Half a Century Ago and Far, Far Away…
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!**
** Updated 2021: It is deeply disturbing, to me, the number of people who believe this story, despite my disclaimers and the obvious fact that this could not possibly be true. I have received urgent pleas from the Allegheny Mountain Ecotourism Board to update this and inform you that it is truly fiction – please, please stop trampling the natural surroundings looking for the indigenous peoples described herein. They existed only in the imagination of my 12-year-old self. You absolutely will not find them at 40.340345, -78.918745 (last known sighting); after all, it’s spring time and they’re foraging—I mean, they’re fiction.
** Updated 2022: I give up. If you’re looking for a place to stay, try one of the Bed & Breakfast Inns in the area. And be a good Scout – leave the natural scenery (and its locals) better off when you leave than when you got there. Print out this story and show it when you check in, and maybe they’ll give you a discount.