This story originally appeared in Storylandia #7 (Wapshott Press, Autumn 2012). All text © Julie Travis.
The Falling Man
How many souls are there in Heaven?
Perhaps it is not our place to know or even ask such a thing. But if we did, would the real question be; how many truly deserve to be there? If anyone had asked Joseph Gray he would laugh, a bitter and angry sound. He was the one person who could at least estimate how many souls had passed through Heaven’s gates and, more importantly, he knew for certain how many had done so on merit. *The numbers,* he’d smirk, *don’t add up, do they?*
But no one would ask Joseph Gray. Most people avoided him, although they would find it difficult to say why. There was something unsettling in the way he carried himself, the way he looked at others. Politeness stopped them from commenting on his foul breath, his disfigured neck and arms and no one got close enough to him, physically or otherwise, to be genuinely concerned about his health.
Joseph Gray thought about Heaven a lot. After all he had done in his twenty-eight years on Earth he deserved more than anyone to be allowed in, even to be given the keys to the place. He’d earned it. But he doubted that he’d get his reward. God appeared to have abandoned him of late. A sudden flash of pain made him clutch his stomach. His *condition*, if one could call it a condition, shifted with each day and the suffering – the martyrdom – he experienced soared to dizzying new heights.
It had first shown itself at his grandfather’s funeral. Joseph had been five years old, confused at the adults around him that were usually so strong, now red eyed, holding onto one another as if they couldn’t stand on their own two feet. When his father had lifted him up and shown him the open coffin with his grandfather lying inside, he had understood little of what he was seeing but he felt sad because everyone else was sad. Sad and then frightened. Because while he was being held over the coffin, an invisible hand had pushed at his chest. There it was again. This time it went deeper and he felt anger but it was not his own. It was as if the invisible hand had placed the anger inside him. He yelled, felt another push and then two of his aunts were at his side, gasping and pointing at the body inside the coffin.
“Did you see that? It was like a cloud of dust…”
“There’s another one! It’s going to the boy. Thank the Lord, Frank’s sins are going to the boy…”
When the funeral was over Joseph’s mother and father had told him what an amazing, lucky boy he was. There had been someone at the funeral, a woman who wasn’t a friend or a relative. She, said Joseph’s father, was a sin-eater. She went to funerals and *ate* the sins of the deceased so the dead person was free to enter Heaven. When the woman eventually died, a sin-eater would need to be at *her* funeral, as she would have all the sins she had taken on, as well as her own, stopping her from going to Heaven.
“But we didn’t need her, Joseph,” said his father. “Because my boy had been chosen by God to help Grandad. And you’ll be able to help when anyone else in our family dies.”
It was more than three years before another relative died, a cousin of Joseph’s mother who he had met only once before. He had almost forgotten how it felt to absorb a person’s sins and it was only when he was looking into the coffin that he panicked and tried to run away. His father gripped his shoulders and held him in place. In mounting horror, he saw a dozen columns of black dust rising from the corpse. They shot towards him and pierced him like icy arrows. This time pictures appeared in his mind, images of all the sins the man had ever committed.
He was too young to fully understand the sins he absorbed. They were just snapshots of a person’s life. Still, some were shocking, others were lewd. One, of an uncle Joseph had always thought of as gentle and generous, looked a lot like murder. He confided in no one and no one ever asked for details. His family looked on him in both pity and in reverence. By the time Joseph was eleven it took two men to help his father dress him and take him forcibly to a funeral; a chance happening on a book about superstition, and the revelation that the sin-eater was there not just to allow the deceased into Heaven but also to stop the dead from rising and walking amongst the living, had terrified him further. He begged, threatened and screamed for mercy, but none was forthcoming. Afterwards, after the sickness and visions had subsided, he did feel better; he had, after all, saved another soul. As his mother often reminded him, there was no doubt that the sinner, his own flesh and blood, felt the utmost remorse for their sins, and would be blessing Joseph’s sacrifice from Heaven.
Meanwhile, it was Joseph’s mother and father who received the only blessing of use in this world. Once Joseph’s gift became known, it was made clear that appreciation would be shown in the Will of the deceased. No individual donation was a fortune but over the years it added up to a reasonable sum. Joseph never saw the money; he never even knew that it existed. All he received was the most basic of meals, usually bread and insipid beer, the traditional payment for a sin-eater. However much he feared the next family funeral and resented his parents for forcing such horrors on him, he also had a grudging respect for their commitment to saving the souls of their dearly departed loved ones.
Their devotion was such that, at the age of fifteen, Joseph Gray was hired out to the funerals of anyone prepared to pay. By this time, the images and feelings he absorbed were clear. And he was beginning to suspect that much of the human race was quite cynical. The most brutal man in life – a rapist, an abuser, a destroyer of the human spirit – could in death be absolved of all his terrible sins and walk freely into Heaven on the capacity of Joseph, a total stranger, to absorb them and carry the weight of them as his own.
And if they were cynical in being able to do this, what was God, for allowing it to happen?
Such was the question that almost surfaced from time to time, but Joseph pushed it away. It was not for him to question God. Instead he began to accept his gift, to stop making trouble on the day of a funeral, even to take pride in his appearance and acknowledge the esteem in which he realised he was held.
In his early twenties Joseph left his parents’ home in Muswell Hill to live alone in a bedsit on the other side of London. He craved quiet and privacy but there was none to be found. People came and went in the building at all hours and had no interest in whether their activities kept their neighbours awake. It did not occur to him that now he was away from the family home he could refuse to continue his work as sin-eater that his father arranged. He considered it his calling; one was not supposed to enjoy a calling. And his job in a sorting office gave him enough money to live on. It allowed him plenty of time to think. To dream of a normal life.
