BASS 2019: Julia Elliott, “Hellion” from The Georgia Review, Summer 2018

TGR art

TGR art

In a bloated early draft of my novel, The New And Improved Romie Fudge, I got sidetracked by a digression about Romie’s first erotic experience, a blissful romp with a rural third cousin during which the two prepubescent kids smear molten tar all over each other, a transcendent moment followed by a brutal reckoning….Recalling badass girl cousins from my own youth, so-called tomboys who could hold their own among hellion boys, the kind of girls who could drive go-carts one-handed while taking cool puffs from stolen cigarette butts, I realized that Butter’s perspective on this incident would be far more interesting than Romie’s. When I took the cutting from my novel and switched the point of view, my story “Hellion” bloomed from the corpse of that killed darling.

Julia Elliott, Contributor Note

My view of this story evolved over several days. My first take was consumption, food, eating, but that expanded to a celebration of the the primeval. Then I flipped open the book and saw the title: Hellion. Oh, ok: hell. Not the Christian hell of punishment, but more of a Classical-era Underworld. No, back to the primeval, maybe the primordial. Then I read Jake Weber’s post and thought, not for the first time, that I should quit doing this since he does it so much better. But I still get “primordial ooze” and “this is the forest primeval” running through my head when I think about this story, so I’ll go with that.

The whole consumption theme comes in early with a thirteen-year-old protagonist named Butter (her real name is Elizabeth Ann, but she was so small at birth, her parents nicknamed her Butterbean, and it stuck) who feeds her captive alligator chicken innards, and chases away the neighborhood boys who try to feed it Atomic Fireballs so they can watch it fart fire, and leaves Slim Jims for the Swamp Ape (who, she explains, may be a deformed man, or a voluntarily-regressed Rousseauian man, or a Bigfoot mutant of some sort, or something else entirely).

It’s a Stranger-Comes-to-Town story. Alex, Butter’s third cousin from the city (where they have a mall and a nuclear reactor) comes to stay with his Aunt Edna while his new premie brother emerges towards, hopefully, life, and his mom recovers from childbirth. Butter may be a badass girl, but the local boys are a different level of badass – hellions – so Edna asks her to help out with Alex.

“Butter,” she said. “You got to promise me you’ll watch out for Alex, the boys around here being mostly hellions.”
“I’m a hellion, too, Miss Edna.”
“No, Butter, not like the rest. You’re my great-niece, after all.”
She drew me close so she could whisper, suffocating me with her White Shoulders perfume.
“Alex’s mama just had a premature baby boy. Know what that means?”
“Came out before he was cooked.”
“That’s right. A poor three-pound thing struggling to breathe in an oxygen tank. Alex, being tenderhearted, is taking it right hard. So, you got to keep that in mind and be gentle with him. You can be a lady when you want to.”
Ladies sat still and tormented themselves with stiff dresses and torture-chamber shoes. Ladies held their tongues when men walked among them and fixed them food and drinks. As my mama, who worked the night shift at Clarendon Memorial, said, “I don’t have time to be a lady.”
“I won’t never be a lady,” I said. “But I won’t let the boys mess with Alex.”

Complete story available online at Georgia Review

Even the idea that a premature birth happens before the baby is cooked evokes consumption. And here’s Alex, stranded among the hellions. Butter – who is caught midway between primeval and lady, as well as between child and adult – gives him a coping strategy: pretend that living in that city with that nuclear plant has “endowed you with a Hulk-like condition…. You could mind-read, tell futures, and levitate.” Since she has some inside info on the locals, she points out the boys’ weak spots, like one’s mother’s webbed toes. “We got to keep up the mystery…. Think about it like a video game. Get to the next level.” She primes the ground, warning the boys there’s more to the city kid than they think.

There’s another really interesting consumption-related detail here: as Butter is telling him this, Alex “went bluish-pale like skim milk.” Butter is made from the cream removed from skim milk. Alex + Butter = whole milk? Two halves make a whole? In The Symposium, Plato has Aristophanes put forth a theory that humans originally had four arms and four legs and two faces, and Zeus split them apart into separate people; humans since have spent their lives looking for their soulmates, the other half that was separated. Most readings consider this satire of simplistic origin tales, not the least because it was put in the mouth of Aristophanes, who satirized Socrates like nobody’s business. It’s kind of sealed shut for me when Butter later teaches Alex frog-language, The Frogs being one of Aristophanes’ classic satires. They merge into the primeval.

