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The Seas

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The Seas



  Moored in a coastal fishing town so far north that the highways only run south, the unnamed narrator of The Seas is a misfit. She’s often the subject of cruel local gossip. Her father, a sailor, walked into the ocean eleven years earlier and never returned, leaving his wife and daughter to keep a forlorn vigil. Surrounded by water and beckoned by the sea, she clings to what her father once told her: that she is a mermaid.

  True to myth, she finds herself in hard love with a land-bound man, an Iraq War veteran thirteen years her senior. The mesmerizing, fevered coming-of-age tale that follows will land her in jail. Her otherworldly escape will become the stuff of legend.

  With the inventive brilliance and psychological insight that have earned her international acclaim, Samantha Hunt pulls readers into an undertow of impossible love and intoxication, blurring the lines between reality and fairy tale, hope and delusion, sanity and madness.

  For Walter and Diane


































  I read The Seas when it first came out and was scalded by its beauty. It took me back to how I felt as a kid, when you’re newly falling in love with literature, newly shocked by its capacity to cast a spell—you know the feeling, when you turn the last page of a novel that you’ve burrowed into and has burrowed into you, and suddenly find that the book has become more than a book, it’s become a talisman, something precious. A little scary, a little holy.

  The Seas felt like that to me. Radiant with magic, some of it dangerous. Some of it hurt. Probably I feared it a bit—not only how perfect it was, as a piece of writing, but also how much it made me feel. About the gigantic, all-consuming blue wave that begins and ends and haunts The Seas, our nineteen-year-old narrator writes: “It is truly a gorgeous color. This blue is chaotic and changing. I recognize it immediately.” I recognized, recognize, it too. It’s the wave that holds the narrator’s grief for her lost father, her wobbly faith in language and etymology, her enthrallment with the oceanic, her fixation on the color blue, her complex relationship to her mother, her bobbing amidst a sea of alcoholics, her own fierce sexual desire, her loneliness, her conviction of her mermaid nature, her love for a mortal in deep pain whose suffering mirrors, alleviates, and exacerbates her own. It’s the wave that reveals the painful, exhilarating scope of her small and swelling life. O that wave.

  And so I put The Seas up on a high shelf, not because I didn’t love it, but because its power felt so acute I needed to dim it a little, save it for another day.

  Its re-release thankfully provided that occasion.

  And so I took it down, read it again in one sitting, then read it again the next day, and then one more the next, each time finding it as mesmerizing, moving, and crystalline as I did years ago.

  Like so much of her work since, Hunt’s storytelling here performs a mysterious balancing act between the so-called real and the so-called fantastical, making words like “magical realism,” “surrealism,” “allegory,” or “fairytale” swirl around her work. I read The Seas a little differently, however. I read it as a portrait of human psychology that imagines human emotion as an elemental force on par with air, water, wind, and fire. Seen this way, whatever is “not real” in The Seas could also be read as a deep, perhaps the deepest, sort of realism—a vision akin to, say, the penetrating insight of shamanistic trance.

  On the other hand, there also exists the real possibility throughout that the narrator of The Seas is not just unreliable but quite possibly insane, drifting further and further toward a destructive psychosis. Such uncertainty pulses in lines such as: “He is gone and the water rushes up behind me like a couple of police officers with their blue lights flashing, with their steel-blue guns drawn.” It will take 150 more pages for the reader to fathom the nature of that simile, and even then, there will be room to wonder.

  As its nesting-doll epigraph suggests (It was a dark and stormy night, /and the ship was on the sea. /The captain said, “Sailor, tell us a story,” /and the sailor began, /“It was a dark and stormy night, /and the ship was at sea . . .”), The Seas has what we once might have called “postmodern” structure, in terms of its attention to stories within stories, and its slow, perhaps even deconstructive inquiry into the granular nature of language itself, even down to the atomistic nature of individual letters. But as its epigraph also suggests, there’s a certain ancient, Scheherazade-like framing at work here as well. Despite the occasional entrance of historical markers (the carnies with tattooed teardrops, the details of the Iraq War, the sociologists visiting the oceanside town to study its high rates of alcoholism), the story of The Seas is timeless, archetypal. A tale of love and war.

  A tale of love and war that is narrated, importantly, by a woman. The Seas never fails to bring to my mind the work of visionary poet Alice Notley, who has “channeled” her dead father, who died of alcoholism, and her dead brother, a Vietnam vet traumatized by the war, as a means of composing long poems. I think of how, after writing these works, Notley says she grew impatient with the woman’s role as “essentially passive: sufferer, survivor.” What do women do, Notley wondered, besides serve as witness? Eventually Notley came up with the following answer: “Insomuch as woman dream, they participate in stories every night of their lives. Profound stories which may involve sex, death, violence, journeys, quests, all the stuff of epic & much of narrative.” Against the idea that dreams have relevance only on the margins of psychic or historical life, Notley argues that “life is a dream; that we construct reality in a dreamlike way; that we agree to be in the same dream; and that the only way to change reality is to recognize its dreamlike qualities and act as if it is malleable.”

