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An Excerpt from The Orgy

 

A storm of smell came down and smote the face, the whole body, entered the clothes, the ears, the sleeves, invaded. From the bridge itself, up the hill, the whole town, streets, sidewalks, all, was covered and painted with manure of cattle. It lay fresh beneath our feet, trampled out by hoofs and boots, a rich shine under the rain; as far as the road rose before us, up to the tower now glistening blue in the wet morning.

The speakers were turned off. The sound that buzzed and increased and fused with the smell, that sound was of bursts of shouting and curses, long harangues of refusals. The sound of bargaining, a beating noise of demand and counter-demand. The cattle fair had begun before dawn, and was going full blast; spread slippery under all, stable-muck laid on thick, and shining. Cattle-filth up the whole length of the slippery hill, not only underfoot where it was visible, but up the whole height of the air. It was palpable; it was what we breathed; it was the air; it was time and the present.

A moment of quiet, as if a conversation between giants had paused. Near us, as we put our feet down slowly, not to slip, please not to slip, near us the certain and lovely sound of a violin. A man was playing in the middle of the street. Somehow the black cattle parted for him, as he climbed the hill making music. He walked with his jaw down on the instrument, his eyes shut, walking slowly, playing a fine thread of structured music, sure notes passing up and down the rungs of form. He walked with his violin and his hypnotized look, the shit spattering out as his feet came down. Behind him his companion, with a shock of hair standing straight up and the drops of dew balanced on his head. The companion held out his cap; he was necessary to the music, a part of it, not making music but making their presence possible. He followed behind, with spatters up to the knees of his trousers; the man ahead playing and playing; now it was not so much form, nor notes passing; squeaky and comforting the strange sounds went by. It was a fiddle, not a violin, a homemade instrument with well-carved vents and a straight body, no slowly molded and Italian shape. The musician carried a cigarette between the first and second fingers of his bow hand; his collar was open, and his lapel was dog-eared and furred with mist.

The music went up the hill, clear, soprano; and the muck spurted out under the fiddler’s boot. Up he went. I gave him a coin with a salmon on it. Up, he lost himself in the crowd beneath the tower. High up there in the blue-and-white square of lines and the flags, there is the white Puck, an effigy blurred by mist, ankle-deep in his food.

Now the shouting came up again and swallowed the music. The man beating the cattle with his stick, whacking it down hard on a hipbone. “I’ll turn yer cap around and turn it back for ye! Fifty pound for a three-year bullock, yer stone mad.” They were at each other’s throats. The third man, the middle man of these bargaining, came out from among the men watching, spat, volunteered his services as agent, waded in and broke them apart, and the process of the deal went on. “Eighty!” the first yelled. “I’ll have eighty!” and the other raised his stick in rage.

My friends were walking ahead of me. It was too slick, and I lacked confidence; I planted one foot before another, and felt the clench of my teeth. One foot slipped, cutting a stroke like a child’s finger painting. Another wave of stench met us; it was real and brown, a sonority of booming smell. Suddenly the entire feeling of the scene changed with that reinforcement of the smell. The hill, the town, became so intensely what it was — a cattle market that was one root of the Fair, without which there would be no Fair — that the black cows and bulls, the unshipped, plastered, overspread excrement became itself: part of whatever was unfolding, part of whatever was being bargained for. It may have been the man in the cap walking with the inexorable musician that said it to me first. The money walking behind the music, the listeners able to deal with the man walking behind the fiddler, a tinker who had made his own instrument and his own music.

The place changed. It was producing a smell that was not only bearable, but right, appropriate. Ah, but the slippery, treacherous, sliding hill of it. That threatened me. At this moment I knew that my knees had been shaking for some time. My feet refused the move. I had done this before, once over air high up in the bleachers of a ball park; once on Baldface, far up the granite wall, with Emerald Pool lying below and hidden, my green and secret rushing cleanly water; once in Spain, when the firing began again, in Catalonia, the first night of the war.

Nicholas was speaking to me. “Do you want to buy a pair of Wellingtons?” But I could see at the street corner a girl in delicate shoes with high and lovely heels, stepping among the dung, picking her way, seeming to choose among many subtle possibilities.

I shook my head. I could walk now. [pp. 60–63]