by Brian Thornton
I used to have a girlfriend who believed in reincarnation.
Neither Hindu nor Buddhist, she was actually "New Age" back before it was a cliche. She practiced astrology (Jungian archetypal astrology, not that parlor trick stuff) and tattooed her sun, moon and star signs over her right kidney.
She also read Tarot, dug crystals, studied gnosticism and read a lot of stuff by Rosicrucian religious scholars.
So she took her "New Agism" seriously.
Now, I've always been very "live and let live" when it comes to spiritual beliefs. I sincerely believe that there are many paths to God/Jesus/Buddha/Muhammad/Shiva/Flying Spaghetti Monster/Head-of-Lettuce-Named-Bob, and am uninterested in proving anyone wrong. In other words, we all have our path to tread.
So I kept an open mind about her New Age beliefs, and after a good six months, had been unmoved by any of them. They didn't work for me, but they seemed to make her happy, so I discussed them with her on a fairly frequent basis. The resulting greater familiarity with this subset of spiritual beliefs only served to harden my indifference.
It couldn't last.
The beginning of the end came one day when she was talking about past life regressions, and how she felt there was untapped value there.
I tried the old riposte: "Everyone I've met who believes they've experienced a past life thinks they were someone famous: a Napoleon or an Eleanor Roosevelt. No one ever seems to think they were Eleanor Roosevelt's tailor, or Napoleon's nightmen."
I mean, come on. I have to use my history degree for something. And if I've learned one thing over a lifetime of studying humanity's shared past, it's that most people who lived on this planet before the mid-20th century likely lived short lives filled with drudgery and misery and unending, back-breaking toil. Usually on farms. And they tended to die mostly from disease, starvation, childbirth, or some frightful combination thereof.
So what are the odds that any single one of us was Julius Caesar or Fu Hao or Madame Curie, assuming there actually is any such thing as reincarnation?
We're all more likely to have been a dung beetle.
But my girlfriend wasn't having any of that. Instead she keyed on: "Nightmen. Sounds mysterious."
"Does it?" I said, amused.
"Edgy," she went one. "Like the name of a rock band."
"Or a group of superheroes," I said helpfully.
"Or a secret society!" she enthused.
"Or a shadowy government agency!"
And from there the conversation veered in another direction. I quickly forgot about it.
Until, that is, a couple of weeks later, when my girlfriend said to me apropos of nothing; "I did a past life regression last night. My mom helped me with it."
Her mom worked "professionally" (Okay, more like "semi-professionally") as an astrologer. Also bear in mind, at this point the internet was still in its infancy. Google hadn't even been invented yet.
When I asked what her past life regression had told her about her previous selves, she said that she'd had glimpses of two distinct lives: as a Japanese fighter pilot in World War II (all she really saw was his moment of death, she said, just pieced it together from the things she saw in her dream state.).
The other, she said, had been that of a "nightman."
I immediately recalled our previous conversation, and was positive she had never heard the phrase "nightman" until she met me. So, trying not to smirk, I said, "Oh? You? A nightman?"
She said yes.
"Never-ending quest for nightsoil, eh?"
She nodded sagely.
"It was a select breed of men who went out at night in search of 'nightsoil.'"
"That's where the name comes from," she said.
She nodded again, even more sagely this time.
"We think," I said.
"I know," she said, this time more smugly than sagely.
"What did the nightsoil look like? Smell? I've always been curious," I said. "Did you get a chance to taste it?"
"Looked like verdigris, tasted earthy."
"'Earthy,' huh?" I said. "And that's odd. Nightsoil is almost never green. And you've said nothing about the smell."
"Pungent," she said, smiling. Neither sagacity nor smugness touched this smile. Just pure enjoyment of the experience.
I smiled back, and then agreed that "pungent" was one way of describing the stuff in which nightmen trafficked.
And then I called her on it. I just couldn't help myself.Told her what nightsoil really was, and what nightmen really did. Even sent her to Alta Vista (again, pre-Google!) to confirm it with a highly targeted search.
(For those of you who have not already flipped over to Google to see what the underlying joke is here, you can find out more than you ever really wanted to know about "nightmen" and "nightsoil" here and here.)
She broke up with me on the spot. (As you may be able to grasp, we weren't that serious. It was a long time ago, and we were both very young, terribly callow, and possessed of little of the generosity of spirit that seems to only come in the wake of decades of life lessons. All that said, it was still totally worth it.)
Serves me right for letting the facts get in the way of a good story!
See you in two weeks!