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Sara conjures the devil

Sara wished her brother dead. She wished old Pastor Brookes dead as well. She imagined her brother run through with their father’s pitchfork and Pastor Brookes hanged. Or sometimes she imagined Pastor Brookes pitchforked and her brother crushed by a horse cart. And occasionally, on rainy days, she liked to picture them both drowned.

Sara indulged in these wishes while she did her chores, while she walked to and from school, while she was in church, and in the rare solitary moments she was not immersed in the obligations of family life. Her days belonged to her parents and her teachers, but her thoughts were her own and they were consumed by death. This, Sara felt, sustained her. She was thirteen and angry all the time.

The crime for which Sara believed Pastor Brookes should die had taken place the previous winter when the old man had forcefully grabbed her buttocks. He’d caught her from the side with one hand, his grip so strong that, despite the awkward angle, she was stuck to the spot and just had to wait it out until the grab was over. She’d heard he did worse to other girls in town. But this bit of knowledge did not add to her anger, only to her satisfaction that if he were to die she would be joined in celebration by her peers.

The matter of her brother, Hank, was more complicated in that he did nothing with the girls in town and so did not inspire the hate of anyone – beyond Sara herself – that she was aware of. This made her lonesome in her morbid desires. Hank’s trespass was the threatening of Sara’s crush, and sometimes-kissing-partner, Josiah Deal, with the prospect of a hoe to the neck when he’d caught Josiah snooping along the edge of their family’s property. Hank had been using the hoe to kill snakes when he found Josiah and had allegedly held the bloodied implement up to the younger boy’s jugular for dramatic effect. This was six weeks prior and Sara had not seen Josiah, who was a mute and had not attend school, since. She blamed Hank solely for Josiah’s absence.

“Oh, he’s only protecting you,” Sara’s friends from school said when she voiced her anger.

“I don’t want to be protected from Josiah. If Hank wants to protect me, why doesn’t he shake his hoe at Pastor Brookes?”

To this, the other girls had no answer. Why didn’t their own brothers also shake hoes at Pastor Brookes?

So, Sara went to see Miss Gray. Miss Gray was a witch. The children in town all knew this, but the adults insisted she was only infirm and enfeebled. They prayed for her in church and brought her baked goods on holidays. Some of the children avoided her house, crossing the street so as not to pass too close. Others, like Sara, visited often and were treated to the delights of spells that made dress hems dance and showed visions in teacups. Sara had been invited to look upon the scene of her own death in a teacup twice. It was the same scene on both occasions, and so she knew she would live a long time.

Miss Gray offered Sara her death scene again, but Sara declined. So, Miss Gray pulled a book from her shelves and turned to a particular page: “Spell With The Head of a Boar.” Now, in the teacup was an image of four women with tusk-y pig heads instead of human heads, all rooting about. Sara said it was very nice. Then, when Miss Gray stepped out of the room to attend her kettle (as teacup spells vanished once the water turned cold), Sara took the book and left. She felt this was the best way. Miss Gray was a witch, but that didn’t make her a murderer. If Sara told her what she really wanted, Miss Gray would have sent her on her way with a firm scolding.

Alone in her bedroom that night, Sara read the book. Spells for plants. Spells for weather. Spells for more women with animal heads. A spell for remaining calm. Nothing for killing. She was disappointed. What was the purpose of spells otherwise, beyond petty parlor amusements? Near the end of the book though, she found a spell for conjuring. Sara had an idea of someone she’d like to conjure. Someone who could help her.

She followed the book’s directions, which required no potions or anything special, really, beyond words. Even Sara felt it recklessly simple. She said the words, and after the last there appeared at her door frame the Devil. He was small and very ugly with coal black eyes and teeth the same color.

Sara made her pronouncement.

“Devil, I have summoned you here to kill my brother Hank and Pastor Brookes.”

The Devil laughed. “Is that how you think this fucking works?”

