The Burning of Arbor
J.L. Brown © 2018
All Rights Reserved
True magic has thrived in the world long before man documented such things. A spark of magic is present in every wish, at every birth and deathbed. It manifests itself in first kisses and first loves. It animates and inspires us. It abounds in the change of seasons, in the most remote forests and congested steel cities. Magic dwells within the rock of the mountains, and inhabits the waters of every stream and river and ocean. It exists both in the wondrous and mundane of every day. It is neither good nor evil. Magic bears no moral compass. The intention of the practitioner who wields it determines its use, for good or ill. And no one can escape magic’s most essential rule: what one projects into the universe will return threefold.
The Wiccan Rede states, “An ye harm none, do what ye will.”
I chose a different motto to live by. “Harm none, but take no shit.”
I was never good at following the rules, and I learned my lessons the hard way.
I refused to cower. I clenched my fists to keep from fidgeting and sighed at the twinge of pain where my nails left half-moon imprints in my palms.
“Isn’t the bank usually closed on your Sabbath?” I asked, maintaining eye contact with the crotchety loan officer across the desk.
The woman could catapult my dreams had she the inclination, and I could tell she reveled in this power over me. My emerald stare seemed to unnerve her for a slim second, but she set her spine rigid. Her suspicious gaze rolled over me, and she twisted her wrinkled lips into a scowl.
“I thought it best not to delay the inevitable, Ms. Clarion. I’ll be brief. You know as well as I that this little scheme will never get off the ground. Arbor is a quiet, wholesome community, not well suited for your kind of… business venture.” She scrunched up her nose as if the notion itself smelled foul. “However, I am nothing if not by-the-book. I reviewed your application, and after considering every factor, I must decline your request. Your excessive student loans, exorbitant debt-to-income ratio, and lack-luster credit history disqualify you for a mortgage loan.”
“What about my savings?” I asked. This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening. Panic spiked my veins, and sweat beaded along my forehead.
“Your… savings?” she snickered. “Woefully inadequate.”
“It’s twenty thousand dollars!” I said, shooting to my feet.
“I am sorry, Ms. Clarion. There is nothing I can do for you.” But she wasn’t sorry. Her smug expression made that clear. She enjoyed withholding the means of my success.
Of course this is happening. The decision shouldn’t have shocked me, but it did, and it hurt. “So, that’s it?”
“I’m afraid so.”
I should’ve known better than to think anyone from Arbor would allow someone like me so public a platform. I might sully the well-crafted image of the town they so carefully portray to the world.
For as long as I could remember, I’d dreamed of owning a place to sell my artwork and designs, somewhere to perform. It would be a gathering spot for the creative, the different, the weird. I’d been saving for years.
This woman thinks she can crush my dreams in a single five-minute meeting? No fucking way. I’ll figure something out.
The glare of the noonday sun blinded me as I emerged from the Arbor Savings & Loan. Squinting, I sat on the bank’s steps to fish my sunglasses out of my bag. Once my vision adjusted, I took in the view along Parson Street, downtown Arbor’s main drag. It bustled with a Sunday afternoon’s lazy vigor. The Rockwellian cafés and shops teemed with the post–church-service crowd. Clusters of believers mingled and gossiped and bragged, decked out in their finest prim and proper attire. Arrogance and privilege marked their manners. Without a droplet of sweat on a single brow, the parishioners seemed somehow immune to the sun’s crushing heat. The air hung stagnant and oppressive in the conservative hamlet, nestled as it was into the base of Gothics Peak.
A piercing “Keeee-aaar” sounded from high above. I looked into the crystalline summer sky at a red-tailed hawk swooping in circles, his wings spread wide. I’d know that bird anywhere. Rocky had been my faithful familiar for almost nine years, since I’d entered high school. Besides his no-nonsense sagacity, Rocky granted me the ability to fly—when he was in close enough proximity for me to feed off his magic. He was the second familiar with whom I’d been blessed. Shasta came to me when I was eight, right after my mother died. Shasta never ventured into town, though. An abnormally large black bear walking amongst the masses wouldn’t go over well.
