The Night Soil King banner

In November of 1634 a great tidal wave overran the entire area from the Waddensea lowlands in the north of Germany and the Netherlands to the west coast of Denmark killing thousands of people and animals. It arose at night while many slept with no chance to escape. The survivors called it “A Great Drowning of Men.”


“Hans!” “Hans!” “Wait!” Liesel ran after her big brother as he led the family’s huge old Frisian horse, Beatrix, over to the night soil cart. Her small feet threw up so much mud as she chased him that the edge of her yellow skirt took on a brown splotchy pattern. Her blonde braid bounced around her back, the small blue bow at the end looking like a kite tail.

“Liesel, you know it’s time for me to take the night soil to the tanner’s at Bremerlehe. Now quiet down before the village thinks our little princess has been bewitched into a crow.” He laughed and lovingly tugged her long braid. He pressed his ancient faded brown felt hat further down on his head with his other hand.

The sun was getting lower in the darkening afternoon sky as the pigs in the corral to the right squealed. Liesel and Hans’s father emerged from the front door of the wood and stone home they all shared. He shushed the hogs then frowned at Hans. “Haven’t you left yet?” He pushed the blue cotton sleeves of his threadbare, faded work shirt up his arms and wiped his brow with one of the sleeves. He was a tall, sinewy man, the very image of what twenty-year-old Hans would look like in a few years with light brown hair and a full brown beard. Hans was whipcord thin but wiry, with clearly some growth to come.

“Hans. Why haven’t you left yet? Is Beatrix all right? Did that new shoe job hold? What is the matter?” Hans’s father wiped his hands on his brown cotton pants and walked over to the cart, eyes scanning the horse.

“Papa, Hans can’t go to town today.” Liesel moaned. “My birthday is tomorrow and Hans said he would make me a new doll and be here. If he takes the cart to town today he won’t be back in time.”

Papa shook his head and turned away as he hid a small smile from the slightly spoiled eight-year-old. He knew he and Hans had made her the center of their world ever since his wife, Mitza, had died two years prior. But he could not coddle her forever. She must start growing up and now was a good time.

“No, little princess, it is time for Hans to take the scheisswagen to the tanners. The winter will be upon us soon and we will need the money he will make to feed us all. When he comes home he can make you a new dolly.”

Liesel loved her dollies. They were all made of bits and pieces of cloth scraps. The very fanciest of them had buttons for eyes but most of the faces were sewn or drawn on. Papa and Hans called Liesel’s array of dolls her “court.”

“Papa is right, princess. I’ll make you another doll for your court when I come back from town. Maybe I’ll find some extra beautiful scraps while I’m there.” He reached down and hugged her. Hans started to step towards his taciturn father but his father had already moved away to continue his autumn repairs. Papa had never been too demonstrative but since the death of Hans and Liesel’s mother he seemed to have pulled even further away. Hans didn’t know what he could do to prove himself. Maybe someday . . .

Liesel stepped back so Hans could climb up into the loaded night soil cart. Beatrix was waiting impatiently, chewing the bit and flicking her tail to drive away the pesky flies that circled the cart and its odiferous load of dung.

TNSK-frsnhrsHans clucked at the horse from his seat on the scheisswagen. It was a fairly warm day, and even though it was November, there were still flies. With three big barrels of night soil in the wagon, there were lots of flies.

Hans was happy it wasn’t July, because the smell would have been unbearable. He had read in a pamphlet from the Committee of Correspondence that the smell was from something called bacteria. These were supposed to be little tiny animals, smaller than you could see with the eye. You had to use something called a microscope to see them. Hans thought that was as good an explanation as “it was bad air” and probably was right. At least the CoC said the up-timers said that was how it worked. He often daydreamed about being a member of the CoC, and discovering ways to prevent diseases. He was fascinated by their pamphlet on “sanitation.” He took the trip from his small village to Bremerlehe at the mouth of the Weser once a week, and he’d been doing it for years. Sometimes he went all the way into Bremen, just a few miles further. The horse had been doing it even longer than Hans, so the horse, as they said, knew the way. His family was one of the hereditary night soil collectors for a set of five small villages set along the inner dike about five miles inland from the Waddensea coast.


Hans turned in his seat to see his friend, Japik, running up the road after him. “Dummkopf, I almost had to leave without you. You’re late.”

Japik smiled the gap-toothed grin Hans had known all his life, first as boys and then teens in the village. “Now I am here.” Japik made a jesting bow to Liesel, managing to turn his bum to Hans at the same time.

Hans just shook his head. “Enough, Japik, let’s get on the way before Papa decides to drop us both into the back of this cart. I’d rather deliver this load than swim in it.”

Japik clambered up next to Hans, adjusting his several-sizes-too-big dingy blue pants as he sat down. Japik was the youngest of a family blessed with five boys so nothing he wore was anywhere near new or fit. The loose brown and white shirt he wore looked like it had been washed more times than Japik.

Japik whistled through the rather huge gap between his middle upper teeth. “You worry too much. But thanks for letting me catch a ride with you to Bremerlehe.”

“Just be on time when we come back.” Hans slapped the reins across her neck, encouraging Beatrix to pick up her speed just a bit.

The sun dropped below the horizon early in the trip, and the boys watched the waxing moon slip up to fill the cloudy sky as Beatrix’s hooves beat their pattern across the road along the top of the dyke. It was late enough that the night soil cart was the only one in sight. Hans knew everyone else must be in their snug homes while he and Japik rode their odiferous load into town. No one wanted to see or smell the cart while it made its way to the tannery so he was required to make his trips at night. The moon seemed to slip from cloud to cloud as it played a lunar hide-and-seek with them.

It was about 10 o’clock. Hans figured he would get to the tannery right before dawn. It was dark on the road, but it was built on a raised dike and was pretty straight. It had gotten very cloudy and looked like rain was on the way.

The boys sat in companionable silence for a mile or so with Hans lost in his thoughts. Japik was the first to break the quiet. “Well, Hans, have you had the chance recently to save a princess from a dragon or something just as dangerous?”

Hans didn’t bother to turn his head. He knew his friend was engaging in his usual game of teasing him. Hans made the mistake once of confessing to Japik that he loved the stories, fairy tales, the up-timers called them, about dragons, knights, princesses, and the like. His daydream when he was younger was to rescue a fair princess and live happily ever after like the stories.

