The Sea Witch and The Swan

My Granny Millie ate her watermelon well salted. I admired her lack of table manners where salted watermelon was concerned. I would sit next to her, red juice trailing down my arms to my elbows, as we ate the treat together after supper. Those long, sticky twilights of June in Kentucky were happy. Mostly.

If the sky faded gently to blue, milky evening, we’d sit on her porch and watch lightning bugs twinkle. But if the clouds lit up brilliant red in the setting sun, Granny would leap up from the table and yank me through her tired screen door with an urgency that set my stomach flipping. “Pink at night, sailor’s delight!” she’d hiss at me, her voice raspy from forty years of Virginia Slims. We’d march through the tree line at the back of her little yard, ignoring the whinnying of Chevy, her last chestnut mare, as we passed her paddock. “Got to get to the creek,” Granny would say, her grip on my hand firm.

I didn’t think to protest. Granny got like that sometimes, itchy to swim, itchy to feel weightless. I felt it, too, that heaviness of being on dry land. We’d wade through the grass at the creek side and let our toes sink into the clay mud. “Watch out for snakes!” Granny would say.

She always went into the water first, feeling the creek bed with her bare toes until she reached the drop off where a swirling pool of cold water waited for us. She’d lie down into the creek, still in her flowered housecoat, and float on her back, staring straight up into the sunset. I’d slip in beside her and sit in the water and get used to the lack of gravity. The bobbing would unclench my muscles, which were always tight on land, and I would slowly ease backwards to float like Granny. She would reach out and pull me next to her.  

When the sky was at last inky, Granny would squeeze my hand and we would swim to shore. I would dog paddle, but Granny would stretch out and do elegant strokes until her feet found the bottom again. The sodden walk home was always hard. Our clothes were heavy and the land pulled at us. But Granny’s spirit would be light. She would sing in her gravelly way:

Now the rats have gone and we the crew
Leave her Johnny, leave her!
Why now ashore we’ll go, too.
And it’s time for us to leave her.
Leave her Johnny, leave her!
Oh, leave her Johnny, leave her.
For the voyage is done and the winds don’t blow 
And it’s time for us to leave her.

One such night when I was eleven, I finally asked, “Who is she?”

Granny grinned. “She is a ship, Mari, and a good one.”

“What ship?”

Granny smacked a mosquito off her arm. “They’re biting already, the little shits.” Granny cussed like a sailor and made no bones about it. She patted my wet head and sighed, something heavy leaving her chest. “It’s time you knew,” she said into the dark.

“Knew what?”

Granny walked towards the yellow glow of her little house. I fell in beside her and tried to be patient for the story to spill out on its own. But Granny was quiet all the way to her back steps. At last she said, “Let’s get dry and then we’ll go for a little walk.”

Ten minutes later I was dressed in cutoff jeans and a clean T-shirt. I found Granny at her Formica table in a fresh house coat. She smiled and said, “Let’s go.”

We left Granny’s house and walked through the damp evening air. Granny had big strides and I jogged to keep up. We came to the end of her gravel driveway and out onto a paved street. All around us, huge brick homes loomed.

“All this land was ours,” Granny began. She shook her head sadly and started off down the street. “All this was ours, and full of horses, when I was your age. My parents and I lived here. They raised thoroughbreds. Daddy made good money on those foals and fillies, once upon a time.”

We turned onto the next street. These houses were even bigger, with 3-car garages and brick mailboxes. A few had swing sets and swimming pools. Granny wheezed, her fast pace catching up to her weak lungs. “But Daddy got hurt. A horse kicked him, right in the chest, stopped his heart and killed him. Mother had to sell almost all the horses and nearly all the land.” Granny waved towards the brick houses. “Our horses used to graze right here.”

We marched past street after street of huge houses. Just when I was about to ask to go home, we came to a house unlike the others. Instead of red brick, this one was a brilliant white, all wood, glowing in the moonlight like an opal. “Here we are,” Granny sighed. “Home.”

“Home?”

Granny grinned at me. “What do you think of it?”

For a minute, I was afraid she’d had some kind of spell. “What do I think of home? Whose home?”

“Take a good look at this one. It’s different.”

The sides curved strangely. There were balconies wrapped all around both floors. “Well, it looks like…a boat?”

“Yes! A riverboat. She’s The Swan.

The nearest water was Granny’s part of Beargrass Creek, which was barely big enough for a canoe. I worried she’d really lost her mind. “A riverboat?”

