THE TALE OF OPOSSUM’S TAIL
A Creek/Muscogee Legend
as told by
Opossum spent each day sitting at the edge of the lake, stroking the long fur of her tail and smiling at its reflection in the water.
My tail is certainly the loveliest in the forest, she thought.
When the sun rose each morning, Opossum’s tail reflected the soft pinks of the brightening sky. During the day, the fur hung in silky strands like the sun’s rays beaming down between the clouds. But nothing compared to her tail at sunset. As dark oranges and reds spread across the horizon, her tail became the deep purples of the darkening sky.
One day, a reflection appeared in the water next to hers – a face masked with black fur.
“Lovely tail,” Raccoon said, scooping water for a drink. “Too bad it’s so dull.”
Opossum stopped mid-stroke. “What did you say?” she demanded.
Raccoon rubbed his paws over his face.
“The other animals say that your tail is nice, but very dull. Dull as a puddle on a cloudy day,” he answered.
Opossum ran her paws through the silky hairs. Dull? Her tail was as long as the cattails by the water’s edge. It was as bright as the sun sparkling off the ripples of the lake.
“Who would say such a thing?” Opossum said.
“I’m only passing on the words of others, of course,” Raccoon said, shaking his hands dry. “Let me see. Hart was there, and so was Rabbit. Fox had something to say, too.”
“What do they know?” Opossum turned her nose to the sky. “Hart’s tail is nothing more than a flap. Rabbit can’t even call that bunch of fluff a proper tail at all. Fox can’t think his tangled red mess is nicer than my beautiful tail. Everyone knows mine is the loveliest tail in the forest. Nothing can compare to it.”
“But look at my tail,” Raccoon said. “See how each light ring is followed by a dark one? Just as day is followed by night, summer followed by winter. My tail is anything but dull.”
Raccoon squinted at Opossum through his black mask.
“Of course, there’s no shame in being plain,” he said. Raccoon swished his tail and scampered off for his nightly hunt through the neighborhood garbage.
Opossum picked up her tail and examined it. Raccoon is right, she thought. My tail is nothing on its own. It’s only beautiful when reflecting the sun.
She crossed her arms and huffed. Those animals can’t talk about my tail that way.
The next evening, Opossum waited by the lake. She paced from one tree to the next, then back again. Her tail clumped into muddy knots as it dragged through the sand and slime behind her.
“Good evening, Opossum,” Raccoon said, slinking up behind her.
“It’s about time you arrived,” Opossum said. “I want to ask for a favor.”
“A favor?” Raccoon pulled his whiskers. “What could I possibly do for you?”
“Tell me how you put stripes on your tail. I don’t want a dull, one-color tail. I want a lovely, striped tail.”
“Ah, yes,” Raccoon rubbed his paws together. “First, find a pure white birch tree. Cut its bark into strips to wrap around your tail where the white stripes will be. Build a fire with the finest oak twigs. When the flames are high, hold your tail over them. The sections without bark will bake to a deep brown.”
“No one will say that my tail is dull again,” Opossum said, darting into the forest.
“No, they certainly will not.” Raccoon masked his smile, then headed toward the garbage dump.
It was nearly midnight when Opossum had gathered everything she needed. She rushed to the edge of the lake to build the fire.
Once the twigs were burning, Opossum wrapped the strips of birch bark in even rings around her tail. Then she held her tail out over the fire and closed her eyes.
When I open my eyes, she thought, I will have stripes as white as the noon sun and as black as the spaces between the stars at night.
Then she smelled it. Burning fur! Opossum opened her eyes and turned to see her tail explode into flames.
She ran and jumped into the lake, but it was too late. There was nothing left but a very sore, very pink strip of a tail without a single hair on it.
Shocked, Opossum fell to the sand and lay there, still as a stone.
Now Opossum’s furless tail is thin and scaly. She hides each day and only skulks out once the sun is gone. Too embarrassed to speak to the others, she stiffens her body and pretends to be dead when other animals pass.
Each night, Opossum wanders the shores of the lake where the stars light up the sky like sparks, and the full moon’s reflection is nothing more than an ugly, narrow tail lying across dark water.