by Lynn Hardaker
The hut crouched at the very edge of the forest. No songbird ever landed on its moss-furred roof. No squirrel ever gnawed spring shoots next to it. Villagers certainly never paid social visits to the man who lived there. It was, generally, avoided by all.
Except when there was a death.
Deaths didn’t happen often: the village was small and its inhabitants uncommonly hearty. There would be births, then long lives lived within sound of the church bells. But, death did come all the same, and when it did, a group of villagers would make their slow, torch-lit progress down the dark main road, through the fields, and along the path which led to the hut.
When they arrived, the men would wait near - though not too near - to the hut, warming their throats and stoking their courage with strong drink; then the one with the shortest piece of summer straw in his hand would part from the others and walk up to the door.
And what a door: images of four-footed beasts expertly carved into the wood. They seemed to run and stalk and leap in the flickering torch light. More than a few villagers had made it no further than this in his assigned task, and had turned back, his shame clinging to him for the rest of his days.
But more often the villager was able to bring himself to the door. The sound of his knock would hover in the night air. A wind would rouse the overhanging branches of the first row of forest trees, bobbing over the roof of the hut. Sounds of soft-padded feet treading through dry underbrush and of distant howling would be heard from the forest behind.
Then the door would open. Uncannily, the man inside would be ready; always. He wore his thick coat of wolf-skins stitched together with strips of dried gut; the fur bristling as insects crawled through it, their jeweled backs shimmering like the secrets of far off stars. He would fling the hood over his head, take up his stick and, walking past the men who had done their job and would now return home, he would make for the village church, his movements as liquid and effortless as moonlight on water.
The man would pass through the iron gate with a slight shudder, and enter the churchyard, pass the church with its lichen-burred stones, and walk toward the body on the bier.
A wooden plate with a slice of bread and a slice of meat would lie on the perfectly still chest. There would only be two other people: the vicar and a relative of the dead person. They would watch, eyes shining with a hundred nightmare fears as the man took up the bread and ate it, and took up the meat and ate it. Then the relative would hand him a wooden cup filled with sweet, spiced wine; careful not to touch the man’s root-strong fingers. A small fire for burning leaves and cut brush would hiss quietly at the edge of the yard.
When the wine had warmed him through, the man would place the cup on the plate and lean towards the dead person’s lips, his ear just above them. There would be the slightest murmur of sound on the air. The vicar and the relative would force themselves not to look, fearing to see the dead lips moving in the near darkness.
A deep, dark silence would follow. The man would straighten himself and, without a word to either the vicar or the relative, he would leave the churchyard to return to his hut, while the vicar threw the wooden plate and cup into the uneasy fire.
Somewhere in the rotation of so many self-same years, there was a village boy. He was a small, nervous, taciturn boy who’d lived thirteen cold winters and thirteen hot summers, and who found himself often with amethyst and coal-dust bruises under one eye or the other. A boy who paced the rooms of his home, paced the roads of his town, paced the perimeter of the churchyard not minding in which direction he circled the ancient stone building.
There was a death. The first in a while. The boy’s father.
On the day after the death, the boy went wandering. He wandered further and further from the familiar wood-smoke, boiled potato, and ale smell of home; past the warm, sweet, hay and manure smell of the fields; toward the wild, gamey, animal smell of the forest where few of the villagers had ever set foot.
He wandered, his eyes lost in the opal-white sky, until he came to an unfamiliar path. At the end of it was a hut which he knew must belong to the man. The boy had never seen the Sin Eater, but knew the stories: that this was a man without a soul for he’d long ago given it freely to the Devil; which was why he didn’t mind coming down to the village and eating the sins of their dead. Including, the night before, those of his father.
He looked down. The foot prints of the Devil’s hooves were supposed to be clearly visible on the path: clear as the nose on my face, many a man had sworn. The boy saw nothing but hard packed dirt, a long-shed snake skin, and a dead sparrow. He walked toward the door.
Maybe because it was day time and the sun had frozen the door’s enchantment, the beasts - though still visible - were motionless. The boy raised a hand and traced the outline of one caught in mid-leap, it’s body stretched long and fierce and beautiful: a wolf with all the grace and terror of that animal.
A howl lanced through the wall of the forest behind the hut. The boy startled. He looked around. Slowly, the door opened. There was the man. The man whom the boy had never before set eyes on, but about whom he’d heard whispered stories all his life.