Our riverboat. You are descended from the great Captain Mary Millicent Miller, first woman in the world licensed to captain a steamboat. The Swan was her ship. Her husband bought all this land in the late 1800s and had her boat moved here and converted into a house. You are her fifth great-granddaughter.”

“Mary Millicent?”

“She was my great-great-great grandmother. I’m Millie, named for her. And your name, Marianne Millie, is a variation.” Granny was grinning ear to ear.

“That’s…neat.”

Neat? It’s very, very important, Mari. This should be the house I’m living in right now. This was supposed to be your inheritance. And that horse’s kick to Daddy’s heart has cheated us both out of what is rightly ours.”

Leave her, Johnny, leave her.

“This is the house you had to leave. The ship you had to leave, right, Granny?”

“We knew moving day was coming. But we didn’t think it would be so sudden. We had barely had time to think about packing. When the sheriff came to tell us to leave, my mother and I had to scramble to throw all the skillets and pots and pans right into the bed of Daddy’s truck. We were carrying clothes out by the armful.”

Granny spun me to face her. “And I left something behind, Mari. Something real important. I haven’t been able to…retrieve it.”

“Can’t you just knock on the door and ask the people who live there to give it to you?” 

“No, child. I’m not able to enter the yard.”

“It makes you too sad?”

“No, I’m not sad. I can’t. Mary Millicent’s husband made sure of that by planting all these nettles. He knew what she was.”

“The first female river boat captain?”

“Mary Millicent was first and foremost a sea witch.”

I tried to remember my Girl Scout first aid training, something about confusion and concussions. “Did you hit your head tonight, Granny?”

The front porch light of the riverboat house suddenly flashed on. Granny gripped my elbow and dragged me into the shadows. “I did not, Mari. But you listen to me,” she hissed. “Your ancestor was a sea witch, a creature of the deep, and she came on land for love, for a man who never really understood her. He was a riverboat captain himself, old George Miller. And he saw her swimming in the delta where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico, down in New Orleans. They fell in love, right there between the railing of his boat and the water. She came aboard, transforming from her fishtailed form into a human one, and became his wife. The fool. She never should have left the sea.”

“You’re saying my ancestor was a mermaid?”

“Not a mermaid. A sea witch. Captain George Miller captivated her. They sailed the Mississippi, the Ohio, and Kentucky Rivers on this boat, until her need for the ocean became too great. She told George she just wanted to look at the salt water, but he knew she would never come back to him if she made it to the ocean. She tried to escape, but he caught her before she could transform back to her fishtailed self. He brought her back up to Louisville. See there?” 

Granny pointed to the tangled hedge. “Captain George planted stinging nettles all around the boat so she couldn’t leave. These pricker bushes are deadly to sea folk. She died on that boat, far from the sea. Her husband tried to forget her and turned to horses for a living.”

“Granny, I think you need to lie down or something—”

“I am just fine, little girl,” she snapped. “And I will be a lot better, once you do your part. I need you to go inside and find the thing I didn’t have time to pack all those years ago.”

“You want me to go up and ring the doorbell?”

“No. You’re going to sneak in. They won’t let you come through the front door.”

“Granny, I can’t just break—”

“I tried to go back, right after the move, but the man who bought the boat house and all this land, he knew about Mary Millicent. He’d heard the rumors about a treasure she hid somewhere on the boat. I never found a treasure, but I found something that I think is a clue. I left it behind in the chaos of moving day. The man who bought the house prowled it day and night for months, looking for the treasure. And the stinging nettles planted all around here, the ones my daddy had always kept trimmed back, they grew up wild into these big hedges. I have enough of Mary Millicent’s sea blood that I can’t cross through them. Their sting would be deadly to me. I’m hoping the sea witch power is diluted enough in you so you can cross back on board.”

“Granny, you’re scaring me.”

“You will do this one thing. And then we’ll rest easy the remainder of our days.”

Granny led me towards the ring of spiky plants. She pulled my hand towards the thorns. “Do you feel anything? A tingling as you get close?”

“No.”

“Good. Push through and climb aboard. The family is in the den upstairs, watching TV. I can see the flicker of it. They don’t usually come back downstairs until ten o’clock. You’ve got about twenty minutes to find the object we need.”

“You’ve been spying on them?”

