We Have Met the Enemy and He is You

Miles O'Neal

This is one of my favorite creations. It was written some time in the 1980s and lost as usenet archives grew holey. It took years but eventually the pieces resolved in my mind. Never give up!


The roar of an uncorked, big V8 cresting the hill, the sickening thump, the drunken rebel yell... I didn't have to look out the window to know who had just gone by. Wearily I crawled out of the waterbed and glanced through the curtains. As usual there was a body in the street.

I threw on a robe and went outside. The cold, December night slapped me fully awake. For once there was no frost on the steps. A body lay unmoving under the streetlight, a thin trickle of blood making its way between the small, dark stones in the pavement.

The striped jacket, the squashed pork-pie hat... Sooner or later it was bound to be someone I knew, but it still hit hard. I knew, too, that Pogo's demise meant rough times ahead for a lot of folks.

The pre-dawn quiet seemed to suck all life into itself as I carried Pogo's body to the flower bed. I laid him gently on the pine straw, hat in hands, a pile of moss under his head. There was no way to make this corpse look natural-- a soulless body could never express Pogo's zeal for life. I went inside, started some coffee, and slung my fouled robe into the fireplace. I tasted salt water and realized I had teared up.

Soon I heard rustling outside the windows. I didn't look. But shortly afterward I heard a scratching at my front door. This bore investigation. Still in my pajamas, I grabbed a steak knife and eased out the back door. I crept to the front, dropped to my hands and knees, and peered around the corner. A dozen possums of various sizes covered my porch; the largest had apparently just drawn an X on my door with chalk. I placed the knife on top of the gas meter, poured some dirt on my head, and walked slowly around the corner.

Some of the possums fled. Some played dead. One snarled, but the rest simply stood, staring at me somberly. One of the larger ones- one of a few with two black stripes down his back (Pogo had called them ``racing stripes'' to his wife's amusement)- finally spoke.

"Hallo, friend of Pogo. Is this your home?"

I nodded slowly, offering unspoken, shared grief.

The one with the chalk began erasing the X. "I'm Pogo, Junior. PJ for short. We met at a meal, oncet. We didn't realize you lived here. When we found Dad here, we just assumed..."

"I understand. It was an intentional hit and run. Some of his blood is still in the street at the end of the driveway. I brought him here to keep him from being run over more."

"Our thanks. But to you alone. All others are now fair game. This is the last straw."

"Even if I know who did this?"

They hissed and drew closer. The feral light in their eyes blazed brighter than the huge, orange ball beginning to peek through the barren oaks and poplars to the east.

"Who?", demanded PJ. "Tell us who, and there will be no war."

I pointed up the street. "All the way to the end. Turn right. Second house on the left. Stupid looking small pickup truck on huge tires, a bunch of lights on the cab. Orange. Rebel flags on the doors and gas tank."

"Rebel flags?", one of the youngsters asked, mystified.

I took the chalk and drew the basic outline on the sidewalk. After they all got a good look, I scratched it out. I looked toward Pogo. "What about the body?"

PJ pointed to a spot in the sky. "When the sun is there, go where the stream passes nearest the unfinished buildings in the woods." About 3 PM. I nodded. Usually they would have scampered off but today they slowly carried Pogo's body into the woods, tails dragging in the tall, dead grass.

Luckily Sharon & the kids were in North Carolina. Nobody else could communicate with the animals, so nobody would believe I could. I'd learned early on to keep quiet about that ability for obvious reasons.

I called work promptly at eight, which really surprised Paul. I was almost never in before ten.

"Miles! What are you doing calling so early?"

"I won't be in today. I have a funeral."

"Oh, no! I'm sorry. Was it family?"

"A very close friend. I should be in tomorrow."

"OK. You know this is vacation time, not funeral leave, since it isn't family..."

"Yeah, I know."

"OK- we've just had a couple of people argue that lately. Are you all right?"

