Visions, Haints and Fever Wit

When I was growing up on Green River in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in the late 1940s and early 1950s, stories of ghosts and visions, hauntings and warnings, made up much of the conversation around the fireplace in winter and on the front porch in summer. My grandpa had a special relish for telling us children about ghosts, or haints, he had seen, of snakes that fell out of attics on people in bed, of panthers that tried to crawl down chimneys on cold nights in remote mountain cabins. I sat weak with fear as he told again about seeing his father, my great-grandpa, once appear in the pasture and walk toward him wearing a new suit of clothes, then vanish just as he got close enough to speak. A week later my great-grandpa had died of a stroke. The vision had been a portent.

And then my grandpa would go on to tell how also in broad daylight his Uncle Calvin had seen the same great-grandpa for three Sundays in a row after his death sitting in his usual place in the Amen Corner in church, singing. But after each service he was gone. A ghost in the dark was one thing; but a ghost in bright daylight was even more scary.

The story that terrified me most was told and retold by my mother. She would say, “It was a perfectly still, clear night and I was sitting by the window where I could see the moon over the mountain.” She always told the story directly to me.

“Suddenly I saw your Uncle Robert and he looked sad, sitting by the window of an airplane, like he wanted to be at home. It was cold and rainy, the way it is in England. Then I saw this awful look come on his face, and there was a big fire, like an explosion and everything disappeared. After that I couldn’t see anything else, but I knew your Uncle Robert had been killed

“I looked up and seen a white dove sitting at the window there, and the moon shining beyond it. Your Uncle Robert liked to paint the moon over the river and over the mountains. And the next day we got the telegram saying Robert had been killed in a B-17 that crashed and exploded at exactly the time I had seen the vision.”

Scarier still was what she would say after each telling. “You was marked,” she would say to me, “by that vision of Uncle Robert’s death.” I had been told often how much I ‘favored’ my Uncle Robert, meaning I looked like him, and that I had his manner and voice, and his interest in drawing and writing and collecting arrowheads. I even took pride in the comparison, for my Uncle Robert had been tall and good-looking, an athlete, popular with girls. Yet I felt ice sink through my belly and soak into my bones.

I knew that ‘marked’ had connotations of curse and possession. A woman’s baby could be marked if she looked into the eyes of a mad dog or snake while she was expecting. A pregnant woman who witnessed an epileptic seizure, or the ravings of lunatic might also mark her child. To be marked was to be special, but also tainted, maybe in danger. What was oddest about my mother’s story was that she always mentioned I had been marked as though it was a blessing, a special destiny, because she had admired her brother so much, and grieved for him before I was born.

Visions on Green River were by no means restricted to family stories. At testimonial services in church an elderly cousin named Adoniram would stand up and, holding onto the bench in front of him, say, as he swayed to the cadence of his voice, “I seed a vision the other night. I stepped out of the house and seen this light come over the mountain. It was a ball of blinding light and it come across the sky. I didn’t know where it was going to land, and then I seed it stop and hang over Hamp’s place.”

Adoniram would pause and wipe his eyes, and sway for a few seconds, before going on. Hamp was my grandpa. “And I heared this voice out of the sky saying: ‘You tell Hamp his son Robert was killed for punishment, for taking land that wasn’t his, for lying about the right of way. You go down to Green River Church next Wednesday night and tell him you have seen a vision to warn him.”

There were phrases in the Bible that inspired awe and fear in me. In Acts 2:17 it spoke of the last days when ‘young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams’.

The preacher often described the Second Coming, when the saved would be taken up to heaven, and the lost wouldn’t even know what had happened until they found they were alone in the world. Once coming back to the house after going to sleep in a field, and finding no one home, I assumed Jesus had come and taken everyone else to heaven, and I was left with the wicked. I ran back out into the field, and kept running, until I saw my mother weeding in the strawberry patch.

It was said that those sick with a fever were in a blessed state, especially if they were near death. A fever patient might speak words of wisdom, if someone knew how to interpret the message. After all, a mortally ill patient was close to heaven The fever vision was a gift, like speaking in tongues.

When I had measles in 1950 and ran a high fever for days, all voices and sounds were distorted. Faraway things seemed close up, and close things faraway. My bones throbbed with soreness, but not with pain. The light in the bedroom was mellow as ripening fruit. One night I said to my mother, “Since we’re in the house of David let’s ask him to play his harp.” I had the sense that I was in a palace or temple. My comment got repeated to the rest of the family, and for months after I got well my sister and other kids would tease me by saying, “Let’s ask David to play his harp,” then giggle and duck away before I could slap them.