Chapter OneGreat Smoky Mountains, mid-1850s
The first time I saw the sin eater was the night Granny Forbes was carried to
her grave. I was very young, and Granny my dearest companion, and I was greatly
troubled in my mind.
"Dunna look at the sin eater, Cadi," I'd been told by my pa. "And no
be asking why."
Being so grievously forewarned, I tried to obey. Mama said I was
acurst with curiosity. Papa said it was pure, cussed nosiness. Only Granny, with
her tender spot for me, had understood.
Even the simplest queries were met with resistance. When you're
older . It's none of your business Why are you asking such a fool
question? The summer before Granny died I had stopped asking questions of
anyone. I reckoned if I were ever going to find answers, I'd have to go looking
Granny was the only one who seemed to understand my mind. She always
said I had Ian Forbes's questing spirit. He was my grandfather, and Granny said
that spirit drove him across the sea. Then again, maybe that was not the whole
truth because she said another time it was the Scotland clearances that did it.
Papa agreed about that, telling me Grandfather was driven off his
land and herded onto a boat to America so sheep could have pasture. Or so he was
told, though I could never make sense of it. How could animals have more value
than men? As for Granny, she was the fourth daughter of a poor Welsh tinker and
had no prospects. Coming to America wasn't a matter of choice. It was one of
necessity. When she first come, she worked for a wealthy gentleman in a grand
house in Charleston, tending the pretty, frail wife he had met, married, and
brought over from Caerdydd.
It was the wife who took such a liking to Granny. As a Welshwoman
herself, the young missus was longing for home. Granny was young then, seventeen
to her recollection. Unfortunately, she didn't work for them long, as the lady
died in childbirth and took her wee babe with her. The gentleman didn't have
further need of a lady's maid-and what services he did want rendered Granny
refused to provide. She'd never say what they were, only that the man released
her from her contract and left Granny to her own devices in the dead of winter.
Times were very hard. She took whatever work she could find to keep
body and soul together and met my grandfather while doing so. She married Ian
Forbes "despite his disposition." Never having met my grandfather, I couldn't
judge her remark on his behalf, but I heard my uncles laughing once about his
high temper. Uncle Robert said Grandfather stood on the front porch and shot at
Papa, not once, but twice in quick succession. Fortunately, he had been drunk at
the time and Papa quick on his feet, or I never would have been born.
Grandfather Forbes died of a winter long before I was born. A heavy
storm had come, and he lost his way home. Where he had been, Granny didn't say.
It was one of the things that frustrated me most, only hearing part of the story
and not the whole. It was left to me to piece it all together and took years in
the doing. Some of it is best not told.
When asked why she had married such a fierce man, Granny said, "He
had eyes blue as a dusky sky, dearie. You have 'em, Cadi, my love, same as your
papa does. And you've Ian's soul hunger, God help you."
Granny was ever saying things beyond my ken. "Papa says I take after
She rubbed her knuckles lightly against my cheek. "You do, well
enow." Her smile had been sad. "Hopefully not in all ways." She would say no
more on the subject. Seemed some questions didn't bear answering.
The morning she died, we were just sitting and looking out over the
hollow. She had leaned back in her chair, rubbing her arm as though it was
paining her. Mama was moving around inside the house. Granny drew in her breath
with a grimace and then looked at me. "Give your mama time."
How four words could hurt. They brought to mind all that had been
before and what had caused the wall between Mama and me. Some things can't be
changed or undone.
Even at my young age, after a mere ten years of living, the future
stretched bleakly out ahead of me. Resting my head against Granny's knee, I said
nothing and took what solace I could in her sweet presence, not guessing that
even that would soon be taken from me. And if I could go back now and change
things so that I would not have lived through such a time of desolation, would
I? No. For God had his hand upon me before I knew who he was or even that he
In the last year I had learned tears did no good. Some pain is just
too deep. Grief can't be dissolved like rain washing dust off a roof. Sorrow
knows no washing away, no easing . no end of time.
Granny laid her hand upon my head and began stroking me like I was
one of the hounds that slept under our porch. I liked it. Some days I wished I
was one of them hounds Papa loved so much. Mama never touched me anymore, nor
Papa either. They didn't speak much to one another, and even less to me. Only my
brother, Iwan, showed me affection, though not often. He had too much to do
helping Papa with the farm. What little time he had left over was spent in
mooning over Cluny Byrnes.
