The Night Soil Salvagers no longer need to perform the service they have provided for longer than memory can account for. Instead, they pass the nights in playful and profound acts of artistry, music, trickery, gardening, and honoring the city they know and belong to more so than anyone.
Uncover the heart of this mysterious community through the tales they tell each other, the tales that others tell of them, and the scores of their Dadaesque nocturnes, as they strive to lessen the burden of the city on the Earth.
The Night Soil Salvagers spend little time these days attending to their ancient calling. Sixty percent of the city is now connected to the sewer system, and public privies provide for a fair portion of the rest. The Salvagers can visit the remaining households, those of the low slums and the great estates, in no more than a third of the night’s hours.
Some of the night’s remaining hours are spent gathering other types of waste: food scraps and food to be scrapped, the street leavings of horse and dog, the ceaseless shower of detritus the city sheds that can be put to use elsewhere and otherwise. And as has always been done, some of the Salvagers work through the night sorting and processing the collected waste into forms whose value is more readily apparent.
The Night Soil Salvagers spend more of those leftover hours in transporting items of the most unlikely natures and most urgent confidence, a service that has become nearly as vital to the city as is their traditional purpose.
And for the rest: painting, pranks, recitation, the surveying of sludge-sluiced alleys and moonlit roof tiles, the tending of night gardens, and most of all the making of music.
That music you know, though you do not know that you do. It is the score of the dreams of the city, half-heard in the high branches of boulevards at midnight, felt as a rumble under the fall of rain, seen as a tremor in the light through the pane. In other times and places, it sighs from the drain before dawn (all drains are the same drain) to trouble the sleep of a Debussy or Satie. Three times in your life, it will be sung softly into your ear from a seat at your bedside.
But none of this is what the Night Soil Salvagers do. Not as they would have it. What the Night Soil Salvagers do is lessen the burden of the city on the Earth. On a good night—and what night is not good to the Night Soil Salvagers?—one will greet another with, “The city is light tonight.” And the other will reply, “Let it be so light that under the moon it rises up.”
The Night Soil Salvagers tell this story:
Attende! I and others remember when Parch cleared the Chairman’s privy.
One day some days past, the Chairman of D—’s new privy, lined in ivory and trimmed with gold, came up clogged on the day of a dinner party in honor of the Council of Industry. The Butler flagged Parch down on the street and demanded he clear the clog.
“The sewer-runs here are old but sound,” Parch said. “The clog will be in the new work, in the privy itself. Show me in and five minutes later I’ll have you flowing as freely as a drunkard in an alley.” Parch spun in place with arms up like a spiraling drain—such a stench!
The Butler staggered back, eyes narrow over the handkerchief he clutched to his mouth. “You’ll not set an unclean foot into this house,” the Butler said. “Do your work from the street side.”
Parch leaned to look past the Butler through the entrance, down a long hallway to the distant door to the privy. “A penny, then, for every foot from the street to the clog, and an extra two for my unclean own.” He rocked from heel to toe and grinned up at the Butler.
The deal agreed, if grudgingly, the Butler returned to his preparations for the dinner, and Parch to preparations of another sort: the finding of a discarded platter the width of the sewer-run, a length of cloth, a bit of hot tar, a pole, and six more Salvagers.
That evening, as the Chairman began his speech of welcome to the members of the Council of Industry, their spouses, and invited guests, he was interrupted by a bubbling, grumbling groan and the slightest scent of dyspeptic distress. He flushed and stammered as his audience shifted and checked each other side-eyed for clues to the miscreant. No one noticed that the great mirrors that lined the dining room reflected a window in the parlor, and that the window framed a small grubby face, watching.
The Chairman cleared his throat and began his speech again. After an ornate sentence or two—not heard outside but easy enough to see reflected in the mirrors due to the Chairman’s grandiose gestures—the owner of the grubby face waved an equally grubby arm. That wave was echoed by an elderly geezer with a pipe who stood over a sewer cover in the street, and then by a fidgety, bird-like girl at the bottom of the sewer entrance, to be in turn acknowledged by Parch and three more who crouched in the sewer-run, under the house itself and halfway to the privy.