Of course, now he was older and knew those were just stories. His life, like those of his father and everyone else of his station in life, was to perform certain jobs. He could carry night soil, be an executioner (ugh), a tanner, or something else of the sort. He hated it! Night soil collection was a proscribed occupation. He was shunned by other people, and not just because of the smell. He would have to marry within the other proscribed occupations, like executioners, tanners, dyers, and the like.  His wife would come from the same station and any children he had would be relegated to this station as well. No princesses for the likes of him.

The wind started to pick up just enough to blow the first of the season’s fallen leaves across the dirt road in front of them. The wind gusted strong enough to rock the wagon on the road. Beatrix seemed to feel something in the air. Her ears pricked up just a bit more and the clip-clop of her new shoes on the stone road seemed to get a tad faster.

Following behind the wind, big drops of rain fell, singly at first, then as a driving rain.

Hans came out of his thoughts as Beatrix sped up yet again. Now her shoes were louder as they moved across the dike. The view around him was open so he could see the tops of a few old buildings in the distance.

“Hans, something is wrong. Do you hear that roaring? And the sky is too dark.” Japik had stopped whistling.

Hans turned toward the wind. The wind was carrying the scent of ocean and rot. The smell became overpowering.

The rain and wind lashed them. Hans quickly lost his hat, and both he and Japik were soaked to the skin almost in an instant.  Lightning started to flash, coming way too close to the boys on their high point. Hans kept the horse and wagon moving, moving.

Beatrix seemed to agree as she tried to speed up yet again. But the loaded cart was too heavy for her. She puffed and pulled but could gain no more speed.

The sky went from simply overcast to almost black. The boys could hear a massive roaring that could only be the sea. Suddenly, the wind died and then came back harder than ever. Then Hans saw it by the light of the moon and screamed. In the distance he saw the largest wave he had ever seen in his life. It could have been miles tall and still miles away. Even miles away, the wave towered over the dike road, over the scheisswagen, over Hans. He knew he was going to die. The wave looked like it was moving much faster than they could run.

Hans leapt off of the cart, dragging Japik with him. “Quick, loose Beatrix from the cart! We have to run to safety. She can’t make it with this cart!”

Hans jumped down and ran forward, grabbing the reins and holding the horse from a short rein. “Ssssh! Shhh! Calm, now, Beatrix!” he shouted into the horse’s left ear.

He then turned to Japik. “Come on, we have to get to shelter!” Hans already had half of the traces loose.

With both of them working at it they were able to free Beatrix. Her eyes were wild with fright as the two boys clambered onto her broad back and gave her head to run. And run she did! The old cart horse knew watery death when she smelled and heard it. She didn’t need to be told that the winds whipping around her head were faster than she could run.

She fled across the rest of the dike as the seemingly miles-high wave pressed towards them. Hans and Japik held on to Beatrix’s mane, fighting the same wind that tried to rip them away. The sky got even darker, and the waves got louder.

They made it to the end of the dike with Beatrix running towards an old stone ruin. The roof was partially gone and a few stones had rejoined the land but it was close and big enough for all three souls.

The boys half leaped, half fell off Beatrix’s back as the horse made for the open doorway. Hans half-dragged Beatrix and Japik to the strongest remaining wall and pulled Japik down beside him and behind Beatrix, who was shaking with fright.

“Calm down, girl. I’m here with you.” Hans wrapped his arms around her neck and prayed to God to help them.

A roaring was all he heard and the world became water. The roof above gave way as the hellish wave dashed across it, depositing tree limbs, flotsam, and even fish. The stench of seawater filled his nostrils.

Hans yelled for Japik but his friend had been ripped away and out of the building. But Beatrix, heavy as she was, became Hans’s anchor, holding him in the water-logged stone building. Hans wrapped one of the traces around his left arm to keep himself from being torn away from Beatrix.

The two half-floated, half-swam to the top of the seawater that became a pool within the building. The building blunted some of the force of the storm but water still flooded around them. Hans hit his head against one of the many tree limbs. He felt himself starting to black out. His last thoughts were of Liesel and Papa . . .

When Hans came to, the sun had retaken the sky, and Beatrix stood over him munching on whatever green shoots she could find outside the remains of the stone building that had saved their lives. His left arm still bore what was left of the leather traces he had used to hang on to the immense black and white horse. Water still dripped from her dingy white mane and tail. Mud caked around her hooves.

Japik! Where was Japik? Japik was young and strong but that wall of water was more than anyone could handle or withstand. Hans spoke to the heavy, water-logged air. “Japik, I hope you got your dummkopfer bum to safety and we can share a tankard together soon.”

Then the day seemed to darken again for Hans. “Liesel! Papa! I must get to them.” He struggled to stand up but fell back down. His head spun. Hans was forced to sit back down in the mud and wreckage spread across the ground and even up into the hulks of trees. His leg wouldn’t hold him. He pulled back the dripping pant leg to reveal a broken leg,

Everywhere he looked was disaster-strewn. Only the stones of the building seemed to be where they were before the hellish storm. Hans could barely breathe for the stench of rotting fish and worse. He was used to overpowering odors, having worked with night soil all his life. But these were the smells of death, not simply urine and feces. He couldn’t even tell how many and what was dead or dying all around him. He felt like he had been washed into one of those old paintings from centuries before when Death strolled hand in hand with the Black Death. Was he even still in the world? Had he been flushed into some backwater of a demonic fairy tale? Would life ever come back or be nearly the same?

TNSK-fldAt least Beatrix was with him. Beatrix had been with his family before he was born. He could bring her home to his father. He could show his father he was not a loser. Oh no! The cart! Hans had left the cart on the dike! His father would never let him live it down that he had deserted the one piece of equipment the family used to bring in money! How would they replace it?

Hans sat in the stone-strewn mud, not noticing he was as wet and filthy as Beatrix and everything else around them. His head swam; his mind jumped from Papa and Liesel to Japik to Beatrix to the lost night soil cart to the pains running rampant through his bruised and broken body. The situation and his damaged head overtook him, pushing him to the sloppy ground and pulling him into a sleepless darkness. Hans’s eyes closed against his will.


It was an angel, he thought. Blonde hair, blue eyes, beautiful face staring into his own.  He thought she was speaking to him, but the words didn’t make sense at first.

“Can you hear me? Your eyes are open, can you see me?” The words began to make sense. The angel spoke good Frisian. “Who are you?”

