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Why the Opossum's tail is bare

A Cherokee Legend

Many, many years ago, the Possum had a long, bushy tail. He was so proud of it that he combed it every morning. He sang about it whenever the animals held a dance.

The Rabbit, who had had no tail since the Bear pulled it out, became very jealous. She made up her mind to play a trick on the Possum.

A great council meeting had been planned. There was to be a dance and all the animals were to be present. It was the Rabbit's task to send out the news to everyone. As the Rabbit was passing the Possum's house, she stopped to ask him whether he would be at the dance. The Possum said yes, but he would come only if he could have a special seat.

"I have such a handsome tail," he said. "I ought to sit where everybody can see me."

The Rabbit promised to take care of the Possum's special seat. She also promised to send someone to prepare the Possum's tail for the dance. The Possum was very much pleased and agreed to attend.

The Rabbit immediately went off to see the Cricket. Now, the Cricket was such an expert hair cutter, the Indians called him "the barber." The Rabbit told the Cricket to go the next morning and get the Possum's tail ready for the dance. She told the Cricket exactly what to do.

In the morning the Cricket went to the Possum's house. "I have come to get you ready for the dance, Possum," he said.

This pleased the Possum very much. He stretched himself out and shut his eyes. The Cricket began to work on the Possum's tail. First he carefully combed it. Then he quietly began to clip the Possum's hair close to the roots! As he clipped, the Cricket wrapped red ribbon around the tail to hold the loose hair in place. The Possum, eyes tightly shut, didn't know what the Cricket was doing.

When night fell, the Possum went to the hall where the dance was to be held. There he found the best seat was ready for him, just as the Rabbit had promised. When the Possum's turn came to dance, he stepped into the middle of the floor, grinning from ear to ear.

The drummers began to drum and the Possum began to sing, "See my beautiful tail!" Everyone shouted. This pleased the Possum, so he danced around the circle again and sang, "See what a fine color my tail is!" Everyone shouted again and the Possum danced around the circle once more. As he danced he sang, "See how my tail sweeps the ground!"

The animals shouted more loudly than before. The Possum was delighted. Now, to really show off his fur, he untied the ribbon. Then around and around he danced, singing, "See how fine is the fur on my tail!"

Suddenly everybody started to laugh. They laughed so long that the Possum wondered why they were laughing. He looked around the circle of animals. They were laughing at him! Then he looked down at his tail. He saw that there was not a hair left upon it. It was as bare as the tail of a lizard! He was so surprised and embarrassed he could not say a word. He dropped to the ground, rolled over, and played dead.

That is why the Possum's tail is bare and why he plays dead when taken by surprise.

Here is the same story but told slightly differently.

In the beginning all living things - men, animals, plants and trees - spoke the same language and behaved in much the same way. Animals, like people, were organized into tribes. They had chiefs, lived in houses, held councils and ceremonies.

Many animals had characteristics which we would not recognize today. The rabbit, for example, was fierce, bold and cunning, and a great mischief maker. It was through Rabbit's tricks that the deer lost his sharp wolf-like teeth, the buzzard his handsome topknot of feathers and the opossum his long, bushy tail.

Opossum was very proud of his tail which, in those days, was covered with thick black fur. He spent long hours cleaning and brushing it and composing songs about its beauty and vigor. Sometimes, when he walked through the village, he carried his tail erect, like a banner rippling in the breeze. At other times, he swept it low behind him, like a train. It was useful as well as beautiful, for when Opossum lay down to sleep, he tucked it under him to make a soft bed, and in cold weather he folded it over his body to keep himself warm.

Rabbit was very jealous of Opossum's tail. He, too, had once had a long bushy tail but, during the course of a fight with Bear, he had lost most of it and now had only a short fluffy tuft. The sight of Opossum strutting before the other animals and swirling his tail ostentatiously, filled Rabbit with rage and he made up his mind to play a trick on him at the first opportunity.

At this time, when the animals still lived harmoniously together, each had his appointed station and duty. Thus, Frog was leader in the council and Rabbit, because of his speed, was employed to carry messages and announce- ments to the others.

As was their custom from time to time, the animals decided to hold a great council to discuss important matters and Rabbit, as usual, was given the task of arranging the gathering and delivering the invitations. Councils were also occasions for feasting and dancing and Rabbit saw a way of bringing about Opossum's downfall.

When Rabbit arrived with the news of the meeting, Opossum was sitting by the door of his lodge engaged in his favorite occupation - grooming his tail.

'I come to call you to the great council tomorrow, brother Opossum,' said Rabbit. 'Will you attend and join in the dance ?'

'Only if I am given a special seat,' replied the conceited Opossum, carefully smoothing some untidy hairs at the tip of his tail. 'After all,' he went on, grinning maliciously at Rabbit, 'I have such a beautiful long tail that I ought to sit where everyone can see and admire it.'

Rabbit was almost beside himself with fury, but he pretended not to notice the jibe and said, 'But of course, brother Opossum! I will personally see to it that you have the best seat in the council lodge, and I will also send someone to dress your tail specially for the dance.'

