The story of Billy Bo Possum

Porch, 9ox72cm., etching, 1978

Porch, 9ox72cm., etching, 1978

First you have to imagine a young girl in an upstairs bedroom where there is a window facing a narrow road with an unpaved sidewalk backed by a rustic wooden fence. From the window she can make out the shingled roof of a rundown shack recently occupied by a hobo; just beyond it, invisible in the mist, begin the juniper growth and muddy terrain of Dismal Swamp and the tide waters of Virginia.

This girl will become my mother about fifteen years later but right now she has just lost her own mother and this is the first time she will sleep alone in a room she had always shared with her favorite sister who has just left home to live with relatives in New York City. Now she is afraid because across the street she can see a dark shadow lurking in the gap where a board is missing in the wooden fence.

This is the territory of Billy Bo Possum, a terrible creature who lived in the swamp, crawled out of the quicksand and captured children, dragging them under the earth with him. The hobo said that he saw the monster slip through the fence at night … Sometimes even in the day. The girl, her name is Margaret, pulls the sheets over her head and lies very still. Her father, at the far end of the house is pacing in his room.

At a certain point a door opens softly and she is overjoyed to hear her older brother’s gentle voice. He is home from the army, on special leave. His name is Buddy – this was the traditional nickname for an older brother in the south. I know he was tall and lanky and had red hair because my mother described him to me. I used to think of him as Uncle Buddy but I never met him.

However at this moment, in my mother’s story, he is her big brother sitting on the bed while she is crying. She is sure that Billy Bo Possum will come to get her.

Buddy looks out the window and stares at the fence lit by the street lamp. It is a damp night and the mist clings knee high to the ground. He tells Margaret not to worry, that he is going out for a short walk. She hears a screen door shut, then footsteps down the stairs of the front porch and looks out the window towards the swamp in time to see Buddy with his old hunting rifle squeeze between the wooden slats. He disappears into the mist. A billow of fog rolls from the direction of the Chesapeake. The only sound is a distant foghorn. Suddenly a shot rings out! She waits, motionless, at the window.

Trees night, 100x70cm, pastel, 1996

Trees night, 100x70cm, pastel, 1996

Finally she sees a shape move near the fence. Buddy emerges from the fog, his rifle over his shoulder. He looks up at her window. In a short while he is tiptoeing into her room to tell her not to worry, to settle down. He strokes her forehead; everything is going to be all right now. No one is going to harm her.

My sister and I were snooping through my mother’s keepsakes one day – we especially liked to rifle though her button box – when we came across a small silver box. In it were an eagle scout pin, medals, ribbons, a photograph of a field in France with rows upon rows of white crosses and the snapshot of a lanky red headed boy in a uniform. This man (who never became our uncle) was the hero who shot Billy Bo Possum.