Granny was my only hope, and she was slipping away.
"I love you, my dear. You remember that when winter comes and
everything seems cold and dead. It won't stay that way forever."
Winter had come upon Mama's heart last summer, and she was still a
frozen wasteland where I was concerned.
"Spring beauties used to grow like a lavender blanket at Bearwallow.
If I could wish for one thing, it would be for a bouquet of spring beauties."
Granny was ever saying the same thing: If I could wish for one thing
. Her wishes kept me busy, not that I did not delight in them. She was too
old to go far afield. Further I ever seen Granny walk was to Elda Kendric's
house, she being our closest neighbor and near as old as Granny herself. Yet
Granny's mind could travel across oceans and over mountains and valleys, and
often did so for my sake. It was Granny who pointed me to forgotten paths and
treasure haunts it would have taken me longer to discover on me own. It was for
her pleasure I hunted hither and you in our high mountains to collect her
precious bits of memories. And it got me away from the house-and Mama's grief
and rejection of me.
It was Granny who put me on the path to Bloomfield in springtime so
that I could bring back a basket full of mountain daisies and bluets. She taught
me how to make a wreath of them and put it on my head. She told me about
Dragon's Tooth, where green rock grew just like the backbone of Ian Forbes's
Scotland, or so he'd said.
More than once I'd gone there. It took all day for me to climb the
mountain to bring back a chunk of that green stone for her. I traipsed to ponds
filled with sunfish and hollows warm with frog song. I even found the oak tree
she said must be old as time itself-or at least as old as she.
Granny was full of stories. She always took her leisure, pouring out
words like honey on a cool morning, sweet and heavy. She knew everyone who came
to settle into the palisades, runs, and hollows of our uptilted land. We
Forbeses came early to these great smoky highlands, wanting land and
possibilities. The mountains reminded Grandfather of Scotland. Laochailand Kai
led them here, along with others. Elda Kendric came with her husband, dead and
gone now so long that Granny forgot his name. Even Miz Elda might have forgotten
it, for she was ever saying she didn't want to talk about him. Then came the
Odaras and Trents and Sayres and Kents. The Connors and Byrneses and Smiths
cleared land as well. Granny said if Grandfather Ian hadn't died, he would have
moved the family further east to Kantuckee.
They all helped one another when they could and held together
against nature and God himself to build places for themselves. And they was ever
on the lookout for Indians to come and murder 'em. Those that didn't stand with
the others stood alone and most often died. A few married come later, marrying
in until we were a mingled lot, castoffs and cutaways and best-forgottens.
"We all got our reasons, some better than most, for sinking roots
into these mountains and pulling the mists over our heads," Granny said once.
Some came to build. Some came to hide. All of them did what they knew to
That morning-the morning Granny died-I went to Bearwallow for spring
beauties. She longed for them, and that was reason enough for me to go. The
flowers did grow like a lavender blanket, just like Granny said she remembered.
I picked a basketful and brought them back for her. She was asleep in her porch
chair, or so I thought until I came close. She was white as a dogwood blossom,
her mouth and eyes wide open. When I placed the flowers in her lap, she didn't
move or blink.
I knew she was gone from me.
It is an awful thing for a child to understand death in such
fullness. I had already had one taste of it. This time it was a long drink of
desolation that went down and spread into my very bones.
Something had departed from Granny or been stolen away in my
absence. Her eyes stirred not a flicker; not a breath of air came from her
parted lips. And she didn't look herself, but rather like a shriveled husk
propped up in a willow chair-a likeness of Granny Forbes, but not Granny at all.
She was gone already without a by-your-leave. I understood too much and not
enough in that moment, and what I knew hurt so deep inside me I thought I'd die
of it. For a while I did. Or at least I let go of what faint hope had survived
the summer before.
Mama stopped the clock on the mantle and covered the mirror, as was
our highland custom. Papa rang the passing bell. Eighty-seven times he rung it,
one for each year of Granny's life. My brother, Iwan, was sent to tell our
relatives the sorrowful news. By the next day, most of the clan of Forbeses and
offshoots and graft-ins would gather to carry Granny to her final resting place
on the mountainside.
