By Hilary Ayshford
The hunk of bread is stale and dry with a pale white bloom over its surface, but Malachi snatches it off the rough wooden trencher. One corner has a small growth of blue-green mould. He will save that bit until last. He breaks off a small piece with his filthy fingers and pops it onto his tongue, waiting for it to soften in his mouth. Such teeth as he has left are too rotten to chew.
He relishes the myriad flavours spreading over his taste buds and sighs with pleasure as he contemplates the swollen corpse in front of him. Ignoring the elderly widow weeping noisily in the corner, he leans forward and whispers into the dead man's ear. 'I shall enjoy feasting on you this night.'
The planks of the trestle creak as a shudder runs through the body. Malachi is unperturbed. He knows it is just decomposition gases building up as the flesh corrupts, and this awareness increases his anticipation.
Malachi loves being a sin eater. By gorging on the guilt of the newly deceased he can relive their wrongdoing in his dreams, experiencing vicariously all the things he desires but cannot have or dare not do himself. He didn't discover this immediately. His first two corpses were a virtuous widow and a milksop boy, as weak as water. His third was the violator of a young woman, beaten to death by her father. Even now, when he thinks of the dreams he had that night his mouth floods with saliva and his cock hardens.
After three decades he is a connoisseur of the taste of sin. In the second morsel of bread he detects pride, lumpy and bland, and sloth, sickly with treacle stickiness. The third mouthful contains lust, slippery as lard sliding down his throat, and cruelty that clings to his remaining teeth like cloying marzipan. He gulps the watered-down ale, sour with envy and a bitter aftertaste of resentment.
The bread is almost gone now. With the next piece the dead man's anger burns his tongue like a mixture of mustard seed and horseradish. The final corner, the mouldy crust he has been holding back, is the best. Murder has the taste of meat left out in the sun, green and flyblown.
Malachi rises from the three-legged stool, sated, bloated by the heft of the man's sins. As he goes to the door, the widow doesn't look at him, but holds out a small coin. He grasps her fingers between his palms, his horny, yellow fingernails digging into the flesh of her wrists so that she can't withdraw, a foretaste of the visions to come of the torment inflicted on her body by her deceased husband.
'You keep it,' he says. 'Your need is greater than mine.'
He already has what he came for. This night he will sleep the sleep of the dead.
Hilary Ayshford is a former science journalist and editor, based in rural Kent in the UK. She writes mainly short form fiction across all genres, from humour to horror and everything in between. Her stories have been published by Retreat West, Trembling With Fear, Funny Pearls and Roi Fainéant, among others. She is currently also working on a novella-in-flash. She can be found online on Twitter.