In the summers, my sister and I used to grow feral, loosed on the Appalachian Mountains with our bare feet and curiosity. We swung and climbed and rooted and tumbled. We brandished crawdads at each other in the creek, pretending that we too were clawed and slick and could be held only at great risk, and only tenderly.
Our mother had to work to put the world back into us so we might be presentable. On Sunday evenings, after she got herself dressed for church, she spent considerable time brushing and slicking our hair into less offensive shapes. She tucked our shirts into our skirts or yanked our slips back into place. She performed other small feats of magic until, when we left home, we appeared neat and trim and quiet with our Bibles tucked under our arms, purse straps glinting across our shoulders. No one would have guessed that there were bruises on my mother’s arm in the shape of my father’s hand. Or that the night before, I’d woken up screaming and thrashing in bed from night terrors, dreams of dark, slick things writhing up my body. We looked like we belonged.
Our church was a five-minute drive from our house in Cutshin, Kentucky, down a narrow, winding road in the mountains. It had thick blue carpet and matching blue fabric on the pews, worn brown hymnals, and little white envelopes made for tithing. The ceiling was crisscrossed with wooden beams. Long, six-sided light fixtures hung from heavy brass chains, opaque white panels alternating with faux stained glass. When the service went long, I stared at the fixtures and counted the blocks of color. Up front, a wide stage was covered in the same blue carpet and had a pulpit where the preacher stood and sometimes stomped and sometimes flourished a white handkerchief. One corner of this stage was dedicated to instruments—a piano, acoustic and electric guitars, a drum kit, and a tambourine that anyone could pick up and shake.
The services on Wednesdays and Sundays began and ended with songs like “There Is Power in the Blood,” “Ain’t No Grave,” “Are You Washed in the Blood,” and “Old Time Religion.” I always listened to the pastor’s sermon, but I was waiting for the moment he stepped back from the pulpit, spread his hands, and asked one of the Sisters to bless us with a song. Only then did I put away the crayons and scratch paper that my mother allowed my sister and me to bring. When the music began, the congregation stood. They clapped together, swayed together, sang the chorus of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” together so that one voice became two, then became a hundred singing the same praise. Near the front of the church, a woman stomped the carpet. Someone shouted, “Hallelujah!” and someone answered back, “Amen.”
I used to imagine the Holy Ghost as a fog that slept in the rafters of our church. I thought our music, singing, and shouting woke the Spirit. When It looked down and saw us, It was reminded of how lonely It was, how much It loved the children of God. Like the wind, the Holy Ghost wasn’t visible, but we could still feel Its power. It gave those It touched the ability to speak in tongues, the word of God pouring out of their mouths in garbled consonants and rolling vowels. This happened most often to men as they stood with their backs stiff and straight, their throats a hollow that the Lord filled with song.
But the Holy Ghost touched women, too: my mother and my aunts and the women of the church who worked their gardens and tended their flowers wearing long skirts, heavy hair secured with bobby pins. Their voices were soft and low. They never cursed and rarely shouted, but they could whip their children silent with a single raised eyebrow. They were not joyless women, but they were disciplined, controlled in a way that seemed built into their bones, the frame of them made for endurance.
Before the Holy Ghost fell, I could feel something building in the air. On nights like this, these women I thought I knew so well would transform, dancing in the Spirit to express their love for God. There was one woman in particular whom I always watched—a schoolteacher with dark-framed glasses and a whispering laugh. One moment she stood with her hands lifted at her sides and her eyes closed. From the stage, a voice sang, “Some people get offended, because I dance and shout. They say that’s too much emotion, too much moving about.” In the next moment, the woman hinged forward, bending sharply at the waist. Her dark hair fell in a curtain around her and rose in a wave when she jerked back up, her body swinging down and back, down and back. One time, her glasses flung from her face and landed two rows up, the lenses glinting under the lights.
The band repeated the chorus, the fastest and loudest part of the song, the words that everyone knew best: “It feels like fire shut up in my bones, this Holy Ghost fire shut up in my bones.” We were all Jeremiah. We knew that the word of God was like fire because we felt it licking the soles of our feet. Someone swayed in her pew, first one way and then the other, a sheet on a clothesline before a storm. Other bodies took up the movement. Some women wailed—a deep bellowing sound that echoed from the high ceilings, caught beside the whine of the guitar, both sounds reverberating like a single chord struck. Another woman spun in tight circles. The noise and the movement, the guitars and the tambourine, built something new together, something joined of note and bone, body and sound. We were like a breath held inside God’s great lungs, as close as we might ever be to Heaven while trapped here on earth. The women’s dancing was proof that our God was not only real, but that He had chosen to be among us that night.
My mother didn’t scream or shake when she was filled with the Holy Ghost. She didn’t run down the aisles or fall to the ground, slain. My mother bowed her head and closed her eyes and clenched her fists at her sides. She pounded her feet against the bright blue carpet, her legs rapid-fire pistons. There was a little bounce, sometimes, at the end of my mother’s two-step, a jolt that worked its way from the bottom to the top of her and then back, and the rhythm reset. I wondered what that bounce meant. I wondered if it was the spirit of God finding its way through her, pulsing like a synapse from the cavern of her skull to the tips of her painted toes. I felt both covetous and afraid as I watched my mother dance. This same body that had been taught to clothe itself from throat to ankle was now anything but modest. It was unabashedly a body, a creation of skin and bone and muscle and fat, a body responding to the music as it was meant to respond—with movement.
