The Tithe

by Frederick Gero Heimbach

Sister pushed aside the cloth at the entrance of the mud hut. The sun’s slanting rays lit dust particles sent swirling by her bold entrance.

“The God sees,” she recited, believing he did. Lying on a pallet in the dirt was the old woman. Visible were the sum of the woman’s possessions: a fire pot, a three-legged stool, a rough-hewn pantry. The woman’s piety had been guaranteed by neighbors who had summoned Sister, but the woman lacked even a simple home shrine.

Wretched poverty. Wretched ignorance. Wretched planet.

The old woman turned her head. “I am called Gara, a pilgrim.” The greeting was formulaic. Sister could guess what would come next. “I made a Temple vow. It remains unfulfilled, and I am dying. I need you to fulfill the duty of your order.”

She needed a proxy.

Sister’s heart twitched. She was certain her face expressed no reproach. Indeed, among a complex tangle of emotions including dread, Sister felt pride and even a kind of relief. Still, Gara glanced away and whispered, “I’m sorry.”

“What does the contract—” began Sister, but Gara was already pointing with one trembling finger to the pantry. Sister, her own hands steady, opened the pantry’s doors. There, on a shelf next to a crock of flour and an earthen jar of oil, lay a folded sheet of fine, off-world papyrus. A seal of black wax, with a layer of dust obscuring its shine, had been applied to one corner.

Sister lifted the parchment. It was dated forty years prior. The desiccated document broke apart as she attempted to read it all. Sister glanced through the pieces scattering like leaves of the trees of her fertile home world. She found the relevant clause.

Fingers. All ten.

This was what Sister had trained for and she did not show—believed she did not show—any hint of fear. But now that the act was no longer hypothetical, it grew in her imagination, becoming terrible.

“Fingers. All ten.” Sister’s heart began to race as she said it. She breathed deeply as she had been trained, drawing from her stores of fortitude.

Seeking a way out, she read the contract in full. She saw something.

“The offering also includes a gift of money.”

“I have it. There, in the purse behind the jug. I saved over the years. It’s all there.”

Sister found the pouch of leather in the dark corner of the shelf. Gently she pulled apart the puckered opening of the stiff leather. She poured out the contents onto the pantry’s work surface. She counted the many coins of minimal value.

“It’s all there,” Gara insisted. She expected Sister to doubt her ability to save so much.

The interruption made Sister lose count. Inwardly she recited a line from the litany of equanimity. She said, “I am required to be sure.”

“Yes, Sister,” Gara said. The hut fell silent as Sister recounted.

Sister swept the money back into the purse. “It is the full amount. Your vow will be fulfilled.” Sister forced a smile, showing her admiration for the old woman—and amazement that the hoard had never been stolen.

Sister put the purse in a hidden pocket of her habit. She returned to the parchment. She scooped up the fragments roughly, and sure enough, the pieces crumbled.

“Your contract is ruined,” Sister said, then hastened to add, “but I can draw you up a new copy. Perfectly legal.” Gara frowned. Sister continued, “can you sign your name?”

“No,” Gara replied, ashamed and afraid. Having seen Gara’s mark on the old contract, Sister had known the answer.

“No matter. Make your mark and I’ll counter-sign,” Sister said. The alacrity with which she replied was meant to reassure Gara, but there was more behind it. Sister was the only temple representative within two days’ journey, and no lay person had the authority to counter-sign, even if any had learned their letters. Sister, a proxy, and therefore an implicit party to the contract, would normally need a second witness, but her isolation freed her from that responsibility. And so a dishonest plan entered her mind.

No, she would not call it a plan; she would call it a possibility.

Sister sat down and removed the cylindrical carton she wore on her back. She pulled from it one blank parchment sheet, a bottle of Temple ink and a fine scripting brush, objects of refinement and order.

Sister felt a pity for the old woman, or really, for the foolish girl she must once have been. “Your vow is extravagant.”

Why did she choose fingers? What madness!

Sister pushed the thought away.

“I was in love,” said Gara, sounding hopeless. “A vow seemed the only way to get the man I wanted.”

Love. Of course.

“It worked. Sister—the old Sister, the one long before you—used my vow to obtain a Temple indulgence for us. My young man was Ubrin, you see, and I am Mervanta.”

Two social classes of no meaning to anyone outside this backwater planet. Local customs forbade them to marry—but the word of a Temple priest was more powerful than local customs.

“And you waited this long to fulfill the vow?” Sister’s question contained an unavoidable rebuke.

“We decided I would make pilgrimage once my first child was born. The fruit of the marriage. We would leave together, and not come back. But we never had children. Three years passed and then Makon—my husband—died in the mines. A cave-in. I had no money. My family offered no help. They had shunned—”

The old woman stopped abruptly to weep. She made no sound, but her weakened body shook.

