The sin-eater arrived in Zonia Province two days before the death of the great gun fighter, Arryo Salazar.
He was a small man, the sin-eater, thin and wiry, a rusting coil. At sixty-four, he had left the tautness of youth behind, and his skin, wrinkled, but importantly still unmarked, sagged and folded when he spoke. Here, the internal war between his cynicism and compassion was revealed. The one time it had been said in his presence, the sin-eater had replied in his quiet voice that the two were not in conflict for dominance, but rather for co-existence. He continued (smiling benignly, ignoring the discomfort of those around him) that the years of listening to and reading about the flaws and failures of men and women had bred in him a kindness and understanding that was tempered by the knowledge that the most consistent of emotions were dishonesty and selfishness.
He and his mule had been paid to journey through the dust stained, barren mountain passes to Zonia by the wife of Arryo Salazar, Sonia. He knew that the similarity of the two names was not happenstance, but despite her importance, still considered not attending her. Lately, he had begun to let thoughts of retirement settle upon him in a serious manner: there were other sin-eaters, he knew, young atheists with straight backs and still faces, young men and women who would take over his work, grateful for his absence. He had been struggling to find a reason why he should not step aside when the letter arrived. Had he not already made a small fortune, he asked himself? Had he not made enough to finish his life comfortably on? Was he not getting too old to be riding for days on end?
He held the unopened letter and thought about the final decades of his life. He could spend them alone on his property, caring for his mules and letting his name slowly submerge his title. It would be an honest life, a quiet life. Perhaps, after enough time, he could take a wife, or at least start a meaningful relationship, if he did retire.
But the morning after he read the letter, he saddled his mule.
Zonia appeared on the third day of his travel, in the afternoon. It was a sprawling province of shacks and buildings that threatened to become a city, that hinted at a capital for Zita, the first real city for a country new to independence after decades of colonial rule. Built into the stained crags of the Galimade Range, the buildings of mud brick and copper roofs sat beneath the flat red sun, each an unintended replica of a flattened or exploded bullet, a moment of violence that injured or killed depending on how far each sunk into the mountain, of how much copper was revealed.
The house of the great gunfighter sat at the highest part of Zonia, a grand building that spoke of decadence, desire, and dominance. It was, the sin-eater thought, one of the finest that he had seen, a building of not just of magnificent construction, but of psychological insight. As a physical object, it was twice the size of any building around it: both taller and longer, as well as wider. It had been made from thick granite blocks that led up to a roof made from ridged iron metal. There, in its vast spread, the bloody sun reflected across it like a flag, a banner of violence earned.
Beneath it, on the long, wide veranda, as if it were to her that the duty of holding the flag fell, was a single woman.
Sonia Salazar, the wife of Arryo, he knew.
He had not seen her in the flesh before, but he had heard stories, had seen pictures. In terms of their flattery, he thought that they were quite fair: Sonia had been a beautiful woman for whom the transition from her middle to late years had done little damage. She was tall and lean and her hair was cut short, dyed to a blonde that verged on silver, and within her bearing was a grace and surety that appeared embarrassed by the house she stood before. Accordingly, she dressed simply in brown pants and a white linen shirt, and she did not hide her clean arms, arms without any tattoos.
Arms like his own, arms that recorded nothing for God.
“My husband is inside.” Her grip was firm, dry, and she did not ask his name. “I apologise for the heat, but he is always cold.”
He unstrapped his thick leather bag and brushed the dirt from it. With the same hard bristled brush, he dusted off his own browns and blacks, then the mule. Once the animal had been stabled, he followed her inside. There, she led him to the end of the hallway where a heavy wooden door stood. Her long, elegant hand pressed against it; but there was no strength in the push. Instead, her head tilted forward. “He has deteriorated since I wrote to you.” She spoke quietly, but there was nothing that spoke of grief. “I feared you would arrive after he died.”
“God is in no rush to take a life,” he replied. “It is said that he enjoys the longer tales, those that linger. It is only family who are anxious at the end.”
“We all feel it. All of us in Zonia.”
He placed the heavy bag on the ground, waited.
