Tithing, by Sean Dolan
Updated: Aug 24, 2021
The Collector knocks on our door in the middle of the night, beating on the cherrywood to the rhythm of an old incantation. We awake, startled. We are not expecting any nocturnal visitors. We arise from our slumber, walking past the bedrooms of our sleeping children. Greta, the eldest, doesn’t make a sound. She likes to dream of apple orchards and mango
trees, always telling us the following morning of the peaceful places she visited the night before. Simon, our only living boy, rustles in the sheets, restless and agitated. He likes to dream of dragons and duels and has the imagination of a great artist. Olive, our youngest, dreams of nothing at all. She is only four years old, too young to understand the ways in which the world works, how far others will go just to watch her bleed. One day, we will tell her of the siblings she never knew. We will tell her about Thomas and his green eyes, Adeline and her soft, supple smiles. We will show her the photograph of Thomas holding her as a newborn, how he swung her side to side, and how we watched on, suspended in time, one of those rare moments where the past and future do not exist.
Our children will never understand this, but we love them more than we ever thought we could love something. We love them so much we wish they were never born. We creep downstairs, trying our hardest not to accentuate the creaks in the old wooden floorboards. We open the door. At first, the Collector doesn’t say anything, like he is waiting to be addressed. His silence tells us we should have been more prepared for his arrival.
“Would you like to come in?” we ask. He enters without speaking, flicking his cigarette onto the porch swing. The Collector is quite handsome. He wears a slim fit suit the color of oat bread, a pork pie hat the color of charcoal. He smells of pine needles and oak. Often, when we are more prepared for his visit, we despise him for all of the things he has taken from us. But tonight, when he arrives unplanned, when he places his palms on our shoulders before taking a seat at the dining room table, deep down in the pits of our hungry stomachs, we feel good. We do not understand why.
“Coffee or tea?” we ask him, forcing a smile.
“Neither,” he says. “I think we should get right down to business.” The Collector has not informed us of any business. There is usually a pamphlet or a town meeting or at least a phone call.
“Do you know why I’m here?” We shake our heads.
“Did we miss one of your letters?” The Collector chuckles, looks down at his expensive shoes.
“The September newsletter contained a very important announcement.” We have not yet read the newsletter.
“The tithing is two months early this year,” he continues. “We’re simply too low on stock to wait any longer.” It is not our turn to tithe. We thought we had at least another year.
“We understand it isn’t your turn, but we had to make some difficult decisions.” We are so afraid, but we nod our heads to signal our attentiveness.
“Everyone knows how hard of a sacrifice this will be. But, think of your community. Think about your brothers and sisters.” He glances over to the five photographs of our children, living and passed, spread out like Russian nesting dolls across the mantle above our fireplace. The candles in front of Thomas and Adeline’s pictures remain lit, two wispy flames smelling of lilac and lavender. When the house is silent and the night is still, we like to sit downstairs and listen to the sound the fires make, like the candles are a whisper underneath the weight of the room. Ever since their passing, their flames remain ignited. Their candles always burn.
“I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause,” he continues. He speaks as if the death of our children is a business transaction, something to be recorded. But we cannot dissent, for he could take more than one.
“You have until noon on Sunday. Meet at the chapel like always.” Before he leaves, the Collector walks over to the mantle and places his dirty hands on each of the five photographs, thumbing the corners of each frame, like he is remembering each of the ones we have lost, thinking of which one we will soon let go. We stand from our chairs, pretending to be polite.
“Choose wisely. It would be a shame to lose another good one.” He slams the front door closed before exiting our home, and we collapse into each other like crumbling pillars, the weight of our bodies no longer enough to keep each other standing.
In the morning, our children wake from their sleep, stretch out their little limbs, yawning. They walk downstairs together as they do every Saturday morning, invigorated by the promise of a hearty breakfast and endless hours of cartoons.
We do not tell them immediately. They devour pancakes, inhale their orange juice like they are consuming sugar for the first time. We do not know what to say, or when to say it, or how to let it leave our mouths. It may just destroy us.
They watch a television show about a dog named Butler who is always getting into shenanigans. They laugh together, uproariously, like they have never belonged to anyone or anything. When we think of which one to let go, when we reluctantly allow the thought to swim around in the back of our brain, our heart aches so much we feel it down to our bones. When the cartoon ends, they want to go to the park, but it is beginning to rain and we have yet to tell them the news.
“Come, children,” we say. “Sit down with us.” They take a seat one at a time, smiles slowly dissipating from their youthful faces.
“What’s wrong?” Simon asks. It is impossible to say, and when we think of how short everything lasts, we begin to cry.
“Remember how Thomas and Adeline had to go far, far away?” we say. Greta sees through our white lie. Simon nods his head. Olive is playing with her fingernails, humming a song she heard on the television. The lump in our throat feels like a boulder.
Before we are able to utter another word, Greta looks into our eyes. She is old enough to understand there is no other option. She does not cry, only holds her brother’s hand tightly as we explain to him the abridged version of what the tithing will mean for our family. He does not understand, but his sister holds him, tells him she won’t be gone very long. He begins to cry, panicked.