When Gara got herself under control, she gasped, “But now it can’t wait. I’m dying. I’m so sorry.”

Sister knelt and placed her hand on the old woman’s head. She brushed back her thinning white hair and wiped away her tears with the wide sleeve of her habit.

Oh, you poor, desperate, foolish, ignorant, love-blinded girl! Temple priests regard your fastidious social customs as beneath contempt. You could have gotten the permission you sought for a fraction of the price!

Sister’s pity subsided little by little. Had it been self-pity, she would have driven it out with a pitchfork.

She placed the new parchment on the work surface of the pantry. She opened the bottle of ink with care and set it on the stool. Dipping her brush in the ink periodically, Sister wrote out the familiar clauses of the contract. She drew satisfaction in drawing the characters finer than they had appeared in the original document. Its words specified what, and how much, the offerant would present at the Temple.

Except they did not: one fateful bit of information, a number, Sister left blank. Her dishonest plan—best start calling it a plan, after all—required the contract’s number be left unwritten until Sister decided what to do.

Gara the illiterate would not notice the blank. No other person would witness the contract. Sister would not be found out.

Sister helped the old woman sit up. She laid the contract in the old woman’s lap. She dipped the brush in the bottle, wiped it nearly dry (Gara’s mark would need little ink) and held the brush out. When Gara hesitated, Sister wrapped her fingers around the brush.

Gara’s fingers drew two intersecting circles, the customary mark in this region. Gara’s fingers sealed their own fate.

Sister co-signed the new contract. The ink dried instantly in the arid heat. Sister rolled the parchment up and put it away.

“Are you well enough to go outside?” Sister said. “It’s best—”

“Yes,” Gara insisted. She understood there would be blood. In her weakened condition, the amputation might even kill her.

Sister half-carried Gara outside. She lowered the tottering woman down to her knees and placed her hands flat on the packed red earth. She arranged the ten fingers straight out. That way, the excruciating act would go easier for both of them.

“Please hold still,” Sister said.

She stood behind Gara, out of sight. She took from a pocket a great fine vowing cloth, with an opening for her head. It was pale dun and like new, never previously used on this impious planet. After today it would bear the stain of its purpose.

Sister draped the cloth over her habit. She unsheathed her vowing knife. It was the length of her forearm and inscribed with archaic runes.

Sister knew Gara was in terror and did not indulge in hesitation. She reached over Gara’s shoulder, spoke the word of the rite, and began cutting off Gara’s fingers.

Gara, lacking Sister’s discipline, would not hold still. Sister had to pin her hands to complete the vow. The last three fingers were a particular struggle. Gara’s screams boxed Sister’s ears. The rite made a terrible mess, and as expected, the old woman went into shock and died right there, a hero of the faith.


Sister had not been aboard a starship in two decades. Her flight was to be four weeks subjective, but the time was a relief. After the squalor she had endured her whole adult life, her eyes were soothed by the ship’s crisp lines and sterile surfaces. Sister found herself opening and closing the door to the stowing compartment in her cabin, purely to luxuriate in a hinge that did not whine and a door that closed with a gap too fine to see. True, her cabin was small; the Temple would not waste its wealth on an upgrade for the passage of a mere Sister. Still, the cabin compared favorably with Sister’s cell in every respect.

The flight also gave Sister access to rare luxuries—entertainments, flawlessly prepared meals, and sophisticated conversation. These luxuries distracted Sister from what lay ahead. She was glad even for the company of an under-priest whom she fell in with, a high-born youth who had finagled an assignment in his novice year to her “exotic” planet but who had been, in effect, a tourist. He was shallow and vain, certainly, with skin untouched by the sun, but at least he was not snobbish, and he chatted frequently with Sister, not put off by her disfigured face. He taught her a card game and did not resent her learning it well enough to beat him repeatedly. He had enough tact not to inquire too closely into her business at the Temple. The scars across his pale cheeks almost improved his amiable face: two faint lines of pink with optimistic, upward turns.

One morning, Sister slept late. Rushed and annoyed, she arrived at breakfast to find the under-priest speaking intently with another passenger, a priest of one of the older religions. The man had an alertness in the wise creases around his eyes that Sister did not like.

“We were just having the most interesting philosophical discussion,” the under-priest said, sounding more foolish than usual. The other priest, wearing a hat that looked like the box his hat had come in, nodded agreeably and gave his name as Nathaniel—but he wouldn’t look Sister in the face.

“You found an opportune moment to recruit a young, naïve novice of a hated religion to your own—”

“We don’t hate—” said the priest, leaning back and wiping his mouth.

“No, I suppose you don’t. Everything is about love for you and your kind. Love and forgiveness.”

