Ruth was so hungry even the grass was starting to look good. She had already resorted to digging through refuse and compost piles for something to eat. Her stomach didn't constantly hurt like she would have expected before experiencing starvation, but she did know she needed to eat if she was going to survive.
Her parents, recent immigrants from Scotland like so many in the area, had died from smallpox, leaving her totally alone in the world. She'd lost the little they owned to debt collectors, leaving her without a roof over her head and food in her belly. She was fast approaching desperation. In fact, she'd passed it.
A woman, young without looking it, no doubt from her heavy workload, struggled to hang her laundry with four children at her feet, who were all under the age of five.
"Ma'am, can I help you? I wouldn't charge much." she asked, hopeful.
The woman cast a critical eye on her before replying. "We have nothing to pay you with."
"Please, I'll do anything." She would have gotten down on her knees if she thought it would help. "I'm a hard worker. I'm good with children. I wouldn't even charge for money. Just a meal."
"Get out of here before I stick my husband on you."
She didn't know whether she hung her head in sadness or she could barely hold it up anymore in her growing weakness as she walked away.
She tried to remember that the young mother's nerves were probably frazzled to think of her more compassionately, but she'd certainly had kinder rejections, but they were always rejections. Someone took pity occassionally and offered her scraps but never a place in their home or a steady supply of food.
It wasn't so much that they were uncaring as that they already had too many mouths to feed. You took care of your own kin in these mountains before you took care of a stranger, and no one wanted a skinny girl of thirteen, who was getting skinnier everyday.
She spent the late summer nights in a lovely little grove just beyond the meadow. It sheltered her from all but only the heaviest rains. She worried what she would do when winter came if she didn't waste away before then.
She suddenly had the distinct feeling of being watched. Her pace quickened even though she had nowhere to run to. Her imagination conjured all kinds of possibilities as to who was chasing her.
She didn't run very far before she could run no farther. She turned to face whatever fate lay before. Her imagination couldn't have brought forth a scarier image than the cloaked figure before her.
Fear gripped her, and she shook like a leaf. He'd been there at her parents' funeral as he was at every funeral where the people hadn't had time to repent before their passing.
The hood on his cloak covered his face and added to his mysterious nature, but he pulled it back to speak to her. She didn't know what she expected. A monstrous face? He looked like a human being but so haggard like he'd lived a thousand lifetimes.
He wasn't scary so much as he was pitiable. Sympathy for this man flooded through her, making him more human than she'd previously believed him to be.
"Come with me, Ruth McKenzie."
She wondered if she should be scared that he knew her name, but of course he did. He was a part of the community even if he was forced to remain in the shadows. She didn't know what compelled her to follow him, but she believed he meant her no harm.
Some might have been optimistic and called where he lived a house, but there was no better word to call the place than hovel, and it beat her home that was only a cluster of trees.
Alone inside, he told her in a voice raspy with disuse, "I've been watching you."
The fear came back. Was it too late to run?
"I'm dying," he told her, dismissing the thought to flee from her head. Was he asking her to care for him in exchange for bread and a place to sleep? She wouldn't mind if he were. "You could be the next sin-eater."
Her? She'd never considered it before. It wasn't exactly a role children dreamed of taking someday. A terrible thought entered her head. "Who's going to eat your sins?"
"No one. No one could eat away the magnitude of sins I've taken on me, and you will be faced with the same end if you do this, but you will never have to worry about your next meal, and you will ease the minds and souls of so many. It's a great service we sin-eaters provide to keep a man's soul out of hell."
She was hungry, and who else would agree to take his place? She couldn't bear the thought of so many souls suffering in hell when she could have stopped it. And some believed the souls would walk in unrest on the earth without a sin-eater, terrorizing the living. "I'll do it."
"Then Ruth McKenzie," he said, removing his cloak and passing what seemed more like a shroud to her, "you're the new sin-eater. May God have mercy on your soul."
Except that He wouldn't, not now that she was a sin-eater.