Published in Issue 6 of Visionary Tongue, Winter 1996/Spring 1997.
I am the Sin Taker, and this is my final duty.
As I clothe myself in the traditional black silk, my flesh shivers. Then, as it often does, a corresponding shiver touches the darkest place in my mind.
I finger the chain that will serve as both belt and symbol of my sacrifice. I should be using this time to prepare myself. Yet, as so many times before, the whisper that floats from the shadows distracts me. ‘No, Ahanh… You can’t possibly consider this thing! A girl from a family such as yours will never be without suitors.’ Even the bitterness comes through. ‘You’ll get over him, Ahanh, I promise you…’ Smoke scented with flowers of forgetfulness silences his words. Memory only. No-one is there.
My mind clears. I apply the chain, feed stray hairs into the neck of my robe and lift the mask. I feel calm.
Mask in place, I close my eyes a moment before turning to examine myself in the mirrors that line my chamber. No part of my body remains visible. Only the suggestion of a gleam shows through the eye slits. The chain drags at my hips, dull and thick. Darkness shrouds me, cancelling the light of a hundred candles. All is as it should be.
I have no past. I have no name.
I am the Sin Taker.
The sins given into my care are three.
There is a man in the prison who beat his wife, though he loved her more than he could say. He confessed he struck her every night for a year until she would not venture out in daylight without a veil. She was too ashamed to tell anyone. But one day the wind blew under her veil, people saw, and there was no more hiding the truth.
I accepted his sin, and he will walk free.
‘Ahanh! Listen to me!’
That is not my name. I am the Sin Taker.
It is harder here to ignore the whispers. My chamber lies behind me. The smoke of forgetfulness grows thin. Yet reason tells me he cannot be real. This is a sealed tunnel. It leads only to my chamber, which is underground and has no other exit, to the cells where I work, and to the fire where I go now. For many months, there has been no other way for me. I wish for no other.
A hand jerks my waist, cutting my breath like a knife.
‘Don’t you understand, you crazy girl? They’ve twisted your mind. If you go in there, they’ll kill you. This way. Quickly.’
I turn, puzzled. Through the eye slits, I see two halves of the same face. It is dirty and fuzzed with a day’s growth of beard. We are in shadow between two torches. I am the Sin Taker, and he is… I frown. I think I have seen him before, so he must be one of the prisoners trying to escape. Apart from the old woman who feeds me dreamflowers, the Sin Taker sees no-one else.
‘Let me go, Sinner,’ I say softly. ‘Soon you’ll be free.’
He stares at me. He does not let go. Instead, his other hand comes up and rips off my mask. I have time to feel exposed before his palm crashes into my cheek. Echoes whirl along the tunnels. My head goes with them.
‘What have they done to you, Ahanh?’ he cries with an anguish I do not understand.
‘Who’s Ahanh? I’m the Sin Taker. How did you get out of your cell, Sinner?’
‘How do you think? I swallowed the key before I let them arrest me. I’ll explain later. There’s no time now.’
I am being led by my chain, but we are going the wrong way, back to the cells. I am filled with sin now. I can take no more. I resist him.
‘Ahanh… I’m sorry…’ His fist slams me into the dark.
The sins given into my care are two.
There is a woman in the prison who murdered her husband. She said she did it because he was violent with her, demanding love when she had none to give. One night she hid a knife under her pillow, waited until he was deep in passion, then stabbed him in the neck. His blood covered her, soaked the sheets, stained the very flags on the floor. There was no hiding what she had done.
I accepted her sin, and she will walk free.
I wake to lozenges of sunlight that drip heat onto my cheek from a high window. The sun brings strange memories after so long in the dark. I might believe them to be yet more dreams, if it were not for the whispered conversation taking place at the far side of the room. I cannot see who is speaking, for there is a fretwork screen about my bed. Through the holes in the pattern, it is possible to tell only that I am no longer in the prison. This place has the airy tranquillity of an upper room; maybe a tower, for the walls are curved. The man who hit me is talking to someone whose face is veiled by shadows. A woman.
Her dry, crackly tones seem familiar. ‘So what do you intend to do now, Jhakahr?’