For some peace on his days off, he discovered the beautiful silence of one of the great London cemeteries. There had been a mention of them at school in history lessons, the huge graveyards established during the first half of the 1800s to cope with a population that was rapidly expanding, but, like most of his classmates, he had barely listened. Now, living opposite the cemetery at Nunhead, he had walked into the place in desperation one especially noisy day and had been astounded. The architecture was on a grand scale. A row of colonnades, set in a dip in the grounds around the catacombs, was more befitting the Roman Empire than a resting place for the dead. At the centre of the site stood a magnificent chapel and even the graves themselves were something to behold. The headstones were dramatic sculptures; weeping angels, doves in flight, children kneeling in prayer. Many others were fantastic miniature buildings, with spires and gothic arches, the rich asserting their superiority even in death. And between the graves were paths overshadowed by trees, ivy creeping over every available surface and, best of all, silence, interrupted only by birdsong.
Joseph fell instantly in love with the place. He could lose himself there, choosing a different path each time he visited, finding ever more spectacular and elaborate monuments, then working his way back to the chapel, walking down past the catacombs and up again, to sit on a bench in dry weather, sheltering underneath a tree during rain or hail. He rarely saw other people; the cemetery had only a handful of graves less than a century old and few people seemed to visit the place for its beauty alone. It was overlooked by humans but not by nature – the ivy slowly made its way across the smaller graves, animals rustled the bushes, birds nested in the trees – and as Joseph began to spend more and more time there, he made the place his own. He walked among the tombs, he slept in the shelter of the catacomb’s columns, he pissed in the undug spaces between the dead.
Then everything changed. He had felt a strangeness in the preceding days, something he had put down to having spent too many nights out of doors, but on this warm, sunny day he was feeling better. He had attended a funeral recently, had seen his parents for the first time in a while and was aware of how old they looked. His father had taken him aside and acknowledged that they were both becoming frailer. He made Joseph promise to eat both his parents’ sins at their funerals and, his father added, to try not to judge them too harshly. Now, back in his beloved cemetery, smiling at the monument to an actor who had obviously written his own epitaph, a blackbird broke into song nearby. Far from spoiling the silence, the sound enhanced it.
But then something interrupted the birdsong. It was a voice.
Joseph looked around him. There was no one to be seen. He had heard that the cemetery was popular with gay men cruising for partners. He squinted at the shadows; no one.
*“Please…”* the voice came again, pleading. It was dry, from a throat that sounded unused to speech. Joseph looked around again but knew no one was there.
Not above the ground, anyway. The modest tomb next to the actor’s boastful memorial was cracked and broken by a bush that had taken root nearby. The voice was coming from a gap in the stonework. Joseph froze, his stomach beginning to churn. The voice continued.
“I have sinned,” it said. “Please, I beg you to eat my sins so I may go to Heaven. I have waited so long. I would be eternally grateful for your help, Mr Gray.”
The corpse knew his name! Joseph stepped back in surprise and horror. He looked at the tombstone. *Sacred to the memory of Elizabeth Mount, who departed this life on 13 November 1930, aged 49 years.* The woman had been dead for generations.
“Are you Elizabeth Mount?” he asked, almost stammering with nervousness.
“I am the spirit of Elizabeth. Your name is known in many places, Mr Gray, not just in Heaven and on Earth. I cannot offer you money or treasures, but please do not condemn me to spend eternity in this no man’s land.”
Joseph crept back towards the grave. He felt around the bottom of the tombstone for a speaker or a mobile phone, all the time certain that this was not a hoax. He thought of feeling around inside the tomb but lost his nerve, instead peering as close to the gap as he dared go.
A familiar gritty cloud shot up and covered his face. He sucked some of it into his mouth and up his nose and despite his coughs and sneezes it eased its way into him.
He saw an open fire, a sickly baby crying, a woman’s hands wrapping a blanket around it, tightly, too tightly, the baby’s voice faltering and stopping. He saw a field with a bare hawthorn tree at its side, a small hole dug in the ground, the baby’s body inside being covered with earth and he felt the desperation of a woman too poor and too exhausted to provide for another child. Elizabeth Mount had rued her terrible act for the rest of her life and the seventy-six years since. But now, finally absolved of her guilt, her essence cried out in relief and made its way to Heaven.
When it was over, Joseph sat on the wreck of her tomb, shaking with disbelief. This was something he had not been prepared for. Had he walked past her grave before? Had there been a hint, a sign, of such a restless spirit? Joseph was sure he’d seen the actor’s tomb before, but only at a distance. When the shaking had subsided, he got up and began making his way back to the chapel. From there he found the main avenue to the exit. He was halfway to the main gate when a gentle rustling in the trees became a whispering voice. One voice became a dozen, a hundred, a thousand. Encouraged by Elizabeth Mount’s ascension, all the graves in Nunhead cemetery began to rattle, and the whispers became a howl.
*“PLEASE!”* cried the voices and Joseph Gray was forced to run to the gate and out, for the sake of his sanity.
And as he fled, one of the newer graves, uncared for and almost hidden underneath tangled ivy, began to shudder. The moist earth around the simple tombstone dried and became dusty and, clawed away from below, was pushed easily aside to allow a glimpse of the bare bones inside, the first time the body had seen daylight since its death in 1965.
It was a word he was not used to. It was a pitiful word, made for those who spent their lives – and, it seemed, their deaths – begging, for those without the ability or the guts to survive on their own. But now what had been Thomas Reason tasted hope and it was delightful.
If there is such a thing as utter and complete evil then Reason was it – and he had no wish for redemption, even if it were possible. Born in Bavaria in the early twentieth century and given the name Christoph Haisemann, he had before the age of ten tortured and eventually killed his sister by poisoning, watching her convulsions and death throes with great interest. He had committed horrific crimes only intermittently over the years until Hitler’s rise, when he found that, as long as he chose his victims from certain sections of society, their murders, however numerous, did not arouse the kind of outrage they had in the past. He had free rein; despite almost being caught in the act on one occasion, Haisemann found the police slow in pursuit. Almost as if they didn’t want to catch him.
