Tale of the Popo Agie by Stella Cabot-Wilson


It  was  pretty  dark  out,  I  guess  you  could  say,  and  even  though  I  was  holding onto my momma’s  hand,  I  was  pretty  scared.  She  taught  me  to  spell  it  ‘momma,’ you  know.  I used  to  spell  it  m-a-m-a  like  everyone  else  but  one  day  she  came up  to  me  and  said that wasn’t  the  way  that  it  had  to  be.  So  I  started  doing  it  this way.

But  that  night  it  was  pretty  dark,  or  getting  dark—at  first  the  sky  was  gray and orange, like  a  salmon  had  gotten  its  belly  slit  open  and  was  hanging  up above the  hills.  A few days  before,  my  father  had  told  me  a  story  about  this  great  big pig  that  lived  near the Popo  Agie  River.  He  said  it  liked  to  eat  kids,  that  when  the night  came  it  would rumble out  of  the  forest,  stomach  sloshing  full  of  blood. Slish slosh  slish  slosh.  So  that was  the sound  I  was  listening  for  as  we  walked  along, as I  held  onto  my  momma’s  hand and tried  to  pick  apart  the  shadows  at  the  edge  of the  road. 

The  first  thing  that  went  wrong  is  that  we  almost  stepped  right  onto  a  rattler. I was plodding  along  a  few  steps  behind  my  momma,  being  scared  of  the  forest, you know, and  I  didn’t  even  hear  it  at  first.  We  were  scuffing  about  a  lot  of  rocks, not  just crunchy gravel  but  clattering  stones,  too—probably  ones  that  came  out  of the Popo  Agie a  long time  ago.  That’s  why  they  are  round  and  that’s  why  they make  that  sound,  all smooth and  crackly.  So  I  almost  didn’t  hear  the  rattler.  But  my Momma  did  and  she tugged  on my  hand  so  tight  I  thought  she  had  seen  the  pig and  it  had  come  to  take  me away. But instead  there  was  that  snake,  all  curled  up in  the  middle  of  the  road,  telling  us not  to step  on  it.  It  hissed  at  us  and  even after  the  sound  had  stopped  its  mouth  hung wide open  like  it  was  just  waiting  to swallow  us  whole.  Right  about  then  I  started  getting scared  of  the  snake  instead of the  pig—in  fact  I  clean  forgot  about  the  pig.  Like  my teacher  Mrs.  Trudy  had picked up  the  board  eraser  and  scrubbed  away  at  my  brain.  I was  just  staring  at  the snake,  but  thankfully  my  momma  knew  better  and  she  took  some steps  back  and  I was  dragged  with  her.  I  don’t  think  we  can  get  around  it,  she  said. She sounded sort  of  confused,  like  she  hadn’t  expected  to  see  this  snake  right  smack-dab in the  middle  of  our  road.  It  really  was  right  in  the  very  middle,  on  the  ridge  that the  car tires  don’t  touch  so  it’s  a  little  higher  than  the  rest  and  the  water  spills off of  it on  both sides  when  it  rains.  

Remember  it  was  getting  dark  and  snakes usually aren’t  out  so  late, once  the  sun goes away  and  they  can’t  get  warm  anymore.  But I  guess  it  was  a  hot  day.  I guess  it  was  all stuffed  with  warmth  and  didn’t  want to move  just  yet.  We  stood and stared  at  it  for  a while—I  swear  it  left  its  mouth open the  whole  entire  time—and  finally my  momma  said Let’s  take  the  high  road.  I actually  thought  that  was kind of  funny because  we  had  read a book  in  class  that day  with  rhymes  and expressions  and  stuff  and there  was  this  great purple caterpillar  that  went  over  the hill  instead  of  knocking  over the  spider’s  web.  But my momma  looked  annoyed  that I was  laughing  so  I  stopped.  

