The knock on the door preceded the last breath by only a moment. It was the last sound a dead man would hear, but whether it was fright or relief which hastened the soul’s departure, no one was willing to say.
The timing may have seemed uncanny, if tradition did not state that a window should be left open to allow the spirit to flee to the heavens – and perhaps to allow a small, sallow figure to peek over the sill and get his entrance just right.
John would have told anyone who asked that he could smell death coming, but no one had questions for a sin-eater, unless it was to ask why he had not gotten gone yet. No one had kind words for him except once in their lives, and often it was too late to speak them. He preferred it that way. Death was a steady business, and a reasonably profitable one, but he didn’t like looking at their eyes.
He wasn’t supposed to, really. He was just supposed to eat the bread and drink the bitter, frothy ale balanced on an unmoving chest, taking upon himself the misdeeds and mistakes and bad manners of old, shriveled men and wizened women clasping strings of prayer beads in knotted, numbing fingers as he recited the ancient words of pardon.
“To rest I bid the soul of thee; thine sins transfer from thou to me. Haunt not the lands where once you’d dwell, but fly towards heaven and leave me for hell.”
No sooner would he finish than he would be tossed a farthing for his services and sent quickly on his way, providing solace but given no succor in the darkened houses of the marginally mournful. Sometimes, when he looked over his shoulder, they were already scouring drawers and desks and dressing gowns for items of portable value. Most of the time, the servants had already gotten to them first.
Only the old folks asked for him anymore. No one else believed in him. Wickshire was growing modern, he thought disgustedly as he forced himself to swallow the day-old crust, stuck in his throat and tasting vaguely tangy with the spit-up blood that spattered the nightshirt underneath. Only the old folks knew.
John was hardly in the spring of his youth, either. His breath came too short; his eyes were dimmer, and his knees creaked now as he scuttled back from the kicking boot of the home’s new owner, the grown son of a man who would hardly have protested at the actions of his progeny.
“Peace, good sir,” he muttered as he ducked out of the way. “I ain’t done you no harm but what you asked for.”
John would have no sons of his own, for which he was grateful at such times, nor any daughters, nor a wife to recall him fondly when the winters piled over him one time too many. His bones would crumble into the earth unburied, returning sustenance to the soil, turning bread and ale into food for wheat and rye, turned again to food for the righteous and the sinful.
They said a sin-eater came from nowhere and left nothing behind him, but John knew better than that. He knew what would happen when the gluey rattling in his chest became too much to bear. He was an expert on death, and he needed no open windows to smell it stalking him.
In the old days of Wickshire, he would have been provided for. The villages would each send a brave man, or perhaps their most foolish one, with bundles of split wood and bags of hard-baked oatcakes and summer roses dried and crisped to scented brown, to last him through the cold, dark nights and send him on his final way with honors.
They would have realized that they needed him more than he needed them. There were more villages than sin-eaters, these days, and still a smattering of people who harkened to the old ways. There were enough that he could find a better situations somewhere else, if he was not enticed to stay.
In the old days, the villagers would have remembered why it mattered. They would have known that their sins did not die with the eater: that tainted loaves and watered beer were not the end of their deceit. The gods demanded more of their disciples, and the demons craved sweeter meat.
As dying bones leeched their nutriment into the soil, so too would the sins of the village be taken up in bread and butter and frothy milk, to be returned to their children again and again – unless John did more than take a proffered farthing and run as fast as his stiffened legs could carry him.
There were no blossoms to cheer his heart as he began his slow, shuffling journey to the last house he would enter, but not the last one he would leave. The children called it a fairy house, and sported in its shadow with their bare feet and ribboned braids, rolling willow hoops down to the river and delighting in the dappled shade.
Perhaps ignorance was not so wrong for them, but children these days grew no wiser as they aged, and for that he pitied them. No one would pity him, though, his breath whistling through his teeth as he tried to squeeze himself inside the low dome of plaited branches, cool and close and coffin-like.
He didn’t know who renewed the tightly woven fronds of birch and hawthorn, but he did know that the thick layer of rich, ashy soil was not natural to the river’s edge.
John settled down, cross-legged, ignoring the twinge and the ache and the pointless complaining of his twisted spine. The night that fell upon him was not natural either – or perhaps it was the most natural thing he had ever known. He was not the only sin-eater with impeccable timing, and he smiled as he murmured the words that would send the sins of the last half a century away from Wickshire and back to where they came.
“To you I bid the sins of all; thy food to stuff thine greedy maw. Haunt not the lands where black hearts dwell, but send me to heaven and stay you to hell.”
It was hard to finish the phrase as the demon crunched his way up from his cooling toes, supping on bitter blood and avoiding John’s gaze as it stiffened and his last breath sighed away.
In the old days, the villagers would have believed in him, he thought. In the old days, the sin-eaters would have been remembered. But Wickshire was growing modern, and soon there would be no one left to realize how much they needed him as the children played in the rich river soil.