  Such questions, along with Notley’s answers, seem to me at the heart of The Seas, in which Hunt showcases her own uncanny ability to “recognize [reality’s] dreamlike qualities and act as if it is malleable.” While our narrator may be subsumed by Jude’s trauma, her desire for him is sharply wrought, and all her own: “Some nights I want Jude so badly that I imagine I am giving birth to him. I pretend to sweat. I toss and wring my insides out. Mostly I think this because that’s how badly I want Jude’s head between my legs.” “Jude thinks he is too old for me. I think I could cut a strip of flesh from his upper arm and eat it.” And (spoiler alert) just as The Seas seems to merge her and Jude’s tragic fates, echoing the countless romantic narratives in which true love means (literally, in this case) drowning in one another’s sorrows, our narrator pulls out ahead, starts swimming toward a different future. (I think she does, anyway—there’s room to wonder here as well.) In a way that feels entirely earned and also surprising, The Seas edges away from the consuming whirlpools of drunk, dead father and drunk, tortured ex-soldier, and toward a fresh reckoning between a living mother and her living daughter, not to mention between a young woman and herself.

  Since The Seas, Hunt has written two am
bitious novels and a collection of short stories, all of which demonstrate her ever-deepening access to the strange, the inventive, the magic, and the dark—indeed, the “dark dark,” as in the title of her most recent collection. I love and admire all of this work, but The Seas will always occupy a special place for me, standing, as it does, on a precipice overlooking deep reserves of desire, liminality, mystery, and pain. Do you know that song by BjÖrk, “Anchor Song”? Go look it up, and listen to it alongside The Seas. “Anchor Song” is a simple, seaside anthem—another plainspoken, adamant claim, made by a woman speaking with formidable grace and power.

  And yet. For all its insistence on remaining seaside—for all the ways in which The Seas offers an incisive, compassionate portrait of how and why we don’t get out of our fucked-up towns, our fucked-up loves, our fucked-up families, our fucked-up habits, our fucked-up homes, and our fucked-up wars—perhaps what’s most remarkable about it is how in the end it illuminates—seemingly against all odds—a means of getting out.


  Los Angeles, 2017


  It was a dark and stormy night,

  and the ship was on the sea.

  The captain said, “Sailor, tell us a story,”

  and the sailor began.

  “It was a dark and stormy night,

  and the ship was on the sea . . .”


  The highway only goes south from here. That’s how far north we live. There aren’t many roads out of town, which explains why so few people ever leave. Things that are unfamiliar are a long way off and there is no direct route to these things. Rather it’s a street to a street to a road across a causeway to a road across a bridge to a road to another road before you reach the highway.

  If you were to try to leave, people who have known you since the day you were born would recognize your car and see you leaving. They would wonder where you were going and they would wave with two fingers off the steering wheel, a wave that might seem like a stop sign or a warning to someone trying to forget this very small town. It would be much easier to stay.

  The town is built on a steep and rocky coast so that the weathered houses are stacked like shingles, or like the rows of razor wire in a prison, one on top of the other up the hill. Small paths and narrow roads wind their ways between the houses so that there’s no privacy in this town. If you were to stumble home drunk one night, by morning, the entire town would know. Not that they would care. People here are accustomed to drunks. We have the highest rate of alcoholism in the country, and this fact is repeated so often I thought we should put it on the Chamber of Commerce sign at the town line that welcomes tourists. More alcoholics per capita! Enjoy your visit!

  Most of the waterfront is cluttered with moorings, piers that smell of motor oil, and outbuildings for the fishermen, though there is a short stretch of sandy beach and a boardwalk where every summer a few fool tourists fail to enjoy themselves and spend their vacations wondering why anyone would live here. If they asked me I’d tell them, “We live here because we hate the rest of you.” Though that isn’t always true, it is sometimes.

  Then there is the ocean, mean and beautiful.

  “We’re getting out of here,” I say. “Let’s go.” I find Jude’s keys on his kitchen table. He is still in the living room, just lying there. Underneath the keys on the table there is a pen and a letter written from Jude to me. His handwriting is like his hair, long and dark tangles. The letter is tucked into an envelope where Jude has written on the outside:


  I stuff the envelope into my jacket pocket, being careful not to fold or crush it. “I’ll drive,” I say, leaving the door open for Jude. I pull myself up into the driver’s seat and rasp the bench forward. “Jude,” I call. I start the truck. It will be hundreds of miles before I have to decide where we are actually going. For now we are just going south.

  I can’t see anything besides rain. The back window is blurred by droplets and fogging up with our breath. “Would you turn on the defrost?” I ask him, but he doesn’t move. He just stares out the window. I do it myself and a blast of cool air from outside floods the truck. The air smells like a terrific storm that came all the way from secret strata high up in the atmosphere, a place so far away it smells unlike the tarred scent of sea decay we have here.

