Brandon Blyleven was fourteen when he had his first vision. He saw the Virgin Mary as clear as day. She was beautiful and dressed in a long blue robe. She had flowers in her hair, there was a halo around her head, and she was bathed in a soft, summery light.
When he told his mother what he had seen, she said, “You haven’t seen the Virgin Mary or any other Mary. Go back out there and tend to the chickens”.
Whatever it was, he saw it again, and this time the Virgin Mary beckoned to him. Again he told his mother who had spared his father the first time, but this time called him into the kitchen. He sat on the old hardwood chair, staring at his son and pumping his leg nervously. “Like your Momma told you, this ain’t no Virgin Mary. If it is anything at all, it is Beelzebub himself all draped in Papist finery calling you to the fires of Hell to be one of his minions shoveling the coal” A few days later he decided it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go see Pastor Richards. After all, possessions were not unknown. In fact they were common up in the hills, and there wasn’t a year that went by without someone’s cousin up in there having a brush with The Demon. Besides, Brandon had turned out to be a twitchy, unpredictable kid. You never knew whether he was going to wake up crying or singing.
Pastor Richards got the calling when he was just ten, and by twelve he was hooting and hollering and thumping the Bible just like a minister twice his age. He started by preaching on the back porch of his house, a ramshackle old cabin in a clearing, no bigger than a corn crib, and not even fit for hogs. His father was a drunken tenant farmer, three times evicted by the landlord, but three times returned to his shed-house and told to work by Simon Burgess who could not find any other tenant, white or black, who would put up with his brutal conditions. “That ol’ cracker, he just like a white muthafucka slave drivin’ Simon Legree”, said the black folk.
When the young Pastor Richards started preaching and got a following, his father saw money it, and when the boy was eighteen, he staked him to the first month’s rent on a vacant, rat-infested storefront in town. It used to be Dot’s Finery, a store that sold cheap dresses and plastic shoes and had a long notions aisle in the back. It closed when the sawmill closed and moved to Aberdeen; but if you swept out the rat shit and shore up the timbers, it would do fine as a church. Richard’s father took a cut of the Sunday tithing, a fine amount after only a year. “That boy can preach”, said the farmers who rattled into town every week, and indeed he could. After his voice had matured, he could shake the rafters with his bombast and make every soul tremble with his visions of hellfire and damnation.
So, when Brandon’s father brought him to see Pastor Richards and told him the problem, the young preacher was delighted, but kept his enthusiasm under wraps. Drama had to unfold gradually, he had learned. Don’t rake ‘em and shake ‘em too early. “Well”, Richards began, “Now don’t you be worried, Pappy. Sure as God’s rain in April it wasn’t anything more than Miz Crocker’s catfish. I seen your boy shoving down enough for four people, and that old lady had to hobble back home to fry up some more”.
“I don’t know, Reverend”, Pappy said. “He done seen that vision twice now.”
“What did it look like, boy?”, asked Pastor Richards. Brandon told how the Virgin Mary was all dressed in blue and there were tiny lights on her robe that flickered and there was a halo that turned slowly around her head. Each time he told the story Brandon added a detail or two.
“Sounds like an I-talian grotto, like the ones in Memphis” Richards said. “That wasn’t the Virgin Mary, son, that was some catfish nightmare you belched up from indigestion. And even if it was a real apparition, what’s a Catholic vision doing in the head of a good Southern Baptist boy? Tell me that, now, son. We haven’t had any Catholics here since the Tombigbee overflowed her banks; and I certainly don’t preach any Papist nonsense in this church.”
“But I saw her, I really did”, insisted Brandon. “Twice. And the second time she beckoned to me, asked me to follow her. It was real, I swear.”
“Look here, Reverend”, said Pappy. “Maybe it was the catfish, but let’s just say that it wasn’t, and it was the devil all wrapped up in Papist finery.”
“And she was beautiful”, interjected Brandon.
“Now don’t you go putting sex in it, boy”, said his father. “Bad enough you was infected by devil-made Papist imagery without you corrupting your soul any further”
“Now, calm down, both of you”, said Pastor Richards. Why don’t you both go back on home, and let’s just see what happens. If you see it again, we’ll do something”.