Parch and the three grasped the pole that ran between them and shoved it forward with all their strength. The pole was attached to the platter, which had been padded with cloth and tar until it fit the sewer pipe like a plunger.
Inside the mansion, the Chairman’s comments on the recent encouraging developments in international trade were punctuated by a fat, flatulent peal and an unmistakable pong. The Chairman dabbed his suddenly sweaty face with a decorative pocket square unequal to the task, while his guests did their best to surreptitiously move as far from each other as possible.
And so it went—a few sentences from the Chairman, a wave from the window, a shove on the plunger, a rude sound and ruder smell—until finally, with a pop like an uncorked bottle, the clog gave way and came fountaining out of the privy. A stinking stream ran down the long gold-trimmed hallway and out the front door, quickly joined by the fleeing guests and the dregs of the Chairman’s dream to be invited into the Council.
Of Parch and the others there was by that point no sign, though that night the Butler found his own shoes, filthy from the cleaning, sitting on his pillow, and beside them two pennies.
Nocturne for Midnight on the Full Moon
Title: “Calling Her Down”
For one or more performers.
- A dozen small bells, such as those for sleighs or cats, ideally of silver
Fasten the bells to the highest branches of a tree likely to fetch a breeze.
Title: “Calling Her Back, Regardless”
As above, but on the new moon, and with the bells replaced by discarded baby rattles.
Florens says, “The passante will slow her steps, retie her scarf tight; the flâneur is too busy ignoring her to look up to the light.”
Parch says, “The drunkard lured up the tree by the jingle of loose change only to find all the best spots taken by babies.”
The Night Soil Salvagers will carry any unliving thing from any point within the city to any other point within the city for a modest fee.
Those who wish to utilize this service should write their name on a piece of sturdy paper, fold the paper in thirds each way and seal it shut, then leave this petition in the gutter in the hours after midnight. Even at that hour, there are those—human and otherwise—to whom such detritus is irresistible, so be prepared do this nightly until the Salvagers respond with a note slipped under your door specifying a time and place to meet.
Bring a pocketful of change to this meeting.
A Salvager will find you there with the greeting: “What and whither for I and others?”
Respond with the nature of the object you wish carried, and the place to which you wish it brought.
The Salvagers almost never refuse carriage on the basis of the thing itself, e.g. gifts, bags of gold, manuscripts, a candle and a match, government documents, bodies, parts of bodies still viable, parts of bodies long since gone, opium, the fourth cup for a patterned tea set, hot food, cold drink, sharpened knives, natural horns in the required key, scented soap, the key to something that must never again be opened.
They will not take any living thing, not plants nor pets nor persons, though if asked with polite deference and a convincing case, they might recommend those who will.
The Salvagers will, however, refuse carriage if they believe the destination you have named is not appropriate to the thing itself. In this case, they will respond, “I and others will carry this thing elsewhere.” They will not tell you where.
You may of course accept or decline this option.
If an accord is reached, deliver to them the thing, or direct the Salvager to where it sits. Give them what coins you have brought. The cost of the simplest of meals is an appropriate amount, though the very poor may provide a penny. The money so raised is sent to distant cities where the Night Soil folk are afforded less respect than here.
The thing itself will be delivered to its destination before the dawn, without fail.
Nocturne for 1:00 a.m.
Title: “The Still Wind Still Eddies Nonetheless”
For one performer.
- A thin plate or sheet of glass, bronze, or such, a forearm’s width or larger
- A rosined bow
- A clamp, cushion, thread, or other means of supporting the plate such that it can still vibrate freely
- A handful of ash
Evenly cover the plate with a fine dusting of ash. Rub the bow on the edge of the plate, adjusting place and pressure until you raise a tone. Smoothly maintain that tone until the ash forms a pattern of nodal lines and antinodal open spaces. When the pattern is clear, lift the bow and listen closely until the tone fades. Then bow with a loose, shifting motion until the ash lies evenly once more.
