I ascend during the church picnic. My thighs peel off the plastic bench with a crisp smack, and I’m two feet into the air before I understand what is happening. I flip a foldout table, clawing for purchase. Potato salad and peach cobbler spill onto the grass. I pinwheel. Gravity rearranges the fat of my arms and thighs, drags my skirt over my head. I wear yesterday’s underwear turned inside out. It didn’t mean anything this morning, to wear day-old underwear. Tears swell my eyelids, run into my cornrow braids.
No one moves—not the deacons at the grill or the congregants at the long benches. Their eyes slide to Granddaddy. He watches me, his face stone. “I’m so sorry,” I blubber, into the silence. He walks away, the sun white on his clerical collar.
The trees slow my assumption long enough for my mother to come. Branches break as she tugs me free. We come down in a green shower. Her body grounds us.
Granddaddy will not look at me, will not speak. “I’m sorry,” I keep saying. He kneels beneath the trees to pray, Jesus in Gethsemane.
“You didn’t do this,” my mother says. I sob into her blouse. I do not think about the air holding me, the emptiness beneath my feet. I do not think about being, for just a moment, more than my body.
I do not remember the first time my mother ascended, but I pretend I do. Perhaps it was during the offering or the altar call. My mother, pushing off the ground barefoot and grinning, her high heels abandoned, cradling me against her belly. Mama still in high school, no older than I am now.
In my memory that is not a memory, we keep rising. The pews drop away. My granddaddy grows still and silent at the pulpit. Below, the congregation gazes up. Above, the chapel roof opens.
My memory is not a memory, and this is what my mother has told me happened: that when she ascended, Granddaddy sprang from the pulpit and grabbed her foot. He pulled until he could reach my legs, and then he grabbed me and wrenched until I screamed. Gravity refused to take hold. My granddaddy kept pulling. He pulled my leg from its socket, he pulled until gravity returned.
My mother gives me a chain. I remember how she wore it looped around her waist, anchored to the furniture. She has not needed it for years now.
The links are cool and open in my hands like little mouths. They raise blue-purple welts where they nip.
I wear the chain when Granddaddy is in the house. It does not soften him. His eyes glance off mine. I keep finding him wracked with prayer.
The chain sinks into the folds of my waist when I ascend. I rub ice on the bruises. I fear the emptiness beneath my feet.
I spend an entire night bumped up against the ceiling. The house groans around me and popcorn Styrofoam peppers my hair; dissolves like chalk in my mouth. When my mother finds me the next day, I am crying. “I’m fat,” I yell at her. “I’m supposed to be too fucking fat to go anywhere.”
She tries to hug me. I shrink away, take savage delight in my misery. She sits on the bed watching me for a long time.
I wear the formless t-shirts she wore the year she stopped ascending, the sweatpants stretched so wide the elastic sags. She wore them the day she put the chain away for the last time, but she cannot wear them anymore. These clothes are my inheritance. They were supposed to protect me.
I dream of the air holding me. In my dreams, I am not afraid.
My mother says, “Your granddaddy was little when Jesus called his mama home.”
I imagine the tent in which my great-grandmother preached, poles strung together with lights, Granddaddy seated on a backless bench in the hot dusk. His mother stands at the pulpit, glistening with sweat, a handkerchief in her hand. She thunders the name of Jesus. The congregation thunders it back.
And then, from the back of the tent, the horses. They come from nowhere and sweep down the aisle, manes white with fire, dragging a chariot. Its wheels knock benches askew and fling worshippers to their knees, tangles them, screaming, in the spokes. Granddaddy tumbles to the grass. He looks up to see the horses and chariot encircle his mother. Their violence raises a whirlwind of flame.
Maybe she ascends, and maybe she just burns.
The chapel is muggy during the eight o’clock service. My dress chafes. Fluid dribbles down my waist. I cannot tell if it is sweat or my scabs. I leave during the offering, lock myself in the bathroom, and shed the chain.