He moved and groaned. He couldn’t be dead, because he wouldn’t hurt so damn much. And he probably wouldn’t smell this bad either.  Ah, he remembered his name, Hans, and said it.

“Hans? Is that your name?” the angel asked.

“Yes, I am Hans. And you?” Hans shook his head and strongly wished he had not.

“Maria . . . that is, Marieke,” she said.

“Where am I?”

“At the Freedom Arches in Bremen,” she replied. “And before you ask, no, I don’t know how you got here. You were brought in on a wagon with some others found after the great wave.”

“I remember the wave,” Hans said, rather tenuously. “I think . . .”

“Where were you? Where were you coming from?”

“I was taking a wagon to Bremerlehe.”

There was a pause.

“How long?” Hans made a helpless gesture with his left hand. His right arm, he found, was bound to his chest.

“It is now two weeks after the night of the wave. Somebody has named it ‘The Great Drowning of Men.’ ” Marieke wiped her hand down her face. For November, it was very warm. Or maybe, Hans thought, it was very warm in the Freedom Arches.

“You should rest now,” Marieke said, pushing up from where she had been kneeling on the floor and the mat Hans was lying on. “Someone will come soon to help you with the pot.”

Hans dozed, then drifted into deeper sleep. After some time, he woke with some urgency, found the chamber pot and used it, with some difficulty with only one hand. He was very thirsty, and looking around, he spotted a glass on a short table near his pallet. It was very weak and very warm beer, but he drank it down with pleasure.

In the morning, Hans made his aching body rise off the yellow and blue plaid pallet to look for some breakfast and perhaps some clean clothes. It was pretty obvious to him that he’d been in the same clothes since the great wave hit him. The combination of damaged leg and arm made it harder than usual for him to get up but the only other choice was to lie in filthy clothes with hunger eating a hole in his already thin belly. Hans had never been heavy and an extended time on the pallet had not added any bulk to his whip-cord thin frame. Rise and eat he must so he groaned and rose.

Hopping on one foot, because he found he couldn’t put weight on the other, he followed his nose to the kitchen. There was hot cider, fresh bread, and a pan of still sizzling sausages sitting on a sideboard. He gathered what seemed like a feast on a wooden trencher, but he found he couldn’t carry it to the trestle table in the front room of the Arches. White-washed walls shone with cleanliness around him. The open windows had no glass but he could see white shutters partially closing out the outdoors. A tortoise-shell cat lay in one of the few open windows in a pool of sunlight. The floor was freshly swept wood. The ceiling was maybe twelve feet high with large beams crisscrossing the room.

Hans wondered about the Committee of Correspondence and the Freedom Arches. He could see a much larger hall through the doorway at the back of the room but everyone seemed to be in this room with him. Hans could see people of all ages, men and women, a few children, and some older folks. The bread and sausages were finger food, which was good because he was very much right-handed. His right hand was in a sling, tightly strapped to his chest and useless. His splinted leg made Hans feel even more helpless.

“Ah, good morning!” It was Marieke. She immediately understood what the problem was, and picked up Hans’s tray and carried it to the trestle table. She had come up while he was wondering how to eat without just standing there holding up a wall. Her marvelous hair was wrapped up around the top of her head like a crown. She may have been dressed in a white cotton underblouse with a tan and blue cotton bodice over a yellow cotton skirt that had seen better days but she gave the impression she was just as comfortable in silk and velvet. “How are you feeling? How is your leg?”

“Okay, but my arm and leg hurt a lot and I ache,” Hans complained. “It is, I think, better than how I would feel being dead, though.” He gave her the deadpan look Japik knew so well.

“When you are dead, you don’t feel . . .” she started, then favored Hans with a shy smile. “Oh. You have a sense of humor, I see.”

“When I can,” Hans grinned weakly. “When I can.” She smiled, and he felt the sun shone through that smile. She seemed human, so maybe she was a princess instead of an angel. Hans’s luck that the first princess he met would save him, not he her. Wait till he told Japik . . . Then it hit him. He had not seen Japik! Where was Japik? Was he even alive? He had to be alive! Japik had to be alive! How could he find him??

“Marieke, my friend Japik was with me when the wave hit. Have you seen him or know who might?” Hans could not believe he had not asked about Japik until now.

“I have not seen any Japik but many people were seriously hurt. He could be at the emergency center.” Her lovely features clouded over. “There will be a list of those who are recovering and those who . . . are not.” She glanced down and away, unable to meet Hans’s worried eyes.

She glanced up and changed the subject quickly. “So, your name is Hans. Where do you come from, Hans?” Marieke sat down, sitting gracefully on one side of the same bench he sat on as he kept shoveling the welcome food into his mouth.

“I am from a small village east of Bremerlehe. My family collects the night soil and delivers it to the tannery there. I was taking a wagon load to the Bremerlehe tannery.” Liesel’s face passed across his closed eyes. “My sister, my father . . . I have to get home to let them know I am alive. I have to find Japik, my friend . . .”

Marieke sat quiet for a minute. Then she said, “I’ve never met a night soil carrier before. Or a tanner, or any of those other occupations.”

“And you, Miss?” Hans was suddenly much more formal. “From what family do you come?”

“My father was the Prince-Bishop’s senior administrator,” Marieke said. She paused. “Of course, he works for Prince Frederick of Denmark, now.” Her explanation flowed off her tongue the same way he would have said he had a little sister.

“I do not mean to be rude, but what are you doing at the Freedom Arches?” Hans was stunned. This girl was as close to a princess as he’d likely ever meet. She wore a bodice embroidered with dark blue cotton thread instead of gold or silver but she did not need that to be a princess, at least to Hans. Marieke was beautiful beyond the stories he read or told his little Liesel. And she seemed to like him! Der Herr Gott!

Marieke gathered her thoughts and straightened her light yellow skirt, smoothing it out nervously as she stuck her chin out.

“I believe that the USE will change the class structure in Germany,” she said, almost in a singsong. “There should be no nobles, no commons, and no proscribed occupations! The Committees of Correspondence are at the forefront of this struggle!” She sounded like she was parroting some of the things she had heard and read.

“What do you mean?” Hans had heard of the USE but nothing of any such changes in society.

“You will see later. The local CoC will be at dinner, and they can answer your questions.  Ever since the royals started to clamp down on the commoners, things are in flux.”

“And what does your father think?” Hans asked.

