The Town that Went to Sleep

It was a hot July day in the sleepy town of Backwater, Mississippi. Population 7,953. Miss Dawn Feathercock was sitting in the rocking chair on the front porch of her parent's stately two-story brick home. Dawn was an attractive woman with wavy red hair that flowed to her waist like a river of silk, laughing green eyes, and a capacious bosom. She was twenty-two years old and the object of affection of countless men in town but she had yet to offer her hand to any of them.

The deep-blue sky was cloudless that day. The air deathly still. Dawn was the first person to see the sporty red convertible speeding down the dusty road that ran in front of the house. "Good Lord," she cried as the unknown vehicle roared by, light-blue exhaust spewing from the tailpipes. The man at the wheel was only a blur, but even so she was certain she saw him wave at her and smile.

***

It was thirty minutes later, in the fading light of the afternoon, when Dawn rose from the porch, hurried up the stairs to her bedroom, put on her favorite blue dress and yellow sunbonnet, crossed the hall to the bathroom, powdered her face and arranged her hair, went back outside, across the walkway and down the dusty road that led to the center of town. Her destination was Treyborne's Grocery Store. She would purchase a side of beef, four medium potatoes, eight white onions, a few carrots, and a sprig of parsley for the evening meal. Louisiana Stew. Her parents' favorite meal.

***

Dawn saw Farmer Brown working in his fields on the edge of town and she waved. He stopped, wiped the perspiration from his brow, and gave her a grin. Farmer Brown was a corpulent man with a thick neck and lumberjack arms. He was known throughout town as a man of strong character and good humor, even if he was a bit eccentric. If the truth be told, however, his good humor masked a deep sadness in his soul: his beloved wife of thirty years had passed away only the year before. At the time he said he would never recover. Today, Farmer Brown looked like an overstuffed teddy bear with his blue overalls, red cotton shirt, and high black boots. Dawn giggled. She had always loved Farmer Brown.

He motioned her to him. She frowned and pointed at her dress. She would get it dirty if she trudged across the field, she cried out. He laughed and came over to her. "Where you headed?" he asked.

"To town."

He smiled. "To see that preacher man, I bet."

"Who?"

"Herbert Horatio Stent. The man from Tupelo. Running for Head of the Glorified Unification Church of the One True Righteous God. Least that's what he says. Don't know what he thinks he can accomplish here though. We're all atheists, aren't we?" He winked.

Dawn shook her head. "I'm off to the grocery. It's Father's birthday and I wanted to cook him something special."

Farmer Brown nodded. "Good girl. I always said you had your priorities straight."

He clapped her on the back and then he turned and headed back into the fields.

Dawn walked on in the slanting afternoon sun. She heard birds chirping from a nearby tree. A mangy gray dog barked at her from the side of the road. She'd never seen the animal before and he didn't look too friendly. She quickened her step. Cumulus clouds had moved in from the west but they did nothing to hide the burning sun. Dawn had never known it to be so hot. Like an inferno, she thought. She looked at the flowers on the hillside that overlooked Farmer Brown's fields. Pale-blue flowers with golden-yellow centers. What were they called? Bluebells? Blueangels? No—bluets, that was it. Or something like that. She could never remember. They must be so hardy to withstand the sultry summer heat. Next time she saw Farmer Brown she would be sure to ask their name.

She passed Dottie Flanigan's house and she saw her looking out the living room window. Dot was a rambunctious girl with raven hair and milky-white skin. Dawn waved and Dot waved back. Seconds later the front door opened and Dot emerged onto the porch.

"Watcha doin'?"

"Heading to town. Need anything?"

"No, I don't think so." Dottie paused. "Though if you see the preacher tell him I'm sorry I missed yesterday's sermon."

"Preacher Stent?"

"There's none other in Backwater, is there?"

"None that I know of. When did he arrive?"

"Three weeks ago. Where have you been? He's all people are talking about! You've holed yourself up in your house, Dawn. Readin' too many books. Is that all you ever do?"

"Course not."

"I guess then it's just that you don't believe."

Dawn frowned. "Nobody does, do they?"

"Not true!" Dot shot back. "Well, maybe at first. Herb was jeered—you're right. But only for a little while. After people got to talking things over, you know, they changed their way of thinking."

"Perhaps."

"You go hear him now; you'll see."

It was then Dawn noticed that Dot was holding an oversized, black book in her left hand. She had never known her friend to read much and she asked what it was.

"The Bible, silly." Dot laughed. "Herb passes them out. You of all people should recognize it. Now you better get going or you'll be late."

***

Dawn was approaching the center of town when she heard a rumble that sounded like distant thunder. She wondered what it might be. Another block and then she heard clapping and cheering. Her heart skipped a beat when she rounded the final corner and saw a crowd gathered in the park across from the grocery. Everyone was gazing at a middle-aged man wearing a gray seersucker suit and dark necktie who was standing before a wooden dais. The platform stood atop a stage papered with red, white, and blue bunting. There was a banner hanging in front which read: "Reverend Herb Stent: Backwater's Choice."

