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They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them. They shall lay hands on the sick, and the sick shall recover.
—THE BOOK OF MARK 16:18
The Dark Ages were over and revolution smoldered, soon to flame. Kings and priests were hated. The common man was on the rise, ready to seize the power of not only governments, but God himself. It was the Age of Enlightenment.
An English writer named Charles Gildon, struggling to make sense of the cataclysm, wrote a book called The Deist’s Manual that described the forty great religions of Europe, including a newly founded, wildly rebellious church known as the Followers of Christ.
The Followers had originated in London in the late 1600s, identified by neither a founder nor a place of worship, which kept them safer from the torturous wrath of the Church of England. Prudently, when they met secretly in each other’s homes, they didn’t even pray out loud.
At the dawn of the 1700s, they rose slowly to prominence in a milieu of clean and sober Christianity that was not far removed from the sexless, humble piety of the Pilgrims. The Followers, though, thought that the Pilgrim’s life of obedience and restraint was hardly worth living. They believed in a joyously mystical, almost orgasmic universe of miracles and wonder: a kingdom of heaven on earth that they alone ruled as supreme beings, operating without restraints.
The religious movement they helped create was called the Great Awakening.
Gildon, an atheist turned Anglican fundamentalist, wrote:
The Followers of Christ are the heirs of Salvation. They are above ordinances.
They walk Here as if they were Above. They meet at the houses of their members for a silent contemplation of the Angels in Heaven.
They hold themselves nearer to those that are of Their opinion than those with whom they have any tie of Birth.
Some call them Visionaries. Some call them Revelation Men.
Their divinity is concerned with the Most Mysterious Things in the nature of God.
Not everyone agreed. Gildon had sulfurous detractors, including mainstream Presbyterian Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, who once insulted Gildon by saying, “Charles Gildon is a man with six well-fed whores and a starving wife.”
It was an era of bitter religious contention, believed to be temporary, as the Age of Enlightenment began to unfold its wings, in yet one more attempt to finally make the world rational.
BOW, NEW HAMPSHIRE
“Mary is dying!” Mark Baker screamed. His eight-year-old daughter was writhing on the floor, gnashing her teeth. She suddenly became lifeless, her eyes open but empty. Her mother crouched over her as her father raced for the doctor, lashing his horses as he stood rigidly in his wagon.
By the time he returned, Mary had recovered. But her fits began to recur.
One night Mary was lying in bed and heard a voice cry her name three times. She later recalled that when she replied, her body began to rise. It rose one foot off the bed and remained there. Then she was lowered gently back down. She levitated again, and was lowered. Then again. She knew it could not have happened—but that it had—and she believed forever-after that she was possessed by a strange and wondrous power.
Mary continued to suffer horrible fevers, seizures, ulcers, pain, and paralysis, and her suffering did not cease when she tried homeopathy, hydrotherapy, and various healing diets, including grain-based vegetarian regimens created by Seventh-day Adventist John H. Kellogg, and by the Reverend Sylvester Graham, who claimed his new flour could cure almost anything.
Physicians couldn’t help Mary. The only two choices she had were those who had begun to use ether and operated aggressively, or the traditionally passive doctors—the two options categorized at that time as those who killed you, or those who let you die.
Finally she turned to a protégé of the famous Dr. Franz Mesmer, and found relief.
Dr. Mesmer, of Vienna, had initially employed magnets to heal, believing that a universal force of animal magnetism existed in all people. Benjamin Franklin had tried to bottle this magnetic power in 1784 as a “powder of sympathy,” but when he failed, the biomedical version of the cure was abandoned and Mesmer began to simply place his hands soothingly on a patient’s midsection—just above the navel, in the hypochondrium region—sometimes for hours at a time. It seemed to work.
With this treatment, Mary Baker experienced a rebirth of her health.
Mary considered Mesmerism to be not only scientific, but a logical extension of the biblical practice of laying on of hands. It cast out not only fevers, but demons: two for the price of one. She refined the theatrical practice, dressed it with theology, and began to sell it herself.
Mary’s therapy and the exotic belief system she built around it gained acclaim and gave a nice jolt to the tepid religious rut that had overtaken America. Her growing group of acolytes became part of the Second Great Awakening, along with other radical, all-in churches that made big promises of worldly glory and heavenly ascendance.