After the war, which Haisemann spent behind a desk, hearing rumours of the atrocities taking place in the concentration camps and indulging quietly in his own, he took on his new name and settled in England. Still he killed and still he remained undetected, even killing once more during the last year of his life. His brutality was undiminished and he was surprised and disappointed when cancer overpowered him. He went to his grave still seething with hatred, telling the hospital staff how he had torn people apart, disembowelled them while they were conscious. They had taken it as the ravings of a man high on opiates and terrified of death, and Reason had found it all the more enjoyable to be boasting of his crimes with no possibility of being brought to justice.
During his life he had enjoyed the suffering of others and the freedom to do whatever he wanted. But after death these things had become impossible. He had roamed the graveyard at Nunhead and the streets nearby but had no power over anything. He could neither haunt the living nor terrify the spirits of the dead. The years passed, each moment more unbearable than the last. And then the man appeared, the man who reached out to the snivelling spirit of Elizabeth Mount and allowed her to go to Heaven.
The man had to do the same for him. He had to. What chaos Reason would be capable of creating in Heaven he did not know, but it would be a rich prize indeed to try – to be ejected by God Himself! He set about freeing his remains. Flesh, he had found, could be willed around bone, in places at least, muscles and blood formed and made to work. Unlike the world around him, he could force his body into being and doing. And he would use it to find the sin-eater.
Joseph could not bring himself to enter Nunhead cemetery for many months after the incident. He was overwhelmed by what had happened. That a long dead woman had made contact with him, had asked for her sins to be eaten, was enough to come to terms with. Despite his shock, he had been able to help her, but the reaction of the rest of the cemetery’s occupants, the chorus of pleading, was terrifying. He spent hours at a time at his window, looking out over the high wall opposite, wondering if the dead were roaming the wide avenues or were making their way over the wall to find him. During these times he was lonelier than he had ever been. He realised the only other sin-eater he had ever seen was the woman who had been pointed out to him at his first funeral. They had never met, never spoken. He had no idea if his experience in the cemetery – or any of his experiences as a sin-eater – was normal for those of his kind. How did a person find a sin-eater? There was barely anyone practising the craft these days. He began travelling around London, buying local newspapers for notices of funerals. And at a funeral in Hackney he met Huxley.
She had been easy to spot. Apart from the awkward reverence in which she was held by the gathering, a lifetime of eating the sins of others was telling. She held herself up with a walking stick, her head bowed slightly from the weight of her burden. When the coffin was brought in, Joseph saw it appear to bend as it passed the woman. The pallbearers buckled, as if they were about to drop the coffin, then they righted themselves and continued. In that moment Joseph saw a small, dark shape fall from the underside of the box and rush towards the woman. He lost sight of it, but the woman sighed heavily and slumped back onto her pew.
When everyone had left the church, Joseph remained. The sin-eater had stayed, too, just as he did at funerals. He was about to approach her when she spoke to him.
“You there! Stop hiding in the shadows and come here. I’m too tired to chase you around.”
He sat on a pew nearby. As he introduced himself he caught sight of her face underneath the brim of her hat. She looked older than she probably was. Her eyes were sad.
“I’ve heard your name,” she said. “Do you work in North London? Middlesex?”
“I’m Huxley. And believe me, I’ve earned my fee today. The world is a better place now that man,” she nodded towards the churchyard, “is in the ground.”
“You’re the first sin-eater I’ve ever met,” said Joseph, “and already I’ve learnt that it happens differently for each of us. But I suspect the effect is the same.”
“The sins always come to me like little imps, always have done,” said Huxley. “It weighs us down. How can it not? There is a lot of sin in the world.”
Joseph fell silent, unsure of how to phrase his experience in Nunhead cemetery.
“If you walked through the churchyard out there, would anything happen?” he said at last.
Huxley frowned. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“I was in a cemetery. A woman who’d been dead for decades asked me to eat her sins. I did it – I can’t really stop it – and then there were a chorus of voices, all begging for the same thing. I managed to get away. I didn’t know if I could bear all that misery at once.”
“I don’t imagine anyone could carry that much,” said Huxley. “I’d heard you were blessed, but it sounds more like a curse. Have you been back there? Do you know the history of the place – is it full of plague victims? War graves?”
Joseph shrugged and shook his head. “I’ve not been back, but I spent a lot of time there before and I didn’t notice anything like that.”
Huxley thought for a while. “Perhaps it is the place that’s cursed, not you.”
She gave him her phone number and email address and he went home feeling reassured. He was craving the tranquillity of Nunhead cemetery and wanted to return but was still hesitant. So he began to frequent the other great London cemeteries – Kensal Green, Brompton, Tower Hamlets, Abney Park, criss-crossing the capital to find the peace he needed.
And they were all such peaceful places, impossibly large and quiet for London’s densely packed streets. It was as if the laws of space had been rearranged in order to create cities within a city, well populated but with deserted, quiet roads, each lined with trees and with thick undergrowth growing unchecked over the headstones of the poorer occupants. The monuments of the rich, as ever, towered overhead, daring the ivy to creep around their bases or reach their spires.
Joseph enjoyed them all, but hated the time wasted travelling to them. Besides, he missed Nunhead, his home from home. And eventually, over tasteless bread and the equally bland sins of a fourteen year old boy, he decided to return.
It was silent at first, the only disturbance being from a family making their way through and a pair of squirrels chasing one another across the treetops. He lay down on a broad, flat tomb, staring up at the clouds. The clouds merged and a soft rain began. Joseph let it slowly soak him, enjoying the smell that rose from the wet undergrowth. The rain filled his eyes, blinding him. The splatting of water on stone was replaced by a sound, barely audible at first and then rising, a phrase repeated over and over again as if on a loop:
“I want to go to Heaven. Please let me go to Heaven.”