Dawn drew closer. There must have been at least five hundred people assembled. Why, she had never seen such a large crowd in Backwater! The preacher's eyes shifted from one person to the other as he took them all in. He pulled a silk handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiped it across his deeply furrowed brow.

Dawn tapped the back of the lady in front of her and asked: "What's going on?"

The lady turned and Dawn beheld an elderly woman with a thin face and dark-brown eyes. "Herb's quite remarkable, isn't he?" the woman said. "The best darn preacher in Mississippi. He's got my vote!"

Religion was not a favorite topic in Backwater. The clergy had ignored the place for years and with good reason. Ever since the war, which had claimed several of Backwater's young men, belief in a higher deity had faded. No one found it within their heart to forgive God for what had happened. Not a single person had attended church the past year which meant that the collection plates had gone empty. The town's leading church disbanded when it became apparent the south's religious leaders had no desire to pay attention to Backwater any longer. The remaining churches followed suit, and the town soon became known as a home for atheists.

Now something had changed. But what?

Herb Stent was a charismatic man with languorous dark-brown eyes. His voice a booming baritone that shattered the stillness of the park. Yes, Dawn could see why Dot found him attractive.

He grinned maniacally as he pointed at the crowd. "You are going to sleep!" he cried. "Everyone of you!"

Dawn moved away. She had always felt awkward in crowds.

***

Herb soon became the talk of the town. In coffee shops, barber shops, Ramsey Park, all over Backwater, everyone had their opinion. Most thought him charming and found themselves wooed by his good looks and seductive words, yet others wondered aloud at his motive—what was he doing in Backwater, after all? A reporter from the local newspaper investigated Herb's background and concluded it was just as Farmer Brown had said: Herb was running for head of the Glorified Unification Church of the One True Righteous God. The church was the brainchild of the well-known pastor Richard Stent the Third, the preacher's father. It had grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade, mainly in the south, where it had arisen in the Mississippi delta region, but its influence was beginning to spread north as well—having recently reached the suburbs of Washington D.C.

***

Did you hear?"

"What?"

"Fast asleep."

"Who?"

"Old Miss Watercress. Keeled over at dinner last night. Slumped in her chair like a dead woman and began to snore."

"Sick?"

"Don't believe so."

"She's old, isn't she? How old is she? She must be in her nineties."

"She's seventy-eight."

"She's always been healthy as a horse, I doubt anything's wrong with her, if that's what you're thinking."

"Nothing the doctors can detect. It happened a week ago and she still hasn't awoken."

***

It began, not surprisingly, in the old people's home on the edge of town. One by one residents began sleeping for periods much longer than normal, sixteen, twenty hours, sometimes for days at a time. Usually it happened suddenly, the affected person dropping to the floor in an apoplectic fit that turned into a maddening silence as he slowly lost consciousness. In other cases it was like a fog which smothered the afflicted, as if he were drowning in molasses. Soon people all over town were complaining of feeling "not quite there."

And they weren't.

The town's doctors were puzzled. One diagnosed it as collective amnesia; loss of memory seemed to be a complicating factor and would linger for weeks after the initial episode. Another thought it related to African sleeping sickness, a malady known to affect countries of that continent and which may have been brought to the state by an unsuspecting visitor, perhaps a visiting professor at the University of Mississippi. A third, solemnly pontificating, said it was something else entirely; the citizens of Backwater were the chosen ones, the true believers. Soldiers falling in line. No one knew what he meant.

***

In Ransey Park, Herb was speaking. He had been in Backwater nearly a month by this time and the citizenry talked of no one else. The local newspaper had run a series of editorials praising his positions. And though the election was still a month away, they had already given him their unqualified endorsement. No one knew the names of those running against Herb. Indeed, no one knew if anyone was running against him. It was as if a hurricane was blowing through town, as if a great flood was washing everything away, as if time itself had stopped.

Herb went on for nearly an hour on the state of religion in Mississippi, the issues that affected the populace—issues of decadence and sin—and by all accounts his sermon was thought-provoking. Some found his words profound and were swayed by his reasoning. Others weren't so sure, parts made sense, they admitted, but other parts seemed like pure babble. Still others were convinced the man was a charlatan, a nincompoop, a fool.

***

It's a rotten shame, you know."

"What do you mean?"

"The man is a fake. Any fool can see that."

"Some think him a saint."

"His eyes are shifty."

"Or an angel."

"He has no wings."

"You don't need wings to speak the word of God."

"Did you see that scar across his left cheek? His dark, alien eyes? Marks of the devil, I tell you! He wants something and he takes us for fools."

***

Dawn's father, former pastor of the now defunct Church of the Holy Cross, was one of those who considered Herb a heathen. "He's after something," he said one day. "I just don't know what."

