Lessons from Amahl, my night visitor

  • Monday, January 14, 2013

When I lived in the Old Village a while back, every night for about three years my kitchen (more specifically, the cat bowl in my kitchen) had a visitor. It was a possum - an honest-to-goodness, gray-furred, pointy-nosed, scaly-tailed wild animal.
He came in through the “cat hole,” an opening in the floor purposely left when the washer and dryer were installed. If you know cats, you know that when a door is closed they’ll stand there and meow until someone opens it whether they want to go out or not. The cat hole behind the washer not only kept me from becoming the personal doorman for a herd of spoiled brat-cats, it probably kept my sanity.
I don’t know whether the possum found the cat hole on its own or whether the cats told the possum about it and invited him in for a free meal. I’m beginning to think that the possum was, from the outset, an invited guest. The cats didn’t care a dew claw about sharing their food bowl with a possum. Many times I saw cat and possum hunkered side-by-side over the bowl of Friskies, peacefully crunching away and totally comfortable in each other’s presence.
When I first discovered a possum in my kitchen, I was shocked. There was a wild animal in the house, one that looked very much like an overgrown rat. I responded with predictable horror.
“Out,” I screamed, grabbing the broom and batting away until he scurried away on his short little legs and scrambled back down the cat hole.
It takes a while for a possum to “scurry.” These animals are simply not made for speed. Their bodies are too stout, their legs are too short and they give real meaning to the word “uncoordinated.” It’s no wonder we see so many of them dead on the road.
I also found out that when a possum is terrified, it emits a powerfully hideous odor – one that takes a bottle of Lysol and a day of open windows and doors to expel.
I quickly learned that instead of screaming and yelling, if I simply made my presence known by quietly standing at the door, the possum would leave on its own volition (and at its own slow pace) without putting up a stink about it.
I soon gave up trying to remove the possum at all. Taking my cue from the cats, I accepted him as a regular at the cat bowl. I dubbed him “Amahl,” the night visitor.
For those of you who may not be familiar with Gian Carlo Menotti’s operetta, “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” it is a Christmas story about a crippled boy named Amahl who encounters the three wise men (the night visitors) following the star as they journeyed to Bethlehem. My Amahl was not following a star; he was following his nose to the food bowl. But he was a night visitor, nonetheless and like the boy in Menotti’s story, the cats were sharing what they had with him as he made his nocturnal journeys.
Amahl didn’t eat much. Possums crunch loudly but eat slowly. He was very shy. If a wild animal can have a personality, Amahl’s was unassuming and meek. When I accidentally encountered him in the kitchen his reaction was almost apologetic. “I’m sorry to have bothered you,” he seemed to say as he ambled his slow way to safety behind the washing machine. I could almost hear him add, “but thanks for supper,” as he clumsily slithered down the cat hole.
Yes, Amahl was a wild animal. But Amahl was about as far removed from an aggressive, feral animal as any in the animal kingdom. Amahl eventually became such a fixture in the household that I came to the decision that he probably lived under the house or in the thickets at the end of the yard.
I don’t know where else his nocturnal forays took him but he didn’t have to go far for food.
I made another discovery about Amahl. He was a she.
It happened on a cold winter night when instead of scurrying away, Amahl simply went behind the washing machine and stayed there. There were a few traces of blood on the kitchen floor. My instincts told me to leave Amahl alone - he was either injured and needed to rest or he (she?) was having babies. I put a towel over him (her) for warmth and wished him or her the best.
Amahl was indeed a she and the following spring for a while I had three possums living quietly and unobtrusively on the grounds – Amahl, Amahlette and Amahletto. They were adorable but they grew quickly and in the possum world, your mother sends you on your way sooner than later. I doubt this was a traumatic event but, possumlike, merely a slow and steady transition as the youngsters took up residence elsewhere.
Way, way back when, in my early 20s I lived for a while in New York City. It was right before Christmas and leaving the offices at Newsweek (where I then worked), I entered the maddening throng of mid-town Manhattan to do a bit of shopping. In my hurry, I inadvertently knocked hard into an elderly lady, almost pushing her down. I apologized and quickly rushed off, literally power-walking down Madison Avenue.
Frustrated, impatiently waiting for the light to change so I could cross the street, I happened to catch my reflection in the glass of a store window. I had a scowl on my face. I looked mean. Angry.
And where was I going in such a hurry? Nowhere.
It was the Christmas season and I had almost knocked down a little old lady. My only destination had been that of casual shopping on Madison Avenue. I’d only been in New York three years but I had contracted the horrible ugly-and-mean, walk-over-people virus that plagues big cities.
I decided then and there to come back home to South Carolina. I was giving up an excellent job with a terrific future. But I couldn’t live in a place where scowls replaced smiles and rushing replaced concern.
Where, in order to offset a night “visitor” you had to have multiple dead-bolt locks on the front door.
No, if a place was going to rub off on me and affect my personality, it was going to be one that I knew was good and kind and ultimately friendly. I made the decision to come back home where the pace was slower, more possum-like.
Of course even in a bustling metropolis like New York City, during Christmas people get into the spirit of the season and try to be nicer to each other. But down here in the Lowcountry, it doesn’t take a holiday to bring out genuine hospitality. We are lucky to keep, for the most part, the spirit of the season all year long. Folks are just plain nice here.
Even when we rush, we do so at possum speed - a pace that probably maddens even some of our transplanted New Yorkers.
What I wish I could give for Christmas this year is a week of time-off in the welcoming Lowcountry for all people, especially those who have lost their trust or faith in the goodness of humankind. I’d give them a week of being amongst people who treat you like an old friend even if you’ve just met.
Of being in a place where even the weather cooperates most of the time with warming, sunny days.
And, were it possible, part of this gift would include the opportunity of watching Amahl, the night visitor, stumble his slow, clumsy way up the cat hole to find a fat spoiled cat ready and willing to share his bowl of Friskies.
Merry Christmas, friends. It’s good to be home.
(Suzannah Smith Miles is a writer and Lowcountry and Civil War historian.)

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