“He thinks I am a silly girl with no understanding of what is actually going on,” she said, frowning. “But with the political situation since William Wettin is almost certain to become prime minister, I think I understand all too well. The nobles and burgher classes must be let down easy, as the lower classes rise. Or there will be much violence and many deaths.” Her face grew very serious, and her frown deepened. “It may well be worse than the Bundschuh and the Bauernkrieg were.”

Hans took a bite of sausage, and thought about what she had said. “And the Committees of Correspondence will have what role in this?” he asked.

“We are teaching political understanding to the people. We are also teaching things like saving and budgeting money, and sanitation, so they get something useful as they listen to us. There was an up-timer called Bertold Brecht who lived . . . would have lived . . . in Germany in the 1920s. He said, ‘Erst komm das Fressen, dann komm die Moral!’ ”

Hans and Marieke shared a laugh over that. “First you must feed us, then you can preach to us!”

“And so the Freedom Arches, and our life skills teaching,” she said.

Then she gathered herself and briskly said, “You will see our doctor today, and she will decide how long your arm needs to be bound and how bad your broken leg is. None of your other injuries are serious enough to matter, so you will be able to resume most of your normal activities.”

“Let’s talk more about this later. You have only recently come up off your sick bed.”  Marieke changed the subject. “Can you read?”

“Yes, well enough to read my Bible and a news sheet,” Hans replied.

“Then you might well use the library here at the Arches while you heal.”

She stood, and put her hand on his shoulder. “Please take care of yourself. You are one of the few we have found alive.”

He stood, with respect, as she left the room. He hopped along the wall as he took his now empty plate back to the kitchen, and was told that with only one arm useful and a splinted leg, the dish would be washed for him. “But don’t get the idea that we are servants,” the crusty woman who seemed to be kitchen boss said. “If you hang around here, you will do your turn as a washer of dishes.”

“Yes, Frau . . . I am sorry, but I do not know your name.”

“Schultz,” she said, wiping her hands on her apron. She was small and wizened, with a widow’s hump, but looked as solid as a boulder. “The midday meal is in two hours. Don’t be late or you won’t get fed.”

“Yes, Frau Schultz.”

“Now scat!”

He was alive. And as soon as he was able, he would find Beatrix and Japik and return home to make sure Liesel and Papa were all right. But for now he returned to his little alcove. He was exhausted, he hurt. It was quiet around him, so Hans lay down on his thin pallet and gave himself back to sleep.


A Week Later

Hans stood in the library of the Freedom Arches, looking at the bookshelves and all the books sitting on them. He had never seen that many books before. He moved closer, so he could look at the titles. At the bottom of each book’s spine was a tag with a number. He pulled a book out at random and looked at the tag. It read, “943.01 Geschischte von Deutschland.” He wondered what Deutschland was. Maybe it was a new word from up-time. It seemed to mean “land of the Germans,” but which land?

On the wall near the bookshelves, he saw a poster with a list of the numbers and what they meant, headed, “The Dewey Decimal Classification System for Libraries.”

He saw with interest that there was a whole section in the chart on engineering . . . Section 620, and that there was a special section on “Sanitary Engineering—Section 628.”  He remembered all his daydreams of working with the Committees of Correspondence on sanitation. So he went to the 600 section, and started looking for books.

Almost immediately, he found one that he grabbed and took to the big table in the center of the library. There were reading carrels on the table, and chairs in front of each one. He sat down, and opened the book. It was called, Die Wissenschaft vom Wasser: Konzepte und Anwendungen. According to one of the inside pages, it was published in German by the CoC in Magdeburg in 1634, from an up-timer book called The Science of Water: Concepts and Applications, by Frank R. Spellman, which had been published in 1998 up-time.

Excitedly, he began to turn the pages. As he did so, though, he became more and more frustrated. “Lieve God in de hemel!” Hans swore in his dialect. “Dear God in Heaven!”

“What is the matter?” It was Marieke. She’d come in quietly, while he wasn’t paying attention.

“I need this book! I need to read this book!” Hans shouted at her, and banged the book on the table. “This book will tell me how to be an expert on sanitary for the CoC.”

“I think you mean ‘sanitation’,” she said,  “but I think I understand.”

“I cannot read it. It is in German, not Frisian, and I can’t read all that well anyway.”

“May I see it?” Marieke said, holding out her hand.

Wordlessly, Hans handed her the book.

Marieke sank down into a chair and opened the book. After a moment, Hans sat in the other chair next to her. The chairs were padded and comfortable, so that reading in them would be easy.

“To the Reader,” she slowly read in German, looking at Hans to see if he understood. Hans nodded. “In reading this text, you are going to spend some time following a drop of water on its travels. When you dip a finger in a basin of water and lift it up again, you bring with it a small glistening drop out of the water below and hold it before you. Do you have any idea where this drop has been? What changes it has undergone, during all the long ages water has lain on and under the face of the Earth?”

“I . . . can you read me more of it, and help me learn to read German?” Hans asked, somewhat diffidently.

“Yes,” Marieke said. “But we should go eat our midday meal now. Or Frau Schultz will be annoyed. You do not want to make Frau Schultz annoyed.” She grinned at Hans.

“No, I don’t guess I do.” Hans grinned back. He took her hand as they walked toward the kitchen. She didn’t pull it away until they got to the kitchen doorway.


The splint on his arm came off a couple of days later.

“You must carefully build up your strength in the arm again,” the doctor said, manipulating it through its range of motion. “Or you won’t be able to use it. You broke it pretty badly.”

Hans winced as the doctor moved his arm, but it definitely hurt less, and it was straight, too. He had gotten off lucky. His leg was still strapped together, and the doctor told him it would be several weeks yet before he could get around easily.

Frau Schultz had him washing dishes immediately, and eventually he graduated to heavier tasks like carrying wood for the huge bake oven and cooking fireplace.  Frau Schultz had just received some plans for an up-timer innovation called a “stove,” but she didn’t have enough money to order it from the catalog. So every spare pfennig went into a big ceramic pickle jar that had the word “stove” painted on it.

Every afternoon, Marieke read to him out of the book.  Soon they were sitting close together on the bench under the library window, and he was following her reading by putting his finger on each word as she read it.

It felt very nice to be this close to Marieke, Hans thought, and it seemed to him that she didn’t mind it either.

As the days went by, Hans began to read the book aloud to Marieke. She seemed to be very interested in what was a really technical subject.

