If you spend long enough traveling the disappearing backroads of central Florida, the tale of Bleater’s Bane will come to your ears in tortured snippets, like the whine of a mosquito in some far corner of the bedroom on a hot muggy night, or the fragmented but immortal refrain of “It’s A Small World” on puffs of demon wind from the High Temple in Orlando.
If you ask the locals if they know the story of Bleater’s Bane, they will stare you down as if you were some benighted tourist or something, and either give you a wide berth or try to sell you choice coastal real estate, cheap. But befriend the oldtimers in their watering holes around Lacoochee or Dade City, and provide them sufficient elbow-bending encouragement, and you might hear something like this …
“It was a long time ago. A very long time ago. The Red Sox were still in Winter Haven every February, and the mouse guy hadn’t even thought up Disneyland yet. For the most part, you Yankees hadn’t discovered us, and there weren’t so many of us to discover anyhow. Which was just as well, for there wasn’t much to do but catch alligators and snakes and sell the hides, which was still OK back then.
“That, and go to church on Sundays. And since transport wasn’t all that easy – this was way before I-4 and the Internet, y’know – you couldn’t get to these mega-churches like you got today. You got fifty folks in a congregation, you were doing well. So you had lots of little churches.
“Including this one by the edge of the Green Swamp. Church of the Righteous God, they called it, I think, and it was, I dunno, maybe loosely connected with the Free Baptists and maybe not. And it had this preacher. Not sure about his name. Some say it was Monroe, others Morris, still others Monc, which must have been short for something or other. Anyways, those what say his name was Monc can’t explain how he got it, ’cause he sure weren’t no peaceable, monkish type. He might have coined the phrase ‘fire and brimstone’ his own self. Folk that were there – and they say he filled the place – tell that, every week, he came this close to opening the gates of Hell right there in front of the altar and kicking anyone he thought not worthy straight on through.
“So this one Sunday, Monc, or whatever his name was, was preaching on the book of Matthew. You know, that part about how Jesus was in charge at the Last Trump – you watch out for yourself these days, you hear me? – and was parting the good from the bad, the sheep from the goats, and sending the goats straight to Hell.
“And he’s got maybe three of his best buddies feeling pretty good about themselves, and everyone else in the room sweating bullets, when up walks this dark fellow, a mulatto maybe, wearing this filthy robe that’s full of sawdust. Nobody heard him come in, nobody could remember letting him in – he was a darkie, like I said – and up he comes to the pulpit like he’s got no manners and is deaf on top of that, circles around this Monc while he’s in full cry and taps him on the shoulder!
“Well, Monc jumps four feet in the air and lets out a yelp like he’s been pitchforked by one of those demons he’d been conjuring. Then he whips around and yells in the darkie’s face, ‘What is the matter with you?!?’
“‘Hm’, the darkie replies, ‘I was just about to ask you the same question. But I suppose I have to take some of the blame for the confusion. Next time, I’ll write my own material instead of leaving it to others. Tell me, Mr. Monc, are you a sheep or a goat?’
“‘As a preacher of the Word of God, I pray that I may be counted a sheep!‘, Monc retorted with some heat.
“‘Hm. I would say, from the headbutt you nearly gave me, that you were more like a goat just now.’
“‘You startled me! And you didn’t behave according to the rules of this church!‘
“‘I see. Would those be the same rules that drove the widow Mrs. Carlisle out of town for befriending a black man, even though that black man’s gift of his labor was the only thing preventing the banks from foreclosing on Mrs. Carlisle’s house?‘
“‘Especially after she spurned your own attentions?!? Of which, of course, your wife knew nothing.’
“At this point, of course, there was a gasp from the front pews. Leaving Monc, of course, no option but attack.
“‘You liar! You spawn of the devil! You have no proof of any of this!”
“‘Proof? Only the proof that’s written on the faces of all your buddies who are in the know and have been helping you conceal all this from the rest of your flock. And as for spawn of the devil, you’ve got that exactly wrong, I assure you.’
“‘But … but look at all the good I’ve done!’ There was a note of despair in Monk’s voice.
“‘Precisely. All the good, and all the bad. Like the tax collector. The Roman centurion. The righteous rich man. The prodigal son. The dishonest manager. Like the twelve, even. Peter, for crying out loud! What could be more goat than denying me three times in the space of a single night, when my life’s on the line?!? And that business with Ananias and Sapphira. Was he trying out for the lead role in The Godfather or something?’
“‘Never mind. By your logic, Peter should be roasting in eternal hellfire, the goat of all goats. Instead, he’s the head of my church! Perhaps that ought to tell you something. What’s a sheep sound like when it’s trying to talk to you?’
“‘And a goat?’
“‘Bleats. They sound almost exactly the same. Which is exactly what every human sounds like when that human calls on me. The brilliant and the idiotic, the compassionate and the callous, the considered and the rash, all commingled. Sheep one moment, goat the next, and in the end, purely neither. And if I’m worth anything at all, then, when you all come to me, you’re all made new! The past is gone, it does not matter! You screwed up, we fix it, it won’t happen again. You are remade to be in my Father’s house, and welcome!
“‘Oh, great,’ Monc cried out. ‘That’s all fine and dandy in your house. How’s that supposed to help us keep order and control in ours?!?‘
“‘Good question’, the man in the robe replied, ‘and you humans have been arguing over it for millennia, so I suppose I’m not going to be able to resolve it for you tonight. But I’ll tell you something.’
“‘What?’, Monc demanded.
“‘If you can’t resolve the matter except by yelling and screaming and tormenting and beating on each other, after I and mine have tried to teach you otherwise, then guess what? I’ve got all the time in the universe, I can wait. You don’t, you can’t. Whose problem is it?’
“And when the stranger finished saying this, he vanished.
“And damned if, that very night, a sinkhole didn’t open right under that church and swallow it up, leaving no trace. Monc, his wife and family, and his buddies all vanished, and nothing was ever heard of them again. The rest of the parishioners scattered throughout the neighborhood, and wherever they landed, they proved to be good and caring people, but they said little or nothing about what or where they’d been before. All that a couple of them would say is, ‘I’m a bleater’. Somebody must have worked out that the ‘bleaters’ all came from the Church of the Righteous God what was wiped out in the sinkhole, and that’s where ‘Bleater’s Bane’ came from, and it stuck.”