I was never filled with the Holy Ghost. Maybe I was too young. Maybe I didn’t believe enough. Maybe I didn’t ask for God’s Spirit in the right way. I didn’t lift my hands when the choir sang and rarely sang along. I kept my body close, my hands gripped on the pew in front of me, my feet planted solidly on the ground. No toe-tapping, no bouncing. I wanted to dance like the others, but I didn’t know how to unfold myself. I was afraid to be touched by the Holy Ghost. I was afraid to be touched. I was afraid that no touch could be good, because I had learned and was learning still that some touches hurt.
And I was afraid of my mother’s dancing, too, because it felt so much like leaving. She was present in the aisle beside me, but she was gone—not the woman I saw every day cooking biscuits and gravy for breakfast or running a brush through my tangled hair.
But then, the music slowed. The tambourine was returned to the stage, the drums abandoned until only the slower, deconstructed melody of the piano was left, the music falling apart as the congregation put themselves back together. The women walked the aisles breathing hard, trembling, lifting their hands and whispering, “Lord, Lord.” My mother eventually came back, too, back to the body I knew. She came back to long skirts and high collars, crossed legs and panty hose. The schoolteacher sat down and brushed her hair back into place. She righted the twisted denim of her skirt, pressed her back to the pew and lifted her hands to the place where her glasses had been, realizing that something was missing now, something was gone.
Again and again I have returned to these moments, piecing together who I am as a grown woman outside the church. My faith taught me how to conceal my body in the name of modesty, how to fear my body in the name of respect. But on those nights when the Holy Ghost fell, the church also became my greatest example of female freedom. The church was trauma and shame, yet it was one of the few places where I felt safe. It was there, among the music and songs and fever of the Spirit, where I first believed that bodies could be powerful, even holy. It’s there where I return as I struggle to believe the same thing about myself.
On those nights when the band played and the women danced, I was holding more secrets than just the bruises on my mother’s arm. I didn’t yet have the words to explain what was happening, that I had been sexually abused for years. When I dreamed of something dark and slick grabbing my ankles and pressing on my chest, I dreamed of my abuser.
In a video from my childhood, my sister and I play in the one-lane dirt road that runs the length of our holler. Atop the hill where we lived, my mother stands behind the camera, her hand shaking as she pans back and forth to catch my sister and me riding our bikes, clouds of yellow dust sweeping behind our wheels. The video cuts in and out, interrupted by static, then the picture disappears altogether only to shudder back into place a few frames later, still fixed on the road. At one point my mother calls out and asks us to dance for the camera. My sister responds immediately, twisting her body from side to side, kicking out her legs, her bangs sweeping over her forehead as her head bobs up and down.
My mother has to coax me out from my hiding place beneath a short overhang on our hill. I appear to be four, maybe five, although I tell myself that I am four, definitely four, because four means before the abuse. That little girl, standing in the road with her hands clutched in front of her belly, squinting up at her mother, is evidence of a time when I existed before someone else laid their hands on me. My bangs hang over my eyes, and my feet are pointed inward even as I begin to move. No music plays in the background, but I can now see something familiar in the way my sister and I dance, our bodies already influenced by those nights in church. Our two-step isn’t as practiced or fluid as our mother’s, but I can see it in our stomping feet. My hands never unclutch. I kick my legs, stirring up smaller clouds of dust, before I grow shy and run back to my hiding place. My mother cheers me on before the scene cuts away, stuttering to black for a few frames before it picks up on a different scene, a different day. If it weren’t for this old VHS tape, I probably wouldn’t remember the moment at all, like other periods of my childhood lost to the blankness of trauma.
What I can’t forget: five-year-old me, lying on my back on my abuser’s cold basement floor, my breaths ragged as I stare at the place where mushrooms grow from the dark earthen walls. The stench of cold earth mixed with the mothballs scattered in the corners to keep the snakes away.
Thirteen years have passed since I set foot inside the Pentecostal church, but I still sleep with a Bible under my mattress. My mother put it there years ago to keep the nightmares at bay. Gilt lines the edge of the pages so that if you riffle them between your fingers—backward from Revelation to Genesis, from last breath to first—the pages catch the light and shine. I still carry a prayer cloth in my purse. Sometimes when I’m doing the dishes, I’ll catch myself humming “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” I’ll half expect to lift my head and see the pews rising from the dish suds, someone standing on a stage singing, Don’t tell me to be quiet or go sit down in my pew, because if you felt what I felt, you’d be shoutin’ too. All around me, drumbeats and handclaps, my aunts touched by the Holy Ghost and dancing in the aisles, so much music and commotion that there’s no room for anything else—no fear, no worry, no shame.
One of my greatest fears is that once people learn about my abuse, they will never see me the same way again. I’m afraid that my body ceased to be my own in that basement and that my friends and family will never see me as fully grown, fully myself. I’m afraid that, for the same reasons, I will never know my body as something beautiful, whole, undamaged, or holy.
But there’s another part of me that knows better, because I watched my mother dance. She danced brokenhearted, lonely and afraid. She danced when she was shamed for having a husband who cheated on her, who lied to her. She was shamed for things she never did wrong at all, but still she danced. I need to know that the two can exist together— the self who dances and the self who was abused. That I don’t have to be untouched to be free.
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