The Long Mynd in Shropshire is a beautiful, haunting place. There are acres of moorland covered with heather and wildflowers, populated by wild horses and an awful lot of sheep. I was visiting the area on business and for three days I had taken all of my meals in my hotel. On the fourth and final day I decided to go looking a little further afield and drove out across the Mynd in the hope of finding some quaint local place to eat. If I’d thought of it, perhaps I might have taken food with me onto the heath and, picnicked surrounded by beauty. I might have avoided all the horror that followed.
Instead, after driving for some time, I saw a signpost for a public house that was not far away. I hopefully followed its directions and it wasn’t long before I arrived at a charming thatched building calling itself The Tin Whistle. As I climbed out of my car, I admired the setting of the place, the original period features, and the scent of the roses coiling around the door frame. Upon entering, I found the interior to be just as pleasing. It was light, airy, and tastefully decorated, with a huge fireplace that would no doubt be wonderfully welcoming in the winter.
There were only a handful of patrons inside and they studiously ignored me as I approached the bar. The lady standing behind it gave me a generous smile.
‘How can I help you?’ She asked.
I asked if they served food and she told me that they did, although the menu was a little limited. I ordered some soup and a sandwich. After some thought I ordered a glass of wine too, reasoning that it would have largely worn off by the time I came to drive again later in the afternoon.
The barmaid informed me that she would bring my drink over in a moment, so I chose a table near the empty fireplace and sat down. As I waited I gazed aimlessly around the room, tapping my fingers together and allowing my mind to wander. Eventually my eyes fell upon a man sitting just a few tables away from me, and I was immediately arrested by the sight of him.
He was dressed in a heavy black suit and white shirt, with a black tie hanging loosely below his open collar. His face was pale and blotchy, his eyes red. He was slumped forward in his chair with his hands clamped tightly around a half full glass of beer that stood amongst a number of empty ones.
He was clearly dressed for a funeral and I knew that I should look away, that it was rude to stare. But the man looked so dejected that my heart ached for him and I found myself searching for some words of comfort that I might offer.
The barmaid approached with my wine and I took the opportunity to quietly ask her about the suited man.
She glanced over at him then looked back at me, a sharp look on her face.
‘Never mind him,’ she said, coldly. ‘He’s no good. You’d be best to stay away.’
I was a little surprised at her attitude. What kind of “no good” was he, to be treated so unkindly despite his suffering? I didn’t respond to her, and instead just sipped at my wine as she returned to the bar, shooting a hard look towards the grieving man.
I wish that I had heeded her, or that I had been more cold-hearted. I wonder how things would have been different if I hadn’t drunk so much wine. But I did, and here we are.
My meal had been substantial and I did not expect to drive for at least another hour so I ordered a second glass, and then a third. By the time I had finished it, I was certain that the barmaid and everyone else in the pub were being unfathomably cruel to the black-suited man, and that I had no interest in being like them.
I walked over to the man’s table and sat down, dropping my hand onto his arm.
‘Are you alright?’ I asked.
He looked up at me, his gaze red and hot.
‘My father is dead,’ he answered. ‘And he is going to hell.’
I blinked, stunned by the directness of his speech. I was not a religious man and I had never given much thought to such things so it took me a moment to arrange my thoughts.
‘You can’t know that,’ I said, a little lamely. ‘God forgives all, right?’
He shook his head. ‘Not all. Not everything.’ He pressed his hands hard into his eyes, then suddenly looked back up at me.
‘You’re not local, are you?’
I shook my head. ‘No, I’m from London. Here on business.’ He was staring at me, his eyes boring into mine. Then he looked away.
‘We used to have a tradition around here, you know,’ he said. His demeanour had changed. He seemed a little softer, calmer perhaps. ‘It was a way of saving the people you loved.’
I was a little puzzled by this sudden change of subject. Before I could ask for clarification, he continued.
‘Have you ever heard of Sin-Eaters?’
‘Um, no,’ I answered. ‘I don’t believe I have.’
‘They don’t exist anymore,’ he said. ‘The last one is buried in a graveyard not far from here. He died in 1906.’
‘What did they do?’ I asked, intrigued.
‘They consumed the sins of the dead,’ he answered, in a strange flat voice. ‘They condemned themselves to hell in the dead person’s place.’
My eyes widened in surprise. ‘Why would they do that?’
‘They were poor, mostly,’ he said. ‘And they were paid to do so by richer families.’
Desperate people, I thought sadly. They would have truly believed that they were forfeiting their souls to eternal torment for the sake of a little money.
‘I know it sounds awful’, the man was saying. ‘But this was our family. We wanted to save them. Wouldn’t you want to save the people you cared for?’ I was so caught up in agreeing with the latter sentiment that I almost missed the implications of what he was saying.
‘Your family used to do it?’ I asked, leaning forward. ‘You used to hire Sin-Eaters for your dead?’
