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The Sin Hypothesis
    by E.A. Lustig
The Sin Hypothesis
Artwork by Scott Altmann

She had breasts, like a grown woman's, poking up under a smart tweed jacket. A pair of brown pumps on her feet -- the kind I was supposedly too young to wear, and stockings instead of anklets. Mother had called her a poor little orphaned refugee.

But the girl who arrived on the 4:15 from Mobile looked like no such thing.

Karin stood erect as a soldier on the deserted platform, her bags in a neat stack beside her. Reverend Harden, who'd fetched her up from Argentina, sat on a bench in the shade sound asleep.

The train had come early that spring day in 1950.

Mother rushed toward her, arms wide, smiling like Christmas.

Karin threw out her hand to be shaken. Mother swooped her arms down, grasped the little hand in the pink kid glove, and stroked it like a baseball. I was pushing Daddy in the wheelchair, so by the time we got close Mother was already telling Karin how happy we all were to have her with us, saying each word like she was picking it off a tree.

"You do not have to speak slowly Mrs. Milgrim. I am fluent in four languages. My English is quite good I have been told."

Mother's smile froze. Karin's English was good, but her accent was sharp as cat's teeth.

The people of LaGrange pronounced her "a lovely girl. And so well mannered!" It probably helped that she rarely spoke. I often heard her talking though -- in the garden, behind the tool shed, late at night whispering in her bed -- practicing words, trying to sound like us. In time, the accent faded. The bite in her tone of voice, however, was as permanent as those big bosoms that had no business on a thirteen-year-old child.

I was dazzled by her. She called me Elena instead of Ellie. She'd lived all over Europe -- and in New York City for a while before her parents took her to Argentina where they lived in a big house with six servants, including a seamstress who made her dozens of beautiful dresses. Karin said that she needed a large wardrobe because of the many social engagements girls of her class attended.

"Is that how refugees live in Argentina?" I asked.

"Refugees! We were most certainly not refugees. My family was not forced to leave Germany. We left our home because it had become a place that was no longer Germany. It was . . . ruined."

Karin was smart. But in spite of her private schooling, tutors, and all her travels, that girl was pig ignorant when it came to church. And during those first months, Reverend Harden exhibited us at every church in four counties, parading us around like prize livestock.

Daddy came with us a time or two, but he hated being wheeled down front and introduced as a hero, so he quit. He hadn't objected when Mother decided to take in a war orphan; didn't care one way or the other. After he came home from the war, Daddy had got to where he could take or leave most anything -- except being pitied. He liked Karin as much as he liked anyone.

Mother, on the other hand, sparkled in church, relished every minute. Not because of the attention, or the praise for being such a splendid example of Christian charity. No, Mama had the true spirit deep in her heart. Being kind and charitable came naturally to her. Trying to truly love Karin was hard.

After church, Karin always had questions. She saved them up until we were alone and then fired them off one after another -- why don't you use real wine? why not simply call it communion? how do you know you are forgiven? are there not some things that can never be forgiven? why do you sing so many songs about blood? She was relentless.

"Hells bells, Karin! Didn't your parents teach you anything about Jesus? Didn't you ever go to Sunday school?" I asked once when I'd had enough.

"Of course. In Germany, when I was little my grandmother took me to church. I was very young. But it was different . . ."


"I mean . . . I do not remember my grandmother very well, or going to such a place. I only know that she took me," she said, so ending the conversation.

Karin preferred to ask the questions.

Between all the preaching she heard, and my rudimentary instruction, Karin became a pretty good imitation of a Baptist.

And then she saw her first baptizing. She was amazed to discover there was a pool under the choir stand. Her eyes widened as she watched the folks in white robes march in and, one by one, step into the pool, speak the words, and let Reverend Harden lay them back under the water. Later, Karin had but one question for me.

"If their sins are washed away in the water, where do the sins go?"

I had no answer. I wasn't sure I even understood the question. But that night, and for some time to come, we went round and round about it. I said that sins weren't like tea stains. They don't actually get washed away by the water. I tried to explain it every way I knew how.

"But the evil from the sins -- the evil must go into the water."

"I don't know one thing about evil," I said between yawns.

