Story copyright 2008 Alice Breider.
Illustrations copyright 2008 Colin DuBois.
Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3
LITTLE KATHY POSSUM WAS SAD. Her head hung down and her tail dragged behind her as she made her way to Grandma Possum's house. Every now and then she snuffled and rubbed her nose with her paw.
"What's wrong?" called Grandma Possum, wiping her paws on her apron. She was looking out the kitchen window, and even from a distance she could see that the little possum was unhappy. Usually Kathy trotted happily on her way to see Grandma Possum after school. But not today.
"Come in and have some chocolate milk and cookies," said Grandma Possum. She took Kathy's paw in hers and they went into the kitchen. Possums eat all kinds of food, but they are especially fond of chocolate milk and cookies.
So, while Kathy perched on her stool at the table, Grandma Possum poured chocolate milk into Kathy's mug.The mug was pink to match Kathy's pink nose and it had two handles, one on each side, so Kathy's paws could hold it easily as she drank.
Grandma put some cookies on Kathy's little plate.The plate was pink too, and it had a picture of a tiny possum painted on it. Kathy was a big girl now but she still loved to eat from her little plate. Grandma had given the plate and the mug to her long ago when Kathy was just a tiny possum.
Kathy felt better. Every day after school she visited Grandma Possum. And now, sitting at the kitchen table, with her pink mug and plate in front of her, she almost forgot how sad she had been.
But Grandma Possum hadn't forgotten. She sat down at the table, carefully draping her tail to one side of her chair. "Now, Kathy," she said, "how was school today?" Grandma asked this question every day. Since Kathy loved school, she enjoyed talking to Grandma about it. But today, Grandma's question brought back Kathy's sad feelings.
Kathy looked down into her pink mug. "Come now, tell me what's wrong," coaxed Grandma. "You'll see, talking about it will make you feel better."
"The other animals made fun of me today," Kathy blurted out, still staring into her mug.
"Yes? Why did they do that?" Grandma asked softly.
"Because I didn't know what to do if the mean old coyote came after me," Kathy said sadly.
"Hmmm," said Grandma.Then she asked, "What did the other little animals say they would do if the mean old coyote came after them?"
Kathy put her mug down on the table and took a bite out of a cookie. "Well," she said, "Teacher asked us to describe how we would escape and Jeremy Squirrel told us he would quick run up a tree." She chewed the bite of cookie and swallowed it. "Then Ruthie Woodchuck said she would dive into her underground house."
Grandma nodded her wise old head. "Those are good escapes for Jeremy and Ruthie," she said, adding, "did anyone else have an escape?"
"Yes," said Kathy, "Steven Rabbit said he would jump into some blackberry bushes. They're full of pickers and thorns, he says. And Michael Beaver said he would plunge into the pond and swim right into his house in the water," She drank the last of her chocolate milk and put down her mug. Then she carefully wiped cookie crumbs from her whiskers. "Grandma, what does it mean to plunge?"
Grandma considered. "You said Ruthie Woodchuck would dive into her house underground. Well, Michael Beaver would dive, or plunge, into the pond. Michael is an intelligent boy and he likes to use big words."
Grandma peered at Kathy over her round wire-rimmed glasses. "Why were the other animals making fun of you?" she asked.
There was a little pause and then Kathy wailed, "Because I didn't have any escape. I can't run fast like Jeremy and Steven, and I don't have an underground house like Ruthie, and I can't swim like Michael, and I just didn't know what to say. . ." Big tears welled up in her eyes. "Maybe I'll just get eaten by the mean old coyote because I'm so stupid," she sobbed.
"Oh, dear, oh, dear," said Grandma, and she got up from her chair to pat Kathy's heaving shoulders. Kathy usually felt that she was a big girl. After all, she was in the first grade at school, but she cried now like a small hurt animal.
Grandma lifted Kathy from her stool at the table and carried her to the old rocking chair that stood by the stove. "There, there," she soothed, as Kathy wept against her shoulder. "Don't you cry anymore. Grandma's going to tell you a secret." And as Grandma rocked her, back and forth, back and forth, Kathy's sobs grew quieter.
Finally, she lifted her head and asked, "What's the secret?"
