Short Story Runner Up - October 2013
Christie Cluett - The Sin-Eater
“You have to come quickly. It won’t be long.”
I look down from where I stand in the shadows to see a young boy. The dirt on his face has become ingrained into his skin and his clothes are the grey of rags. He stands still, staring up at me with a defiant look that protects him from the world around him. He’s trying to prove his mettle but his twitching hands betray him. Sensible boy; he should be scared. With me only darkness lies.
The boy turns and runs, presuming I’ll follow, presuming I’ll like what I’ll find at his destination. I don’t want to go but this path is mine, the path of the sin-eater.
For as long as my memory will allow me to remember this has been my path, but I used to be someone different. In a different story, one that feels like it was never really mine, I was just a man. I had a different life and I had a different future from this. That other person, who doesn’t really feel like me anymore, wanted to be an artist. He was young and wanted so desperately to catch beauty in his hands, to cradle it and protect it but the path towards it became too dark before he could manage to find his way.
The light to see the road ahead is just a luxury of the rich. Without enough food, without proper shelter, as you shrug off even your status as a human being, you start to make different choices. I hoped I would have lasted longer but when you are struggling – hungry and cold – there aren’t that many offers any more.
It was a night when I was passing through the graveyard that changed my fate, when the boy that I was met a man in fine clothes, one that stood like only the wealthy can. An offer was made – to become bearer of his son’s sins, to take them as mine before his poor son died. So that his precious son could rest in peace with an absolved soul, so that he could ascend to Heaven pure as the day he was born.
Money was shown. It sparkled in the man’s hand. Hunger will make you do almost anything, and after all, I reasoned as that boy I left behind, how bad could it be?
You will never be able to imagine what it feels like, and I hope you never find out, I hope you never have the stench of someone else’s sins lingering on your tongue, cloying in the back of your throat. They taste like shadows feel.
I look up ahead at the boy, who is waiting for me at the corner, his small fingers gripping the brickwork. I step forward because there’s nothing else to be done, because there’s nowhere else for me to go. Just one step. It’s always hardest to get going, to crack the stone walls that my limbs have become, to move the weight that drags my feet down.
I can’t remember the first sin. It’s buried so far down beneath the rest but I can feel its journey inside. It guides the rest of them down further into my being, down further into every vein, every cell. It has slashed its way through me to make room for the rest. Gone but not forgotten as they say. The second I do remember, though.
I remember the sweet taste it had at first, the taste of crinkled sweet wrappers; a sickly flavour you could choke on. The old woman in the bed coughed gently under the starched white sheets as I leant over her to take her sins, and I thought that that was it; a sweet taste, slightly burnt perhaps, but not too bad. A white lie told to protect her family, perhaps, or a salacious thought about someone who was not her husband.
I was about to stand up, I remember, I was about to reach for the money and wait for her to die in peace but her weathered hand gripped mine suddenly, forcing me to lean back in. The sweet scent of her sins flowed over me as they began to pour out and that sweetness soon turned to dust in my mouth as they kept on coming. It was saccharine so rich and so excessive that it over-flowed and threatened to drown me. I could hardly breathe. She died before it could all come out, a thousand, a million, an endless supply from a lifetime of sin. It happens more often than I would care to remember. Those little old ladies are always the worst.
The flow stopped with her last breath and I raised up like a man out of water, gasping and clawing for breath. The family rushed past me, reaching for their loved one, thankful she’d left this world as perfect and pure as everything else around them, that perfect room with its plush carpets and perfumed walls.
I never tell them there was a whole lot more still left inside, that I can never manage to get it all out in time. Death waits for no man, least of all me.
Now I’m not sure I can eat much more. I’ve eaten so much sin that it swirls around inside me, like a noxious soup. Sometime, it almost feels like it will spill out of my eyes. I can feel the black oil that has replaced my tears, the sludge where my blood used to flow and it makes me feel heavy. It swells my arms and drags my head. I’m not sure how much room is left inside. I take quick little breaths, trying not to choke as the boy stops up ahead.
It’s a small house he stands in front of, one of many in a row. He looks as reluctant as me to go in, but then he turns and disappears into the darkness inside. Me? I’m comfortable where the light won’t reach. It doesn’t hold the same connotations of fear, of the unknown for me. The darkness is a welcome relief. I feel better in the shadows, where I’m not worried what people might see if the light was shining on me.
I cross the street and enter the house. The boy is nowhere in sight, as if his job is already done. There are stairs straight ahead, leading up to a corridor. That seems to be where I should go.
I take the steps slowly; my boots making each board creak and protest. I feel too big for this house, like I’ve forced my way in. At the top, the door to my left is slightly ajar. Most doors I encounter are. The families always want you to come. Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers; they’ll beg you to come, pay you to come. They want you to take away the sins of their loved one, now, quickly, before their meeting with Death, but they won’t open the door for you all the way. You have to push it open, and force your way in, like it’s against their will; a begrudging invitation.