“Your meeting didn’t go as planned, I judge.” Rocky’s sharp, stately voice echoed within my mind.
“You judge correctly,” I replied in the same fashion.
“That backwards thinking pencil-pusher never had any intention of aiding you, and you know it. I’ll never understand why you bother with the fools in this town. Your talents would shine down in the city. That’s where you need to be.”
“You know I can’t leave Maggie.”
“No. You don’t want to leave your goddess-mother. Big difference.”
“I’m not going to argue semantics. I just want to get home and forget this entire morning.”
“Hate to break the news, but unless you plan on riding the wind with me, you face a delay.”
“I’ve already exceeded my maximum daily dose of aggravation, thank you very much. I’m done.”
“You don’t have a choice. Have you seen who’s planted in your path?”
Halfway down Parson Street, between me and where I’d parked my truck, was a gaggle I referred to as Arbor’s Most Moral. Mayor Doreen Crandall sat at a bistro table outside of Ebenezer’s Café. Beside her lounged Reverend Cudlow—pastor of the First Ecclesiastical Church of Arbor, the town’s only house of worship—and his haughty wife Gladys.
“Hurry by them, Evangeline, and do not dawdle. Shasta’s got her fur in a bunch.”
Without waiting for a reply, he caught the wind and headed back to our cottage.
I threw my heels in my bag, grabbed my well-worn paperback of Pride and Prejudice, and jogged down the bank steps. Barefoot, I hurried along the blistering sidewalk. With my head buried in my book, I scanned the lines inked along the faded, dog-eared pages. Keeping my attention fixed on the trials and tribulation of the Bennet sisters gave me the cover I needed to avoid the sneers directed at me by the sanctimonious flock.
“Harlot! Heathen!” Two elderly ladies hissed from the flower shop doorway.
With a quick side-eye glance, I caught their judgmental expressions, brows drawn tight, lips pursed.
My presence alone offended the pious sensibilities of the devout Arbor citizenry. The delicate, black blouson dress that I’d made myself grazed just a bit too high along my pale thighs. Its neckline plunged an inch or two too low for propriety. My tiny naked feet were tipped in black polish, and my long, dark pigtail braids hinted at an innocence my reputation contradicted.
The matriarchs of each clustered brood clutched their pearls and progeny as I passed, as if to shield them from my malevolence. The men’s eyes snaked greedily along my silhouette, but their tongues cursed me. They didn’t label me simply a sinner, but a demon from Hell; a vile deviant sent by the Devil himself to corrupt and defile my good neighbors. No one cared that I didn’t even believe in Hell or the Devil they accused me of worshipping.
Harassment was nothing new. I’d dealt with it since I’d moved to Arbor as a child. Being raised by my goddess-mother—a powerful witch who’d been my mother’s lover prior to her untimely death—didn’t lend itself to a conventional childhood. After so many years, my indifference to the niceties of general society was fixed. I was no wild-woman. I had no lack of sense or intelligence. I simply had no desire to please those who’d as soon see me hanged as prosper.
I increased my pace, my short legs heel-toeing it double-time. I prayed to the Goddess that I could make it past the café without incident.
Keep your cool, Evangeline. I cheered myself on as I tried my damnedest not to take off in a full sprint. “Please leave me alone. Please just leave me alone,” I muttered.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Clarion! How lovely to see you on this fine day,” Reverend Cudlow greeted me with his usual note of sinful sincerity. “I don’t believe I saw you in the pews. I would’ve remembered.” He tipped his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose and looked me over. “Such a shame, really, to deprive the church of your wonders.”
His lecherous smile made me want to hurl. I stepped back, out of reach. “My absence is for your benefit, Reverend, and for the benefit of your parishioners. My presence below your steeple could be dangerous. We wouldn’t want lightning to strike.”