Joseph sat up and wiped his eyes on his sodden sleeve. The voice continued. He got up and walked quickly, choosing paths at random, trying to throw off whatever spirit wanted him. But each step seemed to invite another voice to join the first.
“I stole from my mother to buy heroin.”
“I lusted after my best friend’s wife.”
“I had sinful thoughts about another teenage boy.”
“I think I may have killed someone.”
On and on it went, each spirit desperate to unload its sins and leave the limbo it was in. Joseph found himself surrounded. Unable to fend off the swirling waves of guilt, they swept over him and drowned him.
Progress was almost imperceptible to Reason and he was impatient. Flesh covered one foot, his chest and parts of his arms and face, but it took tremendous will to summon it over his dry bones. Where there was muscle his movements were smooth. Elsewhere he creaked as bones ground into one another. He had begun to improvise, slapping wet mud onto his body and sculpting it, bridging the gaps between the patches of flesh. While busying himself with the task, it amused him to find that he was guilty of a new sin – vanity. He had pushed the mud and flesh to form a figure that had not been true in life; even in his prime, he conceded, his biceps had not been quite as toned, his stomach never so flat and firm.
When he was finally finished, he walked the quiet paths of the cemetery, enjoying his new-found physicality. Naked, he strode forth, finding pleasure in the sight of his foot pressing down into the soft mud and then lifting it and seeing the imprint left behind. He existed again! The temptation was there to inflict new terrors on the populace but the real prize was worth so much more. This new, fine body was just a means to an end. And the end would be the work of the sin-eater Joseph Gray, who would lighten his spirit, lift it to the glory of Heaven and an audience with God. But until he found Joseph Gray, he thought, as he watched a skinny youth pass by the main gate, there would be the years of unfulfilment and the temptation of flesh and blood to battle against.
The skinny youth returned. Would there really be such harm in defiling just one more physical body? Reason pushed out the tongue he’d made from sticky red-brown mud and licked his lips.
Just when he thought it was all over for him, that the horror and guilt and sadness of so many souls being unburdened at once would wash his own life away, he was saved. Rescue came in the form of a hand, strong despite the aged skin that covered it. It gripped him by the collar and pulled him up and away from the needy souls.
It was Huxley. She dragged him into the chapel and sat with him in the cold building while he screamed and shook violently. In time he quietened down and simply cried. When he was calm, he thanked Huxley for saving him.
“I went to your house and was told you’d probably be here. I knew you were considering it, but I thought you wouldn’t come back,” she said.
“What is it about this place?” he said. “It used to be so quiet. Why are all the sinners of England suddenly here?”
Huxley shrugged. “I wish I knew. All I’m certain of is that we have to get you home,” she said.
She made him take off his shirt. “You need some protection to keep them away from you until we reach the exit,” she said. “I’m not a witch, but I know a few tricks.”
She mixed some dust, mud and spiders’ web together with spit to form a basic paint. Then, using a forefinger, she drew on Joseph’s chest, back and forehead, whispering as she worked. He looked down to see a large eye staring out from his torso.
“Just a few rudimentary symbols,” said Huxley. “An eye to reflect evil and two spirals to confuse anything that does manage to get close. Let’s hope that and a prayer are enough.”
Joseph picked up his shirt and they made their way to the chapel doors, then outside. For the first few steps nothing happened, then he was aware of dust clouds puffing up from some of the graves. They approached and circled him but were repelled by the symbols. Huxley’s magic was good enough.
They reached the main gate safely and went back to the world of the living. But as they crossed the road a hoarse cry from behind brought them both to a standstill.
Joseph’s blood felt like ice in his veins.
“Take my sins, Joseph Gray; let me enter Heaven.”
Huxley had already turned around the face the cemetery and Joseph followed suit. There, inside the gate, stood a man. Naked, his skin was a strange mottled colour, as if diseased, although his body was firm and athletic. There was no doubt that the man was dead. Joseph wondered how he was able to appear in human form. Had he Walked from his grave?
The dead man smiled and raised a hand. The friendly gesture looked menacing coming from such a figure. The blare of a car horn brought Joseph back to his senses. They were still in the middle of the road. He steered Huxley to the other side and by the time he turned back to the cemetery gate the man was gone.
It was several hours before Joseph was able to return to the cemetery. Huxley had gone home as soon as she was sure he was in a fit state to be left alone. He had no intention of going further than the gate, to the place where the man had hailed him. He wanted to know who the man was, why he was different from all the other souls he had come across. It was dark and the gates were locked, but he found it easy enough to climb over. He went to where the man had been standing, behind a circular mound of overgrown grass. Not sure what he was looking for, he switched on the torch he’d brought and scanned the ground.
The body of the youth was caught almost immediately in the light. Joseph nearly ran when he saw it, but held his nerve. He took a quick look at it. It was a man, younger than himself. He was partially clothed. There was no obvious reason why he was dead. It was not the man who had called out earlier in the day, of that Joseph was sure. He was no expert, but he was sure the young man had not been dead long, certainly not long enough to have been buried and then risen from his grave.
“I do hope you haven’t touched that body. The police will find him in the morning. I wouldn’t want you to come under suspicion. He died an unnatural death, you see. Turn him over and that much will be obvious.”
Joseph took an instinctive step back from the body and pointed the light in the direction of the voice. The dead man had returned. He was still naked, still had a mottled pigment to his skin, except for a patch on his thigh where there was nothing but bone.
“My name is Thomas Reason. I have been waiting a long time to ascend to Heaven. I sinned many times during my life. Please, sin-eater, take them from me.”