Sister could see she was embarrassing the novice. She didn’t care.

“Yours is a religion of no discipline,” she said, pressing on. “No virtue. No sacrifice.”

“We believe the sacrifice has already been made.”

“You prove my point.”

“Well, as to that, there’s a long history—and, you know, some of us are called to celibacy, although—”

“Ah, celibacy.” Sister laughed bitterly. Pointing to her nose, she said, “What do you think you have to teach a woman with this face about celibacy?”

The priest, who had been avoiding it the whole conversation, did at that moment look full on at Sister’s disfigurement. Unable to bear it, or her cold smile, he glanced down, there to discover the shape of Sister’s breasts under her habit. Doubly ashamed, he looked to the side, fixing his eyes at last on her shoulder.

Whatever doubts Sister had fell away. In a burst of clarity, she saw how the years of her service, surrounded by mediocrities and lacking a spiritual exemplar, had eroded her youthful zeal. She felt it return now, like a loan repaid with interest. She leaned in for the kill.

“I would sacrifice everything? Would you?”


“Maybe. Maybe you would. But if you failed, your god would forgive you?”

“I would never presume—and yet, yes. Yes. I believe that.”

“And in moments of extreme testing, you somehow can forget that? No! No, you would never forget that. Facing some dreadful test—wouldn’t that belief, that foolish idea of God’s mercy, weaken you? Wouldn’t it?”

The youth had said nothing during this exchange, quietly appalled. Now he used the awkward, angry silence to thank the black-hatted priest and excuse himself. Sister glared at her enemy until he also left, departing by another passageway. She returned to her cabin, having eaten nothing, having achieved her goal of separating the two men, even if she had not done it with as much grace as she might have wished.

Sister looked in the mirror, a thing not normally available to her, a thing she would never have acquired even if the rules of her order had not forbidden it. She touched her nose, or rather, the ringed scars about her nostrils where her nose had been sliced off. When she had been the under-priest’s age, she had been proud of how much she had been willing to offer the God. A nose is more than decoration, however, and if she had known she would be assigned to a desert, breathing its dry dust, she would have chosen a merely cosmetic offering. If only she had sacrificed her ears instead! In that case, she would not have been like so many other Sisters who grew their hair to hide the ugliness. Sister would have tied her hair back for all the world to see!

Who had sacrificed like she had sacrificed? Who pleased the God, if not Sister?

Well, there was Gara, who despite long procrastination had, in the end, proven herself—


The old woman rushed back into Sister’s thoughts: her death, her vow, and above all the responsibility she had placed upon Sister. The parchment, that damned scrap in the carton, hung ponderously on her back. The leather strap chafed her shoulder, something it had never done before. The contract’s blank spot accused her, had invaded her dreams, and now made a mockery of her victory over the false priest.

She would not decide what to do until she had to. She would not fill the blank with a number until she was within sight of the Temple, where proxies presented themselves for fulfillment of other people’s vows.

What should she write? The question haunted her. In this situation she enjoyed a freedom unknown since she took up the habit. She could write anything she wanted in that blank space, and no person would ever judge her.

Would the God know? Could he read her thoughts, even now? Sister believed he could. In fact, she had never doubted the Tenets. The God was powerful, no doubt, and his wrath, when released, was terrible. But Sister had eyes and a brain, and over the years she had acquired wisdom. She knew of many followers of the God who had escaped deserved punishment, and others who had been punished without desert. The God was terrible, but terribly capricious. No!—say instead his ways were inscrutable. Within Sister there grew one doubt, one small question, a gap in the palisade of her certainties: the God might simply not care. Not in some cases. Perhaps not in this one, trivial case. There was no reason to expect Sister would be punished.

And hadn’t she suffered enough? Shouldn’t her cast-off nose, her years of drudgery, her patient service, count for something? And what of Gara’s foolish vow? Should Sister suffer because of Gara’s ignorance? The woman could have offered a tithe of the full number, and probably gotten her wish. Great God! Even had she offered half, she would have received her request for sure, and still had something left.

That she offered them all—that was too much for Sister to bear. Such extreme vows were surpassingly rare, even among the vow-takers. No one would expect Sister to fulfill it. No proxy should have to give it up.

What if Sister held back half? No, what if even one tenth? Such a small fraction—who would be harmed? Would the God be impoverished if Sister held back just one tithe of the total?

One small tithe?

Sister opened the door to the stowing compartment. It was empty; members of her order traveled light and she had no need of it. She closed the door, feeling satisfaction in the neat click of its finely wrought latch. She opened the door. She closed it. So smooth and efficient.



The Discipline did not allow for any exceptions.



The waiting was driving her mad.


