Tale of the Popo Agie
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.