Karin was still talking when I drifted off to sleep. "It is not fair," she was saying. "It's not right . . ."

From that day on, Karin became a student of sin the way old Otto Higgins studied his birds -- by watching. She was particularly interested in the difference between folks' Sunday manners and the way they acted the rest of the time. She had a little notebook where she kept track of those she referred to as her "sinners." Occasionally she asked me to spell a name or explain how this one was kin to that one, or tell her everything I knew about someone.

To be fair, Karin's obsession and her constant scribbling in those notebooks probably kept her mind from moldering. School bored her, though she never missed a day and made straight A's. The other girls thought her snooty, and the boys felt -- and acted -- like morons whenever she was around. Either she didn't notice, or didn't care that she received no invitations to weenie roasts or birthday parties. But I noticed, and it peeved me no end that Mother made me stay home for Karin's sake. Mother and Karin were not good company for each other. They usually passed their time together in silence.

Late one summer night, I caught her slipping out our bedroom window.

"I must check on my sinners," she said. "I cannot get a complete understanding unless I observe them at night when they think no one is watching."

I told her that was rude. And also that she was nuts. She climbed back inside and sat at the foot of my bed. While she explained that she was doing "science," and not aimless snooping, I realized that she had perfected her spying to such a high degree that she could watch and hear the nocturnal doings inside almost any house in town. She knew every bent or missing Venetian blind slat, every torn curtain, and which windows were routinely left open at night.

I told myself I was only going along to keep her out of trouble. But it was the prospect of adventure -- and danger -- that attracted me. On most of those mosquito ridden nights, we didn't see a thing out of the ordinary and heard only occasional snatches of dull conversations or silly arguments about money, the carpet, the kids, what so-and-so should have said or done. None of which was worth getting all bit up over. For me, these outings turned out to be about as fascinating as shelling a mess of peas. So after a while, I quit tagging along.

There were, however, two "cases" that interested me. The first concerned Reverend Harden's nephew, Calvin, who'd chased after -- and bedded -- most of the young war widows in the vicinity. Even more impressive was that he'd somehow managed to keep these goings-on secret. There wasn't a breath of gossip about him or the widows. Those poor girls didn't even know about each other. Pretty amazing, I thought.

The second case involved Summer Marshburn -- universally considered "the prettiest, sweetest girl at LaGrange High." It was worth a few bug bites to catch her stealing money from her grandmother's dresser drawer.

One steamy August afternoon, Karin asked Mother to excuse me from my chores so that we could go hiking. Mother offered to pack us a basket.

"That is very kind, Mrs. Milgrim," Karin said with customary formality. "But I have already prepared a basket for us."

We followed the road out of town, and then she turned off onto a cow path that, as far as I knew, led nowhere. "There is something you will want to see," she said as she hurried me along.

"About Calvin Harden?"

"No. It's the Mexican pickers."

I stopped walking. "Mexican pickers? Who cares about what they do!"

"No, no. You don't understand. Come, we must be swift. The pickers at the Marshburn farm are leav--"

"So," I said. "Summer Marshburn's stealing money from Mexicans now."

"Please, we must go quickly."

We trotted down Rose Dairy Road until we reached Lila's Woods where we wove through the trees like Maypole dancers. Karin knew exactly how to get up to the Marshburn place without being seen, and where to hide when we got there. Not far from a cluster of concrete shacks where Mr. Marshburn housed his migrant help, we hunkered down in the ruins of an ancient log cabin that sat under a dense thicket.

The Mexican women, some with babies strapped to their backs and children clutching their skirts, were climbing into the back of the first in a line of four rickety pickup trucks. From where we were, we could see and hear very well.

"The field is picked," Karin whispered. "This group has picked all the peaches at the Roberson's and Harden's. They've picked at McCall's and Foust. These Mexicans should collect $3,860. But watch . . ."

Marshburn handed the foreman an envelope. The foreman counted the money then started shouting in Spanish. Marshburn drummed his fingers on the pistol stuck in his belt, but the foreman kept right on shouting.

"Aw hell. Take your money and get gone," Marshburn said. Mr. Roberson was standing beside him with a rifle slung across his back. The workers were slowly and quietly climbing into the back of the trucks. Mr. Foust leaned on the hood of the lead truck, pealing a peach. That truck was already filled with most of the women and children and Foust's big knife glinted in the sunlight.

