By John Thomas Tuft
Henry was just an ordinary guy. He lived in a modest cottage at the edge of the village, beside the river. Henry and his faithful companion, a mutt of a dog named Petra, roamed the streets continuously struggling to survive on meager means. People tended to ignore Henry or cross to the other side of the road when he and Petra approached. The two of them collected old, discarded bottles and cans to redeem for pennies. They collaborated on dumpster diving for things others considered to be garbage. The two companions could be seen throughout the daylight hours tramping through the streets and alleyways, nodding and waving to fellow travelers, Petra giving little yips and wags of his tail, being gracious to cats and birds alike. But the two of them also guarded the secrets for the village.
Once a day the two made a stop at the home of the young, beautiful Miss Stacy. She always welcomed them in and offered Henry chocolates and Petra got fresh pepperoni rolls, served on her finest chinaware. They would share jokes and good stories until the afternoon sun began to fade. As darkness fell each day, Henry and Petra would set out to fulfill their true calling. Now they slipped from shadow to shadow, taking the darkest route and slipping down the alleyways to knock on the back doors of each villager. The door would open just wide enough for the resident to let them slip inside without being seen. “Do you have it?” Henry would ask. “It’s right here, all of it,” he was reassured by each and every one, as they handed him a heavy, dense loaf of bread and a dark ale.
“Tell me about them,” Henry would insist to them all. And the litany of their sins would begin to spill out. And with each one they listed, Henry would eat a bite of the bread and drink some ale as their guilt broke over him. Greed, lust, lying, cheating, resentment, spite, wishing a neighbor would just up and die, trying to get the attention of the neighbor’s spouse because you are the one who can truly make her or him happy, and on and on, at each stop. With each bite and every swallow, Henry the sin eater consumed the pain and brokenness baked into the bread and distilled into the ale. By the time the sun rose on a new day, the people of the village felt cleansed and renewed. Some might even say, guilt free. Meanwhile, Henry and Petra staggered back to their cottage to endure the awful journey of all this passing through them.
Night after night, week after week, year after year, Henry the sin eater and his faithful dog, Petra, fulfilled this duty. Some began to wonder, what do we do when Henry gets too old, or his health fails from all his sin eating? Others began to make noise about why did the village have to continue to feed this worthless vagabond and his mangy dog? Even others began to grumble that Henry was getting a free ride, using up the resources of the village while making no discernable contribution to the community. Children began to follow Henry and Petra through the village during the daylight, taunting him with names, and throwing stones at poor Petra. Yet every night, the villagers still had their dense bread and dark ale prepared so their sins could be eaten by the sin eater and his faithful dog.
Complaints were filed with the mayor about the continued support of a sin eater in their town, which everyone knew, was picturesque and would make a fine tourist attraction. There was money to be made, plans to be drawn up. But no brochure or website could dare mention Henry the sin eater. Who would want to visit a village that offered all the amenities but expected you to put up with a sin eater? A clever pastor came up with the idea of changing the zoning laws and using eminent domain to take Henry and Petra’s cottage and place a sewage and water treatment facility in its place. The town council agreed that the river would be much cleaner if treated water was pumped back into it rather than the filth that Henry discharged on a daily basis. They could disguise it as a chapel and call it Living Waters.
Henry and Petra were run out of town. The entire village gathered to watch the demolition proceed. Cheering erupted as the old, feeble walls came down. Then a great gasp went up. The foundation was solid gold. Henry and Petra had turned all the sin they ate and drank into bricks of gold. A melee ensued as villagers fought one another to claim their share of the hidden treasure. Neighbor turned on neighbor. Families bloodied each other in the battle for gain. Children were trampled, and sides quickly formed into battle lines. As the screaming and punching reached a fevered pitch, a small figure walked into the open space. The crowd fell silent as Miss Stacy held up her hands for silence so all could hear her say:
“You know what this means, my friends and neighbors. Without Henry, from now on we will have to eat each other’s sins.” (Except she used a much more colorful word…) And she was right.
Words are magic and writers are wizards.