They took a break every so often from Die Wissenschaft vom Wasser and read from books that Marieke liked. She really liked an up-timer author named Jane Austen. They read Pride and Prejudice because it had been serialized in the newspaper, and the library had almost all of the chapters.


Two Weeks Later

Marieke rushed into the library with a stack of newspapers in her arms and collided head on with Hans. They both fell to the floor, Hans’s weak leg giving way, he landed with Marieke on top of him. Their eyes locked, and suddenly, she kissed him. The kiss lasted for quite a while. Finally, she broke away, and sat up, surrounded by newspapers. “I have wanted to do that for a long time,” she said, a little defiantly.

Hans lay there stupefied. He’d been having those dreams about Marieke, and suddenly, it looked like they might come true. He took a sharp breath.

“Marieke, we can’t do this. I am a night soil collector. I am proscribed. You are nearly noble!”

“You were a night soil collector. Now you are studying sanitary engineering. That’s different,” she said. “And besides, nobody saw us. Nobody is here. Kiss me again.”


The afternoon study sessions continued, but now they were study-and-kissing sessions. Marieke encouraged Hans to study harder.

“You must rise above being a night soil collector,” she said. “If you are an engineer, that is not a proscribed occupation.  If you become wealthy, you could become a burgher. Maybe even here in Bremen.”

Hans held her close, and said, lightly, in case of rejection, “And if I did, what would you do?”

“Why, I’d marry you, you silly!”

They kissed to seal the bargain.


Late November, 1634

Hans was eating when Marieke arrived. Marieke looked down at his leg, now freed of its splints. “Do you need crutches still?”

“No, but the nurse said to ask her for a pair if I am going to be going far. I haven’t needed them so I did not ask. Do I need to get a pair now?”

“Yes, it is time to look for your Beatrix. The rescue barn is not a far walk but it is too far for you to hop on one foot.”

“I can walk now!” Hans was mock offended. “I won’t have to hop!”  Marieke ignored him, loftily.

“Well, you’ll need crutches to get there and back.” She glanced out the open window at the cloudless, sunny day. “I’ll find you a pair.” Marieke rose and headed swiftly in the direction of the medical station.

Hans finished his meal and was considering returning for more when Marieke strode up with a new pair of wooden crutches in her hands. “Now, see how these work. I think I guessed your height correctly.” She handed the crutches to Hans and sat down on a bench next to him. Close enough that Hans noticed how her braided blonde hair lay gently down her back, just like Liesel’s. Was his little princess all right? What about his Papa? He must find out soon.

“Hans, Hans, are you well?” Hans’s mind had wandered, and Marieke was shaking his unharmed shoulder with one porcelain-delicate hand. “Hans, can you hear me? Can I get you something? A nurse?” Worry shone from her delft blue eyes and creased her angelic features. Hans wanted to reach out, hug her, and tell her not to worry. Instead, he drew himself up and away from stepping across that in-public forbidden line. He could never touch her in that way, not where people could see them. She was a princess and he, he was a night soil driver. No! He was not a night soil man. By der Herr Gott, he was a sanitary engineer!

Hans shook himself and Marieke stepped away from him. He stood up using the crutches. “Now, where is the rescue barn? I would like to look for Beatrix. She must wonder where I am.”

Marieke smiled shyly. “Then let us be off!”

The two slowly made their way to the rescue barn, which was outside the city walls, about a mile down the road from the Freedom Arches. The sunny day turned warm, making both young people sweat and wipe their foreheads. Hans had to work hard to stay upright with the crutches, and they had to stop several times to rest. Marieke tried to help Hans, but he was uncomfortable when she touched him. They could be seen! He was so drawn to her, both her physical beauty and her gracious manner, but he knew she was out of his reach. It was all well and good to dream of princesses, and have a few kisses maybe, but regardless of what Marieke thought, it was dangerous for him. If her family found out what they’d been doing in the library . . . well, that could get him killed or worse. No, he must keep his distance . . . at least in public.

Hans knew they were reaching the rescue barn because he heard a cacophony of animal sounds. Then he smelled the barnyard before he actually saw it. Horses, cows, goats, sheep, even dogs and cats milled around the fenced area. Chickens and geese pecked the ground in a separate enclosure, safe from marauding animals. Hundreds of lost animals nibbled at the straw and various feeds strewn around the enclosures. How would he ever find his Beatrix in all this?

“Do you see her?” Marieke stood back from the milling animals and their feces.

“Not right away but let me look around.” Hans hopped up on one end of the fencing. He cupped his hands in front of his mouth and let out a huge cry, “Beatrix! Beate, Beate, Beatrix! Come here.”

He stood still a few minutes waiting, despair threatening to overwhelm him. Beatrix had been with him all his life. She was the only family he had here. Oh please, let Beatrix be here. His thoughts darkened with every passing moment. He called again, and again.

Hans had almost turned to start back toward Marieke when he noticed there was a small commotion toward the center of the field. Several horses and cows were vocalizing their complaints as dust rose off the dry straw. Something was making them move! Then he saw her! Hans saw his black-and-white Beatrix push between another draft horse and a smaller saddle horse. She nudged them aside and cantered to him. She was alive and here! Maybe life would be good after all. If she had made it maybe everyone else he cared about had too.

When Beatrix reached the fence, Hans and Marieke opened the gate, he threw a rope bridle over her head and led her out as Marieke closed the gate behind her. Then Hans gave Beatrix the biggest hug he could manage. Tears rolled down his face. He knew it was not manly but, God’s eternal love, this was Beatrix! He didn’t care.

Marieke stood petting Beatrix’s neck and smiling a distinctly unladylike smile. She didn’t care either. She was thrilled to share Hans’s happiness.

Even the sun seemed to shine more brightly as the happy trio made their way back to the Freedom Arches.

Being on crutches, Hans could not ride Beatrix so he and Marieke walked her back to the Freedom Arches and found her a place in the barn nearby. He had a little money from his dishwashing and other service at the Arches.


At least several times a day he wondered about Liesel, his Papa, and Japik. Hans still had not seen Japik and with no way to look for his boyhood friend, Hans had begun to despair of ever seeing him again. Marieke was waiting for him in the library when he came back from the place where refugees from the Great Drowning were being housed.

He looked down at the floor, not at Marieke. “Nobody has seen my friend Japik. Nobody has come in from my village at all!”

She leaped up and ran to hug him. He burst into tears, and held on to her as he cried himself out.

