Randall Middlestreet, the Night-Soil Man, rarely felt comfortable when his work took him into the vicinity of Chapel Rock. It wasn’t that the ghost of Obadiah Hyde, The Mad Parson, was at all dangerous. It was just that the old wraith had developed an annoying habit of manifesting unexpectedly, then screaming around the place like a banshee with toothache. It was all most unsettling, especially on the occasions when the bucket on Randall’s back was particularly full; a sudden, startled reaction could create all sorts of unwelcome consequences.
On this night, however, Randall had other things to worry about.
Standing before him on the narrow pathway was an unfamiliar creature. Although it was, admittedly, small of stature, it filled him with unease. Besides the beady eyes, long nails, yellow teeth and scrawny body (which reminded him strangely of the late and decidedly unlamented Reverend Crackstone), it was the beast’s audacity that unnerved him. Even the largest, most fearsome denizen of the island would invariably quail and flee before the Night-Soil Man’s unremitting stench. This diminutive creature, however, squared-up to Randall with the confident air of an anosmic prize-fighter.
“What the hell are you?” Randall asked, querulously.
“A puddle rat, of course, thou turpitudinous turdsmith”
Randall jumped in surprise to hear a reply, causing his bucket to lurch alarmingly. The voice was surprisingly deep and hollow, not to mention human.
“You can speak?”
Randall suspected that he had been badly insulted but chose to let it go.
“Zounds fellow, of course it cannot. I told thou, ‘tis a swiving puddle rat, thou arse-brained nincompoop.”
Randall was fairly certain now that he had been insulted. He turned to see who the voice belonged to.
Although the unexpected presence of the puddle rat had taken him aback, it was nothing compared with the vision before him. This time he jumped so much the lid almost flew off his bucket.
There, glimmering in the moonlight stood the unmistakable shade of Obadiah Hyde.
This night was becoming increasingly bizarre. To encounter a strange creature for the first time was odd enough but to be addressed – not to say harangued – by the ghost of a man two-and-a-half centuries dead was disturbing, to say the very least. Randall had never been drawn into conversation by a ghost before and was by no means sure as how to proceed. As it happened, he had no need to.
“They are vermin of the worst sort,” said the wraith. “In truth, I will vouchsafe that they offend me even more than papists and adulterers.”
Randall had absolutely no idea what Hyde was talking about but at least the parson’s appetite for insulting him seemed to have quelled.
Suddenly, from the general direction of the puddle rat, a faint rumbling could be heard. This, while growing in intensity, gradually changed pitch. The puddle rat’s eyes bulged slightly and an expression of intense concentration came over its pointed features.
A look of alarm spread over the ghostly parson’s luminous visage.
“Verily, verily, I say unto thee, that wretched creature is about to fa…”
Before he could get the last syllable out a great explosion shook the air and a smell, far more obnoxious than anything Randall had ever encountered in his twenty years as Night-Soil Man, hung almost palpably in the cold moonlight.
“Do they all do that?” choked Randall, his hand over his mouth.
“I cannot speak for those who live in other parts of the island,” said the ghost, mournfully. “But ‘tis my belief that ‘tis the nature of their diet that causeth such raucous nether-winds. They are, in truth, verminous scavengers and feast upon that which the ravens drop.”
Hyde gestured towards the topmost part of the ruined chapel where the ravens roosted.
“Spoonwalkers. Or, at least, the bits of them that the birds discard.”
By now Randall’s eyes were watering but at least he understood why the creature had no fear of him. Nothing the Night-Soil Man carried could compare with the ferocity of that smell.
Randall turned to speak to Hyde but the ghost had vanished, back to purgatory or wherever it was he spent his time when not haunting the rock. The puddle rat, too, had decided to leave.
“I don’t blame it,” said Randall to himself.
“Now I know why I get left alone.”
Art by Tom Brown