Once upon a time, outside a little village hidden in the hills of Scotland, a stranger knocked on the door of a lonely cottage. It was a wet and treacherous night, and the door was opened by a kindly looking old man, with white whiskers and a crinkled smile.
“My friend!” cried that man, whose name was Jack Fage, “you must be soaked to the bone. Come in, come in, and warm yourself by the fire!” and he took the stranger in and sat him as close to the fire as he could.
“I’ve already had my supper,” said old Jack Fage, “but I’m sure I could find an oatcake and a hot toddy to keep the chills away.” The stranger thanked him kindly, and in due course Jack Fage had brought out a fresh oatcake from the griddle and a piping hot mug of toddy, which the stranger knocked back without a second thought.
After the oatcake was finished and the plate washed and dried, the stranger and Jack Fage sat by the window and looked out at the rain.
The stranger asked “Why is it that you live so far from the village, in this cottage at the top of a hill?”
Jack Fage puffed at his pipe. “My friend, I live alone because the other villagers want nothing to do with a man like me.”
And why was that, asked the stranger, and Jack Fage explained.
“I am a sin-eater, like my father before me and his before him. Whenever a man or woman or child dies in the village, their trespasses and transgressions are baked into a little crust of bread and a bowl of ale, and then I am called to take upon their sins by eating the food and taking the drink myself, so that they may be admitted into Heaven with a pure spirit.”
And how much was he paid for such a service, asked the stranger with a keen interest.
“A groat, but the price I’ve paid is greater still. For all the people of the village shun me as I walk by, and think of me as a plague bearer. They say the sins sit heavy on my soul, and when I die they’ll drag me down to Hell; but still they call on me when there’s a body to be buried, and like a fool I do my duty.” But enough about me, said old Jack Fage as he wiped a tear from his eye, what brings you to this little corner of the world?
The stranger stood up. “The truth of it is so: I came here seeking you, Jack Fage, and now I have found you.” And he cast off his clothes, and there in front of Jack Fage stood the Devil himself, his skin as black as coal and his eyes burning like embers.
“Jack Fage,” said the Devil, “the time has come for you to be taken down to Hell,” and so saying he opened up a door of fire in the floor of the cottage, and beckoned Jack Fage to join him.
But the old man stood where he was, chuckling away to himself, and he asked the Devil if he’d enjoyed his toddy and the oatcake.
“Aye,” said the Devil, “but that’s neither here nor there nor anywhere. Your life is at an end, Jack Fage, and all the village’s sins have stained your soul as black as my tail.”
And again old Jack Fage did nothing, but started to list the ingredients of his oatcake. “Oats and butter – a cup of sugar – an egg or two to keep it all together – a pinch of cinnamon and a handful of raisins – oh, and a hundred lifetimes’ worth of sin” For the old sin-eater had known from the first that the stranger was the Devil, and baked his many sins into the very oatcake he’d given his guest.
With that, the Devil realised at once how he’d been tricked, and he howled and stamped his cloven hoof right through the floor of Jack Fage’s cottage. The old man threw back his head and laughed, and then he went to his bed, lay down his head, and died a sinless man.
Patrick Magee has represented Peru in organised football since 1927. He co-runs a monthly event called Ghost Stories and he is performing a one-man show Tincakes & Sausages at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. You can follow him on Twitter.