The Feast of the Night-Soil Man
By Jason Heller
Even from this distance, I can see them. Laughing, prancing, chanting. Familiar through their cruel sneers and painted faces.
They are nude. Scalps shorn. Slathered in vomit. Reddened with lust.
It is the day of their Holy Feast.
As they bend over double and disgorge the contents of their distended bellies onto the green, green earth, the smoldering remnants of burlap effigies lie scattered about them.
On each effigy is a face.
That face is mine.
No writ, no scripture, no testament nor palimpsest will tell you, but I will: The Gods relieve themselves as they sleep. And through this relief, they send suffering and waste to the lives of those who hold them most high.
I have arrived at this blasphemous truth because I am Xihu, and for many years I was their Night-Soil Man. Why the Gods chose me, I do not know. One day I shoveled corpses and manure into the brown, poisonous Swollen River for anyone in my plague-stricken village that would pay me a bowl of rice; the next, I collected the sleep-shit of Those who dwelled on the distant mountaintop, Their long, oily slicks of discharge staining the snows on which They slumbered.
Together They were known as Yu-in, and Each manifested Its face and form on the surface of a single gigantic and rumbling body at different times each day. First was fair Ith, His slim cheeks and single, dream-caked eye greeting me each morning as I cleaned up after my night's dark toil.
I was forbidden to gaze upon Yu-in in the full light of the day, so it was only Ith I came to know. Sometimes at dawn in Yu-in's cavernous chamber He mistook me for some long-dead lover, reaching toward my manhood with languid, clanking fingers. He smelled of iron and vanilla--that is, after I had finished my work with Him. With rag and shovel I scrubbed and scraped at the thick slime and barnacle-like shingles that collected around His vast and nautiloid anus. After flushing the waste down the cracks of the mountain's glacier as I had been instructed, I would return to anoint Him with a perfume of ambergris and afterbirth, spices and sperm, that Yu-in deposited in a bedside urn daily for this purpose.
But earlier--that is, when I would climb to the slumbering, snowbound Gods in the hours just after star-rise--the smell was far less ambrosial. Like a tomb cracked open and left to fester, Yu-in leaked a black and brackish feculence that stunk of rot and waste. They wallowed in their filth, tossing and turning until even Their single, blank face--for Yu-in seemed to be possessed by none of its constituent deities as it slept--was slathered in that rank muck.
To this day I shudder to think of the dreams Yu-in must have had. Ith told me once; it was morning, and I was still wiping away the last festoons of stool that clung to Yu-in's massive hindquarters. Ith awoke in a panic and told me of a nightmare He and the Others had been having.
In it, the fathers of the mothers of man left their graves and lifted their fists to the heavens. A war between God and servant tore the sky asunder, poisoned the seas, and forced Ith and his brethren into exile--leaving the men in the valley below to reap fields of disease and watch their pale, mortal shadows lengthen in the glare of the pagan sun.
"Ith," I dared utter, my insolence no doubt fueled by lingering contact with His most intimate discharges, "that is no mere dream. That is Your own Gospel, handed down eons ago. Every schoolchild in my village knows it. Before I shoveled waste and stricken flesh into the Swollen River to earn my keep--before I shaved my head in shame, became too tainted to trust with faith--I even gathered the little ones at my feet and taught them myself."
As I remembered, my blood turned to ice--not just at the abrupt and melancholic recollection of the loss of my former calling, which pained me more than I could have ever expected, but at the final and terrifying realization that the Gods were as unclean, if not more so, than Man.
That day--for I slept during those bright hours Yu-in was conscious--I had a dream of my own. In my village, infants crawled forth with an uncanny grace and began consuming their mothers. Their pink gums bruised breast and bone as they burrowed into the nourishing flesh of their procreators, each mewling babe hungrily seeking the womb from whence it had been expelled.
I tried to warn my neighbors of this horror, but my tongue leapt from my gaping mouth of its own will and began inching across the dust. As I tried to pick it up, the dry earth turned to blood and surged up my forearms in foaming torrents.