Grandma pressed a handkerchief to Kathy's nose and commanded, "Blow." Kathy hiccupped twice and blew into the handkerchief.
Grandma leaned back. "There," she said, "that's better." She tucked the handkerchief away in her apron pocket and began to rock again, back and forth. "Now for the secret," she said, as Kathy looked up at her, waiting.
"First of all, child, you are not stupid. You just haven't heard the secret yet. But none of us possums are ever told the secret until we're old enough to understand it."
"Oh, I hope I'm old enough," cried Kathy, "am I, Grandma, am I?"
"Yes, Kathy, I think you're old enough," said Grandma, and Kathy clapped her paws together. "But wait, just a minute," Grandma continued, "I want to ask you a question. Did Miz Shirley Badger, your teacher, say anything to the other animals when they made fun of you?"
"No, Grandma, she didn't because she didn't know about it. It was on the way home that the other animals asked me what I would do to escape the mean old coyote. And they laughed when I said I didn't know."
"All right, Kathy, you're old enough to hear The Possum Secret," Grandma said firmly. "Now listen carefully," and she began to whisper into Kathy's small black ear.
Jeremy Squirrel &
Steven Rabbit &
SEVERAL DAYS WENT BY. The other little animals forgot how they had laughed at Kathy because each day Miz Shirley Badger took her pupils on an exciting field trip. It was fall, and they were learning to gather their own food.
One day, Jeremy Squirrel found ripe acorns and hickory nuts where they had dropped from tall trees. He gathered them into neat piles. Because he was small and quick, he scampered up one tree after another, looking for holes in which to store the nuts. Sometimes he leapt from one tree to another, using his long fluffy tail for balance so that he would not fall. Jeremy did not know it, but when winter arrived, he would keep warm by wrapping that same long fluffy tail around himself.
Steven Rabbit and Ruthie Woodchuck searched for bright green clover patches hidden in the tall grass of the meadow. When they found one, Steven and Ruthie each began at one edge of the clover patch and nibbled their way toward the middle. In the middle, they bumped noses and laughed. Then they ran off to find another clover patch to start another game.
Like Jeremy Squirrel, Steven was small and quick. He had long ears, but only a fluffy puff for a tail.
Ruthie Woodchuck, on the other hand, was bigger than the other animals, and getting bigger. She put on lots of fat in the fall, for she would sleep the winter away in her underground house. She would not even wake up to eat. Next spring, Ruthie would come out of her house rumpled and skinny. And VERY hungry.
Michael Beaver gnawed busily at the young tree saplings growing along the brook. By and by, the remains of several saplings lay on the ground. Michael's fur was glossy brown. He was a slow mover on the ground. In the water, he was a powerful swimmer, helped by his broad flat tail. When he dove into the water he could slap the water with his tail to signal other animals that there was danger nearby.
Kathy Possum gathered ripe berries, eating them one by one as she moved slowly from bush to bush. Soon her furry little face was stained red with raspberry juice. Some juice even ran down her front. Kathy was a small, gray animal, like Jeremy Squirrel. But her tail was long and bare, instead of fluffy like Jeremy's. Her ears were black, and her small paws and the end of her nose were pink.
And their teacher, Miz Shirley Badger, tall, with striped fur, walked round and round in a circle. She watched each little animal working to gather food.
Although her pupils did not know it, she was also keeping watch for the mean old coyote. She knew the mean old coyote was very fond of young animal for dinner. He wasn't fussy. If he could catch a squirrel, or a woodchuck, or even a small beaver, he was happy.
Neither Miz Shirley Badger nor her pupils knew that the mean old coyote sat watching them. He peered at the group from behind a big tree in the forest. His sharp yellow teeth showed in a mean grin. He thought about dinner, trying to decide which one he'd have the best chance of catching.
On the other hand, he was deeply afraid of Miz Shirley Badger's long claws. While badgers are great diggers of holes, using their claws, those claws can rip long gashes in a coyote's fur coat. And however hungry he was, the mean old coyote had no wish to be raked by Miz Shirley Badger's claws. So, he sat and thought. And as he thought, he made a plan.
Crouching low, he crept from behind the tree. Slowly, ever so slowly, placing each paw carefully so as to make no noise, he began to sneak toward Steven Rabbit and Ruthie Woodchuck. Those two were nibbling away in a clover patch.