Richards knew that Brandon Blyleven was a nutcase and would see his vision again. It happened all the time in his church. You could always tell who would have them, the ones who never made sense even when you talked to them about the crops or the weather and who had this kind of unhinged look. They were the ones who always stood up and shouted the loudest during his preaching, the ones who crawled up the aisle to get saved for the third or fourth time. They saw plenty of visions, most of them predictably Biblical – God in his celestial raiment, bearded and august; Jesus resplendent and beatific, ascending to heaven surrounded by cherubic angels; all manners of brilliant lights, strange, perfumed winds, and ‘presences’, unexplained ‘feelings’ of spirits or demons.
He always listened patiently, like a good psychiatrist, never offering opinions or value judgments, letting the personal spiritual revelations have their day. Most people loved their visions and didn’t want to be rid of them, embraced them, and incorporated them into their lives. Life without them would be bereft of meaning, a cold, solitary place.
Others did want peace and healing. The visions were embarrassments at best and torture at worst, and Richards did his share of hardwood kneeling and hallelujahs. This usually worked for a time and for the simply neurotic, the women who had reached their limit with drunken, wayward husbands and speed-freak children. For the cases of the deeply psychotic he called Madison County Services.
Pappy Blyleven was in a different category. He was as wild-eyed crazy as any cracker zealot in the South. He would have made a good preacher except for his fixation on hell and damnation, the devil, and the darkest vision of life Richards had ever seen. Blyleven’s world was all twisted black shadows, threatening thunderclouds and tornadoes, looming mountains, and scary vast, desolate plains. Where he got the solace to keep him afloat and functional Richards never knew; but when he walked in with his loony son, he saw money.
After Brandon’s third vision, Richards knew it was time. Pappy had demanded action. “I pay good money to this church, and I expect something for it”, he hollered. “My son’s possessed.”
“Earvin”, the pastor began calmly, using Blyleven’s Christian name, “you know that we Baptists don’t believe in exorcism or any of the perverted rites and rituals of the Roman church. We believe in our personal relationship with God and our Living Savior, Jesus Christ; and on that foundation – that powerful and mystical bond between the Risen and the Hopeful – we will ask forgiveness, for yes, we are all sinners….,.”
Pappy saw that Richards was preparing to deliver one of his famous orations, and while the preacher’s engine was till warming up, he turned it off. “We get it, Reverend. Now what are you going to do?”
Pastor Richards regained his composure, a bit irritated that his own vision of the redemption of this young boy had been interrupted, took a breath and said, “I will do something, Earvin, most definitely, yes.”
“Good”, said Pappy, and the shaking silhouettes and looming thunderheads receded. “Let’s hear it.”
“I don’t believe the boy’s possessed”, said Richards, just visited. Nothing demonic yet. She just gave him a scented calling card and seduced him with promises. We don’t have to call in the cavalry. Here’s what I have in mind”.
Richards outlined the event. It would be a latter-day baptism, held in the church instead of by the Tombigbee. It would be a baptism which cleansed, purified, and washed away sin and would be a protective shield against the devil.
“Look at it this way”, explained Richards. “It’s like a coolant flush of your car’s engine. It removes all the built-up debris from miles of wear. At the same time, it is renewing, rejuvenating, redeeming your engine block, giving it internal cleanliness; and most importantly it is protecting your engine….” Here the pastor faltered. The automotive metaphor was failing him. A coolant flush doesn’t renew, he thought, nor really protect. What does it do, actually? Have I spent all that money on nothing?
“In any case, we will baptize Brandon again, invoking the spirit of the Lord, and asking for His protective graces. That will do the trick”.
Word quickly spread through the small town that Pastor Richards was going to do an exorcism. Most people had seen The Exorcist, watched movies about Vatican mysteries and diabolism, secret codes and mumbo-jumbo, and couldn’t wait for a down-home, Mississippi version of that exciting, far-off rite.
“Well, it isn’t an exorcism, exactly”, explained Pastor Richards. “It’s more a ritual protection – a kind of preventive maintenance….” (He was happy that he had regained a grip on the automotive metaphor)” … so that worse things won’t happen to his soul”.
He never expected the crowd at his simple Third Church of the Redeemer. There was no rhyme or reason behind the numerical ‘Third’. He had seen the First Union Methodist Church, the Second Church of Christ, Universal, the Fourth Baptist Church of Christ; and he thought why not jump to the head of the line. Not that there were many First and Second Churches of the Redeemer, but just in case, be prepared and be ahead, very American.