He wore a shirt of coarse, stained cotton. Above the top button, curled a tuft of red-brown hair. His eyes were dark yellow and clear as a winter-cold stream. Without any suggestion of surprise at finding the boy there, he gestured him inside. Two cups of steaming broth sat ready on the table. He shut the door behind the boy. A slow, heavy movement with an air of finality. The boy swallowed.
The hut was just one room with no windows in it. The hearth was alive with a raging fire. A door opposite the front door must lead directly to the forest, the boy thought. A wooden pallet served as a bed and on it lay what looked like the empty skin of a shaggy, grizzled-beige wolf. The skin on the boy’s neck felt as though it were being prickled by coarse whiskers.
He looked at the man, who was now sitting in one of the chairs next to the table. The boy sat in the other. They drank the rich, salty broth in the crackling silence of the fire-warmed hut. The boy finished first. He put down his cup.
“What is that?” He nodded at the formless pelt on the bed.
“I’ll show you.”
The man walked over to the empty creature. He picked the limp fur up by the ears. The lower jaw hung slack. The man put one of the ears next to his mouth and began to whisper. The words reached the boy as a soft rustling, like wind in the trees. The boy watched as the wolf’s form filled out. The legs became dense, solid with bone and muscle; the torso thick with organs and ribs; the head solid with skull and tongue and teeth. The eyes opened. They shone yellow like a flame behind amber. The boy didn’t hear a sound as the paws landed on the earthen floor.
The man opened the back door to the darkening forest beyond. The wolf turned its amber stare on the boy, then tipped back its head and gave a howl that twisted the boy’s innards. With a last searching look at the boy, it bound into the devouring forest. The man shut the door, leaning against it slightly. They were silent for a moment.
“Did my Da’s sins bring that creature to life?”
The man grinned. His lips pulling away from his teeth. The fire’s light warmed them to orange.
“What do you mean, boy?” He sat himself back in the chair. It creaked gently under his weight.
“The vicar says you come and eat up the sins of our dead, so that they can get to heaven.”
For a moment, the man sat as still as exposed granite of the hilltops surrounding the village. Then he softened into movement.
“I’ve been eating the sins of the villagers for generations. More than I can count. And it’s true that your Da’s sins are now living in that creature. But,” he lowered his voice and leaned nearer to the boy, “what the vicar and the other villagers don’t know is that it’s not just sins that I eat.”
The boy felt the prickles against his skin again.
“There is always a scrap of soul that clings to the body just after death, desperately, stubbornly, but only briefly. If I’m there soon enough, I can catch it, too.”
The fire snickered softly in the hearth. He was starting to feel dizzy, but not unpleasantly. His thoughts crackled and flamed.
“If you take a part of their soul...aren’t you cheating God?”
“If I take their sins, aren’t I cheating the Devil?”
The boy couldn’t help a small grin. He’s had such thoughts himself, though he’d never dared tell a soul. A howl not far off set the boy’s heart leaping like a hare. He felt the man’s yellow eyes on him.
“But why do you make the wolves?”
The man’s eyes narrowed slightly.
“Do you think I’m going to be caught carrying their sins around with me?”
The boy didn’t answer.
“I cheat the Devil by taking their sins; and I cheat God by taking a scrap of their souls. And there are no counterfeit sins staining my soul at the end of the day.”
His eyes grinned, though his mouth became a hard, grim line. The boy thought of all the wolves in the forest: running, leaping, howling. It didn’t seem so bad to him.
He felt the man lean in closer. The boy swallowed then stood up.
“I have to get back home now,” he said. The man stood with him. The boy took two steps toward the back door.
“Wrong door, boy.”
The boy turned around.
“Will I see you again?” he asked.
The man shrugged. The boy continued to the front door. He spoke without turning around.
“I killed him, you know. For what he did.” He could almost feel the man’s breath behind him. Wild. Raw.
The man opened the door.
The boy walked out and down the path without looking back once. Behind him, he heard the heavy wooden door close. As he hurried away, back down the lane, a chorus of howls ripped through the branches of the sheltering forest.
Lynn Hardaker is a Canadian artist and writer currently living in Regensburg, Germany. Her works have appeared in Mythic Delirium, Not One of Us, Goblin Fruit, and a previous issue of Mirror Dance.
What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?
For me the attraction of fantasy is that, while the same issues can be addressed and explored as in ‘non-fantasy’ writing (human relationships and identity; politics; environmental concerns; etc. ad infinitum), there is an extra layer to play with. By taking the reader out of the familiar, even subtly, there is the chance to amuse, entertain, provoke, disturb, and to heighten the non-fantasy issues being dealt with.