This makes me angry. I walk with their sins dragging me down, pulling at my skin, tugging at my heart, but there is no thanks. My nausea parts from a moment, swept away by a rage that could cauterise any wound. There isn’t any more room inside me to take their sins, their faults, their mistakes. I’m drowning.
I want to walk away so why don’t I? I can’t restart my story. I can’t go back to the boy with the artist’s hands but I’ll settle for just no more, for just walking away and sinking back into the shadows without having to taste another sin, without having to find out what happens if this is the one that is too many.
I’m about to turn away, to retrace my steps and never cross paths with Death again, never push my way into another ungrateful house where the faces turn away when I enter the room, but then this door is opened for me.
The boy looks at me but I see him for only a second before I see what lies in the room beyond. On the bed in the middle of the room is an angel. A little girl lies under snow-white covers, her skin so fair you can see the beating of her life beneath it. Golden hair is splayed over the pillow and small hands are clasped together in front. I can smell flowers. She coughs then, a cough that wracks her thin frame, and I want to go to her, but something moves towards me from the corner of the room.
A man with rosy cheeks and a comfortable belly comes out of the corner. His hands reach out towards the little girl, his little girl. This will be the man with the money, the man who wants me to make sure his child gets into heaven. I look at him and want to leave, but when I look back at her I know I’ll stay.
“Please,” the man says.
I ignore him and move forward. The little girl opens her eyes for a moment. Blonde eyelashes flutter and then she smiles. Just for a moment, and for that moment it seems likes the flame of the candle by her bed finally catches properly and the glow expands. The light moves towards me and I’m standing within its circle. Perhaps hers will be the sin that saves me. Perhaps if I take her sins a little of her soul will come with it. Is she my salvation? If hers are the last sins I accept then maybe, as tiny and beautiful as they are, they will wash away the filth inside me. Looking at her face, her gentle lashes, the mild bloom of colour at her cheeks, I believe she can take away some of what I’ve lost. Could she fix what has been torn, clean what has been corrupted? Somewhere deep in the pit of my stomach I allow myself to believe.
“Please,” the man says once more and I take the final steps forward to her side. She looks so small up close and, although she looks flawless, as I lean over her I get the unmistakeable smell of something spoiled, of something about to end. The aroma of death has surrounded her.
I reach my fingers around her delicate wrist, wishing my hands were cleaner, my nails neater, and search for her pulse. It’s faint but it’s there, hesitant and thready. I pause, breathe out and then I open my mouth with almost a smile.
It tastes like nothing for a second, maybe two, but then it finally comes. It comes rushing towards me in a deluge. I have nowhere to hide. I have nowhere to run. There’s so much at first that it’s too over-whelming for my brain to understand but then it hits the back of my throat. It tastes like black webbed skin, the tough gristle of knuckles and screams, long uninterrupted screams of pain, misery and heartache. It has the taste of bitter but unlike anything I have ever tasted before. It tastes of the worst of things. It fills up all my senses with hatred and blocks out my knowledge of anything else. I can feel it burning through all the sins I’ve eaten before, those that suddenly feel like happiness in comparison. I am being gutted from the inside out.
I open my eyes as it starts to come in lumps that are almost too big to take, big globulous lumps, and see that she is looking at me. My mouth still wide open, my lips slowing tearing at the seams, she looks into my eyes with a slight smile. I can see it then, the details of what she did, the images, sounds and shapes of this sin that is pouring into me.
It comes as flashes in my mind; flashes of her angelic face with cold eyes as she pulled wings off the flies that settled on her windowsill in the summer; flickers of the gold in her hair as it fluttered in the breeze while she took a knife to a stray dog and flares of flames that illuminated her perfect skin as she watched the body of her Christmas kitten burn on the bonfire. Images keep coming, taking over my thoughts and burning onto my retinas for eternity; images of other girls’ hair ripped out at the root, of burns on schoolmates arms and, of her collection of animal hair, some singed, some not, lying neatly in a box she kept under the bed.
Finally the one that stays after all the others, is the image of her little brother lying face down at the bottom of the well, his leg at an odd angle, as she put the hands that pushed him back into the pockets of her sun-dress.
I stand up as she breathes her last breath and I’m pleased she’s dead. I look down on her perfect face, her perfect hair and her rotten insides. She is a decaying angel, and I hate her. I’m pleased she’s dead, and though her sins should have died with her, I’ll take them from here as the last thing I do; my job as a sin-eater complete.
I’ll return to wait in the dark, where no-one can see the burden I carry, the sins I’ve eaten. I’ll just become something else hidden in the shadows and I’ll find peace, when all my sins wash away, and those of everyone else, wash into the gutter.
About The Author
Christie Cluett is a writer from Bristol who loves to explore the strange little details of character, wanting to celebrate the weirdo in us all. Believing in the truth of writing about what you know, Christie surrounds herself with everyday oddballs who make her smile, and remind her that our differences and eccentricities are what make us special. She’s currently working on a number of short stories and a literary fiction novel, which she is trying to fight into a final draft.