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The Sin Eaters

The Sin Eaters

by Andrew Beahrs
An old woman escaping a murderer. A girl, gambled away to a clockmaker. A man paid to take the sins of the dead upon himself. All criminals. All fleeing. All together.


An old woman escaping a murderer. A girl, gambled away to a clockmaker. A man paid to take the sins of the dead upon himself. All criminals. All fleeing. All together.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Through multiple perspectives, Beahrs (Strange Saint) vividly depicts Jacobean England in his second historical. After a brief prologue set in the Virginia colony in 1621, the first narrator, Sarah, flashes back to the events that caused her to flee the Old World. When vagabonds descend on Sarah's village, Sarah clashes with their leader, the cruel Sam Ridley, who had abused a sin-eater, a man down on his luck or short of wits, paid to symbolically assume the transgressions of the community's most recent dead. Her retribution sets Ridley on her trail. Mary, a refugee from an unhappy marriage, soon joins Sarah and Bill, another sin-eater that Ridley has targeted, on their travels. While the ultimate showdown with Ridley and its resolution will surprise few readers, the author convincingly presents the main characters' inner lives in a manner that calls to mind Iain Pears's classic An Instance of the Fingerposts. (Nov.)

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Library Journal

Set in early 1600s England, this novel portrays two "sin eaters": Sarah, a widow carrying the guilt of allowing her husband to murder for her sake, and Bill, a man coerced into eating bread and drinking wine that has been laid on the dead to soak up their sins. Hunted by a man she insulted, Sarah leaves town with her few possessions and soon encounters Bill, who is half-crazed with the burden of others' sins. Sarah promises Bill that her herb lore will purge him of the sins he has eaten and later helps Mary, a merchant's daughter sold into her husband's keeping for her father's debts. But returning Mary to her home brings unexpected troubles. Boasting complex characters and a story kept fresh by switching among different narrators, this novel is at its best in its depictions of Jacobean England; the social structure and economic realities of the time are beautifully portrayed. However, the text may be slowgoing for those unfamiliar with the time period and slang, and the prolog is so confusing that readers may be tempted to skip it. Recommended for large public and academic libraries.-Amy Ford, St. Mary's Cty. Lib., Lexington Park, MD

Kirkus Reviews

An upmarket historical novel, offering a meditation on sin and a panorama of early 17th-century England, follows two outcasts on the run who form an unlikely and affecting bond.

As concerned to capture the sound and texture of the past as to tell his story, Beahrs (Strange Saint, 2005, etc.) employs archaic, often poetic language and utilizes a welter of period detail. His England is a busy, often pitiless place, now in additional ferment as vagabonds are encouraged by landlords to enclose the common lands, bringing further hardship to the local peasantry. When elderly widowed herbalist and healer Sarah complains to Sam Ridley, the leader of one such group, she is forced to wear a scold's bridle. Taking her revenge, she flees the village, to be joined on the road by Bill Palmer, a sin-eater (someone so desperate and hungry that they consume corpse food which will supposedly transfer the sins of the recently dead into the live body). As they travel, Sarah applies her skills to cleansing him, at least physically. When Ridley catches up to them, Sarah uses herbs to drug him, moving on again to the seaside town of Northam, scene of a violent episode in her past and now the place where Ridley and Bill fatally confront each other. Sarah will pay loving homage to Bill before leaving by ship for a new life in Virginia, in the colonies.

Sensitive work—sometimes fusty, finally affecting.

Agent: Leslie Daniels/Joy Harris Agency

Product Details

Toby Press LLC, The
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.10(d)

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Read an Excerpt

The Sin Eaters

By Andrew Beahrs
Toby Press
Copyright © 2008

Andrew Beahrs
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59264-236-6

Chapter One Sarah

The black moon fell from my face, drifted to the page. I'd been reading and the felt crescent lay on the paper like a babe's gummy grin, blocking a neat curve of text.

I touched my cheek where the moon had been. Though the skin there was still sticky with sap, the sap would need freshening if it were to hold the felt patch until night. And it must hold, if I were to leave my house. I'd not choose to have any man see part of my sky fall away. Keeping patchwork planets and moons on one's face is an old, old fashion, one never much seen near my village even when popular. I have my reasons for keeping it. None of them allow for having the stars fall away by chance.