Title: “The Eddy’s Song is Nonetheless Still”
- A sheet of paper or parchment the size of a plate or larger, such as a broadsheet or bill
- Two thin sticks
- A handful of ash
Cover the paper with ash. Wrap one edge of the paper around one of the sticks for a turn, then do the same with the other stick and the opposite edge. Grasp a stick in each hand, stretching the paper tightly between them. Hold the paper flat overhead under a streetlamp or moon. Sing into the underside of the paper, watch as the shadowed pattern emerges, and then unforms.
Florens says, “I and others say that the pattern in the ash emerges as if we free it, but this is telling tales. Independent of our urges, the pattern was always there in the glass. Through performance we learn to see it.”
Parch says, “The pattern is a map. The antinode is a garden. When the work is over, even the thought of ‘garden’ is gone. That’ll be a great night for gardeners.”
The Night Soil Salvagers keep a garden in an open space within the city. They did not create this space, though they have nurtured it; it was always there, inevitable, a rest in the rhythm of the city’s beating. Florens called it the antinode. In that garden the Salvagers dry, compost, ferment, reduce, analyze, fraction, refine, distill, extract, and nurture that which they have gathered. There they plant trees and crops and what remains of those they find worthy. There they harvest nitrogen, urea, phosphorus, fuel, ammonia, thick fertile soil, trace metals of the rarest natures, lamp gas, lant, and compost. These things—and all else they find of obvious use—the Salvagers give to those with need or sell to those without. Those things without obvious use are left in the garden to mature until their use is evident or until they fade back into the city’s flow.
Though the Salvagers’ work in the garden brings them great wealth, they keep nothing of what they gain. As Florens had explained, everything that the Salvagers produced was, like the antinode itself, not of their making but rather always there, implicit, in the city. The Salvagers’ work is to simply move it from the place it is to the place it should be.
Though, from time to time, a Salvager will keep two pennies for remembrance.
Nocturne for 11:00 p.m. on a windy night
Title: “The Drunkard Lured by Song to His Death”
For one or more performers.
- Eight or more empty bottles, preferably of several sizes
In a windy alley or on a windy rooftop, arrange the bottles such that the passing breeze extracts a sigh or moan.
Title: “The Drunkard Lured Back from Below”
Put a small amount of blood in each bottle, and place them somewhat precariously, such that cats or vermin will knock them down in time.
Florens says, “Does the tone come from the bottle or the breeze, the drinker or the salvager?”
Parch says, “Oh, the drunkard’s well familiar with the moan of passing wind.”
The Night Soil Salvagers do not take the living, though over the millennia, in this city and others, they have been accused of doing so. Kidnappers, exchangers, cannibals, fey, the filthy touch, unclean: they have been called all these things by the mob, as that mob (everywhere the same mob across cities and millennia) beats, burns, rapes, undoes the cornered Salvagers, or far, far more often those unlike the Salvagers in every way except in their difference from the mob.
The Night Soil Salvagers do, however, take the dead.
Nocturne for Sunset
Title: “The Hawkless Hawker” or “The Costless Monger”
For five voices.
- A deck of cards
Meet the other performers at a crossroads in the heart of the city a few minutes before sunset. Take two cards from your deck and keep them concealed. Take a third card and show it to your fellow performers: Whoever has the highest-value card takes the name One. The other performers take the names Two, Three, Four, and Salvager in clockwise order.
At the moment of sunset, One will walk away in one of four directions. Two, Three, and Four pick in turn from the remaining directions. Salvager chooses one of the other four performers to follow.
Walk for two blocks, then find a sign, bill, newspaper, etc. of at least ten words. This will be your text.
