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Dark Arts

By J. Bal

     Eleanor muffled the sounds she made with the back of her hand. Her eyes remained fixed on the looming green door of the prayer room. Her thoughts scattered in several directions and back again, shards of memories, words, smells, associations, worries quickly bounced off one another, off the painting of Christ’s upward gaze, off the tails of the crudely cutout doves the children made, off the prayer books and hymnals, the coat rack, and the place on the floor that only minutes ago she had laid.

      She would be shunned when the elders found out she wasn’t a virgin. There was no way to keep it a secret; her upcoming chastity examination would reveal the breakage or tearing was a better way to describe it. Obadiah had set up her appointment with the church elders just a week ago. Why had he tutored her? Why had he impressed upon her the importance of chastity? The whole village would find out and it wasn’t just the knowing because knowing they would not, it would be all the things they thought they knew that would ruin her.

      “No one will believe you, let’s just keep this between me and you. Don’t make it any harder than it has to be. I want to protect you,” said Obadiah, fastening the large golden buckle on his belt.
“What about God?” she said. God knew all things, could see all things, knew the truth, Obadiah had told her that many times before.

     “Pray with me,” he said, they asked for forgiveness, they asked for guidance and faith. “Every man is a sinner,” he said. He gave her his handkerchief to clean herself. He looked relieved and refreshed.
“God knows the truth inside our hearts,” he said as he walked out the door. “Hurry yourself, the elders will be here soon for evening prayer.”

     For all the reasons Eleanor was supposed to be truthful, the way truth forced itself on everything she knew about being an upright person, the virtuosity of honesty and piety she hated the truth. She despised it as she despised the warm sticky liquid that had dripped down her thigh, her watery blood, the dirty handkerchief, the smell of spring onion on his breath, and his tears for the Lord. No one she knew wanted to hear the truth; they constructed their own truths. As she repeated the word, truth, truth, truth, truth she no longer understood what it meant. It was a word she knew to be interchangeable with other words like God, law, belief, trust, faith, and principle; and knowing the definitions of these words brought her even further from the meaning of truth. The meaning had disappeared from her vocabulary leaving in its place a foreign bodiless form.

     Annalee, she was raped or she said she was. Rape, was that even the right word to use, the word she knew to mean the leaves of a turnip? How could such a word have this ugly meaning and be something that nourished her body? This other meaning had no place in her life. The word seemed too simple for what it stood for, too few letters, too small for what had happened.

     Annalee: the accuser, the liar. No trial, no punishment, the villagers dismissed it, not their Josiah, they said; he was training for the ministry, not Josiah! He could quote scripture, he knew every parable by heart.

     Retaliation, retribution, it was that wretched excuse for a human being Annalee that was to blame not Josiah. She had brought it on herself, the harlot, the devil they said, poor Josiah! Eleanor had believed them, locked arms with them, and shunned her as the others had. She wanted to believe them even now as she contemplated the word.
There must be another word for it, it was absurdly small; something longer and more menacing to the ear needed to be used; it needed more syllables. If you rearranged the letters, pare, reap, pear, aper. It pared it reaped. It took something it left something, it was fleeting, it was permanent. It was a word alone, it was letters, sounds, it did something, it was a thing. It was nothing. It was nothing, it was a wild animal that lived in the forest. It ate pine nuts and stored them in the pockets of its cheeks and made fortress-like nests out of dead pine needles and the sharp points of a pinecone.

     Annalee, oh God, dangling by the neck from a clothes cord strung to the great oak tree in front of Josiah’s home. She had heard about the exorcism the elders had planned for her. Eleanor hadn’t seen her, but most everyone in the village had and they talked about what a shame it was. Someone described her tongue as red velvet. One of her green eyes had been plucked out, they said.

     They felt sorry for her then because the poor girl was sure to go to hell for committing suicide. They had tried to help her, they had tried, but the devil had twisted through her insides like the roots of the great oak she hung from. They prayed, lifted arms and spoke in tongues, sending tears up to heaven for her mercy, they cut down the tree, even dug it up by the roots. How they cried for Annalee’s soul, how she had cried.

