Thermai Vignettes - 2. Chapter 2: The Red Heifer
The man turned the pistol toward the boy. He relished the fear he saw in his son’s eyes before he returned the pistol to its holster.
Vignette 2: A Red Heifer
No one is starting new churches any more, not even in the many abandoned strip malls and storefronts that blight cities and towns across the country. The old mainline churches are disappearing: their younger members siphoned off by the Universal Fundamentalist Church; their older members dying. Their properties are being foreclosed, their clergy is aging, their seminaries are shuttered. The plight of the religious communities—ill and impoverished nuns, priests, and monks of the Catholic Church—is painful, even to those of us who understand the emptiness behind their beliefs. The phenomenon that is the UFC has swept the country.
* * * * *
“No! Look, fool” the man said. “She has two black hairs under her eye. You’re supposed to find things like that!” The man’s voice growled through a throat constricted by disappointment and anger. He settled both his anger and his disappointment on the boy who held the heifer’s halter. His blow felled the boy, who released the rope. The heifer bolted toward the barn door.
The man raised his pistol, aimed carefully, and shot the animal, killing it before it could escape. He turned the pistol toward the boy. After relishing the fear he saw in his son’s eyes, he put the pistol into its holster.
“Get up, boy. You got chores.”
The following Wednesday, the boy and his father were present at the weekly prayer meeting of the Lott County Universal Fundamentalist Church.
This modern version of the UFC had its origins in a splinter sect in Mississippi. A Methodist preacher, whose drug-induced visions were too much for that church, which had dismissed him from their ranks, had started his own organization, loosely based on Methodist theology and strongly based on his own prejudices. “We don’t believe in that,” his son had said on the 300+ station radio network when asked about evolution. And the sheep believed, and followed the shepherd and the Judas-goat to the slaughter.
The boy’s father stood and gave his testimony.
“Evolution, like they preach in them science textbooks, is only a theory,” he said. “But macroevolution, which is just good breeding, well, we know it works. You can’t create a new animal, ’cause they was all made by the Lord God in their kind, and there ain’t no new thing under the sun. Says so in the Blessed Bible. But you can make ’em a little different.
“An’ that’s what I’m doing. I’m going to create a pure line of red cattle, and then ship them to Israel. As soon as a pure red heifer is born in the Promised Land, them Jews will start work on the Third Temple. As soon as they’re finished, Jesus will come again in His glory and we’ll be caught up in the Rapture.”
The people who heard this testimony nodded. They didn’t blink or flinch. As improbable as it might seem to an outsider, it was part of their beliefs. The second coming of Christ depended on a lot of clearly defined signs and portents, including the prophecy about a virginal female cow—at least, one which had never given birth—with pure red hair. The connection with the belief that their Christ was born of a virgin didn’t register with them. Such is the nature of faith. Mary or a heifer; nine months for a countess or a cow.
Seamus O’Banion, son of the aforementioned giver of testimony, wasn’t as sure. His father was letting the ranch go to pot, worrying about one particular line of cattle rather than the health of the entire herd. Seamus tried to help, but there wasn’t much a fifteen-year-old could do, especially when he got blamed for every failure.
It was the following year that Seamus agreed that the ranch should go to pot. That was a few years after Colorado, the state just over the county line to the west, legalized that substance.
Pot wasn’t hard to grow, and it was easy to find people in Colorado willing to certify that the bales of marijuana they offered for sale had been grown in that state, even that it had been grown organically. And they had no problem doing business with a sixteen-year-old. Seamus’s father was so wrapped up in the Red Heifer Project he didn’t notice and what he did see, he thought was income from the sale of silage.
Someone did notice, however. Mr. O’Banion was called before the Deaconate.
* * * * *
The UFC traced its origins to the pentecostal-evangelical movement of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Only a few scholars knew the historical origins in the early 20th century among the poor and ignorant of what became the “red” states of the USA. Only those scholars understood that while the framers of the Constitution of the USA had kept government out of religion, they’d failed utterly at a more important task: keeping religion out of government.