Consult your cards. If the first card is a rank from ace to ten, use the corresponding nth word from the start of the text. If it is a face card, use the name of someone you will not see again. Use the second card to select the nth word from the end of the text. If it is a face card, use the first color that stands out strongly as you look around.
These words are your Cry.
Turn around and walk back to the crossroads with a slow, dignified pace. Cup your hands around your mouth, tilt your head slightly back to look a bit above any other pedestrians, and cry your Cry as follows, with a step or two between repetitions:
One: A high, even pitch throughout, with a slow fall on the last syllable, e.g. “Deedeedee dee-daaaaaw.”
Two: A medium pitch, with an accented high note on the first syllable of the final word, e.g. “Dadada DE-dada.”
Three: A high accented note on the first syllable of each word, followed by descending pitches, e.g. “DE-dabah DE-dabah.”
Four: The syllables of all the words run together in a smooth, slurred legato with a clear, hornlike tone, e.g. “Memememememememay.”
Salvager: As a joyous child, dogging the steps of the one they followed. Cry at will, and laugh in between.
When all meet again at the crossroads, the four cry once in unison, and then the Salvager cries, “I and others with you in the night.”
The performers are encouraged to adapt this performance to the traditions of their chosen neighborhood.
Florens says, “Pace the city’s heartbeat, cry its breath.”
Parch says, “‘Costless Monger,’ my ass. If someone asks what you are selling, charge them two pennies for the words.”
The Night Soil Salvagers do not use the name “the Night Soil Salvagers.” When speaking of themselves, they say, “I and others.” When speaking to each other in their slippery street argot, this is rendered “É et onde.” Or so some Salvagers have said, though since all their stories begin with the word attende, which means both ‘listen’ and ‘wait,’ this may just be a tale for others.
When dealing with them face-to-face, you may address them as “My friend.” When speaking of them within their hearing, you may also refer to them as “the Night Soil Folk” or “the Salvagers.”
You may also refer to them as: Scavengers, Gong-farmers, Night Men, Toshers, Hole Men, Pot Boys, or the Unclean. Though if you do so within their hearing, they will shun you thereafter to your death and beyond.
You are always within the hearing of the Night Soil Salvagers.
Nocturne for 3:10 a.m. in the Dorian Mode
Title: “The Mocking Bird”
For three or more performers.
- A length of cane, reed, bamboo, rolled willow bark, etc., one to two hands’ length and a finger’s width. You will need one less of these than the number of performers.
- A deck of cards
Fashion a whistle from the scavenged material, with six tone holes tuned to the major scale.
The performers are called the Face in the Window, the Suitor, and one or more Rivals. The Face in the Window and the Suitor sit on a rooftop, facing each other. The first Rival sits on a roof one block away, with any additional Rivals each spaced an additional block farther.
The Face in the Window discards all but the ace through six from the deck. At 3:10 a.m. exactly, the Face in the Window turns over four cards in a row in front of the Suitor, who plays the resulting song by lifting the corresponding number of fingers from the whistle—one finger for an ace, two fingers for a two, etc.—starting from the bottom. The fundamental tone (all holes covered) is never played.
The Suitor repeats the song three times, with a slow breath between each repetition. After the third repetition, the Face in the Window places a fresh card on top of any one of the current cards, thus altering the song. The Suitor pauses for an additional slow breath before starting the new song.
The closest Rival listens to the Suitor’s song. During the breath after the Suitor’s second repetition, this Rival echoes the song as closely as possible, with their own three repetitions spaced by slow breaths. In a similar fashion, each additional Rival echoes the preceding Rival’s version of the song.
The performance is complete when all the cards have been played.
Title: “The King of Regret”
- A length of bone
- Four knucklebones
Fashion a whistle from the length of bone; other materials may not be used in this variant. Mark the knucklebones with ink or a knife with numbers from one to six like a die. In this variant, the Face in the Window is known as the King of Regret, the Suitor is known as the Waker, and the Rivals are known as the Disturbed.
