Mutsy of the Sea

by Shelby Mahan

Cayucos, California

Reprinted in AppLit with permission of the author. This story was written by Shelby Mahan after she studied "Mutsmag" at Hollins University in the course English 535, Traditions and Adaptations in Literature for Young Children: Appalachian Emphasis. If you read "Munsmeg" collected by Richard Chase or other versions of the Appalachian tale, you will see how Mahan has adapted the story with many details from her own west coast region. Mahan completed her MA in Children's Literature at Hollins by writing Earthquake Anonymous: A Novel in Stories (2008).


One time there was a woman who lived near the shores of a tropical coastline. She had three girls, Pepper, Betts and Mutsy. Mutsy was the youngest and Pepper and Betts treated her harshly, made her do all the work while they’d just lie on the warm beach all day. They never gave Mutsy anything to eat but the tiniest crabs hiding away in the wet sand.

Well the woman died and all she had to her name was a seaweed garden and an old clamshell knife. She left the seaweed garden to Pepper and Betts, and she didn’t leave Mutsy anything but that old clamshell knife. Pepper and Betts cooked and ate all the seaweed, not letting Mutsy have a single strand. And soon enough they’d eaten up all the seaweed in the garden. So Pepper and Betts decided to surf their way across the seas to seek their fortunes. They got themselves some crabs, cut ‘em up good and made crab cakes to take along for the journey.

Mutsy begged and begged couldn’t she surf alongside her sisters? But they told her no, she couldn’t. Still she begged and begged till they couldn’t handle it anymore. “All right you salty-headed thing, but you’ll have to fix your own crab cakes. Here, go get some sea water to boil the crabs.”

They handed her a large abalone shell, with lots of age-old holes in it. Mutsy took the shell and ran down to the ocean; she splashed up water into it, but the water ran right out. Splashed it up again, the water ran right out. Then a seagull lit on a piece of driftwood nearby, tilted itself and watched her. Before Mutsy knew it, the seagull started in squawking:

Stop up the holes with some oil-tar
Little bits washed up to shore
Stop up the holes with some oil-tar
Then splash up the water some more

“Thanks, squawky seagull,” said Mutsy, “I’ll try that.” So she smeared the tar that’d washed to shore inside the abalone shell, stopping up all the holes inside. Then she carried the shell back to the house, full of sea water. So her sisters had to let her go with them.

Each sister was on a surfboard and they dove through the waves together until Pepper and Betts started whispering. Suddenly they turned around and grabbed Mutsy’s board, plunging her under a huge wave. And off went Pepper and Betts paddling away. But not before snatching Mutsy’s crab cakes.

Mutsy started swimming back to her surfboard but the surfboard leash that was tied to her ankle had got caught on a rock underwater. The harder Mutsy pulled, the tighter the lease became. Then she remembered that in the pocket she’d made, inside her swimsuit, was her old clamshell knife. She cut away at the leash, swam right back up to her board and started paddling fast to catch up to Pepper and Betts.

They looked and saw Mutsy chasing behind them. “What’ll we do this time?” they asked each other.

Well, there was an island right there in the middle of the ocean, a small island where no one or nothing lived except a single coconut tree. So when Mutsy was beside them, they pushed Mutsy off her board and told her to swim to the island, climb the tree for some coconuts. But when Mutsy was at the top of the tree scared to come on back down, Pepper and Betts were long gone. So Mutsy started hollering. A sea lion heard her and inched its way up the sand of the island.

“Who’s up there?” the sea lion asked.

“It’s me—Mutsy.”

“What in the world do you want way up there?”

“I want to come down,” said Mutsy.

“Inch your way. Like I did coming up the shore.”

“I can’t. There’s nothing to hitch on when I come down. Can’t you catch me?”

“What’ll you give me?” asked the sea lion.

“I’ll take you to a tide pool of perch.”

So the sea lion inched close enough to the coconut tree to break Mutsy’s fall. And she took him to where the tide pools were, the ones she’d seen from high up in the tree. Then she started swimming in the direction of her sisters, catching up to them.

“What’ll we do now?” They asked each other.

“Let’s just say she’s our board waxer, make her do all the work when we stay the night somewhere.”

So they let Mutsy alone. About dark they paddled to another island, this one with many people living on it. They came to a little bamboo hut and a woman came out; she was dressed in a muumuu with make-up on her face like she was trying to hide something. They asked her could they stay the night.

