Ŕâňîđčçŕöč˙
×

Where the Crawdads Sing / Ňŕě ăäĺ ďîţň đĺ÷íűĺ đŕęč (by Delia Owens, 2018) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

Where the Crawdads Sing / Ňŕě ăäĺ ďîţň đĺ÷íűĺ đŕęč (by Delia Owens, 2018) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

Where the Crawdads Sing / Ňŕě ăäĺ ďîţň đĺ÷íűĺ đŕęč (by Delia Owens, 2018) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

Ňčőčé ăîđîä, ÷ňî đŕńďîëîćĺí íŕ ďđîńňîđŕő Ńĺâĺđíîé Ęŕđîëčíű, ďĺđĺńňŕë ňĺřčňü ńâîčěč ęđŕńîňŕěč âçîđ ěĺńňíűő ćčňĺëĺé, ęîăäŕ îíč óçíŕëč î ńěĺđňč ěĺńňíîăî ęđŕńŕâöŕ. Âńĺ ďđčí˙ëčńü îáńóćäŕňü č ńňđîčňü äîăŕäęč î ëč÷íîńňč ďîňĺíöčŕëüíîăî óáčéöű. Č ńęîđî íŕřëč ęđŕéíĺăî. Ęüţ Ęëŕđę îęŕçŕëŕńü â ýďčöĺíňđĺ áóđíűő ńîáűňčé, ńâ˙çŕííűő ń ăčáĺëüţ ďŕđíčřęč, ďîëüçóţůĺăîń˙ ďîďóë˙đíîńňüţ ó ďđĺęđŕńíîé ďîëîâčíű. Ďî÷ĺěó Ęüţ? Íŕ ěíîăčĺ ăîäű îíŕ čń÷ĺçëŕ čç ăîđîäŕ. Ęŕę îęŕçŕëîńü, îíŕ ćčëŕ íŕ áîëîňŕő, đîńëŕ č âűćčâŕëŕ â óńëîâč˙ő äčęîé ďđčđîäű, îň ňîăî č ęŕćĺňń˙ äčęîé, íĺëţäčěîé č îňęđîâĺííî ńňđŕííîé. Äĺâóřęŕ, őîň˙ č âĺđíóëŕńü â öčâčëčçŕöčţ, ńňŕňü ďîëíîöĺííűě ÷ëĺíîě îáůĺńňâŕ ňŕę č íĺ ńěîăëŕ. Îíŕ óěíŕ˙, ÷óňęŕ˙, îíŕ čůĺň çíŕęîěńňâ č ęŕę ďîëŕăŕĺňń˙ ţíîé äĺâóřęĺ, čńďűňűâŕĺň âëĺ÷ĺíčĺ ę ďŕđí˙ě. Íî îíŕ ÷óćŕ˙ äë˙ âńĺő. Ĺĺ âîçâđŕůĺíčĺ ęŕę đŕç ňŕęč ńîâďŕëî ń ňđŕăč÷ĺńęčěč ńîáűňč˙ěč, ďîňîěó ăîđîćŕíĺ áűńňđî íŕřëč âčíîâíčöó ńěĺđňč. Íî âčíîâŕňŕ ëč äĺâóřęŕ? Č ńęîëüęî âđĺěĺíč ďîíŕäîáčňń˙, ÷ňîáű äîęŕçŕňü ńâîţ íĺďđč÷ŕńňíîńňü?

Đĺéňčíă:
Ďđîńěîňđîâ: 496
Íŕçâŕíčĺ:
Where the Crawdads Sing / Ňŕě ăäĺ ďîţň đĺ÷íűĺ đŕęč (by Delia Owens, 2018) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě
Ăîä âűďóńęŕ ŕóäčîęíčăč:
2018
Ŕâňîđ:
Delia Owens
Čńďîëíčňĺëü:
Cassandra Campbell
ßçűę:
ŕíăëčéńęčé
Ćŕíđ:
đîěŕí, äĺňĺęňčâ, ôŕíňŕńňčęŕ
Óđîâĺíü ńëîćíîńňč:
upper-intermediate
Äëčňĺëüíîńňü ŕóäčî:
12:12:04
Áčňđĺéň ŕóäčî:
64 kbps
Ôîđěŕň:
mp3, pdf, doc

Ńëóřŕňü îíëŕéí Where the Crawdads Sing / Ňŕě ăäĺ ďîţň đĺ÷íűĺ đŕęč ŕóäčîęíčăó íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě ˙çűęĺ:

Ńęŕ÷ŕňü ňĺęńň ęíčăč â ôîđěŕňĺ .doc (Word) ďî ďđ˙ěîé ńńűëęĺ delia_owens_-_where_the_crawdads_sing.doc [4.09 Mb] (cęŕ÷čâŕíčé: 21) .
Ńęŕ÷ŕňü ňĺęńň ęíčăč â ôîđěŕňĺ .pdf ďî ďđ˙ěîé ńńűëęĺ  delia_owens_-_where_the_crawdads_sing.pdf [2.36 Mb] (cęŕ÷čâŕíčé: 15) .
Ńęŕ÷ŕňü audiobook (MP3) áĺńďëŕňíî ń ôŕéëîîáěĺííčęŕ.


×čňŕňü ęíčăó íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě îíëŕéí:

(×ňîáű ďĺđĺâîäčňü ńëîâŕ íŕ đóńńęčé ˙çűę č äîáŕâë˙ňü â ńëîâŕđü äë˙ čçó÷ĺíč˙, ůĺëęŕĺě ěűřęîé íŕ íóćíîĺ ńëîâî).