As he spoke, his sins rose from his body. Not in a cloud of dust, but in the form of a shadow, a gigantic beast. Joseph’s torch could not capture the full size and shape of it. It rose above the dead man, higher and higher, trying to break free of him. As it writhed, shapes appeared inside it, glimpses of the man’s sins.
There were so many of them; a lifetime of hideous acts. And, while others had sinned for a reason, even if it was a foolish one, this man had sinned for the love of sinning. There was joy in these crimes. Even now, after years of death, there was no remorse. And, perhaps, because of that, the shadow was struggling to leave his body. This man did not deserve a place in Heaven. Overwhelmed with disgust, Joseph was determined to refuse; even God could not forgive such a man.
He needed protection and, for that, ink; paint; anything that he could draw with, He crouched down and scrabbled at the earth. It was damp but nowhere near wet enough to use. In desperation, he gently broke the glass of his torch. The bulb remained intact, the light still on. He took a piece of broken glass and cut his arm. Ignoring the pain, he dabbed his finger in the line of blood and quickly drew an eye on his injured arm, another on the back of his hand, a third on his forehead.
“You’re too late!” he shouted. “You’ve walked from your grave. You can’t go to Heaven.”
Joseph shone the weak torchlight at the man again. He was so different from the other dead of the cemetery. The others had been humble, desolate at their plight and what they had done to deserve it. This man was raging that he could not get his way. There was not a humble bone in his body. His sins, so desperate to be parted from the corpse, continued to struggle but the massive shadow was weakening. It leaned towards Joseph but he jumped out of reach and it gave up, slipping back down into the man’s body. Wide-eyed, he raised a muscular arm and pointed at Joseph.
“You *will* take on my sins, boy. It is your duty, your calling. You cannot refuse.”
“I won’t do it,” Joseph said. “You were a cruel man when you were alive and you’re a cruel man now. You don’t deserve Heaven.”
To Joseph’s surprise, the dead man laughed. The smell of dampness and mud came from his mouth. “To be cruel,” he said, “is to be nothing more than human.”
“That’s not true,” said Joseph. “People can be kind and good if they’re given the chance. Bad circumstances create bad people. I don’t know what’s made you what you are, but you have no remorse. That’s unforgivable.”
The man moved quickly and was suddenly next to Joseph, his face almost touching, his cold hands clamped around Joseph’s arms. It was a horrible intimacy.
“Cruelty is our nature,” he whispered. “What is a child? It is selfish, self-centred and cruel. Parents spend their entire lives teaching it not to be these things, not to do what its nature tells it to. I lived my life as a man in his purest state. It was honest and natural. And I want my chance in Heaven, like all the mewling excuses for people that have lain in the ground around me all these years have had.”
He threw Joseph onto the body that still lay on the grass. He shrieked in disgust and rolled away, from both the corpse and the young man’s sin that reached out for him. Then he was up and practically flying over the gate. Behind him Thomas Reason rattled the gates theatrically.
“Come back, sin-eater! Or there will be more fresh bodies like his…”
They met in a quiet corner of Abney Park cemetery. Stoke Newington was familiar territory to Huxley, as genteel these days as it was notorious in her youth, before the middle classes took over from the anarchists and artists. Now she stood waiting, having broken away from the group on its regular dawn chorus walk. She had been able to slip away easily in the half light and had gone to the spot Joseph had described.
When he appeared, Huxley was shocked. He had a wild look about him and it was clear he had been living in the cemetery since escaping from Thomas Reason a month before. They had spoken on the phone several times, Joseph ringing initially to practically scream the terrible story to her and warn her of Reason’s intentions, then giving regular assurances of his safety after going into hiding. Unknown to him, Huxley had searched Nunhead cemetery and found the man’s grave. Little was known about him – he had no family and his funeral had been attended only by two of the hospital staff. Huxley had tracked down one of the sisters who had nursed him in his final days. She had described a man who, despite huge doses of opiates had hurled himself around like a madman and ranted obscenities.
“I didn’t say this to her,” said Huxley, “but I’m sure that everything he said then was a confession.”
Joseph was dismayed that she’d gone to Reason’s grave. “You’re a sin-eater. He was likely to approach you. Why didn’t he?”
“I take on the sins of the recently deceased. He’s been dead for nearly forty years,” she said. “I’m no good to him. You, however, have a different gift. And that’s why you’re here, aren’t you?”
His face nearly cracked then, all he had taken on in the last month almost breaking him. “I was the same as you. I don’t know what’s happened, what’s changed me. But after meeting Reason I thought of all those people who needed help, who *did* feel remorse…”
“And you decided to hide amongst the dead rather than the living?”
Huxley was not sure of his reasoning. Being in this place, with the sins of hundreds of dead, was sapping him mentally and physically. But it was more than living rough that had created Joseph’s new demeanour. He was different. He spat at one of the graves nearby, he sat on another and used the headstone for a back rest. He was losing respect for some of the dead.
“You have to go home, Joseph,” she said. “You have to re-discover your perspective. You’ve begun judging the dead. It’s not your place to do so. Only God can do that.”
“God?” Joseph snarled. “Where the fuck is God? I need Him and He won’t help me.”
A moment later he was calm again.
“Have there been any murders near Nunhead cemetery?” he asked.
Huxley was about to shake her head but knew the lie would be spotted.
“One a week since the day you met him. Two women, two men, all found in the streets around the cemetery.”
Reason was being true to his word. Joseph was wracked with guilt. There would be another murder soon. He had to do something.
“I’ve been trying to think of a way to stop him,” he said. “And the only thing I can think of is this – to fill myself, utterly, with the sins of all the dead in London, then go to meet him again.”
