The Pernille’s housekeeper shows me into the music room, where they’ve shoved the piano to the wall to make room for the coffin and the table and my seat.
You can always tell serious clients. They lower the lights.
The tablecloth has to be white, and linen, anywhere I go; it’s in the contract. Natural fibers only, I explain if they ask. “The old ways,” I say sometimes, pitched a tone lower than usual. It usually ends the discussion.
People like the old ways. The old ways sound like money. The old ways, they assume, must work—none of the dead have complained.
I need the tablecloth, and a dinner service, with utensils all in silver. Silver covers on the dishes, and a silver vase, with clippings of herbs and flowers that I tell them will keep evil out. (The list is several dozen long, and some of them aren’t easy finds—verbascum, coriander, peony, rosemary, hawthorn, black mustard, all in flower, with larch bark as a wrapping—but I’ve never sat down to dinner and had any missing.)
The herbs cover the smell. After you’ve touched the plate to the corpse, you don’t want whatever they’ve used on the body to linger.
When I first started, I did the ascetic routine with bread and wine straight out of a wooden bowl, because it looked suitably staged and it was faster to choke down, but people who are paying you the cost of a house for your services will still serve you stale grocery store bread as their final transubstantiation on this earth, and eventually my patience ran out.
You need to eat—that’s an old way there’s no getting out of—but I have standards. Now I ask for the deceased’s favorite food.
It was a good idea; I deal in five-star dead.
It’s sweetbreads this time, which always seems like a fuck-you from the grave. People claim them as a favorite food just to seem urbane and at peace with the transience of the flesh, when really all they want is the noodle soup from around the corner when they were drunk or the peanut butter and jelly sandwich their mom made for them once back when she had yet to be disappointed in them, which means I’m left eating fried throats and staring at the deceased across the table while we both know better.
I don’t know why they bother to hide it. They can’t hide anything. It’s why I’m there.
• • • •
There aren’t many of us—you have to be born with the accidental hunger and the endless appetite. Rare gift, say some people who have no idea what they’re talking about.
Most of the people who can do it just think they’ve lost their minds, unless someone recognizes them, taps them on the shoulder before the worst happens.
The appetite still drives you to the brink, sometimes. But sin eaters need money like anyone else, and sins are easier to swallow than poverty is.
Asking for us by naming what we do won’t get you anywhere. Most people won’t believe you; the ones who do will think you’re gauche.
You find me by mentioning Ammut, the beast who stalks the kingdom of the dead to the west of the Nile: rough-fleshed and lion-footed, a crocodile’s head with impassive eyes. She sat at the weighing of the soul, reptile teeth gleaming, to consume the hearts of the sinful. (The Old Ways. Best marketing tools you can come by.)
And it’s the heavy-hearted who come looking for us. Someone who’s done a lot of terrible things and has the money to turn back the clock will realize the shadow’s beginning to fall, and they’ll start going to invite-only gallery afterparties, hosting private dinners, asking quietly about who knows anything of use.
Those types always know something, if they’re rich enough, and they love nothing better than a secret code; sooner or later, when they say, “I’m looking to live to the west of the Nile,” someone will write down a number, say in flat English, “I know a dweller in Amenty.”
That will be my number. I’ll take care of it all.
• • • •
Riders on my contract:
1. No one in the room with me. I’m a professional; I demand the courtesy. (It’s not hard to enforce. The people who need this service don’t tend to have over-devoted families, and by the time they read my contract to the bottom they don’t much feel like arguing this one.)
2. Client confidentiality goes both ways. I don’t go to the press about what I discover—the Old Ways demand my silence, even from you—and your family never mentions my name. (This one they always break; if they didn’t, I’d never get business.)
3. The table, the white cloth, the silver, the herbs. Trappings of the trade. (This is where they get to enjoy paying through the nose for a premium service, and start to feel like they’ve gotten the best in the business. It was the same among my ancestors, I assure them, and explain canopic jars as if they’re the same thing. No one’s ever questioned it.)
