About this Short Story
Kate Lord Brown
The last of a long line of Sin Eaters enjoys his final meal - but who will save his soul?
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Each sin has its own distinctive flavour. Like fine wine, sin has a vintage, and like the finest food it is best in season. Lust in midwinter is my favourite - musky, salty, with a hint of smoke. Like eating beluga in bed on a snowbound night, next to a smouldering fire. Pride invariably gives me indigestion - too dense, too chewy, like cured beef, or sometimes a rich, dark stock. Anger makes me bilious. Sloth is too stodgy, like cold bread sauce, for my taste. Covetousness and envy always leave me wanting more. How is it a meal always looks more appetising on someone else's plate? As for gluttony in all its guises, it is a meal in itself. So many people now miss the simple pleasures - they pack the dead space in their dead souls with foetid dead food. I must not complain. Were it not for the dead, I would go hungry, and every soul has…
Short Story: The Last Sin Eater
Each sin has its own distinctive flavour. Like fine wine, sin has a vintage, and like the finest food it is best in season. Lust in midwinter is my favourite - musky, salty, with a hint of smoke. Like eating beluga in bed on a snowbound night, next to a smouldering fire. Pride invariably gives me indigestion - too dense, too chewy, like cured beef, or sometimes a rich, dark stock. Anger makes me bilious. Sloth is too stodgy, like cold bread sauce, for my taste. Covetousness and envy always leave me wanting more. How is it a meal always looks more appetising on someone else's plate? As for gluttony in all its guises, it is a meal in itself. So many people now miss the simple pleasures - they pack the dead space in their dead souls with foetid dead food. I must not complain. Were it not for the dead, I would go hungry, and every soul has a whole cellar of trespasses and transgressions bottled and preserved, dusty with age or glistening with humiliation.
I am a hedonistic puritan, or a puritanical hedonist depending on the daily calibration of my own soul. I have the gift of my forefathers, but I am a child of my time. My father and his father before him had thin pickings, but my belly has grown fat on the sins of our century. We have grown liberal, sins have spin, they have new names. I feast on your trespasses - mortal, venial - I am not a picky eater. Don't tell me you do no harm. When was the last time you did some good? We are dead to the world around us. What is your secret fear, the sin you hope no one will ever know? These vile afflictions choke your life like weeds. Let me help you, let not sin reign in your mortal body. There is so little good left in the world that it shines brightly now. This is why I wear a hat and gloves even in summer. The radiance of my body is a dead give away.
My parents made sure I was always home before dark so that the other children wouldn't point and stare. The seventh son of a seventh son, I was a scrawny child, born in the Appalachian Mountains to a family of Scots descent.
'Nothing but mouth and stomach,' my mother sighed. My father knew the signs, the flame red hair and constant hunger that even my mother's creamy breast could not assuage. My larger brothers feared me, I always played alone, unchallenged when I took the final slice of cake or turned off the gramophone. I soon learnt that only in pure silence can I rest, only in isolation can I pray.
The first sin I ate was that of a little girl in a primrose yellow gingham dress. The devil has a pretty face. She stood away from the crowd at a birthday party when I was seven, her back turned to the balloons and games. I knew my vocation then as I began to salivate.
'I am hungry,' I thought, in spite of all the cake. 'Oh I am hungry now.' I licked my lips and stood in silence beside her, watched her pulling the wings from a fluttering, desperate butterfly. She dropped the quivering thorax onto the ground, cocked her head and watched it for a moment, then crushed the life from it beneath the toe of her gleaming red sandal. She wiped the beautiful pigment of the wings on her dress, a dirty brown stain now. When she looked at me her eyes were glazed with cruelty. I devoured her eyes, I lapped it up. She cried. That night after prayers I asked my father why.
