New This Week - The Sin Eater's Redemption

From the desk of Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy

Maybe, like me, you first heard about sin eaters from grandparents or other family elders with some Welsh heritage.  Perhaps you read about the tradition because you’re into folklore and old customs, again like me.  Or you might’ve seen the 1972 episode of Rod Serling’s program, Night Gallery, where Richard Thomas (who later played John Boy Walton and who has some Welsh ancestry) played a sin eater.  There’s also a newer movie out in the past few years although I’ll admit – I haven’t seen it. 

To quote a little Shakespeare, there are more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of so I keep an open mind.  My son, age twelve, watches a lot of programs about Bigfoot.  Is it real? I don’t know but I’ll concede it’s possible.  I do believe in ghosts because I’ve had too many personal experiences not to do so.  Before experts determined a particular variety of woodpecker thought extinct was alive and well in the wilds of Arkansas, I’d seen them in my own woods.  I once saw an egg tree, not the decorative kind but the kind designed to prevent witches in the Ozarks.  I like to believe some things can and do survive into the 21st century – like a sin eater.

Such possibilities intrigue me.  I’ve long been fascinated with the ancient custom found in parts of the British Isles, especially Wales, of the sin eater.  Although the last known sin eater was supposed to have died back in the 19th century, who knows about the ones who continued the practice? Since a number of old folkways survive in the Ozarks – after all, I once saw a genuine witch tree, the kind meant to keep witches away – I decided a sin eater might exist today, especially if the custom had been handed down over the generations.  And the story built from there….
The cover and blurb:

Death brings singer Tessa Owens home from Nashville to her native Ozarks.  But she’s not planning to stay.  Tessa turned her back on the old ways of life for the modern world long ago. She didn’t expect to meet her first love, Lucas Rowlands, at the visitation.   Seven years wasn’t long enough to forget him and sparks ignite when they meet again. Even worse, Tessa learns Lucas isn’t the simple country farmer she left behind but the sin eater, an ancient position handed down to him from his grandfather. As she struggles to understand Lucas’ life and role as a sin eater Tessa admits she loves him and there’s no doubt what he feels for her.  The devil wants Lucas’ sin-heavy soul and if they don’t come up with something, Lucas is hell bound on an express ticket.  If there’s any chance at a future, it’s up to Tessa.

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Book trailer:

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Here’s not one but two excerpts to tempt your fancy:

They ended up out in the antique porch swing, side by side.  As dusk gathered shadows into darkness, Lucas put his arm around her shoulders so she scooted closer.  The sweet, rich smell of honeysuckle floated on the wind.  Far off in the distance Tessa heard the whine of tires as they sped over pavement and down the road somewhere coon hounds barked.  Tiny brilliant lightning bugs flickered across the pasture and she marveled at their quiet beauty.  She hadn’t seen a single firefly since she left home but her nights were spent beneath city lights.  Peace settled around her like a shawl and she sighed with contentment.

“It’s so beautiful here. Quiet and so tranquil.”

“I like it,” Lucas said. “Always have, always will.”

They rocked and the gentle sway soothed something in Tessa’s soul  Silence stretched between them, comfortable as well worn shoes.  He smiled and turned to her, “I don’t remember any place else but here, you know.”

His early life history was still almost as familiar as hers.  Tessa nodded. “I do.”

“I’ve been a few places but I can’t imagine living away like you have. Was it hard to adjust?”

Was it? Tessa struggled to remember her first days in Nashville.  By the time she left Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge to come back to bury Uncle Cal, she’d adapted, learned to thrive and survive.  But it wasn’t always so. After a long pause to collect her thoughts, Tessa answered. “Oh, yeah, it was.  Everything was so different when I got to Nashville.  The traffic, the way the city goes on for miles and miles, the tall buildings, all of it felt so strange,” she told him. “At first I stayed with Karla, my cousin, in her apartment but it wasn’t very far from a large medical center and it wasn’t in the best part of town, either. Sirens ran all the time, ambulances, fire trucks, police cars.  I got homesick and almost came home.” Tessa stopped and then added, “And I missed you.”

“Why didn’t you come back?”

She offered him a small smile but it hurt to remember. “I planned on it and even packed my suitcases.  Then I got my first gig, so I thought I was on my way to the big time. I decided to stay a little longer to see what happened.”

Above the tree line the night sky stretched out, dark as black velvet. More stars than she could count brightened it like tiny diamonds.  The big-bellied moon rose, not quite waxed full and coated everything in soft silver.  Tessa found it magical and said so.

Lucas left the swing to offer her his hand and she took it.  “Come dance with me,” he said, the last thing she expected to hear from his lips. “It’s something I’ve dreamed about a thousand times.”

Enchanted, Tessa took his hand and he led her out into the yard.  They slow danced together in the moonlight.  At first there was no music but the crickets and the other night insects but Lucas began singing an old Jim Croce song from long before their time. She remembered the name of it, Time In A Bottle.  They’d heard it on an oldies radio station in their teens and both liked the poignant tune.  Lucas bought a Croce CD the next day and for a long time, Tessa recalled, it’d been their song.  Maybe it still was, she thought, with hope.

If I could save time in a bottle,” Lucas crooned, his voice true on the notes, “that I’d like to do is to save every day until eternity passes away just to spend them with you.”