4. Do not open the door, no matter what you hear.
(This is where they go quiet, for a long time, before they sign their name.)
• • • •
First sins I ever ate were my grandmother’s.
She sat me down in the kitchen one day (there was a copper chicken mold hanging on the wall like a talisman in case you wanted to make chicken cake) and handed me a cookie still tacky from the tray.
“You’re getting so tall,” she said, like it was my fault, and told me stories about going to school in her village, and I gnawed my way through an almond cookie that was sweet and chewy and burnt just at the edges.
She’d wasted her life. She hated her husband for taking her from her home country; she’d resented my father for pinning her there and couldn’t forgive his white English wife; she’d envied every woman with a byline she ever came across. Her faith was gone. Half a dozen times she’d sat at her dressing table and wondered how hard you’d have to drive your head into the wall to kill yourself.
She was going to die any day—she knew it, she knew it for sure—and she just wanted it all to be over.
“There were cats everywhere, back home,” she told me. “When you walked alone at night, it was a sea of tails and eyes.”
She was praying all the while, If you’re there, call my name, I’m so ready to be gone.
I didn’t know what was happening. I thought I was killing her.
I ate three cookies, one at a time.
• • • •
Englishmen used to eat the sins right off the body—a plate of bread and a cup of wine rising slowly as the corpse bloat set in, and sometimes a little meat if any could be spared and you could manage to finish before the flies reached it.
You always could manage; you ate it all, because there was no telling where your next meal was coming from, if everyone else was healthy and young.
The stories mark out where a sin eater lived—on the edge of the wilderness in some half-home, with the trees or the open sky ready to swallow him—but never how they were summoned. Was there someone assigned to the job, or did some mourner have to break first, someone who left the body and staggered over the ground beyond the safety of the town, screaming for the sin eater to hurry?
They would have had to run as soon as the death rattle came, that poor soft-heart with tears in their eyes; sins have to be eaten before the body goes cold, and on a diet of true believers, a sin eater is so full he can barely lift his head. He’d have had to drag himself most of the way on all fours, as fast as he could—wolves were everywhere, back then—until he was close enough that he had to stand and look like he could do the job, to comfort the people who paid him to be outcast and hated for eating the worst of whatever they’d done.
(Strange where some stories wander from home. You begin with the outcast beast in the forest who consumes the dying obligingly and whole; when he’s found and cut open and filled up again with stones, all anyone remembers is a messenger in red.)
Was that first mourner also the one who cut the bread and poured the wine for the sin eater? Was that the understood office of the first person to beg mercy for the dead?
Was it their wooden bowl and cup given up to the stranger, across the body of the one they’d loved?
I hope it was. You could pretend that was kindness.
(The Middle Kingdom knew better how to prepare a body with some circumspection; still, they left the heart in. Our kind is doomed to press food to the flesh.)
There are rumors I’ve never really wanted to track down, about sin eaters who were made to drink the blood of the dead as a proof of their work—from the palm or the skull or the stomach. Corpse bowls. You’d have had to suck at the wound—blood congeals so fast, you’d have had to work for every sludgy mouthful.
They’re probably just stories. Anyone who knows what happens when a body dies hopes they’re just stories.
I don’t think about it. It has nothing to do with me, now, with half a dozen pieces of silver in a line between me and the dead.
Of course they’re serving red.
• • • •
A sin eater has to separate the taste of the sin from the food, or they’ll never eat another easy meal.
I won’t anyway—for the rest of my life I’ll be accidentally confessing short-order cooks who are two days shy of a heart attack—but it can be managed, if you work at it. You have to work at it. You don’t want to taste any more than you have to.
It’s tempting to eat the sins of everyone I love. It’s tempting to eat the sins of everyone good. We can ease suffering; it’s easy to mistake that for a calling.