Now and then the coyote turned his head, keeping an eye on Miz Shirley Badger. He shivered a little, thinking of her long claws, for coyotes are cowardly as well as sneaky. But he was very hungry, and he decided he just had to take the chance of catching something small and furry for dinner.
He did not see Kathy Possum, just rounding a berry bush, not far from where Steven Rabbit and Ruthie Woodchuck were almost bumping noses in the clover patch.
Miz Shirley Badger was alongside the brook eyeing Michael Beaver's big pile of young saplings.
And Jeremy Squirrel had almost disappeared behind a heap of acorns to which he was adding a few hickory nuts.
So the coyote concentrated hard on Steven and Ruthie as he crept ever nearer to them, step by slow step. He parted the tall grass and, looking over his shoulder, saw that Miz Shirley Badger was talking to Michael Beaver. Now, NOW was his chance. The mean old coyote lunged toward Steven and Ruthie.
No one could say for sure what happened next. But everyone agreed that while Steven Rabbit leapt into the nearby berry bushes, Ruthie Woodchuck simply froze. Her underground house was a long way from the clover patch, and there was no other hole for her to dive into. She let out a shriek of terror.
And then, suddenly, it seemed everyone was in motion. Michael Beaver dived into the brook. Jeremy Squirrel scrambled up a tall tree and didn't stop climbing until he had reached the topmost branch. Miz Shirley Badger whirled, saw the mean old coyote in one glance, and streaked toward him.
And just then, little Kathy Possum ambled out from the berry bush between the coyote and Ruthie Woodchuck. Kathy opened her mouth to ask why Ruthie had shrieked when she saw the coyote leaping toward her through the tall grass.
Kathy toppled over backward. Her mouth was open, her eyes were wide and staring, and all four legs stuck up straight and stiff in front of her as she lay still.
The coyote, thrown off balance by the sight of Kathy lying in his path, spun away from Ruthie Woodchuck who was still frozen in terror.
And now Miz Shirley Badger was upon the coyote. Growling and snarling, she rushed at him, fully intending to rip him to shreds with her long powerful claws. And he, in fear of his life, turned and ran as he had never run before. Past the meadow, over the brook and into the forest he ran. Michael Beaver, peeping from behind a rock in the brook, shouted, "That way, he went that way," as Miz Shirley Badger hurtled after him.
At the brook, Miz Shirley Badger stopped, panting heavily. She stood, paws on hips, glaring fiercely after the coyote who was now disappearing into the dark forest.
"Try to catch MY pupils, will you? I think NOT!" she muttered to herself.
Jeremy Squirrel climbed down from his perch at the top of the tree. "Gosh, Miz Badger," he said, "you sure scared him away. Was that the mean old coyote?"
"Yes, Jeremy," said Miz Shirley Badger still puffing, "that was the coyote. Now, will you please go and tell the others to join us here at the edge of the brook."
And Jeremy loped off to find Ruthie, Steven, and Kathy.
Michael Beaver hauled himself up over the bank of the brook. His fur was wet and sleek from his dive into the brook. "Why didn't you chase him some more, Miz Badger?" he asked, "Why didn't you?"
Miz Shirley Badger eyed him. "Because my first responsibility is to my pupils. I must make sure you are all right." She didn't say so to Michael, but she knew the coyote could run faster than she could.
Just then Jeremy returned with Steven Rabbit hopping beside him and Ruthie Woodchuck scuttling behind them, glancing fearfully over her shoulder. But where was Kathy Possum?
"Miz Badger," Jeremy panted, "something's wrong with Kathy. She's lying over there and she won't move and," he paused for breath, "it looks like she's got blood all over her."
"Oh, dear, oh dear," said Miz Shirley Badger, and she began to stride briskly in the direction Jeremy was pointing. "Pupils, you come with me," she called over her shoulder. And off she went, trailed by Jeremy and Steven, with Ruthie and Michael waddling in the rear.
Sure enough, there was little Kathy Possum, still lying where she had toppled backward. The other animals crept closer to each other and to Miz Shirley Badger. Stooping low, and gathering the little animals into her long furry arms, she whispered, "You stay right here and wait for me."