"Close enough. Thanks. See you tomorrow."

. . .

At 2:30 that afternoon I grabbed my rifle, locked the back door, and stepped into a strangely balmy December afternoon. Down the steps, down the hill, I fought my way through the tangled brush, avoiding most of the blackberry thorns. The back gate was so overgrown I just climbed over rather than fighting to open it.

I occasionally heard rustling in the bushes. An escort? Others on their way to pay respects? A sudden thought stopped me as I climbed over a dead tree. I left the path and hacked through the undergrowth to a huge, hollow trunk lying nearby. I tapped on the bark near the largest opening. A shrill whistle nearby broke the silence, and a head popped out.

"How'd you find us?" asked the young possum in the doorway.

"Something Pogo once told me just clicked. May I walk with you to the service?" I knew that wasn't the right word, but wasn't sure what to call it.

"What's with the gun?" the youngster demanded.

"Just in case anyone shows up who shouldn't. The guys in that truck sometimes come back here for firewood or to hunt."

A shiver ran down the racing stripes. "We know about the hunters. Just a minute."

Soon Pogo's widow walked out, followed closely by her clan. She stood quietly. Her thick, black fur shone silkily in the winter sunlight, as did the twin, white stripes down the center of her back. She regarded me with solemn eyes that appeared to have cried themselves out. I kissed the offered paw, and we headed for Pogo's favorite clearing.

"You are too kind. Eet ees good that ze only man-friend of Pogo should come weeth us, and I am honaired to 'ave you as an escort."

"Ma'am Hephzibah, you have my deepest regrets. I trust that if there is anything I can do, you will tell me."

"Allors! Eet ees enough you haf already done! To bring my Pogos from the street, to tell us of who ees the killer, what more can we ask? And then you are here to protect us from the wild! I am een your debt forevair."

I shook my head. “There is no debt. This is what friends do.”

We arrived at the stream. Deacon Mole squinted at us through lenses thick enough to be NASA space telescopes. I couldn't tell if he was surprised at my presence. He began as soon as we sat down.

Animals don't bury their dead. They leave them to the Earth. They seldom even have memorial services. This was a rare exception to both rules. It was also a council of war. I left for part of it when I had the idea I didn't want to know what they were planning. The Deacon was summing up as I returned.

"We have never minded serving man..."

I thought of an old science fiction story and shuddered.

"...and though some have suggested we should serve him up in stew..."

That sounded like the story. I sat down and tried to look inedible.

"...we will continue to serve him as before, when necessary. But while vengeance belongs to the Lord, justice He has put into our hands, and this we will do!" A general murmur of agreement broke out as mourners began walking away.

I sat and held Ma'am Hephzibah's hand through the sunset. We talked a bit about Pogo, and about life and death, but mostly we just sat. A little after moonrise I walked her home. She looked so frail and sad. I bent and hugged her. Somehow, I found myself laughing.

She pulled away. "And just what ees so funny that you can laugh on today, the day I haf lost my Pogos?"

I looked her straight in the eye. "I'm sorry. I couldn't help it. I just thought of my family's reaction if they saw me hugging you."

She stared at me a moment sternly, then cracked a smile. "Sometimes I forget that you are ze human kind of animal."

"Me, too. But most humans never think of things any other way."

"I know. Thank you again, our onliest man-friend." demurely kissed my cheek and went inside.

PJ was waiting as I turned to go. He spoke quietly. "That toy possum your kids have..."

"The one Pogo made for them? On wheels?"

"Yup. You reckon they'd mind if we used it?"

"Probably not - what for?"

I whirled around at a hiss behind me. It was Albert, coming from downwind, so I hadn't noticed the stench of his cigar. "Don't ask questions what you don't want to know the answers to."

"OK. I'll ask the kids. When do you want it?"

PJ pointed to where the moon would be at midnight. "OK," I said. "They're in North Carolina. I'll call them. If they say yes- as I imagine they will- I'll leave it on the front porch. Under the swing." PJ nodded, thanked me, and walked off talking quietly with Albert.