One of the Mexicans dashed toward the truck's cab, but Foust swatted him away with the back of his hand.

"Don't," he said. His face had the ugliest expression I'd ever seen on a human being.

"You boys never take into account how much it costs to feed you people," Marshburn said. "Your women and young'uns there are the one's ate up your money. So you all best just take this here and go on now. The peaches in Browther County are waiting."

The foreman clenched his jaw, tears welled up in the thick folds under his dark eyes, his hands balled into white-knuckled fists. But he didn't move. Foust grunted and handed the peach he'd been pealing up to one of the children whose arms were dangling between the side slats.

The foreman started to walk away, then suddenly turned around. He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and waved it at Marshburn. He started shouting again, but this time five or six Mexicans had gathered only a few paces behind him, cautiously backing him up.

Karin began to tremble. I threw my arms around her but she wouldn't stop.

"The Mexican has hesitated and now he threatens . . . They know he will make trouble," she said in a voice that shook like a beehive. "They are going to do something."

"Like what?"

"Something bad . . . I think. Very bad." Her trembling ceased as suddenly as it had started.

Karin's abrupt calm frightened me. I couldn't catch my breath. "Why'd you bring me here when you knew there was going to be trouble! When you knew --"

"I did not know. Not surely," she said. Her voice was now flat, her face expressionless. Her eyes were not focused on any one person or object but seemed rather to be taking in the whole of the scene before us.

"I have only begun to study evil, you see," she continued listlessly. "Big evil is easy to detect, and all people like to point fingers at each other. But there are also small evils -- secret and terrible, dreadful private acts that will never be discovered. So there can be no retribution, no punishment, no justice. No . . . salvation."

Her hands were icy, but steady. "I swear on my soul," she said, her voice hollow, bereft of emotion. "I swear that some day I will understand how to--"

"Stop," I said, giving her a good hard pinch. "I don't know what you're talking about. But we've got to get out of here. Karin, listen to me!"

Just then, Roberson fired his rifle over the heads of the women and children. The sleeping babies began to cry. And the children, who had been chattering, instantly fell silent. The women pulled them away from the slats, gathered them to the center of the truck bed, and crouched over them.

The farmers and the Mexicans standing near the foreman stood still as a photograph, like they'd be frozen that way forever. Not a leaf fluttered, not a bird flew, not a breath was taken for the longest moment in the history of the world.

Then, in one motion, Marshburn shot the foreman square in the chest, snatched up the money envelope and shoved it into the hands of the nearest Mexican. A couple of pickers scrambled forward, reaching out for the dead man. But Foust shooed them away with a wave of his knife. Marshburn stooped down, pulled the paper from the foreman's dead grasp, and crushed it in his fist.

"We gotta get out of --"

"Not yet," Karin said.

The trucks roared off, spinning a trail of dust all the way to Browther County.

Karin slumped against a wall of slick, moss-covered logs. I wanted to crawl under a pine nut and die.

Hot tears dropped off my nose. I sucked air as though I were about to be pulled irretrievably into the sea. I buried my head in my arms.

I didn't see them drag off the dead man. By the time I raised up and wiped my eyes enough to see straight, the body had vanished and Foust was sitting on a banged up cane-bottom chair in the shade of a chinaberry tree, calmly working his nails with his big knife.

Karin was not beside me. She had slipped out of our hiding place while I was having my fit. I thought she'd left to go pee or throw up -- which I was going to do as soon as we got outta there.

Marshburn strolled back from the woods, set his shovel down, then dragged another old chair out of one of the shacks.

"Hot work," he said. "You know, in a way, I'm sorry to see that bunch go. A couple of those tamales looked almost white." Marshburn's broad smile uncovered an unpleasant jumble of tiny yellow teeth. "And brother, they can't resist me. I caught me one of them young ones the other night, and she . . ."

I didn't want to hear or see any more. I curled up with my arms wrapped around my head, and stayed that way until I felt Karin snuggle in beside me.

Roberson was walking down from the house swinging a jug in one of his long arms.

"You boys do with a swig of this here?"