  I feel buoyant. I feel light and ready. I feel like we are getting out of here and mostly I feel Jude inside me and it feels like love.

  Jude is being very quiet but that is not unusual. Jude has been quiet over the past year and a half, ever since he returned home from the war. He is closing his eyes so as not to see the land we know disappearing. From here, if there were no rain, we would see how our poor town sits in a pit of sadness, like a black hole or a wallowing cavity or an old woman. We would see how the town stares out at the ocean it loves, never considering its other options. The town must be drunk to love the ocean because the ocean thinks the town is small and weak. The ocean always beats the town throughout the hardest winter months, pulling down houses and ripping up boats.

  In the rearview there’s just rain and so we can’t see anything. I feel free. I give the truck a little gas, trying to increase the distance between us and back there. “Jude,” I say, “we’re getting out of here.”

  I look again in the rearview mirror and quite suddenly there is a beautiful blue, as though the storm finally broke. It is truly a gorgeous color. This blue is chaotic and changing. I recognize it immediately. “Jude,” I say. “Look,” and I point into the rearview mirror. “It’s the ocean sneaking up behind us.” I watch as the blue rises up like a tidal wave so quickly that I am certain it will catch up with us soon. “It doesn’t want us to leave.” I check the mirror. “I don’t think we can outrun the ocean but I’ll try for your sake.” I accelerate. I look again in the rearview. The color blue fills the entire mirror and, watching it, I think that is how a small northern town in America works. It enlists one beautiful thing like the ocean or the mountains or the snow to keep people stuck and stagnant and staring out to sea forever.

  I watch the blue in the mirror. It is so gorgeous, it is hard to look away. “Jude,” I say, “all right. Fuck the dry land. I am a mermaid.” I turn to look at him, to see what he will think of that, but Jude is not sitting beside me. “Jude?” I stare at the empty vinyl seat where he should be. He is not there. He is gone. I reach my hand over to touch the empty seat and even glance down underneath the seat looking for him. I look away from the road for too long. He is gone and the water rushes up behind me like a couple of police officers with their blue lights flashing, with their steel-blue guns drawn.


  “I’m not from here, am I?” I ask my mother while she tightens the strap of her bathrobe. I don’t want to be from here because most of the people in this town think of me as a mold or a dangerous fungus that might infect their basements. I am the town’s bad seed. I am their rotten heart.

  My mother opens her robe a crack so I can see the loose elastic of her pink underwear and her belly button. It is popped and spread as a manhole. “Look at that,” she says and points to her stretched stomach as evidence. “That’s where you’re from, nineteen years ago,” she says.

  “Dad said I came from the water.”

  “That certainly would be unusual.”

  My mother is regularly torn between being herself and being my mother. Her internal argument is sometimes visible from the outside, as if she had two heads sprouting from her one neck. The heads bicker like sisters. One says, “Be sensible for your daughter’s sake. Three meals a day. Brush teeth at night. Organize. Comet. Pledge. Joy.” While the other head says nothing. The other head is reading a book about whether life exists outside our solar system.

  She glances across the kitchen to my grandfather for his reaction. He doesn’t make one. I have grown to count on his abiding distraction. Having my grandfather in the house is like having a secret tunnel open to t
he distant past, where he lives.

  My grandfather stirs the sugar in the sugar bowl, staring at the kitchen door where the neighbor’s cat plucks the screen with her claw. The man who owns the cat is a strange man. The cat often comes over to our house for a bowl of water as the man only serves the cat orange juice or ginger ale or milk. The man is afraid of water. He doesn’t drink it and washes minimally. The man was once a sailor who survived a very bad storm. He says he saw the water do things that night that he doesn’t bother to repeat anymore because no one would believe him. But it must have been bad because he hasn’t gone out on the sea for years and still he can start to tremble with fear if my mother turns on her garden hose to water the impatiens.

  The cat plucks the screen. “Dad said I’m a mermaid,” I tell them.

  “But mermaids don’t have legs or a voice or a soul unless they marry a mortal,” my mother says. My mother listens to my voice. My mother looks at my legs. “You don’t even have a husband.”

  “Ma. Urruggg.” I’m annoyed because she’s pointing out many of the very same things I’ve already heard. They rub a raw spot.

  “I see.” She rocks her back against the kitchen counter.

  “But I don’t see so well. And I think my trouble seeing might be a characteristic of the depth of the sea where I am from. It is a region so dark blue the creatures from that depth have no pigment and neither do their eyes. Like me.” I look away from them, out the door. “There are some creatures down there who don’t even have eyes at all.”

  My grandfather stops stirring the sugar. “I’ve got a word for that place.” He wheels his office chair over to the windowsill where he keeps one of many dictionaries. He throws the book open on the table. It makes a good thud. He leafs through the pages very quickly. “I can almost remember the word. It starts with had- or ha-. I read it in the Scientific American a few years ago and I looked it up at the time.” He tears through the dictionary searching for the word that means

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