May 11: “The Sin Eater” by Tara L. Masih

Hello, Story366! It’s Wednesday, and nothing really marked today except I gave a final at 8:45 this morning after grading all night, then came home and did some serious staring at the wall for a while, which led to my most favorite staring, staring at the insides of my eyelids. Nap time! Oh, we also bought a lawnmower. A friend of mine is leaving town and needed to get rid of everything and we bought her lawnmower. We’ve never owned a lawnmower before, hiring people to do it that last few years, but we’re not really the kind of people who hire other people to do things like mow the lawn. So, in about ten days (the guy came yesterday), I’m going to mow a lawn for the first time in about twenty years. Actually, I’m looking forward to it. Really, though, with all the grading I’ve done this past couple of weeks, anything that’s not reading black typed words on white paper will be great. Next, I might even buy a ladder and clean my gutters. Which I’ve never, um, uh, done.

Today’s book comes to us from Press 53, a press I’ve covered quite a bit already this year, which is no coincidence. Firstly, it’s a press dedicated to publishing short story collections, so that’s a big thumbs up from me. Secondly, Press 53’s editor, Kevin Morgan Watson, has apparently told his authors to send books my way, as a lot of the books that I’ve gotten sent to me are from Press 53, books by authors like Jodi Paloni, Gerry Wilson, and Okla Elliott. So, presses, authors: Send me your books and I’ll read them and write about them on this blog. I’m actually starting to run out.

Tara L. Masih’s Where the Dog Star Never Glows is the latest book I’ve had the pleasure of investigating. On top of her writing, Masih is the editor of the The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and Best Small Fictions series, making her a solid literary citizen, which I’m all about.

Masih is also a good writer, too, as I enjoyed the stories I read out of Where the Dark Star Never Glows. As you might guess, given her editorial expertise, Masih writes a lot of shorts, and there’s some good ones in this collection, intermingled with mid- or regular-sized stories, a long one or two thrown in, just as proper anchors. There’re all kinds of stories, too, like the lead story, “The Guide, the Tourist, and the Animal Doctor,” which is a love story of sorts, as well as “Catalpa,” a very descriptive short about a catalpa tree, very metaphysical. Many of the stories take place in Caribbean settings, but not all do. The title story, “Where the Dog Star Never Glows,” is about a coal miner  here in the States. So, eclectic stories, eclectic settings.

The story I’m writing about, though, is “The Sin Eater,” not quite a short and not quite a regular story at five pages, and I’m choosing this story for a particular reason: I used to geek out on comic books when I was a kid like I geek out on stories now. My favorite book? Okay, it was The Avengers. My second-favorite book? The Official Guide to the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition. This book was basically Marvel’s encyclopedia, and every month—starting around 1986 or so—forty-four pages of entries on every character in the Marvel Universe would come out and I’d pour over each issue, over and over again, reading every book cover-to-cover at least five times before the next one came out.

One entry that stuck out to me, for whatever the reason, was the Sin Eater. In Marveldom, the Sin Eater was a super villain of sorts, and while I never read a comic with him as a character, I loved his entry because it started out with the worldly myth of the sin eater, where the name came from. The entry, if I recall correctly, even starts out with “In legend, a sin eater was a ….” Since, I’ve run across mention of the sin eater in my readings, and because of that Marvel encyclopedia, I always knew what a sin eater was.

So, what’s a sin eater? A sin eater is a scapegoat, basically, a person in a particular society who is an outcast, a person who lives on the outskirts, waiting to fulfill his/her role: When someone is about to die (or dies), the sin eater takes their sins so they can go on to the afterlife, sin-free. How do sin eaters take on this sin? The dying or dead person is laid out, a bunch of fruit is placed on the person’s chest, and then the sin eater pops out of the bushes, eats the fruit, thereby assuming the sins, which have risen up out of the body and worked their way into the fruit. Then the sin eater goes off again, waiting in exile until the next person’s number is up. It’s an old practice found in a lot of cultures, most notably and less specifically in the form of Jesus, the son of God who comes to Earth as a man, who must be crucified and die, all in order to absorb the world’s sins. It’s called an apotropaic ritual, in case you wanted to know that. And now you do.

And in the story “The Sin Eater,” Masih basically maps out this legend, tells the story of a sin eater in narrative form. We find the sin eater at the start, living off by himself, gruff and solemn, basically what a sin eater would really be like—how else would they act, doing what they do for a living? Masih describes the sin eater and his existence beautifully as he moves through his day, eventually finding out, via unlucky messenger, that there’s a dying person in town, that his services are needed. Like an actor preparing for a show, the sin eater proceeds to ready himself, physically and mentally and emotionally and appearancingly (OK, not a word …). His role isn’t just a job, but a responsibility and an honor: The people of the village need to be convinced that their loved one has been absolved, and if they do, everyone has hope for eternal rest and happiness.

The story is, in a way, a procedural, the character of the sin eater here never taking on very human characteristics, other than his dedication to his job, to the role he’s been saddled with. This isn’t a fun story about how the sin eater likes to paint pictures of bunnies and cook ceviche between sin-eatings. It’s pretty straight-up, respectful of the legend, but gorgeously rendered, the legend coming to life.

Marvel’s Sin Eater, if I’m not mistaken, can take on the superpowers of beings he comes in contact with. If he touches Thor (or eats a kiwi off Thor’s tummy, I guess), he gets Thor’s strength, invulnerability, and control of Mjolnir (and hence, the weather). A pretty clever use of a myth (like Thor himself in Marvel’s books). There are no superpowers in Tara L. Masih’s story of the same name, but her control of her stories, her prose, her ideas, her ability to seemingly do anything, is power enough. She’s written an impressive book, one I was more than willing to take on.

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4 thoughts on “May 11: “The Sin Eater” by Tara L. Masih

  1. Pingback: December 4: “Standard Loneliness Package” by Charles Yu – Story366

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