illustration by Toeken

The Forgiver

Michael J Winegar

“What would you give to be forgiven?” That’s the question that is seemingly at the center of Michael J Winegar’s “The Forgiver”, where the act of forgiveness is more than an intangible concept. In a world full of very human mistakes, the importance of being forgiven, of getting that chance to set things right again, is incredibly important .nbsp;. nbsp;. but who do we grant that power to forgive us? These are some weighty questions for a first pro sale, and Winegar gives us plenty to chew on here.

I was ten when the Forgiver’s carriage parked in the village square. Calling it a square makes my village seem bigger than it was but the common area was just a smudge of dirt between the blacksmith and the church. The Forgiver’s carriage was little more than a covered mule cart. The driver was a burly man with broken teeth on one side.

Ten was old enough for a job, so I was supposed to be carrying bags of flour from the miller to the bakery, but when the Forgiver rolled into town everybody stopped what they were doing to stand in a gawping circle. I wasn’t tall but I had sharp enough elbows to work my way to the front of the crowd.

The first person to ask forgiveness surprised nobody. Widow Tasset was the most pious woman in town and, to my child’s mind, probably the whole world. Most folks said she spent more time at the church than the priest did, more time than she spent at home for sure. Poor Parson Billier didn’t know what to do with her, always confessing and asking for penance. He didn’t know what else to do so he set her to sweeping the church steps. She swept those steps so much every day that it was a wonder she didn’t wear both broom and stones down to nothing.

So we gathered around and Widow Tasset stepped up to the carriage. She looked at the driver, who nodded once, and then she knocked on the carriage door. The door had a little set of windows in the top half which the Forgiver opened. We all craned our necks to see but I could only catch a flash of a long nose. That voice though. The Forgiver’s voice came out of that carriage so clear that you could’ve heard it half a mile away.

“What would you give to be forgiven?” said the Forgiver.

Widow Tasset straightened her skirts and jutted her chin up and said, “I’d pay any price you name.”

The Forgiver said, “It is not my place to demand a price. Such a practice would become nothing more than selling empty words. It has been done before. I ask you again, what would you give to be forgiven?”

Widow Tasset scowled for a moment and I thought she’d leave but she didn’t. Instead, she fished in the top of her dress and pulled out a locket. She unlatched it so that the chain pooled in her hand like liquid silver.

“I’ll give my locket.”

We all knew how much she missed her husband. It’s why we called her Widow Tasset instead of anything else. Being a widow was what she did.

“I’ll give this if I can be forgiven. I want to die in peace.”

I rolled my eyes at that. Widow Tasset was always saying she was about to die.

A hand with long fingers came out of the window and accepted the locket.

“Of what would you be forgiven?”

Widow Tasset looked around the square at all of us. She tried to lean in the window but the driver cleared his throat something fierce.

The Forgiver said, “Those who would be forgiven in the open must confess in the open.”

With another glare for us, Widow Tasset straightened her dress and jutted up her chin again. I thought we were surprised at her giving up the locket but we were more surprised at what came next.

“I think evil thoughts about others all day long.”

Nobody said anything so Widow Tasset went on.

“I think Vera is lazy and that Garen is fat.” Chuckles from the crowd. “I think Mona should never have married Jorun and that their children are intolerable brats.” Outright laughter. Widow Tasset’s eyes darted around the crowd. “I think Kaleb drinks too much and so do all his brothers. Kebba should learn to keep her knees together. Oreb is a terrible farmer and that’s why his crops always die, it has nothing to do with the weather. Phillpa is a shoddy carpenter and Erighan is a lousy blacksmith. Everywhere I look I see people who don’t care enough about their jobs or each other to put the slightest bit of hard work into their lives.” The laughter from the crowd trailed off. Widow Tasset stared straight ahead in a trance. She seemed unable to stop herself until she had run down every single person in the village and pointed out their faults. People were starting to look around without meeting each other’s eye.

Widow Tasset was in tears. She looked to the carriage window for mercy. She dropped to her knees by the wheels of the old carriage and wailed, “But I don’t want to think these things. I have just as much to be sorry for. I was a harsh mother and a nagging wife and now I’m just a nagging old widow. These people are my family and my family’s family. I love them and I don’t want to think these awful things. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”

When she stood up again, that spindly hand reached out of the carriage and stroked Widow Tasset’s gray hair as if she were a child. Those long fingers gently took her chin and made her face the carriage. The Forgiver pressed his thumb into her forehead for a long moment. When he took his hand away, Widow Tasset gasped and slumped down by the wheel of the carriage. A bunch of people moved to help her up and I lost sight of her in the crowd. When I could see her again, the tears on her face were happy ones and she had a dark red thumbprint in the middle of her forehead. Someone helped her go sit down.

