Written by Kerry Elizabeth Blickenderfer-Black
5 November, 2013
“Whatever are you doing here?” Edmund asked his cousin, Ian, suspiciously. Ian leaned against a maple tree, arms crossed in front of his chest. He shrugged, regarding Edmund without obvious emotion. The cousins were not friendly, but neither was there real enmity between them. It was more their philosophical differences that built an intellectual wall and emotional gulf.
“Really, now, Sir, why would you linger in these haunted woods? Haven’t you better occupations for your time?” Edmund continued, but Ian only regarded dispassionately his Aunt Anne’s only son. Both young men were fair and freckled, thin and small of frame like their mothers, but within Ian’s blue eyes resided intellectual pursuit and compassion, whereas Edmund’s hazels housed dispassionate distrust firmly rooted in superstition.
“Have you come to pay a visit to dear Uncle George?” inquired Ian with a taunting smile. Edmund looked scandalized and narrowed his gaze predatorily. “This is no social call, of course,” Edmund growled, “As you can well expect. Who in their right mind would come to such a decrepit and foul place without necessity?” He bristled, then leveled an icy glare at his cousin whose visage remained impassive.
However much Ian maintained his composure, internally he seethed. Who, indeed, among such a back-water society would come to a place where a man resides alone in an untamed woodland, rejected by polite society, loathed for the very task they imposed upon him, wondered Ian, thinking less kindly toward his cousin.
“I assume that we are both here for the same task,” Edmund conceded. Ian tilted his head and inquired, “Oh? And what would that task precisely be?”
“The Sin Eater,” Edmund hissed. “We need the sin eater. Surely you must know that?” he concluded. “Ah,” Ian said, “So you have come to call on Uncle George.”
Bristling, Edmund hissed, “Why must you insist on calling it by that name? It is the Sin Eater that I have come to see.”
Edmond and Ian had an uncle, George by name, who had the misfortune of being born misshapen. His back was so twisted and humped that walking was painful. His facial features drooped on one side, and few thought to educate George or show him kindness. George’s sisters, Anne and Mary, especially found slowing down for George uncomfortable. They resented the troubled looks leveled by their neighbors, took personally the many whispered cruel words. There was no compassion in them for their brother who experienced daily pain and endured humiliations.
When George, Anne, and Mary Sutton found themselves orphaned after their parents succumbed to an illness that rushed through their village, the girls were guilty of neglecting their brother. Worse, when the town’s Sin Eater passed away, Anne and Mary not only did not defend their brother when it was suggested by the elders that George be his replacement, but instead they encouraged him to do so.
“George, you will have such fine food to eat,” they lied, never outlining the infrequency of each ghoulish feast, the scarcity of food otherwise. “You will have your own home,” they misrepresented, knowing that the lonely hovel in the woods would never make a real home. It was a place reviled as evil, housing the Sin Eater, who took away the sins of people who passed on before receiving last rites. The Sin Eater by so doing took on the sins of the dead, but lived apart, unable to participate in church since he was excommunicated. He was not permitted to walk among the polite society he served, since his presence made others uncomfortable, a living embodiment of past transgressions and a reminder of their own mortality.
In encouraging their brother to assume the position of Sin Eater, they were well aware that they were dooming George to a life of further solitude and indignity. However, they would themselves be relieved of the burden of caring for him.
Ian’s father, Charles, was not from the town. Charles came to teach the young, but although he found their minds mired in superstition, he fell in love with a pretty local girl, Mary Sutton, and took her as his bride. Mary bore Ian, in whom Charles did find fertile group for more forward thought. When confronted with the provincial idea of a Sin Eater, Charles scoffed. When he discovered that the unfortunate who filled that role was his wife’s brother, Charles’ morality was baffled. His compassion required his son, Ian, to covertly convey such comforts as decent foods, warm blankets, and shoes to George. Ian was a regular visitor to the shack in the woods, therefore, and, after overcoming his initial childish fears of Uncle George’s appearance and gate, Ian was happy to provide some small succor to a quiet and kind old man.
Charles taught Ian that the villagers were incorrect in their thinking, if they were to be considered Christians, which they all did, indeed, claim as their religion. In Christian thinking, only Jesus truly takes away man’s sins. The Jewish practice of releasing a goat as a physical manifestation of the sins of the people at Yom Kippur seemed, somehow, more humane than the practice of ostracizing a man who they believed housed the sins of all who, within the village, died without absolution.
Unfortunately, Charles died of complications of a fever when Ian was a young man. Ian branched out on his own, unable to come to terms with what he felt was a tremendous failing of character within his mother, Mary, who showed no concern for his brother and pretended no affiliation with the Sin Eater. During his lifetime, Charles exuded tolerance, encouraging his son to try to understand the difficult position Mary and Anne were in when orphaned, raised as they were in a nearly medieval-thinking group of people. However, Ian maintained that the women should be saddled with personal responsibility in the matter. Despite the insular nature of the village, Ian did not visit his mother after he left and set up his own house.
