I’m the co-head of a writer’s circle at the bookshop where I work so as a writing exercise we presented the group with this illustration by Sidney Sime which I had saved on my laptop. The aim was to get them to write a story based on the image, whatever they wanted, any genre. This exercise is based off of one from Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook where I began writing a story based on the image he included in the first chapter of the book.
The members of the circle were pretty daunted by the image when first confronted by it so my co-head and I decided to join the activity with them to take the edge off. The activity took a half hour. This is the story I wrote and read out to them:
“The journey to the Grand Pooba’s chamber was a long one and it had never been taken by more than one Lethargian at a time. But now the great summons had occurred and they each had to make their way to the innermost cave to hear their leader speak. This call was unprecedented and sudden, two features the Lethargians were rarely associated with. The little family of oliphants with their drooping eyes and oval bodies carefully placed one foot after the other, hardly heeding the larger creatures near and above them. If one was trod upon by accident, they merely squeezed out from under the foot and continued their way as though nothing had happened. The Ostricoot made its way to the front of the line right behind the Insectalid with its large trunk and bulging eye. The Insectalid looked straight ahead at the tunnel they had to traverse, barely paying attention to the growing group of Lethargians behind him. The Djangish stomped and stumbled amidst them, its shadow black fur rustling lightly in the breeze of the tunnel. As the Allitoids buzzed above this procession and the Humanids danced about between the others, sometimes flopping over because their spindly legs couldn’t support the weight of their noses, each Lethargian wondered to him and herself about the purpose of the summoning.
The Grand Pooba’s chambers were located in the centre of the tunnel system, a large room filled with glittering candles and threadbare sheets. The Grand Pooba did not like to live an opulent life but needed the candles and rugs to convince the others that he was indeed above them (and sometimes when he was alone, he looked approvingly at the candles which helped him read his scrolls especially now that his eyesight was weaker than it used to be). The Lethargians looked up to their leader whom they rarely saw as it was he who had united their disparate races under the banner of Lethargian. Legend had it that once each Lethargian had a parent or ancestor that was wholly an elephant or ostrich or (and this was whispered) human. And once the rains had come and had begun killing the plants and turning the soil and water to poison, their ancestors had kept creeping below, tunneling their way to safety as their eyes adjusted to the darkness and their memories of the surface world faded.
The Lethargians began blinking slowly as they crept nearer to the Grand Pooba’s chambers, unused to the candles as they stayed in the darkness in their their caves and chambers. The Grand Pooba sat on his raised chair, his leathery face impassive as he looked upon his subjects. It took some time for all of them to fit into the hollowed out room and they each slowly shuffled into place silently murmuring to each other as they formed their lines. Finally they were still.
“My children. The time has come for an important announcement,” the Grand Pooba spoke in a voice that crackled like old paper. “As you all know, whispers about the origin of the Lethargians are now thought of as urban legends and myths, most of you are young and have not seen the things that i have. So i assume it must be a surprise to hear that the whispers are true, we each used to be one entire animal with no mix in our blood. The acidic terrors from the sky drove us down deeper and deeper into the ground to find shelter and after much fighting, I was elected the leader of our tunnels. Now it has been 350 years since that time and all the original settlers, save myself, have been taken by time. Now i feel myself beginning to fade as well. I have served you as well as i can as have these tunnels. But unknown to you i have been sending spies to the surface world from time to time, these missions mostly ending in the death of my explorers because of the toxicity in the atmosphere. Two weeks ago though my spies returned to me safely and told me how they had even eaten berries above with no harm coming to them. I started sending more and more of my friends until now two leave everyday and return with food and more promising news of the world above. Your ancestors had decided these tunnels would never be a permanent solution to our problem and that we would return to the surface world as soon as we could. And now I’m happy to say that that day is finally at hand! The caves of Lethargia will be no more! After 3 and a half centuries below, we are all welcome back on Earth!”