     Eleanor pictured Annalee hanging there, red roots twisting around her body, running from her mouth, the empty dry eye socket. The red roots twisted and turned inside her body now. It seemed to her the perfect description for what it felt like to have the devil inside; the devil, it was Josiah, it was Obadiah, too, and there would be more, Paul and Seamus, Ezekiel, they all had that anxious sweaty urgency about them. Now here the devil resided inside her body that she had tried to keep so pure, the lessons, the prayers and vows of chastity, the hours of scripture, and the repressed feelings of her sexuality. She and Annalee were synonymous, she was Annalee and Eleanor and Josiah and Obadiah and Paul and Seamus.

     “No one will believe you,” he said. He was right, he was right; there would be no sympathetic ears. She would have to run away, but maybe she could act like nothing happened. She could pray to God, God knew the truth in her heart, maybe he could heal what was broken, maybe he could make her whole again. Truth, truth, truth. Why had she used that word again? It came so naturally, it had no worth.

     At that moment, she was happy that her body did not exhibit the twisting of the red roots as they squeezed and constricted her insides. Thinking about their presence and noting the cramping they caused, she forced a smile. She could do it, she could act like nothing had happened. She wiped her eyes, intent on raising herself up, giving her wobbly legs a few minutes more, focusing on the door; out of the corner of her eye the doves seemed to move, just as they had the entire time, in unison.


     Pauline Vickers sat in front of the fireplace knitting a sweater for Jerad. She couldn’t believe how fast he was growing; he barely had anything left to wear. His socks had holes where his toes busted through, his elbows poked out of his shirts, and his pants were two inches too high. He was the eldest of her six children at age fifteen. She knitted quickly, she was anxious. Pauline had heard gossip. Two women were picked up from a village not too far from her own. It was rumored that they were worshipping the devil. How the devil could be in so many places at one time baffled Pauline.

     Pauline knew Agatha well; she bought a particular herb from her, blue cohosh, one that Pauline couldn’t get to grow in her garden. For some reason it flourished in Agatha’s. Agatha was no devil worshipper she was a good Christian woman and one of the sweetest people that Pauline had ever met.

     It was uncertain what would be done to the women, but she had heard horrific things, they all had. What if someone had seen her at Agatha’s? Surely people knew that they were friends. Would they also be coming for her? Why would they? She had done nothing wrong, but neither had they.

     Pauline had long searched for meaning in her life. She had felt there was more to it than cleaning the house and taking care of her children (not that she didn’t love her children, she did, more than life itself), she had always felt a calling to make a difference. A few years back a strange thing had happened, something had awakened inside of her. Questions long unasked began drifting up from the well-trodden carpets, peeking out from the folds of curtains, permeating the air from pots of boiling stew, forming on the immaculate canvasses of clean laundry, and possessing the thoughts of her children.

     Pauline was persistent despite her husband’s objections. Her creative force gained momentum, speed, and power with the smallest amounts of information she collected from the books and people she spoke with. Ever so quietly, she learned about different herbs and root combinations. A sore throat could be soothed with a bit of horehound; a bad stomach with some peppermint tea. Chamomile or valerian root could calm down the nerves. There was something for every ailment available from God’s gifts.

     After some time she began helping out women and children in her village after a child had come down with a bad respiratory cough and her concoction had remedied it. The nearest doctor was many miles away so she was sought out for minor illnesses. Pauline was proud of this, she was finally doing what she had set out to do, she was helping people and still taking care of her family, and she felt that God must be looking down on her with love. She felt that she was an instrument of God and many times the church elders had reinforced this, providing praise for her good works. She had nothing to worry about, why had she bothered herself with these thoughts?
      She was startled by a knock at the door. Her heart began to pound louder in her ears than the knock. She put down her knitting needles and walked to the front door. She stood in front of it for a few seconds, trying to imagine who was on the other side. It could be a woman with a sick child in her arms. She jumped as another few knocks were laid hard against the door.

      “Who is it?”

      “Pauline Vickers?”