Butter takes Alex to meet Dragon, her alligator, but things go awry during feeding and she gets “snagged by a tooth—a jagged red rip right through the meat of my lower thumb.” And again, consumption: the primeval is trying to consume Butter, starting with the meat of her thumb.

She takes some remarkably responsible (and non-primeval) first-aid steps – peroxide, antibiotic cream, gauze – but doesn’t think more about it and takes Alex go-cart racing next. The hellion boys, ignoring Butter’s warning about Alex’s superpowers, come after him while they’re all riding, the twentieth-century version of jousting. Alex turns out to be a quick learner vis-à-vis the superpower tip:

Though it almost killed him, Alex loosened his grip on the side rail, keeping up a half-assed appearance of cool. The boys went crazy strutting their stuff…. I realized how stoked they were to blow this city-boy away. They finished their daredevilry, circled us twice, and then stood idling, staring at Alex, half-hoping my tales were real—that the boy would float up out of his seat. Instead, Alex staggered from the cart, fell to his knees, and wallowed on the ground like a bass gasping for water.
“Aw, shit,” I said. “Looks like he’s about to turn.”
Clutching his head, Alex stood up.
“I can-not al-low it to hap-pen a-gain,” he said. “Too ma-ny in-no-cents slaugh-tered.”
Alex twitched as though shaking a winged demon from his back. He tottered like an exhausted old man and then stared up at the sky, croaked out gibberish, pausing between bouts as though taking dictation from God.
“Your mother has mermaid blood.” He pointed at Mitch and Butch. “Hence her webbed toes. She swims in Lake Marion on full-moon nights.”
The brothers’ jaws dropped at the exact same time, and I pictured them creeping around their den at night, their mama crashed on the couch, her feet freed from the Reeboks she wore to waitress, toes moist and pale in the spooky light of their television.

Keeping up the mystery, indeed. They are both in this midland between primeval and civilized. And Butter is smitten in the way only a thirteen-year-old girl can be. My heart started to sink; don’t tell me this is going to be a tender coming-of-age tale. It is, but it’s a lot more interesting than the My Girl variety.

Butter has a thing for the smell of pitch – it smells of open roads and amusement parks – and her nose leads her to a barrel of the stuff, still melted. So she and Alex have a tar fight. Yep, that’s like a food fight, except with tar. What could evoke the depths of the primeval better than being covered in still-warm tar? It’s a descent into the dark side, experimenting with hell itself. Dangerous stuff.

And they pay the price when they emerge. Edna scrubs the tar off them, which should be punishment enough, but wait, there’s more: Alex gets the switch, and Butter… oh, poor Butter: her parents see the wound on her thumb, Dad gets the shotgun and heads for the alligator.

It was almost dusk, light tipping toward pink. I was in the swamp, bawling my miseries to the throb of frogs—my baby gator dead, Alex shamed and switched on my account, my house a tomb of silent wrath, vampire and ogre cramming it roof to cellar with what Miss Ruby called bad vibes. I was a hellion, for sure, who deserved to slip back into the swamp from which the first land creatures crawled: those fish with legs, skinks or whatever, primitive pining things….
I was lost, doomed to attend Central Carolina Tech, master some bleak medical procedure, and turn into a vampire like my mama…. Alex had said he wanted to build rockets, and I pictured him zipping off into the twinkling black of space, leaving the likes of me to rot on our ruined planet. I imagined humans crammed cheek to jowl, mutated by nukes, resorting to cannibalism after they ’d devoured every last animal alive. I saw plant life stamped out by solid blacktop, the globe turned to a ball of tar.
Alex, fated to zoom through universes unknown, was right to keep his distance from both me and planet Earth, a thought that made me bawl the harder.

Yeah, consumption, the primeval, and the modern nukes, right there side by side on a ball of tar, and Butter, stuck in it. I’m not exactly sure what this is, but it’s way beyond My Girl.