“I do not want you to misunderstand me,” she continued. “I do not want you to think that I do this alone. This is not the decision of his wife: this is the decision of his community. We know that to remove his tattoos is to go against his wishes, that it is to hide his soul from the eyes of God. But it needs to be done. Even Ciri, the mortician who is responsible for Arryo’s tattoos, has agreed. We do not do this because of God, I want you to know that. We do it for history. Soon, Zonia will be the largest province in Zita. We are the first block in the rebuilding of our nation. We must be strong and secure. We must be an anchor from which the nation can hang. If the truth of my husband is known, it will erode this, it will damage not just our home and our livelihoods, but our nation.”
Beyond the door Arryo Salazar lay in a large bed.
At first glance, his body was lost in the mix of reds and browns and yellows of the bedding and cushions, but soon, Arryo’s long body emerged. He lay on his back as if he were dead, as if he lay in a casket for public display, his sun-faded flesh sunk deep into his bones, his eyes closed and mouth a pressed line. From his neck, black tattoos covered him, twisting down his torso, his arms, his legs and, even his bare feet. They were, the sin-eater knew, the story of his life: each act, each secret, recorded in the private language of a mortician, a language in which words and illustrations were joined and woven together. There were no lies: for the devout, to lie to God was to invite his wrath. He judged you not on your acts, but on the honesty by which you acknowledged them. For God, it was said, the perfect history was one in which tragedy and triumph, weakness and strength, were told in tandem, where the truth that the divine already knew was acknowledged without artifice.
The sin-eater approached Arryo Salazar’s body, the bottles in his bag clinking as he placed it on the hard floor. Closer, now, it appeared as if Arryo’s tattoos had begun to blend with the shadows of the bed. He looked, the sin-eater thought, as if he was dissolving.
Arryo Salazar had been born eighty-three years and forty-two days before the sin-eater turned over his foot, turning it to his gaze. The date was recorded as a small circular mark below his left ankle. His mother, lines leading out of it said, was named Jero, his father Manet. But it was not his true birth, not the birth of the man who lay before him, no: that happened sixty-nine years ago, the story of it curling up into his shins, into the foundation of his body.
He was a slender young man then, a boy, truthfully, before a late growth that would deliver him to his six foot one height. He was often described by soft words, by gentleness, and he had avoided much of the rough sport of his peers. That resulted in many of them comparing him to a girl, teasing him as if he had feminine qualities, suggesting he had been born wrong, insinuating that he was queer in all the ways and shapes that the word could imply. It resulted in a young man easily baited, who responded in violence and anger, though no one had been seriously hurt and his parents believed that he would grow out of it.
But then he turned fourteen.
“Is that acid?”
The faint smell of burning flesh—a kiss to the ankle, no more, no more—touched the sin-eater’s nose. “Yes,” he said to Sonia. “I start with a mild variety. As I increase the strength, it will get more and more painful. But I try to limit the pain as best that I can at the start.”
“I have heard others use rock salt.”
“It removes very little, to be honest,” he said. “A mortician records for life. Of course, ink fades, no matter the quality, and it is not uncommon in a man of Arryo’s age to find that his first tattoos have been retouched. Fortunately, he does not appear to have had his marks redone.”
“No. He believed to do so was a vanity, to turn his life into a fashion. In his appearance, he was quite modest.”
“Otherwise, as you can read, he was not.”
At fourteen, Arryo Salazar picked up his first gun.
In later years, he would claim that it was a Hawese revolver, a civil war relic, a piece made long before Zita ceded their sovereignty to the Shibtri Isles. The truth was that the young Arryo knew nothing about revolvers, about their make and design, and much less about those tied to a civil war ended decades before his birth. He did not even know about the (then current) attempts of others to regain their independence. Oh, he was not stupid, no: he could read, he could do math, but he was a boy who had little time for books and intellectual pursuit. He left school at fourteen to make money, to escape his peers and the poverty that his family skirted.
To that boy, the revolver was just a gun, a simple tool that he purchased cheaply before the freight company began its journey to Aja. To buy it, he had taken a loan from the freight master. Before handing him the money, the older man had said, “Smart, boy. You don’t go unarmed into the desert. There’s all kinds of desperate out there.”