“Devil, I have summoned you,” Sara began again, but the Devil stopped her.

“You’ve mistaken me with a genie,” he said. “You brought me here, but that doesn’t mean I owe you anything. Summon the Devil, get the Devil. The Devil is the Devil and that’s all.”

“So, what will you do, then?” Sara asked.

“Same as I was doing before. Just now I’m doing it here.”

And he did.

He left her room and Sara saw no more of the Devil in his physical form. But later that fall, an illness swept the community and Sara’s wishes came true. It took Hank and Pastor Brookes. It took others too, a quarter of the town – though these were not people who mattered to Sara, and she didn’t know them well enough to say if anyone had wished them dead as well.

In church, the townspeople were instructed to pray for their losses. This public grieving went on a long time, it seemed to Sara. Her anger had been emptied out of her after Hank died, and in its place came nothing at all. She assumed others must feel the same, their tears a charade. Once, Miss Gray burst in mid-service, crying that she had been made a believer because the Devil was among them and she longed to repent. She had brought this evil upon her neighbors, she said, though she didn’t know how. Would they forgive her? Would God forgive her?

But the new pastor – who was young, took no liberties with the girls, and spoke of the Devil in his sermons only as metaphor – hushed her gently and asked for someone to escort her home. “If there is space in your prayers, pray for her as well,” he muttered once she’d gone.

The crops failed. Year after year, they grew high only to die before flowering. Farmers moved away or took up new vocations. Sara’s father gave up his land and used what money he’d saved to open a dry goods store. Sara much preferred working in the store to working the fields. And with her brother gone, she stood to inherit a very nice life, once her own parents passed.

Sara eventually married. Not to Josiah Deal, whose family left after their farm dried up. Instead, she married a man her father hired to help in the store. When she moved out of her parents’ house, she took very little. Years later, she wondered if the book of spells was still in her old bedroom. But she didn’t bother to ever look, though she visited often and had ample opportunity. She bore two children of her own who were hollow-eyed, well-behaved, and seemed to care for nothing in particular.

Meanwhile, the Devil continued to do his work. Wildfires licked at the town’s edges year-round and blizzards buried it in winter, though the climate had, in years before, always been temperate. Men of, obviously, evil intentions roamed day and night, some with black teeth, some with no teeth. Holes appeared in the streets and sidewalks from which sulfur-y smoke billowed. One such hole opened wide and shallow on Main Street, but instead of smoke, it filled steadily over a course of weeks with snakes of all kinds – so many that even the enthusiastic Hank would not have been able to behead them all, were he still alive. A barricade was built around the hole with a sign warning: “Serpents.”

Other animals were conspicuously absent in town, however, having died en masse years before. People didn’t even bother to get pets anymore.

The remaining townspeople were inclined to lament. They spoke of the grander days of their childhoods like they spoke of Eden. Sara knew it was never so great. To her it was more of the same, only in different ways and she felt no better or worse about its current incarnation. Her own role in the town’s demise seemed so removed from her present reality as to almost be forgotten.

Once, a traveling salesman came to Sara’s door. She welcomed him in, offering him lemonade and a break from the smoky skies. “My God, this is a truly awful place,” he said, fanning his face with his hat. Sara only shrugged. “Everywhere’s got its problems.”

Sara and her husband lived in their house and worked at their store. Their dull and blank children went to school and learned nothing. The four of them walked with scarves over their faces at all times because of the smoke and pants tucked into their boots because of the snakes. Sara grew old and died the way she had seen in Miss Gray’s teacups so it wasn’t a surprise. Miss Gray herself had died in her home many decades prior in the company of a man who had been living there with her for some time, small and ugly and rude, shredding her books and smashing her China.

He remained in that house, doing what he was doing before. Doing what he’s doing still.

Author of 'I'm Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking'. Published in Ninth Letter, Prairie Schooner, Hobart, and more. Short fiction aficionado.