Burnt Church

by Cabanas Martinez
(Mexico D.F.)

She was sophisticated, poised, and cultured. In retrospect, this should have made them suspicious. A teacher like her should be presiding over a girl’s school in London or New York, not seeking a position in a small town in Georgia. But at the time, they were too delighted by her application to ask any questions.

“It will be good for our daughter to learn some culture,” the attorney’s wife told the pastor’s wife.

“And our boy may find some table manners at last,” the pastor’s wife responded with a smile.

School was called into session in the local church shortly after the arrival of the teacher. And soon, the children were bringing glowing reports home. “Teacher” was special. Teacher taught them manners and diction as well as reading, writing and arithmetic. All the children loved teacher.

The parents were delighted by the progress their children were making at school. Teacher had been a real find. A God-send, said the preacher’s wife.

But not everyone in town was so satisfied. The local NE-er-do well – called Smith – had more sinister stories to tell.

“That woman ain't natural,” he told the blacksmith, waving a bottle of whiskey for emphasis. “I seen her out in the woods after dark, dancing around a campfire and chanting in a strange language.”

“Nonsense,” the blacksmith retorted, calmly hammering a headed iron bar on his anvil.

“They say she’s got an altar in her room and it ain't an altar to the Almighty,” Smith insisted, leaning forward and blowing his boozy breath into the blacksmith’s face.

“You’re drunk,” said the blacksmith, lifting the hot iron so it barred the man from coming any closer. “Go home and sleep it off.”

Smith left the smithy, but he continued to talk wild about the Teacher in the weeks that followed. During those weeks, a change gradually came over the school children. The typical high-jinks and pranks that all children played lessened. Their laughter died away. And when they did misbehave, it was on a much more ominous scale than before. Items began to disappear from houses and farms. Expensive items like jewelry, farm tools, and money. When children talked back to their parents, there was a hard-edge to their voices, and they did not apologize for their rudeness, even when punished.

“And my daughter lied to me the other day,” the attorney’s wife said to the pastor’s wife in distress. “I saw her punch her younger brother and steal an apple from him, and she denied it to my face. She practically called me a liar!”

“The games the children play back in the woods frighten me,” the pastor’s wife confessed. “They chant in a strange language, and they move in such a strange manner. Almost like a ritual dance.”

“Could it be something they are learning at school?” asked the attorney’s wife.

“Surely not! Teacher is such a sweet, sophisticated lady,” said the pastor’s wife.

But they exchanged uneasy glances.

Smith, on the other hand, was sure. “That teacher is turning the Youngstown to the Devil, that’s what she’s doing,” he proclaimed up and down the streets of the town.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” the preacher told him when they passed in front of the mercantile.

“I ain't ridiculous. You are blind,” Smith told him. “That teacher ought to be burned at the stake, like they burned the witches in Salem.”

The pastor, pale with wrath, ordered Smith out of his sight. But the ne’er-do-well’s words rang in his mind and would not be pushed away. And the children continued to behave oddly. Almost like they were possessed. He would, the preacher decided reluctantly, have to look into it someday soon.

That day came sooner than he thought. The very next Monday, his little boy came down with a cold, and his mother kept him home from school. When the pastor returned from his duties for a late lunch, his wife came running up to him as soon as he entered the door. She was pale with fright.

“I heard him chanting something over and over again in his bedroom,” she gasped. “So I crept to the door to listen. He was saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards!”

The pastor gasped and clutched his Bible to his chest, as goose bumps erupted over his body. This was positively satanic. And there was nowhere the boy could have learned such a thing in this town, unless he learned it…at school.

At that moment, the attorney’s wife came bursting in the door behind him.

“Quick pastor, quick,” she cried. “Smith is running through town with a torch, talking about burning down the school. The children are still in class!”

The pastor raced out of the house with the two woman at his heels. They and the other townsfolk who followed them were met by a huge cloud of smoke coming from the direction of the church, where the school children had their lessons. The building was already ablaze as frantic parents beat at the flames with wet sacks, or threw buckets of water from the pump into the inferno. Smith could be heard cackling unrepentant from the far side of the building, which was full of the screams of the trapped students and their teacher.

The fire blazed with a supernatural kind of force, and the pastor thought he heard the sound of the Teacher laughing from within the building when it became apparent that no one could be saved.

The church burnt for several hours, and when it was finally extinguished, there was nothing left. Mourning parents tried to find something of their children to bury, and Smith wisely disappeared from town, his mission against the works of Satan completed.

The teacher’s burnt body was buried deep in the ground and covered with brick tomb. The children’s smaller bodies were interred beneath wooden crosses. Of all the student’s in the school that fall, only the pastor’s small son survived.

To this day, voices can be heard in the graveyard of at Burnt Church, chanting unintelligible words, as the school children and the teacher once chanted in the woods outside town. Sometimes apparitions are seen, and dark walkers who roam the graveyard at night. And they say that a brick taken from the grave of the evil teacher can set fire to objects on which they are placed.

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