Foust and Marshburn applauded.

"I want to go now," I said.

"Not yet. I need you to see what will happen now. You are my witness. Wipe your eyes and watch. They are going to drink it any minute."

I balled up my hand and pounded Karin's arm. "Drink what? What did you put in that jug? What did you do?"

She pointed her finger at the men.

"Poison?" I said, still pounding on her. "You put poison --"

"No," she said. "Elena, stop hitting me and watch."

"I have to warn them!" I whispered.

"Please. There is no poison in the whiskey. You must know I would not do such a thing."

The men passed the bottle, taking swigs and howling with pleasure after each swallow. There was nothing about their behavior to suggest they'd ever done anything worse than share illegal moonshine in a dry county. They looked so ordinary. Drunk, but ordinary.

And then their good-natured whooping began to change. Their voices grew ragged, irritated, growl-like. They twitched. Foust hurled the empty jug against a concrete wall.

"Watch," Karin said.

Marshburn's little teeth seemed to swell up as they lengthened, extending sharply downward from the crack of his mouth, the canines surpassing until they reached his chest where they curled like tusks. Foust's teeth were growing as well.

"What the hell --" Roberson cried as he reached up and felt the thick crop of bony spikes erupting from his brow and temples. They spun round and round, their arms flailing wildly. They stomped the ground until their shoes burst from the pressure of their now elephantine feet. They tore off their trousers, letting loose newly born black leathery tails. Soon they had rent all their clothing as though the cloth itself were painful. Marshburn and Roberson picked furiously at the oozing pustules that covered their swelling flesh. Foust grabbed his knife and whittled on his lengthening claws; then madly and carelessly tried to slash them away.

"Judas priest!" Foust screamed.

"We going crazy or what?"

"You see this crud? It's all over me!"

"It ain't real! It's a hallucin --"

"Sure as hell hurts like real!"

"Shit's eating me alive. I can't stand --"

"The creek," Marshburn shouted as he pointed the bloated tentacle that had been his arm. "The water -- cool water'll sober us up. These stinkin' sores is burning like fire."

The men hobbled away into the woods on misshapen, bleeding legs, heading for the creek.

We crawled from our hutch in the ruins and took off running. The air was thick and hazy hot. Everything looked like it had been soaked in melted butter. And though I ran as hard as I could, I didn't feel I was getting any closer to home.

I wanted to believe that as soon as I was home, I'd be all right. That what I'd seen that day -- the details of which appeared in my mind with greater and greater clarity -- would start to fade. I needed to believe all of it would dissolve like a dream. As soon as I was home . . .

It was late when we finally slowed down. Long shadows reached for us as we walked. I didn't realize how far out of our way we had gone or how tired I was until my legs flat gave out.

"I have to stop," I said. "I don't have enough spit to swallow. You got any water in that basket?"

Suddenly, Karin was laughing. She set the basket down then doubled over, shaking her head, trying to speak, waving her hands, laughing hard enough to hurt. She pointed at the basket and collapsed on the ground where she rolled back in the dirt and kicked her legs up into the air.

Her going off like that gave me the shivers. But it also made me feel like the world could get normal again. I plopped down in the grass beside the basket. It was heavier than I expected -- Karin had carried it the whole time. There were fourteen little pill bottles inside. Around each one was a band of adhesive tape on which had been inscribed a name and a date -- Tony Reynolds, 2 July 50; Mildred Foust, 25 June 50 . . .

"What's in these things? Pee?"

Karin righted herself on the ground beside me. "It is only water," she said, still struggling to recover her wits.

"What else's in them?" I said. "What did you put in them!"

"I told you. It is only water." She grabbed the basket out of my lap.

"Is that the stuff you put in that jug of whiskey?"

She nodded.

"Then it isn't ordinary water. You put some kind of vodoo Argentine junk in there. Something to make them go crazy like that. Or else you put germs in there and gave them a disease."

"Have you ever heard of such a disease?"

"How do I know what kind of diseases they have in Argentina or any other place you've been to?"

Karin was relaxed now, her old self. She sat tall, her back straight as the barrel of a rifle.