Soon there was a messy line with more people in it than watching. I didn’t get in line yet because I’d lose my good spot and I wanted to hear what everybody else asked for.

A lot of people asked for little things that everybody else had forgotten. Tools borrowed and never returned, unkind words. Barden asked to be forgiven for lying about liking his wife’s cooking. She hit him and then asked forgiveness for that as well as some other things. We got a few more laughs but for the most part folks were quiet and respectful. At first people tried to get their kids to go up to the Forgiver but he refused anybody under about nine years old.

When it was her turn, Kebba hauled four of her children up with her, two in her arms and scooting the other two with her feet. And that was only half her kids. Her husband Jeb and their other children were some of the only people not there. Jeb was probably still working out on their farm or in his shed. He was always working. Jeb was skinny and raw to the bone and it never seemed like there was enough for all those mouths in his little house.

Kebba was already crying when she got up to the carriage and she handed over a couple of pennies.

“I hit one of my babies,” said Kebba. “It was the middle of the night and I was so tired. I’m always so tired and I’m really sorry. I’ll never do it again.” She punctuated her tearful request with kisses on her children.

The Forgiver pressed his thumb to her forehead and I watched all the sadness and tiredness seep out of poor Kebba’s face like those tears were washing it away. Kebba thanked him and turned to go, but that hand reappeared and held something out. Kebba took it with shock on her face. It was her money back and, I thought, a few more coins besides. She thanked him again and walked away with her head held high.

Some more folks went, including my parents. Father asked to be forgiven for sometimes drinking too much on a holiday or sleeping in when he knew others were working. Mother asked to be forgiven her gossiping and ingratitude for healthy children and enough to eat. They went home hand in hand after that.

A few people later, Big Larish stomped up to the window and we all held our collective breath. We called him Big Larish because he had a son named after him. Though calling the son Little Larish hadn’t been accurate for years. Big Larish was a mean cuss whom nobody liked and he beat his sons and daughters till they all turned out just as mean as he was. Nobody liked to deal with him but he had one of the more successful vegetable farms in the area.

Big Larish shoved a handful of coins at the Forgiver, who managed to accept them gracefully.

“I stole a horse once,” said Big Larish and he glared around the crowd as if daring somebody to say something.

I heard one person grumble, “I knew it,” but I couldn’t tell who it was.

There was silence from within the carriage. It was that waiting silence that the Forgiver had been using on everybody that day.

“That’s all I want,” said Big Laresh.

The hand came out and left a thumbprint. Big Larish’s face flickered like a nicer face was trying to make its way out of his permanent scowl. In the end the scowl won.

We all waited but Big Larish didn’t move away from the window. He put his hands on his hips and said, “Well? I got a lotta mouths to feed too. Are you gonna give my money back like you gave back Kebba’s?” The Forgiver’s driver shifted a little.

The Forgiver’s voice came back clear and calm as ever.

“Do you want your offering back?”

Big Larish screwed up his face and spat on the ground. “Yeah, I do. What a load this whole thing is.”

The Forgiver held out a rag and Big Larish used it to wipe away the thumbprint on his forehead. When Big Larish got his money back a change came over him. I was right there by the carriage so I saw it all. First his eyes flickered like he was counting the money and then he suddenly stared straight ahead like somebody put a handful of snow down his back. He shook his head.

Big Larish said, “I changed my mind. I don’t want it back.” He held the coins up to the window again. “I want to be forgiven. For that and a lot of other things. I’ll go get more money.”

Silence from the Forgiver.

The driver with the broken teeth cleared his throat and said, “Move along.”

Big Larish stumbled away from the carriage all hunched over like he was in pain. He looked around but nobody would meet his eyes. A few people were shaking their heads. Big Larish left the square and I lost sight of him.

The mood was a lot more somber after that. People didn’t really laugh anymore, no matter what folks were asking or confessing.

I wracked my brains for something I could be forgiven for, since it looked like I was old enough. I thought maybe I was a bit of a bully when the grown-ups weren’t around and I decided to ask for forgiveness for always hitting people when I didn’t get my way. And maybe for pinching a little too much dough when Betsy wasn’t looking. There were two coins in my pocket I had been saving, either just for candy or for the feel of them in my pocket.

I got in line but I could still see and hear pretty well. A lot of folks went back to their duties and homes once they were forgiven, especially those who cried the most.

There was some kind of commotion on the road in front of the Forgiver’s carriage but I couldn’t see at first. Then the crowd parted to show that Lady Marl had come all the way down from the manor in her own carriage. She trailed a liveried footman and two maids in her wake. Lady Marl was a stately, middle-aged woman who wore a lot of powder and even more jewelry. We all shuffled out of the way, as was expected.