Miz Shirley Badger could be stern and gruff, as all badgers are, but now, with her pupils clustered fearfully around her she spoke softly and comfortingly. "We're having an adventure," she said, "an exciting adventure. And it isn't over yet." She patted small furry shoulders all around and left them to wait for her.
The little animals huddled together, watching to see what their teacher would do about Kathy Possum.
First, Miz Shirley Badger bent over Kathy Possum. Kathy was stiff and motionless. Then the teacher sniffed at Kathy's chest. This isn't blood, she thought, it's berry juice. Thank goodness. She crouched beside Kathy and whispered something into her small black ear.
While the other students watched, holding their breath, Miz Shirley Badger lifted Kathy gently and placed her on her four stiff legs. Still Kathy did not move but stood there rigid. Then Miz Shirley Badger stroked Kathy's back and crooned to her, "There, there, it's all right, teacher is here. Wake up, little Kathy."
The other animals looked at each other. How could Kathy be sleeping? they wondered.
As Miz Shirley Badger continued to croon to Kathy and stroke her back, Kathy blinked. Then Kathy shut her open mouth, blinked twice more, and shook herself all over. Miz Shirley Badger sat back and her whiskers twitched in a big smile. "That's better," she said, as the other little animals stared in amazement.
They rushed forward then and gathered around Kathy. "Oh, Kathy," cried Jeremy Squirrel, "I thought you were dead!" He looked at her closely. "I thought you must be dead with all that blood on you."
Miz Shirley Badger chuckled. "Jeremy, that's berry juice," she said. Then, with one arm around Kathy, she motioned the other animals to sit in a circle around them. "You can see that Kathy is all right," she said, "aren't you, Kathy?"
Kathy nodded and yawned, showing her pink tongue and her sharp little teeth. She leaned against Miz Shirley Badger, blinking sleepily.
Steven Rabbit peered at her. Maybe she had been asleep, he thought. But how could she be? From the safety of the berry bushes, he had seen the mean old coyote come leaping toward Ruthie and Kathy. Steven scratched one long ear and wondered.
Miz Shirley Badger was continuing, ". . . and tomorrow in class we'll talk about how small animals must always be on the lookout for big hungry animals." She looked around the circle of her pupils. "Wasn't this an exciting adventure?" she asked.
"Yes, Miz Badger," the little animals chorused happily, now that the danger was past, Miz Badger clapped her paws. "All right, class, back to school and then home." And to herself she thought, My goodness, this was enough adventure for today! She led the way along the tall grass at the edge of the meadow.
Jeremy Squirrel and Steven Rabbit scampered along behind her. Michael Beaver and Ruthie Woodchuck hurried to keep up. And Kathy Possum brought up the rear, walking slowly and dreamily. Every now and then, Steven glanced back at her curiously. Again he wondered how she could have gone to sleep, just when the mean old coyote was leaping at her.
After school, Miz Shirley Badger walked with Kathy to Grandma Possum's house. While Kathy washed berry juice from her fur, Grandma Possum and Miz Shirley Badger talked quietly. Then Miz Shirley Badger admired Kathy's little pink plate and her two-handled mug as Kathy drank her chocolate milk and ate cookies.
Mean Old Coyote
Miz Shirley Badger
NEXT DAY, MIZ SHIRLEY BADGER LOOKED AROUND AT HER PUPILS. "Do you remember the other day in class when I asked you how you would escape from the mean old coyote?"
"Yes, Miz Badger," they chorused.
"And you, Jeremy, said you would run up a tree, isn't that right?"
"Yes, Miz Badger," said Jeremy, "and I did."
"And you, Steven, said you would jump into the berry bushes, isn't that right?"
"Yes, Miz Badger," said Steven, "and I did."
"And you, Michael, said you would plunge into the water, isn't that right?"
"Yes, Miz Badger," said Michael, "and I did."
"And you, Ruthie, said you would dive into your underground house, isn't that right?"
Ruthie gulped. "Yes, Miz Badger," she said, and hung her head. The other animals sat quietly, looking at her.
"Well, Ruthie, that escape didn't work too well yesterday, did it?" Miz Shirley Badger asked kindly.
"No, Miz Badger," whispered Ruthie, and two big tears rolled down her furry face and were trapped by her whiskers. "The mean old coyote would have caught me because I wasn't anywhere near my underground house."