Suddenly those torrents became the familiar shit of Yu-in--and I found myself no longer in my village but drenched and wretched at the edge of the glacier atop His mountain. I bathed in the slow drip of the melting waters and watched the corruption swirl off of my body and across the ice before plunging into a river that flowed away from the mountain, down into the valley.
The river. The Swollen River.
When I awoke--writhing on the mat of straw in the modest hut Yu-in had seen fit to grant me in exchange for the execution of my duties--the sun was high in the sky. The images from my dream felt burned onto my brain.
It was then that a notion came to me.
I had once sternly warned the children of my village against acts and even thoughts of unholiness, of uncleanliness. The suffering you know at the hands of plague and famine, I had taught them, is nothing compared to the punishment Yu-in justly bestows on the impudent and sinful.
But that had been long ago. I was now a damned creature--damned by the perverse ordainment of the Gods Themselves.
And so, with my heart boiling and my soul reshaped in the flame of sacrilege, I took my ritual rag and shovel and crept toward the sunlit lair of Yu-in. To see Him as no man ever had.
As I crept near to Yu-in and hid behind a large stone near His urn of ritual unguent, He appeared no differently. He lay in his bed of snow and quartz, both substances blackened beyond my ability to clean them. Soon, though, He turned to face the place where I hid. The planes and angles of His body were folded into an almost crystalline configuration, a geometry at once sublime and grotesque. His broad face blinked and flickered as many images in passing possessed it, a feverish parade of shifting visages. Ith was but one; Others came and went, some of which I swear I recognized as the pagan idols of the ancients.
Fear scorched my throat, but I doubted Yu-in could see me where I hid. Ith's eyesight--a faculty I had never previously considered prone to atrophy in the Gods--had always been poor, and I assumed the same could be said of Yu-in as a whole. His unfocused gaze passed over my shadowed perch.
Then He began to speak.
The voices crashed into me like a physical thing, a blow like the wind driving a tree before it. Ith's whisper, lisping and sleepy, was buried within, but it was overpowered by a deafening babble of screeches, grumbles, cackles, and howls that seemed to violate all laws of harmony. Still I clung to my hiding place, an insect riding out a tornado.
Impossibly, Yu-in's monstrous voice was drowned out by a sudden and even larger noise that seemed to split my skull along with the very air. I was blinded for a moment; by pain or noise or light I could not tell. When I was able to see again, there was flooding into Yu-in's chamber, one stone wall cleft in twain by the energies that had been hurled against it.
Through that vast crack, the sky leaked in. Clouds drifted by, and a fresh breeze stirred the clots of filth that had congregated around the corners of the Gods' great nest.
Below, the valley sat. Cradled within its green slopes was my village. From this high vantage, the Swollen River--tainted, I know realized, by the waste that I myself had leaked into the glacier all these years--ran black and stinking into the village.
We the villagers had always assumed it safe to shovel our shit and disease, the rancid dung and postulant corpses of our fellows, into the Swollen River, so long as it would be swept downstream and away. I myself had long been an instrument of this disposal.
It seems Gods and men were more alike than either of us thought.
My head awash in confusion and aching with the strain of the vision before me, I turned to flee. With one last glance I saw Yu-in's might abdomen open and reach out into the air, a massive bladder twisted inside out and snapping at the air like a starving frog at a swarm of flies. Some kind of mist arose from the valley, from the village itself, a haunted fog that Yu-in's inverted guts sucked at with a greedy lust.
Within that mist were faces. Howling faces, ravaged by buboes and etched with pain, sculpted from the dung-scented gasses Yu-in gulped out of the sky. I stray tendril wafted to where I stood frozen, ready to scuttle away from the site of this repulsive gluttony.
It was then that I knew what Yu-in feasted upon. Not the damned ghosts of the villagers, nor their eternal souls. Despite our broad interpretations of the Gospels, there were no such things.
There was only pain. Pain that Yu-in ate. And shat. And that shit in turn desecrated the waters of the Swollen River, the suffering returned to its source to cause suffering again. An insidious wheel, of which I had been a willing if ignorant spoke.
