“We are punished by our sins, not for them.”
– Elbert Hubbard
I was just a boy when I was led through the small parlor and into the back room, where my grandfather lay within his cardboard coffin. I had just turned fourteen and knew then that I would, one day, be assuming my grandfather’s place among the wretched. He had spent nearly his entire life as a pariah and so too would I. It was not a thought I liked to dwell upon and often found myself thinking of a means to escape my heritage.
My grandfather’s head rested upon a tiny stuffed pillow and I sensed that the cardboard box was too small to fit his sizable frame. Although his body was covered with cloth from the waist down, it was obvious that his legs were at an awkward angle with his knees slightly bent.
I was relieved that the morticians didn’t simply cut his legs to accommodate, as that was the common practice for those who go to the crematory. I came to find later that it wasn’t due to any kind courtesy or reverence that kept the morticians from making such alterations; but fear. They simply didn’t want to touch him, let alone dig into his flesh. It was for this same reason that he had not been embalmed, allowed instead to lay for three days in the summer heat, before the family could procure the necessary monies to have him properly cremated.
As my grandmother released my hand, I edged closer to the body. The odor wasn’t as dreadful as I had thought it would be, covered by that of sweet jasmine incense and burning tallow.
Upon his chest rested a small loaf of bread and a wooden bowl of milk. I knew these items would be there. I was instructed that they would be there and told precisely what to do with them. It was my father who had told me, the day before my grandfather’s death.
My grandfather was laying upon his small bed, covered to his neck in a blanket, to fight back the chills that wracked his body. The fever had taken it’s toll upon the town, and he had finally fell victim to it as well. Such were the dangers of his occupation. When working in so close proximity to those who have died of the fever, it was almost certain that sooner or later, you would fall victim to it as well. This unnerved me, and I wondered if the same fate would befall me.
“When you approach him,” my father had instructed, “The bread and bowl will already be placed upon his chest.”
“Being the eldest, it is upon you to perform the rites. You must eat the bread that is his flesh, and drink the milk that is his blood, and cleanse him with them.” His voice was hollow and cold.
I looked past my father to his own father, laying in his death bed; face, jaundiced with sickness. He turned his head and looked upon me with those milky eyes.
My grandfather turned his head and fastened his gaze upon me, with his weathered milky eyes. “Timothy.” he whispered, with what I was certain the last breath in his lungs. “Do you remember?”
“What if I do it wrong?” I had fretted over this since I was first informed that I would be following in my grandfather’s foot steps.
“Recite the incantation.” This came from my father who had slid out of the way so that my dying grandfather could teach me properly.
Two days later, I stood over his body, lifeless but still pained; filled with the sins enacted by others. I questioned whether the skills he possessed were truly divine as he had told me, or whether he was a swindler, a cheat; stealing from those in the most dire of circumstances. My mind turned to thoughts of escape; running back the way from which I came, through the small gathering of weary eyed, sorrow filled family.
I lifted the small circular loaf of bread and broke off a large chunk. “Res et requiem dabo tibi iam, mi homo.”
I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man.
I then took the bread in my mouth, and for the first time I understood why it was done and why it was necessary. With that first morsel of bread, I knew what my grandfather had been through; the pain of others and their darkest deeds.
The cacophony of vile, repressed memories flooded my mouth and mind. The taste of adultery swelled in the back of my throat and murder cut into my gums while a plethora of sexual perversions robbed my mouth of moisture.
I reached for the bowl of milk and held it firmly in front of me. “Non vicos aut in pratis age depone.” The words split my dry lips until they bled.
Come not down the lanes or through our meadows.
I drank from the wooden bowl. If bread holds the sins of the flesh, then the milk holds those which are contained within one’s own mind. A thousand white lies popped like tonic water on my tongue and slander burnt my throat like a spoonful of pepper while pride left an aftertaste life that of a blackberries.
I forced the meal down, fearful that I may purge myself before I had time to finish; and when I finally placed the empty bowl, I recited the final words, those which bind my pact. “Et pro pace tua mihi arrhabonem anima mea.”
And for they peace, I pawn my own soul.
I turned to face my grandmother. She still stood where I had left her, hands clasped in front of her. Unfortunately, I would find no comfort in her graceful arms.
I would never again be the same carefree child I had once been; at that point I lost my rights to happiness and became merely a vessel, to be exploited and filled with all the vileness it could contain, until at last, it too would waste away, consumed by the hatred held within.