Three Levitations: Julia Elliott on Rapture

from Andrei Tarkovsky's film .

Toward the end of my short story “Rapture,” a small, wizened, evangelical grandmother called Meemaw, after speaking in tongues and describing the End Times in lurid detail, levitates for a few glorious seconds before plopping back down upon the stained sofa of a humble living room. Of all the supernatural feats reputedly performed by saints, levitation is one of the slyest maneuvers. Imagine the face of the levitator as she is briefly whisked into the air, lifted from gravity’s pull and all of its humiliations. She is smirking rapturously, of course. I’ve always wanted to write a story called “Three Levitations,” which I envision as a triptych featuring different mortals caught up in states of temporary weightlessness—two of them famous figures of Western history, the other an unknown person whose marvelous buoyancy is less legendary.

Specimen number one: Saint Thomas Aquinas, the scholastic theologian and Italian Dominican priest who lived during the crusty thirteenth century. In his three-volume tome Summa Theologica, Aquinas infamously calculates such mysteries as “the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.” While in graduate school at the University of Georgia, I read the Summa Theologica’s magically realist “Treatise on the Angels” and was entertained by Aquinas’ speculations on angelic hierarchies, the metaphysics of air bodies, and the telepathic quirks of interdimensional communication. Despite his fascination with incorporeal beings, Aquinas was a “huge, heavy bull of a man” who struggled with gluttony—but who, nevertheless, supposedly levitated while chatting with the Virgin Mary. I picture him as a giant in sweaty sackcloth, his pink, hypertensive face gleaming like a broiled ham as he floats two inches from his chair, his mind swept up into the empyrean, the highest heaven, the realm of pure flame where celestial beings swarm like fireflies.

Specimen number two: James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, who was born in South Carolina in 1933 and who died at the dawn of the twenty-first century. I will not attempt to describe his rich voice by comparing it to warm molasses, nor will I reduce his dance repertoire to a few quirky adjectives. The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business lived a long and spectacular life, during which he offered a variety of philosophical views to the world—on the nature of patriarchy, for example (“It’s a Man’s World”), and the ecstatic transcendence of erotic love (“I Feel Good”).  A self-described “Sex Machine,” Brown claimed that he had “powerful testicles given to him by the government.” He once gave a boisterous, drunken tv interview after being arrested for domestic assault. In the late 1980s, high on Angel Dust and armed with a shotgun, Brown engaged cops in a two-state car chase, after which he served three years in prison. According to an urban legend floating around South Aiken High School (my alma mater), James Brown levitated in prison. Several inmates swore they’d seen an eerie lunar light emanating from Mr. Dynamite’s cell, and there, at the center of the brilliance, floating in the Lotus position one foot above his cot, was inmate number 155413, aka Soul Brother Number One, aka Mr. Please, Please, Please, aka the Minister of the New New Heavy Super Funk.

Specimen number three: some modest non-entity who would die in obscurity after achieving a few seconds of miraculous floatation. For the sake of diversity, I envisioned this figure as a woman. I toyed with the idea of unearthing a female mystic from the Middle Ages or perhaps a nineteenth-century theosophist, some eccentric lackey from the Madame Blavatsky circle. But then, late one night when I was in a state of half-sleep, a vision popped into my head: an old woman in a nylon housecoat, her wash-and-set hairdo wrapped in toilet paper and secured with a plastic cap, her toothless face wrenched in the throes of ecstasy. It was Meemaw, the grandmother of a Jesus-freak girl who went to my elementary school. In “Rapture,” the girl is named Brunell Hair. In another work of mine (“The Raven”), Brunell appears as an “inbred angel” whose “eyes [are] silvery and tormented and slightly froggish.” Hailing from “a tribe of pinched-up, possum-eating Pentecostals,” Brunell is a tightly wound child with a dark and lavish imagination.

When I was in second grade, I attended a slumber party at the real “Brunell’s” uncannily tall mill house, the upper story of which seemed to be swaddled in clouds. In the wee hours of night, just after we’d crashed from a sugar high and our rabid chatter had dwindled to whispers, Brunell’s grandmother materialized on the couch and started speaking in tongues. As we lay there, immobile with terror—six little girls cocooned in Garfield or Holly Hobby or Barbie sleeping bags—Meemaw went on and on about the book of Revelation, describing every scale on the dragonish hide of the Great Beast of the Apocalypse, the stench of burning human flesh, and the cannibalistic antics of the depraved sinners left behind on planet Earth. As I recall, I hardly slept that night, falling into patchy and feverish dreams in which Meemaw flitted around the room on buzzard wings, thudding against walls and cursing in her strange, croaky voice, which resembled the cryptic baritone of Darth Vader.

So, rather than writing “Three Levitations” as planned, I got pulled whole-hog into Meemaw’s story, a drama of blood and desire and dynastic powers that eventually became “Rapture.” Instead of having elementary-school-age girls witness Meemaw’s antics, I placed the observers at the threshold of adolescence, poised for imminent transformation while witnessing the tiny grandmother’s brief defiance of natural law. The tweens in my story, trapped in a small South Carolina town and raised in more secular families, are bewitched by Meemaw’s mysticism. Just on the verge of sexual awakening, they pine for arcane realms beyond their childish comprehension. They can almost taste the apocalyptic upheaval that will obliterate their childhoods. They crave, more than anything, that moment when they will be swept up into some exquisite, churning ecstasy beyond themselves as angelic throngs raise a hullaballoo.

The narrator of the story conflates the Blondie song “Rapture” with the Second Coming of Christ, envisioning Jesus as a handsome hesher with a “wild, Mötley Crüe mane.” She imagines the Messiah “cruising down to Earth on a glittery gold escalator” and hopping into a red convertible with the miraculously hot Debbie Harry. Meemaw, in addition to describing Hell-on-Earth, speaks of the pleasures of the flesh, envisioning paradise as a place where her dead husband will be waiting for her, “looking like he did at age nineteen, his hair thick as a stallion’s mane, his lips sweet as summer plums.” And then, gobbling the penny candies that she stashes in her housecoat pocket, reveling in the erotic perks of paradise, her eyes closed and her crinkled skin faintly aglow, Meemaw is lifted into the air.

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[1]From C.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox (1933).

[2]Based on the testimony of Lisa Agbalaya Ross, who took Brown to court for sexual harassment in 2002 (as recounted in “James Brown Has Powerful Testicles, Given to Him by the Government,” Rock Star Babylon, Jon Holmes).
[3]My short story “The Raven” appeared in Conjunctions: 50: Fifty Contemporary Writers, Spring/Summer 2008.
 

 

Julia Elliott’s writing has appeared in Tin House, The Georgia Review, Conjunctions, the New York Times, and other publications. She has won a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, and her stories have been anthologized in Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses and Best American Short Stories. Her debut story collection, The Wilds( Tin House Books, 2014), was chosen by KirkusBuzzFeed, Book Riot, and Electric Literature as one of the best books of 2014 and was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her first novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch (Tin House Books, 2015), was a finalist for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Prince of Tides Literary Award.