They say that all the sin eaters in Appalachia died out. Went by way of the dodo birds, and the Indians who once made their homes up in the mountains before the white folk chased them off. My daddy was the first to tell me otherwise.
He said that when night fell around the tops of the mountains peaks, thick and velveteen, when the fog settled low-slung and grievers shook in their beds, and echoes of dirges moved between tree trunks, you could hear them up there singing along, glutting themselves on the sins of the dead.
When I asked him why they didn’t come down he told me, “People like to die with what they have. They like to keep their evils close.”
He shrugged his shoulders, lit a cigarette. “You live with yourself, you die with yourself. Don’t need no damn sin eater to atone for what you should’ve already made peace with.”
I pulled my legs up to my chest, set my chin on my kneecaps. “That why they’re all gone?”
“Not gone,” he said. “Just away.”
Four years later he died in a wreck along the highway. There was a woman in the car with him, not my mama, some girl he picked up from a rest stop, bruised and bleeding, with silver hoops through her ears big enough for me to fit my hand through. She was sixteen, just a year off my age. A young little thing, or at least that’s what they called her on the news.
Down at the morgue they took blood from his arm, found alcohol in his system along with a cocktail of other things, cocaine and heroin, the prescription pills my mama kept in the medicine cabinet above the bathroom sink.
That night while Mama sat in the living room, sipping coffee black and staring at the TV, I stood out on the porch and prayed to the Eaters, asked them to take his sins from him, chew them up and swallow them so he could make it to Heaven.
The moon hung low that night and there was mist about the treetops. I got no answer save for the sound of humming cicadas and the slow drag of my own heart beating.
We put my daddy in the ground a few days later. Gathered in the church where I was baptized and my parents married. Sang a couple hymns, clamped clammy hands and accepted condolences from distant relatives and schoolteachers, a few family members that came down from Pittsburgh for the funeral.
After they put him in the ground there was a reception in the basement of the church. We piled our plates with fried chicken thighs and the green slop of over-boiled collards, squares of cornbread, and crumbles of dry dressing. People talked while they ate, thick words through mouthfuls, chicken grease spattering pressed suits, napkins bunched and shoved into shirt collars. There was the clash of forks on plastic plates, chairs scraping across tile, a smell of Thanksgiving on the air thick and noxious as though the event was something to celebrate.
Across the room a woman spoke my daddy’s name, talked about the kind of man he was. “A good one,” she said. “He was a good man.”
I pushed back from the table. Stood up fast with my hands fisted. My chair hit the floor, clattered.
I felt eyes on me. A lot of them. Looks from around the room.
I started to say something about my daddy. About the how he fell into a bad way and the things he did to me and my mama. The reek of the food and the sick sounds of their chewing, meat torn off chicken bones, drinks guzzled, cups emptied. Porcine dining. Gluttony. I wanted to speak to all of it.
“Lydia,” said Mama, her fork bobbing in her hand, the prongs slick with gravy and dripping. “Please.”
I left for the mountains the day after the funeral. Packed a hiking bag and three of the lunchboxes I used to carry as a kid, put ice packs at the bottom and filled it full of the leftovers from the funeral feast. I pulled my hiking boots out of the closet, a windbreaker, a thick wool scarf. I started on the mountain path a few hours before sunset, took one of the snaking dirt roads that lead to crags where the Eaters lurk. I walked with my pack bumping my spine, sweat beading along my brow, the sun slanting down through the treetops and dappling the forest floor. The sky was stinging blue.
A few does crossed my path as I walked. Rabbits ran wild through the thrush and thickets. I could hear the humming of bees on the air, the whisper of wind in the bare branches of the birch trees.
My daddy taught me how to hunt them when I was little. Bought me a 22-caliber rifle with brass bullets. Taught me how to the hold the butt of the gun to my shoulder, fire with one eye closed. For hours we’d crouch between the pines, or behind blackberry brambles waiting for rabbits to cross our paths. On the good days we’d come home with bunches of them, on the bad days we’d trudge down the mountain bone-tired and spitting. We didn’t have a lot of bad days back then.
Sometimes Daddy and I would walk the woods for the hell of it. I’d pocket pebbles and pine cones gnawed skinny by some hungry squirrel stock piling for wintertime. Once we found the skull of a possum in a nook between two tree roots. Daddy picked it up and brushed it clean, spit on it a bit to get the dirt off. Then he held it up to the sun so he could see the light shine through its eye sockets.
“Beautiful,” he said, and he handed it to me. “God’s work.”
It was dark by the time I reached the top of the mountain. I limped on swelled feet, my toes thick and throbbing, sticky with sweat. Half out of my mind with tiredness.
Across a field of gravel and flowers I saw a cabin. A girl stood by it, dressed in a white sundress, barefoot despite the cold. She had her hair down around her shoulders, bruises and bite marks up her arms.
I took the lunchbox out of my backpack, held it out to her. “I’m here on behalf of my daddy. I want you to take his sins, all of them.”
She came forward, took the lunchbox from me, opened it up and unwrapped the cornbread, gnawed on a chicken leg, slurped up wet collard leaves. She chewed through the chicken bones and sucked the marrow out, licked the crumbs off the bottom of the box and bit into the ice packs. Ravenous.
A west wind swept along the mountainside and whistled through the pine needles. I felt the dirt shift under my feet; little pebbles loosed themselves and ricocheted down the mountainside. The girl kept eating, tore into the side of the lunchbox, bloodying her mouth as she worked through the metal. She swallowed the handle last, and wiped her mouth clean on the back of her hand, smearing blood and gravy.
The cicadas quit singing.
The wind went quiet.
I felt a sickness in my stomach like worms writhing.
“Hold still,” she said as she started towards me. “This is God’s work.”
Alex Henderson is a college student and Speculative Fiction writer from the Low Country. When she’s not writing she likes to spend her time drafting novels, painting, and reading the scariest books she can get her hands on.