A Rule of Life
By Patricia Brandon
Publication Date: April 21st 2021
Publisher: Independently Published
Page Length: 324 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
1919 - Could a local murder, an attempted kidnapping, and a strange and macabre ritual, brought to Appalachia from Europe, have anything to do with missing youth?
The Great War and the Spanish Flu pandemic have just ended, soon to give way to Prohibition, the riots of Red Summer, the culmination of Women's Suffrage. A new camp for girls has just begun in the mountains of western North Carolina. Camp counselor Tricia Grimball seeks both adventure and escape from her predictable life back home. What she finds is far more than she could have ever imagined.
A coming of age story of friendship, sacrifice, faith, forgiveness – and love.
Otha Moses, the camp cook, wiped her hands on a stained apron, handed the young counselor a plate of fresh oatmeal cookies, then crossed sturdy ebony arms. The alfresco kitchen in the mountain woods and the rush of a proximate waterfall insulated yet another conversation with the preoccupied young counselor. Soul searching, this one seems to be, always curious.
“Now, I ain’t one to talk,” Otha began, “but I don’t believe Harvey Bryson carried that child to Doc Halsted like he said. He and that no-count white trash, Chester Graves, ain’t never done nothin’ good.”
“So, it’s true?” Tricia Grimball frowned, fluffing long dark hair from underneath her gray uniform camp shirt. “A girl was attacked in town last night and that man, Chester, was killed?”
“That’s what Harvey Bryson said. Now Chester’s dead and that poor girl don’t remember nothin’ but a sack pulled over her head and somebody trying to drag her off. Harvey said a strange man grabbed her and they come up on him. Said he’s the one what killed Chester. You know what I think?” Otha’s eyes narrowed to razor slits. She wagged a finger at the pretty college girl. “Harvey Bryson is a damn liar. Them two hoodlums attacked that child. But I think I know who saved her and killed Chester.”
“You do?” Tricia felt her body shiver. “Have you told anyone? The sheriff?”
“No!” Otha was adamant, dark eyes blazing. “Ain’t nobody gonna believe me, even if I did. But I feel it in my bones. I believe it. The Sin Eater, he’s the one that done saved that girl.”
“Sin Eater,” Tricia repeated. “What on earth are you talking about, Otha?” The beloved cook spread her hands wide, pale palms gleaming in the deepening twilight.
“When a person dies, they go to heaven. Well, if they first asked for forgiveness and love Jesus. Only sometimes they die sudden before they can ask forgiveness. The Sin Eater, he agrees to eat they sins to take them on his own self, so the dead can go on to Heaven.”
“That’s crazy!” Tricia blurted out, then wished she had not. “I mean, are you sure? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“Folks here been into the mysteries a long time. Nobody knows who the Sin Eater is. He hides in black clothes and a hood to cover his face. The family of the dead give a signal, and he come the evening before the funeralizing, prays to take on the sin, and eats the food and wine they leave on the body.” Otha hesitated. “I don’t trust everybody, but you a good girl, Miss Tricia. You got an honest heart.”
In a visceral place where risk and fear meet, Tricia felt the beckoning call of the unknown with each word Otha uttered about this bizarre phenomenon. It was a far cry from the prescribed, predictable life she’d fled for the summer. It was why she came to this place; to breathe in the lifeblood of an unknown world. To understand that the knowing would likely consume her, grow her up, perhaps in ways she had yet to imagine. Every fiber of curiosity sparked from deep within her.
“You said he says a prayer. What kind of prayer?”
Otha scrunched up her face, palms up once more, and whispered. “He prays for the sin to come into him. He say that he pawns his soul for the sins of the dead person. Then he eats and drinks the food. Sometimes, it’s a meal and sometimes it’s just corpse cakes. After that, he leaves quick. Every now and again, folks throw potatoes after him, to chase off all that sin.”
Tricia stood in silence, staring at the simple but wise cook. This was creepier than the New Orleans witchcraft and voodoo her best camp friend, Nancy Baudette, had told her about.
“Corpse cakes? What in the world are corpse cakes? And what about the local priest, what does he think of all this?”
“A priest only does the funeralizing. He don’t have nothin’ to do with no Sin Eater. He know it goes on, but he don’t pay it no mind. He know some people need to have they kinfolk sins all gone before they can be buried, is all. Folks don’t think anyone, even a preacher man, can guarantee salvation, unless they sin is all gone. Now corpse cakes, they just biscuits for the dead. Sometimes the dead person’s initials are carved into ‘em.”