'Son,' he said and stroked his whiskers. 'It's time you knew your destiny. Your granddaddy was an old time sin eater. He lived away from his family. People paid him to take on the sins of the dead and their debt in the afterlife.' I began to protest. He held up his hand. 'Don't ask me why we do it. It's a vocation, but now we're a dying breed. I was the last I knew of, but I am glad you have the gift.' Ten days later, after ensuring I took on the sins he had eaten in his lifetime, he died at peace. Who will eat the sins of the sin eater? Who will save me now? I have no children. The sins of the father pass down to the son.
Our founding fathers brought the custom with them to the brave new world. Sin eaters were pariahs in the community. You would rather have a leper at your table. My kind hovered hungrily at the edges of your lives waiting to eat it all up, like wolves circling in the dark night. Of course I am no longer required for burial rites and funerals. I ply my trade in secret. Now no longer tied to one community, I come and go. You would not notice me in a crowd, but if you passed me in the street you'd sense me and feel your guilt.
I do not enjoy my work. Every soldier knows that in the horror of war the only way to survive is to decide that he is dead. This enables him to live, to fight, to kill. It is the sweetest surprise when the battle is won to find that you are still alive. I have been dead for years, waging a one man war with sin. The wages of sin are death. I am a soldier in the front line, and by god I hope to find myself alive. Gild me now with an armour of light, for I am sick of sin. I am steeped in it, the gum in my eyes, the pus in my sores. Life has left a bitter taste. The fat of the glutton, the dry vomiting and trembling hands of the alcoholic, the twisting heart of envy and covetousness, the itchy balls and throbbing veins of lust. Sin is vilest corruption dressed as sweetmeats, sugared and glazed, 99 fat free. My gullet is slippery with bile and my hunger is ferocious, but I have had enough. I am a man, no more. Can nothing stop this hunger? My digestion is shot. My diet is too rich for any man. I have to purge myself, a fashionable detox, a holy fast. Perhaps I have an intolerance to wheat - or is it envy? The acid tartness of that teacher's wife in Edinburgh set my kidneys aflame. It was a mistake to go there. What was I looking for? Roots?
I did not ask to fight, but there is so much sin, I must fight for you while you are alive. It would be too late these days to wait until you are all dead - I must give you a chance. If it had not been for my calling, I might have been a restaurant critic. I like to think I have the discerning palette and laconic humour which seem to be the only requirements for the job. What else captures the zeitgeist so perfectly? We are a global village of armchair critics, happier to read reviews than get out there and take a bite of life ourselves. She took the apple in her hand. Sin has a beautiful mouth, succulent lips and a darting tongue. It bites at you with sharp little teeth, latches on to your every thought, and word, and deed.
'A holiday,' I thought, 'will calm my irritable bowels'. Out of the black night of the west, I made for the east, away from my Protestant brothers and sisters, hoping to leave my hunger behind. This place in the sun reminds me of happier times. There was less sin in the world then. I do not look it, but I am old, so very old. I came here to rest, to recuperate, to get some warmth on my swollen white belly. The time will come when I will face my ultimate challenge. For I am just a man.
This country is more beautiful than I remembered, the flaming bougainvillaea and the turquoise water. The kindness of the Malay people soothed me like a balm as I travelled through the country. I enjoyed weeks of peace, washing the bitter taste from my mouth. How simple, how kind life can be. My peace was short lived. At the blue roofed ferry terminal, I saw her, a western woman travelling alone. We were the last travellers on the boat. My nose began to twitch, my taste buds limbered up. That perfume, that taste, I lapped the hot tropical air that blew around her. 'Pride,' I thought, discerning the top notes. 'Arrogance, ambition, nascent alcoholism…' Then, like a bud bursting into flower I tasted it. 'Lust,' my senses swam. 'But not cold, western lust. She has been here a long time.'
'Where you wan' go?' the taxi driver asked.
'To Desaru,' we said simultaneously. I knew it had begun.