Performance is as above, with the knucklebones rolled in a line to determine the notes in the song. After three repetitions, the King of Regret chooses one knucklebone to reroll. If the Waker cannot read the marking on a die, they must play a false note. The King of Regret may cover any of the dice at any time, causing that note to be skipped through the end of the current set of repetitions. The Disturbed echo the sets as above. The performance is complete when all four notes are false.
Florens says, “Learning to listen elsewhere while you play is a step toward listening to what you yourself say.”
Parch says, “The performance is complete when someone throws a rock.”
The Night Soil Salvagers will sit with you and others of the city for three nights. These nights will provide the deepest, most restful sleep you will know. The nights might be consecutive, or they might be separated by years or decades. How the nights are chosen, whether that deepest sleep is natural or due to the stillness of the Salvagers or created by some potion or manufactured air, whether one or more Salvagers will attend, what characteristic or behavior it is for which the Salvagers will watch: None of these things are known.
Nor is it known why the Salvagers sit.
What is known is that the Salvagers take the remains of only some of the dead.
Nocturne for 9:00 p.m.
Title: “In Confidence”
For at least two performers.
- A street with one or more trees, along with nearby streetlamps, stand pipes, fire escapes, etc. Boulevards will offer many options, as will a place either square or oval with a small park at its heart.
- Four or more metal cans, candy tins, kitchen canisters, etc. These are call the Voices.
- Enough fine metal wire to stretch across the desired street once for each can plus an additional arm’s length or two per can. Discarded piano wire is ideal, or unbraided copper or steel cable. Partial lengths may be joined with a fisherman’s bend.
- Additional small lengths of wire
- The means to cut the wire
- One large button or metal nut per can
- An awl, sturdy knife, or the like
Tap a small hole in the bottom of one of the Voices. Thread an end of the wire through the hole, then tie that end to one of the buttons or nuts, such that the wire cannot slip back out of the hole.
Pick a suitable tree. The ideal tree is not too dense, and has limbs branching above the height of common street traffic. This tree is the Throat.
Pick a suitable lamppost or other sturdy metal pole or pipe to anchor the first length of wire, ideally across the street, sidewalk, or path from the Throat. This anchoring post is called the Notion.
First performer: Climb the Throat with the Voice, and find the nook of a branch that has an unobstructed view of the Notion. Place the Voice in the nook such that the wire trails down to the other performers.
Other performers: Unreel enough wire to the reach the Notion. Loop the wire around a high point of the Notion—e.g. by climbing or by looping the wire over it—and gently take up the slack.
The performers at the Notion now slowly tighten the wire, while the performer in the Throat ensures that the pressure holds the Voice securely in its nook, and that the wire runs freely, like the string of a child’s toy telephone. Additional small lengths of wire may be used to further secure the mouth once it is settled into the nook.
Now pull the wire taut until it thrums when plucked, and fasten it securely to the Notion.
Repeat these steps for each of the remaining Voices. Each Voice should be set in the nook of a separate branch, with its wire running to a new Notion.
Wrap your arms around one of the Notions—as roughly as the drunkard climbing from the gutter or as gently as a child slumbering on a parent’s shoulder—and press your ear against the metal until you hear the wire’s thrum and drone. The indecision of the breeze, the wayward steps of passersby, the unwinding of the phonograph from windows overhead, the bistro’s bawdy band: Each of these will inspire a harmony in the wire.
When ready, move to the next Notion and do the same. The performers may choose their own Notion, or share one as space allows.
When every performer has listened to their ear’s content at every Notion, gather under the Throat to listen to the song of every Voice at once.
Use just one Notion but separate Throats for each Voice. Listen first at each Throat, and then at the Notion directly.
Titled “The Mob”
Use the same Notion and Throat for all the Voices.