“I still must go there . . . to the village,” Hans said, his voice muffled because he still had his face buried in her shoulder.

“Yes, I know. I wish I could come with you.”

“I know you cannot.”


Early the next morning, Hans walked down to the stable where Beatrix was. It was a large building, housing many horses and even some donkeys. He told the stable hand he was taking Beatrix out for a ride and might be gone a day. He put her tack on her and led her out of the stable. He’d tied a bag to her harness, and he shinnied up on her back. He didn’t have a saddle, but the tack was easy enough to ride—after all he’d been doing it for years.

Hans patted her on the neck. “Let’s go, Beate, let’s go see if we can find them.”

He headed out of Bremen toward the northeast. By about noon, he had found what remained of the high dike road he’d taken on the way to Bremerlehe. It was in ruins, with big hunks of dike just missing. He stopped to eat about noon, and fed Beatrix some oats. There was nobody on the road—nobody. It was like he was going to the moon. The storm wrack and ruin was everywhere. He saw broken boats, five miles from the sea.

He got back up on Beatrix and headed toward the village, riding beside the dike road, not on it. The village had been built on the raised dike, with a main street and houses on both sides. Their house was at the end of the village. He got where he thought it was, and found a mud-filled foundation, and nothing else. He sat there for quite some time, staring at the hole in the ground where his family’s house had been. There were no other houses, either. The entire village had been washed away. There were no signs of people. Liesel and his Papa were just—gone.

Eventually, he turned Beatrix around, and began to slowly ride back to Bremen. When he got to the stable, he took the blanket and tack off of Beatrix, and put her in her stall, with oats and hay. He gave her a good rubdown, put her blanket back on her, and slowly walked back to the Freedom Arches. The two yellow humps on the sign welcomed him back. It was like the CoC was his only family now.

The common room at the front of the Arches fell silent as they watched him walk inside. He caught Frau Schultz’s eye and slowly shook his head. “I have had a very long day, and I think I will go to bed now,” he said. The room continued to be silent as he went to his pallet in one of the alcoves in the back.

“Water washed away my whole life,” he said aloud. “I must learn how to control water. As the book says, I must learn water’s journey, and become a master of water. This Great Drowning must never happen again.”

In the morning, he discussed his new determination to be an engineer with Marieke.

“See,” she said, “If you become an engineer, you will not be in a proscribed occupation. If you are a good engineer, you can become wealthy.”

“Yes, and we can be wed,” Hans said, as he kissed her.


Christmas Eve, 1634

Hans joined Marieke and the others at the huge dining area that served the CoC and those recuperating from the wave. The sun had just set when several hundred people found their seats at the wooden tables set end to end. Hans could hear numerous accents in the hall around him. At one end of the room, the cooking crew had set up a long table set with large salvers filled with marvelous smelling food.

TNSK-cndlHans had never seen anything like it. Off-white beeswax candles sat on every table, throwing off warm light. He followed Marieke to a table holding a stack of wooden plates and metal forks. He picked up one of each and proceeded to fill his plate with roasted chicken, boiled turnips, honeyed carrots, and fresh rye bread. There was even butter and honey for the bread! He had never seen so much food in one place!

He and Marieke found seats at a bench and table with some people who obviously knew Marieke. She introduced him to their table mates. “This is Hans. He was injured in the great wave. He’s not from here. Hans, this is Max, and this is Heidi.”

Max was a slightly older man, maybe in his late twenties, and dressed in leather breeches with a long brown woolen vest over a dark orange linen shirt. Heidi had golden brown hair piled on top of her head in a braided crown, was about the same age as Max, and slightly plump but pleasantly attractive. Her embroidered blue bodice was well worn but still presentable. She had a knitted shawl in shades of blue thrown over her shoulders against the chilly fall evening.

All four, even the women, fell to their plates with hearty appetites. Marieke even went back for more bread and shared it with Hans.

During the dinner, Hans watched the people around him talking and eating. No one seemed to know that they should not be talking with him. They engaged him in the same kind of small talk they shared with each other. Did they not know he was a night soil driver? Maybe they did not know because he did not smell like night soil right now. But what would they do when they found out? He quietly ate the delicious dinner and listened to Max, Heidi, and Marieke talk about world politics, something they seemed quite interested in.

“So Hans, Marieke says you come from an unusual background. What is that?” Heidi unwittingly asked the one question Hans had hoped to avoid.

Marieke jumped in to change the subject as Hans fiddled nervously with the blue and white cotton napkin in his lap. “Hans is interested in hearing about the changing political scene. Max, can you talk about why things are changing between the nobles and the commons?”

Hans breathed a sigh of relief and smiled gratefully at Marieke. “Yes, please. We don’t hear much in our small village.”

Heidi picked up hers and Max’s empty plates and took them to the cleaning area while Max got a little more comfortable, preparing to address a topic he obviously appreciated. “Hans, I don’t know how much you have heard so I may tell you more than you want to know. Please have patience with me.” Max smiled and jumped into his monologue.

“There have been some changes among the nobles as they try to come to terms with the up-timers and the USE. Several nobles have given up their duchies or traditional fiefdoms and have tried to reach a compromise between the nobles maintaining their powers and the commoners who feel it is time to have democracies, like the up-timers have talked about. The problem is that some of the nobles do not want to let the times change and let commoners have more say in their lives. This is where the CoC enters the field.”
Heidi rejoined the group, sitting next to Max in a very comfortable way. It was obvious by the arm he put around her ample waist that they were more than just dinner mates. Heidi smiled at him, a shared moment between the two.

“The CoC is based upon an organization that the up-timers say made their own revolution possible,” Max continued. “They were the agents of change in the American Revolution, and we are the agents of change in this one.”

“How can the CoC change things when everyone has to live within the boundaries of their class?” After everything that had happened, Hans still could not believe that there was real hope he could escape the scheisswagen.

Heidi spoke up. “We help commoners like us understand how things can change and how to live in the changed world.”

Hans noticed that Marieke had moved a little closer to him. “How do you do that?”

Heidi continued, warming to her topic. “We are teaching political understanding to the people. They need to understand that they are every bit the equals of the Adel. So, we show them equality, just like the up-timers. We are also teaching them things like finance, English if they want to learn it,  and sanitation. It may be that there is no more useful thing we teach them than how to improve sanitary conditions. The up-timers say that most disease can be prevented by simply washing your hands with soap. But we have to give them value. There was an uptimer called Bertold Brecht who said, ‘Erst komm das Fressen, dann komm die Moral!'”
Hans and Marieke shared a laugh over that. “First you must feed us, and then you can preach to us! Yes, we have heard it before,” Marieke said.