But it was in the province of Aja that he drew the gun. In the evening, he pushed through the curtain to a bar that the same freight master led him to, leaving the sweltering red sun and dry dust behind. He was tired and dirty, and it was here that he pulled out his revolver and fired into the face of another man.
His name was Dekor Alma. He was a large, boisterous man, a man known to be a fine drunk and an intermittent father. He was a subsistence farmer the rest of the time, a man trying to make his living out of the sunbaked dirt, a farmer who paid sixty-five percent of his income in taxes to the Governor of Zita, the Isles-appointed ruler of the nation. Alma’s friends thought him decent and later said he meant only to make a joke when slapped the young Arryo across the ass, yelling that he had a “fine dress” for one as delicate as he.
All six shots from the revolver were fired, but according to all, even Arryo himself, the other man was dead by the second.
He killed another three men in prison, a truth he was public about, an admittance he believed was important for the man he would become. Who the men were was less clear: years later, as the aging mayor of Zonia, Arryo Salazar re-created the names of these men, described them as sympathizers and traitors. Only the words curled up his thighs, no longer than the sin-eater’s fingernail, claimed that they were not. He had forgotten their names, if he had ever known them. They meant more to Arryo now as tools to forge his reputation as a man who fought against colonisation and slavery, a man who wanted to regain what the Shibtri Isles took away from him and his people. He needed them to show his love of Zita, for without it, he was no better than a bandit, a killer: a gunfighter who took the lives of men and women for naught but money.
Two years after Alma’s death, on a late Oktober evening, late enough that the seething red sun had sunk behind the flat desert, leaving the cracked, broken landscape that was the true prison guard to fall into an inky stillness, the left side of Arryo’s prison was blown open. Made from poorly sealed brick, the walls had always been weak—small bricks could be pushed out—and because of it, the explosion shook the entire prison as if the hand of God had lifted it into the air. What fell out were fifty prisoners. They landed before the freshly killed corpses of their guards and their saviour, the bandit Caeh Jah, who recruited them all to his “revolution.”
Jah was a heavyset man with a thick greying beard. His hair was still black, as black as the tattoos that curled around his arms and neck. His revolution was widely known as fiction, and his speech to the prisoners was as hollow as any he had given. Yet Jah believed that his speeches hid his true intentions, created a false trail that the authorities could not fail to follow; whereas the truth of it was that Jah had simply not registered as important enough to warrant attention in a landscape seething with true revolutionaries. In the minds of the Governor and his authorities, Jah was a small time bandit, a man who did as much damage to his fellow people as he did to the invaders.
What none realised as they entered the small, muddy camp of Cael Jah was that as age crept upon him, Jah had begun to wish that his lies were real. He began to entertain notions that he could be a true part of the revolution. He did not possess a strong sense of self-awareness, and so he was unable to connect his newfound desire to his age and to the death of his eldest son months before. He certainly did not realise that it was the combination of these that drew him to the young Arryo, that saw him befriend the man after a long walk through the night that ended as the red sun lit up the collection of stolen copper roofs and tents that was his camp.
“Look at these marks on my skin. They speak of my parents, of a man and a woman who in their great grandparents had known men and women who had been free of Isles rule. I was of the first generation who could not teach that to my own child.” Jah held court in his hut, a narrow building that had two rooms, both of which he cleared out before Arryo arrived. There, he would prepare a warm beer and lean meal to share. “We have lost our independence, not just in terms of land, but in identity, in culture. Even the God who reads my body is not ours anymore. The lines are different to my parents, to their parents, are altered by the Isles’ influence. It knows no sanctity when it perverts and we must take a stand. Not tomorrow, not next month, not a decade later, but now. Look out the window, Arryo. Look at that awful, blood-soaked sun. That is our sign, our banner in this revolution.”
At first, Arryo had been wary of Jah and his friendship. He was a jaded young man, the dark, cruel lines that marred his face etched into place as the feminine quality of his youth was replaced with a lean, stretched appearance. Yet, while the appearance of his youth had left him before he arrived in prison, his lack of power, his inability to find self-determination, remained. It had made life difficult in prison, and he feared that any relationship with Jah would be one in which he would remain subservient. When it was clear that the older man did not want to control him—that he had identified instead in Arryo an as yet unspecified need for direction, a way for him to gain what had never been given—the young gunfighter was seduced for the first time in his life intellectually.