The one with the flashiest backstory was the new Mormon Church, founded in 1830, which offered its adherents wealth and membership in a pre-doomsday super-race—as well as the right to have a lot of wives, all submissive. The Mormons believed that two warring tribes of Israelites had been the original settlers of America—the bad Red Israelites, and the good White Israelites. Jesus, they said, had materialized on the East Coast shortly after his resurrection to try to stop a genocidal race war that the Red Israelites eventually won, as evidenced by the fact that when Columbus came to America he met no surviving Caucasians.
The Mormons even had a living witness to their story: Joseph Smith, who swore he’d heard the whole thing in New York from a warrior-angel who gave him golden tablets and magic reading glasses. The tablets and glasses soon disappeared, but Joseph Smith had enough material to write The Book of Mormon, and attract a following of thousands of modern, or latter-day, saints. They alone were God’s chosen people, Smith said, destined for an End Times heaven that far surpassed the standard Christian utopia.
The seductive Mormon inducements trumped those of another group founded a few years later, the Seventh-day Adventists—who also promised eternal ecstasy, but demanded a monastic lifestyle of no dancing, card playing, music, self-adornment, reading, or meat-eating. Not even celebrations on Christmas or birthdays.
The most popular of the rebellious charismatic churches was that of the backwoods-based, snake-handling, poison-drinking Pentecostalists, who guaranteed a fabulous hillbilly heaven, but only for the ultra-trusting. They arose in the late 1880s as part of an offbeat segment of Radical Reformation evangelicals that included The Foot Washers, The Plain People, The Dunkers, and the Peculiar People, named after an alternate translation of Deuteronomy’s “The Chosen People.”
A group offering not just similar perfection, but “higher perfection,” was the even wilder Followers of Christ, who had migrated from England to Canada for religious freedom and were trickling down to America with an exciting, exclusive offer of daily face-time with God himself, plus submissive wives, perfect health, and superiority over everyone on earth—except for one minor sacrifice: Nobody could ever go to a doctor. They thought healing was God’s job, not that of crude physicians, who at the time also served as barbers. The Followers—convinced, like the others, that they alone were God’s chosen people—even claimed that one of their first American settlers, James McDonald, had baptized Joseph Smith in the 1820s, shortly before Smith had begun to take dictation from angels and write his own bible.
The basic concept of these New England churches was simple: You can be perfect (if you’re one of us) because we are not of this poor material world, but God’s perfect world.
In this manner, among these people, modern faith healing in America was born.
Among all the mystics, Mary Baker came closest to perfecting the art of ethereal branding and franchising. She became the print media’s preeminent drama queen, enmeshed in poisonous feuds and outrageous claims during the creation of her faith-healing empire. Mary grew rich and famous teaching others how to make money by treating illness with no overhead.
After the early loss of her first two husbands, one to yellow fever and one to desertion, she made headlines in the highly publicized Salem Witchcraft Trial of 1878 by instigating a lawsuit against her ex-boyfriend for casting a spell on her with a form of witchcraft that she called malicious animal magnetism. She lost the case, but stayed in the news cycle when her third husband—Gilbert Eddy, who’d sealed their marriage deal by agreeing to a no-sex clause—was arrested for killing her ex-boyfriend. Eddy soon died of heart disease, despite Mary’s fervent attempts to convince him that clogged arteries were impossible in a perfect world.
Mary blamed Eddy’s demise on “mental murder,” committed by one of her students. But she was unable to produce the neural murder weapon and the case was dismissed.
Nonetheless, Mary Baker Eddy became the only woman in world history to found a major religion, the Christian Science Church. It became one of the most powerful churches in American history, and one of the most hated. For the next century, as its influence and wealth grew, it helped protect a constellation of radical faith-healing churches, including the Followers of Christ, as children, elders, and other vulnerable people began to die by the thousands at the hands of faith healers—with no consequences whatsoever—across a growing country founded by the Pilgrims on one primary principle: freedom of religion.
ONEIDA, NEW YORK
Follower James McDonald had a son shortly after he’d baptized Joseph Smith and moved in the 1830s to the emerging utopian colony of Oneida, where he claimed that his son not only had the gift of divine healing, but could even raise the dead. The claim shocked the people of Oneida, which wasn’t easy, because the town was the home of the anything-goes, proto-swinger Perfectionist religion, which coined the phrase “free love.”