PART 1 The Marsh Prologue 1969 M arsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky. Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea, and long-legged birds lift with unexpected grace—as though not built to fly—against the roar of a thousand snow geese. Then within the marsh, here and there, true swamp crawls into low-lying bogs, hidden in clammy forests. Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat. Even night crawlers are diurnal in this lair. There are sounds, of course, but compared to the marsh, the swamp is quiet because decomposition is cellular work. Life decays and reeks and returns to the rotted duff; a poignant wallow of death begetting life. On the morning of October 30, 1969, the body of Chase Andrews lay in the swamp, which would have absorbed it silently, routinely. Hiding it for good. A swamp knows all about death, and doesn’t necessarily define it as tragedy, certainly not a sin. But this morning two boys from the village rode their bikes out to the old fire tower and, from the third switchback, spotted his denim jacket. 1. Ma 1952 T he morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog. The palmetto patches stood unusually quiet except for the low, slow flap of the heron’s wings lifting from the lagoon. And then, Kya, only six at the time, heard the screen door slap. Standing on the stool, she stopped scrubbing grits from the pot and lowered it into the basin of worn-out suds. No sounds now but her own breathing. Who had left the shack? Not Ma. She never let the door slam. But when Kya ran to the porch, she saw her mother in a long brown skirt, kick pleats nipping at her ankles, as she walked down the sandy lane in high heels. The stubby-nosed shoes were fake alligator skin. Her only going-out pair. Kya wanted to holler out but knew not to rouse Pa, so opened the door and stood on the brick-’n’-board steps. From there she saw the blue train case Ma carried. Usually, with the confidence of a pup, Kya knew her mother would return with meat wrapped in greasy brown paper or with a chicken, head dangling down. But she never wore the gator heels, never took a case. Ma always looked back where the foot lane met the road, one arm held high, white palm waving, as she turned onto the track, which wove through bog forests, cattail lagoons, and maybe—if the tide obliged—eventually into town. But today she walked on, unsteady in the ruts. Her tall figure emerged now and then through the holes of the forest until only swatches of white scarf flashed between the leaves. Kya sprinted to the spot she knew would bare the road; surely Ma would wave from there, but she arrived only in time to glimpse the blue case—the color so wrong for the woods—as it disappeared. A heaviness, thick as black-cotton mud, pushed her chest as she returned to the steps to wait. Kya was the youngest of five, the others much older, though later she couldn’t recall their ages. They lived with Ma and Pa, squeezed together like penned rabbits, in the rough-cut shack, its screened porch staring big-eyed from under the oaks. Jodie, the brother closest to Kya, but still seven years older, stepped from the house and stood behind her. He had her same dark eyes and black hair; had taught her birdsongs, star names, how to steer the boat through saw grass. “Ma’ll be back,” he said. “I dunno. She’s wearin’ her gator shoes.” “A ma don’t leave her kids. It ain’t in ’em.” “You told me that fox left her babies.” “Yeah, but that vixen got ’er leg all tore up. She’d’ve starved to death if she’d tried to feed herself ’n’ her kits. She was better off to leave ’em, heal herself up, then whelp more when she could raise ’em good. Ma ain’t starvin’, she’ll be back.” Jodie wasn’t nearly as sure as he sounded, but said it for Kya. Her throat tight, she whispered, “But Ma’s carryin’ that blue case like she’s goin’ somewheres big.” • • • THE SHACK SAT BACK from the palmettos, which sprawled across sand flats to a necklace of green lagoons and, in the distance, all the marsh beyond. Miles of blade-grass so tough it grew in salt water, interrupted only by trees so bent they wore the shape of the wind. Oak forests bunched around the other sides of the shack and sheltered the closest lagoon, its surface so rich in life it churned. Salt air and gull-song drifted through the trees from the sea. Claiming territory hadn’t changed much since the 1500s. The scattered marsh holdings weren’t legally described, just staked out natural—a creek boundary here, a dead oak there—by renegades. A man doesn’t set up a palmetto lean-to in a bog unless he’s on the run from somebody or at the end of his own road. The marsh was guarded by a torn shoreline, labeled by early explorers as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” because riptides, furious winds, and shallow shoals wrecked ships like paper hats along what would become the North Carolina coast. One seaman’s journal read, “rang’d along the Shoar . . . but could discern no Entrance . . . A violent Storm overtook us . . . we were forced to get off to Sea, to secure Ourselves and Ship, and were driven by the Rapidity of a strong Current . . . “The Land . . . being marshy and Swamps, we return’d towards our Ship . . . Discouragement of all such as should hereafter come into those Parts to settle.” Those looking for serious land moved on, and this infamous marsh became a net, scooping up a mishmash of mutinous sailors, castaways, debtors, and fugitives dodging wars, taxes, or laws that they didn’t take to. The ones malaria didn’t kill or the swamp didn’t swallow bred into a woodsmen tribe of several races and multiple cultures, each of whom could fell a small forest with a hatchet and pack a buck for miles. Like river rats, each had his own territory, yet had to fit into the fringe or simply disappear some day in the swamp. Two hundred years later, they were joined by runaway slaves, who escaped into the marsh and were called maroons, and freed slaves, penniless and beleaguered, who dispersed into the water-land because of scant options. Maybe it was mean country, but not an inch was lean. Layers of life—squiggly sand crabs, mud-waddling crayfish, waterfowl, fish, shrimp, oysters, fatted deer, and plump geese—were piled on the land or in the water. A man who didn’t mind scrabbling for supper would never starve. It was now 1952, so some of the claims had been held by a string of disconnected, unrecorded persons for four centuries. Most before the Civil War. Others squatted on the land more recently, especially after the World Wars, when men came back broke and broke-up. The marsh did not confine them but defined them and, like any sacred ground, kept their secrets deep. No one cared that they held the land because nobody else wanted it. After all, it was wasteland bog. Just like their whiskey, the marsh dwellers bootlegged their own laws—not like those burned onto stone tablets or inscribed on documents, but deeper ones, stamped in their genes. Ancient and natural, like those hatched from hawks and doves. When cornered, desperate, or isolated, man reverts to those instincts that aim straight at survival. Quick and just. They will always be the trump cards because they are passed on more frequently from one generation to the next than the gentler genes. It is not a morality, but simple math. Among themselves, doves fight as often as hawks. • • • MA DIDN’T COME BACK that day. No one spoke of it. Least of all Pa. Stinking of fish