Just a Taste By Jessica Salfia Tucker Weese slumped over Grandma Mattie’s table, and his sin lay on the plate between them where he had gagged it up. It was a rich ruby color, and Ginny could smell the sweetness of it from where she sat across the room. Grandma Mattie slowly let go of Tucker’s hands and wrists and picked up the sin. It looked soft and sugary, and it shifted around in Mattie’s hand like thick cream or half melted butter. Mattie brought the sin to her mouth, and began eating before Tucker could wake and before the sin could figure out how to slide back across the table and into Tucker. Ginny watched her Grandma’s face closely as she took in Tucker’s sin. Mattie didn’t need to chew much— the sin was rich and obviously delicious. Mattie licked her fingers and groaned with the pleasure of it, and Ginny flushed with embarrassment. After Mattie swallowed the last of it down, she turned to Ginny with a knowing look, “They’s some sins, girl, that are so sweet and delicious, you’ll wish they’d been your own. But be warned, child. They’s others that are so dark and foul, it tastes like you swallowing the Devil himself. But you gotta eat em’ all. Just the same.” Tucker’s head bobbed and he opened his eyes. Awareness came to him and he looked around in horror, realizing where he was. He fixed his confused gaze on Mattie suspiciously. “I feel differ’nt. Lighter. Better, but sadder. You’re Grandma Mattie. Oh…I must have done something wrong. But I don’t remember. You took it, didn’t ya? Whatever it was, it’s gone. Ain’t it?” “It’s gone, son. Now, you go home and tell your wife you’re clean as Sunday morning, and that she owes me fresh eggs for a month.” Tucker stood up, unsteadily, and looked around the room. Finding his hat and coat, he nodded to Grandma Mattie and Ginny, and left so fast he didn’t close the door all the way begind him. Mattie chuckled. “That poor boy. His wife made him come, you know that Ginny m’dear? He’s in love with her sister, Betsy. Finally, after 5 years of being married to one woman but lovin’ another, he got up the nerve to kiss his wife’s sister and who should walk into the barn and catch them?” Mattie smiled sadly. “Those sins, Ginny, forbidden love, lust, temptation, those sins taste better than any dessert you’ve ever tried at the October social. And sometimes, I feel bad taking that away from ‘em. Poor Tucker. Married a girl he liked and then met the girl he loved. I suspect he’ll be back. We can eat away their sins girl, but we can’t eat away love. And Poor Tucker Weese loves his wife’s sister. Pray for all of em, child.” Ginny nodded and set about cleaning up the table. Grandma Mattie went bed; she needed to sleep at least a few hours after eating a sin. Although when Billy McPhearson accidentally killed a man in a drunken brawl, Grandma Mattie ate his sin and had to sleep a whole night and a day. Before Ginny put the plate in the sink, she noticed there was still a thin smear of Tucker’s sin lingering on the plate’s rim. It glowed red and warm, and seemed to beg Ginny to taste it. Just a taste, Ginny thought. And scooped it up on her finger and put it in her mouth. Oh, it was good. It tasted like chocolate and honey, like longing and excitement and things Ginny had never felt, but dreamed that someday she might. She shivered at the thought of eating the whole thing. Grandma Mattie had only yet let her help with the preparation and watch the eating. Ginny had moved in with Mattie as soon as Grandma realized Ginny had the talent. It had skipped Mama, but thankfully, Grandma Mattie wasn’t to be the last one. After all, what would people on Savage Mountain do without a Stonebreaker woman to take away their evils? The rest of the day passed slowly. Grandma Mattie finally woke, and before supper, she tested Ginny’s knowledge of the herbs they used to make the tea that brought forth the sins. Just as they sat down to eat supper they both heard a shouting voice and the pounding of hoof beats into the front yard. Grandma Mattie threw open the door to reveal Charles Booth still sitting on the back of his sweating horse. “Mattie, it’s Annie’s time. She’s been at it all day, but something’s wrong. Her Mama thinks the baby’s turned, and they need you right away. Please, hurry Mattie. She’s crying something awful.” “I’ll get my things.” Mattie whipped around, hurried back into the house, and began throwing jars of herbs and various instruments into a brown, leather satchel she carried on such calls. “Ginny, I want you to stay here in case anyone needs me tonight. Tell anyone that comes for help, I will be back tomorrow, and they can call on me again then. If I need you tonight, I’ll send someone up for you.” Charles hoisted Mattie up behind him, and Ginny watched as the horse spun around and disappeared into the darkness with her Grandmother. Ginny finished supper, cleaned up, and went to her pallet beneath the window of the main room. She stared out at the full heavy moon that had just peaked over the trees surrounding the clearing where the cabin sat, and she thought briefly of how good Tucker Weese’s sin had tasted. Just before she drifted off, Ginny wondered why anyone would ever want to get rid of something that had felt so wonderful. *** The knock on the front door