Before the portal of the Temple lay the pavement of the great plaza. It was a barren place, continually swept clean of debris by wind and the broom work of privileged initiates.

Sister sat on a stone bench. The landscaping, the swaying trees, the cottony clouds, even the rich, humid aromas on the breeze, were unknown on the arid world Sister had come from, with its mean circles of habitable land at its polar regions.

She regarded the Temple façade. She was not the first person to see, in its arrangement of portal, pinnacles, and windows, a leering face: cropped ears, gaping nostrils, and ravenous mouth. It was a warning: let none approach without fear.

She opened her cylindrical box and pulled out her writing tools. For the first time since that day in Gara’s hut, she looked at the contract she had drawn up. The blank spot on the parchment had not filled itself; Sister could no longer avoid her decision.

Sister touched the blank spot, willing a number to appear. She imagined herself transported in space and time back to Gara’s side, Gara as a young woman, Gara about to make a fateful decision. Sister was Gara’s friend in this fantasy, Gara’s most trusted companion, and Gara herself was a lively gossip, pretty and clever, and yet also strong in the faith, the perfect friend for Sister. Gara would come to Sister for advice. Sister would urge her not to make the full sacrifice but to offer a tithe, or, if Gara refused that, maybe two or three. Thus, the God would be satisfied. Gara could have offered a full half, even, and Sister would reassure her of the extravagance of such a sacrifice; Gara could, were she unusually determined, have offered even eight tenths or, God’s grief!, nine

Reserve a tithe.

Sister’s fingers tightened around the brush.

Reserve a tithe.

Sister watched her hand write “Nine” in the blank spot on the parchment. “Nine fingers,” the contract promised.

One finger reserved, the better to serve the God with.

Sister felt a buzzing in her ears as she put her writing things away. She stood, gripping the contract, and walked across the plaza, straight to the Temple portal. She went without haste.

In the gloomy interior, many queues snaked their way among the forest of columns. Sister’s habit gave her privileges not available to the lay people and a guard directed her to the shortest queue. Screams punctuated the uneasy silence at regular intervals and an abattoir reek overwhelmed even Sister’s dulled sense of smell.

Far too soon, she stood before an over-priest. He had paused to drip some soothing ointment into his bulging eyes; now he waved Sister forward. He stood in his blood-stained robes before a stone table of sacrifice, with a large brazen bowl for parchments on his left side and a much larger bowl for coins on his right.

This important priest was not gentle as he took the money and the contract, one-handed, from Sister. The contents of the purse he glanced at, briefly; the contract he did not examine at all.

“What manner of contract?” he said.

He could not be bothered to read the parchment!

Even now, Sister could lie, could say anything she wanted, and no one would know. The God’s representative did not care!

“Offering by proxy,” Sister answered.

“What manner of offering?”


The God’s priest picked up his worn, wet knife and used it to point at the stone table. Sister kneeled before it and spread her fingers out on its cold, sticky surface.

“How many?”

Sister looked up at his face.

His nose and ears were gone, harvested decades ago. His lips had been cut back, giving the man a permanent, ghastly grin. His eyelids had been removed! Sister had been told stories of such a thing, attributed to legends of the faith, but she had never seen it. Furthermore, into the priest’s cheeks were cut misshapen holes, through which more teeth could be seen. The tip of his tongue had been cloven like a snake’s.

He still possessed three fingers on his right hand. He would not have been allowed to offer them, since, unlike Sister, knife-wielding was the constant duty of his office. But Sister saw each of them had been carved to a point. Each bloodstained finger was sharp as a dagger.

“How many?”

The voice was lisping and insistent. The lidless eyes stared with uncanny intensity. The over-priest was not glad to ask twice.

Sister stared at him in horror.


“Ten,” Sister answered.

Her fingers lay patient and still. She did not make a sound as the high priest’s swift, practiced strokes cut them all away.

Frederick Gero Heimbach lives a pulp fiction life and takes notes. His family lives with him, warily, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is the author of two novels with a third due out this year from Conservatarian Press. Find him on Twitter as @Fredosphere and on his much neglected website.

Author’s note: “The Tithe” is one of my favorite creations and I’m glad it has found, in Mysterion, its natural home after 19 rejections. At this point my only regret is that I will never have the chance to be beaten at cards by Sister.

“The Tithe” by Frederick Gero Heimbach. Copyright © 2022 by Frederick Gero Heimbach.
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  1. I love this! The hints that build up to something greater in terms of worldbuilding, the subtle whispers of Christianity...wonderful and thought-provoking!

  2. I think I published a comment already, but maybe it got eaten. I love the worldbuilding in this, the slow hints of what's gonna happen, and the ending kept me pondering.

    1. You did. We just moderate comments to stop the spam.


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