* * * * *
“O’Banion? You’ve been selling pot to Colorado.” The senior deacon from the Lott County, Nebraska Universal Fundamentalist Church spoke softly, but there was iron behind his words.
O’Banion didn’t need to say anything. His shocked expression said it all.
“You didn’t know?” the deacon said.
After Mr. O’Banion’s protests had been accepted, Seamus was called in.
Seamus was smarter than the average kid. “No, Deacon, I didn’t know we had to tithe that money to the church,” he said after being called in. “It’s all gone to the Red Heifer Project. Isn’t that the same as tithing?”
Seamus knew that there was no equivalence, and that the deacon’s question was rhetorical. The deacon didn’t care what the rest of the money was used for, as long as the church got its cut.
On the other hand, Seamus and the deacon were standing among a group of powerful members of the church.
What do they believe, really? the deacon wondered.
Can I get away with this? Seamus wondered.
In the end, it didn’t matter what the men believed, for belief wasn’t their motivation. Self-interest was their motivation and central to all they did. They were modern Christians; they would profess to believe in anything as long as it didn’t hurt them and especially if it helped or enriched them.
Enough of the deacons saw promise in the Red Heifer project to forgive O’Banion for not tithing the marijuana sales, but the consensus was that he’d have to tithe in the future—and make up what he’d missed. Enough saw promise in the Red Heifer project to praise it—but not to relieve O’Banion of his financial obligation to the church—and its leaders.
Seamus was sent home. His father was kept behind to discuss a payment plan.
When he reached the ranch, Seamus saw someone in the feedlot. Seamus got out of the truck. His boots squelched in the mud and poop as he walked toward the boy, who was stroking the head of one of the heifers.
“Uh, hello,” Seamus said. Then, he stared. The boy was wearing sandals, yet his feet seemed clean. He was wearing a T-shirt that was belted at the waist and hung only to the tops of his thighs. He didn’t seem to be cold, even though the temperature in Lott was in the single digits, and the wind was blowing.
“Hello, Seamus,” the boy said. “She’s a pretty one, isn’t she?” He gestured toward the heifer as he spoke.
“Yes, and she’s unblemished,” Seamus said. “Why are you not cold? Why are your feet not sinking into the muck?”
The boy giggled. “You’re pretty smart,” he said. “My name is Whittaker. Actually, I’m better named Acer plantonides. And actually I’m a little bit cold, but I would never admit it!”
“You’re silly,” Seamus said. “You could get chilblains, even frostbite! Come on, let’s get inside.” Why am I not afraid? Seamus wondered, but only for a moment.
“Now, why are your feet not dirty?” Seamus asked after he first scraped his boots on the blade-and-brushes by the door, and then removed them.
“Mostly because folks I know don’t like dirt in the house, and I hoped I would be invited into your home,” Whittaker said.
“That’s not an answer,” Seamus said. “Who are you? Why did you say you were named for a tree? Where did you come from? And how did you keep cow-dung and mud off your feet?”
Seamus folded his arms across his chest and glared at the other boy.
Whittaker giggled, and then seemed to become very serious. He stood erect, hands at his side. He looked at Seamus, nodded, and then spoke.
“My name is Whittaker. I am also named for the tree that is important to me. I’ll explain that, later, if I may. I came here from an island near Greece. And I used magic to keep cow shit off my feet.
“Now.” Whittaker giggled before he continued. “Where would you like me to start explaining my answers?”
Seamus pursed his lips as if in thought, and then he giggled. “I want to know, first, more about you and your tree.”
Whittaker responded to Seamus’s giggle with a smile. “Do you know what is a dryad?” he asked.
Seamus took only a second to answer. “A spirit who lives in a tree. But they’re just myth.”
“You’ve answered your own question, even though you may nor believe the answer. I am a dryad, and I live in a tree. I can leave my tree for a while—like now—but I must return soon for sustenance and energy.