More shockingly, McDonald’s son, Jacob, openly kissed other men on the mouth. That same act had previously resulted in the arrest of the Followers minister, Jacob Cochrane, on a charge of adultery and promiscuous behavior. Cochrane’s legal defense: The Holy Greeting was a centuries-old custom, based on the biblical assertion that Jesus had kissed his disciples on the mouth. Therefore, Cochrane said, because the Followers were, unlike the era’s pretender churches, directly linked to Jesus, the kiss was not sodomistic at all, but holy: hence, the name, Holy Greeting.
The claim didn’t help Cochrane with his Oneida jury, even though the Perfectionists did believe that mankind had begun to live in a “new age” that allowed “complex” marriages. Cochrane went to jail.
Jacob McDonald wisely hit the road, and soon enlisted in the Union Army. The Followers were pacifists, but were also idealistic, and willing to kill for the abolition of slavery. Abolition was an obsession among them, along with temperance, courtesy, medical self-care, good hygiene, thrift, and raising the dead.
As a young soldier, McDonald, according to Followers’ lore, was sitting alone on the tongue of a wagon one evening, reading Scripture, when a Divine Apparition floated out of the trees. The Holy Ghost commanded Brother McDonald to defy convention, heal the sick, redeem the wicked, and let Him worry about the lawyers.
With this calling, Brother Jacob McDonald drifted west and began to baptize sinners in a chain of saved souls that eventually reached Brother John Evans, one of the many Followers who was part of the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1893—“a glorious period in our time,” according to the Followers’ genealogy. Brother Evans, a cowpoke who could speak in tongues, was ordered by his pastor to, “Teach the Brethren, here and elsewhere, up and down this unfriendly World. And those that hear thee shall wear a starry crown.”
Evans and a small band of Followers families—the Caldwells, Cunninghams, Youngs, Morrises, Eellses, and Smiths—joined a wagon train in 1898 for their exodus from Oklahoma. They headed for the lush gardens and rich gold mines of Idaho, which had just been made a state, following its abolition of polygamy.
The West, they believed, would be their American Eden.
The snake in the garden wasn’t doing its job. The fat blacksnake was supposed to be eating the garden’s grasshoppers and spiders, but little Eleanor Evans could clearly see the insects climbing all over their vegetables. Snakes that big didn’t usually eat bugs, but the pond the snake lived in was just about empty of the bullfrogs and bluegills it liked, and in the Dust Bowl year of ’39, as Eleanor later recalled, just about anything would eat just about anything. Some people were even eating their blacksnakes, which wasn’t too smart, because the blacksnakes ate the rattlers.
Around this time of day, with the sun straight up, the rattlers would sometimes slide into the dusty garden, but not if they smelled the blacksnake, which could handle a rattlesnake bite. Blacksnakes were like the Followers that way. Eleanor had seen her dad snatch up great big rattlesnakes by their tails and proclaim, “In Jesus’ name, Devil be gone,” then cast them down, and watch the snakes crawl away to die. Snake handling was kind of a contest among the men, to see who really had faith. It didn’t always turn out so well for those with lack of faith, but whose fault was that?
Once a rattler had bitten her great-uncle Wilbur, but he just prayed it out and was fine. People respected Wilbur, because he was one of the Oklahoma pioneers, but he’d made everybody mad by fighting in the Great War, which was probably why the snake bit him. He had a sore arm after the bite but he lived almost forever until he got sugar diabetes, and he almost prayed his way out of that. Now he was in the Peaceful Valley Cemetery, just up the road, buried in a long row of Evanses, next to the sections of Cunninghams, Morrises, Smiths, and Beagleys. He’d been laid to rest next to his daughter, who’d started to have a baby, but couldn’t. Her baby wouldn’t come all the way out, they said—just the poor thing’s little blue head—and she and the baby had gotten sick and died.
It was a beautiful cemetery, though—especially the places where they buried all the kids, because folks always did something special with their kid’s graves, like putting cribs or bed frames around them, so it would look like their children were just sleeping. The Followers were crazy about their kids.
Eleanor was just six in ’39 but she already had a couple of friends in the cemetery. It didn’t spook her, though, because she’d already been dead herself, and knew it didn’t amount to much. It happened when she had pneumonia as a little kid. That was back in Hailey, next to the rich town of Sun Valley, before they were forced out of there when the powerful folks got mean. Eleanor remembered that when she got sick her grandma had held her by the cook-stove to keep her warm, while her dad and the elders prayed over her. But then she got real sleepy and died.