In his other relationships, Arryo’s expressions of self-determination remained as violent as they had been in the bar earlier. He struck out at men, at women, and even at the mortician who had laid the ink upon his long legs in those days. He took insult easily, and it was not long until he had killed another five men.
His relationships with women in the camp did not fare better. He identified within himself an attraction to passiveness, to a lack of assurance, an inability to be dominant. He did not like to be told what to do, did not like to feel as if he was not in charge. He desired to be in control, to be the dominant partner. Yet, a great number of the women in Jah’s camp were prostitutes, or had been; it was one of the few professions that women from poor villages could obtain under Isle rule, and he knew that their passiveness was a deceit. He found his gaze turning to girls who were younger than him, to those who, because of their age, had been taught to respect their elders, had been taught to be quiet and obedient.
Soon, such were all he desired.
For the most part, the sin-eater noted, Arryo Salazar’s hands were clean, long-fingered, delicate even in his final days of inactivity. Tattoos looped gently from his wrists, curls that hid numbers, kept a count that he had believed at first were for the men and women he had killed.
“I have not seen him weep before,” Arryo Salazar’s wife said. She held a damp brown cloth to her nose and had already left the room twice. “For as long as I have known him, he has been so strong, so direct. It has caused us many fights. The last ones we had were about Zonia. We fought about reverting the name to Galimade. The people of the town want it, for it is the traditional name, with a strong heritage, but he would not hear it. This was two weeks ago. His voice never lost its strength. It was Zonia, he said, and cared not my opinion, or my tears in regards to it—and now, now I find myself in the presence of his own.”
The sin-eater continued his work silently.
“Does the smell affect you?” she asked, finally.
“It will follow me for days after,” he admitted, his voice quiet, his throat raw from the smell and taste of burnt flesh. “But such is my trade. Just as a mortician will sit with needle and ink and records in a ceremony he or she will never speak of after, I do the same. I carry the tears with me. I hear the pain in their breathing, their voices. I see them strain against my straps. It is a dishonesty to pretend otherwise.”
“In that way, you are much like believers, are you not?”
“In my youth, I would not have said so, but now . . .” He shrugged. “Now I no longer believe we are so different.”
Caeh Jah’s long nights, his seductive words and ideologies, his intellectual birth of Arryo, continued for two years. In that time, the bandit’s riverside camp stopped its drifting up and down the riverbanks to sink roots into the ground, to become an outpost for those abandoning the cities controlled by the Isles.
According to the new Isle Governor, Benard Hart, Caeh Jah was part of a revolution striking deep into the heart of the empire’s land.
He spoke the words in a theatre three times the size of Jah’s camp, to an audience that stood before him in parade uniforms, to soldiers old and new. He had arrived in Zita with two thousand new recruits and a directive to civilize the natives, and his speech was the start of a campaign to do just that. He spoke in the bold language of the Isles, spoke in the name of freedom, of democracy, and, in the morning that followed, crimson and black uniformed soldiers stepped into their saddles, revolvers and rifles in their grasp, and rode into the desert.
Cael Jah was one of the first killed. Unaware of his approaching mortality, he rose from his wide bed in the pale red-lit morning. Half-naked, he pulled open the cloth of his door, stretched, then spat. He twisted his neck to crack it . . . and in that movement, saw the Isles soldiers sweeping down to cross the muddy river into his camp. He cried out, but the sound drew the first shots, and he fell to the ground, clutching his stomach. He managed to crawl into the first of his two rooms, stopping before the boxes beneath his bed, before his weapons. He was already dead when an Isles soldier came up behind him and shot him the back of the head.
It was this last that offended Arryo most.
He had been out of the camp for a week, officially picking up supplies. Unofficially, Jah had sent him away because of a growing tension between the young man and those in the camp that he hoped to diffuse. Arryo had not been surprised. He had begun to realise that he could no longer stay in the camp but had not yet decided where he could go. He had hoped that his return would be quiet so that he could talk to Jah, to ask him his opinion, to ask his help.
