Friday, December 16, 2011

Pushcart Nominees 2011: Samantha Kymmell-Harvey

Our third nominee will talk to you of fairy tales and how they end. How they could end. How they could never end.

The Origins of
“First Born”

By Samantha Kymmell-Harvey

The seeds of “First Born” were really sown in my childhood. For Christmas, my dad got me a couple of books from the Time Life Enchanted World series, which if you’re not familiar, is this fantastic collection of books that tell the stories of mythology, folklore, and fairy tales. I’d be up way past my bedtime, under the covers, flashlight in hand,  reading.  And as I read each story, I’d silently berate the heroes. Why did the fisherman follow the mermaid back into the sea? Didn’t he know she’d drown him? Why did the child climb on the kelpie’s back? I wouldn’t get on a creepy looking, red-eyed horse. Time and time again, I’d tell them not to do it, yet they did it anyway. Of course, this frustration never deterred me from reading those stories again. But it was this passion that ultimately led to a Master’s thesis on the supernatural in French courtly romances. Yes, believe it or not, a thesis on fairies, goblins, giants and the like is perfectly legitimate.

First Born, for me, represents that voice of reason. She warns the wives of Bluebeard, just as I did while reading Charles Perrault’s story Barbe Bleue many years ago during my undergrad French program.

In Perrault’s version, the story opens with Bluebeard already having gained a reputation for his missing wives. Despite his blue beard, considered an ugly deformity, he still manages to snag another bride. But this is the wife who survives. After she discovers the bodies in the basement, she drops the keys into the blood. The problem is, the keys are enchanted and will not wash clean. This is how Bluebeard knows what she’s done. But before he can murder this last bride, she calls upon her brothers to murder him instead.

In “First Born,” I wanted to incorporate the classic elements of fairy tales and folklore, but experiment with warnings. If the characters were told of their fate, would they still break the rules anyway? To my surprise, the answer was yes. Because it’s human nature to do the one thing you’re told not to do, and that’s what good fairy tales capture: both the flaws and redemption of our human condition.

Loneliness, in my opinion, is the underlying motivation here. Bluebeard wants a companion, yet he seems cursed. None of his wives can resist opening that basement door and thus he must murder them. And the brides must be lonely too, for why else would they marry this man knowing his reputation? 

First Born, the daughter of Bluebeard and his first wife, feels the ultimate sting of loneliness. She’s a child who will never know the love of parents or the love of friendship. Forced to live in the shadows of the castle, she becomes a sort of “living ghost.” Though she wants a friend, she cannot risk revealing her existence. At night, she whispers into the ears of each bride “Beware of the man with the blue beard. Though he is your husband, he will not spare you. But I will be your friend for as long as I still breathe.” Despite the warning, these women still find their way into the forbidden chamber.

In considering the end of the piece, I disliked the fact that Perrault’s final wife is rescued by her knightly brothers. I preferred a strong woman who could save herself. Furthermore, since Bluebeard is a sort of supernatural being, I felt his death could only be delivered by someone also of that world. Enter the Winter Bride, or Death -- the ultimate cure for loneliness. And for First Born, Death redeems her from her loneliness in a very unexpected way.

In closing, I’d like to thank a few people for the roles they had in making “First Born” come together. First, without the watchful eyes of my critique group (especially Kelly and Marion), this story would never have made it into print. And thank you Prof. Martin for telling me that I can indeed study fairy tales.

Finally, a huge thank you to Brandon Bell and Alexa Seidel for believing in this story and honoring it with a Pushcart Prize nomination. I still can’t believe it and I am so grateful! I’m in awe of your magazine. It’s clear you really believe in your writers and in your mission. I hope one day I may grace your pages again.

About the author:
Samantha Kymmell-Harvey is originally from Midlothian, Virginia but now resides in Baltimore. She studied French at the College of William and Mary and French Medieval Literature at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. She loves to write gothic, historical fiction, steampunk, and re-tellings of old fairy tales. Her fiction can be found in The Urbanite and Underneath the Juniper Tree. When not writing, she teaches high school French. Check out her blog at


"First Born" appeared in Fantastique Unfettered #3

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