Perhaps you’ve heard the oft-quoted disclaimer that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” It’s sometimes attributed to Frank Zappa, in other places to the comedian Martin Mull, but whoever said it, I object. There is no limit to what writers are able to describe and capture. Music is not beyond reach. Nor is architecture, or dancing for that matter. Any good writer knows that writing with only one of the five senses (sight is usually favored when others are ignored) is like a conductor silencing entire sections of her orchestra.
“The Sin Eater” by Jane Flett is a luscious example of what the senses can do when turned loose on fiction. From the first paragraphs, it is a story that you hear, sniff, lick, gulp, and chew. The narrator is a professional Sin Eater who helps absolve the dead by consuming a loaf of bread that has been placed on their corpse. The bread absorbs the sins, and through this practice, secondhand memories are flavored. Flett writes, “I chew a stolen wristwatch with shiny gold hands, bursting between my teeth in salted crystals of parmesan.” And later, “Fishnet stockings get caught in my gums.”
The narrator is part of a clique of hedonistic Sin Eaters who indulge in drink, food, and each other. They gather at the bar nightly, unimpressed by the risks their work might pose: “It’s an old Sin Eater myth, a threat our mothers warned us of. Eat for too long and eventually you start to carry the sins in your body: acidic misery in each kidney, pebbles of pure fury in the gallbladder, bitterness forever churning in your spleen.”
But when the myth proves possible, and a client’s sins start to infiltrate the fortress of the narrator’s soul, the threat is existential. She must ask herself how much sin she can manage, but also, how much goodness, too. “Who would I be, if not an Eater?” she asks. In this story, sin is salt, sin is sweetness, sin is umami—the flavor of life.
– Halimah MarcusEditor of Recommended Reading