Old Jobe was clapping his board around the town in his long brown macintosh, muttering, penancing. Mam said he was already dealing with three gluttons this week, and that wasn’t as much fun as it sounded. She muttered I shouldn’t stare, but I stole a few glances. In our penny pinching household a ritual meal of whatever you fancied was a dream. Jobe, however, looked particularly green at the gills.
Even in our small town someone died on the regular, and you could tell what their last confessing had been as soon as Jobe left the house. He’d have pinned a bit of butcher’s paper to the boards slipped over his head, and he’d have written in big letters whatever sin he was atoning for. Wrath. Envy. Greed. Our town was stinking full of all the venalities.
A couple of lads from college were killed in an accident and Jobe did a week of sin eating for each. Just lust and sloth. I couldn’t think how they’d have had time to confess, given what happened, but Da said Jobe would have asked the school and the families. This was a new bit of information I’d not considered before.
I obsessed over it. What would Mam and Da say to Jobe if I suddenly came a cropper? What would they make of the jar of teeth under the floorboard in my bedroom? What would they tell him about the sweaty magazines under my mattress? In the complicated domestic theology of our house Da told me to get over myself, I wasn’t that interesting. Mam said I was a good lad. I think she was glad it had me worried because I kept my room tidy and helped round the house for months without her asking.
I heard that Jobe was a special case and that not every town had a Sin Eater. I could hardly credit it. I looked for him all over town, he was always walking to keep his sin-weight down. He was atoning in the pub and I’d all sorts of questions crammed down my throat desperate to be answered. He seemed surprised, as if no one had ever enquired. As though it was the most normal thing in the world.
He asked if I’d never worried that I might die unrepented or get stuck in purgatory because no one was penancing for the right things. I was about to tell him that was ridiculous but I remembered how obsessed I’d been and how relieved were the parents of those two lads who’d died. He watched my face carefully and seemed satisfied with what he saw.
I finished my drink and asked if he wanted another. He belched, said he could probably manage a half. He was a moderate man in many ways. I stood at the bar and wondered what sin he’d need eating ritually for himself when he died. As I watched him adjusting the papers on his board I realised it might well be pride.
E. E. Rhodes is an archaeologist who accidentally lives in the corner of a small castle in Worcestershire. She’s surprised by this too. She writes short fiction, CNF, and prose poetry. Recent work can be read in Janus Literary, Fudoki Magazine, and The Cabinet of Heed. New work is coming in Fictive Dream, Fahmidan Journal, and the National Flash Fiction Day anthology.