His idea was that he would profess to relent. The monstrous cloud would break free of the dead man but would be incapable of entering Joseph. What it would do then was something Joseph could only hope at; Reason’s body would be empty and useless and his sins, with nowhere to go, would drag his soul down and stop it from ever entering Heaven.
It was all wishful thinking. Huxley banged her stick on the ground in frustration.
“Well, what do you suggest we do?” Joseph asked. “This is all I have. Unless you have any more magic up your sleeve.”
Huxley reluctantly shook her head. “No more tricks, I’m afraid. I could try and track some old contacts down but it would take too long. So let’s go with your plan, Joseph. Shall I come with you?”
He sneered slightly at her. He’d already done so much alone. Then he saw her worried expression.
“It’s alright,” he said. “I’ll need you there when I face Reason again, though.”
The worry in Huxley’s face deepened but he didn’t notice. His mind was already on other things.
Kensal Green cemetery, with its Catholic enclave, seemed a good place to begin. He cleaned himself up enough to make the journey without attracting too much attention but there was a rank taste in his mouth that couldn’t be shifted. He didn’t know whether it was the taste of sin or fear of the task ahead, the uncertainty of the coming confrontation with a corpse. He wished he could tell his parents something of what was happening, but he knew it would be too much for them. To comprehend the existence of Thomas Reason, nearly half a century after the man’s death, was too much to ask of anyone.
As Joseph had guessed, most of the Catholics in Kensal Green had used the services of a sin-eater, so he walked around the section in peace, preparing himself for the rest of the huge graveyard. The day, initially sunny, had clouded over and seemed to darken dramatically as he left the Catholic graves behind. He was soon surrounded by sin. Many of the dead cried out in relief at his arrival, a high-pitched squeal like the sound of bats. His time in Abney Park, with needy spirits pleading and demanding his help, had taught him how to keep them at bay long enough to take on one person’s burden at a time. The occupants of Kensal Green had much to repent: robbery; jealousy; rape; taking the Lord’s name in vain. Several spirits truly believed themselves to be in league with the Devil, to have spoken to animal ‘familiars’ and flown around on broomsticks on the Sabbath. Joseph took them all on, corruption working its way into every pore. When they were finished, a day and a half later, he staggered out and promptly emptied his bowels into an empty oil drum. For one terrible moment he thought the sins had been expelled, too, and that all he had been through had been for nothing, but after he’d finished he still felt full. He allowed himself an hour’s sleep and then, having gathered the strength to move, caught a bus to the next cemetery on his list.
He was made most welcome by the sinners there.
When Huxley had said she had no more access to magic, she had put a hand behind her back and crossed her fingers.
She had not wanted to get his hopes up. She was also determined to do something other than wait while Joseph Gray took on the weight of the world. After their meeting in Abney Park she had gone home, undressed and covered as much of her body as she could reach in protective symbols. She cast a spell to ask for strength and energy in the face of danger, then dressed and took a cab to Nunhead cemetery. She knew what she had to do; find Thomas Reason and drive his spirit from his body. Separated from his physical self, she had no doubt that he would be considerably weakened.
Then she would destroy his soul.
The act went against her life’s work and everything she believed in, but this was an exceptional circumstance. If Reason was not utterly destroyed then he would haunt Joseph for the rest of his life – and perhaps longer. How she would go about the task was something she was less clear about. All she could think of to do was the exact opposite of what she did at funerals – to absolutely deny Reason’s soul the right to exist anywhere.
When the cab had dropped her at the gate and gone, she walked as quickly as she could to the chapel. There were a few people inside but it was quiet. She sat and prayed silently to steady her anxiety then left the chapel. It had begun to rain. She put on her hat and, making sure no one followed her, took the narrow, muddy path that led to Thomas Reason’s grave.
The rain was heavy by the time she found it again, heavy enough to put off casual visitors. Whatever was about to happen would have no witnesses.
Huxley tapped her stick on Reason’s headstone, then felt foolish and stopped. He would not answer it like a person answering their front door.
“Thomas Reason,” she said firmly. “I need to talk to you. Please show yourself.”
Before she could say anything more she saw, to her annoyance, that despite the rain someone was walking down the path towards her. As the figure came closer the hairs on the back of her neck rose.
It was him.
He walked upright, proud, despite the rain and his nakedness. She could not see him in detail but his body looked like a patchwork of flesh and she immediately thought of Frankenstein’s monster. She addressed him with all the confidence she could muster.
“I’m Huxley, a sin-eater from Hackney.”
He stopped a few feet away from her and hissed in disgust and frustration.
“It’s Joseph Gray I want. Get me Gray!”
“You require the services of a sin-eater,” she said, determined to hold her ground. “I’m here to help you.”
“You can do no such thing. You haven’t the strength to take on the things I’ve done. I must have Gray.”
“It’s me or nothing; you are not having Joseph Gray. Take your chance and go to Heaven. Despite the fact you don’t deserve it.”
Reason took a step closer. Huxley held her ground.
“He can’t be taking me seriously if he’s sent an *untertan* to do his work,” he said. “How many corpses will it take?” His tone was incredulous.
He came another step closer. Huxley could see him clearly now. His body was suffering in the rain, parts of his skin slipping away and falling to the ground. Huxley had seen much in her lifetime but this man, who had clawed his way out of his own grave and who reeked of evil, was something new.
It was time for bravery.
“And how will you be Judged if you kill again now?” she said. “God will not be fooled.”
“And Joseph Gray will do as he’s told if the next corpse is someone known to him!”
She saw the blow coming but could not avoid it. For a moment, with her feet sticking in the mud, she thought she might stay upright, but his fist caught the side of her head and she went down, her ear ringing, her hat flying away. Grabbing her stick, she swept it around to keep him at bay while she got up, then she jabbed at him. It stuck in his side and when she pulled it back, it brought a lump of him with it.
It was not flesh, but mud.
