By Samir Sirk Morató
The kelpie is starving.
Starvation in Appalachia is a glacial process, one that’s been honed to an art since the birth of company towns a half-century ago. The unfortunate kelpie can manage it. She floats in the flooded mines, waiting, wasting, until there’s a distant splash. The kelpie flares her nostrils. She picks across rocks on knobbly, hoof-slippered toes, ears perked, hoping for more than a fallen fawn or squirrel.
Rebar prods her sides. Splintered supports rake her flanks. The mine turned to a tetanus-ridden labyrinth after its abandonment. With patience, it’s navigable. The kelpie, impatient, barrels through, scraping her rubbery skin.
She halts near the source of sound. Sniffs. Sunshine from a faraway hole warms her orbital sockets. Leaves crinkle against her breast. The kelpie lips at them. Whatever fell landed near here. Her jaw hinges open beneath her ears. Rows of jagged teeth materialize. A pale tongue unrolls. It gropes, eel-like, until it locates the novelty: an acorn. The kelpie sucks it into her maw, crunching it under her mandala of fangs. A burst of tannin warms her mouth. It’s inferior to blood. Her stomach wrenches. The kelpie whinnies in dismay, shrill, an infant screaming into reed pipes.
This world isn’t built for her. The kelpie is tiny, closer to a carnivorous dawn horse than miners’ pit ponies. She emerged into the mines from a cave system—a paleolithic tangle of viscera dripping with snottites and stalactites, a chain of calcitic caverns rich with troglophiles—after oil began leaking in. This human-born hell has punished her since.
These tunnels weren’t built for the youth that worked them either. Children used to stumble through, mattocks in hand, helmets casing their small skulls, dust clogging their lungs. The scent of their smashed bodies is why the kelpie came. Then the mine swallowed more of them than she did, the river rose, and they vanished.
The kelpie turns antsy circles. She feels the sun; she cannot escape the water. Her mane congeals on its surface like sooty blood. Once, she was white. Chemical burns and oozing sores have made her an Appaloosa nightmare. Her webby fetlocks are falling out; her ribs protrude. Her exit collapsed with the coal industry.
The kelpie’s cache of child skeletons, too, give less. There are no more scraps of scalp to gnaw on or noses to chew clean. No tidbits of waterlogged fat between fingers. No marrow. As food dwindles, the kelpie’s future glares brighter than the pearly bone pile and cuts sharper than her canines. The kelpie wades into the dark, nickering, replying to her own echoes.
Her entreaties for companionship are fruitless. The beasts closest to her kin sleep in the spilt oil that irritates her injuries and gnaws at her organs. Aboveground, the epigean animals she hungers after have fled for unblasted mountains. If the kelpie’s calls reach town, none of the dying, cobweb-choked shacks hear her. She and the mine ate their animacy. Now, that terrible twin to her birthplace is eating her.
Perhaps nothing is hungrier than gutted earth.
Samir Sirk Morató is a scientist, artist, and flesh heap. Some of their work can be found in Carmen et Error, body fluids, and Lavender Bones Magazine. They are on Twitter and Instagram.