and drum likker, he clanked pot lids. “Whar’s supper?” Eyes downcast, the brothers and sisters shrugged. Pa dog-cussed, then limp-stepped out, back into the woods. There had been fights before; Ma had even left a time or two, but she always came back, scooping up whoever would be cuddled. The two older sisters cooked a supper of red beans and cornbread, but no one sat to eat at the table, as they would have with Ma. Each dipped beans from the pot, flopped cornbread on top, and wandered off to eat on their floor mattresses or the faded sofa. Kya couldn’t eat. She sat on the porch steps, looking down the lane. Tall for her age, bone skinny, she had deep-tanned skin and straight hair, black and thick as crow wings. Darkness put a stop to her lookout. Croaking frogs would drown the sounds of footsteps; even so, she lay on her porch bed, listening. Just that morning she’d awakened to fatback crackling in the iron skillet and whiffs of biscuits browning in the wood oven. Pulling up her bib overalls, she’d rushed into the kitchen to put the plates and forks out. Pick the weevils from the grits. Most dawns, smiling wide, Ma hugged her—“Good morning, my special girl”—and the two of them moved about the chores, dancelike. Sometimes Ma sang folk songs or quoted nursery rhymes: “This little piggy went to market.” Or she’d swing Kya into a jitterbug, their feet banging the plywood floor until the music of the battery-operated radio died, sounding as if it were singing to itself at the bottom of a barrel. Other mornings Ma spoke about adult things Kya didn’t understand, but she figured Ma’s words needed somewhere to go, so she absorbed them through her skin, as she poked more wood in the cookstove. Nodding like she knew. Then, the hustle of getting everybody up and fed. Pa not there. He had two settings: silence and shouting. So it was just fine when he slept through, or didn’t come home at all. But this morning, Ma had been quiet; her smile lost, her eyes red. She’d tied a white scarf pirate style, low across her forehead, but the purple and yellow edges of a bruise spilled out. Right after breakfast, even before the dishes were washed, Ma had put a few personals in the train case and walked down the road. • • • THE NEXT MORNING, Kya took up her post again on the steps, her dark eyes boring down the lane like a tunnel waiting for a train. The marsh beyond was veiled in fog so low its cushy bottom sat right on the mud. Barefoot, Kya drummed her toes, twirled grass stems at doodlebugs, but a six-year-old can’t sit long and soon she moseyed onto the tidal flats, sucking sounds pulling at her toes. Squatting at the edge of the clear water, she watched minnows dart between sunspots and shadows. Jodie hollered to her from the palmettos. She stared; maybe he was coming with news. But as he wove through the spiky fronds, she knew by the way he moved, casual, that Ma wasn’t home. “Ya wanta play explorers?” he asked. “Ya said ya’re too old to play ’splorers.” “Nah, I just said that. Never too old. Race ya!” They tore across the flats, then through the woods toward the beach. She squealed as he overtook her and laughed until they reached the large oak that jutted enormous arms over the sand. Jodie and their older brother, Murph, had hammered a few boards across the branches as a lookout tower and tree fort. Now, much of it was falling in, dangling from rusty nails. Usually if she was allowed to crew at all it was as slave girl, bringing her brothers warm biscuits swiped from Ma’s pan. But today Jodie said, “You can be captain.” Kya raised her right arm in a charge. “Run off the Spaniards!” They broke off stick-swords and crashed through brambles, shouting and stabbing at the enemy. Then—make-believe coming and going easily—she walked to a mossy log and sat. Silently, he joined her. He wanted to say something to get her mind off Ma, but no words came, so they watched the swimming shadows of water striders. Kya returned to the porch steps later and waited for a long time, but, as she looked to the end of the lane, she never cried. Her face was still, her lips a simple thin line under searching eyes. But Ma didn’t come back that day either. 2. Jodie 1952 A fter Ma left, over the next few weeks, Kya’s oldest brother and two sisters drifted away too, as if by example. They had endured Pa’s red-faced rages, which started as shouts, then escalated into fist-slugs, or backhanded punches, until one by one, they disappeared. They were nearly grown anyway. And later, just as she forgot their ages, she couldn’t remember their real names, only that they were called Missy, Murph, and Mandy. On her porch mattress, Kya found a small pile of socks left by her sisters. On the morning when Jodie was the only sibling left, Kya awakened to the clatter-clank and hot grease of breakfast. She dashed into the kitchen, thinking Ma was home frying corn fritters or hoecakes. But it was Jodie, standing at the woodstove, stirring grits. She smiled to hide the letdown, and he patted the top of her head, gently shushing her to be quiet: if they didn’t wake Pa, they could eat alone. Jodie didn’t know how to make biscuits, and there wasn’t any bacon, so he cooked grits and scrambled eggs in lard, and they sat down together, silently exchanging glances and smiles. They washed their dishes fast, then ran out the door toward the marsh, he in the lead. But just then Pa shouted and hobbled toward them. Impossibly lean, his frame seemed to flop about from poor gravity. His molars yellow as an old dog’s teeth. Kya looked up at Jodie. “We can run. Hide in the mossy place.” “It’s okay. It’ll be okay,” he said. • • • LATER, NEAR SUNSET, Jodie found Kya on the beach staring at the sea. As he stepped up beside her, she didn’t look at him but kept her eyes on the roiling waves. Still, she knew by the way he spoke that Pa had slugged his face. “I hafta go, Kya. Can’t live here no longer.” She almost turned to him, but didn’t. Wanted to beg him not to leave her alone with Pa, but the words jammed up. “When you’re old enough you’ll understand,” he said. Kya wanted to holler out that she may be young, but she wasn’t stupid. She knew Pa was the reason they all left; what she wondered was why no one took her with them. She’d thought of leaving too, but had nowhere to go and no bus money. “Kya, ya be careful, hear. If anybody comes, don’t go in the house. They can get ya there. Run deep in the marsh, hide in the bushes. Always cover yo’ tracks; I learned ya how. And ya can hide from Pa, too.” When she still didn’t speak, he said good-bye and strode across the beach to the woods. Just before he stepped into the trees, she finally turned and watched him walk away. “This little piggy stayed home,” she said to the waves. Breaking her freeze, she ran to the shack. Shouted his name down the hall, but Jodie’s things were already gone, his floor bed stripped bare. She sank onto his mattress, watching the last of that day slide down the wall. Light lingered after the sun, as it does, some of it pooling in the room, so that for a brief moment the lumpy beds and piles of old clothes took on more shape and color than the trees outside. A gnawing hunger—such a mundane thing—surprised her. She walked to the kitchen and stood at the door. All her life the room had been warmed from baking bread, boiling butter beans, or bubbling fish stew. Now, it was stale, quiet, and dark. “Who’s gonna cook?” she asked out loud. Could have asked, Who’s