Digging the Stew People

           By the time we moved to Pacific Heights in 1956, our house had been hooked up to the city sewage system. That meant the cess pool below the laundry room had been converted to a convenient green waste repository. Our yard was jungle-wild, so my mom and dad took full advantage of this convenient disposal system as they hacked a civilized garden out of our little Amazon rainforest.

           We moved in just two months before my second birthday. The house across the stream from us stood dark and unoccupied until the summer of 1960, when the Yee family bought it. The Yee's second oldest son, David, was closest in age to me, and we became good friends.

           As we got older, we boys looked for more and more dangerous afternoon recreation. Luck was with us here. The Yee's house had managed to escape being hooked up to the city sewer system far longer than ours, so their cesspool proved far more fascinating than ours.

           There were not many days when we would play after school that Dave and I did not make time to pry the concrete block off his richly current cesspool and revel in the amazing smells that would attack the open air around us. It was a great challenge to see who could hold his breath longer.

           After the fumes — which I now think should have killed us — had subsided, we'd take turns sticking our heads in the hole and, with the aid of a flashlight — somehow we knew not to use matches or a lighter — try to figure out the goings-on in that little swamp.

           I remember that, compared to our own no longer functioning cesspool, Dave's seemed enormous. Feeble battery powered light could not find the walls, and it seemed to me that rather than a stagnant pool, the Yees had a very slowly moving river running under their lawn. Many years later, when I became and English major, every time I'd run across a reference to the River Styx or Stygian waters, I could easily picture that dark, stinking, fluid hole.

           Sometimes we'd throw stones and twigs in the water to see if we could get any monsters riled up, but the only wildlife I ever observed in there was what must have been a truly hearty spider or two.

           The Yees, not ones to hold off the march of progress, eventually had their own plumbing joined up with the city line. However, Mr. and Mrs. Yee did not begin to use their cesspool as a recycling bin for the rubbish from their yard, and this actually proved a boon for Dave and me. In short order, the waters of that magical little world subsided, leaving a kind of mud field in their place.

           Now we would throw little army men onto the brown ooze in order to have them fight the newly exposed Stew People we believed were lurking just below the surface. At first, Dave christened them the Stink People, and I hailed them as the Goo People, so we compromised: the Stew People. They lived there unseen by humans, and our little green army men, once we replaced the concrete cover, would do battle with these mutants who surfaced only in darkness.

           In less than six months, the mud turned to what looked a lot like dirt, and after a few more weeks, strange kinds of mushrooms and albino weed-like plants sprouted up here and there. It was quite a weird little magical forest.

           One day Dave dared me to descend into the realm of the Stew People. I could not have dared him back since I was the only one still skinny enough to drop through the hole to the wonderland below.

           "I dare you go down an dig up some Stew People," Dave said. "And while you dere, bring back da bodies of all da soldiers we wen drop in to get killed."

           "Shoots!" I brightly replied. "But once I get down, how I goin come back up? Too small da hole fo one laddah."

           Dave rubbed his chin. "How bout one rope? We go tie knots on um an den you can climb back up."

          This sounded brilliant. And now there was no more horrible smell — it was more of an organic odor, like the topsoil we were always distributing in my parents' ever evolving botanical garden.

           Old Dave disappeared into his house and came back fast with a fairly new looking length of rope. My confidence grew. We quickly tied double knots that I was sure would give me enough grip to hoist myself up.

           Dave tied one end to a nearby macadamia nut tree and tossed the other end in. Perfect. Five or six inches of the rope ladder lay on the ground. Plenty of slack.

           "Get shovel?" I asked.

           Dave ran back into his house and flew back with a little green army surplus model. He dropped this into the hole as well. "And here," he said. "This is my dad's supah army surplus unreal spotlight flashlight. I no like drop um an bus um, so when you on da bottom, I drop um and you catch um."

           "Sounds good," I said. "Here I go."

           I eased myself into the hole. It was a pretty tight fit. In those days we all ran around barefoot, so it was easy to grip the knots with my feet as well as my hands.

           "Whoo hoo!" Dave shouted when I touched the bottom. "What da stuff feels like?" I dug my big toe into the sludgy matter. "Like mud, maybe."

           "Try let go da rope," Dave encouraged. "I like see how hard da stuff stay if you sink some."

           I let go one hand, tested my weight, then let go the other hand. It was amazing. The damp ground barely gave at all.