They said her arms flopped down and she was limp as a dishrag. She wasn’t breathing, of course, and everybody said her body turned the color of an eggplant. That’s when Grandma handed her to Mom—who’d been dead herself, as a baby—and they laid hands on her. It didn’t work the first time, according to Mom, and she just got more purple. She was dead quite a while, Mom said, so they had to keep her close to the stove so she wouldn’t be cold when she came back to life. They praised the Lord and anointed her. They raised a ruckus, because everybody loved her to death. She was good with her little brother, Donny, and was a big help around the house.
Eleanor didn’t remember coming back. But everybody else sure did. They talked about it all the time. It was a regular family story.
Out in the garden, while Eleanor was picking beans by the lazy old blacksnake, which was like a pet, her grandma came out with a big wicker basket and they started gathering tomatoes. The tomatoes weren’t much at all that year—they were as bad as the dried-out snap-beans, and even worse than the apples and pears, which were just runty little things you couldn’t even make a cobbler out of.
Grandma Evans always told Eleanor to be real careful of the spiders. You had to be, she said, even if you were born holy. When Grandma would come across one, she’d flick it with her finger, and knock its web apart. Eleanor had promised to keep her eyes open for spiders, but she really didn’t, because the spiders didn’t look very scary—not like the rattlers did—and she was trying to learn to think for herself.
But when Eleanor was reaching for a tomato, a spider got her. That’s what happened, she thought, when you didn’t listen to your elders. Grandma got worried, because it looked to be a black widow.
Grandma found the two bite marks and put an Epsom salt poultice over them, but Eleanor’s arm still swelled up, and there was yellow pus all up and down it. Her skin got so thin that it split in places. After the men got home, they all circled around Eleanor, prayed silently, according to the ancient custom, and anointed her forehead. Her dad sent word for everybody to remember Eleanor in their prayers, so pretty soon it didn’t hurt so much.
That night her arm got so fat she thought it would burst, so they called for her second cousin, Vernon Thaine, to come over, because he had special powers. Vernon got real sad-looking and prayed for hours while Eleanor watched the fireplace and tried to keep her arm from aching. Vernon was the sweetest person she knew. Everybody loved him. While he was humming a hymn to her she fell asleep thinking that Vern might be a Prophet someday, like Vic Baldwin, their minister. Vern wasn’t as handsome as Vic, but he was a better healer. He did it at tent revival meetings in what some of the preachers were calling the Third Great Awakening, which included Prohibition. In Caldwell, thank the Lord, they still had temperance, so the worldly people in the Valley had to go all the way to Boise for their whiskey.
In the morning, when her arm didn’t hurt so much, Eleanor’s dad told her that the whole thing was lucky, because it showed her what God could do. It was like when Dale Cunningham got his foot mangled in a thresher but came out fine. He had a little limp, but that was good, because it reminded him that he was born holy. If he hadn’t been born holy—like all the heathen Mormons in the valley—he’d have lost that foot. Sometimes the Mormons and the other worldly farmers lost their fingers and even whole hands from nothing more than a bite from a widow or a tiny little rattler.
By nightfall, though, everybody forgot about her arm because Grandma was in a dither. She’d found a note from Pastor Vic Baldwin to Eleanor’s cousin Ophelia. It was all about him wanting to meet Ophelia at the motel down by the Simplot potato plant. Ophelia was just fifteen, and that was why Grandma was so mad. Grandma talked about calling the sheriff but Grandpa put a stop to it, saying that the Followers took care of their own.
The next day Grandma and Grandpa barged in on Vic and Ophelia at the motel. Grandpa had his hunting rifle and Grandma had a big six-shooter. When they got home, Grandma told Eleanor that she’d yelled, “You better leave her alone, or I’ll get you,” and that old Vic had just about wet himself.
The church went crazy after that. Some people were up in arms about Pastor Vic doing something like that to a little girl, but most of them said that Ophelia wasn’t really all that young, and that Vic had a right, because he was a Prophet. Prophets were right up there with Jesus, almost like his Disciples. It started to look like nothing was going to happen. That’s when Walter White stepped in.