It hit me then. "Albert! Where's Churchy?"

Albert fixed me with a baleful eye. "That duck from the Post Office talked him an' Pup Dog into migratin' south for the winter. I suspecks they is in Kissimmee by now."

"Weehah Junction, most likely," argued PJ.

I shuddered. I'd spent a month in Weehah Junction one afternoon, trying to hitch a ride. "Maybe," I mused, "they're in Tampa. Didn't that duck know a manatee down there?" But PJ and Albert were already deep in conspiratorial whispers again.

I called and explained to Sharon and our kids that Pogo (they thought Pogo was a nickname for an old, college friend) was dead and that his family would like the pull possum back. They assumed it was for sentimental reasons, and though I suspected otherwise, I didn't know so I kept quiet. Esther and Josiah readily agreed. After telling them goodnight I put the toy on the porch and went to sleep early for a change. I slept on the couch so PJ could wake me more easily.

. . .

An hour before dawn I woke to the sound of scratching on the screen near my head. Pulling aside the curtain, I saw PJ waving impatiently for me to join him. I wrapped up in Mom's old, gray afghan and met him in the shadows under some bushes near the street light. We hid as far back as we could get and still see the street. All my questions were met with the same answer- "Wait." The afghan kept catching on blackberry thorns, one of the joys of semi-rural life.

Thirty long, cold minutes later a familiar, obnoxious roar approached from over the hill. PJ peered intently up the street, where I saw a possum tail suddenly raise from a large clump of dry grass. (We seldom mow. The neighbors berate us but the animals love it.) The tail dropped, PJ hissed "now!" into the dark, and just as a blaze of headlights crested the hill I saw a possum start across the street. Before I could shout a warning, PJ's paw covered my mouth. Then I recognized the pull toy and glimpsed a dark cord pulling it across the street. Then I saw sparks... a fuse?

The truck raced down the street at full throttle, darting across the road to hit the possum frozen in its headlights. PJ buried his face in the dirt. I did the same.

A tremendous explosion rocked the ground and threw me back into the bushes. Steel, glass, and things I didn't want to consider flew by. A secondary explosion from the gas tank sent the remainder of the truck skyward in a fireball. It rained fire and debris for 15 or 20 seconds. We stared at the gaping hole in the street in front of my house. "Guess that evens things up," said PJ with a tight smile. We wiggled through the shrubbery to the house as neighbors started to arrive.

I ditched the afghan just inside my door and staggered back outside, feigning being only half awake, asking what the commotion was.

Along with half the neighborhood, I spoke with deputies off and on for several days. They finally decided there must have been dynamite in the truck, “probably detonated when the truck hit the curb". It was kind of sad- nobody seemed too upset that these guys had died- just sort of relieved. It made me glad all over again that I hadn't lived next door to them.

Widow Hephzibah eventually married Porky Pine and they moved a few miles away. PJ and some of the other possums still live nearby and we occasionally get together. They bring us fish, fruit, or home-made toys. I take them clothes such as they like, along with fish hooks, knives, and similar things. Grass and flowers grow thick on Pogo's mound and some of his descendents and I spend many a summer afternoon lying on it, looking into the sky and talking about whatever comes to mind.

Lately, I've been teaching more of them to read. They only care about a few books. They have several copies of The Way Things Work. I suppose I shouldn't worry, but that is the book that taught me about making explosives, rockets, and so forth. I know I have nothing to fear, but lately I can't pass a neighbor's house without looking for chalk marks at the bottom of their doors.

The original story came about as I woke from a dream about Pogo to the sound of a big truck roaring down the hill in front of our house near Marietta, going much too fast. I thought I heard a bump as if it hit something. Later I found a roadkill possum there.

Copyright 1996, 2015 Miles O'Neal, Austin, TX. All rights reserved.