Pygmies at the Lake

I was bored. I made no secret of that fact to Mrs. Brown*, the woman whose unpleasant duty it was to watch over me that summer. “I wish I could go swimming,” I muttered.

“Why don’t you, then?” she asked.

I told her about the lake, and how an early thaw had left it overgrown with thick, slimy, bilious-green algae and duck droppings. “It’s like that at the start of every summer,” I explained. “It’ll be a few weeks, yet, till they clean the lake.”

“How do they clean the lake?” asked Mrs. Brown.

I had always assumed they did it with chemicals, harsh things like chlorine and copper and things with names I couldn’t pronounce. Or maybe Mother Nature took care of it in due time. In a few weeks, the water would be clear and clean and fit for swimming, a fact we village kids took for granted. But looking over at Mrs. Brown’s expression of sincere interest and willingness to listen, I couldn’t say that. It would be too boring. Too depressingly mundane.

“It’s the pygmies,” I said.

“Pygmies?” she exclaimed. “What pygmies?”

What pygmies, indeed. “The ones from the Allegheny Mountains. They’re in Pennsylvania, you know.”

“I see. And what do they have to do with cleaning the lake?”

“We hire them. They travel across the States, cleaning up the lakes after they thaw. It’s a long way, you know. Just outside Johnstown.”

“Pygmies, just outside Johnstown.”

“Yes,” I said, warming to my story. “They camp out on the side of the lake. They’re vegetarians, you see. They like the algae. It’s sort of a, a delicacy to them.” Eeewwww. Sometimes my imagination runs away with me. I pictured little brown-skinned men and women, about four-feet tall, munching clumps of algae dripping with duck droppings. Seasoning, you might say. “It’s actually quite nutritious. In fact, they don’t charge us a cent. We could probably charge them for the meal, but it works out to everyone’s benefit this way.”

“I see,” said Mrs. Brown, nodding earnestly.

Oh, give it up already. Aren’t you tired of playing ‘humor the twelve-year-old’? I thought. Adults can be such dorks. “There are plenty of lakes around here. By the end of spring, they’ve had their fill.”

“Where do they go then? What do they do the rest of the year?”

Oh, so glad you asked. “Why, they go back to the Alleghenies and, um,” I thought hard. “They hibernate.” Oh, right. She’d call me on that for sure. Pygmies are people. People don’t hibernate.

“Really? All winter long?”

“Yeah, all winter. You know, they travel by foot. Won’t have anything to do with cars or planes or trucks or anything. After gorging themselves on algae and marching back to the mountains, they’re exhausted. It’s all they can do to digest all that food. Did you know that it takes seven months to digest a pound of algae?” I improvised.

“No! I had no idea. That’s fascinating. Thank you for telling me all this. It’s amazing, the things I learn every day…” Mrs. Brown shooed me out of the house. If I couldn’t swim, I could at least ride my bike or play in the sunshine. It wasn’t healthy for a growing child to be cooped up indoors all day, with nothing but a thick book for company. I slipped a book under my sweater, anyway, before slipping out the back door. I read under the apple tree until dinnertime.

A few nights later, we went out to dinner, my parents and I, with Mr. and Mrs. Brown. Mr. Brown was a business associate of Dad’s. I’d forgotten all about the ridiculous pygmy story, until Mrs. Brown began eagerly telling it to her husband. Mr. Brown looked at her as if she’d sprouted a second head and a third eye. My mother looked at me, and I began to slide under the table in the vain hope of disappearing. “You didn’t–“ my mother began.

“You didn’t!” my father said, trying to look stern as he politely stifled a giggle for the Browns’ benefit.

I nodded silently, trying to look contrite.

Secrecy is the one thing the villagers had always promised the pygmies, and I had violated the contract. You see, they are a very private people, those pygmies…



*Disclaimer: Names have been changed to protect the gullible and the not-so-innocent. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is…well, not meant to be insulting or embarrassing. Truly. Hi there. ;)

Author’s Note: Honesty is very important to me. Both of my kids know that just about the only thing that makes me really angry – see red and snort like a bull enraged – is dishonesty. Lying, cheating, stealing, sneaking – all manifestations of the same basic character flaw. But honest to G-d, if someone’s going to be this gullible… No, really, mea culpa. I’m sorry. No I’m not. There are three times in life when it’s acceptable to lie:

  • When writing fiction that is clearly labeled “fiction.”
  • When answering questions like “Does this dress make me look fat?” but only when changing clothes or otherwise fixing the problem is not an option.
  • When talking to college-educated adults that could not reasonably be expected to believe such a hare-brained tale as this one… I mean, really!