By the time he was ready to begin, not only was there Standing Room Only, but people were jammed around the front door, and children were held up on their parents shoulders to get a good view. Pastor Richards was in his element. He started slowly, and with no one to brake his engine, revved it up high and soared with thunderous oratory. His voice rose with passion and excitement, then dipped and calmed, soaring low over verdant valleys, then rising again; and with his Bible held high in one hand, and the fist of his other shaking at the devil, he walked over to the center of the altar where he had placed Brendon Blyleven, the huge zinc tub, covered in faux silk and filled with water, and the four male acolytes dressed in white verger robes, complete with cowls and sash which Richards had borrowed from the Episcopal Church in Aberdeen.
“O, Beelzebub”, he shouted, grabbing Brandon by the shoulders, “keep your distance from this young man. Keep your salivating maw far from his gentle heart. Keep your foul vulture claws away from his soul. Back, demon, back!”
The congregation yelled ‘Amen’ in unison, and were swaying to the rhythm of Richard’s deep voice rising in passionate crescendos, falling in softer, calming cadences. “Be gone from this boy”, he said softly. “Be gone from this town”, he threated more loudly. “Be gone from this county. Be gone from this country……”; and in a final, brilliant bellowing exhortation, “Be gone from the United States of America”.
The crowd was beside itself. They forgot the amens and hallelujahs, the unison, and themselves. They whooped and hollered every time Pastor Richards dunked Brandon, head and shoulders into the tub, and every time he came up drenched and spluttering. After four times Brandon was coughing and spitting water left and right, and Richards knew it was time to stop. He concluded with words of assurance. “The devil has gone from this place”.
The tithing was more than generous, it was overflowing. Never before had the pastor had a Sunday like this one. He had the women of the church prepare a lunch – lots of sausage and biscuits, corn bread, buttermilk, and tea. Brandon was the center of attention. The old ladies came up to him and touched him to see if there was anything demonic still in him. The children just stood around and gawked. They weren’t sure what they had seen and would have to wait until their parents deconstructed the event for them. The farmers stood around and spat tobacco juice in the corner of the parking lot, talking of crops, rain, and the exorcism in that order.
The local papers ran articles on the event. For a small town, there were surprisingly three papers. The daily, the paper of record, said simply, HUNDREDS TURN OUT FOR RELIGIOUS RITE IN CETONIA. The rag, the crime-and- fire weekly led with THE DEVIL IN OUR MIDST! The newest and most temperate and thoughtful entry, covered it on the third page with CAN FAITH AND REASON CO-EXIST? Attendance at the Third Church of the Redeemer tripled, and eventually Richards had to relocate to bigger quarters. Rumor had it that he was headed for big-box church territory and that he had put money down on a big lot in Alton.
Brandon kept seeing visions, but the devil never showed up, so most people figured that the exorcism had worked; or maybe the visions were really the Virgin Mary; or most likely that they were the result of bad wiring in his brain no different than the shakes some people get.
Brandon, despite the visions – which he kept entirely to himself by the time he got to high school – became a successful businessman. He went to East Mississippi Community College for a year, transferred to Mississippi State, and then got a job with Georgia Pine and Lumber as their Assistant Regional Representative in Meridian.
There was an article on the Internet recently in Advanced Psychology which talked about the phenomenon of what they called ‘benign visions’ – a kind of mental FUO or Fever of Unknown Origin, an occurrence which is not pathologically harmful, goes and comes with infrequency, and can have remarkably salubrious effects. Some fevers gave a momentary clarity, a reduction of stress or anxiety, a brief change in perspective which helped restore emotional stability. The same with visions, apparently, which is why Brandon never complained or sought help. The Virgin Mary, or whoever she was, was a friend, a solace, and a restorative. He looked forward to her visits, was a bit sad when she left, but knew she would always return.
Most people in the County thought that Brandon Blyleven was simply as wacko as his father and Pastor Richards, and whenever he returned to visit his parents they viewed him as damaged goods selling lumber; but so were the twists and turns of life; and in a small town, anything that you can imagine happening usually does if you live long enough.