At the sight of Jah’s corpse, the final corpse in the fly-swarmed camp, the young man did not grieve. He was a man who did not shed tears. Instead, he pulled the wooden case from beneath the bed of the bandit, then mounted his horse and turned it in the direction of the soldiers. Moved by a powerful sense of anger, by a deep sense of injustice, he allowed his desire for revenge to consume him. The tattoos that curled up his shoulders revealed that he gave no thought to his own life, or his own legacy. Those thoughts were to come, of course. But at the time, he cared only for the long trail of the soldiers. For the month in which he killed thirty-four men and women.
The majority he killed from a distance. He skirted the soldiers’ path, trusting his knowledge of the cracked, barren desert. He would lie on the dusty red rocks, a single, solitary figure. Beside him, Cael Jah’s long, expensive black iron rifle—the rifle that lay inside the wooden box—waited to be lifted and sighted.
Through the lens of the scope, he watched holes appear suddenly, painfully, terrifyingly.
Arryo took very little satisfaction from those kills. None sated his need for revenge, none allowed him to feel as if he was righting a wrong.
He later said that it was too cold, too mechanical. “If you are to kill a man,” the lines around his neck, the lines that joined one shoulder to the other recorded, “you must stand before him and you must feel it.”
The final four he confronted in a narrow, jagged valley. They were starved of food and water and half mad with terror of his hunting. The crimson in their uniforms was sun-bleached, a pale imitation of the orb above, a metaphor for the people they had once been. Arryo took pleasure in that, for he believed they should be robbed of everything, that their very identities should be lost for what they did. He had stripped them of their power, their authority, and he believed that he saw an awareness of such in their gazes when he approached, in their pleading of him for mercy, for freedom. He thought, in the moment he lifted his revolver, that they understood what their country had done to him.
He left their corpses for the scavengers.
Arryo Salazar’s reputation grew as the revolution grew, his a parasitic relationship with the other. For nearly two decades, as his twenties and thirties dwindled, his every act was part of his legend. As his forties drew closer, he began to make sure that such was the case. He feared the failure of his body, the onset of age. Already, he had lost some of his speed, and at a distance, objects were no longer as clear as they once were. He sought to prepare for the day when both could no longer be relied upon. He was fatalistic in his preparation, believing that his death would arrive as he had delivered it to so many others, and that it would ultimately buy him only a handful more years than he deserved . . . but then he rode into the mountain town of Galimade, one of the oldest holds of the revolution, and found that such thoughts were no longer acceptable.
Across Arryo’s frail chest, the tattoos wove back to his heart, to the centre of his being. There a single name had been etched, the Z and S overlapping. When the sin-eater’s acid touched the skin, it peeled dramatically, suddenly, revealing bone.
“Would you like me to stop?” he asked the wife, Sonia.
“No,” her voice rasped. “Not now.”
“He may die.”
“He will soon enough.”
Sonia was nine when he first saw her, her brown skin clean of any marks, any history, unlike his. It was rare to find a child completely untouched by the hand of a mortician, and, despite his own faith, he was enthralled by it. He saw her clean skin as freshness, as virginity, as an empty person waiting to be filled. Oh, that did not mean she was without personality, without charm, but when he looked at her, he saw for the first time a blank, unwritten future.
She lived in the hotel her parents owned, the same hotel where he kept a room. In the first years that he knew her, he never heard her raise her voice, never heard her complain of any task she was given. Instead, she asked questions, questions without cynicism, without the jaded eye towards others and their politics that he had. Drawn to it, feeling his desires solidify, Arryo found himself waking early to help her with her tasks, to clean the floor of the hotel, to wash dishes.
Nothing untoward happened, not yet. Arryo was infatuated with her, reluctant to touch her, to reach out and pluck what was offered unknowingly, a hesitation he had never before felt. Oh, he was getting old, he told himself, as his black-inked arms sank into dirty water. Old and romantic. But the truth was, he did not want to ruin what he felt now, did not want to sully it just yet, not until he had had his fill.
When he was told that Galimade was under threat, it surprised him. Had he really been so blind to the conversations around him, to the warnings? Had he really missed Hart’s name repeated so often? He laughed ruefully the day he heard that the Shibtri Isles’ military, led by no other than Hart, had camped at the base of the mountain.