Tricia could no longer contain the faint smile that spread across her face.
“Otha, these are modern times. We even have Model-T cars and a spur line train that can bring people from Hendersonville to Lake Toxaway. How could such a thing as sin eating still exist?”
She thought about the likes of the Dukes, the Firestones, and the Vanderbilts, who had their own private train cars in which to travel, until the horse-drawn carriages that go the rest of the way from Toxaway to Laurel Valley took them for the remainder of their journey. It wouldn’t be long before even those were nonexistent. Best of all, women would soon be able to vote. And this beautiful brand-new magical camp, just for girls was a testament to modern change.
“Are you sure there is still such a thing as this Sin Eater man?” The expression on Otha’s face convinced Tricia that the older woman would remain undeterred. “I’ve just never heard of such, is all,” she added.
“Miss Tricia, you mark my word.” Otha was adamant. “The Sin Eater, he around. And he ain’t no bad man. Never hurt nobody that I know of. He just a poor soul trying to do right and probably feed his own family.”
“One more question. What made you think that the Sin Eater was involved to begin with?”
“Well, it all happened going on the road toward Highlands, not far from where the Parker family lives. There was a funeral up the road apiece the next day for old Luther, a farmer. Likely they wanted the Sin Eater that night. The young girl, she out playing with her brothers, and they run off and left her, you know, like they was teasing her, like boys do. That’s what they done said. Only she didn’t come home. She showed up laying on the porch at Doc Halsted’s. And Chester Graves showed up dead. So, Harvey had to say something. I think ‘ole Harvey hoping that Priscilla ain’t gonna remember nothing and that nobody will ever know what happened. Like them others.”
“Others? What is it, Otha? What are you not telling me?” The cook looked down at her hands and back up again. “Back in the winter. Back around New Year’s Eve. A young girl done disappeared from around Franklin, in the next county. This girl about sixteen, maybe. They say she likely just run off with some slick talking city man that promised to treat her good. She was friendly with the men folk. But I think somebody grabbed her. And it happened in Dillsboro, too. Early October. That time, a young colored girl was supposed to be arriving on the train with her brother.”
Now Tricia stared at the camp cook.
“What are you saying, Otha? These girls disappeared and no one knows where they are? What did the brother of the Dillsboro girl say?”
“That’s just it,” Otha stared at Tricia, shaking her head. “He gone, too. Disappeared, him and his sister. He just a boy, younger than my Samuel. Ain’t nobody heard nothing from neither of ‘em. They never arrived at they granddaddy’s house.”
“My God.” Tricia put a hand over her mouth. “Otha, are you saying the girls and the boy all just vanished? No one knows what happened to them?”
“Somebody knows,” Otha snapped. “Somebody with blood cold as that ice box. Somebody evil and rotten.”
“I’m homegrown – raised, braised, and cured in a charcuterie of the Deep South, with the wonderful nuances of family, friends, and our famously fractured characters. One of only three girls in a host of boy cousins and two brothers, I learned to find my own way somewhere between southern belle and tomboy.”
“I was that kid at the top of the summer reading list challenge, tucked away in a secret fort, or obscure beach cottage loft on a rainy day, devouring a smorgasbord of goodies, from biographies and Nancy Drew mysteries, to C.S. Lewis and The Scarlet Letter. Books were – and still are – both the escape and the connection.”
There were two epochal moments during the early ‘70s that defined the desire to one day write. As an education major, I was captivated by Pat Conroy’s The Water Is Wide, about his experiences as a young teacher on an isolated South Carolina barrier island. I was also taking a library science class in which we were assigned a review of a new book for teens. I chose Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier. To this day, the healing and powerful message of her book has remained with me.”
So, I grew up, nurtured my own two girls, and did not write with any seriousness until I became faced with overnight paralysis from a rare medical abnormality in 2014. Talk about a rude cessation of a physically active life! I’m still swimming – literally and figuratively – as the journey continues. I can’t stop now, either in the battle to beat paralysis, or the journey to create tales worth telling and reading!
Patricia Brandon is a winner of a Carrie McCray Memorial Literary Award (South Carolina Writers’ Association) and the recipient of the Coffee Pot Book Club “Highly Recommended” 5-Star Award for her first historical fiction novel, THE CENTER OF GRAVITY. A RULE OF LIFE was recently named as the 2021 Book of the Year, Historical Fiction, YA. Both novels have gleaned excellent reviews.
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See you on your next coffee break!
Mary Anne xxx