She plucked out a bottle and read the inscription. "This one I collected last Sunday in Creedmoor. You remember they baptized three teenagers . . . and Tammy Milford. It did not take me long to discover that Tammy had an interesting past. The ladies of the church talk, and so do the men -- in separate groups of course. No one takes any notice of me standing close by because they think I do not understand them.

"They suspected Tammy of various crimes. Trivial things -- fornication, drinking in bars, selling herself. Many of the men said she was not a normal woman, that she was unnatural. But men often say that about women they want but cannot have. None of these things are so terrible. Sins, perhaps. But not evil.

"There was, however, one crime which was much whispered about. When they spoke of it, they did it behind a hand, covering their mouths like this. They said: 'No one ever figured out what started the fire,' and 'They never found the baby,' 'Her folks were still in their bed, burned to bones, but not the baby,' 'She probably killed it so she'd have all the insurance for herself.' But one can never be certain that there is any truth in gossip.

"It happened sixteen years ago. Mrs. Simpson helped me find the newspaper stories in the library. You know she is losing her memories, so she did not recall many details. She remembered the fire and that there were many suspicions that the daughter had set the fire because she was tired of caring for her sick parents. Mrs. Simmons also told me there was a lot of insurance money and a missing baby."

"Why are you telling me this? What's it got to do with what happened . . . back there."

"Elena, this is Tammy Milford's bottle, it's where I put the water that washed away her sins. That is what I poured into the whiskey. Nothing else."

For a time my head ached so that I couldn't get my mind to think about what Karin had done, or why. Or how, for that matter.

Finally, my mind settled on one thought -- Karin had fourteen bottles of evil in a basket on her lap. I'd seen what the stuff could do. But she'd touched it, labeled it, carried it, poured it -- and hadn't been afraid.

"You didn't know what would happen, did you?" I said.

"I believed . . . I had reasoned it out for myself. I did not know exactly what would happen. Perhaps nothing would happen. It was an idea I had. About evil. About God. But now I am sure that there is science in these things. If God made the world, He also made science. Biology, geology, physics, mathematics -- the whole world works by its laws. And therefore," she said with a sigh, "He made chemistry too. But I could not test my theory on innocent people."

"But the Mexican -- you might have saved his life."

She looked at me, tilting her head. "And just how might I have done that? Who might I have told who would believe me? The other farmers? They all have orchards -- even Reverend Harden." She shook her head then stared into the basket.

"It would have ended the same. And too, it might have been worse -- more killing, perhaps the children hurt. People only believe terrible things happen when they see them. And then, of course, it is too late."

She looked into my eyes and took my hand. "Believe me, please, Elena. I did not know they would kill. I only knew they intended to cheat and that they had badly used some of the women."

Karin put Tammy's bottle back into the basket and closed the lid.

In silence, we walked through fruit-bare orchards, across fields and pastureland. The sun blinked between the branches of trees. The eastern horizon grew dim. Only when we reached the summit of the blacktop road that wound down into town did we sit and rest again.

We gazed down at the houses clustered in the shallow valley below and watched their tiny lights cut on as a blanket of darkness was drawn slowly over the town.

"It looks like a doll town, doesn't it," I said.

Karin said nothing. She was far away, farther than LaGrange, farther than New York or Argentina, perhaps as far as Germany. She didn't notice the feasting mosquitoes or the suddenly chilling breeze.

"My parents were murdered, you see," she said finally.

"I didn't know that. I thought they died in the war."

"No. After the war. It was best to let people think they died in the war. That is what I was told."

"I'm sorry that your --"

"They were shot down in the street in front of our house. They died without having their sins washed away." Karin flicked away a tear and took a deep breath. "My father's soul was black with sins, you see. Black as any demon. And now he burns in hell. My mother knew what he did at the camp. She knew all of it, yet she comforted him, telling him it was his duty, this difficult work. She too is in hell. And there they shall remain . . . forever."

"But God forgives -- Jesus forgives everything," I said.

"No," she said, shaking her head, flinging tears on me.

"They should be in hell. It is right. There are some things that ought not be forgiven. Not ever. It is wrong that true evil is so easily washed away. Or so easily hidden. It is God's mistake."

"God doesn't make mistakes," I said. But she didn't hear me; she wasn't really talking to me anyway.