“It’s my own house, by rights. Never mind all that. The thing we need is in the little sitting room there—” she pointed towards a dark window on the first floor. “You push up on the window and see if it’s unlocked. You’re looking for a loose panel, right under the window. It’ll swing open for you. Inside, you’ll find a little box. Bring that back out here to me.”

I didn’t know what the police would do to an eleven-year-old burglar. But Granny’s tight grip was more threatening. Maybe if I came back empty-handed, maybe she would snap out her delusion.

The nettles felt like a thousand bee stings as I pushed through. I scrambled onto the deck of the riverboat and crept to the window. Raising it was easy. I slipped inside and crouched down. I felt along the strips of wood that lined the wall. One of them moved. I pulled the panel aside and reached my hand into the crevice. My fingers found the edge of a hard object. I yanked it out.

A shell covered box.

I scrambled back through the window with my heart pounding. I ran to Granny, the sticker bush piercing every inch of me. She snatched the box and held it to her chest.

“OK, Granny. Can we go home now?”

“I’ve waited over fifty years to get this back, Mari.” She grabbed my hand. “Let’s go.”

Granny led me behind the houseboat. We crept to a line of white sycamores. “Nearly there,” she whispered. We slid down a steep bank and splashed into the creek below. Granny knelt, held the shell box under the water, and sang:

I thought I heard the Old Man say
“Leave her, Johnny, leave her.”
Tomorrow ye will get your pay
And it’s time for us to leave her.

She tugged at the lid, grunting. It didn’t budge.

Granny turned to me. “No good.”

She handed the box to me. “How did you know to sing that?”

“Mary Millicent left notes in a diary about this box. That’s what she said would work. Moonlight on water, that song. But maybe I don’t have enough sea witch in me. Maybe it’s too late.”

I didn’t believe in this magic nonsense, but Granny clearly did. All those years of watching the farm shrink, of losing horse after horse, and then her mother. All the loss was there in her face and all the hope that had been there a moment ago was gone.

Maybe I could play along, just for a bit. “Should it be salt water, maybe?”

Granny’s head snapped up. “That’s it. You must be just enough sea witch, after all, Mari. Come on.”

We were crunching down her dark gravel driveway in no time. “Let’s head to Chevy’s paddock. She’s got a fresh salt block,” Granny ordered.

I called out to the old mare as we approached her squeaky gate. She trotted over and began sniffing me for apples.

Granny shooed her away. “Get to the barn, Mari. And carry this for me.” She shoved the shell box into my arms.

Granny threw open the top half of the stall door and moonlight hit the surface of the water in Chevy’s trough. She reached for the big salt block and dumped it into the water. “We’ll give it a minute. Let it dissolve a bit.”

I studied the heavy shell box. “What is this thing, Granny?”

“It’s a sailor’s valentine. Sailors would make these during long voyages and give them to their sweethearts. This one is a puzzle of sorts. Mary Millicent made it for her husband while she was bedridden. Her diary said there was something precious inside that he could use to call her back to him. I don’t really know what we’ll find, but I think it’s powerful.”

Chevy leaned down and took a drink from the trough but reared back at the first taste. “I think that means it’s salty now,” I said.

Granny took the box from me and pushed it under the water. Again, she sang:

I thought I heard the Old Man say
“Leave her, Johnny, leave her”
Tomorrow ye will get your pay
And it’s time for us to leave her

She tried to pry open the lid as the box was submerged. She had me give it a go, but we still couldn’t budge it. We tried opening it above the water, on the ground, and even inside at the kitchen table with Granny’s paring knife, but the blade just snapped off.

“Maybe we should smash it,” I suggested.

“No. I’ll think of something tomorrow. I’ve waited this long. Let’s go to bed.”

Granny took the box with her into her bedroom, her whole body drooping.

I thought about calling my mother for help. But some part of me wanted to believe a good night’s sleep would cure Granny and when she woke up in the morning, she would forget all this nonsense.

I slept fitfully all night. I didn’t really feel like I’d slept at all when the weight of Granny sitting at the foot of my bed bounced me awake.

Tomorrow ye shall get your pay,” Granny sang.It’s tomorrow. And we’ve got our pay.”

The shell box was open in her lap.

“What’s inside?”

Granny tilted the box towards me. Nestled on a pile of translucent crystals was a rock about the size of a peach.

I studied Granny’s face. “What is it?”

“It is our revenge.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will. Now get dressed. We’ve got work to do.”

She shuffled out the room.