That name. Jhakahr. It makes me think of a garden where I am clothed in colourful gowns, racing in my diamond slippers round the corners of a maze while a scruffy boy chases me. ‘Can’t catch me, Jhakahr! Can’t catch me!’ I always let him, though. He used to grab my hair and tug it out of its coils, and then I was in trouble because Mother wanted me to stay clean and neat for my suitors.
But the woman is still speaking, and something about her makes me uncomfortable. I hold my breath and do my best to concentrate through the echoes of long forgotten dreams.
‘They’ll be looking for her all over. It’s unheard of for the Sin Taker to run away, and when they see your cell’s empty, they’ll know you helped her escape. Remember that as far as they’re concerned, you’re a sinner now. I’m the only one who knows you set the whole thing up, and it’s too dangerous for me to show my face in the prison now. I can’t help you again, Jhakahr. If they catch you, they’ll put you to the torture to discover where she is.’
‘Do you think I care?’ It is the same whisper that haunted me back in my chamber. The same man who hit me. It makes no sense. ‘Just look after her while I make the arrangements to get her of the city, old woman. Then it won’t matter what they do to me, because I’ll know she’s safe.’
‘Ah, you must love her terribly.’
A dry chuckle, like dead leaves falling through my dreams, distracts me from the man’s answer. When I drag myself back, the woman is speaking again.
‘…but you were only in that prison two days, and that with the knowledge you could open the door to your cell just as soon as you shit. You don’t appreciate what it can do to a man in the months you’ll have to wait for your own Sin Taker. This time they’ll make certain you’ve no key, inside or out. They have their methods, and believe me, they’re not pleasant. You’ll be in the dark, silenced and alone.’
‘I’ll be thinking of Ahanh, who was in the dark and is now free.’
Why does he keep saying that name? It makes my head hurt so.
I close my eyes as he slips round the screen. He touches the bruise he put on my jaw, but I control my pain as I have been taught. In the fire there will be much pain, and a Sin Taker cannot scream, or the sins given into her care will escape, and then the prisoners will not walk free.
I can smell his sweat as he leans over me. His lips touch mine: a brief comfort. ‘I have to go now, Ahanh. I’ll try to come back tonight. You get some rest and let old Sarha pamper you. Don’t worry. No-one’ll think of looking for you here.’ He laughs, as if he finds this funny.
But Sarha… now I know why that dry voice has such power over me. I open my mouth to call the man named Jhakahr back, but he has already gone.
I struggle up from the bed. The cover falls from my body, and I realise for the first time that I am naked. It is too long since I drank my last cup of dreamflowers. My head screams with memory.
Mother betrothed me to the richest of my suitors, who begged an hour alone with me in a secluded grove so we might come to know each other as man and wife should. I was cold toward him, for as yet I felt no love in my heart, though he was handsome enough and Mother said I would learn. He began by gripping my hand so hard I lost all feeling in my fingers.
Then he tried to kiss me. When I struggled, he grew furious, as suddenly as does a cloud rushing across the sun. He tore my gown. We rolled in the spilt pearls, me screaming and hitting him with anything I could, he grunting like a camel. He thought to beat me into submission, but I was no weakling. My play with Jhakahr had toned my muscles and given me a grip to match a man’s. I managed to squirm out from under him and seize a rock. His skull smashed like a pomegranate. When they found me, I was clothed in his blood.
I start to scream aloud. The old woman pours something into a goblet and comes around the screen. Crystal dazzles my eye. Her voice, as always, is dry and monotonous and clouds my head. I struggle to rise once more, my fingers hooked in the screen. But I am weakened by my time in the dark and helpless to resist when Sarha sets the goblet to my lips. Sweetness coats my tongue, bringing with it a final dream.
The sins given into my care are one.
There is a serving girl in the prison who disobeyed her mistress. The lady used to admit men to her bower without her husband’s knowledge, and commanded the girl to silence. But the girl saw with wise eyes. She saw how much her mistress’ husband loved her, and she saw what her mistress’ lovers were doing to the marriage. So one night while her mistress was deep in passion, she crept into the husband’s room and told all. Her mistress sent her to prison for her disobedience, but the marriage was saved.