The fields of stubby bristling palms were dark and silent as we drove through the deep plum hour after dusk. The taxi driver sang to a wailing love song as we bumped along through the plantations. A red talisman swung from his rear view mirror above a gold plastic Arabic Bismillah on the dashboard which caught the last rays of the light. She had been eating an apple, and the cool conditioned air was perfumed with its scent. She offered me a bite. Oh I was thirsty, but I did not bite. My mouth was dry as the earth beside the road. She shrugged and tossed it on the floor. I am not much to look at as you have probably guessed, but I knew she was curious. As for me, I wanted her sins so badly, I could have cried.
'Do you mind if I smoke?' she asked the driver. She looked up at me with kohl farded eyes beneath a smooth brow. A diaphanous veil draped over her wavy dark hair like tongues of fire. I shook my head as the driver motioned to her to wind down the window. She reached behind me for a tissue from the cheap gold filigree box, and wiped her fingers. We still had not spoken. She pulled her cigarettes from her bag, and lit one. As she wound down the window the ripe tropical night oozed into the car like honey.
My beach house was basic - wooden floor, foam mattress. Shuttered balcony doors, the dark sea crashing beyond. I paused with my hand on the door frame. I remembered a time when golden limbs rested easily on the white sheets there. Another life. I lay beneath the turquoise pointed gables and blue tiles on the terrace and slept in glorious isolation. I have no need for insect repellent. DDT has less effect than the stench of sin in my pores.
The woman clouded my dreams, but at least here I could sleep. For once all I could taste was her, not a swirling casserole of sin from thousands of my brothers and sisters. By the time I awoke, the sun was high in the sky. I stumbled across a green wooden bridge with a salmon pink roof to where smashed concrete steps led down to the dark surf. The bright sun glinted on a rusted sign 'Don't swim'. I shielded my eyes to watch a Muslim family walking on the beach near the woman in a cerise bikini. Women shrouded in dark veils watched her curiously. She saw me, and waved. I turned away.
I am as fallible and foolish as the next old man. I should have kept away from her but that night I found myself hoping to bump into her in The Blue Moon hostess bar by the beach. Two teenage girls in sequinned dresses giggled their way through karaoke favourites. I was the only westerner in the bar. The big boss in the corner playing poker with greasy cards made them sing Madonna over and over again.
I sensed her arrival. She watched me watching a clearly adulterous couple from the city in a booth reflected in the mirror above the bar.
'I see you are a connoisseur,' she murmured as she slipped onto a stool beside me. 'Other people's transgressions are so fascinating,' she stirred her martini, crushed the olive between her lips. I had visions of virgin oil weeping from the stones. 'We are a culture of voyeurs.'
'Some of us prefer to do something rather than just watching,' I said and made to leave. The strength of her hand on my arm surprised me.
'What are you?' The barman disappeared behind a mirrored door. The light glanced in her eyes as it swung silently closed behind him.
'I design web sites,' I lied, my arm still in her grasp.
'This great web we are all caught in. Where are the spiders I wonder?' Her grip tightened. 'I wasn't talking about your day job,' she said angrily. 'I mean what are you? I can see it in your eyes.' Her nostrils flared and trembled as if she were scenting me.
'You wouldn't understand.'
'Try me.' She wrote her number on a matchbook. 'Meet me in a week in Singapore. I think you're exactly what I've been looking for.'
Singapore - sin city sweating from my very pores, awash with money, shopping, whores. Soulless, efficient - no spitting, gum or littering. But it is buzzing with sin, heaving with the depravity of any urban scene. Sin festers and rummages beneath the surface of the city like maggots in an intact corpse. On arrival, instinctively I made for the less brightly lit areas of the city, to the hawker centres with their chipped Formica tables, pitchers of Tiger beer and steaming plates of food. Here I began to test the air. I saw my compatriots, expatriates, waiting for chilli crab and noodles. The relentless humidity was unkind to them, with their pink faces and swollen mosquito bites on tender flesh unused to heat and poison. I passed a Chinese gardener spraying the neatly manicured grass. He saw me watching him.