Stunned and too sickened to run, I didn't feel the hot breath of Yu-in on my scalp until it was too late.
Drunk on agony, Yu-in snatched me up and held me before Him, the screams of villagers staining its teeth like wine. It seemed not to recognize me at first, and its multitude of mask-like faces blurred by faster than a hummingbird's wings. At last it settled on the incarnation that knew me best.
"Adored servant," Ith said, "why are you here? You know it is against our commandment for you to loiter in our chamber after the sun climbs into the heavens. We ask not much of you. Why do you disobey?"
Ith's voice was tender, even bruised, as if I had delivered unto him a personal affront. But even as his tone was childlike, the fist he held me in grew tighter. I felt my breath wane and my ribs creak at the force.
"Ith," I bellowed with the last lungful I could muster. I had only one chance, even though I knew it might mean the end of my life. "Listen to me. I am sorry for my sin. I… I must confess, I have long been lured by your beauty. I disobeyed you and snuck to your bed in hopes… in hopes of sharing it with you. I know you are lonely, Ith. Alone, as am I."
There was half truth to what I said, and the loneliness I had felt for many years--even before I had been chosen as the Night-Soil Man--welled up in my like infected humors. Weeping, Ith became overcome at my own show of emotion. His blubbering sounded louder than thunder. Sobs shook his body. He let his fist go limp.
In that second I drew a sharp breath, threw my rag over his eye, and plunged my shovel into it.
Ith screeched, his own gross vanity as wounded as his face. A font of ichor bathed me, and I slipped from His grasp. I landed heavily, my ankle turned, and I crawled toward the safety of the rocks as Ith thrashed and cried. Before I could escape, he let loose one last great sob and fell into a hill-sized heap before me.
He was not dead. I know I could not kill the Gods, and that I had little time before Ith and his brethren awoke.
It was then that I knew what I must do.
And so, that evening, as I prepared once more for my nocturnal trek back up the stinking cliffs and across the shit-marbled glacier to the nest where Yu-in lie dormant, I gathered more than just my ritual rag and shovel.
I took up a spoon.
It has been centuries now since I felled Ith. Centuries that I have sat in the nest of the Gods, spoon in hand, consuming Yu-in's discharge before it can seep into the ground or flow into the Swollen River. Centuries since the village--cut off from the source of its corruption and blight--has grown virile and prosperous again.
But as the village has become pure, I have become corpulent, bloated by my sacrificial repast. My face is as broad as the cliff face, gray as a corpse. Worms tunnel into my flesh, ravenous for the rich waste it senses just beyond the thin membrane of my skin. The stench is unholy.
I once called out to the villages, the descendants of my former neighbors, from my faraway perch. I bellowed at them, begged for help, explained what I did and why. I told them of their true role in the Gods' ancient circle of anguish, gluttony, and lust.
But the villagers know only their own Gospel, that of their many-faced God, Yu-in, handed down to them long ago. They call me Demon and curse me for trying to lead them astray from the path of the righteous. They credit their convalescence to the purity of their own souls, the sanctity of their own acts. The defile me in effigy--shitting into burlap sacks one day each year, drawing my face crudely in charcoal thereupon, and striking those effigies with sticks until they burst. Then they shave their heads and feast on the fruits of their fields, forcing themselves to vomit upon the green earth, laughing, mocking.
That is their Holy Day. The Feast of Xihu, the Night-Soil Man. Their own way of purging.
Still, I know I cannot cease my loathsome repast. Even now Yu-in stirs in his deep sleep, his night-soil a thin and watery trickle from rusted bowels now that the villagers provide Him little suffering to gorge upon. And so I sit, spoon to mouth, the fetid tang of undernourished dung my only sustenance. I grow ever larger, ever more horrible, to the point where my own bulk and stench threaten to drive me mad.
But as I gaze out the shriven wall of Yu-in's chamber, the Swollen River plunges sweetly and cleanly down the cliffs and over blanched rocks and into the valley, where mills spin swiftly in its churning currents and children now bathe in its clear waters without fear of pain or plague.
Empty yet full, I gaze upon that, and I am content.