"Maybe he would," agreed Miz Shirley Badger, "but he didn't." She added, "We'll discuss later how you can escape the mean old coyote if you're not near your underground house. But before we do that, I'm going to tell you a secret."
Everybody sat up, ears perked, eyes sparkling. A secret! Wow! Even Ruthie Woodchuck looked up, more cheerful now.
"Yes," declared Miz Shirley Badger, "I'm going to tell you The Possum Secret." Now, everyone looked at Kathy. She looked down at her paws, but the others could see she was smiling, a small secret smile.
"It's a very old secret," Miz Shirley Badger went on, "that only possums know. I have permission from Kathy's Grandma Possum to tell it to you," said Miz Shirley Badger, "and then it will be our secret, too."
"Ooooh," whispered Steven Rabbit to Jeremy Squirrel. "Shhh," said Michael Beaver, "I want to hear this. It should be very interesting."
"As you know, Kathy Possum can't run fast, like Steven and Jeremy. Unlike Michael, she doesn't swim very well. And she doesn't live in an underground house like Ruthie." Everybody nodded. They knew that.
"So what can she do to escape the mean old coyote?" Miz Shirley Badger inquired of the class.
"Go to sleep?" Steven Rabbit asked, remembering how Kathy Possum had yawned and blinked.
Everybody laughed, and Steven looked embarrassed. "Steven's answer is close," said Miz Shirley Badger, "but not quite right. No, Kathy used The Possum Secret yesterday. When a possum sees, or hears, or smells danger, as Kathy did, she just falls down and lies there. A big hungry animal, like the mean old coyote, thinks she is dead, and not worth bothering with."
The animals were very quiet. Kathy was still smiling, but no longer a small secret smile. She was almost laughing out loud.
"Yes, if he had come any closer to her, the mean old coyote would think she was dead," said Miz Shirley Badger, "except that she isn't dead, as you can see."
At this Kathy did laugh out loud, because the other animals looked so puzzled.
"But how does she do it?" asked Jeremy Squirrel. "I thought she WAS dead because she was so still. I didn't even see her breathe, and her eyes didn't even blink, and even her legs were all stiff and funny."
"Pretty neat trick," said Michael Beaver, thoughtfully.
"Kathy went into a sort of trance," said Miz Shirley Badger. "That's why I had to bring her out of it gently." She added, "And it IS a neat trick—to fool a big hungry animal into leaving her alone and trying his luck somewhere else. The Possum Secret is Kathy's way of escaping the mean old coyote, or any other big hungry animal."
Steven Rabbit leaned over and whispered to Kathy, "I'm sorry I laughed at you the other day. That was really dumb. You've got the best escape of all."
"Oh, that's okay," said Kathy, waving a paw airily. "I didn't feel so bad about being laughed at, after my Grandma Possum told me The Possum Secret."
"Bet you didn't think you'd have to use The Possum Secret so soon, did you?" Jeremy Squirrel asked.
"No, I didn't," said Kathy emphatically. "But it's a good thing The Possum Secret is automatic. Grandma told me I wouldn't even have to think about doing it. She said that when I need to escape I would just tip over and stop moving and breathing and blinking."
This was a very long speech for Kathy, and the other animals looked at her respectfully.
Ruthie Woodchuck asked hesitantly, "Do you think I could I learn to do it?"
Miz Shirley Badger smiled. "No, Ruthie, The Possum Secret is only for possums. But tomorrow I'm going to ask Steven Rabbit to show you how he escapes into the berry bushes. That will be your second way of escaping if you're not near your underground house."
The shadows had lengthened across the grass. The school day was over. Miz Shirley Badger dismissed her class, and the little animals left in a group, chattering and laughing. They had reached the old oak tree when Kathy said suddenly, "Why don't you all come to Grandma Possum's house with me." She looked shyly down at her paws. "That is, if you like chocolate milk and cookies."
"Oh, boy," said Ruthie, "do I!" And without waiting for the others, she waddled off down the path to Grandma Possum's house.
Steven Rabbit leapt after her with a bound. "C'mon," he shouted over his shoulder, "let's go!" And Michael, Jeremy, and Kathy followed, still chattering and laughing, all the way to Grandma Possum's house.