Everybody knew that Walter White was heavenly-holy—in the Word, as they said—and that he had a lot of flash, but nobody knew how serious he was until then. He only preached once in a while, and the only reason he did it at all was because a couple of years ago he was on a train trip and glanced down at his hands, which looked like they were covered with maggots, eating away—so of course he talked to God, and God said he had to start preaching. On that day, Walter White became the Prophet, though he kept it to himself at first.
Walter got up at the service on Thursday night and said that God had decreed that the Caldwell church had to break up. He told them God had commanded him to take his people from this place of fornication forever.
But nobody really wanted to leave. There was no good place to go where the worldly people would leave them alone. That’s when Walter starting talking about this little town outside of Portland called Oregon City. He made it sound like paradise. Things grew there without watering, he said, because God kept it wet almost all year ’round, and there were sky-high Christmas trees you could build a whole house out of, giant fish called sturgeon that looked like sea monsters and lived to be a hundred years old, elk ten feet tall, and strawberries as big as your fist.
Oregon City was their future, Walter said. There were hardly any Mormons there, not too many sheriffs, and no rattlesnakes at all. He said they’d be safe there until the end of time.
Pretty soon, just about everybody followed Walter to Oregon City, except for a few families with old folks who weren’t up to it.
They traveled the old Oregon Trail, which was now a paved road, and entered the little riverside town with a thrill of hope. Oregon City was as beautiful and bountiful as Pastor Walter had claimed. It was heaven.
OREGON CITY, OREGON
When Walter went off on his harangue about End Times, which he said was set for 1969, it made Eleanor think about the new Skeeter Davis song “The End of the World.” Eleanor couldn’t get the tune out of her head, even while Walter was yelling about the Beast, the Jews, 666, The Rapture, Armageddon, false prophets, and the rest of it. She lost track, and that made her think she had a devil, because she knew she should be scared to death. They only had six more years before Jesus would return to take the Followers to heaven and send all the people from the world to hell, and here she was, wasting time on a silly song.
Everybody else was hanging on Walter’s words, except Eleanor’s brother Donny. He was kind of young in the mind, she thought, and ate like a pig, and now he was chewing gum in church, which wasn’t smart. “That was enough,” Eleanor later said, “to get Walter all teed off. It didn’t take much by that point.”
Walter had changed, she thought, after they arrived in Oregon City. He got very bossy, and chastised people from the pulpit, especially after he’d had some wine for his digestion. He’d had a few glasses at their big Thanksgiving dinner, and was giving Donny the evil eye.
Eleanor thought that Walter had gotten mean because things were actually too good in Oregon City. There was lots of work at the sawmill down by the waterfall, they all helped each other build fine new houses, and growing a garden was like falling off a log. The deer ate the gardens, but all you had to do was to build two fences five feet apart, because a deer could jump the first one, but couldn’t get a run at the second, so—bang!—venison. It wasn’t legal, but so what? As far as the law was concerned, it was also illegal to shoot geese out of season, but there were about two thousand Followers and only six police, and one of them was drunk every time you saw him.
The luxury that had made a lot of people soft, though, had made Walter hard. All of a sudden, Walter, glaring down at Donny from the pulpit, yelled, “Whatta you eatin’, Donny? Wanna stand up and tell ever-body?”
Donny hung his head but Walter got louder. “Can you hear me, Donny? Can you hear me?”
Eleanor kept her face from showing anything, but Cousin Vernon Thaine, God bless him, leaned forward and gave Walter a look, right in front of everybody. Vernon could get away with that because he was an elder, and the most loved man in the church. He’d been very kind to the Hickmans after their little girl passed from polio, and he was a big help to the Beagleys, who’d just lost a child. He was every bit as sweet as he’d been when he prayed the poison out of Eleanor’s arm.
“Brother Walter,” Vernon said softly.
Walter, with his big, boxy face and strong hands, squared up his shoulders and looked like he’d been slapped. He stared Vernon down and said, “Why, you don’t know enough to tan your own hide.”
Vernon took it in. He even gave Walter a kindly look, like Jesus had bestowed upon his tormentors.
“Even a possum knows how to tan its own hide!” Walter yelled.
Vernon breathed out hard. He’d left family back in Idaho to go with Walter, and so had the Beagleys, Smiths, Cunninghams, Crones, and Hickmans.
Nobody else said anything, including Eleanor.
But she never forgot it.
For Eleanor Evans, that was the beginning of the end. Before the year was over, Eleanor—twenty-nine, unmarried, and unemployed—left the church. Because she was the first person ever to leave the Oregon City Followers of Christ Church—and many years later, become one of the first to join Patrick in his historic rebellion against the church—she eventually came to consider her act of individuality to be the beginning of the beginning.
