The long-haired gray cat stretched, then jumped up to look in the cage. The possum hissed.
“Begone, you feline demon, or I shall bite you!” The cat looked over his shoulder.
“Hey, Geranium – the humans brought another one home.”
“I’m a vicious killer,” the possum snarled. Thor looked at one paw, licked the back, and yawned.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever, I’m not interested in you or your babies.”
“She has babies?” Henri said, popping up from the porch swing. The stub of her tail twitched. Geranium patted Henri’s head.
“Cool it, Henrietta. Mom said we can’t eat these babies.”
“I have no babies,” the possum snapped, eyes wide with fright. She curled her tail around the writhing young in her pouch. Geranium sighed.
“Look, we know you have babies. We aren’t going to eat them. We’re the welcoming committee of sorts.” The female possum turned her head slightly, drooling.
“Haven’t you ever read the Grapes of Wrath?” came a voice from under the porch. A three-legged male possum scrabbled his way up beside the cats.
“Mike!” Thor said, and playfully jumped on the smaller possum. “Where you been?”
“Around and about.’
“What do mean, read?” the female possum said. “And stay away from me. A male possum is what got me into this mess.”
“Men are always the problem,” Henri and Geranium sighed. Thor huffed. Mike ignored them.
“You don’t read, m’am? Bless your heart. You’re a city possum, too. What is the world coming to? How are you supposed to know which restaurants have the best dumpsters if you can’t read?”
“I’ve been busy,” she said defensively. “Did you say something about grapes? I could go for some right now.”
“They aren’t in season yet – oh, you mean the Grapes of Wrath? Classic novel by John Steinbeck. Sad, beautiful story about the Okies during the Great Depression, when the Dust Bowl displaced families in the Midwest, and they all moved to California to work on produce farms…” Mike’s voice trailed off, and the female possum shook her head slowly.
“None of that made any sense. You’re a possum. You can’t read.”
“People also say we can’t cross the road,” Mike said. “When I was recovering, I was kept in a cage where the humans have their books. At first I thought they’d make great nesting material, then the words just called to me. Anyway – in the Grapes of Wrath, one of the migrant camps the family stayed in, there was a welcoming committee that helped the newcomers with rules and such.”
“That’s what we do,” Thor said.
“I’m a possum,” the female growled. “I don’t need no stinkin’ rules.”
“You need them if you’re going to stay around here,” came a raspy voice from behind her.
The possum spun around, and found herself staring into two beady eyes sticking out from either side of a large orange beak that was attached to a white ball of feathers on top of a long white neck. The possum couldn’t see what the neck was attached to, but she was fairly sure it was some kind of hideous monster.
“What fresh nightmare is this?” the possum said.
“That’s Big Bill,” Thor said. “He’s just a goose.”
Bill hissed and clacked his beak.
“I catch you around my flock, you’re history,” Bill said, and waddled away. Several other geese stood in a gaggle a few yards away, and they honked calls of encouragement.
“Tell’im, Bill!” “That’s right, you da goose!” “Don’t mess with Meadowsweet!”
“Blowhards,” Henri said.
“Bite -hards, too, if you’re not careful,” Thor said. “By the way, m’am, I didn’t get your name. I’m Thor. The babe with no tail, that’s Henrietta, but we call her Henri. Geranium is over there.”
“I’m Maggie,” the female possum said, slowly relaxing.
“I’m Mike,” the three-legged possum said. “Really, there’s nothing to worry about.”
“But I heard dogs,” the female possum said. “And you only have three legs – I’m sorry, I didn’t mean any offense.” He waved one paw in dismissal.
”Not a problem. I have three-legs. It’s not like I’m in a buzzard’s gullet. There was an incident when I was a baby. That’s how I ended up here.”
“That’s how you ended up here, too,” Henri said. “Our humans – they’re suckers for a critter in need. There are baby squirrels in the house right now. The female human is feeding them milk.”
“Milk-covered squirrels,” Thor sighed, and licked his lips. Henri slapped him. “Hey, a guy can dream.”
“You know they’re off-limits,” Henri said.
“I know,” Thor muttered. “But still.”
“Anyway,” Geranium said, “the humans will fix that wound on your face, and you’ll be free to go in a few days.” Maggie covered the injury with one paw.
“How will they fix it?”
“They have medicines and stuff. The female human will probably wash you. Some of it smells pretty bad, and some of it stings, but it’ll be all right.”
“I’ve never heard of such.”
“Trust me. It’ll be okay. At least you didn’t lose a tail like Henri, or a leg, like me. Just remember to stay out of the bird pens, don’t hunt on the porches, and don’t agitate the dogs. There’s no need to go in the trashcans. Don’t bite the humans. Don’t bite the rabbits.”
“And stay far, far away from the goats,” Geranium said. “Those heathens are dangerous.”
“We heard that!” came a raucous voice from across the yard. Maggie saw two bizarre looking things with horns and bug eyes leaning against the fence, and decided she would never, ever go near the goats.
“Some of the dogs can be a little crazy,” Mike agreed. “Walter the Wonder Dog and Queen Cleo try to keep them in line, but dogs are – well, they’re dogs.”
“And if you’re ever hankering for a snack,” Thor said, “just peek out from under the bench and look pitiful. The female human will make all sorts of silly noises, and get you something else to eat.”
“It’s a good racket,” Mike said. “My brother brings his dates up here all the time. The male human isn’t such an easy mark.”
“All you have to do is be willing to get along with everybody else, and share,” Geranium said. “It’s pretty easy, really.”
Maggie looked around the porch, at the other animals, and across the yard. Bill the Goose narrowed his eyes and gestured at her with a wing.
Mike tentatively crawled up beside the cage.
“Look, you’re going to be a here a while. How’d you like to join our book club?”