She gawped, distracted by the sight. It was enough for him. Reason, stepping onto the disturbed earth of his grave to get behind her, wrapped an arm around her neck and dragged her to him. His coldness engulfed her. She punched at him, tore at him as he squeezed her windpipe, finally plucking at him as her strength evaporated.
He let her drop. Then he took her stick and held it up, ready should she breathe.
There was nothing except the rain. The battle had been won, but he brought the stick down upon her head anyway.
Joseph put the phone down and vomited into the bowl at his bedside. It was nearly full and the smell made him retch again but there was nothing left in his stomach.
He had not heard from Huxley in nearly two weeks. He had left messages and sent her a quite desperate email but she had not responded. Either she was ill or had run out of courage and was avoiding him. Joseph, meanwhile, had scoured most of the cemeteries in London. Each was busy with the dead begging forgiveness from God and all the Saints in Heaven. Often they were waiting for him. Word had spread amongst the dead of his generous deeds. Each soul burdened him further, regaled him with gratitude and made its way to Paradise.
The sin, meanwhile, had become a physical thing; tumour-like masses had appeared on his neck and arms and his stomach was becoming distended with it. At times he imagined he felt the lumps moving. His latest visit, to a small graveyard on a hill, just yards from the top-hatted privilege of Harrow School, had ended with his collapse. People had walked by without stopping, suspecting he was drunk. He was glad; what would a doctor find if he was examined, x-rayed? Eventually he had managed to get home and had spent more than a day vomiting. He was as full as he could be. He would go to Nunhead cemetery without Huxley.
Despite the early hour, the street was busy. He passed a couple out walking their dog, who growled at him and pulled at its lead. The woman turned to him to apologise but thought better of it and instead increased her pace. Joseph understood; he had cleaned himself up but there was no disguising the puffiness of his face, the growths on his neck. He avoided the gaze of the other people he passed, not wanting their disgust or pity. If they knew what he had been doing, what he was about to do, they would be thanking him. It came to something when the dead had more gratitude than the living.
He entered the cemetery by a side gate, sure that Thomas Reason would be watching the main entrance. Any advantage might be crucial. Huxley had told him where Reason’s grave was located and though he hadn’t written the directions down he knew the general area. It was full of ordinary tombs and was more overgrown than much of the cemetery. Here and there was a comparatively recent grave, although their occupants had all died a decade or more before Joseph’s birth. He stopped for a moment before them. They were all at rest now after the chaos when they had swamped him. He envied them their peace and wondered when his own would come.
Reason’s grave was quite unremarkable. His headstone gave no clue as to the way he had lived his life. There were, however, signs of disturbance around it, as if an untidy exhumation had taken place. And, across the grave, human footprints. Reason had walked across his own grave with complete indifference, it seemed. Joseph put a hand on the headstone to steady himself. His churning stomach settled and he stood up again.
Face to face with Thomas Reason. So much for the element of surprise.
“You have kept me waiting!” spat the dead man.
The two stared at one another. Joseph had seen Reason’s body at a distance. Close up it was clearly a work of art; the corpse not diseased as Joseph had thought but mottled by the combination of flesh and mud. Reason, in turn, was disgusted by Joseph Gray’s appearance. The sin-eater was almost unrecognisable from their first meeting; he was swollen and covered in lumps that darkened his skin and squirmed under the surface as if alive. He looked like a man who had indulged in every excess but had enjoyed none of them. Was he strong enough to absorb all that Reason had done?
“You have several more deaths on your conscience,” both men said in unison.
Reason forced his mouth wide open and laughed.
“More for you to take from me, then,” he said.
“I’ll not eat your sins, Thomas Reason,” said Joseph. “I meant what I said before. There’s no place for you in Heaven. What you’ve done will weigh you down and you’ll collapse in on yourself. Your recent sins will just make it happen more quickly.”
“And who do you think you are, guarding Heaven’s gates in this way?” said Reason. “Are you playing God or just protecting Him? No matter. I offer you something in return for your work.”
He turned, bent amongst the undergrowth and returned with something in his arms. It was draped in ivy but Joseph could see it was a body.
“No paltry offering of bread and watery beer,” continued Reason. “Eat *my* sins and you can also eat *hers*.”
Reason dropped the body to the ground. The ivy fell away and Joseph stared down at the putrefying remains of Huxley. He pushed his hand into his mouth to stop from screaming but a sound, a yowl like an injured cat, came out.
“She came here to save you, but she was not fit for the task,” said Reason. “However, you have the chance to save her. Her soul, anyway.”
He nearly relented then. It would be easier than this and God would surely protect Huxley from Reason in Heaven, but then he thought of what they had both been through. The sight of her smashed skull only steeled his resolve. He had to carry on.
“Alright, Reason – I’ll do it,” he said.
Reason’s eyes narrowed. He was suspicious. “Are you up to it, boy? I see something nearly choking you. It was there before you saw *her*.”
“I’ve been ill. But that’s no concern of yours.”
Reason, eager for Heaven, said nothing more and relinquished his sins. It was not like before. Now it resembled a slow-moving swarm of flies. The sight made Joseph retch again. Reason’s body sat heavily on a tomb before falling back and lying still. The swarm made for Joseph and he was staggered to find there was still room inside him but he was more capable now and let them hover over him. He even managed to look up and laugh at the swarm.
“There’s no way in!” he shouted.
The swarm opened its collective mouth and screamed back. It made its way around him and tried to force a way in but Joseph was the equal of it. With another howl the swarm swept back to Reason’s body. Most of the mud had dropped away from it. It was useless.
“You’ve nowhere to go except Hell,” said Joseph.
But the swarm was not panicked. It circled Joseph one more time, close enough for him to smell its stench, then flew to the undergrowth and into Huxley’s remains.
