Apparently Nub had, at some point, buried a cow horn full of shit somewhere on the school grounds. Months had passed, the seasons had turned, and it being the spring equinox the horn had to be dug up and the contents ritually diluted in a copper vessel. Today.
The problem was that he couldn’t remember exactly where he had buried it.
What had started as a warm and serenely pompous morning had by lunchtime become a sweaty and somewhat fraught mutilation of a perfectly good orchard. There was a horn of shit in here somewhere and damned if we were going to let it go to waste. The lemons, said Nub, would be rejuvenated by the mixture anyway.
The excavation continued through our lunch hour and into the afternoon. Eventually someone improvised dowsing rods out of a couple of tent pegs and used them to locate the horn on the far side of the first tree we had violated. No I’m serious, that actually happened.
A vast, dented copper pot was produced from somewhere. Bulbous and thin-lipped, lichen-patched with verdigris, this was clearly a pot that had already seen some shit.
The horn was quite large and when emptied into the pot seemed to contain something like very good soil rather than the sloppy black awful I had expected. There was some argument over how much there was. Resolving this involved calculating the volume of a cone while accounting for curvature. Topography not being Nub’s strong suit, it was eventually decided that near enough was good enough and two children carried the pot to the rain barrel at the end of the string of classrooms.
I had been wondering why he hadn’t just measured the shit right out of the horn but this became clear when I discovered that the only vessel of known volume in the school was a one-litre electric kettle. This was then used to dip 31 litres of water out of the rain barrel into the pot.
By now the afternoon was getting on. The preparation was finally ready to stir at 2:45pm. It was supposed to be stirred for an hour. School ended at 3:00.
Everyone was expected to take part. It was very strongly suggested that those of us who were going to catch the bus home stay behind and do our bit. It was always best to heed that sort of suggestion as the consequences of deciding not to could be unpredictable.
Children with incoming parents were told to begin the stirring as they wouldn’t have long. Two at a time were given wooden paddles and directed to stir the dirty water until there was enough of a vortex in the pot that they could see the bottom. Then they were to reverse direction, thrashing the water into a foam.
The second part of this was the hard one.
Creating the vortex was straightforward, just like walking laps in a circular above-ground pool. It got easier as you went. The point of it in a pool was to create a current that would then swing you around the pool like a roundabout. Stirring Preparation 500 properly meant changing direction mid-stream. Easier said than done when you’re eleven years old and have wrists like chicken legs.
My turn in this as in everything came towards the end. My opposite number was Bug, who was tall and thin with long slender hands that could have served him well as a pianist had he not been utterly incurious and as dumb as a brick. When it came time to reverse flow I planted the end of the paddle on the floor of the pot and held on with all the strength my puny arms could muster.
Bug just let go. His paddle vanished into the murk, clunking against mine as it travelled. “Shit!” said Bug. “Language!” said Nub and thrust his hand forearm-deep into the brown. He handed the the now befouled paddle back to Bug, who took it gingerly and helped me get another vortex going in the opposite direction.
Hauling the now very heavy pot to the top of the orchard was a job that took two children to each side. The wire handle cut into us and we had to put it down to change sides and/or personnel about every ten metres.
The sun was going down and the air beginning to chill as we finally got it to where it needed to be. We were dismissed just a few minutes before the last bus and had to run to the stop. Looking over my shoulder as I ran I saw Nub begin to drag the pot over the dewy grass under the trees, flicking the contents onto the ground with a branch. He looked exhausted and forlorn but there was a faint curl of triumph at the corner of his mouth.
The orchard continued to produce its unpalatably sour thick-skinned lemons over the spring and summer, except for the tree under which the horn had been planted.
*Names are changed regularly for historical reasons