gonna dance? She lit a candle and poked at hot ashes in the woodstove, added kindling. Pumped the bellows till a flame caught, then more wood. The Frigidaire served as a cupboard because no electricity came near the shack. To keep the mold at bay, the door was propped open with the flyswatter. Still, greenish-black veins of mildew grew in every crevice. Getting out leftovers, she said, “I’ll tump the grits in lard, warm ’em up,” which she did and ate from the pot, looking through the window for Pa. But he didn’t come. When light from the quarter moon finally touched the shack, she crawled into her porch bed—a lumpy mattress on the floor with real sheets covered in little blue roses that Ma had got at a yard sale—alone at night for the first time in her life. At first, every few minutes, she sat up and peered through the screen. Listening for footsteps in the woods. She knew the shapes of all the trees; still some seemed to dart here and there, moving with the moon. For a while she was so stiff she couldn’t swallow, but on cue, the familiar songs of tree frogs and katydids filled the night. More comforting than three blind mice with a carving knife. The darkness held an odor of sweetness, the earthy breath of frogs and salamanders who’d made it through one more stinky-hot day. The marsh snuggled in closer with a low fog, and she slept. • • • FOR THREE DAYS Pa didn’t come and Kya boiled turnip greens from Ma’s garden for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She’d walked out to the chicken coop for eggs but found it bare. Not a chicken or egg anywhere. “Chicken shits! You’re just a bunch of chicken shits!” She’d been meaning to tend them since Ma left but hadn’t done much of anything. Now they’d escaped as a motley flock, clucking far in the trees beyond. She’d have to scatter grits, see if she could keep them close. On the evening of the fourth day, Pa showed up with a bottle and sprawled across his bed. Walking into the kitchen the next morning, he hollered, “Whar’s ev’body got to?” “I don’t know,” she said, not looking at him. “Ya don’t know much as a cur-dawg. Useless as tits on a boar hog.” Kya slipped quietly out the porch door, but walking along the beach searching for mussels, she smelled smoke and looked up to see a plume rising from the direction of the shack. Running as fast as she could, she broke through the trees and saw a bonfire blazing in the yard. Pa was throwing Ma’s paintings, dresses, and books onto the flames. “No!” Kya screamed. He didn’t look at her, but threw the old battery-operated radio into the fire. Her face and arms burned as she reached toward the paintings, but the heat pushed her back. She rushed to the shack to block Pa’s return for more, locking eyes with him. Pa raised his backhand toward Kya, but she stood her ground. Suddenly, he turned and limp-stepped toward his boat. Kya sank onto the brick ’n’ boards, watching Ma’s watercolors of the marsh smolder into ash. She sat until the sun set, until all the buttons glowed as embers and the memories of dancing the jitterbug with Ma melted into the flames. Over the next few days, Kya learned from the mistakes of the others, and perhaps more from the minnows, how to live with him. Just keep out of the way, don’t let him see you, dart from sunspots to shadows. Up and out of the house before he rose, she lived in the woods and water, then padded into the house to sleep in her bed on the porch as close to the marsh as she could get. • • • PA HAD FOUGHT GERMANY in the Second World War, where his left femur caught shrapnel and shattered, their last source of pride. His weekly disability checks, their only source of income. A week after Jodie left, the Frigidaire stood empty and hardly any turnips remained. When Kya walked into the kitchen that Monday morning, Pa pointed to a crumpled dollar and loose coins on the kitchen table. “This here’ll get ya food fer the week. Thar ain’t no such thang as handouts,” he said. “Ever’thang cost sump’m, and fer the money ya gotta keep the house up, stove wood c’lected, and warsh the laundree.” For the first time ever Kya walked alone toward the village of Barkley Cove to buy groceries—this little piggy went to market. She plodded through deep sand or black mud for four miles until the bay glistened ahead, the hamlet on its shore. Everglades surrounded the town, mixing their salty haze with that of the ocean, which swelled in high tide on the other side of Main Street. Together the marsh and sea separated the village from the rest of the world, the only connection being the single-lane highway that limped into town on cracked cement and potholes. There were two streets: Main ran along the oceanfront with a row of shops; the Piggly Wiggly grocery at one end, the Western Auto at the other, the diner in the middle. Mixed in there were Kress’s Five and Dime, a Penney’s (catalog only), Parker’s Bakery, and a Buster Brown Shoe Shop. Next to the Piggly was the Dog-Gone Beer Hall, which offered roasted hot dogs, red-hot chili, and fried shrimp served in folded paper boats. No ladies or children stepped inside because it wasn’t considered proper, but a take-out window had been cut out of the wall so they could order hot dogs and Nehi cola from the street. Coloreds couldn’t use the door or the window. The other street, Broad, ran from the old highway straight toward the ocean and into Main, ending right there. So the only intersection in town was Main, Broad, and the Atlantic Ocean. The stores and businesses weren’t joined together as in most towns but were separated by small, vacant lots brushed with sea oats and palmettos, as if overnight the marsh had inched in. For more than two hundred years, sharp salty winds had weathered the cedar-shingled buildings to the color of rust, and the window frames, most painted white or blue, had flaked and cracked. Mostly, the village seemed tired of arguing with the elements, and simply sagged. The town wharf, draped in frayed ropes and old pelicans, jutted into the small bay, whose water, when calm, reflected the reds and yellows of shrimp boats. Dirt roads, lined with small cedar houses, wound through the trees, around lagoons, and along the ocean on either end of the shops. Barkley Cove was quite literally a backwater town, bits scattered here and there among the estuaries and reeds like an egret’s nest flung by the wind. Barefoot and dressed in too-short bib overalls, Kya stood where the marsh track met the road. Biting her lip, wanting to run home. She couldn’t reckon what she’d say to people; how she’d figure the grocery money. But hunger was a pushing thing, so she stepped onto Main and walked, head down, toward the Piggly Wiggly on a crumbling sidewalk that appeared now and then between grass clumps. As she approached the Five and Dime, she heard a commotion behind her and jumped to the side just as three boys, a few years older than she, sped by on bikes. The lead boy looked back at her, laughing at the near miss, and then almost collided with a woman stepping from the store. “CHASE ANDREWS, you get back here! All three of you boys.” They pedaled a few more yards, then thought better of it and returned to the woman, Miss Pansy Price, saleslady in fabric and notions. Her family had once owned the largest farm on the outskirts of the marsh and, although they were forced to sell out long ago, she continued her role as genteel landowner. Which wasn’t easy living in a tiny apartment above the