Hans nodded, trying hard not to notice that his hand was but a few inches from Marieke’s porcelain one.
They grew quiet, then Max spoke up. “Some of the nobles are trying, as the up-timers say, to turn back the clock. But many commoners are already rising up and demanding new rights. They will not settle for half measures. Unfortunately, there are some nobles who refuse to accept the inevitable.”

Hans shivered. “What does that mean for us, for our families?”

Max and Heidi glanced at each other and he took her hand, squeezing it comfortingly. “I hope, we hope, it can be a peaceful change but that is not guaranteed. Some of us have spent time in the great library in Grantville studying the up-timer histories of their revolutions. Few remain peaceful because those who have power often cling to it like a man hanging from a thin root off a mountain. I do not know.”

“Things will change, no matter who wants them to remain the same.” Marieke’s sweet visage took on too grim a cast for one so young.

The quartet set silently for a moment until Max and Heidi stood up. “It was a long day and another tomorrow. We should be to bed. Our dinner company has been quite pleasant. I look forward to another conversation tomorrow evening.” Max pushed his bench under the table, took Heidi’s hand and walked to the door. Marieke hugged Heidi before she left and made her own good evenings.


Hans was in the library. It was after church on Christmas Day. Sanitary engineering, could he do this? Would they let the son of a night soil driver become something as important as an engineer? He remembered all his daydreams of working beyond his caste. Were Max and Heidi really right that commoners could be something better? Could he ever become worthy of Marieke? Could he wash away the night soil taint and be someone important?

If Max and Heidi were correct, Hans could be something more.  He could try. Maybe he could not rescue a princess from a dragon but maybe he could rise by becoming an engineer. Maybe he could prove himself to Papa, even though his Papa was surely dead.

The next few weeks seemed to be a dream to Hans. His body healed as he spent hours listening to Marieke read from the engineering book and learning German. He made a point of visiting with Beatrix every day and giving her fresh feed and brushing her coat. Often, Marieke went with him and Beatrix would let her pet her nose and brush her mane.

But Marieke was there as much as possible. She had some duties at the Arches that took her away for a few hours most days. When she could be with Hans, she made a point of being with him.


Late January, 1635

Marieke stood, shaking with anger in front of her father. He had grabbed her by the arm and marched her into his office and slammed the door shut.

“What is this I hear that you are making free with a pig of a night soil collector? Do you know what this is going to do to your family’s status in this city?” He took her by the shoulders and shook her. “How could you do this to us?” Her head bobbled back and forth from the severity of her father’s shaking. “Are you pregnant?”

“No! We are not lovers.” Marieke paused, then she raised her head high and spat out, “Yet.”

“I forbid you to see him ever again,” Marieke’s father roared. “I forbid you to go to the Freedom Arches. I do not care if you say they do good works there. They are a nest of vipers, and soon, the Crown Loyalists will have them where they belong—in jail! I don’t want you involved in that mess anymore. Do. You. Hear. Me?” The periods after each word were plainly audible.

Somehow, she tore herself free from her father’s grasp and ran from the room. Marieke hid until the pursuit died away, and then she slipped out of the house by the back door, and made her way to the Freedom Arches and went to the door to the kitchen.

Frau Schultz surprised her by refusing to let her in. “You can’t come in, Marieke. Your father has made it plain that he will hurt us badly if we let you in here.” The old woman shook her head. “I know this is bad, but, child, we cannot afford to have what we do disrupted because of you and your love affair.”

“My love affair!” Marieke began to wind herself up into a genuine fury.

“Stop this at once,” Frau Schultz commanded.  “Go home. In a few days, your father will have calmed down, and you can come back.”

“But, Hans . . .” Marieke stood there, tears streaking down her cheeks, staring at the iron expression on the old woman’s face.

“You leave Hans to me.” The old woman smiled, and as she closed the door in Marieke’s face, she said quietly, “This is not the end. You will see him again, I am sure.”


Hans went to see Frau Schultz. “I know what happened with Marieke. I must leave here.”

“Yes, you should. Or you will be harmed or killed,” the feisty old lady replied. “Do you have any money?”

“I have a few coppers and my horse.”

“Without more money than that, you are going to have to sell your horse.”

“I…I know, but du lieber Gott!, it is so hard. She is all I have left from . . . before.”

The old woman looked at him for a long time. “Then you have nowhere to go but the future, Hans.”

“Do you know someone who will buy Beatrix and treat her well?”

“Yes, I think we can arrange that for you. Be at the stable in the morning.”


He combed and brushed Beatrix out for the last time. He tied a nice ribbon in her tail, and buffed her tack until the leather and brass shone. The stable master himself came into the stall. He held out a leather purse that clinked.

“Frisian draft horses sell well, because of the flood, young Hans. We were able to get you a good price. It should get you to Magdeburg and give you some living money while you study.”

Hans was surprised. “I didn’t know that you knew me at all, sir.”

“We all know you, Hans. Good luck to you.”

Hans threw his arms around Beatrix’s neck and hugged her for the last time. He fought back salty tears that threatened to escape his eyelids. He put the purse inside his shirt, and walked away, not looking back. “I have ‘nowhere to go but the future,’ now.”


The hour was very late. The night was moonless, and the streets were dark. Most of the lanterns in front of people’s houses had been put out hours ago.  A shadow crept from one house to another, quietly, slowly making his way to the house where Marieke lived.  Hans found a window ajar, and quietly clambered through it. By trial and error, and luckily not waking anyone, he found Marieke’s room.


“Ssh! It’s me.”

“So it is,” Marieke said, raising her arms to him. He came to her, and lay with her on her bed. Some time passed, pleasurably.

“I know you must leave Bremen,” she said. “If you don’t, my father will have you killed. And you need to go to Magdeburg to study.”

“Yes, I am leaving day after tomorrow. I just came to tell you I love you, and to say goodbye.”

There was more silence, and then shortly before dawn, Hans slipped out of her bed, out of her house, and back to the Freedom Arches.


“And so, Frau Schultz, I will be leaving in the morning,” Hans said to the old woman in the kitchen of the Freedom Arches.

