Why the Opussum''s Tail Is Bare
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 vigour. 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 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 announcements 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 favourite 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
especially 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
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 centre 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
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
'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 neighbor’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.