I accepted her sin, and she will walk free.
I wake to a feeling of confusion. It is dark, yet this is not the Sin Taker’s chamber. There are candles, yet only five. I am alone, yet I do not think I have always been. Before, when Sarha has given me dreamflowers, I have woken as the Sin Taker with shadows in my head. Now my head is full of tiny lights, like stars being born. They terrify me.
The door opens. A man comes round the screen and smiles at me. I remember him quite clearly now. He is Jhakahr, and from too poor a family to ask for my hand.
‘Are you feeling better, Ahanh?’ he asks, sitting on the end of my bed. He takes my hand.
‘You… you… what have you done to me?’
He considers this a moment, then says with a grin, ‘Only rescued you from the most horrible fate, you crazy girl! Why did you do it, Ahanh? Whatever made you agree? I know you were upset by your fiancé’s death, but take it from me, no man is worth burning yourself alive over.’
‘You don’t understand.’ A moth fizzes in the flame of the candle nearest my bed. I stare at the ashes of its wings and wish I could escape so easily. But whatever dreams Sarha gave me in that final cup, they were not laced with the same flowers of forgetfulness she used to give me in the prison. The truth comes out with a sigh. ‘I killed him, Jhakahr. Me! With my own hand.’
‘You killed him..?’ His confusion matches mine, but the lights in my head are flaring fast. I am remembering more and more; each memory a new pain.
‘But I thought you loved him, and that was why you-‘
‘I disgraced my whole family. You have no idea, Jhakahr! If I had gone to prison and confessed my sin in the normal way, neither I nor any of my family would have been able to show our faces in public again. The family of a Sin Taker, however, has great honour. I didn’t mean to kill him – I hit him too hard – but I did it, and there was no hiding the fact. When they offered me the chance of becoming Sin Taker, what choice did I have but to agree? It wasn’t so bad. Sarha gave me flowers of forgetfulness every night. But now…’
I am no longer the Sin Taker. I am no longer Ahanh. I do not know who I am.
‘No-one had the right to demand that of you,’ Jhakahr says quietly. Then he realises what I just said and his eyes widen. ‘Did you say Sarha..?’
Before I can reply, his head jerks round. A look of horror crosses his face, and now I hear it too. Heavy feet on the stair. The scrape of swords leaving scabbards. My heart begins to pound. I am no longer calm.
‘Sarha… I wondered how she got hold of that key so easily, the old witch!’ Jhakahr leaps to his feet and looks round for a weapon. It is pointless. We are trapped up here. I should have made more effort to tell him before, but I was so confused. How was I to know who to trust? Sarha was my friend in the prison, with her gifts of beautiful dreams.
Now it is too late. The door crashes open. The candle flames flatten and all but one smokes out.
Darkness closes its hands upon me.
The sins given into my care are none.
I can no longer be trusted with them, for now I am a sinner myself. My cell is dark, and I have to wear a gag which the guards remove only to feed me or when the Sin Taker comes, but such discipline does not worry me. Somewhere close is Jhakahr. I can hear him confessing in a whisper that makes me smile: ‘I escaped from prison before I could confess. I’m deeply sorry. I repent.’
Outside my cell is a three-legged stool. On the stool sits a masked figure draped in black silk. As yet I cannot tell if the Sin Taker is a man or a woman. The whisper of the silk and the chink of the chain puts shadows in my head, but I shake them out and concentrate, for I have promised. Nothing will be said concerning my time as Sin Taker; it is one of the conditions they have laid upon me and Jhakahr in return for us being allowed to confess. The other condition is that as soon as we are released, we will take a ship across the sea and never return. Sarha’s betrayal has made it possible for us to start a new life. She is wise.
‘I ran away from my home and family and all my responsibilities,’ I say, confessing the sin I have yet to commit. ‘I am deeply sorry. I repent.’
The Sin Taker nods. ‘I accept your sin,’ she says in a monotonous, dry voice that clouds my head. She signals for the guards to replace my gag. She seems calm. Soon she will go to the fire, and Jhakahr and I will walk free. All is as it should be.
I have no past. I have no name, but I shall find one.
This will be my first duty.