“My tree is a maple.”
Whittaker’s clean sandals, and the matter-of-fact way he spoke, made it easy for Seamus to accept this. He asked, “Greece?”
“Actually,” Whittaker said, “Actually, I live on an island in the Aegean, east of Mt. Olympus.”
Seamus sat in thought, and then said, “You’ve answered the easy questions.”
Whittaker knew what Seamus meant: How had I used magic?
“I used some of the power I was given when I became a dryad,” he said. “I used some of that power to keep the cow shit off my sandals and feet. It’s the same power I used to get here from the island.
“When we become dryads, we receive powers, including the ability to pull from a field of energy and use it.
“Why are you here?” Seamus asked.
“Because your father plans to kill you as soon as he gets home,” Whittaker said. “I’m sorry, I don’t know an easier way to say it.”
Seamus nodded. “I believe you, and I don’t know a better way to say it, either. Come. We must be gone from here before—”
He was interrupted by the sound of a vehicle door slamming, and a rough, deep voice yelling. “Seamus? Worthless son-of-a-bitch! Where are you?”
Heavy footsteps on the planks of the porch were followed by the rattle of the doorknob.
“Time to go,” Whittaker said, and touched Seamus’s shoulder. There was a soft sigh as air rushed in to fill the voids where the boys had stood. Mr. O’Banion didn’t hear it, however. His own shouting drowned out everything except the rushing sound of blood circulating through his body, the increasingly fast and heavy lub-dub of his heartbeat, and then the silence when it stopped.
He grabbed his chest before falling, silent and still, to the floor.
The Island of Thermai
“Reggie? Whittaker will arrive with a guest. Will you offer refreshment?”
“Of course, Lucas. Who is the guest? Why is Whittaker—”
The question was cut off when I saw them. Whittaker and a boy popped onto the patio. The boy’s weathered face and the creases and care-lines around his eyes made him appear to be about eighteen. Rode hard and put up wet, came to mind, although I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant, or why I thought it.
The boy wore blue jeans, a cotton work shirt, and a broad belt with a silver buckle, but no shoes. His socks had holes in them.
Whittaker answered the easy questions. “He left his boots on the porch because they weren’t clean. His father was coming to kill him so we had to leave without the boots.”
“I’m sure that will make sense when we know the whole story,” Reggie said. He gave Whittaker a quick kiss, and then ran to the kitchen.
Lucas turned to the boy. “I am Lucas. This is my home, and Reggie and Whittaker’s home, as well. Be welcome. Would you sit?”
The boy nodded. “My name is Seamus, and thank you. I’d like to sit.”
Reggie brought juice, coffee, and water. I was surprised, at first, but warmed when the boy so obviously enjoyed the coffee.
“This is good! I don’t never have good coffee,” he said. “And I have to make it the old-fashioned way: boil the grounds and then settle them with an egg. Don’t always have an egg, neither. I never knew coffee could taste this good.”
“Seamus, having to drink that kind of coffee would guarantee you a place here—if you wanted it.
“Whittaker? This is your show,” I said, and then settled back in my chair.
Whittaker related the myth of the Red Heifer, and explained what Seamus’s father was trying to do. Whittaker got tongue-tied when talking about the marijuana growing and sale, and the business with the church. By then, Seamus was over his initial puzzlement, and filled in those details.
“I don’t know,” Seamus said, “how Whittaker knew my father was going to kill me, but he seemed so sure . . .”
I scanned Seamus’s reality, not to check on what Whittaker had seen, but to see what had happened since Seamus and Whittaker had left.
“He was right. Your father came in the door with his pistol drawn, and was determined to kill you . . . and not simply to frighten you, as he had done in the past.
“I’m sorry, Seamus, but your father is dead. He was so disturbed that he gave himself a heart attack.”
Seamus didn’t flinch.
“I will not miss him,” the boy said. “But I must return to feed the cattle and to make sure the ranch isn’t taken over by the church.”