I was sitting at Granny’s table in no time. The previous night’s adventure had seemed like a nightmare, and I had nearly convinced myself that it was just a bad dream until Granny showed up in my room with the sailor’s valentine cracked open in her lap. The contents of the box seemed unremarkable to me, and I hoped Granny would be calmer now.

She placed the shell box on the table. “This is what I’ve been yearning for. Mary Millicent’s diary says this will bring things to rights.”

She scooped up a palmful of the white crystals. “This here is sea salt. Take a taste.” She reached her hand towards me.

I picked up one tiny crystal and placed it on my tongue. Salty, for sure, but bitter and biting, too. All the moisture evaporated from my mouth and I dashed to the sink to drink straight from the tap.

Granny came over and patted my back. “This is powerful, magical sea salt. Don’t wash it all out, Mari. You’re going to want some here in a minute. It helps you swim.”

She picked up the muddy rock and the shell box and we headed to her backyard. “Take this,” she said, dumping a pile of the sea salt into my hand. “We’re making a perimeter. Sprinkle an unbroken line of this all around my yard. I’ll go clockwise. You go the other way and meet me back here.”

I watched her begin the deliberate job of scattering salt in a line. “Go on, Mari,” she urged. I didn’t want to agitate her, so I started to sprinkle salt into the grass. I didn’t think I’d have enough to make it to Chevy’s fence, but the pile in my hand seemed to replenish itself.

I rounded the back edge of Granny’s property near the creek. The wind was picking up, turning the leaves to their silver side and darkening the sky. Whatever spell Granny thought this salt would cast, it looked like rain would soon be washing it away.

Granny’s backside came into view to my right. We met just behind her watermelon patch. When my line of salt touched hers, what was left in my palm fell to earth all at once.

Granny nodded. “Let’s get to the porch where we can watch the fun.”

I was already trying to think of how I would comfort her when this all turned out to be nothing. When our bottoms hit the seat of Granny’s porch swing, she pulled the rock from the shell box and placed it in her lap.

“Do you know what this is, Mari?”

“It’s a rock.”

Granny twisted the top and bottom halves of the rock in opposite directions, like someone opening a jar. The rock snapped in the middle and she separated the two sections. The muddy exterior gave no hint of the brilliant inside, all flickering green, gold, and white.

She handed the pieces to me. “This is a fossil of an ammonite.”

“It’s like a snail shell. A spiral.” The fossil had sections like a mosaic and each piece was a different color.

“Looks like a potato on the outside. But inside, it’s a sea creature from billions of years ago. You and I, we are a kind of fossil, too. Ever notice how much nicer your whole body feels in water?” Granny was staring holes through me.

I nodded.

“We are sea creatures, you and I.”

“Granny, what do you mean?”

“I will just have to show you. This whole part of the country was covered in a shallow, warm sea millions of years ago. And all that sea life that died became fossils and limestone, full of the calcium that leaches into our soil now, that our rainwater filters through on its way to the aquifer. All that calcium becomes our bones. We drink that ancient sea, every single day. The part of us that is sea witch is nourished by it.”

I marveled at our fossil.

Granny took it from me and squeezed the two halves back together. The rock fused back into one solid mass. She marched to the edge of our salt circle. She faced the driveway, out towards the fancy neighborhood and sang:

Leave her, Johnny, leave her!
Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her!
For the voyage is long and the winds don’t blow
And it’s time for us to leave her.

She pulled back her arm like a baseball pitcher, then let the fossil fly in a wide arc, out over the end of her driveway and out of sight. We heard a hollow thud as it struck the asphalt.

She stood in her yard with her gray hair blowing in the wind, whipping and curling around her like an octopus’ tentacles. The trees shivered and shook. The sky darkened from gray to nighttime black.

“Granny, come in before it starts to storm!” I hollered into the wind.

“No, Mari. We can’t miss it!”

Lightning streaked the sky. I ran to pull Granny toward the house, but couldn’t budge her. She grabbed my shoulders and turned me to face the end of her drive. “It’s coming, Mari. Listen!”

In the distance, a wall of rain began pouring down, white and blinding. Lightning and thunder shook the ground.

But not in Granny’s yard. We had some wind, but the rain didn’t fall on the house or the grass. The water stopped, right where the salt ring began. I didn’t trust my eyes and reached my hand across the salt line. It was drenched in less than a second.

Granny writhed, like swimming on land. “See, Mari? What did I tell you? Our revenge!”

