And we wandered around with bits of banana in our hands calling, “Here, Possy-Possy”… but we didn’t find any trace of the little fellow.
We looked in the anchor locker, and we looked inside the sail covers; we shone torches up the masts, and we even sniffed around in the cabin. In theory the dog ought to have kept any sensible small furry thing from going below, but… You may be sure that our bedding was thoroughly poked and prodded before we turned in.
We looked everywhere, but we didn’t find any trace of O Possum.

Did he jump in a swim away?
How in heavens name did he arrive in the first place? Did he really swim a mile, and come upon our boat, and climb the anchor chain?
Surely he didn’t stow away in the dinghy and come aboard with our shopping…?
Perhaps he is still with us…
Then again, perhaps he was never real anyway. Are the Mollymawks losing the plot and seeing things?

We have no answers to any of these questions – but we do have one little idea. There is a German yacht anchored quite close by and it is fitted with a burglar alarm. Generally, the alarm only goes off when the owner sets it, or when he returns, or when a speed boat causes the yacht to roll; but today it keeps going off.
Is our opossum wandering around on deck, we wonder?

Wherever the little fellow has gone, we wish him well. It would have been nice to be able to help him safely onto the wooded shore on the far side of the harbour; but perhaps he can take good care of himself and has no need of human interference. Perhaps opossums regularly swim for a mile and climb anchor chains.

Perhaps jaguars do, too…

I think it will be quite some time before I can sit on the long-drop in the dark without first taking a very good look at my immediate surroundings.

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