The Sin Eater

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic

In times gone by it was the custom in some parts of the country to call the sin eater when one of your loved ones passed. A slice of bread or special cake would be placed on the corpse or passed above the coffin to absorb the sins of the departed. It was then eaten and the load of sin taken from the departed. Often the role would be taken by someone who was poor, on the fringes of society and hungry.
But what if there was an entity that thrived on consuming the sins of others?




The body of Silas Etheridge lay out in its coffin set up on the dining table. His daughter, Dorothy, sat in vigil beside it. She was quite alone. A thin stream of well wishers had filed by expressing their condolences to her. She had no doubt they were sincere in the sentiment for her, but none of them had much regard for the man who had gone to meet his maker. Silas had been a mean and avaricious man, incapable of sympathy or affection. However, she felt she had to do her duty as a daughter. Despite his inability to provide for her emotional needs he had always attended to her physical ones. The house was warm and comfortable. She had good, if not particularly fashionable clothes and she had never been hungry. She had been well educated at his expense and as his only surviving relative she stood to inherit everything. Unlike most women she knew, her father had never pushed her to marry. He told her not to give away the family fortune to the first ne'er do well that came along . Make sure she married a man who was her equal at the very least and have no business with sweet talking paupers. Consequently she now felt somewhat left on the shelf, still a spinster of the parish at the age of thirty. Since her mother had died some twelve years before she had dutifully run the household.

The most pressing problem she had was how to send her father to his rest with a clean and blameless soul. He had been greedy, covetous and mean in life. He would help nobody and had never taken part in the relief of the poor or sick unlike his wealthy neighbours. As far as he was concerned the poor only had themselves to blame and any poor beggar that was found on his farm was sent away with a beating. He did not attend church or pray and never seemed to worry about the consequences of this. Dorothy was quite beside herself when even at the last he refused prayer, blessing or the chance to make confession. The local vicar had left with a grave expression on his face and said to her that he could not force a man to accept the grace of God. Now this left her with only one choice. She had called for the services of the local sin eater.

Dorothy recalled how the previous day the shabby creature had come to the door. In exchange for some food and beer the woman would accept bread that had been placed on the corpse to absorb the sin from it. She would consume the sins along with the bread and the departed would reach heaven. However when it came to the old woman eating the sin laden bread she began to gag on it. She claimed that despite being fresh made that morning by Dorothy's cook, it was stale and like sawdust. She proclaimed that the weight of her fathers sins were so heavy that it was more than another person could take on board. In all her years of doing this she had never come across one who was so evil. She had left taking the rest of the loaf and a flagon of beer with her for her trouble. Now Dorothy feared for her father's immortal soul .

It would not be long before nightfall and she looked out of the window towards the beginning of a fierce red winter sunset. In the distance winding up the hill beyond the neat garden she could see the lych way, the coffin road where her father would make his final journey in the morning. It was three miles to the churchyard and six of the estate tenants, strong young farmhands, would carry the old man to his final rest. Dorothy knew they were not looking forward to the task as they had already moved the coffin for her into the front parlour and had been surprised at how heavy the seemingly frail corpse had been. She heard them muttering about how he was weighed down with his greed and other sins.

Out of this glowing horizon Dorothy saw the figure of a man enter through the garden gate. He was dressed in a heavy cloak to keep out the cold of the short winter afternoon. He made his way to the front door and Dorothy left it to the housekeeper to find out what his business may be. She could overhear the conversation from the hallway as the man introduced himself as an acquaintance of the departed Silas and would like very much to pay his respects. She went to the parlour door and opened it.

“Thank you Eliza. The gentleman may come in. Perhaps you could prepare some tea for us?”

“Very good m'am” the housekeeper replied.

The man looked at Dorothy with the most piercing green eyes she had ever seen and smiled a generous smile. His teeth were even and white against his complexion, reddened by the cold wind that was blowing outside.

“Thank you Miss Etheridge. Your hospitality is most kind at this sad time. I have done business with your late father several times over the years. I have come a long way to say farewell to him. Perhaps I could trouble you for a little food, if it is not too forward of me.” he asked.