“Yes, of course, you must go quickly. I will pack you some things to take with you, my boy,” the old woman wiped her hands on her apron, and put her hands on his shoulders. “You will do well as an engineer,” she said. “Do not give up. Never give up.”

“I will not,” he said.

“I will also give you a letter to the other Committees of Correspondence,” Frau Schultz said. “There will always be a place found for you.”

Hans nodded his head, but could say nothing.

“Now, go, pack. You should be gone by daybreak.”


The blows came slowly, measured, to his midsection, and each one accompanied by a single word. A blinding light obscured the room and whoever was throwing the punches.

Thwap! “You…”

Bap! “will…”

Thwap! “stay…”

Bap! “away…”

Thwap! “from…”

Thwap! “her!”

Thwap! “Shit-boy!”

He felt himself picked up and shaken hard. Whoever this was, he was huge and strong. Strong enough to really hurt, but the blows had been pulled, at least a little. He was hurt, yes, but no broken ribs, nothing really messed up inside. So far.

“Do you understand me?” There was an educated overlay on top of the Frisian accent. “Leave her alone!”

He nodded and turned his head to the side, squinting, trying to avoid the bright light. It must be one of those flashlight things that the up-timers had.

A huge open hand slapped him on the side of his face. “Do you understand me? Leave my sister alone. She is not for the likes of you, Shit-boy! Do you understand? She will never be for a night soil collector like you!”

Ja, verstehe Ich.”

“Good.” The man picked him up and flopped him on the floor near the chamber pot. Hans tried to move, but only groaned.

The light was turned off, and in the sudden darkness, the huge man turned and left the room without another word or a backward look. Taking deep breaths, Hans smelled the shit in the chamberpot and moaned softly, but as he lay on his back, his arms curled protectively over his belly, he refused to let the tears come. It was ironic, he thought, that he was already going to leave in the morning anyway.


Hans, aching and still holding his gut, headed out of the city of Bremen and headed south toward Magdeburg. He couldn’t afford to take a stage, and there was still no railroad from Magdeburg to Bremen. In his backpack was the book. He hadn’t seen it there until after he’d left the city. He stopped, unsure what to do. He hadn’t intended to steal the book. He noticed that there was a note in it. “This is for you, Hans. We have been watching you with great hope for your future. Use it well. Frau Schultz, chair, Bremen Committee of Correspondence.”

Hans put the book back in his pack, and pulled the pack on. He straightened and headed south.

“I may be a night soil collector,” he said out loud, “but if I can make a future as a sanitary engineer, I will be, by the grace of God, the Night Soil King!”


The first night, he stopped at a camping ground outside of Achim.  It was a kind of weed-filled field with just a few trees down by the banks of the Weser River. Hans arrived a little before sunset, and made a sort of camp with his few possessions. The others in the camp acknowledged him with everything from a few grunts to hellos. Most of the men in the camp appeared to be workers of some kind.

One of the men invited him to share their campfire. Hans donated a turnip and the heel of a loaf of bread to the meal being prepared in a large kettle on the fire. He peeled the turnip, and cut it into pieces, and added it into the pot.

“Where are you coming from, and where bound?” one of the men asked Hans. “My name is Albrecht, and my friends here are Georg, Hans, Willi, and Freddi.”

“Hans,” he said, gesturing to his chest, and abandoning the diminutive he’d been called all his life. “Ich komme aus Bremen. I am on the way to Magdeburg to learn to be a sanitary engineer.”

“A sanitary engineer? What’s that?” the other Hans asked.

“Somebody who can build the works needed to treat water and sewage and make them clean again.” Hans was proud of what he wanted to be his new career.

“And you think you have to go to Magdeburg to learn this?”

“It is the new capital, so I suppose it would be where I should go,” Hans said.

“Everybody wants to go to Magdeburg,” Willi said, slapping his thigh. “But we don’t.”

“Why not?”

Freddi and Hans spoke at once jumbling their words together.  They stopped, and then Freddi started up again. “Because we are going to Denmark!”

“And why is that?”

“Because we are going to work on the rebuilding of the dikes after the big storm. The king and his engineer are hiring everyone who can work,” Albrecht said.

“His engineer, you say?” Hans’s attention sharpened.

TNSK-fld2“Ja. The man’s name is Leeghwasser. He is a Dutchie. They say he and his son were the only survivors of a whole town after the Great Flood. The king has put him in charge of rebuilding the dikes, and at least some of the towns where there are still people,” Albrecht said.

“I wonder if he knows any sanitary engineering,” Hans mused.

“I dunno,” Willi said, “but he is said to be paying well for good workers.” He opened his arms wide, indicating his four friends. “That’s us! We are good workers, and we will make lots of money working on the dikes.”

Hans spent the evening talking with his new acquaintances. As the stars came out, the yawning began. One by one, the men bedded down by the fire. Hansel did as well, and fell asleep thinking of Marieke, and wondering what her family had done to her.


Shortly after sunrise, the men woke, and after going down to the river to wash, finished off the turnip stew from the last evening.

“You are welcome to come with us, Hans,” Albrecht said, as he shook hands with the young man.

Hans sat on his pack as he watched his four new friends head north.

“Wait!” he called. “I think I will come with you. I want to meet Leeghwasser and see what I can learn.”

Now numbering five, the small company began to walk north, toward Denmark.


When she thought nobody was looking, Marieke would get a faraway look in her eyes, and tears would trickle down her cheeks. Outwardly, she decided, she’d be a model daughter. But inside, she raged against the injustice that had forced Hans to flee, and that had gotten him a beating from her brother. Oh, how he had gloated to her the next day, until her father had heard and made him stop.

She sat in her late mother’s sewing room, reading and thinking. The room had been designed for working, so the windows were large, and of the clearest glass her father could afford. Her chair was a wooden rocker, and she rocked back and forth, back and forth, as if she could rock her way back to Hans.

Even though she wasn’t supposed to go to the Freedom Arches, Frau Schultz kept her supplied with translations of up-time works on politics and economics. She even started reading a book by an up-time German named Karl Marx, called Das Kapital. His explanation of how business and culture worked fascinated her.  Frau Schultz had written her that the CoC study group was nearly finished with the up-timer Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense.  She said they’d be starting on Marx next.

Marieke dreamed of a time when people such as she and Hans could simply marry for love. But it was obvious that there would need to be a revolution to make that time happen. Fine. Then there would be a revolution.