Every so often you give in. I carry something in my bag for emergencies: a granola bar I can lay against the heart of a friend gone too soon, or of a stranger shot down in the street—someone who won’t have time to make peace. You shove it into your mouth all at once, press both hands tight to your mouth to stop the burst of screaming. Bystanders assume you’re the next of kin; you looked so upset, they’ll explain later.
You shouldn’t do that—sins regretted are worse than stones—but mistakes happen.
You can, if you want, touch an almond cookie to the still-warm body of your grandmother, staring at her closed eyes as you eat as fast as you can manage through a dry throat, scrambling to be gone before anyone comes in and sees you.
It won’t work. When your parents find you, too late, you’ll be sobbing against the rug because you got so heavy you couldn’t stand any more. When your father tries to lift you, he won’t be able.
You’ll learn to stand up under it, eventually. Trick of the trade.
• • • •
You’d think some sins would taste heady, forbidden. Worth it. An affair would be sharply sweet, a murder would taste of panic and lurching triumph, a lie would taste like escape, or spring.
If it did, there would be more of us.
A love affair is stale breath. A murder is sweat. A lie is a fingernail of dirt.
Just as well I’m choking down sweetmeats. After a while it tastes of salt, no matter what you do.
• • • •
I live in a small house way out from the center of the city, at the edge of the wild. It’s far enough away from people that when the sun sets, all I hear are the insects buzzing, and the edges of the hunger like a wolf pacing always just shy of the trees.
When I eat, I have the sluggish rumble of the crocodile whose mouth is open wide. When I’m hungry, wolves.
I’ve known one sin eater who lived in the middle of the city. He called himself an afterlife consultant, to be funny; he got a lot of business. His line, when clients asked where the sins went or why he did it, was, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
He shot himself, eventually.
No one would touch the body. One of his clients finally called me in, and the funeral home director stood at a safe distance as I touched my friend’s chest with a doughnut (only thing he had in the house, it soaked up a little blood), forced myself through it one bite at a time, trying not to look at anything above his sternum.
It took twenty bites. By the end, I couldn’t breathe; I could see stars every time my teeth came together.
There was nothing to eat.
You owned all the sins you ate. I’d always wondered.
He was teeming, and the doughnut was gone, and not one sin of it was mine.
“He’s clean,” I said finally, had to clear my throat and try again before it sounded like words.
At home, I sat at my kitchen table and tried not to look up where the copper chicken had been in a kitchen a long time ago. I smelled almonds everywhere.
• • • •
Your clients will always ask you, “Where do the sins go?” as if you’re a pâtissier who’s managed to keep the weight off.
For them, it’s a fair question. Keeping things in their proper places is a life’s pursuit for the kind of people who want to outsource their sins.
When they see my skin is brown, when they hear my pronunciation of “Amenti,” they get a look of relief you can’t imagine.
(Once, someone’s personal secretary asked me, “What’s the loss rate in your profession,” so flat it took me a second to realize she was asking about suicides.
“Lower than yours,” I said, because I had some numbers for both—my clients drive a lot of people to the grave—and just before she opened the door she’d said tightly, “If you have apprenticeships, I’m all yours.”
If there was one, I’d have let her. She’d been in training to eat someone else’s wrongs for long enough.)
You’d think clients would ask what will happen to you, too, just to make sure their vessel’s in good shape, but they never do; what happens to you isn’t their concern. They just ask where their sins go, to make sure they won’t be pressed cheek by jowl with a stranger’s. Real estate considerations.
Every sin eater has a different line for this question. Inside joke. Mine’s always been, “Sin is a renewable resource.”
They usually laugh; eco-marketing terms are more familiar than death, and slightly less frightening, and they can be fond of renewable resources now after making a living off building stock markets otherwise. Every so often, you get one who actually regrets that, and you have five bites in a row that taste like wet money before they taste like salt.
They’ll stop asking questions about it after that—deep down they’re desperate, they know they can’t ask too much of you—which is the point.