Lady Marl walked up to the carriage with measured steps. She looked at those of us who remained in the square as if she would command us to leave but she didn’t. She held out her hand and her footmen gave her a heavy purse which she held out in front of the window.

On High Holidays, Lady Marl came down to the church and took her turn reading from the Book of Sins and Virtues. She used her same formal voice when she said, “Here is my offering, Forgiver.”

There was silence from the carriage. We all sucked in our breath. The silence said it wasn’t enough.

Pursing her lips. Lady Marl pulled open the top of the bag and plucked out a sizable diamond.

“Here is my offering, Forgiver. It is more than just gold.”

No hand came out of the carriage but the clear voice of the Forgiver said, “Is it enough?”

Lady Marl’s red lips made a line. She narrowed her painted eyes.

“It is a hundred times what any commoner has ever offered you. Do you refuse?”

The silence said he did.

“Must I pay so much more for my sins than others?”

The silence said she should.

“Are you so unjust?”

Now the silence said that Lady Marl had gone too far. The silence peeled back the layers on Lady Marl’s poise until she was quivering.

She said, “What I mean is, I mean . . . will you accept it?”

The Forgiver said, with a little sadness in his voice, “Is it enough for you?”

A single tear ran down Lady Marl’s face, tracing a gray line through the white. She cinched the purse closed and turned on her heel, climbing back into her carriage with her footman and her maids. We watched them trundle back toward the manor.

The square stayed really quiet after that, like church after somebody died. More folks left, those with red thumbprints more content. Not everybody went to the Forgiver but I suppose that’s between them and Heaven. I don’t know if some people already had a clear conscience or if they didn’t feel like they had enough to give.

Old Amo took his turn shuffling up to the carriage door. He was bowed under the weight of a big canvas bag he had slung over his bent back. Amo looked the same as he had all my life, scraggly white beard and spotted, wispy head. He always wore black clothes, like he was in permanent mourning and I guess he was. His wife had died before my father was even born. I knew there was sadness in those watery blue eyes before I even understood what sadness was. Mother told me he used to mend pots until he got too old. Now he made his living by sharpening folk’s tools and selling wooden carvings of animals. I still had a little dog my parents got me one summer. The wood had gone dark from all the times I’d played with it.

Amo set down his bag in front of the carriage door. He said, “That’s everything I own in this world. It’s all the savings, all the carvings I have left. It’s my sharpening kit, and my wife’s wedding dress. It’s all my silverware, though it’s tarnished. It’s everything but my sharpening wheel. You can have the right to that too.”

Amo was so bent that he had to crane sideways to look up at the carriage window. The Forgiver actually leaned out a bit to look down and I got my first real look at him. He was younger than I expected, with a smooth face and high cheekbones. He had a long nose and sharp eyes beneath curling black eyebrows.

In the Book of Sins and Virtues, there was a picture of an angel banishing little black demons bent over double. At that moment, the Forgiver and poor old Amo reminded me so sharply of that picture that I felt my heartbeat in my ears.

The Forgiver didn’t say anything.

Amo bowed his head and fell to his knees. “I need to be forgiven for what we did in the war. I was so young, we were all so young and things were bad. I need to be forgiven. Please.”

The Forgiver looked down with such sadness that I thought he’d reach out and stroke old Amo’s head like he did with Widow Tasset. But Amo was sunk too low.

The Forgiver said, “Is it enough?” and I knew it wasn’t.

Amo held up his hands, “Take my hands! Take my arms and my legs and my life but please, please forgive me!” Amo lay in a heap and wept by the wheels.

“I’m sorry,” said the Forgiver, and he withdrew inside the carriage.

Old Amo stayed there for a long time. Phillipa and her husband helped Amo get up and take his bag away, though Amo kept waving that he didn’t want the bag.

There was still a sizable crowd of onlookers but there were only a handful of us left in the square who hadn’t been forgiven. It seemed like folks should be reacting to all the new things they knew about each other, the bad things, but I only saw kind smiles and nods. I was about to take my turn when we saw Lady Marl’s carriage coming back on the road. She got out and this time she had two footmen with her who lugged a heavy travel chest up to the Forgiver’s carriage. Lady Marl looked like she had been crying and she had wiped almost all the powder off her face. She wasn’t wearing any jewelry anymore.

“This is half my wealth,” said Lady Marl, “Almost everything that is not tied up in land. I want to be forgiven.”

“Is it enough?” asked the Forgiver.

Lady Marl kept her composure and put her nose in the air. She said, “I also promise to visit the widows and orphans of my property every week and to take better care of the poor for the rest of my days.”

“Of what would you be forgiven?”