“Of course not Mr.....?”

“Underwood. George Underwood, at your service.”

The man gave a low bow and removed his hat to reveal dark hair thinning on top of his head.

“Please come this way. Father is in here. We can then perhaps retire to the drawing room for tea. The fire is alight in there and you will be more comfortable.” suggested Dorothy.

Underwood nodded and followed her into the room where the coffin and its occupant were now illuminated by the rays of the setting sun.

“I'm sorry I don't remember my father mentioning you Mr Underwood, but then he rarely spoke of his business to me. Somewhat of a handicap now I have been left in charge, but our estate manager is a good man. Are you familiar with him?”

“No. The business with your father was not related to the farm or estate. I must be frank with you Miss Etheridge. I was something more of an advisor to Silas.”

“Are you in the legal profession Mr Underwood?”

“No. My role is more ...spiritual, shall we say.” he replied.

“My father was not a religious man. He had no time for the local church or our vicar.”

Dorothy was both puzzled and intrigued by what role this man had played in her fathers life.

“It is quite hard to explain the nature of the business I am in, but I could possibly be of service to him one last time.” he said.

“How so?” Dorothy enquired.

“You are worried about his burden of sin he is carrying. I can relieve him of that burden. He may then go to the eternal rest that you would like for him. He can rest in peace.”

“Only the good Lord can absolve him Mr Underwood.”

“Have your servant bring the food to this room. I will take his sin and he can go to his grave tomorrow the way you would like.”

“You are a sin eater?” she asked, quite surprised that a smart and wealthy looking man should be offering this service. Usually it was the poor and desperate who lived on the fringes of local society who were called upon, and then reviled afterwards for what they had done.

“Yes. Of a sort.” he replied.

Dorothy heard the rattle of the china cups as Eliza was making her way along the hall. She opened the door.

“In here please Eliza.”

The tea tray was placed on a side table and Eliza left hastily, finding the presence of her late employer disturbing. In life he had never been a pleasant man. In death he made her feel uneasy as though the malevolence and cruelty in him were still there and concentrated in the room where he was laid out.

Underwood stood beside the coffin as Dorothy poured the tea into a fine china cup. He took the offered drink from her and she noticed his hands were those of a man who had never had to do physical toil of any kind. She took it as an indication that he was at least a gentleman. She poured herself a cup and they drank in silence. She looked out of the window watching the darkness gather and the sun descend. The man put his cup and saucer down and picked up the plate with a plain scone and some butter that had been brought in for him along with a choice of cake.

“Let's do this now before night falls Miss Etheridge and I can be on my way.”

He placed the plate on the chest of the corpse and put his hand on the old man's forehead. He started to whisper in what, as far as Dorothy could make out, seemed to be a strange and foreign language. She watched as he closed his eyes and concentrated on the words. She began to feel uneasy about this and wondered if she was witnessing something ungodly. Her fears were compounded as a red mist began to seep out of the closed lips of her dead father. The strange man muttered louder now and Dorothy backed away from him.

Without warning the eyes of the corpse opened and the mouth fell open at the same time. Red smoke filled the air above the coffin and the table it was on began to shake. Dorothy was fixed to the spot, unable to move or make a sound. As suddenly as it had started the mist stopped. Underwood tipped his head back, mouth open and inhaled. Every trace of the mist disappeared into him and he had a look of what could only be described as bliss on his face. Dorothy dropped the cup she was holding and stepped back even further, but this did not disturb the strangers reverie. The corpses eyes and mouth closed, and he returned to his previous expression. Dorothy was shaking now, but still unable to make a sound. She watched as Underwood calmly took the plate from the coffin and proceeded to eat the scone. It was devoured quickly in three large bites. He turned to her and as he stepped forwards she backed away yet more now finding herself pinned against the wall.

“Miss Etheridge. Please don't be afraid. You are quite safe. I have done what you needed and now Silas is free of all his avarice, greed, cruelty and intolerance. I have it here, and here!”