The duties of a Sin Eater were steeped in ritual and superstition. There were ceremonial words said. Bread and a wooden beaker of beer were handed over the body of the deceased to the Sin Eater. It was believed that this food absorbed any unforgiven sin, and thus when the Sin Eater devoured the food, he also took on the sins as his own. The wooden vessel was burnt after the funeral, that no taint of the sins remain. For his part, the Sin Eater was given a coin or two, which he could not readily spend, because he was not welcome at the local businesses.
As he aged, Uncle George became more crippled. Ian feared for his Uncle’s well-being if he could not perform his Sin Eater duties. It was commonly believed that Sin Eaters did not die of natural causes.
Edmund rolled his eyes heaven-ward, recalling Ian from his musing. “I do not have time to tarry. The Sin Eater must come,” he said tightly. To spare his Uncle this intrusion, Ian suggested personally delivering the summons, freeing his cousin to return to the duties of mourning. Edmund’s nostrils flared in distrust, certain of some trickery. “We can go together,” he countered. “God knows I do not want to enter that accursed residence, but my mother was very specific. I need to fetch the Sin Eater.”
“This way, then, cousin,” Ian said, indicating the path. Along the route, Ian espoused his beliefs, hoping to convert Edmund. “It is stupid superstition,” Ian proclaimed. Edmund shook his head as though cleaning it of blasphemy, clearly unconvinced.
The Sin Eater’s hovel was crafted of worm-riddled wood, thatching rotting upon the roof. There were open holes serving as windows blanketed with undyed wool to keep out drafts. The cousins knocked and then entered the residence. There was a small fire in the humble hearth, with seasoned logs split and stacked nearby, Ian’s earlier handiwork. A small pantry was meagerly stocked, and a circular table and chair were wiped clean. The Sin Eater lay on a straw mattress placed upon a recently repaired rope bed, breathing irregularly.
Ian hoped that his Uncle would have the sense not to reveal their ruse, but the old man was so sick that he did not wake easily. Ian suspected that his Uncle did not have long to live. He hung back when Edmund approached the bed. “Your services are required, Sin Eater,” Edmund exclaimed. The old man did not respond. Edmund became cross as he repeated this proclamation. Still, there was no obvious reaction from the man huddled under blankets on the bed.
Exasperated, Edmund turned his attention to the hut, wondering if there was something useful in rousing the Sin Eater, since he dared not approach any closer, nor did he consider leaving without completing the task for fear of incurring his mother’s wrath. He saw in a corner a pile of ragged, dirty clothes. There was also among these long, silvered hair gathered in a sort of wig sitting atop a jacket too fine to belong in this residence. Edmund gasped as he recognized the garment.
Ian realized the mistake too late. He crossed casually to disguise the jacket, but Edmund reached it quicker. “Explain this,” Edmund demanded of Ian, who only shrugged. “This is YOUR jacket, sir. I recognize it. I have seen you wear it at least a dozen times. Why would your jacket be amongst this wretch’s things?” Ian smiled but said nothing.
The Sin Eater, their Uncle George, roused a little, moaning but did not achieve wakefulness. Sunlight filtered through the wool covering western facing cutout, revealing dust dancing. A mouse scampered along the wall, dashing under the rickety door to escape the men’s raised voices.
Edmund, though provincial, was not stupid. He recognized the disguise and rounded on his cousin. “Have you been making some sick sport of us?” he screamed. “Have you pretended to be the Sin Eater?”
Ian shook his head sadly. “The Sin Eater seems to provide some comfort to you who don’t understand the immortality of your own souls made clean by our Savior. It is nothing more than superstition.”
“So you have? You have taken on the role, absorbed the sins of the dead?”
Ian chuckled ironically. “I have not taken on any sins other than those that I personally committed. I told you that there is no reason for a Sin Eater other than to provide comfort to an idiotic group of peasants.”
Edmund backed away from his cousin, mouth agape in horror. He turned to the bed and, with obvious disgust, threw back the covers, revealing the twisted form of a wasted, nearly dead old man. “What are we to do?” he asked in a terrified whisper.
Ian shrugged. “I could come if you think it is necessary, but you will know the truth of the matter. I am not taking on anyone’s sins, not by eating the bread off of a dead man’s chest.” Edmund was sickened by this proclamation. He angrily spat, “Not even for my Aunt Mary?”
Ian covered his dying uncle before regarding his cousin steadily, internalized fury pulsing with each heartbeat. “My mother’s greatest sin is what she and your mother have done to this poor man. And they would dare to ask, believing as they do, that he incur additional damnation for their sins against him?” Ian fought down an angry desire to punch the wall.
Ian continued, “With his death, I will have nothing to hold me to this moronic town. I am afraid that my mother will have to go to her grave with her own burdens weighing her soul’s descent to the fiery pit.”
“But you imitated,” Edmund gulped, “Uncle,” another gulp before continuing, “for others in the community?” “Yes, I did so to bring comfort to their survivor’s small minds, but I feel no need to do so for this funeral.” Ian then ignored Edmund’s pleas, instead holding his Uncle’s suddenly outstretched hand as George went to his eternal rest.