Florens says, “The song comes from the nameless wire.”
Parch says, “Variation titled ‘Getting the Last Word In’—perform this in a thunderstorm.”
The Night Soil Salvagers tell this story:
Attende! I and others remember when the Salvagers took the living.
One day some days past, Parch and others were walking alongside the river gathering what it had left for them. What looked to be a promising pile of cloth proved be the corpse of a woman whose youth had been taken by disease and despair and the river.
The Salvagers fashioned a pallet with which to carry her to the antinode, where what remained of her would be returned to the flow of the city. But when they rolled her onto the pallet they discovered an infant girl at her breast.
The mother’s burden had weighed heavily upon the child. Her legs were no more than stubs. She had just two fingers on one hand and one on the other. Her body was as round as a balloon. And most remarkably, she was from spherical head to nonexistent toe the same ember orange as the moon at autumn dusk.
Parch reached down to place the child on the pallet. She opened her eyes, wrapped her few fingers around Parch’s, and smiled.
Parch looked up at the others, astonished, and laughed.
The other Salvagers shook their heads sadly.
“It is not our work to take the living. How can we know where she belongs?” one said.
And another, “We will let the Careful Sisters know. They have a House nearby.”
Parch, who had suffered the care those Sisters provided before finding a home among the Salvagers, picked the child up. “She will die in that House, or with mercy before the Sisters take her there, and then she’ll be our work after all. You know me for a lazy fellow; I’ll take her now and save myself the walk back.”
Parch carried the child to the Salvagers’ garden, and placed her at the foot of a small tree that grew there. An elderly Salvager, half-blinded by age and the steam from the cauldron she tended, said, “What a glorious golden hue, that flower that young Parch is planting!”
And so Parch named the child Florens, and every morning when he was done with his night’s work he fed her with milk from whatever source he could find, and wrapped her in scavenged blankets, and told her stories of what he had seen on the streets of the city.
Florens never gained the use of her legs, never grew much larger than a child, and never fully lost that pumpkin hue. Though the Salvagers constructed her a mobile wheelchair, powered by bubbling yeast and belching bellows, she rarely moved far from the spot where Parch had first planted her, and never left the garden at all.
But her understanding of the city, built upon the stories that Parch and the others told her and all the myriad things they brought back to the garden, was as complete as that of the eldest and most experienced of the Salvagers. She held in her head an image not just of the streets and sewer that made the city’s bones, but of the people and all that those people called “waste” that was in fact the lifeblood of the city. So clear was this vision of the city that a Salvager could bring her any item, and she could tell them exactly where in the city that item belonged.
With time, she came to be both respected and beloved by all the Salvagers; “our heart” they called her, at a time when their traditional work collecting the city’s night soil was ending and a change of heart was most needed.
“She sees so clearly because of all of us she is most free of the city’s burden,” they would say, all but Parch, who would laugh and wave his arms—such a stench!—and say, “No, she sees so clearly because she bears that burden more than any other!”
And before Parch set off for his night’s work, he would stop in Florens’s nook between the roots of the tree, which had grown tall and wide above her, and say, “Well, that’s another day you’ve saved me the walk back to the river.” And she would smile and take his fingers in her few for a moment before sending him on his way.
They did this every night for eighty-seven years.
Nocturne for 10:00 p.m. on a Rainy Night
Title: “Heart’s Tears”
For one or more performers.
- A number of discarded metal containers, such as office waste bins, milk cans, flowerpots, chimney caps
- Metal sheeting, such as roof tin or bakers’ sheets or a round platter of tin or similar thin metal
- Sturdy shears
Tap the bottom of each container. If it sings or bellows with a pleasing tone, call its bottom its head and be done with it. If the tone is dull, then cut a circle a little larger than the container top from the metal sheeting to form a drumhead, or use a platter, if you have one of the correct size. Poke holes around the edge of the head, place it on the open top of the container, and loop the wire through these holes around the container until the head is firmly attached.