I went into the house. I grabbed the phone, but there was no dial tone. Granny didn’t have a cell phone and neither did I.

We would just have to ride out the storm.

Rain fell on the neighborhood around us for twenty hours straight. More than 18 inches. Flood water rose up from Beargrass Creek and filled the streets.

Granny and I watched from her porch. Chevy and the chickens refused to leave their shelters. They knew witchcraft when they saw it. I was slower to that realization, but I was beginning to understand.

That night we ate salted watermelon in front of her TV and watched the rich families get blankets and cots at the Red Cross shelter. The news showed expensive cars with creek mud up to their fenders.

My heart felt like it was drowning in the floodwater. “Granny, all those poor people, all their things. Their homes.”

Granny looked up. “No one said ‘those poor people’ to me and my mother. No one. ‘Those poor people’ have lived like kings on my land for far too long.”

At 11:30, Granny looked at her wall clock. “Nearly midnight. The witching hour. Go wait on the porch.” She disappeared into her bedroom as I sat on the porch swing. I was just about to fall asleep when Chevy started screaming.

I saw the horse leaning her head out her stall door, moonlight glowing in her crazed eyes. She was staring at the end of Granny’s drive where it met the salt circle and the floodwater lapped.

There, huge and white, floated The Swan.

At the prow stood a man dressed in a navy coat. He lifted his arm and shouted, “Ahoy!”

Granny came pounding through the screen door and stomped to the edge of the driveway. “So here you come, Captain Miller!” she screamed.

The man squinted at Granny. “Is that you, Mary Millicent?”

Granny’s wheezy, harsh voice rang out over the water. “No, Captain.”

Just then, the moonlight caught on something moving through the water next to the ship. At first I thought it was a log. Then it writhed and wriggled like a huge eel and disappeared beneath the prow.

I ran to stand beside Granny. I grabbed her hand and screamed above the thunder, “What is happening?”

Granny turned. “Mari. Oh, sweet child.” Her eyes were filled with tears. “It worked, sweetie. We have drowned out the invaders. We have launched The Swan again. And that man on board, that’s Captain Miller himself. Mary Millicent’s husband, back from the dead. He’s the reason she was stranded here on dry land. You just watch and see what happens next.”

Granny stepped over the salt line and waded into the flood water up to her knees.

The captain looked down at her. “Coming aboard, ma’am?”

The water right below the captain erupted. A woman’s head and torso broke through the waves, propelled by a huge, black fish tail. She reached her long white arms up and grabbed the captain by the neck. They both fell back into the water where they rolled and struggled.

“It’s her,” Granny breathed. “It’s Mary Millicent.” Granny walked further into the water, heading straight for the fight.

“No! Come back, Granny!” I called.

But she didn’t turn. She went deeper until she was swimming. The captain and the sea witch were still locked together but the thrashing had eased. They looked like they were just embracing, but the sea witch was holding the man’s face below the choppy surface of the water. Granny reached them and touched the sea witch on her glistening white shoulder. The creature snarled at Granny, but then her face softened in recognition. She released the captain’s limp body and it bobbed away.

The sea witch’s mouth broke into an enormous grin. She looked so much like my mother, long black hair slick and wet. She reached her hands out and cradled Granny’s face in her palms. Granny said something, but I was too far away and the storm was too loud for me to hear. The sea witch nodded and released Granny’s face. She swam further away from the shore, then bobbed in the water, waiting.

Granny turned to me. “Mari!” she called. “Come on in! It’s time. We’re going home!”

Tears of frustration and fear and disbelief fell down my face. “Granny, we are home. What are you doing?!”

Granny leaned back in the water. Where her feet should have been, a shiny black fishtail floated. She was happier than I’d ever seen her. “This is our inheritance! The whole ocean! Come with us!”

I moved towards the water, but I felt none of her joy. “Granny, please come back. Please. Don’t go!” I did not feel the pull of the sea. I did not long for the weightlessness of floating. I wanted my parents and solid ground. I wanted Granny back beside me where she belonged.

The wind blew harder, frothing the waves higher and higher on the side of The Swan. Granny reached for me again, her face broken and pleading.

All at once, white arms encircled her shoulders. The sea witch held Granny tightly and pulled her away from me. She screamed into Granny’s face, “It’s time for you to leave her!”

Granny cried out and reached for me again, fighting against the sea witch. But another crack of awful lightning lit the sky and they disappeared below the surface together.

Rebecca Brothers

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