She moved. Reluctantly. She rolled over and got to her knees then, with difficulty, to her feet. She turned to face Joseph but the eyes that stared at him were blank and when she spoke it was not with Huxley’s deep, reassuring voice but in Reason’s jagged tone.
“You shall be begging for Hell, Gray, when I am finished with you. You’ve learnt some tricks and so have I – until you relent you’ll be cursed not only with the sins of the dead but also of the living. Everyone you pass in the street shall be in your debt, for you’ll lighten their burden of misery and guilt…”
Reason ranted on but Joseph was away. Huxley was dead because of him and his plan had gone spectacularly wrong. He had failed. Such was his misery that he barely heard what Reason was saying. It was only the next day, when the curse took hold, that it came back to him. And so began a whole new purgatory for Joseph Gray.
The train was busy but he sat alone, a conspicuous space between him and the other passengers. He looked out across North London, dreading the moment the train stopped at King’s Cross and dropped him back into the turmoil of the capital, giving him more weight to bear. It would be enough to crack his bones.
In the years since he had run from Huxley’s animated body, he had lived a dozen lives. At first he had tried to continue as normal and went to work the day after the confrontation. His appearance, still so pallid after weeks of sick leave, raised eyebrows and his supervisor took him aside and asked him whether he was fit to return. As she spoke, her voice faded away and her life’s misdemeanours – underage sex, petty theft, pride, adultery – surrounded him. It was shocking and embarrassing. As the day wore on Reason’s curse tightened its grip. Everyone he had the slightest contact with unwittingly unburdened themselves. Ordinary life was impossible. There was no peace, no silence to be found. When he could bear it no longer, he began to run. He headed east and further east, dreaming of the great Buddhist temples of Thailand. In a foreign land he would surely understand neither the confessions of the living nor the pleas of the dead. But he found that sin was alike the world over, the language of it universal. He understood everything, knew everything.
Being near Joseph Gray changed people. The dead made their way to Paradise, the living walked away with cleansed souls, lighter on their feet but not knowing why. And Joseph took on every thought, word and deed that had tied them down. Even the airless Thai heat could not sweat the curse from him and after three unbearable years he begged and borrowed enough money to return to his homeland. But not to London. Still determined to outwit Reason’s curse, he went instead to Scotland and the Outer Hebrides, working when he was able, begging when he was not, needing nothing but a few mouthfuls of food each day and shelter during the harsher nights. But his condition was evolving – Joseph only had to pick up a telephone or open a letter to know the shameful secrets of the caller or correspondent. How long did he have before the whole world was at his door? The lumps that he’d felt and seen in his body so long ago no longer moved but had hardened like stone. His bowels were solid, his lungs had little room for air. The vile taste of corruption was always on his tongue. He purged himself with laxatives and tried to shit the feeling away but it refused to leave him, even for a moment. He began to dream the sins of men he had never met, to breathe the crimes of women from other continents. The deeds of a thousand people crowded him and yet he was achingly lonely. He had to return to London.
Reason was winning. And Joseph could only hope that Huxley’s kind soul could forgive him for what he was about to do.
And now, standing on Blackfriar’s Bridge, shuddering each time someone passed him, a look of distaste on their face even as they were freed, Joseph Gray counted the souls that he’d ushered to Heaven. Given the choice, how many would repent; how many deserved to be there? Perhaps, then, many of them deserved whatever dreadful things took place once Reason was amongst them. Perhaps even God deserved His fate. Twice he fell to the ground as he crossed the bridge. No one helped him. He got to his feet and walked on, down the length of the Old Kent Road, through New Cross and finally to the north side of Nunhead cemetery.
He was expecting – dreading – an appalling version of Huxley to be waiting for him but to his relief she was not. Instead the corpse of a young man, grinning like an idiot, stood amongst the graves. As Joseph staggered in, the dead man held out his arms as if offering an embrace and spoke in a familiar voice.
“Joseph Gray! At last you return. You look worse than my host but then, he’s only been dead for two months; a far easier lot than your own.”
“Please tell me,” said Joseph, “that you left Huxley where she could be found. She deserved a burial, a funeral.”
Reason shrugged. “She’s under the ivy somewhere. Does it matter? It’s all for show anyway. *I* had a funeral and a Christian burial, after all.”
Joseph was too tired for games. He had one more question.
“What happens to me if I relent? I’ve eaten the sins of the world. I want to exchange them for yours.”
The dead man’s smile widened, his lips pulled back over his teeth like a dog.
“Believe me, I would fill you to overflowing, even if you had nothing else inside you. My life was dedicated to sin, each one enough to kill you. It is my pleasure to tell you that your bowels will burst, your arteries will melt, your lungs will seize up. And for that I shall go to Heaven. It will be my last honest, human act.”
Joseph sank to his knees. He was desperate for release but had not expected it to be at the expense of his life. But both men knew that he had not come all this way just to leave again in the same sorry state. He was no longer capable of warding Reason off.
“May God forgive me and may Heaven be ready for you,” he whispered.
The corpse stood up straight. His head rippled as Reason’s sins gathered momentum, forcing his face into strange expressions. His eyes bulged and then burst. Darkness squeezed out of the sockets and once it was free it bore down on Joseph.
He was aware of a river, made of blood, rancid flesh and anguish. It washed over him and carried him along, pushing him around the tombs, then when it had finished playing with him it soaked into his skin. Each drop contained a moment of Reason’s life and so terrible had it been that when Joseph’s body shattered the only thing he felt was relief.
At last; blessed peace.
It would only be much later, when he was happily in limbo, glimpsing the Otherworld and snatches of Earthbound life, that he would arrive at his own funeral. There, amongst his distraught family, he would see a stranger, a woman held in quiet reverence by the mourners. And she would be making her way to his coffin so that Joseph could take the place he’d earned in Heaven.