13 thoughts on “Pygmies at the Lake”

  1. She is NOT contrite about saying, doing that.
    She is factual. Well maybe a little proud.
    OK. Very Proud.
    Yes, yes, I am going…..

      1. It was a tale well told, with lessons for all. And who is to know, that somewhere beyond the heavens, a race of algae eating pygmies, does not wander space in multi-generation spaceships, stopping here and there, for “take-out”…..

  2. Loved the story, Holly 🙂

    As for dishonesty, I think it is part of our lives (perhaps it is a learned idea, who knows?). We can’t avoid it, but we can certainly control it. Be honest to each other (of course, sometimes, truth may hurt more, what do we do? Do we tell a lie?).

    We all lie, don’t we? Parents teach their kids that the world is a good place to live, that we humans are good. Are we really good? We are the only species who don’t really take care of our planet. Our existence does more harm than good to this planet.

    Back to the topic, how do we define dishonesty? Is not reacting not a dishonesty act dishonest? Look around our world: So much corruption and dishonesty within every field. Yet, few people are ready to react to any one this.

    I remember reading a book about dishonesty (The honest truth about dishonesty by Dan Ariely). He says that all of us cheat to an extent. But, when we do it, we don’t consider it as cheating (our own biases and believes). Is taking a pencil from work cheating? Does the fact that a lot of people do it make it acceptable?

    In the book, he explains that the amount of money or the chances of getting caught has no particular effect on cheating. The ability to rationalize our actions, on the other hand, plays an important role in increasing our dishonesty. He also offers some other interesting ideas such as the correlation between creativity and dishonesty (creative people are more likely to be dishonest) and the effect on counterfeit products on our ethics (wearing counterfeit products make us less ethical; more likely to cheat). You should take a look. It’s a really good book 😀

    Anyways, thank you for the story, Holly 🙂 Appreciate it!

    1. Poor Jeevan. Such angst. Every time we believe that the world is a hopeless place and all the people in it are just parasites, we begin to act like that’s the truth – and we create that truth around us. Parents tell their kids these things because they believe in the possibility of it being true. They know that their children CAN do better than they’ve done – maybe avoid the mistakes they’ve made – and create a better truth. Would you have a child and then tell him or her, “The world is a horrible, nasty place. Do the best you can with what you’ve got and pray for an early death, because most of what lies between now and death is pain and misery”? Surely not. If you believe that’s the truth, you don’t have kids in the first place, or you commit some heinous crime of murder-suicide and “save” them from this awful fate. We each make choices and influence others’ choices, and I urge you – since you’re here and presumably not the suicidal sort – to make the best of the time you have on this earth, to make every choice add to your happiness and that of someone else. Not to lie, but to create a better truth.

      I’ve probably left more of my own pens at work than taken them (and I’m picky – I prefer better brands than you find in the supply cabinet). I take paper if I’m working from home and using it FOR work. And yeah, I do sometimes use the Internet to answer personal email or respond to a comment. 😉 I also work on personal time, though, and try to do a good job. There’s strict honesty and there’s fairness, but there’s definitely some danger in letting everyone decide for themselves what they consider “fair.” Some people feel so put-upon, by life – so cheated, themselves – they have trouble seeing their own actions, ever, as “unfair to others.”

      Not reacting to corruption and injustice is dishonesty born of cowardice and a feeling of powerlessness. This is why it’s important to stand up for those who are weaker and more fearful than we are.

      I don’t agree that creative people are likely to be more dishonest. Maybe he meant “clever” people. Creative people – artists, writers, musicians – tend to be honest to a fault. Some have died for their honesty (writers, particularly), even when that honesty is manifested in “fiction.” People don’t like having a mirror held up to them. I tell blatant lies and blatant truths when I write fiction – I let the reader figure out which is which. But when I write non-fiction, or personal essays, I’m honest. I may be biased – meaning that there could be other perspectives from which to tell the same story, and ALL of them might be honest and mostly true. But I don’t lie outright. Why bother?