'Cobra', he explained 'Eggs' he bared his teeth and hissed, raising his hand in imitation of a striking snake. The orchids were dazzling in the half light. This is a beautiful land, but there is poison everywhere.
I slept late the next day, conserving my strength for the task ahead. As the smells of charred lunchtime meat seeped into the air I made my way to Arab Street, weaving among the chequered sarongs and woven baskets, to collect my latest order of extra large handkerchiefs from the silk wholesalers. They are really more like napkins - I have the generous nose of the finest wine taster. Scent and taste are of course inextricably linked. At first breath, sin smells like the finest perfumes of the orient - musk, attar of rose, frankincense, myrrh. Only after a while - months, years even, do the base notes reach your senses - the scent of decay, cold, foetid, sweet.
Killing time before I met her, I ate alone in Chinatown - dim sum in a plush red restaurant. My table was an island of serenity in the swirling lunch time race. Plate upon plate of bamboo steamers travelled past my eyes. Plastic chopsticks forced slippery parcels of shrimp and pork into eager mouths. I sipped my jasmine tea, preserving my appetite. My fortune cookie told me 'Seize the day'. I wandered the streets gradually opening my senses, limbering up. I am immune to the searing heat, the hot pavements beneath sore feet. I saw birdcages hanging in the shadows of the shops, their inmates as captive as I to their fate. I bought a songbird - perhaps at least one of us could be free. I opened the door to his cage, but he sat there. He knew his destiny.
I wandered the streets, passed the Hok Sen temple and paused. Bunches of cerise pink incense sprouted from the altars like the stamens of some exotic flowers, smoking before the god in his shrouded canopy and false beard. Beady glass eyes watched me from the shadows, his hands tucked into the sleeves of his sea green gown. Penitent souls crowded beneath the colour saturated walls, gold characters inscribed above them. 'Get out,' their god whispered to me. 'You do not belong here.' I shrugged. Whatever god you worship, sin is sin.
I passed among the shops of blue and white china, the Hindu temples with their painted gods. In Little India I walked the alley ways of the ladyboys and prostitutes. I glimpsed them in their bright saris in the sanitary tiled interiors. Oh ye whores of Babylon eating huge papayas in your air conditioned shopping malls. This city is the Sodom and Gomorrah of consumption. New Year Dragons with shaking tails and loud drums and cymbals drove me to the street.
'Time for dinner,' I thought, and smacked my lips. I hailed a rickshaw bicycle to take me through the evening traffic to Raffles.
I had told her I was a tourist, so she naturally suggested meeting here. The gentle loop of the fans spoke of a more civilised time. Mynah birds picked at the monkey nuts from bowls on the bar as I waited for her. I smelt her first, then heard the click of her heels on the tiled floor as she crossed the white stucco courtyard.
'I am so glad you came,' she said.
'You have a proposition for me.'
'Why don't you take your sunglasses off.'
'No thank you,' I said, and pulled my gloves up over my wrists.
We made polite small talk until the waiter had brought her drink. 'To kindred souls,' she toasted me. I smiled politely and raised my glass. 'I knew at once you were one of us,' she said. 'I hope you will join us tonight.'
'Who are you?'
'A group of like minded social anthropologists who meet at a private club on the first Thursday of every month,' she paused. 'Voyeurs if you like, bringing the carrion of other people's lives to our table. Each month we find someone who embodies a different sin.'
'How do you find these people?' I asked carefully.
'We place wanted ads in the classifieds and personals. Who can resist the opportunity to audition for a film? 'Wanted - exceptionally beautiful women and handsome men for a movie'. 'Wanted - large ladies and gentlemen.''
'And what do you think I am guilty of?' I asked her, playing along.
She laughed softly. 'Heavens no, I'm not trying to trick you. It's our last meeting tonight. We want you to come along.'
'I am just passing through,' I said quietly. 'But I would be pleased to join you.'
