Regular readers will doubtless have noticed that a recurring character in many of these tales is the Night Soil Man. This is not unsurprising as these solitary figures have been a presence on the island since the time of the Founding Families. The very first recorded bearer of the office was Killigrew O’Stoat, a bright but introverted young man who saw the role not as a punishment, as many might regard it, but as a viable way of escaping the horrors of having to engage with other people. In his small way Killigrew was a pioneer, the first in a proud tradition of artisans. Anyone who has visited the Hopeless Heritage Museum would doubtless have felt a twinge of excitement to see the actual bucket that he used for much of his career.
Despite his connection to functions rarely discussed in polite company, there is a certain mystique surrounding the work of this nocturnal tradesman which I have touched upon in an earlier article. However, until now there has been little written concerning the facts surrounding exactly how someone might find themselves in this line of work. In an effort to rectify this I arranged an interview with Shenandoah Nailsworthy, the current Night Soil Man, in his small cottage on a remote part of the island. I’ll admit, I didn’t relish the prospect but was pleasantly surprised by the orderliness of the dwelling. There was no escaping the all-enveloping odour, however, which I sensed embarrassed Shenandoah a great deal but I believe it was worth this small sacrifice to bring you his testimony. Here then, in his own words, is Shenandoah’s tale:
“I was just fourteen when I left the orphanage. Seems like I had been especially selected. This is what they do. The people in charge, I mean. The orphans don’t know it but they are watched from an early age. They look for the loners, the introverts who don’t fit in. Then the biggest and burliest of these boys – it’s always a boy – becomes the chosen one, the Night Soil Man’s apprentice. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t happen often; in fact I’m the most recent. My old master has been dead this last twenty five years and he took me on five years before that. An apprentice is called when something in your bones tells you it’s time. I don’t feel that yet. I haven’t got an apprentice. I don’t need one right now but the time will come…
Well, as I said, I was sent out and given directions to go to a house tucked away on the far west of the island. This house has been the home and work base of several generations of Night Soil Men. Back at the orphanage, once they knew I was being sent here, the other kids would make jokes about the place. The House at Poo Corner they called it but it’s my home now and I’ll stay here ‘til I die.
I can’t pretend my predecessor was a particularly pleasant guy. For the five years I was with him I slept in the bunkhouse. It had no warmth or light. I’ll make sure no apprentice of mine is treated like that but I admit, he taught me some valuable lessons.
The first thing he said to me was ‘Once you get used to the smell it’ll become your best friend.’ He was right about that. It’s kept me safe more than once. Some believe that The Night Soil Man has only loneliness to fear, but I don’t agree. Loneliness is different to solitude and solitude is fine. While most things give me a wide berth you’ve got to be a bit careful if there’s a kraken close to shore. They’re the exception…well, almost the exception. If the legends are true we should also be wary of the Wendigo. Truth is, I’ve never seen one. Don’t know anyone who has but there’s a story that one of my predecessors was taken by a Wendigo in broad daylight, almost a hundred years ago. Broad daylight, eh? That’s ironic. One of the lads at the orphanage swore he saw it happen right after some game or other. It caused a bit of a problem as his apprentice had to start within a couple of months of being chosen. Dropped in at the deep-end you might say.
This is not a life that would suit most people. Besides the nature of the work and the isolation there is a darker side. Like it or not, we are creatures of the night, as much as any werewolf or vampire. Some of the things we see after the daylight fades is the stuff of nightmares. And some of it is just plain heartbreaking. Not many weeks pass that I don’t find a body. Sometimes it’s a victim, often of their own stupidity and sometimes it’s just Death taking what’s due to him. Or her. I never could decide. Then I’m the one bearing the news, not that I get close enough to say much. If folks see me in the daylight I’m an omen of death.
I don’t want to dwell on death but there is one thing your readers should know, something that few folks appreciate. At the end there is no one to mourn the Night Soil Man except his apprentice, and that’s a heavy burden. When my old master passed I was priest, mourner and undertaker. Come and look…”
Shenandoah led me outside, to the back of the building. About a hundred feet from his cottage was a dark and dangerous looking sinkhole, about four feet in diameter. A rickety circle of palings enclosed it. Gingerly I stood at the edge and craned my neck to look down inside. It may have been some form of optical illusion but it seemed to me that there was a gleam of green fire playing at its very core, unfathomable feet below, in the deep and mysterious belly of the island.
“Here’s where the night soil has gone for nigh on two hundred years,” he said, then added, almost in a matter-of-fact manner, “and quite a few generations of Night Soil Men have gone in there too.”
I couldn’t help but recoil from this. Shenandoah gave me a long and meaningful stare.
“You shouldn’t be shocked. There is really no alternative. The ground here is too rocky for burial and putting someone in the sea seems… well, you know what’s out there; it wouldn’t seem right. This is our way of life and way of death. Besides, no one knows how deep that hole is, or what’s going on down there.”
Shenandoah fell silent then. This was probably the most he had spoken for thirty years. As I made to leave he turned away and, lost in his own thoughts, I watched him as he stared long and hard into the dark depths of the sinkhole. It struck me then that here was a man quite literally gazing into the abyss and I couldn’t help but wonder what might be gazing back at him.
Art by Tom Brown