      “Yes, who’s there?”

      “Open the door, Mrs. Vickers, it’s Silas and Jethro from the Church of the Rock. We’d like to talk with you.”

      “Come in,” she said, trying not to give way to her anxiety. I have nothing to be afraid of she told herself, God will protect me.
      “Would you like some tea?”

      “No, thank you very much.” The two men sat down around the fire. “I’ll just get right down to it. We’ve had some complaints,” said Jethro, pawing the weathered Bible he held.

      “Complaints about what?” said Pauline.

     “Well, it seems that some of the members of our congregation feel that you are dabbling in the dark arts,” said Jethro.

     “Dark arts?”

     “Witchcraft.” 

     “That’s ridiculous.”

     “Is it? One day Eleanor Isley is pregnant, the next day she’s not?”

     “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

     “I think you do. She said that she was given a tonic by you, which made her miscarry. Her father found her in a pool of blood, she is very sick now, Mrs. Vickers.”

     “She was pregnant?”

     “Don’t play the fool, Mrs. Vickers, you knew very well her situation.”

     “She was raped.” Pauline remembered the mixture of blue cohosh and mugwort she had given to Eleanor. The fear in the poor girl’s eyes was tangible.

     “Raped? That’s preposterous, there were no allegations of rape.”

     “She didn’t want anyone to know so I helped her.”

     “Things are not good for you now, Mrs. Vickers. God will surely be the judge of you. We’ve been suspecting you for a long time now and your “healing practices.” It’s unnatural, it’s against God, it’s the devil’s work. Now we are to blame as we allowed you to continue Satan’s work. This should have been put to an end a long time ago. A woman is not capable of doing the work of the Lord. Satan had a hand in this, this is his work and now we will all pay.”

     “Satan’s work? I was only trying to help people. It was God’s work.”

     “Heretic! You’ve committed murder.”

     “Murder?”

     “Your healing practices aided resulted in the termination of an unborn child, an abomination! Now, please don’t make this any harder than it has to be. You’ll have to come with us.”

     “Silas, think about what you’re doing. I’ve helped your wife and your daughter Ida. This is all a big misunderstanding.”

     Silas shook his head and would not look up at Pauline.

     “I’m not going anywhere without my husband. My children will be home from school in one hour. I have to look after them. ”

     “If you don’t come willingly, we will have to take you by force.”

     “You should be looking for whoever did this to her.”

     “Eleanor will be dealt with for her indiscretions.”

     Pauline whimpered, she was barely able to walk. The men pulled her along. Her house was surrounded with onlookers, all of which she had helped at one time or another, who stood by with accusing faces and eyes like marbles, not one showed the slightest compassionate emotion. Pauline heard a man yelling in the distance; it was her husband running towards them.

     “What have you done, Pauline?” he said out of breath.

     “Let her alone,” he said to the men, each of which had a hold of Pauline by her elbow.

    “Let her alone, I said.”

    “I’m afraid we can’t do that. She has been participating in witchcraft and she must face the consequences. She has contaminated our village for long enough,” said Jethro.

    “What are they talking about, Pauline?”

    A young girl stared up at Pauline. She dared not speak, nor did any other person. The men took Pauline to the center of town and the mob trailed close behind. Obadiah and Silas restrained Pauline’s husband as Jethro tied her hands and body to a thick wooden stake that held firmly to the ground. Circling the stake was a pile of wood, straw, and faggots. Splinters embedded the skin of her fingers as she struggled to untie herself. Jethro lit the straw.

    “In the name of God, the only creator of life and the only one worthy of taking it away, thy will be done,” said Obadiah.

    The villagers chanted, “Amen,” and Obadiah broke into a charismatic sermon he had prepared for the event entitled, An Eye for an Eye, his voice raising significantly over Pauline’s and her husband’s screams as the flames rose quickly over Pauline’s body. The villagers, eyes on Obadiah, covered their noses with rags and listened with all they could muster despite the crackles and sizzles of fire and the weeping of Pauline’s husband. They shifted when the wind changed, seamless, like a flock of birds.

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