But don’t despair, the My Girl denouement is at hand. It’s ok; the story earned it, and gives the reader an after-dinner mint, as Butter – and Alex’s premie brother – emerges from the primeval, and resolves childish mystery with adult reality on a summer night bittersweet for a couple of soulmates.

BASS 2015: Julia Elliott, “Bride” from Conjunctions, #63

St Birgitta, Revelationes, 1500, Nuremburg

St Birgitta, Revelationes, 1500, Nuremburg

Wilda whips herself with a clump of blackberry brambles. She can feel cold from the stone floor pulsing up into her cowl, chastising her animal body. She smiles. Each morning she thinks of the new penance.…
Women are by nature carnal, the Abbott said last night after administering the sacred blood and flesh. A woman’s body has a door, and opening that’s the devil may slip through, unless she fiercely barricade against such an entry.
Wilda’s body is a bundle of polluted flesh. Her body is a stinking goat. She lashes her shoulders and back. She scourges her arms, her legs, her shrunken breasts, and jutting rib cage. She thrashes the small amount of her belly. She gives her feet a good working over, flagellating her toes and soles. She reaches back to torture the two poor sinews of her buttocks. And then she repeats the process, doubling the force. She chases the filthy maggot of her carnality until she feels fire crackling up her backbone. Her head explodes with light. Her soul rejoices like a bird flitting from a dark but, out into summer air.

Guest editor T.C. Boyle described this story as “wickedly funny” in his Introduction to BASS 2015. Does that sound strange, in the light of the above opening scene? Not really – I mean, how else would you describe Wilda’s purple prose thoughts? One of my fellow readers through this volume (hi, Jake!) mentioned the straightforward language used throughout “The Siege at Whale Cay”. Here, we have just the opposite. Wilda’s thoughts are exhausting when she’s considering her evil carnality – but quite lovely when she’s in a more mellow frame of mind, smelling deeply the pomegranate juice and sulphur that serves as ink, “the happiest time of day – ink perfume in her nostrils, windows blazing with light, her body weightless from the morning’s scourge. But then the other nuns come bumbling in…”

Boy, do I know that feeling. Everything’s great until the other nuns show up.

The two Elliott stories I’ve read prior to this were on the science fiction end of the literary spectrum – that’s more or less where she hangs out in general – but this one made more use of psychology. I was intrigued by the idea of setting a story in the scriptorium of a medieval monastery. I’ve taken several recent MOOCs about manuscript creation, and it’s fascinating stuff. Wilda’s descriptions of the ink, the fine vellum used for special projects, the tedious, difficult, and physically wearing task of the scribe rang true to me. And it fits with the theme from that month’s issue of Conjunctions, which was:

Writing about writing itself and about the books that are home to the written word. A library of ideas about language and the book in all their forms, Speaking Volumes collects poetry, fiction, and narrative nonfiction on historic, forbidden, repurposed, mistranslated, imaginary, lost, and life-changing books—books of every ilk.

Again, a story about writing, about language, about stories, about storytelling.

But the story Wilda is telling is one set beneath – or is it above? – the material she scribes. In a marvellous scene that to me encapsulated much of the entire story, Wilda’s natural curiosity and intelligence leak out around the edges of religious repression when she copies a passage about bees:

Today she is halfway through the entries on bees… They begin as worms, squirming in putrid meat, and “transform into bees.” Wilda wonders why the manuscript provides no satisfactory information on the nature of this transformation, while going on for paragraphs about the lessons we may learn from creatures that hatch from corpses to become ethereal flying nectar eaters and industrious builders of pipes.
How do they get their wings? Do they sleep in their hives all winter or freeze to death? Two fresh swarms hatch from/each spring?

I think the story here is how Wilda finds the answers to these questions. She learns about transformations – and so do we, by following along with her.

If read as straight realism, the story fails as over-the-top, but those opening paragraphs are a clue: See what happens here. Yes, Wilda will continue to be over-the-top, but her thoughts will change, events will transform her, and the story. The slide from realism to surrealism is gradual; there’s no point at which I said, “Oh, now we’re off the grid” but by the end of a sequence of events of increasing absurdity, I was, along with Wilda, very off the grid, with no recollection of how I got there. All I can say is, it was a very interesting ride.