“Seamus? Where we are, time doesn’t work the same way it does in Nebraska. We will have breakfast, and then return to your ranch only moments after you left it.”
Reggie and Maple (Acer Rubrum—the “first” maple) brought platters of food, including bacon.
“I thought you would be vegetarians,” Seamus said.
Whittaker took a second bite of bacon, and then giggled. “If god had wanted us to be vegetarians, why did he make so many animals out of meat?
“Just kidding,” he said. “The extra energy from fat, from meat, is likely the first thing that separated us from other mammals on the evolutionary ladder.”
There was a rumble of thunder from the west. It probably wasn’t Zeus, but Reggie said, anyway, “Be careful with the g-word. You don’t know who might be listening!”
Seamus looked confused, and then something clicked. His eyes widened. “Dryads. If there are dryads, then there are . . . gods?”
It took the rest of breakfast to explain to Seamus that he was in a place where the Greek gods were real. The ones who were left, that is. We didn’t explain who Lucas was; that might have been too much, at first. If Seamus thought Lucas was a dryad, that would be okay, for now. As Lucas has said, one way to lie is to tell part of the truth.
* * * * *
“Seamus? There are three things we need to do,” Lucas said. “Your chores, including feeding the herd. Dealing with the legal system about your father. And protecting your inheritance from the church.”
“Is there a place for him, and the herd, here?” Whittaker asked.
“I’m sure there is,” Lucas said. “There are large pasturelands on the island, but that must be Seamus’s decision.”
“Lucas? The only inheritance I have is the ranch and the stock. The ranch is mortgaged for much more than its value. The herd, however, is not collateral, although the UFC might make a claim for unpaid tithes. Nebraska is cold! I think I would be much happier here, with you, if I might bring the cattle and the breeding records here.”
“You will try to create a pure red heifer?” Whittaker asked.
“No, not that,” Seamus said. “But the others . . . there is much I can do with them.
“Then all we have to do is bring the herd, here and leave the ranch to the bank and the church to fight over,” Whittaker said.
“Sounds good,” Maple said.
“Not quite,” Lucas said. “It was the deacons and leaders of the UFC who drove Seamus’s father to do what he did. I think we need to invite Nemesis and Tisiphone to the table.”
* * * * *
“A pure red heifer?” Nemesis asked. “For whatever reason?”
“Because they believe that it was a sign of the Second Coming?” Seamus didn’t seem very confident in his answer.
“It’s the Yahweh cult,” Tisiphone said. “They have created so many myths about the future, it’s hard to keep up.”
“There are others,” Aiden said. “Others who are waiting for this moment to break away from their reality into ours.”
It seemed as if the entire population of the compound turned out for the arrival of the “red heifer herd.”
Nemesis and Tisiphone managed to put aside their “boy-girl” rivalry, and planned a visit to the Deaconate. Apollo dropped by—apparently cattle, especially red ones, are considered sacred to him, although he wasn’t picky about a few black hairs. Seamus was settled on pastureland near our closest neighbors. All in all, a very successful intervention.
End Note: Please remember that the events described herein occur in a different reality from your own and that although they may have analogues in your reality, there is intended to be no resemblance between this story and any individual or institution, living or dead, real or imagined. On the other hand, in your reality, some Fundamentalist Christians believe that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ cannot occur until the Third Temple is constructed in Jerusalem, and that this cannot happen until the appearance of a (pure) red heifer born in Israel. At least one fundamentalist rancher and cattle breeder in the United States is attempting to systematically breed red heifers and export them to Israel to establish a breeding line of red heifers in Israel in the hope that this will bring about the construction of the Third Temple and ultimately the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
The red heifer was also considered sacred to the Greek god Apollo. It is featured in many myths, including that of the creation of the lyre. In it Hermes steals Apollo's red heifers and then hides them. To escape Apollo's rage, Hermes creates the lyre—yet another example of another culture’s mythology being coopted by the authors of the Jewish Bible and the New Testament.
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