“We got a board waxer. She’ll wax all your boards and more.”

The woman said yes they could stay, so Pepper and Betts took a seat by the fan of palm fronds. Mutsy started in waxing the surfboards, though they hardly looked like anyone ever used them.

Now the woman had three girls about the size of Pepper and Betts and Mutsy, and she sent all of them up in the bamboo loft to sleep—all but Mutsy. She stayed awake and listened—heard somebody come in the woman’s hut—knocking into things—talking about stealing waves all day, complaining he was in need of food and fast. Mutsy looked down through the slats between the bamboo poles to see what sounded like a wave-stealing giant.

“Hush! Hush! The woman told him. “You’ll wake up the three fine crabbies I got for ya in the loft. “If you go get ’em down, I’ll cook ’em for you.”

“HOW WILL I KNOW THEM GIRLS FROM YOUR GIRLS?”

“My girls wear tiny puka shells ’round their necks.”

Mutsy reached fast as she could and jerked the puka shell necklaces off the three girls and put them on her and Pepper and Betts. Then she lay back down and started snoring. The wave-stealing giant reached up to the loft and felt around for the girls that didn’t have puka shell necklaces on. When the wave-stealer brought the girls down and threw them to the woman, she lit into him like a lobster pinching its prey.

“You old barnacle!” she hollered at him. “You’ve gone and stole the wrong ones!” And she pinched and prodded at the wave-stealing giant, doing all she could to chase him out of her hut, causing him to back into a corner like a scared octopus.

While all this was going on Mutsy took her old clamshell knife and ripped the bedclothes and tied knots, making a rope. Then she tied the rope to the biggest bamboo pole, throwing it out the side of the hut so she and Pepper and Betts could get away.

Well, they got back on their boards and paddled and surfed and just about sunset the next day, they came to another island. This island was in the care of King Afford-A-Board, and he invited them to stay the night. Pepper and Betts right away started bragging about escaping from the wave-stealing giant, making it sound like they were the ones who’d done everything. Mutsy never said anything.

And before even a single wave crashed on shore, King Afford-A-Board said to Pepper and Betts, “All right. You girls ought to be sharp enough to go back there and get both the woman and the wave-stealing giant, and send them back to the mainland. You could do that for me, couldn’t you?”

Of course Pepper and Betts couldn’t back out then, so they said sure, they could do it. At sunrise, with their surfboards waxed, the ocean calm as a lake, they took off. But instead of paddling back to the island of the woman and wave-stealing giant, they paddled off in an entirely different direction. It was the last anybody saw of them.

Well, Mutsy she never said nothing. Stayed on there and worked for King Afford-A-Board. Then one starry night when only sand crabs crawled about, Mutsy paddled from the King’s island to the island where the woman and wave-stealing giant lived. Taking with her ten clam shells all full of sea salt, she reached the shore quietly. She climbed the back of the bamboo hut to the roof. She could see through the slats so when the woman raised the lid of what she was cooking Mutsy sprinkled in all the sea salt. When the wave-stealing giant started eating, he roared, “WOMAN, PUT DOWN THAT MAKEUP AND COME HERE AND TASTE THIS! THE SHRIMP ARE TOO SALTY!”

“Why I didn’t put in but one pinch!”

“YOU MUST A’ PUT IN TEN CLAM SHELLS OF SALT! I NEED FRESH WATER, FAST!”

“We only have sea water here!”

“GO OUT TO THE SPRING AND GET SOME FRESH! HURRY NOW! I’M ABOUT DEAD FOR FRESH WATER!”

“It’s too dark.”

“TAKE A TIKI TORCH!”

So the woman took her tiki torch and went out to the spring. But when the woman came running with the water bucket, Mutsy was there with her old clamshell knife and she speared the tiki torch, tossing it into the spring. The woman stubbed her toe reaching for the torch, then she fell, and as can happen, she broke her neck which was the end of her. Though Mutsy used her knife again, cutting a slice of the woman’s muumuu to bring back a cape or a curtain for the king.

Well, the king gave Mutsy a good deal on a new surfboard plus a few acres of beach front property. “Mutsy, I must say, you’re pretty sharp,” he told her as they stood on the beach watching the waves roll in. “But you know, the wave-stealing giant also stole a fine white surfboard from me. It’s a single-fin ten footer, and I’ve been trying every way in the world to get that board back. You get it for me and I’ll pay you with another few acres of beach front property.”