Opossum was delighted by this suggestion and Rabbit left him singing the praises of his tail even more loudly than usual.

Next, Rabbit called on the cricket, whom Indians call the barber, because of his fame as an expert hair-cutter. Cricket listened with growing amazement as Rabbit recounted his conversation with Opossum. Like all the other animals, he found Opossum's vanity and arrogance very tiresome.

He began to protest, but Rabbit held up a paw and said, 'Wait a moment. I have a plan and I need your help. Listen...', and he dropped his voice as he told Cricket what he wanted him to do.

Early next morning Cricket presented himself at Opossum's door and said that he had been sent by Rabbit to prepare the famous tail for the council that evening. Opossum made himself comfortable on the floor and stretched out his tail. Cricket began to comb it gently.

'I will wrap this red cord round your tail as I comb it,' he explained, 'so that it will remain smooth and neat for the dance tonight.'

Opossum found Cricket's ministrations so soothing that he fell asleep, awakening just as Cricket was tying the final knot in the red cord which now completely swathed his tail.

'I will keep it bound up until the very last moment,' thought Opossum gleefully. 'How envious the others will be when I finally reveal it in all its beauty!'

That evening, his tail still tightly wrapped in the red cord, Opossum marched into the council lodge and was led to his special seat by a strangely obsequious Rabbit.

Soon it was time for the dancing to take place. The drums and rattles began to sound. Opossum stood up, loosened the cord from his tail and stepped proudly into the center of the dance floor. He began to sing.

'Look at my beautiful tail!' he sang as he circled the floor. 'See how it sweeps the ground!'

There was a great shout from the audience and some of the animals began to applaud. 'How they admire me!' though Opossum and he continued dancing and singing loudly. 'See how my tail gleams in the firelight!'

Again everyone shouted and cheered. Opossum began to have just the merest suspicion that all was not quite as it should be. Was there possibly a hint of mockery in their voices ? He dismissed such an absurd idea and continued dancing.

'My tail is stronger than the eagle's, more lustrous than the raven's!'

At this the animals shrieked so loudly that Opossum stopped in his tracks and looked at them. To his astonishment and chagrin they were all convulsed with laughter, some leaning weakly on their neighbors's shoulders, others rolling on the ground in their mirth. Several were pointing at his tail.

Bewildered, Opossum looked down and saw to his horror that his tail, his beautiful, thick, glossy tail, was now balk and scaly like that of a lizard. Nothing remained of its former glory. While pretending to comb it, the wily Cricket had snipped off every single lair.

Opossum was so overcome with shame and confusion that he could not utter a sound. Instead he rolled over helplessly on his back, grimacing with embarrassment, just as opossums still do today, when taken by surprise.

Here is the same story again, told slightly differently. -retold by Barbara Shining Woman Warren

Possum once had a very long busy tail. He was so proud of it that he combed it out every morning and he always sang about it at the dances. Rabbit used to have a long busy tail too, but he lost his in the frozen lake. Rabbit was jealous of Possum's tail, so he decided to play a trick on Possum.

A great council meeting and dance was to be held; all the animals were invited to attend. It was Rabbit's job to spread the news. Passing Possum's place, he stopped to ask Possum if he intended to come to the dance. Possum said, "Oh, I'll go if I have a special seat. Because I have such a handsome tail I ought to sit where everybody can see me."

Rabbit said he would definitely see to it and he would also send someone to comb and dress Possum's tail for the dance. This pleased Possum very much and he said he would be there.

Rabbit went straight way to the Cricket who was an expert hair-cutter; he is known by the Cherokee as the "barber". Rabbit told Cricket to go the very next morning and attend to Possum's tail for the dance. Rabbit told Cricket exactly how he wanted Possum's tail fixed, and then Rabbit went on about his mischief.

Bright and early the next morning, Cricket went to the Possum's place. He said he had come to get Possum ready for the dance. So Possum stretched himself out on the floor and shut his eyes while Cricket dressed his tail. Cricket combed out the tail and began to wrap a red string all around it to keep the fur smooth until that night. But as he wound the string around Possum's tail, Cricket was clipping off the hair close to the roots and Possum never knew it.

When it was time for the dance that night, Possum went to the townhouse where the dance was to be held. Just as Rabbit had promised, the very best seat was saved for Possum. Then Possum sat down and waited for his turn to dance. When his turn came, he loosened the red string from his tail and stepped into the middle of the dance circle.

The drummers began to drum and Possum began to sing. As he danced around the Circle, he sang, "See my beautiful tail." Everybody shouted and he danced around the Circle again and sang, "See what a fine color it has." The animals shouted again and he danced around another time, singing, "See how it sweeps the ground." The animals shouted louder than ever, and Possum was delighted. He danced around again and sang, "See how fine the fur is." Everybody was laughing so long and so loud that Possum stopped to see what was the matter. He looked around at the circle of animals and they were all laughing at him. Then he looked down at his beautiful tail. There wasn't a hair left on it; it was completely bare! Possum was so upset and embarrassed that he fell over on the ground in a dead faint...with a slight grin upon his face, as possums do to this very day when taken by surprise.

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