Once  we  turned  around  I  could  see  the  river  and  I  started  getting  nervous about the  pig again.  But  soon  it  was  so  dark  I  couldn’t  even  really  see  the  river ahead  of  us,  just the road  glowing  whitely  a  little  bit  out  in  front  of  us.  I  was trying  to  pick  up  my  feet  so  I didn’t  scuffle  so  much,  so  that  we  were  just crunching  along  instead  of  spreading  the stones  about.  I  didn’t  want  to  run  into any  snakes  again.  But  I  was  concentrating  so much  on  my  footsteps  and  listening for  rattlers  and  for  sloshing  blood  that  I  didn’t  hear the  truck  coming  up  the  road. I saw  the  headlights  and  they  just  confused  me  at  first, but  then  my  momma  was slowing  down  and  moving  to  the  side  of  the  road  and  I understood.  I  squinted  to try  and  see  the  color  of  the  truck,  but  of  course  that  didn’t help.  I  thought  maybe it  was  Mr.  Jameson  in  his  powder-blue  truck  but  it  didn’t  slow down  until  after  it passed  us  so  I  figured  it  was  someone  we  didn’t  know.  For  some reason,  my momma  got  a  little  nervous  when  the  brake  lights  became  a  brighter  red and the tire  sounds  slowed  down,  but  I  was  hoping  they  would  come  back  and  give  us  a ride. I mean  it  was  really  dark  by  then.  And  I  remember  that  the  truck  driving  by brought the air  with  it  and  the  hairs  on  my  arms  stood  up  with  the  chill.  But  for some  reason  my momma  started  walking  again,  now  faster,  in  the  way  we  had been  moving  already, away  from  the  car.  It  hadn’t  stopped  all  the  way  yet  and  I just  kind  of  let  her  pull  me along.  She  was  moving  really  fast  now  and  I  thought she  was  scared,  but  I  didn’t  think it was  about  snakes  or  the  Popo  Agie  pig.  A breeze  was  starting  to  pick  up  and  I could smell  the  sweetness  of  the  clay  along the  side  of  the  road—it  had  rained  the  night before;  the  river  was  especially  high, even  for  the  spring—and  I  also  smelled  something musky  and  sour.  I  think  maybe that  smell  was  coming  from  my  momma.

Who  was  in  the  truck?  I  asked,  and  maybe  she  shook  her  head  because  I thought I heard  her  earrings  rattle  like  the  snake’s  tail,  a  warning,  but  she  didn’t say  anything. Was it  blue?  Was  it  Mr.  Jameson?  I  said,  because  I  wanted  it  be  Mr. Jameson  even though  I knew  that  it  wasn’t  him,  that  if  it  had  been  he  would  have pulled  over  and driven  us home,  even  though  he  lived  down  by  the  river  and  we lived  on  the  other  side of  the butte.  No,  she  said.  No,  I  don’t  know  who  it  was.

As  we  kept  walking  I  tried  to  look  back  behind  us  without  her  noticing.  I  thought I could  see  the  truck’s  tail  lights  like  two  beady  red  eyes,  but  then  I  thought maybe those were  pig  eyes  because  if  it  drank  blood,  wouldn’t  its eyes  be  red like blood,  and  I got nervous  again  and  walked  almost  as  fast  as  my  momma.  But  then I  thought  I  heard something  behind  us  and  I  looked  back  and  I  could  feel  my momma  look  back,  and we didn’t  see  red  lights  anymore,  we  saw  white  ones, moving  up  the  road  toward  us.  I thought  that  we’d  keep  moving  because  I  could tell  that  the  car  coming  back  was making  my  momma  uncomfortable  and  I  was starting  to  feel  the  same  way.  Honey,  she said,  Matthew.  Will  you  go  up  the  side of  the  hill  for  me?  Just  a  bit  off  of  the  road? Maybe  behind  that  bush  there?  I’m going  to  stay  here  and  see  what  they  want.  And suddenly  I  was  very  scared, much  more  scared  than  I  had  been  when  there  was  only the pig,  or  only  the snake,  or  even  both  of  them  together.  I  stood  there  for  a  second and didn’t  say anything,  just  twisted  my  lips  around  and  held  onto  my  sides.  I  was fluttering, like  I had  two  baby  birds  inside  my  ribs,  trying  to  fly  out  of  me.  I  wanted  to stay  there, I didn’t  want  to  leave  her.  She  looked  scared  and  I  wanted  to  protect  her.  I didn’t want  to leave  her.  But  she  guided  my  shoulders  around  and  gave  me  a  little  pat on  my  bum  and even  though  I  was  feeling  prickly  and  I  didn’t  want  to  walk  away from her  I  did.  The  sky felt  very  big.  I  don’t  remember  any  stars  but  I  also  don’t remember looking  up  so  maybe they  were  there  anyway.