Place each drum on a rooftop of a neighborhood, lashing it in place as needed with more wire, such that the rain falls upon its head. In accordance to the setting and your whim, the drum may be exposed directly to the rainfall, where runoff gathers, or under a solitary drip.
Title: “Heart’s Fail”
As above, but fasten the drums to the most precipitous angles of the rooftops with small lumps of clay. The clay will eventually wash away.
Florens says, “Some art is most successful when it goes entirely unnoticed.”
Parch says, “If everyone would just stand out in the rain all night we could save ourselves a lot of work on rooftops.”
The Night Soil Salvagers tell this story:
Attende! I and others remember one day some days past, when Parch told us whither to deliver his body when he had no more use for it.
“That nook under the tree where one low root shaped like a sprawling drunkard meets one high root like a prancing passante,” he said.
Another replied, “But that spot is where Florens sits. You placed her there yourself, and bade us never move her.”
“Gah! Leave it to a Salvager to make a riddle of a simple request,” Parch said. “If you won’t move Florens, move the nook!”
“But . . . but the nook is not a thing! It is just a place where, ah, where the tree isn’t.”
Parch laughed. “Takes one to know one! Well, if the tree is the thing, then it’s the tree you’ll have to move.”
“But the tree’s roots run the length and breadth of the garden, hold its walls to the earth and the earth above its secret cellars!”
“Well then, move the garden.”
“But the garden is the antinode, the unmoving heart of the city!”
“Ah!” Parch said. “Now we are getting somewhere.”
“Move the city itself? But how?”
Parch threw his arms up—such a stench!—and said, “What a burden you are! Might as well ask how to move yourself!” He laughed his laugh again and stomped away.
The next morning, the Salvagers found Florens sitting a dozen paces from that nook where one low root meets one high root in which she had lived as long as any had memory. Her books, her papers, her musical instruments, her shawls of spidersilk, all of it still surrounded her as it had before.
In the nook itself, the earth had been dug up three by six, and smoothed down again. A fine layer of ash covered the dirt, and in the center sat a small stack of coins, enough to buy half a loaf with butter and a cup of the cheap red wine Parch had preferred.
The Salvagers gathered around Florens, some laughing, some crying, every one agreeing it was a miracle, but not one agreeing on what the miracle was: Had she moved, or the tree, or the garden, or the city itself?
Florens shook her head. Her face was sad, but her voice seemed to quiver with laughter when she spoke. “Are these your questions? Better to ask who it was who found this.”
She held up a paper that had been folded three times each way. On it was a single word: “Parch.”
And then she turned it around, and on the other side it read: “Florens.”
“Who,” she said, “and what, and whither?”
Nocturne for the Hour before Dawn
Title: “The Call”
For three or more performers.
- A pair of pipes for each performer, as follows:
- A section of pipe the length of a leg, with an inner diameter somewhere between the width of a single fingertip and the width of all four fingers together.
- A second section of pipe of roughly the same length, with an inner diameter such that it slips over the first pipe smoothly but with as little gap as possible.
- A sheet or two of paper
- A deck of cards
Smooth the ends of the smaller pipe with a stone or brick to remove any sharp edges or burrs. Wipe the pipe clean with water, and then with aqua vitae. Place some of the beeswax into a small jar and heat the jar in a bath of simmering water until the wax flows like honey. Dip one end of the smaller pipe about a finger’s width into the wax, lift it, and let the wax cool. Repeat this step until a smooth lip of wax has built up on the end of the pipe. This wax-covered end is called the Source.
Rub some of the unmelted wax onto the outside of the smaller pipe. Slip the larger pipe over the smaller. It should slide smoothly, but snugly enough that it does not rattle or slide off when released. If the fit is not snug, wrap a strip of paper around the inner pipe and seal it with a touch of the molten wax. Add strips until the outer pipe is snug but may still be slid in and out. The assembled instrument is called the Ray.