I pushed myself up, my knee treacherous and cracking out the chill of morn. I shuffled to the corner beside the chimney, where my herbs hung like scarves above a small drawer-table. Gently crushing the bundled plants would loose healing scents of rosewater, smoke, and honey, that would wrap illness softly as a dressing of hare pelt. Boiled, they'd bring forth colors gaudy or plain. I only brushed fingers lightly over a stem as I bent to open the drawer. In it was a small wooden box carved with the face of a grinning monkey or landlord, filled with my sewing stuff and a good store of sad-colored felt. Also there was a wooden ball, which I had rolled over cracks in the bark of scrub-pine until it bulged with sap. I unwrapped it from the damp cloth meant to keep it from drying into a profitless lump of stone.

I felt for my constellation's remaining points. One star on my temple. One on my cheek, one on my chin. Only the moon was gone from beside my nose. With all four patches there, fixed by sap to the planes and curves of my face, I could make a constellation in whatever form I wished. Often I formed a letter that mirrored my mood. Q might stand for Quiet, F for Fortunate. You might say it would be difficult to form a Q, or an F, with a scant three stars and a moon. But I say that the stars in the sky look not very much like a plow, nor a giant, nor a lion. It's all in how you imagine the lines between the stars cornering and curving.

And in truth I did not want my letters to be clear to all. I liked thinking that Sam Ridley did not know he was being mocked when I went to him marked with an accusing B, for Bastard, or ITLITL, for Cuntbeard, or S, for Sower of a Crooked Woman's Woe. To me, each was as clear as a banner ordering him from town. But only to me.

The moon I'd been using was still a fine logwood black, not yet gone gray under springtime sun. With a pinch and press of sap by my nose it again held fast. I had been thinking of Ridley, who I'd doubtless see that morn; thus I imagined that the moon completed an I, for Ignorant.

I returned to my bench, lifted my skirts, and began rubbing oil of chamomile on my knee. As I rubbed I imagined the herb calling aid from the turn of Venus and a distant, desert wind. The joint warmed quickly. But through the smell of sweet oil and herb came a thin, sharp scent of rot. I looked up past rafters to the vault of my roof. Spring's rains had fallen hard even before the last snowmelt was gone, and there was a good deal of water in the bound thatch. Probably it should have been stripped away and replaced a season or two before. A lost sparrow flitted between beams, perking her head whenever she landed. My windows were only greased paper, not nearly clear enough to let in the light of morning, and the sparrow was barely visible in the dark beyond my candle.

But my mind was still on Sam Ridley, leader of the vagabonds who seized the village lands after my congregation departed. Strange, that he had such a hold over me that morning. Most days I was able to think only of my own home, the small needs of belly and hearth, until I was so unfortunate to see the vagabonds in the flesh. That morning something kept Ridley creeping around the edges of my mind and heart.

It was the sin-eater, I realized. Though it had been some days since he came to Monkshead, on that morning the thought of him harassed me, like the sickness from yesterday's bad water. Ridley's cruelty towards the sin-eater was a reminder of just how much things in Monkshead had changed. My old congregation would not have countenanced sin-eating; but neither would they have chased a simpleton from town, with axes and thrown clods of turf, as Ridley and his crew had. As long as the man left swiftly, my congregation would have let him do so at his own pace, without forcing him into humiliating flight.

It is rare to see a sin-eater. Many have never heard of the profession. But it is a simple calling, that fills a simple need. When all England was still Catholic, a grieving family could rest easily, knowing that their dear one had confessed all sin to a priest, and so been absolved before going to meet the Lord. Now the English Church has renounced confession, taking away that small comfort, spilling out the old, washing waters. Now a father may fear that his son goes to the next life sullied with sin-a daughter may fear for her mother, a husband for his wife. Any woman who has been party to a pig-killing will know how badly one can want water to wash away blood from her hands. How much more will she desire a cleansing basin for her family, when they pass on from this slaughterhouse life?

And so, many refuse to see a loved one face the Lord uncleansed. Instead they leave bread and wine on the corpse through the night, imagining that sin will thus pass from the body into loaf and cup. Then they find a fellow so simple, poor, or hopeless that he is willing to take on another lifetime of trespass for a few coins. He eats the sin-soaked bread, he drinks down the cup of crimes. Perhaps he is grateful for the meal.

This new practice seems to me cold, cruel, and useless. I do not believe that we can do anything to cleanse ourselves before the Lord; our sins are our own, and He will not be blinded to them. He will only forgive if He so chooses. And though the old way of confession was an error, at least it wronged no other man. Feeding a fellow your sins is a sin itself. How prideful, to imagine that you might so easily mask the gaze of the Lord!

