The Sin Eater 2874 BC
The course salted acorn bread Credne had placed on the naked chest of the cadaver less than an hour before was already turning black.
“Go fetch Burstall. Tell him two chickens,” she said to her oldest child.
Gothal smiled slightly, glad to be away from the grim tableau of death and the small wailings that dominated the little shack.
“Where might he be?”
Credne shot a look at her son. “Find him,” was all she said as she got another loaf of bread. It was the last loaf, the one she’d planned to serve her family at supper, but Credne felt no remorse, no loss, nothing really. Her grief numbed her. She was grateful to have the bread at all for this sad occasion. It was no sacrifice. It was just what Spirit required.
When Gothal opened the door to the hovel, he stumbled over a small basket someone left on the step. It contained two small loaves of acorn bread. Several other anonymous baskets appeared on their stoop over the next few hours as word of the death passed from lips to ears. Credne was grateful for the gifts and the understanding each small hard loaf conveyed.
After physical death has occurred, the body requires time to release the soul and all the virtue or lack thereof and wisdom or lack thereof it has gathered during this lifetime. The deceased’s sins are also released, tainting the soul. But the sins can be sieved out by placing the most common edible in the locale, loaves of salted acorn bread, on the corpse. As the soul ascends, the bread collects the sins, cleansing the soul. However, proper disposal of the blackened bread is essential. The role of the sin eater is to devour the tainted bread, absorbing, integrating, transcending and healing each sin.
Gothal walked quickly along the mud path toward the centre of the cluster of hovels that comprised Rivertree, so named because it sat near a river and a very large, very old tree. He scanned the small marketplace. Only a few vendors had ventured out on this blustery day. The intermittent downpours, frequent lightning and thunder and wind gusts that bent the old oaks discouraged most people from leaving the relative safety of their huts.
It had been a hot pleasant midsummer. Life had been easy, but that changed when the body was found. At that hour, the wind began to howl cold and mournful and hadn’t stopped since. An ominous pall hovered over the tiny community, a chimera of death felt by everyone including Gothal. He shivered and pulled his coarse wool wrap tighter around his thin frame.
Gothal made some quick inquiries of the merchants. Coutha, who sold live chickens and dead fish, shook her head at his query. Balcoot, earless and fingerless due to past indiscretions, sat before a pathetic array of wilted wet vegetables. He sneered at Gothal’s question and shooed the boy away with what remained of his right hand.
Gothal never liked talking with Clarank but he knew if anyone could locate Burstall, it would be Clarank. Horrified by the gelatinous appearance of Clarank’s eyes – they appeared to drip out of the sockets – but compelled to stare at them, Gothal asked him about Burstall.
Clarank moved his jaw to indicate speech but all Gothal heard was a sound like two stones being rubbed together. He listened more intensely and began to hear small fractured words in the grinding racket. The message was distant but clear.
“You will find him in the grove at the point of fear.”
Gothal didn’t like the sound of that. He’d hoped Burstall would be lurking somewhere in the little market but it was logical he was in the dense oak grove that surrounded the small band. Today Gothal dreaded the oak grove.
A cold wind howled through the gnarled trees straining faint foul laughter from their branches as Gothal walked deeper into the forest.
Since most people at Rivertree feared Burstall, hunting for him in the forest would not be enjoyable. The only person who felt comfortable in Burstall’s unpredictable powerful presence now lay stretched naked and dead on a plank table.
Though freed from the macabre scene at home, Gothal’s fear of Burstall quickened as he trudged among the old trees. The lad whistled tunelessly to help relieve the growing tightness in his body. Wind ripped the jagged notes from his lips and dissolved them in the swirling air. He hoped Burstall would suddenly spring from behind a tree and end this nerve-wracking quest.
At 14, Gothal’s role as eldest child kept him occupied tending his five younger siblings and 24 sheep. Usually he liked the responsibility; in fact, he thrived and grew with the experience. But he dreaded the role he had to play today, that of seeker of the shaman.
Suddenly something wet, hot and furry struck him on the side of his head, fell onto his shoulder where it teetered spurting thick liquid. Bits of intestine clung to Gothal’s hair. Wiping his face his hand came back covered in blood. Its source was a newly eviscerated rabbit, its throat opened, blood pulsing forth.
With disgust, Gothal pushed the rabbit away from him as a cruel, inhuman laugh rose from between two hoary oaks. From the trees Burstall’s bright piercing blue eyes peered from beneath a nest of long hair that waved back and forth, changing hue as it swayed. The obscured eyes, animated hair and mean chortle transfixed Gothal.
“He’s dead,” offered Gothal feebly.
“Mama, she be Credne, asked for you to eat the bread for him. She said two chickens.”
Burstall’s eyes brightened at the prospect. “Suddenly I feel hungry. Lead the way scrawny boychild.”
