Appalachian Selkie by Margaret Kingsbury

The youth set sail with clan and kin
across the sea full of hopes and dreams,
when spotted he a seal nearby
that had followed the ship since Ireland.
The seal watched him with darkened eyes
as she swam with the ship on its way from home,
but when the handsome youth tried to say his goodbye
the seal disappeared beneath sea and swell.

~*~

The suitcase wasn’t actually a suitcase but a beat-up old sewing machine case. Scuffed, covered in dust, the plastic handle broken so Jenny had to be careful how she carried it or else be cut by the plastic, the case bumped against her side as she carried it down the gravel road that circled the mountain. The sewing machine used to be Jenny’s mother’s, but she had died soon after Jenny’s birth, and as her father had never used the sewing machine, Jenny figured the whole thing was hers to do with as she would. So she had dumped the sewing machine onto the kitchen floor and packed her few belongings inside the emptied case instead–a cap gun, a couple tins of Vienna sausages, her other pair of jeans, a couple shirts, underwear, and a hammer. She wasn’t sure what she would need the hammer for at the ocean, but she knew it to be a useful tool in a general sense and so had packed it, though she regretted the weight of it now.

Jenny was six and she was running away. She reeked of grass and sweat and her too-long blue-black hair looked like a bird’s nest from all the mats and dirt in it. In that way she and the sewing machine case made good partners–bedraggled and with something not quite right about their state of existence. Though only six, she understood running away was wrong, but thought her father would understand her need and she should not feel guilty about escaping. He, after all, had been the one to sing her the song of their family and to teach her about the sea.

Though Jenny had never seen the sea before, the waves of fog that soaked the treetops and seeped into the mountain crannies reminded her of the sea, and she could smell salt on the breeze and hear the call of seabirds. A seagull even visited her sometimes, his white wings flashing among the sugar maples and oaks as Jenny played in the backyard. She hadn’t known what kind of bird it was until her father had told her, but she had known that she and the bird were connected in some way. And ever since the song, she knew that the sea was her calling.

The black handle on the case made a cracking sound and Jenny glared at it. If it broke she was going to leave it. She could always wear all the clothes and carry the tins of sausages and the hammer and tie the cap gun to her jeans. She had walked far enough down the mountain now so that she had passed all the homes and neared the general store. Jenny and her father walked down to the general store together on Saturdays, but today was Wednesday and her father was working on the parkway. She was supposed to be in school, but the school was the other way on the road and she hadn’t wanted to go for obvious reasons.

She wondered if her mother had seen the sea before she died, and would know where it was. Perhaps the seagull would show Jenny the way.

As she tugged the case down the gravel road bracing it against her side, the general store door opened and Mary Bell Walker came out with a bag of groceries. Mary Bell taught Sunday school and, even though Jenny had only gone to church twice, she recognized Jenny, or else realized something was wrong with a six-year-old carrying a case by herself down the mountain on a school day. Jenny ignored her at first, then thought better of that tactic, and instead smiled and made eye contact, trying to look confident. But Mary Bell made fluttering noises and hovered over Jenny with her baby powder smell and Jenny tried to find a way around her, but her shadow loomed in all directions. Jenny clutched the case to her chest with both arms.

“Doesn’t your daddy ever brush your hair, darlin’? And look at you. Set that case down, child, shouldn’t you be at school? Come along with me, I’m going to take you on home and get you cleaned up and make you something nice and yummy and you’ll be as good as new when your daddy gets home and we’ll surprise him and then when you go to school tomorrow, you’ll have such pretty, long hair…”

The prattling did not stop and Jenny found herself being pulled back up the mountain. She considered throwing herself to the ground and crying, but the last time she had done that her father had railed at her and she had not done it since, and felt a certain shame at the entire idea. Plus the gravel would hurt. Yet panic burned her throat and she knew if she didn’t get away she would never have another chance to see the ocean.

But as she opened her mouth to scream and pulled away from Mary Bell, she heard the seagull’s cry and, looking up, saw it fly above her up the mountain, the way Mary Bell was leading her. The panic sank at seeing the bird and she followed Mary Bell quietly, still clutching the sewing machine case.

Though she did not go to the ocean that day, Mary Bell dowsed her with enough water it felt like she had, and her sweat mixed with the bathwater so that when she dipped a washcloth in it and sucked on it, it tasted like the ocean. Her blue-black hair did indeed gleam after Mary Bell had washed and brushed it and it had dried, and floated just above the floor, thick and soft and wonderful. And Jenny ate peanut butter cookies and pot roast with potatoes and gravy and Mary Bell let her play with a doll. By the time dusk fell, Jenny felt so content she forgot the sewing machine case when Mary Bell picked her up and carried her home. It felt good to be wrapped in Mary Bell’s arms, to feel clean, though it had also felt good to run away and to be dirty.