The performer with the Ray with the narrowest diameter or the shortest length is called the First.
Each performer draws a card privately, and remembers the number of pips. Face cards count as zero.
Lie as a drunkard in the gutter by a storm drain. The performers should space themselves such that a word spoken firmly by one is just barely heard by the next, either in a line down the street or encircling the block. Press your lips to the Source of the Ray as if giving it a kiss, and place the other end into the storm drain.
Blow into the Source through tightly pressed lips as the horn players do. If the width of the Source is small, your lips must buzz as tightly as those of a disapproving matron, and if it is large, they must burr as loosely as those of a dismissive baker. Strive for a clear, bright tone.
While sounding the instrument, slowly slide the outer pipe in and out to adjust your pitch until the drain responds with a ringing resonance. The sound should swell and deepen.
When you have found your resonance, hold the outer pipe steady and stop sounding. Lie still until you can hear no other performer sounding.
Let the First wait for a dozen breaths, and then sound the Ray. Each sounding should start softly, then swell and hold for as long as possible, and then fade. Take several long, slow breaths, and repeat.
When the performers nearest to the First hear this first sounding, they should wait for a dozen breaths, then sound their Rays in the same fashion. The next in line should begin, and so on.
Repeat your sounding a dozen times, plus one additional repetition for each pip of the card that you drew earlier.
Once you completed your soundings, be still and listen until you no longer hear another Ray. Lie still another dozen breaths. Depart with quiet grace.
Instead of the storm drain, you may use the stairwell and halls of an abandoned tenement, the mews of an affluent enclave, etc.
Florens says, “The wax is not the Source; the pipe is not the Ray. Quick: What is not the First?”
Parch says, “Odds are you’ll be First asleep.”
The Night Soil Salvagers do not tell this story. But you will hear it in the hum of overhead wires, in the rattle of branches on a moonless night, in the cries of street sellers closing at sunset, in the heart’s flow of the city’s sewers.
Attende! I and others will meet, one night some nights hence, at the foot of the great tree in the antinode where what remains of Florens and Parch remains. One of us will say, “Anyone got a lead on bells? Seems like a fine night for a performance of ‘Calling Her Down.’”
Another will say, “It’s baby rattles you want, my friend, for it’s a new moon.”
The first will crane her head back and ask, “If not the full moon, then what?”
And so we will climb that tree, past wired Voices and blood-filled bottles, parchments bearing ash-drawn maps, lumps of clay that once held drums. Past crows with costermonger cries and a single ceaseless mockingbird.
Some of us will rattle as we climb and some will ring, for though it is midnight on a new moon’s night, there will nonetheless be something full and round and harvest gold framed by the highest limbs of that highest tree.
It will be a flower.
A flower fat as a dozen babies on a single spindled limb, petals thick as tongues, stamens like ribald horns, and all a rich, bilirubinous amber.
We will sit in silence around that blooming, counting breaths.
Until one of us will lift arms up with fingers out, a child’s tree atop the tree, bell clasped between thumb and forefinger, and ring.
Another of us will laugh, as if seeing an old friend on the street. “I was hoping for change,” she will say. “But there’s the best spot, taken by a baby.” Then she will count a measure’s rest and shake her rattle.
Another count of four, another bell, another laugh, another rattle, and so it goes round. Whistles and horns and the cry of names of those we shall not see again. The Night Soil Salvagers delivered there, shaken like ash by that music from limb to limb, chancing every thing in that flower light, will be too loud—almost—to hear one of us cry, “The city! Where has it gone?”
And another—an ancient face he will have, almost familiar, rattling two coins in his fist and with such a stench, like the fundament of the Earth!—will throw arms around the first and say, “There, of course; the city is there,” and point not out but up.
“The Night Soil Salvagers” copyright © 2020 by Gregory Norman Bossert
Art copyright © 2020 by Red Nose Studio