(You keep them in the part of you that has no choice, that was born to be forced into, to hold the suffering of others whether you want it or not; the part that waits with parted teeth for anything it can consume, the part you can’t touch or reach, that deep open darkness along your spine that you can never, never fill.
For fuck’s sake, don’t listen, if anyone tells you what you are. Don’t listen to the hunger. Run until there’s no one left. Starve to death, if you have to, before you do any of this.
If you so much as breathe of Amenty, you’re doomed.)
• • • •
Mr. Pernille and I sit in the room a while, quietly. I touch the bouquet, move the peony facing out, move my chair back from the table.
The sweetmeats are battered and swimming in a butter sauce, with a side of baguette. No wonder he died so young. At least there are no almonds in it; I send back anything with almonds.
When I have my nerve, I touch the end of the baguette to the body above the heart, arm out like I’m knighting it, alerting the departed to what will happen now. I come back to the table.
I take a bite.
Mr. Pernille feeds me his sins.
The repenting comes after, that list of sorrows isn’t in the meat; you get everything first, everything they’ve ever done, long before the weighing happens, when the black-eyed beast ever opens her jaws to swallow diseased hearts whole.
Sometimes a wound’s so great that the body goes into shock to protect itself, instantly—the body knows better than you do. You only realize you’ve been sliced open when you look down and see the blood. I had one, once, a bicycle accident when I was a teen, nearly lost the leg. My knee and shin are made of metal; I still have gravel embedded there. (I could probably get it taken out. I don’t ask.)
But once you see the wound you can’t lie to yourself any more, and you feel every vein and artery swinging gently as your brain tries furiously to process the white noise, the ground turning to sand, the strange deflating feeling that’s all the support in your body giving out. It’s more than pain. It’s too great for pain. It’s a total system failure you can never process. The pain is what happens when you live with it; the rest, your body can’t understand.
That’s the beginning of what it feels like to eat sins. A rabbit being blown up by buckshot is what it feels like to eat sins. Lighting a hill of ants on fire is what it feels like.
I make it through half a plate of sweetmeats before the sounds start.
The solitude rider’s in my contract not because I’ll scream (I probably will, eventually, I’ve turned my throat so raw I cough up blood after), but because before that it’s utterly silent except for silver on the plate and the sounds of someone eating. There are little taps of the knife against the table, slow and dampened like a bad dream, and the sound of reptile teeth snapping shut. Nothing else.
It’s not a silence people hear much anymore; it’s not a sound that’s easy to take, when you’re waiting for something to happen.
The screams are welcome. The silence almost got them thinking.
• • • •
You come into this world screaming. You go out in tears.
There’s no word yet invented for what happens when you and I are in a room alone.
There, it’s the old ways and no mistake; there it’s only a corpse gone purple at the bottom and two coins no one will ever take back and the bread soaked through with sweat and your sins gleaming in every maggot, and sand under my eyelids and the wrappings still waiting and four jars lined up neatly with the faces watching, and my feet aching and my body going heavy everywhere and my throat too dry to swallow but my teeth gleaming wide, and the dark night all around us and a long walk home, and far off, silent, coming closer: wolves.
The sounds for that, they’ve never put a name to.
• • • •
In the Middle Kingdom, you gave your symbols to the dead, but somehow Europe spreads out and out, and someone a thousand years ago comes across a sin eater dragged across the sea to absolve the sinful dying, and things become tangled.
Those sin eaters give two calls at the graveside.
The first is made to the assembled company, to assure the living that the sins of the dead have been consumed, that they got their money’s worth—a few coins, thrown from a distance. Sin eaters shouldn’t be encouraged to mingle with the population.
The sin eater reassures everyone they’ve forfeited their soul for the privilege. It’s good for business. You don’t want them worrying about how they’re treating you. They’re grieving.
When the sin eater goes, they burn the bowl and the cup and anything he touched, until nothing’s left but the splinters he carries back in his fingertips.
