How I came to meet Polly and the others is unimportant, as is the story behind my embarrassing lack of clothes. Let’s begin then in the Sog Stompers’ lair deep underground, and imagine me already donning a borrowed blanket fashioned, with the help of a large pin, to work as a dress.
Polly was the clear leader, evidenced by her remarkable fire hat. Someone had ingeniously melded a lantern atop some sort of helmet, which she kept strapped to her head. The result from the handful of embers within was a fabulous array of tiny lights dancing across the rough walls and long abandoned shelves of the chamber. All four of the children wore overlarge boots and handmade goggles that magnified their eyes eerily. Polly was probably a couple of years younger than me, though taller, and the way she strutted about hinted that she was used to being in charge.
“We’re the Sog Stompers,” Polly explained. “Fearless adventurers and runaways. I’m Pollywog. This is Lilly Pad, Puffball, and over there’s Newt.” She fastened those enlarged hazel eyes on me. “You’ll be Worm.”
“She looks like a worm wrapped up in that blanket!” laughed rosy-cheeked Puffball.
“This is our hideout,” she said proudly, running a hand through the air to indicate the room.
It looked like it had once been a changing room for miners. Indeed, several long ago abandoned picks rested against a tilting shelf. The children had since decorated with items likely pilfered from the town nearby. Old rugs and mismatch lanterns lent the room warmth and comfort while broken furniture provided us with places to sit. Stained and worn paintings were propped on old shelving and candles of every color and size flicked stubbornly against the dank air.
“How long have you lived here?” I asked, noting an absence of beds.
“We’ve been coming here for years,” offered Lilly Pad. “We only ran away this morning.”
“After breakfast,” contributed Puffball.
“Is this far away from your town?” I asked, hopeful that the answer would be no. My sister was somewhere up there, above the ground, and the town would be a likely place for her to search for me. I needed to get there.
“This is only the first stop,” Pollywog declared, her chin held so high that a few ashes tumbled out of her fire hat. “We’re bold adventurers. We’re never looking back. We are the Sog Stompers!”
“That’s right!” chimed the other children.
“What is a Sog Stomper?” I asked, eyeing the three doors in the room. The one we’d entered through sprouted into a series of tunnels, this I knew. The other two probably did the same. Without the Sog Stompers to guide me I stood to get very lost.
“We stomp through the soggy mines,” said Newt wearing a scowl that hinted that I should have found that obvious. “Fearlessly,” he added with a quick glance toward Pollywog.
“Nobody knows how far they go,” said Pollywog, her voice lowering to a loud whisper. “All they know is that this used to be a successful mine until they just shut it up one day. None of the miners will talk about why. They sit together in the pub, day after day, and don’t say a word.”
“It’s like they’ve seen a ghost,” added Lilly Pad.
“It’s like they’ve seen a ghost,” repeated Pollywog in her whispery tone, and I realized we’d embarked into a story she told often. “Haunted,” she nodded, her magnified eyes going wide as possible. “Like they found something down here.”
“But we’re not afraid,” said Puffball.
“It’ll take someone fearless,” continued Pollywog, not breaking from her rhythm, “to stomp through these soggy tunnels. And if you’re brave enough, you could come out the other side of the world.”
“Other side of the world,” nodded Lilly Pad.
“That’s… great,” I said, adjusting my blanket dress. There was a chill to the air down here wreaking havoc on my bare arms and shoulders. “I’m not sure I’m brave enough to be a Sog Stomper, though. Could you give me directions to your town? I won’t tell anybody where you are when I get there.”
I cringed as I recognized suspicion dawning in their magnified eyes. They hadn’t even considered that I could give them away.
“No, you have to come with us,” Pollywog said decisively. “We’ll protect you,” she assured, but her expression said something quite the opposite. There was no way they’d let me go to their town now to alert their families.
“Alright,” I sighed, rising. “I guess we’d better get started then.”
I needed to move around, to warm up. Even with the lanterns and candles beating back the dank cold, it was chilly down here. My best hope was that one of these tunnels would lead to a climbable shaft to the surface. Not being burdened by fire hats or oversize boots, or clothes for that matter, I’d be able to make a quick scramble to freedom.
“Right. I… yes,” said Pollywog, and for a moment a look of panic crept across her features before she marshaled it. “Let’s go!” she shouted, raising her arm to the ceiling like an old painting of men leading armies to battle. Her fellow Sog Stompers shouted their assent, and after a several minute scramble of blowing out candles and grabbing favorite lanterns, we stood at a door, anticipating the sog stomping adventure waiting on the other side.
“Beyond this door is our future, Sog Stompers,” declared Pollywog. Her hand rested on the knob. “The other side of the world awaits us.” The others nodded eagerly. “We’ll be heroes for what we’re about to survive,” she added.