Her father was already home and picked her up out of Mary Bell’s arms and put her on the couch with the doll. He and Mary Bell spoke for a while in the kitchen while Jenny played with the doll. She wrapped the doll in her hair and sang it the song her father had taught her. When Mary Bell left her father came into the living room and his face was all wet. She felt guilty then, and remembered the sewing machine case and the Vienna sausages and the need to see the ocean. But right then her father needed her, so she slipped off the couch and sat in his lap instead. He smelled like Old Spice and wet concrete and she asked him to sing the song to her again. The ocean could wait.

~*~

That night a fearsome storm blew o’er
that battered the ship with wind and wave,
and amidst the storm a cry was heard
as a selkie was carried from sea to bow.

Her hair was black as the sea turns black
on the eve of a storm like the one that rocked ‘em,
and her eyes were dark like a seal’s is dark
and her skin a blue like the sea at dawn.
And wrapped round her waist and legs and feet
was the thick, dark skin of the seal that had followed ‘em,
and as the youth helped pull the skin from her legs
a great wind whipped the skin far away across the sea.

~*~

At twenty-nine Jenny packed a suitcase again, but this one was real. She had bought it from a yard sale a week before getting married with the thought that she and Sawyer would use it for their honeymoon. But the honeymoon had never happened and instead the brown cloth suitcase with tan swirls on it had stayed beneath the bed for the last three years. It reeked of dust and she patted it hard to get the worst of it off before piling clothes inside.

Her blue-black hair trailed the floor as she limped from the dresser to the bed where the suitcase lay open, still sore from giving birth the week before. The infant Cora slept in a wooden crib in the living room where her eldest child Alan watched television. Four years old, Alan had a different father than Cora, but Sawyer treated him like his own. Jenny wasn’t worried about what would happen to Alan when she left; Sawyer was a good man and would take care of him. Sawyer was planting corn today, and would be home fairly soon. Jenny’s plan was to hide the suitcase back under the bed and that night, once Sawyer slept, she would leave. He slept hard; planting wore him out.

She felt little guilt at the thought of leaving the children—she had grown up just fine in a single-father home—but she did feel sorry for Sawyer. Though her childhood had been happy, she had no idea if her father had been happy. But then, she didn’t know if her father had been happy when her mother was alive either, and he was no longer around to ask.

Was Sawyer happy? He didn’t speak nor smile much, though he had smiled at their wedding, and when he first held Cora. He loved her, she felt certain of that, but love wasn’t happiness, couldn’t be when something felt so wrong inside. She wanted Sawyer to be happy, but not at her expense. Perhaps happiness for him was working the land and walking the forest, but the forest suffocated her. The only time she knew peace was watching the mist wash across the mountains.

Cora started crying in the living room and Jenny ignored her, hoping she would quiet down. But the crying grew in temper and Alan toddled into the bedroom to get her. Jenny limped into the living room, her breasts aching; she felt so tired. Alan stumbled along behind her making cooing noises as if trying to comfort Cora. Or maybe he was comforting Jenny.

“What’s wrong with you, baby?” she said as she bent over Cora’s red, maddened face and picked her up. She tried singing the family’s song, burping her, feeding her, but she would not eat and would not stop crying. Alan followed behind Jenny, ignoring the television in his worry over Cora.

After an hour of her crying, Jenny put Cora back down in the crib and went into the kitchen to try and calm down. Alan had started to cry as well, unable to stand the waves of anguish that swept the small trailer. Even in the kitchen the crying washed over her, pulsed inside her, and something deep broke at the sound. She felt hollow, emptied. She washed her face in the sink and felt better at the touch of water.

She went back into the living room and crouched over her screaming daughter. Now she saw the problem–one of Cora’s fingers had swollen twice the size of the others and was a deep purple. She massaged the finger and spotted a long, blue-black strand of hair wrapped around it. She tried to take it off with her fingers, but it would not snap. She ran to the bathroom and frantically searched for the fingernail clippers. Finally finding them, she returned to Cora and as gently as she could snapped the strand of hair that had wrapped so tightly around her finger. Cora still cried after the hair had been cut and Jenny rocked her until she fell asleep. Alan fell asleep too—exhausted by his empathy—with one chubby toddler arm thrown over his head. Cora slept with a frown and a thumb in her mouth in the wooden crib, the crib Jenny had carved while pregnant with Alan.

Jenny went back to the bathroom, dug out the scissors, and went outside. Everything was still—no breeze stirred the leaves on the oaks and the birds weren’t singing though it was spring. The grass scratched the bottoms of her bare feet as she shook her long blue-black hair across her shoulder, heavy and silken and warm, and began to cut. The hair fell around her feet in a ring as she cut, and when she finished she had to step out of the mound. Her hair didn’t even reach her shoulders now. She left the pile of shorn hair in the yard, thinking the birds might use it for their nests.