I nearly missed the door to the club again as I had done so long ago. We were far away now from the glittering towers and harbour lights, in the old part of town. At the desk a Chinese woman checked our names in a book. I hardly recognised her. Her hair was the colour of the sea on a cloudless night, a glimmering, liquid sheet cascading over a pale silver dress to her knees. She still smelt of Jasmine.
'I hope you will have an enjoyable evening. If you need anything, just call for me and I'll be there to help you. My name is Lei.'
We went upstairs. The room was understated, decadent - suede chairs, velvet drapes, heavy linen. The food and wine were exquisite I imagine, although I did not eat. No first names were used, anonymity seemed to be the key. As my eyes grew accustomed to the near darkness, I saw them. The unholy triumvirate of the 21st century sat at the head of the table - the lawyer, the banker and the property developer. They are masked, but I know their faces of old.
Around them in blissful ignorance of their perilous position, the beautiful and the rich disported themselves. Typical expatriates - cosmopolitan, jaded, louche. More at home in transit than at home. Cuban cigars mingled on the air with the heady scents of a duty free perfume counter. Frosted glasses of champagne glinted in the candlelight. Women in beaded dresses lolled against their lovers, exquisite slivers of shoes pressing against the arches of their pedicured feet. They were ripe, ready to drop from the tree. Their men drank imported whisky - from a distillery near my forefather's village I noticed with a creeping sense of schadenfreude. They talked ostentatiously about projects in Indonesia, compared notes about airports, golf ranges, international schools. The women complained about their maids, the heat, the sickening malaise. In the corner of the room, a blonde woman toked on a huge cigar, her smeary lipsticked mouth pulsing smoke rings into the sky like the involuntary quivering of a rectum. Her friend drunkenly laughed at her skill. He embodied the full house of 21st century sin - drunk, dishonest and impure. All sin can be traced back to these three.
Sin is palpable in this city. In this room it is firm thighed, voluptuous and velvet tongued. In its other guise sin lurks moist palmed in the quiet shadows of the back streets, oozing among the clammy bodies of the immigrant workers queuing for the prostitutes. There is so much sin in the world with so many faces. It seems normal to you. This is an amusement for them, a trial for me. My father told me the time might come. He warned me not to take the sins of the living, that I would attract the ultimate challenge. I raise my glass to my three ungodly hosts.
As the plates were cleared, an expectant hush fell on the room.
'Time for the evening's main event,' one of the men whispered.
'You haven't eaten?' she said, my friend from the coast.
'Not yet,' I said, and loosened my tie.
'What do you mean?' she said. I noticed the walls were painted Inquisition Red. The room fell silent. I felt their eyes upon me. I am glad I am not a scapegoat. This is the part where they would have sacrificed me. Of course they have no interest in the people they gloat over, no wish to make sacrifices to save them, but still I felt like I was manacled to the table for them to feast like panthers on. They wanted the sins that I had consumed. They wanted to split me open, to gorge on me like an after dinner fruit.
The light dimmed further in the room, and a screen whirred from the ceiling. From the back of the room, a stream of light projected through the snaking tendrils of blue smoke and glittering dust to show a succession of still images of evenings past, poor souls auditioning for their lives. A grossly obese woman preened for the camera with tears in her eyes. I could not watch the rest, the envy, the greed. I had seen it all before. When the slide show ended, the party roared it's approval. One of the three rose. The room fell silent.
'Perhaps our honoured guest would like to say a few words.'
I cleared my throat, and looked directly at the three. 'Thank you,' I said, 'for giving me the opportunity to be here tonight, at this your last supper. If you will indulge me …'
'Who are you?' a male voice bellowed.
'He's number seven!' a woman giggled.
I waited for the laughter to die down. 'I am the last sin eater,' I said gravely.
They roared with laughter. I must have looked perplexed, because the man on my left passed me his membership card. On one side it had the club's address, on the other in neat engraved letters, its name
'The Sin Eaters.'
