Blue Kentucky Girl

Blue Kentucky Girl

Named for the moon. Little Luna. Luna, blue. The details surrounding your birth are murky, some say 1878, others say a decade later, but why squabble over a handful of years? What’s most clear is that by the time you were born in eastern Kentucky, people had settled into its isolated pockets, inhabiting hollows along the Cumberland Plateau, fringed by rocky ridges and ravines. Men cut timber for as many hours as they could stand, women tended children and planted corn and potatoes wherever they could clear rocks from the soil, the hardness of their lives contrasted by a world bursting with waterfall and fern. Into this world, little ones came, replacing fathers and mothers, child, boys and girls for the shortest of time, and one of them, near the end of the century was you. Born into the Fugate family, the one I call out to, little Luna blue.

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Your mama would have been raised on stories of Fugates going back to the time Troublesome Creek was settled in the 1820s. She would have known a few of your daddy’s strangely-tinted cousins, would have spent time with an indigo-skinned niece. She’d married a Fugate after all, and in the isolated hills of eastern Kentucky, there was so much intermarriage that even she carried a spot of Fugate blood. Known as the blue people of Kentucky, people talked of them for miles. But what did that have to do with your mama? Mahala Fugate’s skin was white, as was her husband’s, and all of her other babies, each of which had unfolded from her soft and pink as wild azalea blossoms.

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Most babies born with Fugate blood were as pale as every other white child in eastern Kentucky. Even among Fugates, it was rare to stay blue. Most of those who showed a tinge upon birth lost their color after a few weeks, a fact Mahala must have repeated to herself as she cradled you, dear Luna, whose skin was like a stain against her breast. Families had to scrounge to survive those hills, so Mahala couldn’t have afforded much time to worry, though even among Fugates, being different seems to have been nothing anyone ever courted. Life was hard enough without the burden of strangely colored skin. How your mama must have lifted the edge of her blanket to check on you again and again, listening hard to those around her, clinging to the clucking of old aunts and her husband’s reassurances. Just give it time, they’d have said, that young’un’s skin will right itself, fade as fast as the passing of the days.

But the days passed, then passed again, and you remained the bluest of all babies born at Troublesome Creek, blue as the gentians growing along the creeks, bluer than even the moon you were named for.

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A blue moon itself isn’t as rare as it might seem. Two full moons in one month, it happens once, and sometimes even twice, a year. Once in a blue moon, people say, and what they mean is hardly ever. The saying began as a way to speak not so much of a rarity, but of an absurdity, an occurrence as unlikely as hell freezing over, as impossible as child in the hills of Kentucky, gathering flowers whose color mirrors her face. And even that is only pretty thinking. No, the lips on your face would have been more like the patches of denim your mama sewed to your daddy’s broken trousers than the color of springtime blossoms. Once in a blue moon. Hardly ever. And then along came you.

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Commonly known as met-H, methaemoglobinaemiais a disorder that results in the reduced ability to carry oxygen in the blood. As a result, the blood of those affected is made darker, so much so, that the darkened blood tints the skin blue, which is known as cyanosis, or the ‘blue disease’. The condition is usually caused by environmental factors, such as reactions to certain drugs and exposure to nitrates and dyes. But in rare cases, blue-skin can be congenital, as in the case of the Fugates, whose randomly aligned alleles combined with chance and geographic isolation to produce blue people in Troublesome Creek for more than a hundred years.

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So many blues in Kentucky. The heads of grasses. The Bluegrass state, its music, the picking and banjos, the voices calling out from the lonesome hills. Its moon, looming large in the sky, making the night its very own shade. Sung of by Bill Monroe (Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining) and again by Patsy Cline, and Elvis, the boy who sang another song about the Blue Moon: you saw me standing alone, without a dream in my heart. And that should be enough, but there’s Kentucky’s best known daughter, Loretta Lynn, who came from a hollow not too far from Luna, and who sang with her sad strong voice: just come on home to your blue Kentucky girl.

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Blue as a bruise, was said of the lips on Luna Fugate’s face.

Blue all over. As blue a woman as I ever saw.

