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Fiction #152
(published September 18, 2003)
The Devil Leaves Mrs. Harbison (part 1 of 2)
by Ben Stroud

Mrs. Harbison lived next door to me and I knew she was a witch but never thought much of it. Her husband ran off ten years ago and she let her gray hair grow long down her back and that's when it started. The first thing to go was the hedges. You can mark my word on it, no tool of Satan ever had well- kept hedges. But I guess that's beside the point. Anyone that made her made she put a curse on. Why, I heard once from Martha across the street that Mrs. Harbison even put a curse on Bill and me once when we trimmed her crabtree where it hung over our yard. Yes, she was deep in it, but then last year Mrs. Harbison became a Baptist. Ask me how, I don't know. But she did and she found that witches can't be Baptists and vice versa. So then a preacher came from another town with his wife and they had the exorcism. I remember I was watching the television that night. The local news was on and it started to fade out, then in, then out again. Bill said it was the devil next door straining. He said devils strain when they're being kicked out. They got their claws on your soul like a tick's jaws clamped to your skin. I just think he didn't want to buy a new tv. Anyway, the weatherman disappeared into the black screen just before he gave the next day's report and I went to work without my umbrella only to get soaked walking from my car to the office where I answer phones because I didn't know it was a 60% chance of rain. Maybe it was that devil after all.

That next weekend I was working in the yard weeding the begonia beds when Mrs. Harbison popped out her front door and walked up behind me. Just as she approached I cut myself on the thorns of one of the sticky weeds and my finger began to bleed slowly like tree sap. I threw the weed in my pail and thought about the curse, but when I turned to say hello, Mrs. Harbison looked as if she'd been bleached with gold. Radiant and happy is all I can call it. She stared down at me with her arms on her hips and she smelled like honeysuckles in bloom. The newly bathed do have that look about them. I've always told Bill so whenever we have a baptism at the church. I stood to answer her greeting, but before I was off my knees she smiled sweetly and opened her mouth.

"Vernie, I'm a new woman," she said. "I've found my healing in the Savior's arms and he's washed my sin away and cast the demons out of me. Things will be different from now on and I hope we can be more friendly."

The newly bathed are always eager. That's what Bill says.

"I brought this over for you." She presented a jar of dark preserves. I hadn't noticed it in her hands when I first looked at her.

"It's one of the few that didn't get smashed on the night of my cleansing," she said. "It's plum."

I took the jar from her hands as gently as if she were handing me her new baby grandson to admire.

"Thank you. I do appreciate it. Plum is one of my favorites," I said carefully. The first steps on the good road are always the most unsteady and I did not want to hinder Mrs. Harbison's path to the Lord. She smiled again and left, taking the glow of the saints with her. I set the plum preserves beside me and finished weeding my begonias. When I was done I took the pail of thorny weeds and the preserves into the garage and threw them both away. I don't want no curse of the devil in my house, and absolutely not on my bread and saltines. Those preserves were made in her witching days.

Three weeks later the azaleas were in bloom. It was the time of year that the city started spraying for mosquitoes and the neighborhood kids were getting more rambunctious since school would be out soon. And things had changed since the exorcism, though to be honest I didn't think it would do any good. I've always been a firm believer in the power of the Lord, but I thought exorcism was a little too much hocus pocus and not enough truth. But it seemed to have worked. A few days before I saw Mrs. Harbison's Ouija Board and tarot cards in the trash. And now instead of letting her steel-gray hair hang down to her rump, she'd cut it off and permed it.

That afternoon I walked outside to set a bottle of sun tea on the tree stump in the backyard, and when I turned back toward the house, Mrs. Harbison was blocking my way, though I had not heard her walk across the yard at all. And I should have too—there hadn't been much rain in the past couple weeks and the grass was getting dry so that it crunched under your feet.

"How are you, Vernie?" she asked as she looked me squarely in the face like she had told herself over and over that morning to do so.

"Just fine. Settin out a pot of sun tea for tonight."

"Oh, what's tonight?" Her face crinkled into curiosity. She looked so sweetly innocent I thought some of her teeth might fall out candy rotten.

"The Ramsey's are coming over to play cards and eat supper."

"Oh, I see." She stood there with that same pleasant smile as when she gave me the plum preserves, but the glow was gone. I stepped around her, following a carefully drawn half-circle, then turned to look at her with my back to the porch. "And how are you?" I asked.

"Oh, wonderful. Ever since my cleansing I've been a new woman."

I wanted to bring the conversation to a close. She was making me uncomfortable the way she wouldn't let her gaze off me. "That's good to hear. We've all been praying for you, Mrs. Harbison." I waited for her to step off but Mrs. Harbison just stared at me like she had run out of words. I myself didn't know what else to say. I thought maybe she wanted me to invite her over tonight, too. But more than four and I'd have to extend the dining room table. And to be honest, I never was too friendly with Mrs. Harbison in all the years before her exorcism and saw little reason to make up for that now. I started to back away but then she opened her mouth again and said, "perhaps sometime you'll have to come over to play cards one night at my place." She smiled, but her eyes didn't look like she was smiling and her voice didn't sound like it. She turned to go and I watched her as she walked out of my backyard, then turned myself to go back inside. I didn't like the way she was acting and I didn't like the tone of her invite.

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The Next Fiction piece (from Issue #153):

The Devil Leaves Mrs. Harbison (part 2 of 2)
by Ben Stroud

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Tokens of Affection (part 2 of 2)
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