I'd seen the sin-eater only from behind, his limbs lank as a water-strider's as his clumsy, shambling run carried him from town, Ridley and his mob screeching behind like cranes. I heard later that the fellow had asked Ridley artless questions about our recent dead. A sin-eater should not be so trusting; he should take care when choosing who he reveals himself to. Those who believe that he absorbs sin, storing it within himself, will not abide his presence for long.

Whether or not Ridley truly believed that a man could eat another's sins, he had seen a chance for sport. When the yelling drew me from my house, already the vagabonds had chased him down the road, axe-handles and coppice-poles raised overhead like the wings of a raucous flock. At least they had not beaten him. I never saw his face, but I'd hated the manner of his going. I hoped he'd had food enough to last until the next town.

My knee warmed and loosened. Even in the dark I could feel the village about me; its air and water and earth. I knew them as well as I did my own body. I knew the way high clouds swirled and tussled, I knew the way streams hissed deep beneath us, and how they could be heard by one who knew how to listen. I knew the heralds of flood and storm. Once, such knowledge was only knowledge-useful as a means of growth or healing, but no more appreciated than is the use of one's own fingers before they begin curling with age. Now any knowledge of my old village, useful or not, was a solace. I much needed a set, solid place, as my home seemed to sink away beneath me.

I breathed deep, trying to find a calm foundation in things known, and things remembered. But that foundation was soon destroyed by the vagabonds, running their sheep past my door.

Past the open, sunny doorway they rumbled, two and three sheep at a time, each small group accompanied by a trotting or stumbling man. Many of the latter carried long, curving crooks. There was bleating, shouting, laughter; I heard herdsmen whooping and, I could have sworn, the glug of swilled ale and huffcap.

I went to my own ale butt, lifted the lid, and drank a bitter ladleful for assurance of heart. Then I went out into the brightening spring morning.

For many years, I had found the familiar view from my dooryard comforting. Now, even without the running sheep, there were a hundred small signs of what I'd lost. Past the village road and the stream beside it, the old snake fence jig-jagged its way up a far pasture slope gone wild; spring grass, feverfew, and bushy charlock were overtaking the violets and pale yellow lady-smocks of earliest spring. Here and there a railing had fallen from the fencing, leaning askew among the dandelions and primroses. Once, dozens of cows would have grazed down the pastures, but now there were only four left, among them my own old, mottled missy. I've always loved a meadow, but the sight of that field gone over entirely to flowers left an ache in my heart.

On the ridge above the few cows, stood the tiny mill we'd always depended on at harvest, standing now like a child spread-eagled before the sun. Its sail-frames would stay naked this year; the grain fields on the other side of the village were to be cleared by sheep instead of scythes.

In my very dooryard a yearling ewe stood among the rosemary and greening fennel, tilting her head to reach the tender leaves of a newly sprouting bear's breeches. The plant had trouble enough with caterpillars; I kicked the ewe out from my garden as two more sheep dragged the vagabond Merchant past me. Merchant lay on his back, gripping each sheep by its fat tail, kicking clumsily to aid them, scraping a skewed path. A crowd of idiots followed coughing behind. They danced, they shouted, they joyfully broke wind. Hurriedly I twisted my moon and slid a star, making my I into an M. Masterless men, I thought. These fools were not masters of their own selves.

The dust of the passing flock damped the smell of fresh spring growth. Vagabond Kelly came grinning from the stream, wet to the waist, golden kingcups and trailing watercress clumped on his boots and trousers. A lamb struggled in his arms, her head jerking sharply as a sprung trap. Kelly jumped twice, a gesture both mocking and oddly carefree, then dropped her hard to the ground.

For a moment my vision filled with crimson-a bright, bleeding, cock's tail red. A cloak, past me almost before I saw it.

"You, Sam Ridley. Ridley!" I called. He glanced back. His eyes always reminded me of a painting I once saw of a gurge whirlpool; they seemed at one moment fixed in place, at the next to turn curiously. Leader of the band, he'd taken Midge Thomas' fine home for his own. That made him my closest neighbor, a circumstance I preferred not to think about overmuch. His comportment was merry, his chin well kept, and like all the newcomers he wore an odd mix of old rags and new stuff bought with landlord's gold. His boots were black leather, his cloak the dragon-scale red one might expect at court; but his trousers and jerkin were coarse cloth, patched with loose stitching, and deerskin, and rabbit pelts. When his cloak blew open the furs made him look like an animal playing at being a man.