Pushcart 2013: Julia Elliott, “Regeneration at Mukti,” from Conjunctions #56, Spring 2011

Photo by pluggedinlib

Photo by pluggedinlib

The powers that be at Mukti – those faceless organizers of regeneration – have designed the spa so that Newbies don’t run into Crusties much. We eat separately, sleep in segregated clusters of cottages, enjoy our dips in the mud baths and mineral pools, our yoga workshops and leech therapy sessions, at different times. As Gobind Singh, our orientation guru, pointed out, “the face of rebirth is the mask of death.”

I read Julia Elliot’s “LIMBs” last year in Tin House. It wasn’t one of my favorites; I felt the science was too prominent, distracting from the very human story, and the coincidence factor was too high. I was still glad to read more of her work since I generally enjoy a little science in my fiction, and, happily, I thought this story worked much better. It’s available online from Conjunctions.

It’s structurally similar to “LIMBs” in that it involves three people involved in a quasi-romantic situation and takes place in a quasi-medical setting. It also reminds me a bit of Lawrence Osborne’s “Volcano” which I encountered in Tin House and BASS 2012. But be forewarned: it’s not for the squeamish. I have a high tolerance for medical reality, but if you’re bothered by words like “pustules” and “suppurating” and “sloughed” you might find it a difficult read.

The story follows Red, Lissa, and the unnamed first-person narrator as they undergo the regeneration process at the Mukti spa. It’s a blend of physical exfoliation and kharmic realignment, complete with all the suffering you could ask for, a necessary element for the seriously questing: anyone can get a facelift complete with anesthesia and a week of mild discomfort, but only the truly devoted go through weeks of The Hell Realm:

According to the orientation materials distributed by Guru Gobind Singh, the Hell Realm is different for everyone, depending on how much hatred and bitterness you have stored in your system. All that negativity, stashed deep in your organic tissues, will come bubbling to the surface of your human form. The psychosomatic filth of a lifetime will hatch, breaking through your skin like a thousand miniscule volcanoes to spit its lava.
“Time for my mineral mud bath,” says Red. And now I see what I could not see before: a row of incipient cold sores edging his upper lip, wens forming around the delicate arch of his left nostril, a cluster of protoblisters highlighting each cheekbone like subtle swipes of blusher.

These paragraphs illustrate two of the reasons the story works so well: the gradual escalation of both the details of the process and the tension of the plot, and unlikely juxtapositions. We get some idea, both general and specific, of what’s to come in the first two pages, with words and phrases like “Six Paths of Suffering,” “Crusties,” and the title itself. But the reveal of the process to the reader is carefully orchestrated to coincide for the most part with the narrator’s experience.

Several varieties of juxtaposition show up. First, there’s the whole idea of luxury and extremely expensive voluntary pain: a spa full of people eat fugu sashimi with pickled dandelion greens and orchid dondurma (a Turkish ice cream), get wraps, baths, massages, and yoga sessions to “rewire” the soul while they’re infected with a half-dozen genetically-tailored pathogens designed to regenerate the body by first breaking it down. Then there’s the deeper sense of the absurdity of these people paying enormous sums to accomplish this suffering for the sake of looking younger, bracketed throughout by the “wisdom” offered by their orientation guide, Guru Gobind Singh:

According to the pamphlet, Gobind Singh has been through the Suffering twice, without the luxury of gourmet meals, around-the-clock therapies, or hands-on guidance from spiritual professionals.… When he walks, he hovers three millimeters off the ground – you have to look carefully to detect his levitational power, but yes, you can see it: The bastard floats.

This duality pervades the entire piece, balancing the drama with humor. Luxury and pain: the guru is on to something, this connection, because the more we suffer for something, the more valuable we perceive it to be. He’s figured out how to bottle and sell it, at the Mukti spa.

And then come the pirates.