I tried to continue along past him, but he sidestepped me and blocked my path.
“I hope I’ve made it clear that you and your godmother are welcome in our congregation. I’d hate for you not to join us because you felt…unwanted.”
“Because you’re definitely wanted,” a menacing voice rasped from a darkened alleyway beside the café. Stuart Cudlow, the Reverend and Gladys Cudlow’s only son, smirked as he stepped out of the shadows.
Even standing ten feet away, he made me physically ill. I fought my body’s instinct for self-preservation. I refused to flee. I wouldn’t run from this man—if such a beast could be called a man. He was lanky and ginger like his mother, with his father’s unquenchable appetite for sins of the flesh. Since his early teens, Stuart had been groomed to take up the mantle of preacher from his father. Every seminary school he attended, however, expelled him on charges of cruel and licentious behavior.
I knew from personal experience just how wicked he could be. And I knew responding to men like Stuart, whether civilly or with anger, only gave them more power. Any reply would show he’d gotten a rise out of me. And I wasn’t taking the bait.
Ignoring the son, I returned my attention to the father. “Here’s a quick review, Reverend, just to catch you up. I acknowledge the Goddess not your God. Therefore, Maggie is my goddess-mother not my godmother—as you are well aware. So, while I appreciate your invitation to worship, on behalf of myself and my goddess-mother, I respectfully decline. Now, I’m in no mood to spar with you, so please move aside and let me pass.”
But he didn’t move. Not a single wispy white hair so much as quivered upon his wrinkled, pasty head.
“My dear, I have no desire to spar…”
“Don’t bother with that hussy, my dear. She isn’t worth your time…or the Lord’s.” Gladys sneered with a huff, lifting her nose high. The gaunt and florally festooned First Lady of the Church considered herself the town’s preeminent authority on all things moral. “Even the Lord knows a lost cause when He sees one.”
“Correct as always, my good friend,” Mayor Crandall chimed in.
Ah, there she is.
“It isn’t worth bothering the Lord with the likes of Evangeline Clarion, Gladys.”
The voice I dreaded more than any on the Goddess’s great Earth was that of Doreen Crandall, Arbor’s despotic mayor and mother of my sleazy ex-boyfriend, Jay. I represented everything the mayor railed against, or so she enjoyed reminding me. But ever since she kicked off her campaign for the state legislature, her viciousness and disdain for me increased tenfold.
“I knew you couldn’t stay out of such a public confrontation.”
The blonde bureaucrat moved in so close I could smell the chai tea on her breath—and the bourbon it was meant to hide. “I will not let you get away scot-free.”
“Get away with what?” I railed.
“Prancing around town like Jezebel, with a flippant disregard for decency or decorum.”
“I haven’t done a damn thing wrong, and you know it, Doreen.” I refused to back down to the venomous bitch.
“Let me tell you something, little miss,” she said, poking her manicured finger into my chest. “You show me some respect, or I’ll have Chief Harrison haul you down to lock-up before you can say, ‘thank you very much, Madam Mayor.’”
Just as she finished speaking, a sun-kissed hipster burst out of the café door flanked by pastel-clad sorority girls. He’d given one bubbly debutant the privilege of holding his left hand, while he sucked down a green apple slushy in his right.
“If it isn’t Evangeline Clarion, the love of my life!” Jay Crandall bellowed as he flashed his baby blues and his bad-boy smile.
“Jay Crandall, the bane of my existence. My day is complete,” I said, deadpan. “Graduation was two weeks ago. Still dallying with freshmen?”
“Excuse me, I’m a sophomore at NYU cosmetology,” the twit on his arm hissed at me. “Who’s she, baby? I thought I was the love of your life!” She whined as she clung desperately to my ex’s arm.
“Of course, you are…” Jay reached unsuccessfully for her name.