“Let’s go,” came Lilly Pad’s small voice.
With one more hesitation, Pollywog turned the knob. We stood in the doorway, contemplating the tunnels branching off ahead of us. They looked identical.
“Have you been this way before?” I asked.
“Nope,” said Newt.
Pollywog stepped forward confidently and plunged into the tunnel in the middle. We only made it a few paces after her when we saw her return. Without a word, she turned and took the next tunnel over. We piled into the dark space behind her, lanterns doing little against the darkness that swallowed up the space before and behind us. Pollywog’s fire hat gave us an easy beacon to follow as we wound through the tunnels, trusting her judgment at the forks. It felt like we were descending.
Suddenly, progress stopped and I heard a gasp, followed by another, and another. Rough rocks littered the floor ahead of us, and once we picked past them, we stood in a chamber without dimension. Not even Pollywog’s fire hat touched its limits. I slid to the right, running my hand along the wall to keep my balance in this endless space. My fingers detected smooth stone, as if carved. I held up my lantern, and a smile stole up my face as I realized what their miners had found. I’d seen carvings like this before, in very different tunnels, quite possibly on the other side of the world. And I knew what kind of creature carved them.
“Join hands,” ordered Pollywog. “We’ll take this slow.” We inched forward across the wide chamber until we found the opposite wall, and a tunnel. “This way, Sog Stompers!”
Pollywog strode forward confidently and the rest of us tromped after her, though Puffball looked far less confident than before and Newt’s grip on his lantern indicated that he might not be able to feel his hand soon. I noticed that at the next fork, Pollywog chose a tunnel leading upward. It was at the point that I was worrying about my numb toes that we first noticed the low rumble. Some roar ahead of us that spoke of thunder and power.
“I think there’s a waterfall ahead,” said Pollywog. Her tone held hope.
“I’ve heard waterfalls from tunnels,” I disagreed. “This doesn’t sound like that.”
Only by the grace of her goggles’ magnification and Lilly Pad’s upheld torch did I catch the look of disdain Pollywog tossed my way.
“It’s a waterfall,” she said, and again we were walking.
The roar continued to grow in volume and even Pollywog’s pace slowed. At a crossing of tunnels, Pollywog suddenly leapt back.
“There’s someone coming,” she hissed.
We scurried back a little ways and slid the windows shut on our lanterns, trying to block the small sparks of light still visible through with our bodies. Now was my chance to turn our progress. I knew that the species of historians who made carvings like these posed no danger to us, and in fact would want as little to do with us as possible. My fearless Sog Stompers on the other hand…
“Have you noticed the carvings on these tunnels?” I whispered.
“They’re pretty,” said Lilly Pad.
“Shh!” hissed Pollywog. “Yes, they’re nice.” We could hear something clicking in the distance, and the sound was indeed coming nearer.
“Do you know what carves them?” I pressed. “Have you ever actually seen one?” I made certain that in the hushed tone of my voice was embedded danger and mystery. Pollywog was not the only storyteller here. There was a long silence as we all listened to the clicks approaching.
“No,” admitted Pollywog, unable to resist the bait.
“They can get to be as tall as a grown man,” I whispered solemnly.
Another pause told us the clicking was indeed going to come right past our tunnel.
“What can?” asked Pollywog, her voice betraying a small tremble.
“Giant spiders,” I breathed. “With pincers and…”
The clicking was nearly upon us. My companions were holding their breath, I could tell. A dim light lined the rim of the tunnel’s end ahead and grew until we could make out details on some of the carvings. A thick, hard spear of a leg stabbed the ground, and then another, followed by a round, hairy belly. One enormous eye swiveled toward us and the creature stopped, holding a torch high in one of those pincers. It studied us for a moment, and then clicked away.
“I want to go home now,” murmured Lilly Pad.
“Follow me,” said Pollywog, “I know the way.”
I managed to hide my smile as the others passed by me, though Newt may have caught it from the corner of his eye. He glanced back at me several times before offering a smile of his own.
“We should be home by supper,” he said to me as we hurried to keep up with Pollywog’s pace. “My mamsa makes a fierce stew.”
“That sounds wonderful,” I agreed, imagining a warm fire to accompany the stew, and my sister, with our cart of clothing and supplies.
My thoughts drifted back to the historian who’d discovered us, and wondered for a moment what it had thought of our adventure. I found it hard to believe that we’d surprised it. The historians had methods of listening to the world that I still didn’t understand. Had the contact been intentional then? I smiled again as I envisioned what the carving might look like; the five of us huddled in terror, fire hat, overlarge boots, blanket dress, goggles and all. And the title beside it: Sog Stompers. Fearless Adventurers and Runaways.
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Comments are welcome at www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends about this short story blog – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!