diner. Miss Pansy usually wore hats shaped like silk turbans, and this morning her headwear was pink, setting off red lipstick and splotches of rouge. She scolded the boys. “I’ve a mind to tell y’all’s mamas about this. Or better, yo’ papas. Ridin’ fast like that on the sidewalk, nearly runnin’ me over. What ya got to say for yo’self, Chase?” He had the sleekest bike—red seat and chrome handlebars, raised up. “We’re sorry, Miss Pansy, we didn’t see ya ’cause that girl over yonder got in the way.” Chase, tanned with dark hair, pointed at Kya, who had stepped back and stood half inside a myrtle shrub. “Never mind her. You cain’t go blamin’ yo’ sins on somebody else, not even swamp trash. Now, you boys gotta do a good deed, make up fer this. There goes Miss Arial with her groceries, go help carry ’em to her truck. And put yo’ shirttails in.” “Yes, ma’am,” the boys said as they biked toward Miss Arial, who had taught them all second grade. Kya knew that the parents of the dark-haired boy owned the Western Auto store, which was why he rode the snazziest bike. She’d seen him unloading big cardboard boxes of merchandise from the truck, packing it in, but she had never spoken a word to him or the others. She waited a few minutes, then, head low again, walked toward the grocery. Inside the Piggly Wiggly, Kya studied the selection of grits and chose a one-pound bag of coarse ground yellow because a red tag hung from the top—a special of the week. Like Ma taught her. She fretted in the aisle until no other customers stood at the register, then walked up and faced the checkout lady, Mrs. Singletary, who asked, “Where’s ya mama at?” Mrs. Singletary’s hair was cut short, curled tight, and colored purple as an iris in sunlight. “Doin’ chores, ma’am.” “Well, ya got money for the grits, or don’t ya?” “Yes’m.” Not knowing how to count the exact amount, she laid down the whole dollar. Mrs. Singletary wondered if the child knew the difference in the coins, so as she placed the change into Kya’s open palm she counted slowly, “Twenty-five, fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, eighty-five and three pennies. ’Cause the grits cost twelve cents.” Kya felt sick to her stomach. Was she supposed to count something back? She stared to the puzzle of coins in her palm. Mrs. Singletary seemed to soften. “Okay, then. Git on with ya.” Kya dashed from the store and walked as fast as she could toward the marsh track. Plenty of times, Ma had told her, “Never run in town or people’ll think you stole something.” But as soon as Kya reached the sandy track, she ran a good half mile. Then speed-walked the rest. Back home, thinking she knew how to fix grits, she threw them into boiling water like Ma had done, but they lumped up all together in one big ball that burned on the bottom and stayed raw in the middle. So rubbery she could only eat a few bites, so she searched the garden again and found a few more turnip greens between the goldenrod. Then boiled them up and ate them all, slurping down the pot likker. In a few days she got the hang of fixing grits, although no matter how hard she stirred, they lumped up some. The next week she bought backbones—marked with a red tag—and boiled them with grits and collard greens in a mush that tasted fine. Kya had done the laundry plenty with Ma, so knew how to scrub clothes on the rub board under the yard spigot with bars of lye soap. Pa’s overalls were so heavy wet she couldn’t wring them out with her tiny hands, and couldn’t reach the line to hang them, so draped them sopping over the palmetto fronds at the edge of the woods. She and Pa did this two-step, living apart in the same shack, sometimes not seeing each other for days. Almost never speaking. She tidied up after herself and after him, like a serious little woman. She wasn’t near enough of a cook to fix meals for him—he usually wasn’t there anyway—but she made his bed, picked up, swept up, and washed the dishes most of the time. Not because she’d been told, but because it was the only way to keep the shack decent for Ma’s return. • • • MA HAD ALWAYS SAID the autumn moon showed up for Kya’s birthday. So even though she couldn’t remember the date of her birth, one evening when the moon rose swollen and golden from the lagoon, Kya said to herself, “I reckon I’m seven.” Pa never mentioned it; certainly there was no cake. He didn’t say anything about her going to school either, and she, not knowing much about it, was too afraid to bring it up. Surely Ma would come back for her birthday, so the morning after the harvest moon she put on the calico dress and stared down the lane. Kya willed Ma to be walking toward the shack, still in her alligator shoes and long skirt. When no one came, she got the pot of grits and walked through the woods to the seashore. Hands to her mouth, she held her head back and called, “Kee-ow, kee-ow, kee-ow.” Specks of silver appeared in the sky from up and down the beach, from over the surf. “Here they come. I can’t count as high as that many gulls are,” she said. Crying and screeching, the birds swirled and dived, hovered near her face, and landed as she tossed grits to them. Finally, they quieted and stood about preening, and she sat on the sand, her legs folded to the side. One large gull settled onto the sand near Kya. “It’s my birthday,” she told the bird. 3. Chase 1969 T he rotted legs of the old abandoned fire tower straddled the bog, which created its own tendrils of mist. Except for cawing crows, the hushed forest seemed to hold an expectant mood as the two boys, Benji Mason and Steve Long, both ten, both blond, started up the damp staircase on the morning of October 30, 1969. “Fall ain’t s’posed to be this hot,” Steve called back to Benji. “Yeah, and everythang quiet ’cept the crows.” Glancing down between the steps, Steve said, “Whoa. What’s that?” “Where?” “See, there. Blue clothes, like somebody’s lyin’ in the mud.” Benji called out, “Hey, you! Whatchadoin’?” “I see a face, but it ain’t movin’.” Arms pumping, they ran back to the ground and pushed their way to the other side of the tower’s base, greenish mud clinging to their boots. There lay a man, flat on his back, his left leg turned grotesquely forward from the knee. His eyes and mouth wide open. “Jesus Christ!” Benji said. “My God, it’s Chase Andrews.” “We better git the sheriff.” “But we ain’t s’posed to be out here.” “That don’t matter now. And them crows’ll be snooping ’round anytime now.” They swung their heads toward the cawing, as Steve said, “Maybe one of us oughta stay, keep them birds off him.” “Ya’re crazy if you think I’m gonna stick ’round here by maself. And I’m bettin’ a Injun-head you won’t either.” With that, they grabbed their bikes, pedaled hard down the syrupy sand track back to Main, through town, and ran inside the low-slung building where Sheriff Ed Jackson sat at his desk in an office lit with single lightbulbs dangling on cords. Hefty and of medium height, he had reddish hair, his face and arms splotched with pale freckles, and sat thumbing through a Sports Afield. Without knocking, the boys rushed through the open door. “Sheriff . . .” “Hey, Steve, Benji. You boys been to a fire?” “We seen Chase Andrews flat out in the swamp under the fire tower. He looks dead. Ain’t movin’ one bit.” Ever since Barkley Cove had been settled in 1751, no lawman extended his jurisdiction beyond the saw grass. In the 1940s and ’50s, a few sheriffs set hounds on some mainland convicts who’d