was quiet—so quiet that Ginny didn’t wake right away. It was the third round of knocking that roused her. The moon had moved across the sky, telling Ginny it was some hours later. Unsurprised, she wrapped herself in a blanket and went to answer the door. Most folks called on Grandma Mattie at night. It was the quiet and the dark, Grandma Mattie said, that brought on the guilt. When folks don’t have nothing but their own sins to think about, the guilt gnaws away at ‘em. It was not uncommon for someone to come calling on Mattie at 2 or 3 in the morning, begging Mattie to eat away their wrongs. Ginny opened the door, and standing very nervously on Grandma Mattie’s front step was the preacher of the Holly River Baptist Church. The church sat at the bottom of Savage Mountain where Savage Creek flowed into Holly River. A few folks from the mountain made the trip down every Sunday, but most went to the tiny church on the mountain which didn’t have a preacher. But Ginny knew this man because once a month, he and his parishioners would traipse grudgingly up the mountain to hold joint services. The preacher cleared his throat, and looked at Ginny warily, “Ahem. Hello, uh, Ginny, isn’t it? Where’s Grandma Mattie? I, um, was wondering if I could speak to her.” “Grandma’s out on a birthin’ call. She’ll be back tomorrow.” Ginny started to close the door, but the preacher stepped forward out of the dark. The warm light of her lamp bounced off the gold cross shining against his shirt, but the man wearing it was very different from the clean, well-pressed preacher Ginny knew. Tonight, his hair was greasy and unkempt, standing on end. There were dark circles under his eyes and the whites showed all the way around his pupils. His face was creased like a man who had tried, but hadn’t slept for days. His clothes were wrinkled, dirty and mismatched, making the shining gold cross look strangely out of place. “I’ll wait until she returns.” He made as if to come in the house, but Ginny stepped in front of him. “No, sir, I’m sorry. Grandma may be gone all night. She said she would see folks in need tomorrow. Come back then.” But before Ginny could shut the door, the preacher pushed past her and into the house, and began pacing around the room. “I can’t, y’see. I can’t go back and think about it one more night. Now, I’ve heard your Grandma has some sort of magic. She can take away things? Memories? Make people forget their sins, that’s what I heard. Well, I need to forget something. I’ll pay. I’ve got $20 dollars here for her if she can help.” Ginny knew that $20 dollars was more money than Grandma Mattie had ever had at one time in her whole life. But she also knew the preacher’s eyes were as black as the Devil’s heart, and that this was a man she did not want to be alone with tonight. “I’m sorry, sir. It ain’t proper for you to wait here all night with just me. Grandma would be upset. Come back tomorrow.” Ginny motioned to the door, but the preacher grabbed Ginny’s arm roughly and pulled her close. His grip was like iron, and she would be bruised tomorrow. She could smell the sour and unclean scent of his body and breath. “What about you, little witch girl? Huh? I also heard you’re here learning how to do what your Grandma does. Well, I got a sin I need gone, and someone has to take it.” The preacher pulled a long, sharp knife from his coat, the kind Grandma Mattie used to butcher hogs, pressed it to Ginny’s cheek and hissed through clenched teeth, “You see this knife, child? I’ve done terrible things with it. I need to forget those things. I want to do terrible things to you right now, but I’m trying not to. Help me, child.” Ginny tried to lean her head back, away from the knife’s cold point. She narrowed her eyes and answered in a low voice, “I ain’t done it before. I know how, but I’ve never done it.” The preacher’s wild eyes, grew cold and hard. Something flickered in them that made Ginny shudder. “Then, I guess I’ll be your first.” He sat down in the same chair Tucker Weese had occupied earlier, the knife between them on the table. Ginny’s hands shook, but she managed to mix the herbs the way Grandma Mattie had taught her. She dumped them into wooden bowl that Stonebreaker women had been using for centuries, covered them with water from Mattie’s well, and slammed it down in front of the preacher. “Drink.” Ginny said. The preacher’s look was both hopeful and suspicious. “How do I know you’re not poisoning me?” Ginny smiled a hard smile. She had thought about it. She knew which herbs would have made the preacher sleep until Mattie came home, or sleep and never wake. But a Stonebreaker woman doesn’t do evil. They don’t sin. They take sins away. Ginny shrugged, and made as if to remove the bowl. But the preacher grabbed it and brought it to his mouth. Ginny took her place in Mattie’s chair across from the preacher, and quietly began singing the song that called the sins forth. For a moment the preacher hesitated, but then closed his eyes, he threw the mixture back and gulped it down. The effect was instant. First, the preacher’s eyes rolled back in his head. Then, he lurched forward in his chair. His body began to pulse, like his muscles were trying to burst out of his skin. That was the sin, trying to find its way