Gervase Odara, the healer, was the first to come, bringing with her
Elda Kendric, now the oldest woman in our highlands. Papa took the door off the
hinges and set it up between two chairs. Granny was laid out on it. First the
women removed her clothes, and Gervase Odara took them outside to wash. Water
was warmed over the fire inside. Mama ladled some in a basin and used it to wash
"Gorawen," Elda Kendric said, brushing Granny's long white hair.
"Ye've left me last of the first."
Mama didn't say anything. She and Elda Kendric went on working in
silence. The old woman would look at Mama, but Mama never once raised her head
from what she was doing or said a word to anyone. When Gervase Odara came back
inside, she helped Mama.
"She told me not more'n a few days ago that she had heard the mighty
voice calling to her from the mountain." Gervase Odara waited, glancing at Mama.
When she still said nothing, the healer said, "She told me it was for Cadi she
Mama's head came up then, and she stared hard at Gervase Odara. "I
hurt enough without you tearing open the wound."
"Sometimes it does good to let it draw."
"This isna the time."
"When better, Fia?"
Mama turned slightly, and I felt her looking for me. I withdrew as
far as I could into the corner shadows, hoping she wouldn't blame me for the
women tormenting her. I bowed my head, pulling my knees tight against my chest,
wishing myself smaller or invisible.
But I was neither. Mama fixed her gaze on me. "Go outside, Cadi.
This is no place for you."
"Fia .," Gervase Odara began.
I didn't wait to hear what she would say but cried out, "Leave her
be!" for I couldn't bear the look in my mother's eyes. She was like a trapped
and wounded animal. "Leave her be!" I cried again; then jumping up, I ran out
Some of the clan was yet to be gathered, for which I was thankful.
Had they been, I would have run into the lot of them staring and whispering. I
looked for Papa and found him chopping down a cedar some distance away. I stood
behind a tree watching him for a long while. It struck me how long it had been
since I heard him laugh. His countenance was grim as he worked. He paused once
and wiped the sweat from his brow. Turning, he looked straight at me. "Mama send
you out of the house?"
Papa lifted his ax again and made another deep notch in the tree.
"Get the bucket and collect the chips. Carry `em back to her. It'll cut the
stench in the house."
The women had already seen to that, for the doors and windows were
open, a breeze carrying in the scent of spring in the mountains that married
with the camphor they had rubbed on Granny's body. A tin cup of salt sat on the
windowsill, tiny white granules blowing onto the floor like sand.
Mama was kneading bread dough as I came in. When she didn't look up,
Gervase Odara took the bucket of cedar chips.
"Thank you, Cadi." She began to sprinkle a handful alongside Granny,
who was clothed again in a black wool dress. Her long white hair was cut off and
coiled neatly on the table to be braided into the mourning jewelry. Perhaps Mama
would add a white braid to the red-gold one she wore. Granny's poor shorn head
had been covered with a white cloth looped beneath her chin. Her mouth was
closed, her lips silenced forever. A second white strip of cloth had been tied
around her ankles, a third around her knees. Her hands, so thin and worn with
calluses, lay one over the other on her chest. Two shiny copper pennies lay upon
"Come tomorrow or the next day around nightfall, the sin eater will
come, Cadi Forbes," Elda Kendric said to me. "When he does, ye'll take yer place
beside your mother. Yer Aunt Winnie will carry the tray with the bread and the
mazer of elderberry wine. The sin eater will follow us to the cemetery and then
eat and drink all yer granny's sins so she wilna walk these hills no more."
My heart shuddered inside me at the thought.
That night I didn't sleep much, so I lay there, listening to the
hoot of the owl outside. Whoooo? Who is the sin eater? Whooo? Who will Granny
see first now she's gone to the hereafter? Whooo? Who would come take my sins
The next day was no better as I watched everyone gather. Three
uncles and their wives and Aunt Winnie and her husband had arrived. The cousins
wanted to play, but I had no heart for it. I hid myself in the shadows of the
house and kept vigil over Granny. When they finally laid her in her grave, I
wouldn't see her anymore. Leastwise, not until I met my maker.
Mama didn't send me out again, but she sat in the spring sunshine
with the aunts.