There was only one path to Galimade, the one that the sin-eater and his mule would ride on decades later. Beyond its peak, the mountain crumbled into a series of jagged falls, making the creation of a second impossible. Then, as now, there would be no retreat. There would be only a costly battle, where the Isles’ force would suffer huge losses before the sheer weight of their numbers finally took the town.
To Arryo, that meant there was another way.
“The Isles,” he said, first to Sonia to reassure her, then to the Mayor of Galimade. “The Isles have lost the taste for war here. Hart has lost over five thousand soldiers in two decades. The war he wages is politically unpopular at home. It is even more so here, where the army he leads is on the verge of mutiny. Even new recruits curse his name within a week of arrival. The losses that they will endure trying to take us are obvious to all of them—and they will force Hart into any other form of action if one is offered to them. One, such as a duel between myself and him, that gives the winner a peaceful victory will be impossible to turn away from.”
“And your price?” The Mayor was a slight man with watery eyes, a man whose gaze had begun to fail him after seeing so much violence. “Do not lie to me and say that you will do this for free, Arryo.”
It was agreed upon by the two men.
The risk was great, Arryo knew, not just to himself, but to Sonia, to Galimade. If he faltered, then both would cease to exist.
Yet, his estimation of the Isles’ military was correct. Benard Hart had arrived in Zita as the youngest Governor in the Isles history, a post that he was sure would lead to more. He had expected to return to the Shibtri Isles within two years, but instead found himself middle aged and with the distinction of being the longest serving and least effective Governor of Zita. He had remained in power because of the waning support for colonisation back home and because he maintained an iron clad belief that he could regain all that he had lost. Yet, he was not a fool: he knew that he needed a victory, a good one, to reinvigorate his soldiers. He had managed such victories in the past, but this time, it was against all advice that he rode for Galimade. The mountain will take its toll, he was told, but he shook his head. He needed not just a victory, but a symbol. He needed to be able to look at his men and say, “We did what others said we could not. We will do what others believe us incapable of.”
He needed the Galimade Mountain.
Arryo Salazar’s duel offered it cheaply.
He might not have taken the challenge if he had been popular. At the very least, he would have been able to pick a champion. He knew enough of Arryo to know the risk, but at the height of his unpopularity he had no other choice.
The duel took place in the middle of the day, when the red sun was at its peak. A circle was cleared in the middle of a flat part of the mountain, where the path opened up to a rest spot, where a long, dark well had been sunk, and where men and women from Galimade could watch with the Isles’ soldiers.
Arryo arrived first. He waited on bare feet for the other man, the sun’s heat sinking into his brown skin, into the revolver by his side. He felt the importance of the event, understood how if he was successful here then his life would change. He felt the power of it. He felt the choices that were denied to him unfolding. The lines around his heart recorded the epiphany, the realisation that he was, at last, a figure of power, of responsibility, and that the realisation lifted him clear of himself.
Hart arrived shortly after Arryo. He had a heaviness in him, as if, in juxtaposition to Arryo, the weight of the day turned him dense. It never left his limbs as he stretched, never dipped from his blue gaze, never allowed him the emptiness of mind that was necessary for him to emerge victorious from the duel that was about to take place.
In the end, Benard Hart’s revolver did not clear its holster.
And later, much later, in a silence that awaited weeping, Arryo Salazar took his child bride, and for all his life, cared not that he did.
• • • •
The sin-eater left her in the morning. He left her before the body of Arryo, whose flesh bubbled with burns. He left her with the pus starting to leak from the old man’s feet, from his ankles, much like the tears that had fallen from his eyes. The sin-eater left her to stand by Arryo as the last of his breath struggled from his lungs, as he began his journey to stand before God, already judged. Judged by his wife, by his “beloved,” by the woman from whom he had taken so much. The sin-eater left Arryo a man without history before God, a man who, like the land the sin-eater traveled, was scarred by the past and was a map of battles, victories, and defeats. He left the body of Arryo with the survivor of the man’s cruelty, the woman who had made her life despite him, who would continue to live long past his death, who would take the province and turn it into Galimade, the first great city of Zita.
The sin-eater left the scarred man with the great woman, Sonia Salazar, whose husband had been a gunfighter.