out. Finally, the preacher started to gag. The sin poured forth out of his mouth and onto the table. It was dark--the blackest sin Ginny had ever seen. It shifted and shuddered, drawn to Ginny’s song, but wanting to find its way back into the preacher. Ginny put her hand around it and pulled it toward her. She had never seen a sin quite like this one. It as black as the blackest night sky, but shot through with red streaks, the color of blood. Gray smoke drifted off it, and she could smell its foulness even before she brought it to her mouth. It smelled like rot. It smelled like death. Ginny swallowed back the bile rising in her throat, and before she could lose her nerve, she picked up the sin and began eating. The minute it touched her tongue, she could see the evil. The preacher had waited until the little girl was alone. Ginny knew that girl-- Francis Bartlett--she had lived in town, but had been missing last spring. She watched the preacher follow Francis. He struck up a friendly conversation, offered the girl candy. Then, they were alone…in the wood shed behind the Holly River Baptist Church. The preacher was hurting the girl. Ginny could feel that part of him didn’t want to hurt Francis, but the preacher couldn’t stop himself. It was almost like there where two men stuck in the preacher’s body. The more Ginny ate, the more she saw, and then suddenly, she wasn’t watching any longer, she was the preacher, hurting the girl. Ginny could feel both the revulsion and the joy the little girl’s pain gave the preacher. But the girl-Ginny didn’t want to hurt her. She was so little. Oh, there was so much blood. She had to stop it. No. no. no! Ginny retched, and vomited the preacher’s sin back up. It sat between them for a moment before oozing across the table and sinking back into the preacher. And now, Ginny knew what the preacher had done, and where the girl’s body buried. She knew that the little body was not the preacher’s first, and that even after she ate his sin, he most likely would have killed her, just like little Francis Bartlett. The preacher opened his eyes. “What happened? I still…I still remember. It didn’t work! What’d you do wrong?” He jumped up, overturning the chair, and rushed at her. “Why didn’t you fix it? And you know, now! I can see it on your face! You know!” He grabbed the knife he had shown Ginny earlier and waved it at her. “I didn’t mean to! I didn’t want to!” Tears streamed down the preacher’s face and he sank to the cabin floor. “I just wanted to talk to her, maybe steal a kiss--just a little taste. But then she started crying. I had to make her stop.” The preacher wrapped his arms around himself like a little child, and began to rock back and forth. Ginny took a cautious step toward the door. The preacher looked up, and despite the blackness of his sin, Ginny saw regret and genuine sorrow in his eyes. She cautiously put out her hand, not really knowing what she was going to do. The preacher looked at Ginny’s hand and sighed mournfully. Then all the sorrow and regret in the black eyes vanished, and the face that stared up at her from the floor made Ginny more afraid than she had ever been in her life. “And now I have to make you stop too, so you never tell.” He leapt up and wildly thrust the knife at Ginny, but she grabbed his arm, and pulled him forward. They both lost their balance and fell. Ginny tried to twist the preacher’s knife away. She shoved it upward as hard as she could, and felt it meet a soft resistance. There was a warm gush over her hand and arm, and the heavy body on top of her grew still. Ginny wiggled free and looked down. She was covered in blood, and the preacher wasn’t moving. The knife fell from her hand, and she sank to the floor. *** Ginny’s eyelids fluttered. She was so sleepy. She was sitting at the kitchen table across from Grandma Mattie. The bowl they used for the mixture that brought up the sins sat in front of Ginny, and Grandma Mattie sat across from her, an empty plate in her hand. “Ginny, m’girl, are you well?” “Why am I…What did I do?!?” Ginny’s voice strained with panic, “You left on a birthin’ call, and I went to bed, and the preacher came and asked for you. I told him to wait ‘til morning, and then…I don’t remember!” Mattie rose shakily, crossed the table and took Ginny’s hands. “Hush, child. It’s gone now. You don’t worry yourself none. You were frettin’ about it so, that I decided to take it from you. It was just a little sin—why, I barely tasted it when I took it in. All will be well tomorrow. Now, you and I both need some sleep.” Ginny nodded. Yes, she thought. Sleep. Sleep would help. She stumbled to her pallet. That’s strange, Ginny thought. The floor’s been scrubbed so clean, the wood looks lighter. Did she spill something last night? She sank into her blankets and just before closing her eyes, she noticed something shining on Grandma Mattie’s mantle. Glowing cheerfully in the mid-morning light was a gold cross, just like the one the preacher always wore. Strange, Ginny thought. Maybe he left it as payment. But what would require such a costly payment? Ginny was so confused and tired. And thirsty. Lord, her mouth tasted foul. She needed a drink of water. What had she eaten? It was like she had tasted Death itself. Just a taste.