With his instinctual forest homing device working to perfection, Gothal navigated the darkening oak grove with ease and accuracy arriving at home quickly. Burstall walked the whole way two steps behind him, breathing hard and muttering in some strange language, which frightened Gothal into imagining Burstall was going to kill him and eat him. Their quick arrival in early twilight was a great relief for the boy. There was another basket of acorn bread on the stoop when the pair arrived.
“Here. Skin this.” Burstall tossed the slain rabbit he’d been carrying to Gothal. “You stay out here,” Burstall said taking the boy’s head in his hands and forcing their eyes to meet. “Do you know who you are?”
Gothal understood, suddenly and inexplicably, he understood. As soon as he said, ‘Yes,” he felt a great weight lift off his young shoulders. He smiled at Burstall. “Thank you.”
Burstall was taken aback by the boy’s gratitude and comfort in his presence. He smiled back at the boy, releasing his head. “I’m not going to eat you, by the way.”
A shrill keening laugh erupted from Burstall’s face, which transformed into a huge gaping mouth with flapping teeth and bright yellow tongue. Gothal jumped away and fell on his back, which brought Credne to her door.
“Not so comfortable now scrawny boy?” Burstall leered down at the boy.
“Leave Gothal alone. He’s in here,” Credne said matter-of-factly to Burstall whose attention shifted away from Gothal to the open door of the shack.
The shaman plucked a little rattle made of two walnut shells and small stones from his tattered cape. He shook the rattle from inside his closed fist with just a small opening at his thumb letting sound escape. He pointed the sound toward the open doorway, rattling continuously as he approached.
Credne had lit two small candles and a glowing butter lamp, the only illumination in the small room dominated by the dead man. Burstall’s rattle caused the candles to flicker wildly as he crossed the threshold. He whistled through his teeth and waved his rattling hand directing the small stinging sound toward the corpse.
The body appeared to be mottled with large black growths. In fact, Credne had kept applying loaves as they appeared at her door. One balanced on the forehead, three on the chest, two on the belly and two on the abdomen, one on each thigh. Ten loaves, all of them blackened, most covered with a fine shimmering mold that ran from glittering emerald to iridescent blue. So adorned were the remains of Recorso.
Recorso means “always returning to a state of grace.” The one who bears the name sustains that state within the band. With the death of Recorso, grace is loose, its magic is free, possibly even unavailable to the band, which has always been guided by grace. Special rituals need to be performed to ensure the succession of grace occurs smoothly.
The sin eater knew what to do.
Credne pointed toward six more loaves on a stool near the body. Burstall took two of the loaves and placed them over Recorso’s genitals. Almost immediately, the bread began to blacken. Burstall made an eerie delighted sound that frightened Credne, which was its intent.
“You will get out of this house now. I need time alone for this. Take your children and go into the forest and wait until you hear three wolves howling in unison three times then you can come back here and he’ll be all yours. Take two of those loaves and get away quickly.”
“How long?” Credne inquired.
“With smiling spirits, two days. Leave the chickens…and the boy.”
written November 11, 2009
The Sin Eater 1979 AD
After chasing off an emaciated cur that came sniffing at the meat, a man with two fingers missing from each hand hung freshly skinned goats on large hooks at his stall in the central market in Old Delhi. My friend Murta and I strolled through the heady mix of smells, sights and sounds. The smog-filtered sun gave a yellow hue to the muggy haze. The back of my shirt was soaked with sweat.
Boom boxes blasting popular Indian music competed with the sounds of ducks and chickens, goats bleating, chiming bicycle taxi bells, the hollers of vendors, the pleas of beggars and the din of shoulder-to-shoulder people. Commingling in the market air was a rich brew of odours from cooking food, animal feces, a thousand kinds of curry, strange smoldering fires, sewage, incense and the aromatic crush of raw humanity. Now and then, the crowd and the air were split by the loud incessant honking of a car horn as a shiny black Mercedes, its windows tinted dark, inched its way through the throng. As we left the market we could hear drumming accompanied by the occasional loud crack of a whip.
Adjacent to the market was one of many temples to Siva. In front of the temple, a large crowd had gathered, giving wide berth to a young man wearing a soiled loincloth who wielded a long leather whip with amazing elegance, expertise and speed. He had a small chin beard with a red glass bead braided into the end. His black hair, tied in a knot that rested at the nape of his neck, shone against his skin.
Two other young men beat drums at the edge of the circle. They accented their drumming with hoots, yowls, whistles, growls and laughter. Every sharp, startling snarl of the whip incited them to drum a little faster.
With breath-taking skill and sensuality, the man danced with the whip. It gently entwined itself around his body leaving nary a mark then spiraled away wild and dangerous, its loud snap echoing off the walls of the temple. His dance slowed to transfixed weaving. He extended his arm, the whip cracked and the tip tore away a small piece of his forearm. A bead of blood appeared in the wound, his face twisted into a grimace. The drummers increased the beat and his dance resumed, more frantic and intense, the whip his willing partner. His steps became wild and flying, clouds of pale dust rose around his bare feet. The snap end of the whip raised a small explosion of dirt wherever it hit the ground.