He gave a happy wave. "God speed you well," he called, and turned away. Silently I cursed the back of his head. God speed is the proper greeting to give a woman standing hard before death's door. Though aging, I was not so old as that, nor was I ill. Courtesy required that he offer me Well met. I had despised him from the first for such slights, great and small.

Now, I've been vagabond myself, and my Henry a vagabond with me, in the years before he called upon his cousins' goodwill and we came to Monkshead to stay. There is no shame in being a vagabond. I understand the longing for a home one feels when on the rolling road. But understanding a man does not mean you must like him. Sometimes, the more clearly you can see a fellow, the more his faults come to seem hard as nuts. I had already seen that Ridley was willing to force others to wander. I knew that to better his own station he would give grain fields to sheep, forcing the old farmers into vagabondage themselves. And I knew that he would play at being lord of the town, chasing out sin-eaters and other harmless drifters. Ridley seemed to have no care for any beyond himself, unless they were willing to raise him high. I swore, and followed his parade of sheep and idiots.

John Jacobs fell in beside me, his hunched shoulders those of a man making his uncertain way through mud. His beard tapered to a point and he pinched it absently, as one might hold down washing in a breeze.

"Well met, John," I said.

He looked at me as though waking up. "Sarah. Well met. Do you know what they intend with the sheep?"

"I do not," I said, for we had already passed the footbridge that led over our little river and thus to the overgrown cow pastures. Probably they would put the sheep there until cowslip and clover had time to grow in the grain fields. I'd never have imagined that I might long for the hardy fumitory that sprung up in a normal year wherever a furrow was plowed. Now the memory of tearing aside its pink-and-red flowers to make room for barley was a poignant one; clearing fumitory was a task of a new springtime, that spoke of a harvest to come.

Two weeks before, the vagabonds had begun erecting an oaken pale around the grain fields to hold their flocks. When I first saw those boards set, solid as dying, around fields that gave bread to generations, for an instant I'd envied the most of my congregation the journey to America. Perhaps they'd been right that no righteous community could be so cut off from the earth and yet survive. It was a weak and shameful moment for me; I'd made my choice and would live with that.

Jacobs' mind was also on the fence. "They'll finish the enclosure soon enough," he said. "So many of them, so few of us left."

"Where's your wife?" I asked sharply. That was a bit of a slap. I hate to watch a man lie down before a fight that needs fighting; I wanted him to realize that he still had something worth struggling for. But with a squeeze of his lips he again drew inward, hating to see his home so turned and too much a coward to stand against it.

The crowd came to rest before John Stradling's slumping house. I pushed my way through, often blocked by some fool until he saw that it was an old woman behind him and not some drunken companion he could happily brawl. The pain in my knee was slowly returning, a slight clicking begun in every step.

The vagabonds formed a corral like a half-circle, each end touching against John Stradling's old house. Ridley stood in the center beside the gray hump of the village beehive oven. Surrounded by bleating, stamping sheep, he looked like a dwarf clinging to a tide-swept rock.

John Stradling's house was the oldest, and largest, in the village. It had needed to be big, for when first built it had housed animals and men together, each with their half of the dwelling. But for many years it had served our congregation as a meetinghouse, with only a slight fall in the floor marking where the stable had been. Under the morning sun it had a closed-up, tired, finished look, the small glass windows clouded as though palms pressed against them from within.

I did not honor all that happened in that house, nor in our meetings there. But when Ridley made his way to the door and opened it with a flourish, then kneed in the first reluctant sheep, my heart twitched like a cocoon popping open. At last I knew why the vagabonds had brought their animals to the village center. The future was not enough for them-they must also have our past. And how better to seize it than to steal our most important place, making a sheepfold where we'd worshipped?

"That's no place for a beast," I shouted.

From across the flock Ridley's eyes seemed swirled with pleasure. "It was built for beasts," he said. He booted a second sheep through the door; it vanished as into a sea-cave.

I struggled through the bleating flock. They were still frantic from their run and they jolted my legs, making me sway uneasily. To my right, Merchant rose from among the woolen billows. The other vagabonds thought it a fine jest to have waited so long before standing, and a wave of laughter passed. Merchant licked a broad, gapped smile, then pulled his hair back, leaving his hands on his head. He was half a true idiot. I pushed past him and the last of the sheep, finally reaching Ridley. The good of my chamomile had faded and my knee wailed quietly. Panting, I stood on my left leg.


Excerpted from The Sin Eaters by Andrew Beahrs Copyright © 2008 by Andrew Beahrs . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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