How could he sing the words, she wondered, and yet insist their time together had to be  fleeting.  Short term wouldn’t work and she knew it.  For them, it had to be all or nothing, everything or heartbreak.  Tessa said nothing, unwilling to break the spell Lucas wove. When he finished the song, he looked into her face.

“Now come love me. It’s the rest of the dream.”

Moved beyond words, Tessa nodded. Inside the house, he made love to her, unhurried and slow. He cherished her.  His sweet tenderness spoke more than words ever could and when she fell asleep, afterward in his arms, moonlight shone through the window and over the bed with benediction.

Here’s the second sneak peek from the story. I always have a hard time deciding what excerpts to share but this one, the moment of truth when Tessa learns Lucas is the sin eater, seemed perfect.

“Hello, Lucas.” Her voice came out hushed, like school kids whispering in a library. “It’s been a long time.”

Lucas Rowlands grinned with a naughty smile she remembered very well.  He looked the same, overlong brown hair lit with blonde highlights, dark blue eyes and a lean build. “I hear you’ve been living up to Nashville all this time,” he said.

“I have,” Tessa replied. “I live there now.”

His eyes locked on her face and she couldn’t look away, mesmerized by his steady gaze.

“Guess you ain’t famous just yet.”

Face to face, toe to toe, she remembered more than she wanted. His presence, his physical proximity exuded power, so much so the fine hairs on her arms came to attention. “No,” she said, her voice husky. “I’m not.  What are you doing these days, Lucas?”

“I do as little as possible,” he said with a sassy grin.  “I raise cattle and more than a little hell at my granddad’s old place.  I live in the old house and mostly do what I want.”

That sounded like Lucas, she thought. “Are you married?”

 “Nope and I don’t plan to get that way.  What about you, darlin’? Do you have a husband and kiddies in a little house over there on the Cumberland River?”

He stood close, heat radiating from his skin as it moved over her in waves.  Tessa grew too hot, overheating so much she thought she might faint. His questions irked her, though she couldn’t say why.

“No,” Tessa said. If she didn’t get some fresh air now, she would pass out.  She stepped forward, prepared to head for the back door. Luke took her hand instead and kept her in place.

“Where are you going? We haven’t had time to catch up or talk about old times.”

His voice affected her like cheap strawberry wine with a giddy rush powerful enough to tilt her off balance.

“I need some air,” she whispered. “I’ve got to go outside.”

 Lucas put his arm around her. “Let’s go then.”

 He pressed through the crowd with a fake grin plastered on his face, exchanging a few nods and howdys. She allowed him to take her through her aunt’s kitchen, aware the women putting out food stared as they passed.  In the backyard, Tessa staggered over to a plastic lawn chair and sat.  Cool breezes flowed down the hills behind and she inhaled deeply. After a few minutes, she sighed.

“Better?” Lucas sprawled in a chair across from hers and watched with a frown she might’ve once believed came out of concern.

“Yes, thanks.”

“What the hell happened in there? You didn’t use to be such a wimp.”

“No.”  Funny she could sing on any stage, hobnob with some of the remaining greats of country music, talk with today’s chart toppers, handle the meanest drunk in any bar and attend any event and never lose her cool.  But come back to the hills and she lost it in her aunt’s house, among her own folks, thanks to Lucas Rowlands.  “I’m okay now, though.”

He offered a hand so she could rise and Tessa accepted it.   Before she had time to think, Lucas drew her into his arms like a spider catching a fly and put his mouth down over hers.   She struggled, protested until his heat fired her and ignited all her old passions. Tessa kissed him back with the same unholy fire.  Sweet little charges of electricity ran over her sensitive skin and when his tongue entered her mouth, she would’ve squealed aloud except she couldn’t, there wasn’t space to make a sound.

Pleasure from his mouth expanded lower and spread heat through her in waves.  A dim sense Tessa should protest, should push him away hovered at the edge of her consciousness but everything felt too damn good to stop.  His lips evoked the past, stolen kisses and heady delights she recalled much too well.   If someone, she never could be sure who it was, had not thrust their head out of the back door and called, “Lucas, it’s time.”

Tessa might’ve let him do more than kiss her there, in the backyard, with her kinfolk and most of the rural community steps away.   The reality check jarred her back to consciousness as he released her.

“I’ll see you later,” he said with a playful swat at her rear as he vanished into the house.

Tessa watched him go, divided between longing for more kisses and anger that she’d let her guard down so easily.  Lucas was the last person she expected to see and before she could ponder why he’d come to Uncle Cal’s private family visitation, the back door swung open.

“There you are! You need to come in now, we’re about to get started.”

“Start what, Aunt Vernie?”

Her aunt ducked her head. “I had the sin eater come.  You know what a wicked man Calvin could be, how mean he was. I just hated to think he might spend all eternity in hell so I decided to do it the way folks did back a few years.  Truth is they do it more now than you’d think now that we got us a sin eater again.”

“You’re joking,” Tess said. This sounded insane.  Clearly she’d left the real world behind in Tennessee and ended up here on the set of The Twilight Zone.

 Aunt Verna folded her arms across her chest like fresh laundry. “I’m not, Tessa.  You’ve been away too long. That’s why I had them bring Cal back out here from the funeral home.  Today’s for the sin eater, the family, and close friends.  It’s visitation, too, but this is the most important.”

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