      The only time a lie is laudable is if the truth is unproductively hurtful. For example, you’re at a party. Your girlfriend says, “How do I look?” The only acceptable answer is, “Absolutely stunning.” You can vary the words, but you get the idea – there’s no time or means to change clothes, redo hair and makeup, and the only outcome possible if the honest answer is, “You could look better” is hurt and insecurity. On the other hand, if she asks and her slip is hanging down or she’s got a zipper undone or toilet paper stuck to her shoe – that’s fixable, and honesty is the best policy (as is volunteering the info and helping her to fix it before anyone else notices).

      I don’t wear counterfeit products. I don’t like fake gems, and there’s not a designer label on the planet that I have such a crush on that I’d want to wear an imitation of it. Maybe that’s key to why I think and feel the way I do. 😉 I’ll have to check out this book, Jeevan. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the story.

      1. Well, a part of me still believes in this world 😉 I like to think that I have several personalities within my own mind 😀

        Maybe I wouldn’t, maybe I would, I am not so sure now. Indeed, and that’s what I plan to do with my life. A part of me may lose “his” belief in humanity, but I won’t give up – and I am sure that there are others who won’t too. I need to take action, complaining isn’t going to solve anything, is it? If I can inspire at least one person to be different, well then I would be happy with my life 😀 (Not that I am not happy with my life now).

        Indeed, the problem is that everyone has a different moral code. Perhaps we should all try to create a universal moral code? (defined in paper), or maybe we shouldn’t.

        I don’t quite agree with him either, but hey he is credible 😉 He didn’t say all creative people are more dishonesty, just that they have a higher chance of dishonesty (He mentioned that creative people are much better at justifying their actions).

        What about aliens? If government(s) of the world discover that aliens exist, should they mention it to the public? Or should they keep it a secret (what if an incident occurs on earth, should they lie to the public?). I don’t think our world is ready for any outsiders.

        No problem 🙂 It is an interesting book 😀

  3. I am so glad that you enlightened me, I always thought that it was a combination of algae eating fish and natural decomposition that cleared ponds.

    The pond clearing pygmies must be related to the little people of Ireland who also do some miraculous things. I understand they live under toadstools and wear green hats.

    Telling fairy stories to adults as a kid must be in the genetic make up of bloggers. At junior school (in Africa) a friend and I invented a fictitious new boy in our class. A recent arrival from Spain with limited English. Subject to bullying and a figure of ridicule.

    Our stories were individually very good, both our mothers believed us, but not well synchronised. When our two mothers spoke to each other about arranging for this boy and his mother to visit, the discrepancies became obvious.

    Far from being complimented on our story telling, we were severely punished for telling lies. I never tried that again.

    1. Severely punished??? What harm was there in your tales? LOL I don’t think I’ve ever actually invented a fictious real individual (as opposed to characters in a story or a fictitious tribe of pygmies). How interesting – and imaginative! I think it’s quite funny, what you and your friend did. (Great way to find out just how much your parents talk to other parents, too, eh?) Of course, had I done that as a child, I think I’d have assumed from the start that my mother – who could read my mind and anticipate my every move – would actually have known the truth and recognized that the whole thing was a tall tale. I really can’t see doing it with the intention of really pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes – just seeing how long they’d play along, like with the pygmies. Except that you said you were “severely punished,” I might have guessed that what we really had in common was parents who encouraged our imaginations!

      1. Severely punished was perhaps a bit strong, but severely reprimanded for misleading my mother and a few extra farm chores were the punishment. I seem to remember my father finding the episode quite amusing.

        Like most tall tales, this one started small and grew incrementally, we kept it going for a few weeks, in the process becoming bolder and sowing the seeds of our downfall.

    1. It’s okay, Aleta – no one was more surprised than I to learn that anchovies are not naturally salty.

      A friend who shares my birthday (same day, different year) decided we truly were birthday twins and kindred spirits after hearing this tale; as an adult, she once told two older women at a buffet that capers were “pickled shrimps’ eyeballs.” They believed her.

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