I  had  trouble  walking  over  to  the  bush  because  there  were  lots  of  rocks  in my way,  and they  were  not  round  like  the  river  stones.  They  were  much  bigger and  they bashed  into my  shins.  I  kept  holding  my  sides  which  didn’t  help  me stand up  but  with the  pressure  I could  feel  my  scratchy  shirt  against  my  skin  and  even though  it  was  the yellow  one  that I didn’t  like  I  felt  like  it  was  keeping  me  safe and  I  didn’t  want  to  let  go.

When  I  finally  reached  the  bush  the  car  had  just  pulled  up  to  greet  my momma. She was standing  there,  with  her  hands  clasped  in  front  of  her,  I  think, though  I  could only  see the  fuzzy  outline  of  her  back.  She  looked  pleasant,  kind of like  an  angel  or  the painting of  Jesus  that’s  in  our  little  church.  There  were  two people  in  the  car  and  the driver  was leaning  over  to  talk  to  her.  I  couldn’t  hear anything  over  the  grumble  of  the engine, except  once  my  momma  laughed.  It  was high  pitched  and  it  broke  through  the  air  and made  me  shiver.  I  thought  I  saw her  arms  moving  out  and  up  but  then  the  truck door was  opening  and  a  hand was  reaching  out  to  grab  hers—as  she  moved  into  the  light  of the  cab  I  saw  her illuminated  and  she  was  looking  back  at  the  hill.  For  me,  I  think.

But  either  she  didn’t  remember  what  bush  she  had  pointed  me  towards  or  she couldn’t see  in  the  light  because  when  I  stood  up  straight  to  be  there  if  she needed  me  her eyes just  moved  past  me  and  then  she  was  ducking  into  the truck.  She  didn’t  even  get into the  truck,  she  just  stood  there  all  bent  over  and  I think  they  were  talking  to  her  but I couldn’t  see  their  mouths.  Or  their  faces.  But the  driver  was  wearing  a  great  black  hat; he  kept  touching  its  brim.  It  felt  like  a long,  long  time  before  the  man  let  go  of  my momma’s  arm  and  she  fell  backwards and  he  shut  the  door  sharply  and  they  drove away.  Even  though  she  didn’t  have to  bend  over  any  more  to  fit  inside  the  truck,  my momma  looked  droopy.  Now there  was  only  the  moon’s  light  and  her  pale  dress glowed  like  she  was  dressed up  in  a  white  sheet  for  Halloween.  Matthew,  my  momma finally called.  Her  voice wavered  like  ripples  over  rocks  in  the  creek  by  our  house.  But she cleared  her throat  and  said  Matthew  again  and  so  I  came  down  to  her.  What  did they  want?  I said. Nothing,  she  said.  They  were  just  saying  hello. And  so  then  I  was  glad and  I took  her  hand  and  we  started  walking  home.  And even  though  we  had  to  take the long  route  home  because  of  the  snake  I  felt  like  we  got home  pretty  quick.  My momma  let  me  get  in  bed  without  brushing  my  teeth,  even.  I was  thankful  because I  was feeling  awfully  fuzzy  and  tired  and  I  said  so  in  my  prayers, thanks  for  no brushed  teeth and  no  snakebites  and  no  pigs  eating  us.  And  then  I  fell asleep.

But  when  I  woke  up  my  momma  wasn’t  there.  Her  sheets  were  all  ruffled  like she had left  in  a  hurry.  I  got  out  of  bed  and  put  my  clothes  on  and  sat  in  the kitchen and waited  because  I  never  walk  to  school  alone  but  I  sat  there  all  morning  and she  didn’t came  back.

When  my  dad  got  home  for  his  lunch  break  he  said,  Hey,  soldier.  Where’s your mom? And  I  said,  I  don’t  know.  And  then  I  started  to  cry  and  even  though  I was ashamed  to cry  in  front  of  my  dad  I  couldn’t  help  it.  And  he  stood  in  the doorway  with one  hand up on  the  frame  and  the  other  holding  his  hat  against  his leg  and  he  said, What?  Matthew, what’s  wrong?  Where  is  she? And  I  said,  I  don’t know,  and  sniffed  to  clear  my  nose  a bit. And  he  pressed  his  hands  and  his  hat to  his  head  and  said,  Oh  god,  and  that scared  me,  just  as  much  as  the  pig would’ve  if  it  had  come  and  drank  me  up  in  the dark. 



Stella Cabot-Wilson is from Colorado and Wyoming. She now lives in NYC.