"Evil should look like what it is," she continued. "Like the men back there who will soon become themselves again and go on doing ordinary things every day with no sign of what they did this day.

"My parents were very beautiful and, of course, charming. But still, ordinary people. Had they been ugly or coarse or mean, had they beaten our servants or behaved like barbarians, or run through the streets like madmen, then everyone would have seen what they were. And my parents might have realized what they were doing . . . before it was too late."

Stars were filling the sky. All the houses were lit up inside, all the streetlights on. Mother would be angry with me. She'd have sharp words with me while she slathered us with Calamine lotion. But Karin wasn't ready to go back.

"What are you going to do with that stuff?" I said, nodding at the basket in her lap.

She hugged the basket to her chest. "What do you think I should do?"

"Pour it all out and throw the bottles away. We'll burn the basket until there's nothing left but ashes."

"Perhaps that would be best, if you think so," she said.

"I think we should get the law. We should tell the sheriff."

Karin shook her head. "You don't understand." Her shoulders were tight. She took deep breaths.

"Oh, my poor Elena," she said at last. "Tell me who is it that makes justice here."

"What do you mean?"

"Who decides which people are to be arrested?" she said patiently. "Think now."

I did think. And slowly I realized that Marshburn, Foust, and Roberson would never be arrested, never go to jail, never stand trial. My throat squeezed up and my head throbbed. Marshburn was the Sheriff's cousin. Foust was on the town council. Roberson played cards with everybody.

"The law is the law," I said feebly. "And if it isn't . . . then it ought to be."

"I agree," she said.

I never knew what she did with the basket or its contents. I never saw it again. We told no one about the murder. We never spoke about these things or that day again.

Foust, Roberson, and Marshburn wandered into town five days later. They were naked, dirty, and pretty banged up. Folks assumed they'd got hold of a bad batch of moonshine and it had messed them up so that they didn't know where they were. After Doctor Fred patched them up, they looked like their regular selves.

But those men had changed. An indelible, unmistakable cast of confusion remained on their faces, and everyone noticed that after they returned, they rarely looked folks in the eye. Karin dutifully recorded these events in her notebook without comment.

She finished high school two years ahead of me and left LaGrange for Mount Holyoke College. I'd known for some time that she did not intend to return. She had inherited a great deal of money, which made it possible for her to pursue her studies without pause. But she kept in touch with us over the years as she bounced from one university to another, gathering post-graduate degrees like daisies.

My early letters were filled with gossip about the home folks she'd known. When I wrote that I had decided to study law, she responded with a postcard. It had but one word on it: "Brava!"

In time, her letters came less frequently, and I answered them after months rather than weeks. By the time I was admitted to the bar, our correspondence had stopped altogether. Her phone call on Christmas Eve 1971 was the last. She seemed content with her life. But she sounded as driven as ever. It was an awkward conversation and we ended it with a hasty exchange of pleasantries.

My occasional attempts to reconnect went unanswered. She lived in her lab. But then, what did we really have to talk about? It was enough for both of us to know that the other was alive and in pursuit of her own happiness.

I was a young widow with two teenage boys when I was appointed to the bench. After nearly four decades as a state court of appeals judge, I was looking forward to a long, pleasant retirement spent playing with my grandchildren and digging in my garden. But those joys didn't wear well for me. I suppose, in retrospect, I was as driven as ever Karin was.

I accepted an urgent request from the United Nations to join the World Court. I was assigned to the 12th Tribunal in Kampala, Uganda. The speed with which these events occurred was dizzying. The Court was soon forced to hold round-the-clock hearings to accommodate the rapidly growing numbers of desperate people who were surrendering to UN authorities. The vast majority of them insisting they were guilty of "crimes against humanity."

A few of these self-confessed criminals were so old that their names and crimes had been long forgotten and most evidence and documentation buried among the dust-covered boxes of moldering files in storerooms at The Hague.

In Kampala, I presided over the trials of frightened, wretched men -- many with bony growths on their misshapen, ulcer-ridden heads, and thick, leathery tails packed uncomfortably into their trousers. And others who were terrified that they too would succumb to the same mysterious and untreatable affliction.

I dropped Karin a post-card the other day. It had but one word on it: "Brava!"

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