escaped into the marsh, and the office still kept dogs just in case. But Jackson mostly ignored crimes committed in the swamp. Why interrupt rats killing rats? But this was Chase. The sheriff stood and took his hat from the rack. “Show me.” Limbs of oak and wild holly screeched against the patrol truck as the sheriff maneuvered down the sandy track with Dr. Vern Murphy, lean and fit with graying hair, the town’s only physician, sitting beside him. Each man swayed to the tune of the deep ruts, Vern’s head almost banging against the window. Old friends about the same age, they fished together some and were often thrown onto the same case. Both silent now at the prospect of confirming whose body lay in the bog. Steve and Benji sat in the truck bed with their bikes until the truck stopped. “He’s over there, Mr. Jackson. Behind them bushes.” Ed stepped from the truck. “You boys wait here.” Then he and Dr. Murphy waded the mud to where Chase lay. The crows had flown off when the truck came, but other birds and insects whirred above. Insolent life thrumming on. “It’s Chase, all right. Sam and Patti Love won’t survive this.” The Andrewses had ordered every spark plug, balanced every account, strung every price tag at the Western Auto for their only child, Chase. Squatting next to the body, listening for a heartbeat with his stethoscope, Vern declared him dead. “How long ya reckon?” Ed asked. “I’d say at least ten hours. The coroner’ll know for sure.” “He must’ve climbed up last night, then. Fell from the top.” Vern examined Chase briefly without moving him, then stood next to Ed. Both men stared at Chase’s eyes, still looking skyward from his bloated face, then glanced at his gaping mouth. “How many times I’ve told folks in this town something like this was bound to happen,” the sheriff said. They had known Chase since he was born. Had watched his life ease from charming child to cute teen; star quarterback and town hot shot to working for his parents. Finally, handsome man wedding the prettiest girl. Now, he sprawled alone, less dignified than the slough. Death’s crude pluck, as always, stealing the show. Ed broke the silence. “Thing is, I can’t figure why the others didn’t run for help. They always come up here in a pack, or at least a couple of ’em, to make out.” The sheriff and doctor exchanged brief but knowing nods that even though he was married, Chase might bring another woman to the tower. “Let’s step back out of here. Get a good look at things,” Ed said, as he lifted his feet, stepping higher than necessary. “You boys stay where you are; don’t go making any more tracks.” Pointing to some footprints that led from the staircase, across the bog, to within eight feet of Chase, Ed asked them, “These your prints from this morning?” “Yessir, that’s as far as we went,” Benji said. “Soon as we seen it was Chase, we backed up. You can see there where we backed up.” “Okay.” Ed turned. “Vern, something’s not right. There’s no footprints near the body. If he was with his friends or whoever, once he fell, they would’ve run down here and stepped all around him, knelt next to him. To see if he was alive. Look how deep our tracks are in this mud, but there’re no other fresh tracks. None going toward the stairs or away from the stairs, none around the body.” “Maybe he was by himself, then. That would explain everything.” “Well, I’ll tell you one thing that doesn’t explain. Where’re his footprints? How did Chase Andrews walk down the path, cross this muck to the stairs so he could climb to the top, and not leave any footprints himself?” 4. School 1952 A few days after her birthday, out alone barefooting in mud, Kya bent over, watching a tadpole getting its frog legs. Suddenly she stood. A car churned through deep sand near the end of their lane. No one ever drove here. Then the murmur of people talking—a man and a woman—drifted through the trees. Kya ran fast to the brush, where she could see who was coming but still have ways to escape. Like Jodie taught her. A tall woman emerged from the car, unsteadily maneuvering in high heels just like Ma had done along the sandy lane. They must be the orphanage people come to get her. I can outrun her for sure. She’d fall nose-first in them shoes. Kya stayed put and watched the woman step to the porch’s screen door. “Yoo-hoo, anybody home? Truant officer here. I’ve come to take Catherine Clark to school.” Now this was something. Kya sat mute. She was pretty sure she was supposed to go to school at six. Here they were, a year late. She had no notion how to talk to kids, certainly not to a teacher, but she wanted to learn to read and what came after twenty-nine. “Catherine, dear, if ya can hear me, please come on out. It’s the law, hon; ya gotta go to school. But ’sides that, you’ll like it, dear. Ya get a hot lunch every day for free. I think today they’re havin’ chicken pie with crust.” That was something else. Kya was very hungry. For breakfast she’d boiled grits with soda crackers stirred in because she didn’t have any salt. One thing she already knew about life: you can’t eat grits without salt. She’d eaten chicken pie only a few times in her life, but she could still see that golden crust, crunchy on the outside, soft inside. She could feel that full gravy taste, like it was round. It was her stomach acting on its own that made Kya stand up among the palmetto fronds. “Hello, dear, I’m Mrs. Culpepper. You’re all grown up and ready to go to school, aren’t ya?” “Yes’m,” Kya said, head low. “It’s okay, you can go barefoot, other chillin do, but ’cause you’re a li’l girl, you have to wear a skirt. Do you have a dress or a skirt, hon?” “Yes’m.” “Okay then, let’s go get ya dressed up.” Mrs. Culpepper followed Kya through the porch door, having to step over a row of bird nests Kya had lined up along the boards. In the bedroom Kya put on the only dress that fit, a plaid jumper with one shoulder strap held up with a safety pin. “That’s fine, dear, you look just fine.” Mrs. Culpepper held out her hand. Kya stared at it. She hadn’t touched another person in weeks, hadn’t touched a stranger her whole life. But she put her small hand in Mrs. Culpepper’s and was led down the path to the Ford Crestliner driven by a silent man wearing a gray fedora. Sitting in the backseat, Kya didn’t smile and didn’t feel like a chick tucked under its mother’s wing. Barkley Cove had one school for whites. First grade through twelfth went to a brick two-story at the opposite end of Main from the sheriff’s office. The black kids had their own school, a one-story cement block structure out near Colored Town. When she was led into the school office, they found her name but no date of birth in the county birth records, so they put her in the second grade, even though she’d never been to school a day in her life. Anyhow, they said, the first grade was too crowded, and what difference would it make to marsh people who’d do a few months of school, maybe, then never be seen again. As the principal walked her down a wide hallway that echoed their footsteps, sweat popped out on her brow. He opened the door to a classroom and gave her a little push. Plaid shirts, full skirts, shoes, lots of shoes, some bare feet, and eyes—all staring. She’d never seen so many people. Maybe a dozen. The teacher, the same Mrs. Arial those boys had helped, walked Kya to a desk near the back. She could put her things in the cubbyhole, she was told, but Kya didn’t have any things. The