Lady Marl’s lip trembled again but she kept her face up and her eyes on the Forgiver.

“I committed adultery and bore a child that was not my husband’s.”

The crowd exploded into whispers. Years ago, Lord Marl’s youngest son had been sent away to a boarding school on another continent. Since then, Lord Marl had spent most of his time in the city and everyone had assumed there had been some terrible quarrel between the whole family.

We all waited to see if it was enough. I hoped it was. Lady Marl looked noble and ready to accept whatever came. In that moment I was proud to have her as my Lady.

“It is enough,” said the Forgiver. His hand came out and touched Lady Marl on the forehead. The hard expression melted out of her brow. When the Forgiver took his hand back and left the red print she looked ten years younger.

“Thank you,” she said and she bobbed a curtsy like a little girl before leaving.

“I didn’t know we could pay in promises,” I heard someone grumble in the crowd.

“Would a promise have been enough for you?” asked the clear voice of the Forgiver.

Nobody answered.

I didn’t suppose there was any use in putting it off and I didn’t want the Forgiver to leave without having my own try.

I walked up to the Forgiver’s window and suddenly worried that my money wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to give up my shoes and in any case I thought that’d make mother upset with me. Then I’d have to go get forgiven all over again.

The Forgiver smiled at me kindly and I noticed for the first time that his eyes had no irises. They were all black pupil with barely any whites. It was dark inside the carriage.

“What would you give to be forgiven?”

I held up my two coins.

“Is it enough?”

“I think so.”


“I mean, yes it is.”

The Forgiver took my coins and his hand brushed mine. His skin was hot and dry.

“Of what would you be forgiven?”

I shrugged. “Hitting other kids when I don’t get my way. Giving my mama grief and hiding when I should be doing chores. Pinching dough.” I tried to think of anything else. “I kicked a cat once cause it scratched me.”

The Forgiver’s dark eyes sparkled and he smiled. He reached out his hand and pressed his thumb into my forehead.

There was a sensation that was not quite pain. Like getting into a hot bath that stung for an instant before it soothed. I looked up to see that the Forgiver’s eyes had gone all black. It was his whole face, glossy and black and sparkling like his eyes. The carriage, the village, the world was all black and shining. I rushed toward a distant twinkle, drawn by a pressure in my forehead like I was a hooked fish. Only it didn’t hurt. Everything in the universe passed through and around me and I felt like a small, small part of something big and complete and I wanted to be the most perfect little piece I could be.

I opened my eyes and returned to my body with the embers of eternity still hot on my skin. I took a deep breath as the Forgiver withdrew his hand and smiled at me once more. I thanked him and ran home to be with my parents.

The red marks on our foreheads faded within a few days. A cynic might say that the good feelings and better behavior of our village lasted as long as the thumbprints did, but that’s not true. There were a few permanent changes. Widow Tasset only swept the church steps once a week now. Lady Marl kept her promise and she could be seen traveling around the village or out to farms every day. People were always happy to see her and she was happy to see them. Big Larish died that winter. Rumor had it he hardly ever spoke anymore and one day he just lay down and never got back up. Old Amo disappeared after his failed confession and no one ever saw him again.

I really did try to quit hitting other kids but sometimes I couldn’t help myself when they just plain deserved it. I did try to be better though. We never really stopped talking about the Forgiver’s visit.

I haven’t seen the Forgiver since that day in my village eight years ago. I’m in the city now and I’ve been here for a few months, looking for work and finding something like it.

Now the Forgiver’s carriage is stopped by a fountain, in a proper city square this time. It’s drawn by two matching black stallions and the carriage itself is gilded and in good repair. There’s a couple steps to get up to the window so it’s like getting onto a little stage. It’s the same Forgiver, though. From where I am in the line, I can just see into the carriage and there is no mistaking that long nose and those curling eyebrows. The same long fingers reach out to grant relief.

I’ve got a pocketful of coins and though it seems like a lot of money I don’t really want it, knowing where it came from. I probably need to ask forgiveness for that too. I’m going to give him all of it. Everything I have but the clothes on my back. I’ll give him my shoes if the money isn’t enough.

I left Marsi back in our village. I should have married her but I got scared and ran away. I just don’t want to be like Kebba and Jeb. I don’t want dirty-faced children I can’t feed.

The line moves up and I shift with it. There’s a big crowd of people and it’s hard to tell who is in line and who is just watching. There’s a little room around the wagon for people to stumble away with red marks on their heads and smiles on their faces.

I start thinking about what I’m going to do after I’m forgiven. I decide to go back to Marsi and ask for her forgiveness too. If I travel hard, maybe catch a ride in a wagon for part of the way, I should be able to get home just before the thumbprint fades.

• • •