"Some people says he's the son of God," Dawn said.

"It doesn't matter what anyone says," her father insisted. "The man's a blasphemer."

Dawn fidgeted nervously, afraid to say what she knew was on both of their minds.

***

It was no longer confined to the elderly. All over town people of all ages were slowly succumbing to an endless sleep. The newspaper termed it an epidemic of biblical proportions. The town's doctors were pursuing several promising leads, but had yet to come up with a definitive cause. A cure was months away at best, they said. And that meant time was running out.

***

It was ten o'clock one morning the first week of September when Dawn found Farmer Brown in his fields, tilling the land. The sky was a serene blue. A pair of red hawks glided overhead.

"Let me tell you about Herb," Farmer Brown said and he drew so close that Dawn could feel his soft breath against her cheek as he whispered into her ear: "He thinks he's an angel, you see." Startled, she stepped back. "An angel from Heaven," he continued. "Sent here by the Lord to cure us of our ills. But you know what? The people in Backwater don't understand his words. Nope, not a one. He's tried; oh, has he tried! Sermonizing to the masses for hours on end, but his words have fallen on deaf ears. People think they know what he's saying, mind you. But have you noticed that everyone seems to have their own interpretation? And not one of them is right, not one!"

"Dottie says Herb is the wisest man she's ever listened to."

"Most likely he is."

"And that when he speaks of the human race he's really talking about the people of Backwater."

"Certainly."

"And that he will waken us to the evils that surround us."

"Right again."

Dawn coughed to clear her throat. "But what he's really doing is murdering us, isn't he?"

Farmer Brown looked deep into her emerald eyes. She seemed terribly sad. "It may be—as Herb says—that we live in a land of infidels. I don't know. But I'm not sure it matters and I know that I don't care. Not anymore." He reached out to touch Dawn's cheek, her soft alabaster cheek upon which tears were slowly falling.

***

Dawn wasn't sure what to make of what Farmer Brown had told her. She wanted to keep talking, but he had turned and was heading back into the fields.

She headed home, walking slowly down the dusty road. In her mind, she saw the intense light of an explosion, clouds of black smoke, orange flames shooting skyward. It was if she was suspended in a dream.

She remembered Farmer Brown telling her once that if anything should happen to him he wanted her to watch over the farm. How could she do that? A young girl of twenty-two. Perhaps he meant for her to watch over the flowers that bloomed on the hillside. Those pretty blue flowers that smelled so heavenly. And that she would be sure to do.

***

She found Herb Stent in the trailer park on the edge of town. He was washing his red convertible, rubbing it down with a shiny black cloth. A mangy gray dog was sleeping on the grass beside him, and it raised its ear as she approached.

It was late afternoon, the air thick, the heat stifling. She took a deep breath, screwed up her courage.

"Mr. Stent, what are you doing here?"

He looked up, startled at first, then smiled when he saw her. Another soul to save, he thought. There were so many. "Why do you ask, my child?" he said.

"Farmer Brown says you are an impostor."

"And you believe him?"

"Truly, sir, I don't know what to believe."

"That's why I am here. To tell you."

"But I don't know whether to believe you or not."

"You must. You must believe."

"What if you are merely a liar, an impostor? Mr. Stent, what if you are the Antichrist?"

"But that is not true. I care simply about the salvation of the soul."

"Mine or yours?"

He scrutinized her with cold, punctilious eyes, and his lips curled into an odd, twisted smile. "Your tongue is tart, my child. That will not serve you."

There was poison in that voice, she thought.

"Your problem is that you are so young," he continued. "You have not had time to lose your faith."

"I have no faith to lose," she answered. "Not anymore."

***

Three days later, Farmer Brown was found dead, his body hanging from the bough of an oak tree. He had been harassing young girls, it was said. The police were making inquiries. Dawn could not believe what was happening and she ran to the edge of town where she knew he must be, saw his body dangling from the bough of the oak tree, swinging slowly in a gentle breeze that was coming in from the south, the fresh aroma of blueberries pouring down from the hillside, and suddenly she felt a terrible vertigo. Her head was heavy as lead and her eyelids were closing and everything was misty and she lay on the grass and soon she was fast asleep, slip, slipping away into an endless dream.

***

Herb Stent, itinerant preacher, blue-eyed son of one of the most famous preachers in the south, Richard Stent the Third, founder of the Glorified Unification Church of the One True Righteous God, was in the town square, waiting for an audience that would never come, for the collective heartbeats of Backwater had been stilled. When another hour passed and still the park was empty, he realized what had happened. And he knew that with the town asleep he would get no votes. He would never succeed his father as head of the Glorified Unification Church which was what he wanted more than anything else on this earth. "What an imbecile I am," he muttered. "I've only been wasting my time in this place."

He scowled and spat on the ground in disgust. He wiped a hand across a weary brow. He got into his sporty red convertible and drove away.

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