We began to whisper the name, quiet and mournful, pleading, like a chant. Something about the air felt heavier as the sound swelled and filled the room.
Jesus heard us calling, and he came.
Come forward, the pastor said. All at once, all around me, people rose from their seats and moved slowly to the front of the church. Jesus kept falling out of our mouths, louder now. I was moving too – legs and lips – but I didn’t feel either. Everything was numb but my heart, burning like a bonfire in my chest. I couldn’t feel my head. I couldn’t think.
The sound was growing. It was frantic shouting and long, painful wails. It was trembling arms raised in the air, quivering knees. It was bodies wracked with sobs, face-first on the carpet. It was spinning and dancing and rolling and falling, surrounding me, me standing eyes closed and frozen in a circle of noise and movement and Jesus.
He was sucking the air from my lungs, and that’s when I knew something was about to happen. The heaviness was unbearable.
A man’s hand closed down on my forehead, hard. “Speak,” said a voice I didn’t recognize.
At first it was mostly vowels, pouring out of my mouth louder than I knew I was capable of. My tongue started twisting and forming words, holy words. Sounds spewed out, sounds I’d never heard, and I couldn’t comprehend them. It was as if they came from deep inside me and not my mouth. It was like a vomit. My chest was painfully full of it, and I couldn’t stop.
“The Holy Spirit hears you!” cried another voice near me. The chaos continued to swirl. I tried to open my eyes but my mouth, or the words falling out of my mouth, wouldn’t let me. There was a soft thud beside me where someone, wailing for Jesus, fell to the ground.
The hand was back on my forehead again. I was speaking – shouting – so loud and hard that a trickle of sweat ran down the center of my lower back, and I’d started feeling lightheaded. But the words kept me upright, rooted to the floor as firmly as a tree trunk, even as the voices got louder and the air got heavier and the hand gripped harder against my head.
The man’s tongues joined in with mine, and then I became aware of more all around me. None were alike, not even similar, but they complemented each other, rose and filled the room together like intertwining strands. For the briefest moment, the heaviness cleared, and I felt a strange sort of lightness and clarity, like none of this was really real.
But then I felt the hand again, and then, nothing.
I was falling backwards forever onto the dark plush carpet.
I never felt myself land.
Emilee Hackney. Tazewell County, Virginia.
Call and Response is a photo-literary exploration devoted to the relationship between photographs and words. Using photographs from the Looking at Appalachia project, writers are encouraged to respond narratively to a single image in 1,000 words or less. We hope to use this platform to expand our community and encourage collaboration between photographers and writers. Learn more about how to submit here.