Mutsy didn’t hesitate, started swimming right then. The wind was dying down and the sky was getting dark when she got to the other island, carrying a swimsuit full of surfboard wax. She went into the shack where she’d seen the wave-stealing giant keep his quiver of surfboards. She found the white ten-foot board cabled up tight in thick cords of seaweed. Mutsy took her old clamshell knife out and set to work, cutting each rope of seaweed one by one. But soon the board swayed this way then that, crashing into another surfboard—

“PA DING!” A dent-making echo went out.

The wave-stealing giant raced to the shack and Mutsy hid behind another surfboard. He opened the door, looked around, but went back to the hut. So then Mutsy layered the King’s board, rail to rail, with the wax that she’d brought. Layers and layers of wax making it soft to the touch. So if the board hit anything it wouldn’t make much of a sound at all. Then she finished cutting the ropes of seaweed away from it. But this time the board fell forward straight onto Mutsy, enough to break open her skull—

“SHEESH!” A dent-making echo went out.

And the giant was inside the shack so fast Mutsy didn’t have time to jump and hide, so she just stood super calm behind the King’s fine white ten-foot single fin surfboard. The wave stealing giant came in with a tiki torch searching all around, jerking the door back, looking in the corners. Then he got to the surfboards—touching them nose to tail and when he got to the King’s fine white surfboard, he held the tiki torch up to it. “HOLD ON NOW, THIS SURFBOARD’S GOT WAY TOO MUCH WAX ON IT!”

And Just about that time the surfboard crashed down to the ground and there was Mutsy. She made for the door but the wave-stealing giant grabbed her and said, “NOW I GOT YOU!”

“What are you gonna do with me?”

“DON’T KNOW YET. CAN’T MAKE UP MY MIND!”

“Well, please don’t feed me on just mango and papaya. I just can’t stand the taste of mango and papaya.”

“THAT’S THE VERY THING I’M GOING TO DO! MANGOES AND PAPAYA IS ALL YOU’RE GONNA GET!”

So he locked her up in the surfboard shack, gave her all the mangoes and papayas she could hold. Mutsy just loved mango and papaya. Then one day the wave-stealing giant came out and told her, “NOW I’M GOING TO GET RID OF YOU!”

“How are you going to get rid of me?” Musty asked him.

“DON’T KNOW. CAN’T MAKE UP MY MIND!”

“Please just don’t put me in that coffee bean sack and beat me, ’cause my bones would crack like coconuts and my blood would run like pineapple juice.”

“THAT’S THE VERY WAY I’M GOING TO GET RID OF YOU!”

So he got a coffee bean sack and tied Mutsy in it—then went out to find a piece of sturdy driftwood to use in the beating. But Mutsy took her clamshell knife from her swim suit and gave that sack a rip, dropping out of like one big bean. Then she put in some fat green coconuts and ripe golden pineapples into the sack and sewed it up quick. Then she went and hid.

The giant came in with his club of driftwood, and he drew back lamming into that sack. The coconuts crashed. The old giant started to grin.

“OH YES! I’LL MAKE YOUR BONES CRACK!”

Then a few more licks and the pineapple started dribbling out.

“OH YES! I’LL MAKE YOUR BLOOD DRIP!”

And then the wave-stealing giant untied the sack and went to dump Mutsy out. He was so mad not to find her he threw down the driftwood club and started to run, following her footsteps in the sand

But Mutsy had already cut the last of the seaweed ropes, and she was diving into the surf with the King’s surfboard. By the time the giant was at the shore, Mutsy was way past the breakers.

“HOW’D YOU GET THAT FAR OUT TO SEA?”

“See the jetty? I paddled along beside it and the current carried me.”

So the giant ran down the jetty to the very end, thinking it’d be faster to jump in instead of swim. But a set of waves appeared washing over the jetty, tossing him directly into the dark salty water, and that was the last anybody ever saw of him.

Mutsy kept paddling on the fine white ten-foot single fin surfboard all the way back to the island of the King, where she scraped every last trace of the old wax and put on new, and was paid a whole coastline of property for returning it. And for getting rid of the wave-stealing giant, Mutsy became a proud owner of a custom made cool blue ten-foot single fin, surfing at her favorite point break every day.

copyright 2009 Shelby Mahan
all rights reserved


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