‘A long time ago,’ he nodded. ‘But no one will do it these days.’ His face suddenly crumpled. ‘And now my father will burn forever.’ He doubled forward, his hands pressed over his face and I could hear his sobs, wrenching and painful.
I didn’t believe that his father was in Hell. I didn’t believe in Hell at all. But this man clearly did and I couldn’t help but be affected by his despair and agony…
The buzz of the wine was still warm in my blood, muddling my thoughts into stupidity. I squeezed his arm and I spoke my own damnation.
‘How does one eat another man’s Sin?’
- - -
The funeral, it transpired, had not taken place yet but was due to begin within the hour. My new friend, whose name I learned was Hal, led me eagerly to a nearby church. I stumbled a little as we entered as the sudden change from bright summer sunshine to the darkness of the interior rendered me temporarily blind. As my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, I saw that the church was laid out for the service, pale flowers decorating the pews and a fine wooden coffin placed up near the alter.
Hal stopped there and shrugged off the bag he had been carrying. He opened it and produced a bread roll and a can of beer that he had purchased from the bar. He stood up and placed both upon the coffin, apparently not concerned that it might appear disrespectful. As he did, I saw a glimpse of something silver in his bag. It looked like a book, but I saw it only for a moment before Hal pulled the bag shut and kicked it out of my view.
He looked up at me, his eyes bright, and beckoned me over, scribbling something on a piece of paper. When he was done, he moved to the other side of the coffin.
‘You must eat the bread and then drink this,’ he said, pushing the beer can towards me. ‘And then, when you’re done, you must say this out loud.’ He placed the paper on top of the coffin in front of me. I peered at the writing, my mouth a little dry. Why was I so nervous? This was just a silly little ritual to make a superstitious man feel better.
With a shaking hand I picked up the bread and bit into it, followed by a large mouthful of beer to wash it down. As I ate, Hal stared at me intensely. As soon as I was finished, he thrust the piece of paper into my face.
‘Um,’ I said, ‘Let’s see… “I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen.” … Is that right?’
For a moment, Hal just stood there, his eyes wide. Then he slumped forward, his hands pressed against the side of the coffin. He let out a deep sigh.
The church door opened.
I spun around, catching a look of surprise and guilt on Hal’s face. In the doorway stood two women, an older lady and another, perhaps around Hal’s age. Like him they were both dressed in black, their faces pale. At the sight of Hal and me standing by the coffin, their expressions became puzzled. Then the younger woman’s eyes fell on the beer can resting on the wood beside me.
‘Hal,’ she exclaimed, a look of horror on her face, ‘What have you done?’ He shook his head, his hands raised in innocent protestation.
She marched forward, jabbing a finger at him. ‘Don’t you dare!’ She turned her gaze sharply upon me. ‘I don’t know who you are, mister, but don’t you listen to a word he says. What has he told you? That our father will burn in Hell? Well, he will and he deserves to!’
She stopped beside us and looked down at the coffin lid, where a sprinkling of bread crumbs remained. She went still, her lips parting.
‘I’m too late, aren’t I?’ She asked, softly. ‘You’ve already taken the sins.’
I nodded, dumbly.
She swore quietly under her breath. Then she looked up at Hal.
‘You don’t care about him burning any more than I do, Hal. Are you so afraid he’ll come back that you’re willing to damn this poor bastard in his place?’
Hal stepped away, grabbing his bag and pulling it onto his shoulder.
‘You never knew him like I did, Trish,’ he said. ‘I did what I had to do to protect us.’
Trish sneered. ‘How noble. Though not noble enough to take on his sins yourself.’
Hal said nothing. He walked past us and out of the church. I watched him go, feeling cold and a little sick.
Trish looked at me. ‘You shouldn’t have done that, mister. You don’t know what that man was, what he did. You’ve no idea of the sins that you’ve just taken on.’
I wanted to tell her that it was all meaningless, that none of this was real… but I didn’t. I felt heavy and nauseous. Instead I followed in Hal’s footsteps and trudged towards the church door, suddenly desperate to be out in the sunlight.
As I passed the older lady, she reached out and grabbed my arm.
‘May someone do for you what you have done for my husband,’ she whispered. Then she moved away to join her daughter by the coffin.
I staggered towards the door, my nausea growing. As I pressed my hands against it, I glanced towards the back of the church.
Trish and her mother had their backs to me, whispering quietly to each other.
Staring down at the coffin, they couldn’t see a third woman just visible in the shadows to the side. Her long dark hair covered most of her face but she, too, was staring at the coffin. Then she slowly turned her head towards me and stepped forward.
As she did, I saw her clearly. I saw her face and her expression and, in that moment, I finally realised what I had done.
I let out a strangled scream and Trish and her mother turned to stare at me.
I said nothing to them. I shoved open the door and fled the church, running as fast as I could, already knowing that it was useless.
It didn’t matter how fast I ran or where I went.
Hell would follow me.