teacher walked back to the front and said, “Catherine, please stand and tell the class your full name.” Her stomach churned. “Come now, dear, don’t be shy.” Kya stood. “Miss Catherine Danielle Clark,” she said, because that was what Ma once said was her whole name. “Can you spell dog for us?” Staring at the floor, Kya stood silent. Jodie and Ma had taught her some letters. But she’d never spelled a word aloud for anybody. Nerves stirred in her stomach; still, she tried. “G-o-d.” Laughter let loose up and down the rows. “Shh! Hush, y’all!” Mrs. Arial called out. “We never laugh, ya hear me, we never laugh at each other. Y’all know better’n that.” Kya sat down fast in her seat at the back of the room, trying to disappear like a bark beetle blending into the furrowed trunk of an oak. Yet nervous as she was, as the teacher continued the lesson, she leaned forward, waiting to learn what came after twenty-nine. So far all Miss Arial had talked about was something called phonics, and the students, their mouths shaped like O’s, echoed her sounds of ah, aa, o, and u, all of them moaning like doves. About eleven o’clock the warm-buttery smell of baking yeast rolls and pie pastry filled the halls and seeped into the room. Kya’s stomach panged and fitted, and when the class finally formed a single file and marched into the cafeteria, her mouth was full of saliva. Copying the others, she picked up a tray, a green plastic plate, and flatware. A large window with a counter opened into the kitchen, and laid out before her was an enormous enamel pan of chicken pie crisscrossed with thick, crispy pastry, hot gravy bubbling up. A tall black woman, smiling and calling some of the kids by name, plopped a big helping of pie on her plate, then some pink-lady peas in butter and a yeast roll. She got banana pudding and her own small red-and-white carton of milk to put on her tray. She turned into the seating area, where most of the tables were full of kids laughing and talking. She recognized Chase Andrews and his friends, who had nearly knocked her off the sidewalk with their bikes, so she turned her head away and sat at an empty table. Several times in quick succession, her eyes betrayed her and glanced at the boys, the only faces she knew. But they, like everyone else, ignored her. Kya stared at the pie full of chicken, carrots, potatoes, and little peas. Golden brown pastry on top. Several girls, dressed in full skirts fluffed out wide with layers of crinolines, approached. One was tall, skinny, and blond, another round with chubby cheeks. Kya wondered how they could climb a tree or even get in a boat wearing those big skirts. Certainly couldn’t wade for frogs; wouldn’t even be able to see their own feet. As they neared, Kya stared at her plate. What would she say if they sat next to her? But the girls passed her by, chirping like birds, and joined their friends at another table. For all the hunger in her stomach, she found her mouth had gone dry, making it difficult to swallow. So after eating only a few bites, she drank all the milk, stuffed as much pie as she could into the milk carton, carefully so nobody would see her do it, and wrapped it and the roll in her napkin. The rest of the day, she never opened her mouth. Even when the teacher asked her a question, she sat mute. She reckoned she was supposed to learn from them, not them from her. Why put maself up for being laughed at? she thought. At the last bell, she was told the bus would drop her three miles from her lane because the road was too sandy from there, and that she had to walk to the bus every morning. On the way home, as the bus swayed in deep ruts and passed stretches of cord grass, a chant rose from the front: “MISS Catherine Danielle Clark!” Tallskinnyblonde and Roundchubbycheeks, the girls at lunch, called out, “Where ya been, marsh hen? Where’s yo’ hat, swamp rat?” The bus finally stopped at an unmarked intersection of tangled tracks way back in the woods. The driver cranked the door open, and Kya scooted out and ran for nearly half a mile, heaved for breath, then jogged all the way to their lane. She didn’t stop at the shack but ran full out through the palmettos to the lagoon and down the trail that led through dense, sheltering oaks to the ocean. She broke out onto the barren beach, the sea opening its arms wide, the wind tearing loose her braided hair as she stopped at the tide line. She was as near to tears as she had been the whole day. Above the roar of pounding waves, Kya called to the birds. The ocean sang bass, the gulls sang soprano. Shrieking and crying, they circled over the marsh and above the sand as she threw piecrust and yeast rolls onto the beach. Legs hanging down, heads twisting, they landed. A few birds pecked gently between her toes, and she laughed from the tickling until tears streamed down her cheeks, and finally great, ragged sobs erupted from that tight place below her throat. When the carton was empty she didn’t think she could stand the pain, so afraid they would leave her like everybody else. But the gulls squatted on the beach around her and went about their business of preening their gray extended wings. So she sat down too and wished she could gather them up and take them with her to the porch to sleep. She imagined them all packed in her bed, a fluffy bunch of warm, feathered bodies under the covers together. Two days later she heard the Ford Crestliner churning in the sand and ran into the marsh, stepping heavily across sandbars, leaving footprints as plain as day, then tiptoeing into the water, leaving no tracks, doubling back, and taking off in a different direction. When she got to mud, she ran in circles, creating a confusion of clues. Then, when she reached hard ground, she whispered across it, jumping from grass clump to sticks, leaving no trace. They came every two or three days for a few more weeks, the man in the fedora doing the search and chase, but he never even got close. Then one week no one came. There was only the cawing of crows. She dropped her hands to her sides, staring at the empty lane. Kya never went back to school a day in her life. She returned to heron watching and shell collecting, where she reckoned she could learn something. “I can already coo like a dove,” she told herself. “And lots better than them. Even with all them fine shoes.” • • • ONE MORNING, a few weeks after her day at school, the sun glared white-hot as Kya climbed into her brothers’ tree fort at the beach and searched for sailing ships hung with skull-and-crossbones flags. Proving that imagination grows in the loneliest of soils, she shouted, “Ho! Pirates ho!” Brandishing her sword, she jumped from the tree to attack. Suddenly pain shot through her right foot, racing like fire up her leg. Knees caving in, she fell on her side and shrieked. She saw a long rusty nail sticking deep in the bottom of her foot. “Pa!” she screamed. She tried to remember if he had come home last night. “HELP me, Pa,” she cried out, but there was no answer. In one fast move, she reached down and yanked the nail out, screaming to cover the pain. She moved her arms through the sand in nonsensical motions, whimpering. Finally, she sat up and looked at the bottom of her foot. There was almost no blood, just the tiny opening of a small, deep wound. Right then she remembered the lockjaw. Her stomach went tight and she felt cold. Jodie had told her about a boy who stepped on a rusty nail and didn’t get a