* * *
When 1969 came, the world did not end. But the life of Walter White did. There was never another preacher in the church able to place the primacy of ideas over that of personalities and never a new doctrine to help congregants discern right from wrong.
But many in the church were happy with the lack of authority, and the Followers of Christ became the largest and most powerful church—and voting bloc—in town.
THE FOLLOWERS OF CHRIST CEMETERY
OREGON CITY, OREGON
DECEMBER 23, 1974
“Hairy Christmas,” fifty-nine-year-old Vernon Thaine said to eight-year-old Patrick Robbins, as the boy stood over his father’s new grave. Patrick looked up at Vernon with tight, dry eyes and forced a smile.
“Only the good die young,” Vernon said softly, looking into the grave. Vernon put his arm around Patrick and rocked him from side to side, until Patrick could finally cry.
Patrick thought that Vernon was as good as they get, and totally free of fear. The old man would even say something funny at your dad’s funeral if that’s what it took to coax a smile out of you. Vernon was also Patrick’s doctor. He’d been a medic in World War II—one of the Followers’ many Conscientious Objectors—and could cure just about anything. He knew everything that doctors knew, and he was the one doctor who didn’t think he was God, which gave him a big advantage. Vernon was the closest thing they’d had to a preacher since Uncle Walter, though Walter, everybody said, had really been more like Jesus than just a pastor.
The service was held up while Patrick had his cry, and when he finished, his pal Timmy Wyland came over with some of Patrick’s other young friends and gave him a hug. Patrick had been the only boy in the house since his brother died of the flu, but he still felt like he had the best brothers ever. Then the teenagers and grown-ups started to line up for him, and it was pretty cool to have the holiest people on earth promise to take care of him forever. When sixteen-year old Jeff Beagley came along, he gave Patrick the Holy Greeting, on the lips, and it made him feel grown-up, but even sadder, because it meant that he was old enough now to take care of his mom. She was standing off to one side, looking as white as death and as lost as ever. But after the folks got done with Patrick, they went to his mom and gave her envelopes with something to help out, and that put some life back into her ghost-face. Some of the envelopes were pretty thick, and she got more than she could hold, so she gave a big handful to Patrick.
Then something really crappy happened, as if Patrick didn’t already have enough to forget.
His big sister Ella, who everybody was shunning because she killed her unborn baby, pulled up in an old beater. Ella was with that woman people called the Widow, not because she’d lost a couple of husbands, which happened to a lot of wives in the church, but because poison from a black widow spider had gotten into her brain a long time ago and made her crazy. The Widow stayed in the car, which was smart, because the Followers hated her for helping Ella kill her own baby, just like the worldly did. But Ella started marching across the wet cemetery in high heels. When she got close, three of her home-school girlfriends broke ranks and ran over to her, which wasn’t very nice to Patrick and his mom. The girls set up sort of a flying wedge, like in touch-football, and they headed for the grave. Sis looked like she was crying. She looked a lot older, too.
Ella, all sobby, came up to Patrick’s mother and held her hands out. Mom wouldn’t even look at her. It was embarrassing, and just made his sister cry harder.
Then, in a moment Patrick would remember forever, Ella knelt down to his face. “I’m still…,” she said, but had to stop. “Your. Family.… You know that, Patrick.”
Patrick got very calm, at least for an eight-year-old at his dad’s funeral. “No you’re not.” He looked around him. “This is my family.”
Later on, he heard that everybody thought he was a hero, and maybe even a future Prophet, but that sure wasn’t how it felt at the time.
Ella lost it, and nobody had a clue what to do until Vernon put his arm around her and led her back to the road. That was a relief. The Widow met them by the car, and for some ungodly reason Vernon shook her hand. But at least they left.
After that the Followers all went back to the church to decorate their giant Doug-fir Christmas tree, wrap presents, play volleyball and board games, and eat a lot. The moms made really good things on days like this. Extra-crispy chicken. Beef Stroganoff made with country-fresh cream and homemade egg noodles. Chocolate cake filled with vanilla pudding. Strawberry parfait pie with ice cream right inside it. Fudge with the Beagleys’ huge hazelnuts. And always pure-white divinity fudge—that was a tradition, and kind of a joke, since of course they were the only divine people on earth. Even after Patrick was stuffed, the women kept giving him their best desserts and lots of big hugs. All the guys clowned around to make him feel better, and toward the end of it they gathered around him and his mom and said a healing prayer. It wasn’t even silent, which made it very special. Timmy Wyland’s dad led it. He was almost as nice as Vernon—the kind of man who seemed like everybody’s dad.