Red and I are on the Lotus Veranda eating zucchini pavé with miso sauce, waiting for poached veal. The waitress slinks over, apologizes, tells us that the dish will be served without capers. Red and I exchange dark looks. We imagine jars of capers from Italy stacked in the belly of a cargo ship, the freighter afloat in some secret pirate cove. And deeper in the bowels of the boat, in a refrigerated vault, shelves full of biomedical supplies – time-sensitive blood products and cell cultures in high-tech packaging.
All around us, scabby patients whisper about the pirates, reaching a collective pitch that sounds like an insect swarm. Bunched in conspiratorial clusters, they flirt with scary possibilities: spoiled meds, botched stage-five healing, full-body keloid scarring…

These paragraphs show the finesse of the story. Again, there’s the progression, and the juxtaposition, the twin techniques that make this a superb story with the suspense of a page-turner, the dramatized satire worthy of Jonathan Swift.

The ending of the story is another of those “Lady or the Tiger” endings, and I know that’s going to annoy some readers. It’s not as amorphous as “the New Yorker ending” I’m beginning to recognize; it’s very precise, in fact, and the outcome will be one of two extremes. A feature at The State by Otis R. Taylor, Jr., quotes Elliot on this ending: “Stories have limitations. I think if they end on an ambiguous notes, often the writer doesn’t know.” I’m ok with the ambiguity in this case, because I thought foreknowledge of the possibility that the procedure might turn out badly was more important than the actual results. But I’m not sure I like the comment.

Is the omission of the outcome important? I don’t think so; the story isn’t really about the narrator’s outcome. For me, it’s more about recognizing our own tendency to sometimes indulge our obsessions in comical, even potentially dangerous, ways. But they’re only comical, and the risks only seem excessive, when viewed from outside.

Julia Elliott: “LIMBs” from Tin House #51, Spring 2012 – Science Fair

“Elise.” He squints at her. “You still got it. Prettiest girl at Eden Village.”
She flashes her dentures but says nothing.
“You remember me. Ulysses Stokes, aka Pip. We went to the BBQ place that time.”
Elise nods, but she doesn’t remember. And she’s relieved to see a tech nurse headed her way, the one with the platinum hair.
“Come on, Miss Elise,” she says. “You got Memories at three.”
Elise points at the plastic Power Units strapped to her lower limbs.
“You’re gonna walk it today,” says the nurse. “I think you got it down.”
Elise grins. Only three people from the Dementia Ward were chosen for the test group. So far, she’s the only one with nerve signals strong enough to stimulate the sensors. As she strides along amid flowers and bees, she rolls the name around on her tongue – Pip Stokes – recalling something familiar in the wry twist of his mouth.

I like science fiction and science-based fiction, but I have to confess this story didn’t really work for me. You can read it for yourself (at least for now, but hurry, it may disappear when the Summer issue of Tin House comes out) at the Tin House website. [addendum: too late, it’s no longer online]

Elise is a patient in a nursing home. She’s just getting used to her Leg IntuitiveMotion Bionics (LIMBs, hence the title) which, if she gets the hang of it, will restore her mobility. She’s also participating in a study to enhance her memories. The staff wasn’t overly optimistic, given the state of her dementia, but she seems to be progressing: she eventually remembers suave Pip, with whom she had an affair many years ago during a difficult period of time when her husband, Bob, was in a deep depression following a disabling accident.

She discovers both Pip and long-estranged husband Bob are in the nursing home with her. What are the odds on that? I’m all for strange occurrences, but this bothered me. Makes me wonder, in fact, if all this is taking place in her head, and I’m being too literal. But it seems pretty literal to me.

Many things bothered me in this story. Little things, like the phrase “nanobots have been rebuilding Elise’s degenerative neural structures, refortifying the cell production…” Shouldn’t it be “degenerated” or “degenerating?” I must be wrong – the folks at Tin House are pretty high-powered, literarily speaking. But, like the coincidence of Pip and Bob and Elise all at the same facility, it bothers me.

I think the direction of the piece is to show how technology and science are tools that allow the deepest wishes of our hearts to be made manifest, so are in fact very humanistic. I’m down with that, sure. But the technical elements seem unnecessary to the true story, which is: whom does Elise choose? Add to that the choppy style that veers from memory to present and back again repeatedly, and I wished her story (which is quite lovely) had been couched very differently.

Of course, I’m well aware that I’m probably just not “getting” it, that there are depths of meaning I haven’t come close to perceiving. Maybe I need a few of those nanobots myself. And as always, guidance from those more astute than I is welcomed.