“Lauren, yeh, thanks. Don’t know how I forgot that,” Jay said as he leisurely – unapologetically—checked me out. His crooked lips puckered, and I knew some juicy memories of the two of us stormed through his mind.
Jay had a model’s face, an athlete’s physique, and was a porn star in bed. He also oozed hubris from every orifice. I loathed him.
“No. Way!” His arm candy squealed as she looked from him, to me, and back to him, grasping the connection between the two of us. Jealousy flashed in her eyes. She flung her arm out, smacking his, and knocking the green slushy from his hand.
I lived the next few moments in surreal slow motion. The cup and lid flew one way, hitting Mayor Crandall in the head. The contents of the slushy flew the other way, coating me from head to toe. The shock of the bitter freeze stole my breath. The cloying, sticky sweetness tinted my skin green. My sopping dress caused a wet T-shirt effect that only made my endowments more flagrant. Slushy dripped from my braids and splashed into puddles at my feet.
All but the mayor and I burst out in mocking cackles. The sneers and pointed fingers clawed at my thinning self-control, but the mayor’s worries were far greater than snickering townsfolk. As her son’s cup hit her in the head, the press popped out of nowhere, cameras flashing. They swarmed like rats to raw meat, capturing more than one break-the-internet shot of Mayor Crandall. Candidate Crandall.
This sucks for her campaign, and it’s all too much for me. I need to get out of here.
I was lucky. Even though I resembled a drowned leprechaun, most eyes—and lenses—were trained on the mayor. Her mouth popped wide in shock, she clutched her head. A single green trail trickled down her cheek from the straw caught in her hair.
Grateful for the distraction, I headed for my truck.
I barely made it three paces before Gladys Cudlow stepped in my path and shrieked, “Repent!”
“Are you fucking kidding me? What’s wrong with you people?”
I tried to push past the pompous pastor’s wife, but the crowd had swollen. Folks congregated to gawk at the melee occurring between the mayor and the press. I couldn’t duck her.
Gladys’s eyes burned with religious fervor. “Accept Jesus as your Lord and savior or leave!”
“I’m trying to leave.”
“Repent or leave Arbor; you and your godmother.”
“Goddess-mother. She’s my…never mind. Why should we leave Arbor?” I knew it was foolish to encourage the zealot, but the audacity it took to lord over me like some pampered dictator astounded me. “This is our home. Magdalena Maramma and her family have owned that cottage and land for more than two hundred years. It is sacred ground to us.”
Gladys recoiled. “How dare you presume to understand the nature of sanctity!” she spat.
And then, she actually spat. Her thick glob of muddy yellow saliva landed on the cover of my book. My favorite book. And I don’t mean my favorite story. I mean that that particular copy of that book was my favorite; the one that had just miraculously survived a slushy attack. Now Gladys Cudlow’s spit covered Elizabeth Bennet’s face.
I closed my eyes for a moment in an attempt to marshal my rage. No good would come from lashing out, and well I knew it. But I was tired of the bullshit. I’d put up with it for too long. Adelaide Good, high priestess of the coven to which my goddess-mother and I belonged, always said, “Don’t let ’em bait you. Let Karma do the dirty work.” These echoed words gave me focus. A calmness blanketed me. The corners of my mouth lifted into a menacing grin.
Panic spiked across the church lady’s face.
I called on the power within, reached my arms out wide, and recited the spell.
“Upon you I place a karmic debt,
So you will not too soon forget.
All actions, thoughts, and words of hate
Become your own decided fate.
I return your villainy back to thee.
As I will it, so mote it be.”
As I spoke the words, every cruelty Gladys had ever perpetrated, every incident of brutality, every occasion of callousness, played out before her eyes. And I made sure she knew, in her heart, in her blood, to expect swift justice should malice be her guide again.
“Have a lovely afternoon, Gladys. I’ll send my goddess-mother your good wishes.”