She went back into the trailer where the children slept, put the scissors away, and unpacked her suitcase. She was much lighter without the hair, and much colder. When she had finished unpacking the suitcase, she went into the living room and picked up Alan and lay with him on the couch, where they snuggled.

A commercial came on the television of a man drinking a beer at the beach. She turned the television off before falling asleep.

~*~

The selkie collapsed as the storm passed away
and the youth carried her beneath the deck to his bed,
where she slept for seven days until the ship reached land
and awakening said this to her savior, the youth:

“I will take you to the land where your clan will find peace
and marry you there in the mountainous sea,
and when the seventh generation of our children is born
she will return to the sea with my skin once more.”

So she led them to mountains as vast as the sea
with smoke like the mist rolling off the ocean,
and there the clan found peace like the selkie had said
and the generations waited for the end of the story.

~*~

Sunset spread across the mountains turning the trees golden. Autumn had arrived, and birds flocked to Jenny’s yard, eagerly feasting from the many feeders. Jenny enjoyed watching them from her porch, looking for migrating birds she had never seen before as they headed for a warmer world.

One morning, as Jenny rocked on the porch and watched the birds, her grandchild Ronan came bounding out of the woods toward her, his red hair reflecting the autumn forest, red like his grandfather’s. Even though he looked so different from her, as he came leaping towards her she remembered that day when she had failed to run away from home, and part of her wanted Ronan to do just that, succeed where she had failed. But he felt none of the longing difference she had felt at his age, and when she had taught him their family’s song that summer, the part that had interested him most was how ships worked, not the ocean itself.

He held something long in both hands—so long it brushed across the leaf-strewn grass as he ran. When he finally reached the porch, Jenny stopped rocking and stood, staring at the pile of hair he held, hair as long as he was tall. There was no mistaking the hair—thick and deep blue and as shiny and new-looking as the day she had cut it. She took the pile from him though she could tell he wanted to keep it. The hair was so thick she had to use both hands to grasp it.

“Where did you find this?” she asked as he fidgeted with the porch railing and scared off the birds.

“This really big seagull, I mean, really big,” he gestured with his hands for affect, “landed in a tree, and I followed it because I wanted to see it up close, but then it flew off. I found the hair in a hole at the tree’s roots.”

Jenny didn’t answer, couldn’t answer. Her hair had never grown back in the decades since she’d cut it, and was no longer blue-black but a gray that looked like the wisps of mist that clung to the mountain peaks once the sun had pulled back the rest, the gray of sea foam.

“Why don’t you go see what your grandpa’s up to?” she said instead. “He’s out with one of the cows who might give birth today. If you’re fast enough you might be able to watch it.”

Easily distracted, Ronan jumped over the railing and ran toward the barn while Jenny sat back down in the rocking chair, still holding the pile of hair. It felt warm, almost hot. A wind blew against her that smelled like salt as she pulled leaves from the hair where it had dragged the ground. The strands felt like water flowing between her fingers, strengthening her wrinkled hands.

This time she didn’t bother with a suitcase. She got in the old pick-up truck with the pile of hair beside her and drove down the graveled mountain road without looking back and without guilt. While she had visited her daughter Cora many times at the university she taught at in Tennessee, she’d still never seen the sea.

When she arrived at the beach, a single seagull waited on the sand. Her body was stiff as she got out of the truck, shed her shoes, and took the pile of hair from the passenger’s seat. She wrapped the hair around her neck like a scarf and walked toward the ocean. As she approached the salt-scented waves, the seagull took off into the sky and across the water. It felt like coming home. Her body loosened as sand clung to the bottoms of her feet and the sun gleamed behind her on the vast, wet land.

She waded into the ocean. The warm waves washed across her feet, her calves, and soaked her clothes. She continued into the warm pulsing sea, and with the weight of the water, the blue-black hair wrapped around her, transformed into thick, soft skin. She covered herself with the skin as easily as if it were a blanket. A comforting heat enclosed her. She felt a stillness she had never before known as she slipped beneath the sea.

A song called somewhere in the water and she swam to meet it, sleek and joyful as the sea pulsed around her. She sang her own song as she swam, a song of mountains that rise and fall in tree-topped crests, of her husband and children and grandchildren and the generations of ancestors that preceded her–descendants of the sea and the mountains both. And she brought the song her father had taught her as a child and called their history, the song she had taught her children and grandchildren. The sea knew that song as well, and sang it with her.


Margaret Kingsbury’s short stories and poems have appeared and/or are forthcoming in Pulp Literature, NonBinary Review, and Expanded Horizons. Her in-progress fairytale, post-apocalyptic novel was recently awarded honorable mention in the Diverse Writers/Worlds grant. She lives in Nashville, TN where she’s an English adjunct and buys in used books at a local bookstore. You can follow her on Twitter @MargaretKWrites

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