(A short story I wrote for a competition. My first – and possibly only – foray into horror… though it could just be horrible. Spoiler – please don’t eat while reading this. Descriptions may induce gagging for a variety of reasons. Not going to put down the toast? Okay… don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
The sound of weeping was interrupted by the sound of heavy footsteps on the steps outside. Without invitation, the door opened soundlessly, revealing a figure limned in daylight as the sun’s rays intruded upon the darkened room and the grief within. Faces around the room turned away from the light, eyes closing down. The man entered, without a word of greeting; he was expected. He was not much to look at: a man of average height, with plain and unremarkable features. His brown eyes lacked emotion as they flickered around the room, taking in details, assessing the family and the Sinner. He turned from face to face, bowing slightly in greeting to each of the mourners; the door behind him fell to with an unintended slam. Several of the women startled, smothering their shock with their hands. He glanced around at them, his only apology for disturbing them.
The head of the house approached and handed him a full purse, holding it out towards him by the strings, as if it were a dead rat. His revulsion was plain to see, his mouth writhing in an angry grimace while his eyes fixed on a point on the floor. The Eater took the purse, muffling the clinks of many coins as he concealed it in his coat. He looked at the table in the centre of the room to ensure that everything was prepared for the Meal. The family was present, the table was set and the fee was paid. It was time to Eat.
He grasped the chair set out for him and pulled it back from the table, scraping it across the floor, the sound harsh in the surrounding silence of grief and disgust. The Eater removed his coat and jacket, draping both over the back of his chair. He moved slowly, with purpose, creating the silence he needed to Eat. He focused upon the table, noting each plate and its position on and around the centrepiece. He gazed then upon the face of the Sinner, relaxed in death, and he wondered why there was so much food for one young woman.
He roused himself from this contemplation of the Sinner, scratching absently at his ear. Surreptitiously, he discarded the wriggling lump onto the floor, shifting his foot to cover then kill it. He did not want to disturb the family any further by the sight of the maggot.
He sat at the long table and the Meal waiting upon it. He closed his eyes and began to concentrate, to meditate and bring his powers to bear upon this place, this work that he was to complete. While his eyes were closed, he felt a light breeze brush past his nose as someone behind him wrapped a large piece of linen around his neck, arranging it carefully across his chest. When the movement ceased, The Eater opened his eyes and wielded his power.
In front of him, the rich meal of venison, bread, cheese, boiled potatoes and vegetables steamed gently, resting on borrowed pewter plates. The ritual was very specific about pewter, and the linen; the Eater’s job was not cheap, and nothing could be omitted, without dire consequences. He reached out towards the table, taking up fork and knife, while the family looked on; for that, too, was part of the ritual.
He looked at the food, hesitated over his first choice, then reached forward and delicately chose a tender piece of meat to begin the Meal. He could hear the first gasp behind him; it sounded feminine, maybe the eldest daughter. As he inserted the morsel into his mouth, he worried briefly that she would not be able to keep her emotions under rein – it was absolutely necessary to maintain silence while the Meal was Eaten. Again, the ritual demanded it; otherwise, the family would find themselves in a worse position than before they employed the Eater.
He chewed carefully and precisely, counting the number of times his jaw closed, savouring the juices and texture of the meat. He always enjoyed the first bite: it nearly made the rest endurable.
He chose his second bite – a small boiled potato – and paused before he put it in his mouth. The Power swirled out from his breath, past the potato and towards the centrepiece on the table. It looked like a faint swirl of frozen breath, easily missed; but as it returned from the body back towards the Eater, the Power became more visible, like smoke. It rushed inside the potato and was gone.
The Eater paused, again as demanded by the ritual; the potato changed from pale white to a light brown from the inside out. He inserted the potato into his mouth and began to chew. It tasted of dirt and dust. The Power breathed out from him again, rushing to the table and its grisly adornment, swirling in and around the corpse, picking up substance as it went, and returned to the Eater. The Power infused the next piece of food, and then continued its back-and-forth journey.