He tapped his heart and his head as he said the words. Dorothy noticed the man looked invigorated by the experience, the green eyes glowing in the last rays of sunlight coming through the window. As she kept as far back as she could, he stooped to pick up her broken cup and saucer and put it on the tray. She still could not find her voice as he gave a low bow and put his hat back on. He let himself out of the front door and went off into the night.

Dorothy made her way to the nearest chair, and now found she could call out for help.

“Eliza!” she shouted.

The servant appeared quickly in the doorway. Perhaps she had been standing in the hall listening, keeping close by to make sure Dorothy was safe. She helped her mistress to her room, seeing that she was pale and agitated. However she made no explanation of what had happened during the strange man's visit. Eliza helped her to bed, took the tea tray out of the front parlour and shut the door, leaving the old man to spend his final night in the house alone.

The morning of the funeral came and Dorothy was surprised to wake up in her bed. She couldn't remember getting there and she had slept more soundly than she had for many nights. She rose, washed and dressed in a new black dress and coat for the day ahead. It was around nine when the men from the farm arrived, hats doffed in respect as they entered the house. Dorothy could hear them as they set about putting the lid on the coffin and preparing to carry the old man to the churchyard. They had allowed two hours for the final journey so they could rest the coffin on the rests at the end of each mile. They talked as they worked unaware of her presence just outside the door.

“Did you hear about the strange light out on the hill last night? It was making it's way along the lych way. It was heading the way we'll be heading this morning. A will o' the wisp my mother says.”

“Nonsense.” said another man.

“No, straight up. She watched it for nigh on an hour as it headed up the hill and over the top.”

“Your mother has been on the gin!” another said.

Dorothy left the hall and went to find Eliza in the kitchen. She didn't go into the kitchen very often so Eliza looked slightly startled at her appearance.

“I just came to say thank you for helping me last night Eliza. I felt most unwell after the visitor left and I'm afraid I broke one of the good cups and saucers. Mr Underwood was kind enough to pick up the pieces.” she said.

“It was no trouble helping you m'am. It's no doubt all the distress has taken its toll on you. But there was no broken crockery m'am. Everything came back to me in one piece.”

Dorothy shivered but didn't argue with her housekeeper who was always a good honest woman.

“My mistake Eliza. I dropped it but it must have made a good landing. No harm done. We will be leaving shortly. Do wrap up warm.”

“Yes m'am.”

Dorothy left the kitchen and wondered about her memory of seeing the china in bits on the parlour floor.

The funeral party left the house as planned, the coffin placed on the shoulders of the six men ready to tackle the sharp incline with their heavy load. They all commented as they set off that the weight they were bearing felt considerably less than when they had moved the coffin into the parlour the previous morning. The winter sun shone down on them from a faultless blue sky as an east wind whipped across the hillside. Dorothy looked back towards the house as they topped the hill and saw the tall figure of a man in a black cloak at the bottom. He raised his hat to her. Within a moment he was gone and she didn't even see which direction he had taken. She was sure it was the stranger from the previous evening, but as there were more pressing events taking place she carried on without a word. Silas Etheridge was laid to rest without any further event, and the strange visitor of his final night at home was never seen again.




Submitted: October 27, 2020

© Copyright 2020 Petula Mitchell . All rights reserved.

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Add Your Comments:


Joe Stuart

An interesting legend, Petula, and you made a good story from it. I'd have to be very hungry to eat any of that bread.

Tue, October 27th, 2020 8:01pm


Hi Joe. Yes, it's certainly a strange way to make a living.

Wed, October 28th, 2020 4:35pm

Patrick G Moloney

Nice one, I love the theme of this story.

Wed, October 28th, 2020 12:31am


Thanks Patrick. I was watching an archeology programme of all things when the 'sin eater ' phenomenon was discussed. Apparently the custom carried on into the early 20th century along the Welsh border. While doing the excavation work in Birmingham before the new HS2 terminal could be built they found people buried with plates, just ordinary every day ones, and the plate was placed on the body with some salt. A slice of bread was placed on it and then consumed. The plate was then rendered unusable and left in the coffin.

Wed, October 28th, 2020 4:33pm

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