By J. B. Smith.
She pulled back her gray streaked, pale brown hair into a humorless French twist devoid of any flourish but for a silver comb neatly slipped between the crescent-shaped roll and her scalp. When light slanted just so on the comb’s wide edge, it gleamed like a sliver of moonbeam peeking through a cloud. The bauble had once belonged to Mabel’s mother, her one concession to frill. A final look in the full-length mirror assured her that everything about her person was strapped, girdled, tucked, fastened and tidy. Judgment Day was at hand.
Mabel arrived at church early carrying in her handbag the small vial of honey laced with an extract of mountain laurel for the exorcism, of sorts, she would perform that morning. As she sat in a pew waiting for the worship service to begin, Mabel fixed a disapproving eye on the arch-shaped stained glass window that covered the sanctuary’s east wall. Frippery, she had told the church’s trustees more than once, was the Devil’s cudgel against faith, but they’d ignored her and installed the mosaic of gaudy glass anyway.
Most of her fellow congregates loved the monstrosity, a three panel depiction of the Garden of Eden that Mabel thought invited prurient ideas. What she found most disquieting, however, were the fragments of rainbows that darted across the walls and pews like colorful fireflies when morning sunlight flooded through the tinted panes. These skittering hues undercut the sober atmosphere that befitted a church service.
Why, Marva Bell had once remarked the dancing, multi-colored glints were sun confetti tossed by God to show His joy. Mabel was aghast and wondered if Marva understood the Lord was a judge of human foibles not parade floats. And since Reverend Saunders had stepped into the pulpit, he had encouraged this kind of mindless confusion. The man’s sermons lacked the gravitas necessary to nudge sinners toward repentance and chaste living. Worse, Saunders had completely rewritten the scriptures when it came to Jesus.
She recalled the first message the handsome pastor delivered after his arrival. “My friends,” he solemnly intoned, “like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa, Jesus was a radical.” A radical? What poppycock. Mabel left that Sunday muttering, “Jesus Christ was not Pancho Villa.”
Now, six months into Saunders’ ministry, Mabel was certain she was hearing the Devil’s voice ringing from the pulpit every Sunday morning. Despite numerous conversations with the man imploring him to speak more on salvation and redemption, he refused to preach about sin or Hell or admit the only path to heaven was acceptance of Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior. Instead, he insisted Jesus was the illegitimate son of a teen mother; a wandering Jewish teacher with no intention of being a Messiah, a reform-minded Jew speaking truth to power, and claimed Satan was invented when people were ignorant about the human psyche and chemical imbalances in the brain. Pastor or not, this deluded young minister spouted blasphemy – and always with a smile.
A few weeks past, after a particularly egregious sermon entitled, “Jesus Was An Undocumented Immigrant,” Mabel decided this Sunday, World Communion Sunday, presented the perfect opportunity to rid the church of the heretical Reverend Saunders. Her plan was simple. Grape juice.
Since she was the communion steward, it was Mabel’s job to fix the symbolic plate of bread and goblet of grape drink used in the communion ritual. A few drops of the toxic concoction she’d brought from home mixed into the juice and digestive distress would be swallowed by the entire congregation without permanent damage to anyone. When the vial containing the gut-wrenching substance was discovered where she had planted it – in the pastor’s study – Saunders would be implicated and Saunders would be gone.
As the first, sonorous chords of O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, filled the sanctuary, Mabel stood and retrieved the bread and juice from a small table at the rear of the sanctuary. A shiver of anticipation radiated through her limbs as she stepped down the center aisle toward the front of the sanctuary, holding the plate of bread in one hand and the ceremonial cup in the other. Communion was underway. The devil, Mabel thought, is about to get his due.
Smiling, Saunders stood in front of the altar railing with outstretched arms waiting for Mabel, as if he were a father greeting the prodigal child. She had no sooner placed the communion objects in his hands, when he announced, “Dear folks, like Jesus leaving his disciples, I will soon be leaving you. This is our last ‘supper’ together. I have been called to Calvary,” he paused so his little conceit could sink in. “Called to pastor Calvary United in sunny Key West!”
Mabel’s first thought, good riddance, was followed by, oh no, and a sharp pain in the pit of her stomach. She stumbled forward and grabbed at the red stole draped around Saunders’ neck. He sprawled backwards across the polished steps of the dais, Mabel’s nostrils positioned a few inches above his eyes and her ample bosom pressed against his chest and throat.
“Well, Miss Mabel,” he croaked, “I believe this could be called a ‘come-to-Jesus’ event.”
“Pastor,” she said in his ear, “I know Jesus and you, sir, are no Christ.”
She stood with all the dignity she could muster, straightened her dress, and patted her hair. Mabel then looked down at Saunders working to untangle his legs from his vestments, and marveled at how the Lord had intervened on her behalf; that is, she marveled until she saw the pastor still held the plate of cubed bread and goblet of contaminated juice.
“Goodness,” she said in a raspy voice, and reached for the tainted cup, “let me take that from you before it spills everywhere.”
But Saunders gripped the goblet even tighter.
“No need,” he said, a slight chortle muffling his words. “I can manage quite nicely.”
He hopped-up facing the congregation and held the large stoneware goblet high above his head like a trophy. Sidling closer, Mabel was about to accidentally-on-purpose fling out her arm in the cup’s direction when Saunders whispered in her ear, “I hope you don’t mind, I got rid of that brew you had in this thing. It didn’t smell right.”
“Huh?” Mabel whispered back, relieved yet irritated he had touched her handiwork. “And what did you do with it?”
“Threw it out, but I saved a small amount,” he said, nodding in the direction of the altar railing. “I thought it might have been, you know, some sort of special family recipe.”
Following his gaze, Mabel saw a small glass of purple juice sitting at the edge of the railing.
“At the end of the service, you and I will share that glass so the congregation can see there’s no ill will between us” he said. “A, umm…final toast…a sort of exorcism.” He grinned – and winked.
Mabel said nothing. She was watching a trail of wispy green-tinged smoke snake through Saunders’ lips and curl towards the ceiling, as if he had spoken through a mouthful of burning brimstone. She blinked. Impossible, she thought, it’s the tinted sunlight from that damnable window tricking my brain.
This idea calmed Miss Mabel Honeywell’s agitated mind–until she heard the rain pummeling against the church’s pitched tin roof and suddenly felt a chill, a sure sign, her mother had always said, that someone was walking on your grave.
J.B. SMITH is a freelance writer from Ithaca, New York. Her short stories have appeared in online and print publications including: Every Day Fiction, Foundling Review, Moon Drenched Fables, Longstoryshort, 6Stories, and LadyInk Magazine.