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The dates of your life are jumbled, but no matter what math is used, you were still a girl when spotted by an admirer while attending services at the Baptist Church. Perhaps something grabbed him as you sang a hymn, perhaps your voice was strong and clear, Just as I am, without one plea and Pass me not, O gentle savior. Whatever the boy thought, it did not keep him from calling. And when you married, he built a two-room log cabin on a section of your daddy’s land, out in the middle of Laurel Fork Hollow. No, your flesh could not have repelled him, for he came to you, and came again, and together they filled their tiny cabin to bursting, him cutting trees while you cared for each of the babies that came, the days long, the nights short, everyone growing up fast, learning most of all to make do.

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Some say sixteen, some say fewer. Thirteen babies are known to have survived. Thirteen satellites of the moon. Your children, Luna, and how you would have looked at their skin, first thing, just as your mama had done, scanning the whole of their bare bodies for signs of mottling. So much is unknown. Whether anyone came to help with the births. Whether your children’s skin had the look of thin milk. What those babies thought as they grew, and looked into your face, whether they learned to think of all mamas as blue.

What is known is that they all grew into flesh as white as their father’s. And so Luna, even in the company of your husband and your tribe of children, you remained one of a kind, leading a tribe of pale-skinned boys and girls into the woods to collect ramps in spring, frying them with potatoes and bacon fat, setting and clearing the table, until everything was set and you could rest a spell before rising to do it all again.

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Blue. The feeling we have from time to time, so low, our hearts seem to have fallen into our shoes. The name given to the music freed slaves brought with them as they tramped north over the hills and hollows, songs as strong and slow as burnt molasses as they made its way into the sounds of the hills. Blue. Royal, cobalt, and turquoise. The color of queens and kings, and faraway seas. The color of eyes sometimes. Of berries and rivers and birds. Of certain bodies of water, of the sea, of the oceans—places heard of, but never seen.

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But here I am once again making pretty your life, calling you a bird while talking up the hills of Eastern Kentucky, speaking of wild leeks and morning glories, conjuring the majesty of early morning. And there must have been that, of course, there must have been. But reality must interfere: mountainsides stripped of trees for logging, earth scraped for mining, hardscrabble days, the stretching of corn meal to feed fifteen mouths, buckets of water lugged from the creek, the cold of winter seeping into broken shoes, another baby to birth, another baby to bury, men using their bodies to cut chestnuts and poplars until their legs gave way like the trunks they cut into, the pennies becoming fewer, the mountain whiskey plentiful, the call of moonshine, the cry of the empty belly, clothes to wash and mend, the pile of things waiting for repair, the skins of men and women sagging from so much stooping.

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So you were different. So there were flowers. So you lived in this world for eighty-four years. Was life ever more than was all those mouths to feed, squeezing into two rooms, sore bones and nowhere to stretch? Maybe skin color was the last thing to think about. Maybe it stopped mattering the moment you set yourself into motion. Still, it was another thing to carry, Luna. A special thing to be blue, perhaps, but when did it ever feel that way?  They cured the skin, you know. A doctor came traipsing through the hills with a needle, earning the trust of those few Fugates who still showed color, who let the doctor inject them and watched in wonder as their skin faded before their eyes. But that was after you, dear Luna, and for all of your days, you were blue.

And here I am a hundred years removed, and more than a hundred miles, but that doesn’t stop my being drawn in by the strange color of you. How much I’d like to know you, to sit with you just once, to look into your face and see what shows beyond the skin. To hear your voice. To understand the world as you saw it. What were the spaces like, Luna, those times between the digging of potatoes and the mending of shoes? Were there times, when you stopped all that motion, set a hand upon knee, and looked up and into the trees. Times when it was just you and the dogwoods and whatever thing Jesus might have meant? Just as I am, without one plea and Pass me not, O gentle savior.Those old hymns, did you sing them to yourself? Did you meet the stares of others, head on, or go through life with your neck bent? No, somehow I know you lifted it high, your head, at least some of the times. And on those days, what did you think of the sky as you looked up and into its width—did it seem to you closer than kin, truer sometimes than the color of everything else? ■

 

Sonja Livingston’s latest book, Queen of the Fall, is forthcoming. Her first book, Ghostbread, won an AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction. “Blue Kentucky Girl” is from a book-in-progress about little known historic women. Recent essays appear in Arts & Letters, Bellingham 135 Review, Brevity, The Seneca Review, and others. Livingston splits her time between New York and Memphis, where she teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Memphis.

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