Simon tells us he is scared, and even if Greta is too brave to admit it, and Olive too young to put the feeling into words, they are sharing in each other’s suffering. All we want is to make them feel better, to let them know everything will be okay. But we cannot tell them this, no matter how hard we try. At first, we are not sure who it breaks more, but when we see their drooping eyes, when we watch Greta wipe the steady stream of tears from her brother’s cheeks, our minds are made up.
We cannot save them. We can only hug their tired bodies, listen to the rhythm of their heartbeats, teaching our children what it means to hold, how it feels to be held.
Sunday morning comes, uninvited. It is sunny and cool, a bright October morning. We make a pot of coffee and stand together in silence, waiting for our children to descend downstairs. We make a breakfast fit for kings and queens, but no one is hungry. Simon doesn’t say a word. Olive plays with her pancakes, confused. Greta is still upstairs, braiding her hair, listening to classical music. She is wickedly wise for her age, old enough to understand this will be her last living day, not quite old enough to understand the toll it will take on her family. She wears makeup for the first time, and when we sneak up the stairs to watch her staring into the mirror, face holding back fear, all we want to do is die.
We walk to the chapel, Greta leading the way. She moves with purpose, her hands held together underneath the small of her back. We have so much love to give. One day, they will take Simon and Olive, too. When we are left alone, childless, we are not quite sure where the love will go, where to place it. We will have no one left to share it with.
We arrive at the chapel, an old wooden building with two dozen pews on either side of the narrow aisle. Inside, it is already full, the collective of townspeople—our neighbors and fellow citizens—anxious for this year’s makeshift tithing. There are usually four children offered. This year, there are six, each one of the other sacrificed younger than Greta. An old man we have never seen before is playing piano in the corner of the chapel. We do not recognize the song.
When everyone settles in, the Collector approaches the podium. For us and everyone else here, on this particular day of the year, he is more infinite than God. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.” Everyone chants good morning in return, but we dare not say a word. Their postures are perfect while we are slightly slouched, our neck and shoulders sore from a night of restless slumber.
“Thank you all for being here today,” he continues. “I know I may have caught some of you by surprise, but we couldn’t afford to wait any longer. We had to act fast.” One of the mothers on the opposite side of the aisle is barely able to breathe in between frantic bouts of tears. The children behind us are antsy, too young to care about the ceremony. The father to our left is motionless.
Simon, unsettled, whispers into our ear. “When will this be over?”
“Soon, my love. Soon,” we say, and the pit in our stomach is so heavy it could consume us.
“This year, six families will be generous enough to offer up a sacrifice for our community, so that we may be strong and healthy. So that we may be prosperous. Today is about thanking them, about giving back and moving ahead.”
Everyone nods their heads, forgetting they too will soon offer up their own children. When The Collector finishes his opening remarks, we applaud, but it does not feel like our choice, our hands creating movements we do not understand, motions we do not consent to.
The ceremony begins, as it always does, with an animal. This year, the Collector chooses a chicken, a mother hen from his twelve-acre farm on the outskirts of town. We will not forget the way she whimpers, how she squeals when he slits her throat open, droplets of blood falling from her squirming body onto the altar carpet, stained until next year’s tithing. When her carcasses are cleaned, her broken bones discarded into a dumpster behind the chapel, the pianist plays again. The ritual ensues.
The Collector calls each child by their name, one at a time. Charlie. Marcus. Lucy. When he reaches Greta, we despise the way it exits his mouth. It sounds like it doesn’t belong. It sounds as if he is saying something forbidden.
We stand, together, holding each of Greta’s hands, our palms soaked in sweat. The pianist has transitioned to a minor key. When we walk toward the altar, it feels the way it does in a dream, our movements heavy and stilted, like we are walking through water. Greta’s hands squeeze tighter. She does not shed a single tear.
When our feet reach the altar steps, our toes touching the carpeted stone, Greta slips through the cracks of our fingers, turning to wrap her arms around us. We want to tell her how much we love her, how we would take one thousand knives to the stomach if it meant she could live one more day. But we aren’t able to say anything, and she wiggles from our embrace to join the other children, their hands now locked together in a straight line behind the Collector.
He starts to say something, but we do not listen. We cannot even look him in the eyes. We stare at the painting hanging above our daughter, Mother Mary holding Jesus as he bleeds, arms wrapped around his battered chest, her eyes sunken and shadowed, how she cannot look at his brittle body, how all of the angels watch as a mother feels her son’s final breaths.
Sean Dolan is a fiction writer from Saint Louis, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Opiate and elsewhere. He is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at Western Washington University where he teaches courses in English composition and is at work on his first collection of stories. You can find him on twitter @SyannDoelann.
Reporter photographic and visual artist Guilherme Bergamini is from Brazil and graduated with a degree in Journalism. For more than two decades, he has developed projects with photography and the various narrative possibilities that art offers. The works of the artist dialogue between memory and social political criticism. He believes in photography as the aesthetic potential and transforming agent of society. Awarded in national and international competitions, Bergamini has participated in collective exhibitions in 40 countries. See more art at guilhermebergamini.com.