The dancer’s grimace melted into calmness and finally bliss as he swirled and leapt with his long thin friend. A trail of blood rolled down his arm. The next snap of the whip dug a piece out his chest just above his left nipple. The blood flowed freely down his chest and belly, soaking into the stained loincloth. His face was a mask of agony once more. He momentarily arched away from the pain then appeared to embrace it, live it fully and integrate it into his dance, into his being.
To my Western sensibilities, this galvanizing display seemed a form of madness. I flinched breathlessly at every invited wound because I was only able to observe the outer structure of the ritual. The inner meaning remained a mystery. Every time the whip cut into the man’s flesh, Murta glanced at me to gauge my reaction.
The drummers beat louder and faster, their cries mixed with the shouts of the dancer. His feet and body moved in abandon, the whip appeared to be controlling him. By degrees, after every cruel bite, the agony on his face changed to ecstasy. With measured intent, suffering transformed into the inner experience of transcendence.
The man’s brown body bore many whip wounds; some healed to pale blemishes, some to redness and the start of a scar, others with fresh dark scabs in various stages of healing. The drummers also had numerous scars and scabs on their bodies from encounters with the whip.
The dancer was oblivious to the crowd that gathered to watch. Another crack of the whip and a rose of red blood blossomed on the front of his thigh. He limped for two steps, the dance and the drums ate his agony once more. His arm was aglisten with blood, his torso had spattered lines around it from the movement, and the front of the breech was damp red. His leg grew a long red tattoo to his ankle that left shiny blood beads on the dry ground. His leaps got higher, his cries more blissful as the whip flew and its static cut the air. He opened a wound on his shoulder blade and another on the calf of his right leg. His eyes were shiny with pain; his raw flesh bore the marks of agony. He was traveling with the pain. It was his companion, his catalyst. The body, pain and all, transcended.
His brown face cracked into a beatific smile and his eyes cleared, no longer glassy but witnessing transformation. Like Dionysus, he spun in the dirt, the whip and the flesh disappeared in a blur. The drumming became furious; the crowd participated in the wildness with whistles, yells and shouts of their own. Several horned goats, as transfixed as the crowd, bleated wildly at the edge of the circle. Murta said the dancer probably wouldn’t open more wounds. She was right.
The drumming stopped and the dancer stood motionless in the centre of the circle, his whip limp and benign in the dirt. Blood trickled in leisurely rivulets down his body. A wailing cheer went up from the crowd and they began tossing coins toward the bleeding man. The drummers scurried about collecting the money, carrying it in their inverted drums and offering gestures of gratitude to the crowd. As the crowd dispersed, several merchants with shops near the temple brought out food and water to give to the trio.
“Are you all right? You look a little freaked out.”
“A little. Tell me what we just witnessed, Murta?” I asked.
“Okay. The dancer is a sin eater. Are you familiar with the term?”
“He is following an old, old tradition where a man, by inviting pain to himself, experiencing it fully and dancing it into ecstasy, accomplishes the transformation of suffering into bliss. As a result, his immediate community – those witnessing the event – is spared that suffering. He has eaten their sins and in return for this service, the spectators and the nearby merchants pay him in coin and food.”
“He suffers so they don’t have to,” I said.
“Exactly. He’s transcending his body and his mind. He is really dancing with his spirit, the whip is a symbol of spirit but it’s also the connection that joins body and spirit.”
“Jesus suffered so Christians wouldn’t have to. He ate their sins,” I said.
“The only differences are cultural. We just witnessed a more hands-on approach that most Christians wouldn’t find acceptable or comfortable. The distance between Christian Communion and goatboy with his whip is great only in its level of comfort for the participants. In the ritual of spilling blood and rending flesh, sanitized and made safe for modern Christians, no blood donation required. Just sip the wine, taste the wafer and try not to think about cannibalism,” Murta said.
“That is the ancient root of Communion, the human sacrifice, eating our own. Christianity proclaimed we don’t have to keep going through this all the time because Jesus Christ did it for us in One Big Sacrifice.”
“The Lamb of God. And goatboy? What did the Christians make of him with his little horns? Satan, of course.”
“Since you are familiar with the dancer’s intent, how do you feel now?” I asked.
“I have known people who, witnessing a sin eater, don’t see flesh or movement at all. They only experience the direct connection to the Divine the dancer has created. That’s how I feel in my own personal way. With the dancer’s help, I’ve been touched by the Divine. And you?”
“A little queasy.”
While Murta and I stood talking, I noticed the drummers were cleaning the dancer’s wounds with urine and a poultice made of chewed leaves. The dancer was standing, filled with energy, his smiling face lit with a transcendent glow.
Several goats sauntered up gazing at the trio with huge glassy eyes. One began flicking drops of the dancer’s blood out of the dirt into its mouth with its tongue.
written spring 2002.
“The Sin Eater” was selected as a Top Ten Finalist in the 2002 Eden Mills Writer’s Festival Short Story Contest