The second call the sin eater makes to the dead, to keep them where they are. He sings out, “Come not down the lanes or in our meadows.”
Nobody’s looking for the dearly departed. They want their dead swallowed and gone.
• • • •
I’ve seen wolves eat. They pull their lips back from their teeth, scrape the meat from the bone, peel it neatly out from the casing of skin.
A crocodile opens its mouth, and the animal vanishes.
• • • •
When I stand up from the table, there’s no sign of my being there.
There’s no sign anyone’s eaten at all. I lick the plate clean; not a drop of wine left over, not a crumb on the cloth. The utensils are perfectly aligned. I drank all the water that the herbs were standing in.
This is a religion of its own. You treat it seriously.
Europeans of our kind got in trouble in some places, back when, from priests who didn’t like freelance transubstantiation. Poaching in the fields of the Lord.
We aren’t. If there’s a Lord, he doesn’t have much use for the dear departed.
Pernille’s son is waiting at the far end of the hall, holding a sealed envelope embossed with his monogram.
“You must feel terrible,” he says. His eyes are filled with tears. They glitter underneath.
I fold my hands around the bouquet of herbs and nod once, slowly. They love this part. They’re making a story, for later.
“It is done,” I say, dropping the contractions so I sound like a seer in a play.
Mr. Pernille the Younger tries hard not to look thrilled as he hands me the envelope with the very tips of his fingers.
Once I was dealing with a widower who wasn’t going to rest until he knew his wife’s transgressions were awful enough to justify my price. He kept me twenty minutes, asking. He’d have demanded a list—he was one of those—except that I reminded him the Old Ways bound me to silence and he’d signed his name to it.
“It must be a terrible curse,” he told me. I’d told him, “Like a bad marriage.”
It’s better business to nod and look heavy. Someone will come looking soon for a house to the west of the Nile, and the new Mr. Pernille should write down my number, and mention a dweller in Amenty.
• • • •
For people who can afford to have their chefs impress you, my clients provide the lightest meals I’ve ever had.
You have to breathe through all of it, you have to sit through it all until your throat shreds, but you can only eat what the dead considered sins.
You can leave a four-course dinner still hungry, in this line of work.
• • • •
Mr. Pernille’s memorial service was busy—he was a powerful man—but night in a cemetery levels everything. Bodies all liquefy the same.
I’ve walked here, barely able to lift my feet, because it’s important that only my own two legs have brought me. (Old ways.)
I lay the bundle of herbs against the headstone. They’re a risk—not all the old ways work the same, mix traditions at your peril—but none of the dead have complained.
The rosemary goes straight to the back of my throat.
It’s been nearly thirty hours, but when vomited back up on the grave, the food becomes whole, exactly as it was when I sat down, unknifed, undisturbed; all that’s missing is the plate.
The ground trembles underneath me, just enough to send up a layer of dust, but my hands are steady as I stick the herbs into the ground like the blade of a sword, and the dirt there trembles and falls away until the meal sinks into the grave and vanishes.
I feel lighter—the walk home will be faster than the walk here—but the hunger is already stalking the edges of the vast darkness, an animal prowling for sins, impassive eyes, a jaw crammed with teeth, one paw in front of the other.
I let it. I’ll take plenty of transgressions to the grave with me, but with some people, however light their conscience is, I know what they’ve really done, and it’s a sin even to ask someone else to carry that.
A sin eater has to stand trial for everything he eats. My heart will be devoured someday, when I go to the west of the Nile, but not for these.
Sin is a renewable resource, I tell them when they ask.
Sleep well, Mr. Pernille. See you soon.
The bouquet blooms from the hole in the dirt, a last gift for the dead that should keep him right where he is.
“Come not down the lanes or in our meadows,” I say.
The sounds that will soon be coming from the grave aren’t for human ears, and I turn my back. I’ve paid my respects.
I start the long walk home to the edge of the wild, soft as lion’s paws, feeling light and ravenous.
Far off, silent, coming closer: wolves.