Then the Morris Brothers Band started playing happy music, like “Jingle Bell Rock” and the Elvis version of “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Jeff Beagley and the other teenagers started dancing—fast—but still touching each other, which was the only proper way. Jeff danced with a girl named Marci, who was barely a teenager. Jeff’s dad yelled out that Jeff was robbing the cradle, and Marci laughed. After that, Les Morris sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and all the grown-ups danced.
By the time they left, Patrick felt surprisingly okay. His mom said that they wouldn’t need to worry about money for a year or two, because God and Walter had been watching over them that day. By then, Patrick figured, she’d be with somebody else—maybe her second cousin Darryl Eells, since his wife had just died of something or other. Mom was brave about the whole deal, but she was still a mess.
In bed, Patrick made himself tired by repeating the Now-I-Lay-Me-Down-to-Sleep a whole bunch of times. He tried pretending his dad was praying with him by the side of his bed, like always, but it didn’t help. Then he thought about how his dad had told him, after Dad got real sick, that no matter what happened, he’d always have The Family. That did help.
As he drifted toward the relief of sleep, Patrick thought about how bad it would be if Darryl was his new dad. But he pushed the thought away. It was easy. He was getting really good at not thinking about things.
GROSSE POINTE, MICHIGAN
It was a perfectly ordinary heavenly summer day, full of miracles and wonder, as devout Christian Scientist Rita Swan drove to her ultrasound appointment—to see if her unborn baby might die—completely free of the devilish force of fear.
Rita already knew what the doctor would say: The ovarian cyst that had been threatening the life of her son was gone.
A few days before, God had guided Rita to Jeanne Laitner, a gifted fellow follower of Christ the Scientist. Laitner, the most revered practitioner in Detroit’s Christian Science Church, had in a matter of moments obliterated the cyst with the power of prayer. One moment the ugly growth had been lodged in Rita’s left ovary, bleeding and burning like a knife wound, and the next—Gone!—blasted away by a laser of divine love.
So the ultrasound—which Rita was doing partly just to pacify her poor, befuddled obstetrician—was not exactly boring, but very anticlimactic. The only interesting part was the macabre experience of being in a hospital, with its dehumanizing machines, the presence of death, and the cheap-motel smell of Lysol that covered the stench of germs, human waste, and fear.
Rita’s doctor, who’d felt the frightening lump during a prior pelvic exam, said he had great news: It had disappeared! This was the kind of day he lived for! A polycystic growth would have drastically increased her chance of a miscarriage, and even its removal would have been dangerous.
Rita, who’d been raised with Midwestern good manners, reacted appropriately. She knew that there were more things in heaven and earth than could be dreamed of in her doctor’s philosophy, but this was no time to rub it in. He was mortal, so she couldn’t expect him to be perfect.
Rita drove home to her husband, Doug, to share the sweet irony of the doctor’s supposed success. Rita and Doug were intellectuals—he had a PhD in mathematics and she had a PhD in literature, from Vanderbilt—and were intelligent enough to recognize a multiverse that existed far beyond the limited human intellect, in the glimmering realm of the spirit. In that world, the impossible happened every day to those lucky few who had discovered that only the goodness of God was real, and that all suffering was illusion.
For the rest of her pregnancy, Rita was, as she later put it, “on cloud nine.”
* * *
Little Matthew Swan was born on March 3, 1976, with Rita’s obstetrician present. The First Church of Christ, Scientist—the official name of the Christian Science Church—had begun to recommend a doctor’s attendance at birth, as well as prenatal care, and Doug and Rita bowed to that wisdom. The Church was quite rational, and so were they. After all, Jesus himself had possessed such a gift for logic that his teachings had long captivated many of the most brilliant minds on earth.
Jesus of Nazareth was, according to Christian Science doctrine, not just the son of God, but the finest scientist of his day.
Absolutely nothing, Dr. Rita Swan was convinced, could possibly go wrong, from that day forward until the end of time.
Copyright © 2013 by Cameron Stauth