TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:
She wasn’t too comfortable letting the children go trick or treating by themselves but her son was almost 11 now. Surely he could keep an eye on his little sister, right? She heard them laughing as they stepped into the chilly night, with the crackling of orange and red leaves under their feet. Less than an hour later, she heard someone at the door once again, and expected to see ghosts and goblins from the neighborhood. However, it was her children. Back so soon? The children silently walked past, handing her their candy bags for inspection. She walked to the dining room table, and dumped the contents of her daughter’s bag on the table. And, that’s when she saw…
(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)
I washed down the last morsel of bread with a slug of ale and wiped the crumbs from my beard. “That does it,” I said to the Lord of the Manor. “I’ll take my pay and be off.”
“Just like that? My wife lies here dead and you want your pay?”
“Just like that,” I replied.
“You’re a cold man. I suppose that’s necessary for someone in your line of work.”
Someone in your line of work. As if I had chosen to do this. “My pay, if you please.”
“Very well, then.” He dropped sixpence into my waiting palm, being careful our hands didn’t touch.
I stepped outside where a groaning wind blew a sideways rain. A coldness settled inside me after every job, and this one was no different. A rain-soaked trek across the moor would only make it worse. Someone in your line of work. I flicked up the collar of my greatcoat and set off, unable to dispatch the memory of that night many years ago.
Ten years old I was, and my sister Shaylee two years younger. Mother didn’t want us out souling that All Hallows Eve. She worried about us all the time. But we were poor and hungry, especially after the plague took father. For the promise of a few prayers, my sister and I could gather soul cakes from those living in and around our village. “We’ll have food, and you’ll help people get to heaven,” mother told us with a smile. Those cakes meant meals for two or three days, even if Shaylee and I gobbled down a couple before we got home.
“Don’t go far,” mother admonished, as I grabbed Shaylee’s hand and pulled her through the doorway. She swatted my backside and grinned as I scurried past. “Bring at least some of the cakes home. And don’t eat any food set out for the departed! Do you hear me, Haylen?” Her voice faded as my sister and I raced toward the village.
Dodging the costumed drunks reveling around their bonfires, we went house to house, offering prayers for the departed, and collecting biscuits in return. Everyone had their own recipe for soul cakes. Some were sweet, and fresh from the hearth. Those wouldn’t make it home. Most were dry, as hard and white as the bones of the dead we promised to pray for. Those we collected in a burlap poke to take back with us.
It seemed we scoured the entire town that night. With our sack and bellies bulging, we turned for home, and passed a small house along the way. The door stood open. Inside, the flickering glow of candles illuminated a half-dozen people comforting a grieving widow. Outside by the street, a coffin sat on a trestle. On top, a plate of soul cakes and a mug of ale.
“Come on,” I said.
Shaylee’s brow furrowed and she yanked my sleeve. “Mama said don’t eat the food set out for the departed. That’s how they keep the demons away.”
“We’ll just take one. Nobody will know.” Shaylee backed away, eyes downcast, picking her fingernails. “You’re such a baby,” I mocked as I crossed the street.
“Bring me one,” she whispered.
Crouching, I snuck up to the coffin. The aroma of the fresh bread reached me along with a sickly-sweet waft from the decaying body inside the pall. Peering over the top of that morbid table, I grabbed a biscuit and the cup. The bread felt soft and warm in my hand and my gluttonous impulses overpowered my revulsion at the smell of putrifying body. I chewed, slowly at first, then crammed the remainder into my maw, washing it down with the ale. I looked back at Shaylee, a satisfied smile on my face. She waved for me to come back, her eyes darting, her little feet dancing like she needed to use the privy. I nodded, replaced the mug, and snatched another cake to split with her.
“You there! What are you doing?” The cry came from the doorway of the house.
I tore off, hoping to escape before being caught or recognized. Boots slapped the cobblestones behind me and my pursuer snatched me by my collar.
“Dear God, boy. Do you know what you’ve done?”
Shaylee and I sat at the table in our house. By the fireplace, the man and my mother whispered. Tear trails glistened down mother’s cheeks. When the man left, she came over, knelt, and enfolded me in her arms. Her body heaved and through the sobs all she could say was, “You helped him get to heaven.”
That’s how I came to this line of work. I’m a sin-eater. Ale and bread placed on the casket to draw out the dead man’s sins. That night I ate, unknowing, accidentally inviting his unforgiven sins onto myself. Now I eat for a price. Some cakes are sweet, and fresh from the hearth. But most are dry, as hard and white as the bones of the dead. I’ve saved their souls, and forfeited my own.