The Night Soil Salvagers

By Gregory Norman Bossert

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 TwoThreeFour, and Salvager in clockwise order.

At the moment of sunset, One will walk away in one of four directions. TwoThree, 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.

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