           "Cool," Dave echoed down to me. "I tought you was goin sink in up to your knees or something.

           "Nah nah nah," I assured him. "I knew was gonna be kind of hard." Like I really had felt that way.

           Dave carefully dropped the flashlight and I caught it.

           "No touch da mushrooms and da whatevah plant stuff. Could be poison," Dave warned. He seemed a long way up above me. All of a sudden I felt a little dizzy. I sat down hard, but the ground didn't give.

           "You okay?" Dave asked. He sounded farther away than he looked.

           "Uh, yeah, jes kinda dizzy."

           "See any army men?"

           I surveyed the scene. "Couple. I'll get um." I stuffed the ones I could see into my pockets. We'd decided to give them a full military burial when I brought them back from Stew People World.

           "Try dig awready," Dave said.

           I shifted the flashlight to my left hand and picked up the shovel. Now I was even more dizzy, and I thought I could hear some kind of a buzzing noise. Or maybe it was a scraping sound. I shown the light around me. Two of the closer walls I could see, but the other two were too far away to make out clearly.

           I took a tentative swipe at the surface. It moved pretty easily. I have to say, I was really kind of enjoying the very earthy smell of the damp soil. Not that it could compare with, say, chocolate chip cookies baking, but I did like it.

           "Watch out da Stew People no reach up an grab you an drag you undah," Dave cautioned.

           I had to laugh. Somehow this didn't bother me anymore. I put the light to the side and started shoveling with both hands.

           "Woohoo!" Dave yelled out above me. "We going find da Stew People buried treasure, an we goin be supah rich an famous."

           I hadn't thought about this possibility. My light-headedness and the weird sounds didn't bother me all of a sudden. I redoubled my efforts. The wet soil flew out of the hole.

           "What da fuck is dat?" Dave suddenly screamed. It was so loud I thought he was standing right next to me yelling in my ear. I froze.

           "What?" I asked, looking up at Dave's face.

           "Right there?" Dave pointed right at the large hole I was digging.

           "What?" I asked again. I didn't see anything.

           "Stay frickin glowing, da dirt."

           "Huh?" I stared into the hole. My head began to swim. And damned if the dirt at the bottom did now look lighter, brighter. And then the earth started to move.

           "Get the fuck outta dere!" Dave screamed. "Da frickin Stew People stay digging up to you. Dey like take you down to hell. Get out!"

           I freaked out. I wobbled to my feet. The dirt at the bottom of the hole began to shift. I grabbed the rope and managed to hoist myself up a knot.

           "Frickin no forget my dad's flashlight!" Dave screamed.

           I looked down. The hole was glowing pretty brightly now, a kind of luminous yellow-green, and the dirt on the sides was slowly caving in. I dropped back down, grabbed the flashlight, and jammed it in my pocket. The dirt beneath my feet began to cave. The glow on the bottom grew like another brighter opening up on the other side of the hole. Some crazy idiot digging toward me from the other side. Dizzy and nauseated, I launched myself up the rope and hauled ass toward Dave's face.

           Dave pulled me out, yanked the rope, and threw the concrete block over the hole. "What da fuck," he whispered.

           I lay on my back, staring up at the sky. It was spinning slowly. I leaned over on my elbow and threw up.

           "Shit, brah, I tought you wen had it. What da fuck was dat? I tought maybe you hit China an you was gonna fall out da uddah side a da world."

           I shook my head. I couldn't think too well, but I could think clearly enough to know that from now on I was going to leave the Stew People to
live out their lives without interference from me.

           "Shit!" Dave exclaimed. "You lef da frickin shovel."

           I looked over at him. "You want it? You go get it."

           Dave considered this for a moment. "Nah nah, das okay. Not my dad's favorite shovel like da flashlight. At least we get da flashlight."

           It wasn't too much longer afterward that Dave's dad happened to ask him if he might know where the army surplus shovel was located. Dave, never one to lie, told his dad that it had accidentally fallen to the bottom of the cesspool. Shortly thereafter, Dave's dad poured a very generous layer of cement over the concrete block doorway to the world of the Stew People. As I'd predicted, we would never again catch a glimpse of them, their perhaps treasure, or the bottom of China.

Mahalo for reading!

Talk story

Leave one comment for Digging the Stew People

This website uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. By browsing this website, you agree to its use of cookies.