I press wet paper towels to my sores until the stinging stops, then stare at my mirrored self. My gorge rises. I seize a fistful of my underarm, dig my nails into its dark meat, its fat, shake it as if I am trying to rip it off. I tear at my thighs, I sink my fingers into the heavy flesh under my chin, my back, my ass. I open up the scabs, I bore bloody half-moons into my skin, I scream at the girl breaking down in the mirror. She is supposed to be safe. She is supposed to be small. But she isn’t. Her body is a burden and I cannot get out.
When I release myself, I am shaking so hard my legs cannot hold me. I drop where I stand, nerving myself for impact. But halfway to the tiles, my body softens, and I sink into the air.
I lie inches above the bathroom floor, in the stillness of my body. This body that did not let me hit the ground. This body that is mine.
I pull myself to my feet with the help of the sink. The emptiness supports me, firmer than the ground. I pump my arms, propelling myself toward the ceiling. I ascend.
The ceiling tiles are soft as foam, stained brown. I walk myself from one side of the bathroom to the other with my hands. Where ascension was once impulse, it is now deliberate.
I leave the bathroom, drift down the empty hallway to a back door. The walls thrum with the singing of the choir.
Outside, the air is thick and warm and wet. I scale the side of the building. The higher I climb, the harder it becomes to control the ascension. Giddiness spreads from my stomach, electrifies the ends of my braids, curls my toes. I reach the chapel roof. I imagine letting it go and watching the roof, the chain, and Granddaddy drop away.
I lift one hand, then each of my fingers, until I hang on by the shepherd’s crook of my forefinger. Below, my granddaddy’s church. Above, the sky.
I think of my mother, clutching me against her belly, spiraling up.
I grasp the roof with both hands and pull myself down.
Always, my granddaddy preaches of the prophets Elijah and Elisha—the first ascended to heaven in a whirlwind, the other left behind.
And Elisha saw it, and he cried: “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof!” And he saw [Elijah] no more; and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.
I have watched my granddaddy wracked with prayer, on his knees at the altar, groaning into his hands. Watched him waiting in the darkness of the chapel, hours before the first service, staring down the aisles, waiting for the chariots, the horses, waiting for a flaming whirlwind to take him, too.
The service is over. My granddaddy stands among a group of deacons, but his head turns when I enter the chapel. His eyes follow me to my seat. My mother sits in our pew, one shoe off, rubbing her stockinged foot. She looks up as I approach. Her face grows taut. Her hand stills.
“What happened to the chain?” Her tone is careful.
I hold out a hand to her. “Mama,” I say. “It’s time to go.”
She looks at my hand, and then her eyes slide behind me, up to the pulpit where Granddaddy stands. “Baby,” she says. I see, in her face, that I do not have much time.
“Please, Mama. We don’t have to stay here.”
I take her hands in mine. Her eyes dart between me and the pulpit. “Honey—” she says again.
“Mama—we can fly.”
Her hands squeeze mine so tightly the fingers redden. “I can’t,” she says. “I’m too heavy, I don’t remember how, I’ll weigh you down.”
I step back, yank her to her feet. She staggers, following me. The steps leading up to the pulpit creak beneath the weight of my granddaddy’s feet. I know I have run out of time.
Granddaddy grips my shoulder and spins me around. “Sit down,” he says, “and behave.”
I shrug free of him. “You sit down.”
He grabs my arm, burying his fingers into me. But I have done this to myself already. I am done.
“No one came for Elisha,” I say, “and no one is coming for you.”
I snatch my arm free of his grip and push off the ground. And there, beneath my feet, is the emptiness, the air holding me.
“Please.” I still clutch my mother’s hand. I am in the grip of ascension, drifting up. Soon, I will have to let go.
My granddaddy’s face twists. He reaches for my leg.
My mother knocks his arm aside.
“Don’t you touch her,” she says. “Don’t you dare.”
And with that final word, she does something she had not done for all these years: pushes off, and joins me above the ground.