'If only you had been here before,' one of the men said, his voice dripping with irony. 'What piquancy you would have added to our fun. A real sin eater to absolve their sins.'
'He is like us,' one of them laughed.
'I am nothing like you, I don't gloat over other's sins, I take them away. Do you not see the good I do?'
My friend from the beach stood. 'I give you Pride,' she said, and they applauded. 'You do nothing!' she laughed as she turned to me. 'Some deluded old drifter ..'
'Oh really?' I went to the projector at the back of the room and flicked the images back to the bloated face of the girl. I rang the bell for service, and Lei appeared.
'Do you not recognise her?' I cried. Lei smiled at me curiously, and turned to where her bloated face floated on the screen. Her eyes filled with tears and she ran from the room. 'Amazing what six months of discipline and self control can do. She's turned her life around since I met her serving hamburgers on my last visit. She thought it was an inspirational article in Cosmopolitan finally gave her the power to live,' I roared.
The atmosphere shifted in the room. 'You congratulate yourselves that you are nothing like the pitiful wretches you lure in here each month,' I went on, 'but your pride is far, far worse. You know and still you do nothing.' I slipped a slide into the projector, and shone it on the screen. The same turquoise sea and bougainvillaea, the green bridge and concrete steps. They gasped. Before them shone their own youthful faces, fresh, vibrant, free.
'How ...?' somebody cried.
'I met you all before, some years ago. You won't remember me. I had a feeling I would see you all again some day. Look at yourselves, and look what you have become. I had no idea you would be my final course, until I met your friend again.'
'You can't do this,' she said angrily. The three masked men left the table and slipped away in the rising confusion. It is not my place to challenge them anyway. I am just a man. 'Say something,' she said. I felt the atmosphere become weightless, like the apparent pause of a rollercoaster between a great climb and terrifying free fall.
'What is there left to say?' a woman cried. It was like the floor of the room was falling away beneath their feet. I felt them clutching for me, for something to save them. I feel that they are ready, that they want me now.
I raised my hands for silence, and opened my mouth.
I am hungry, oh I am hungry now. I have starved myself for this. I tipped my head back, took off my glasses, stripped my gloves and coat. My stomach groaned in anticipation, the saliva running freely over my tongue. I am hungry for you now. My radiant head rolled back in ecstasy. I gorged myself, the sin washed into me from them, I heard them groaning.
Full at last, I rested, sated, dabbing at the corners of my mouth with a crimson silk handkerchief as they came round. 'You are forgiven,' I sighed. I looked at their pale, calm faces. They would be all right now. The lights went up. Self consciously, women pulled at their skirts and fastened their dresses. Men straightened their ties and smoothed their hair, unable now to look me in the eye. It is always the way. People are so ashamed of their excesses that when they need help, once it is given, their instinct is to get away. I gathered my coat, and paused. 'The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing us that we live forever,' I said as I swung it over my shoulders. 'You're on this earth for a very short time. Think of it as your audition. You have this one chance to land the part of a lifetime. Don't waste a single day.'
The effect of sin on the body is debilitating, cancerous. I felt their trespasses spreading through me like poison. My feet were solid with infected blood by the time I reached the stairs. Sin brings a grey sweaty pallor to your cheeks, breaks your blood vessels and feeds your fat cells.
'Are you all right,' Lei asked, placing her hand gently on mine.
'I've eaten too much,' I said and smiled thinly as I retched.
She helped me to the street. As I lifted my face to hers, my eye was caught by the diamond crucifix glistening at her neck.
'Thank you, Lei,' I said.
'We helped each other. That is all any of us can do. Go in peace.' She turned to go into the club, and paused. She took my face in her hands, and placed her cool lips against my head. I felt the fire drain from me at last. She smiled. 'Lei is not my real name.'
'Then what is?'
'I would have thought you'd have guessed by now,' she said. I shook my head. She turned to me and smiled. 'My name,' she said, 'is Grace, of course.'
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