The next few bites were bearable: the taste was of food just gone off, a slight sourness filling his mouth. The Eater could not drink just yet. There was a time for everything during the Meal, as demanded by ritual. The Eater knew exactly what to eat next, how long to pause, how long to chew. For each piece of food, he would wait for the Power to infuse it, turn it rotten from the inside out, and then he would Eat it. Always the same steady pace, the same determined swallow for the first bite and for the last. The ritual demanded it; to do otherwise was to ask for pain and ceaseless anguish. He had only heard stories of Eaters who could not finish their Meal; their endings were gruesome and unseen, the families perishing with them, leaving no witnesses.
With every mouthful, the sour foulness increased, almost to the point of gagging. Suddenly, the overpowering taste receded, and the Eater felt the first Manifestation begin. It was just a small tickle, somewhere near the middle of his back, in just the spot where an itch is a torment. He could feel it stretch the skin, pushing and wriggling, becoming hot and red as the pustule forced its way through to the surface. The next few bites fuelled this eruption until it burst, foul-smelling pus dripping down his back and soaking through his shirt.
Even as this Manifestation appeared and completed, more began their growth over the entire Eater; many were hidden from the view of the family by the Eater’s clothing, but several were the object of horrified fascination as the nearest members could see the progress from irritated skin to emetic abscess within moments. Women sank silently to the floor, overwhelmed by the stench that filled the room. They were removed to the furthest reaches of the room, away from the Eater and the Sinner, to recuperate without sound.
While he held to the memory of the first piece of tender venison, the pieces that followed became increasingly putrid. But he could no longer stop; he had to finish his Meal. Bite after bite, the food disappeared, each piece filled with the corruption removed from the body on the table. Now each bite the Eater took produced some new excrescence upon his body, spilling pus, blood, bile and maggots down his skin and onto the floor.
Though his thoughts did wander, the Eater continued to Eat, and the Power continued to flow back and forth, from Eater to Sinner to food, and over again. The small piece of potato he held up next turned green with mould almost instantly; he placed it inside his mouth, taking care not to drop a spore.
The family shuffled further away from the table to distance themselves from the Eater and his Meal. Those who had not succumbed to nausea watched in horror as the food began decaying on the plates, even before the Eater had chosen his next mouthful. They strained to see the path of the Power as it fled from Eater to Sinner to food, but they could only see the results. Men watched in horror and disgust as the Eater continued to insert rotten food into his mouth, and chew with a look of almost rapturous enjoyment upon his face. But they could not leave, nor open a window. The ritual did not allow the family this alleviation of suffering.
All but one had turned away from the table, to face the wall. The man who had paid the Eater was the only one to watch as the Eater raised the final piece to his lips. He could see at least one maggot squirming out from inside the piece of meat. He watched the Eater chew this last piece and swallow, and saw the look of relief cross the Eater’s face. He watched as black bile spilled out of the Eater’s ears, as a grotesque parade of maggots and mealworms trailed down the Eater’s neck, squirming over his collar and settling to a happy feast of their own on his gore-soaked shirt. Finally, the Meal was over.
The Eater gently dabbed at his mouth with the linen napkin tied around his neck. He reached forward and seized the goblet of water; he could drink now. He drained the water, returned the goblet to its place and then paused, his hands braced against the table. Waiting.
The Power rose up out of the corpse, sheathing the body in golden light, then returning in a shocking rush to the Eater. He convulsed when the Power hit his chest, shrouding him from sight. The head of the house peered into the sudden greyness, trying to see what further suffering the Eater must endure.
Just as suddenly, the grey mist disappeared. The Eater stood carefully, minding where he placed his feet. He was untouched, his skin as smooth as when he first entered, though his clothes told a different story. On the floor around him was a mound of debris: dried blood clots, husks of maggots and glistening offal that encircled the chair where he Ate. He untied the napkin, laying it gently next to the body of the woman whose sins he had just Eaten. He stepped back from the table, stifling an impertinent burp, and looked around the room.
No eye turned to meet his; he would receive no acknowledgement here. The job of the Sin Eater is merely to Eat, to purge the Sins and ensure the entrance of the deceased into Heaven. The Eater gathered up his coat, walked to the door and put a hand out towards the latch. The Eater opened the door and stepped outside into the bright sunshine, briefly illuminating the table with the newly-cleansed corpse, before he closed it firmly behind him.