tetanus shot. His jaws jammed shut, clenched so tight he couldn’t open his mouth. Then his spine cramped backward like a bow, but there was nothing anybody could do but stand there and watch him die from the contortions. Jodie was very clear on one point: you had to get the shot within two days after stepping on a nail, or you were doomed. Kya had no idea how to get one of those shots. “I gotta do sump’m. I’ll lock up for sure waitin’ for Pa.” Sweat rolling down her face in beads, she hobbled across the beach, finally entering the cooler oaks around the shack. Ma used to soak wounds in salt water and pack them with mud mixed with all kinds of potions. There was no salt in the kitchen, so Kya limped into the woods toward a brackish slipstream so salty at low tide, its edges glistened with brilliant white crystals. She sat on the ground, soaking her foot in the marsh’s brine, all the while moving her mouth: open, close, open, close, mocking yawns, chewing motions, anything to keep it from jamming up. After nearly an hour, the tide receded enough for her to dig a hole in the black mud with her fingers, and she eased her foot gently into the silky earth. The air was cool here, and eagle cries gave her bearing. By late afternoon she was very hungry, so went back to the shack. Pa’s room was still empty, and he probably wouldn’t be home for hours. Playing poker and drinking whiskey kept a man busy most of the night. There were no grits, but rummaging around, she found an old greasy tin of Crisco shortening, dipped up a tiny bit of the white fat, and spread it on a soda cracker. Nibbled at first, then ate five more. She eased into her porch bed, listening for Pa’s boat. The approaching night tore and darted and sleep came in bits, but she must have dropped off near morning for she woke with the sun fully on her face. Quickly she opened her mouth; it still worked. She shuffled back and forth from the brackish pool to the shack until, by tracking the sun, she knew two days had passed. She opened and closed her mouth. Maybe she had made it. That night, tucking herself into the sheets of the floor mattress, her mud-caked foot wrapped in a rag, she wondered if she would wake up dead. No, she remembered, it wouldn’t be that easy: her back would bow; her limbs twist. A few minutes later, she felt a twinge in her lower back and sat up. “Oh no, oh no. Ma, Ma.” The sensation in her back repeated itself and made her hush. “It’s just an itch,” she muttered. Finally, truly exhausted, she slept, not opening her eyes until doves murmured in the oak. She walked to the pool twice a day for a week, living on saltines and Crisco, and Pa never came home the whole time. By the eighth day she could circle her foot without stiffness and the pain had retreated to the surface. She danced a little jig, favoring her foot, squealing, “I did it, I did it!” The next morning, she headed for the beach to find more pirates. “First thing I’m gonna do is boss my crew to pick up all them nails.” • • • EVERY MORNING SHE WOKE EARLY, still listening for the clatter of Ma’s busy cooking. Ma’s favorite breakfast had been scrambled eggs from her own hens, ripe red tomatoes sliced, and cornbread fritters made by pouring a mixture of cornmeal, water, and salt onto grease so hot the concoction bubbled up, the edges frying into crispy lace. Ma said you weren’t really frying something unless you could hear it crackling from the next room, and all her life Kya had heard those fritters popping in grease when she woke. Smelled the blue, hot-corn smoke. But now the kitchen was silent, cold, and Kya slipped from her porch bed and stole to the lagoon. Months passed, winter easing gently into place, as southern winters do. The sun, warm as a blanket, wrapped Kya’s shoulders, coaxing her deeper into the marsh. Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land that caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother. 5. Investigation 1969 O verhead, cicadas squealed against a mean sun. All other life-forms cowered from the heat, emitting only a vacant hum from the undergrowth. Wiping his brow, Sheriff Jackson said, “Vern, there’s more to do here, but it doesn’t feel right. Chase’s wife and folks don’t know he’s passed.” “I’ll go tell them, Ed,” Dr. Vern Murphy replied. “I appreciate that. Take my truck. Send the ambulance back for Chase, and Joe with my truck. But don’t speak a word about this to anybody else. I don’t want everybody in this town out here, and that’s just what’ll happen if you mention it.” Before moving, Vern stared for a long minute at Chase, as though he had overlooked something. As a doctor, he should fix this. Heavy swamp air stood behind them, waiting patiently for its turn. Ed turned to the boys. “Y’all stay right here. I don’t need anybody yapping about this in town, and don’t put your hands on anything or make any more tracks in the mud.” “Yessir,” Benji said. “Ya think somebody killed Chase, don’t ya? ’Cause there’s no footprints. Pushed him off, maybe?” “I didn’t say any such thing. This is standard police work. Now, you boys just keep out of the way and don’t repeat anything you hear out here.” Deputy Joe Purdue, a small man with thick sideburns, showed up in the patrol truck in less than fifteen minutes. “Just can’t take it in. Chase dead. He was the best quarterback this town ever saw. This is plumb outta kilter.” “You got that right. Well, let’s get to work.” “What ya got so far?” Ed moved farther from the boys. “Well, obviously, on the surface, it looks like an accident: he fell from the tower and was killed. But so far I haven’t found any of his footprints walking toward the steps or prints from anybody else either. Let’s see if we can find any evidence that somebody covered ’em up.” The two lawmen combed the area for a full ten minutes. “You’re right, not one print ’cept for the boys,” Joe said. “Yeah, and no signs of somebody brushing them out. I just don’t get it. Let’s move on. I’ll work on this later,” Ed said. They took pictures of the body, of its position relative to the steps, close-ups of head wounds, the leg bent wrong. Joe made notes as Ed dictated. As they measured the distance from the body to the trail, they heard the sides of the ambulance scratching the thick bushes along the lane. The driver, an old black man who’d taken the wounded, ill, dying, and dead under his charge for decades, bowed his head in respect and whispered suggestions: “A’right den, his’n arms ain’t gwine tuck in much, so cain’t roll ’im onta the gunny; hafta lift ’im and he’s gwine be heavy; Sheriff, sir, ya cradle Mr. Chase’s head. Dat’s good. My, my.” By late morning, they’d loaded him, complete with clinging sludge, into the back. Since Dr. Murphy had by now informed Chase’s parents of his death, Ed told the boys they could go on home, and he and Joe started up the stairs, which switched to the top, narrowing at each level. As they climbed, the round corners of the world moved out farther and farther, the lush, rounded forests and watery marsh expanding to the very rims. When they reached the last step, Jackson lifted his hands and pushed open an iron grate. After they climbed onto the platform, he eased it down again because it was part of the floor. Wooden planks, splintered and grayed with age, formed the center of the platform, but around the perimeter, the floor was a series of see-through square grates that could be opened and closed. As long as they were down you could walk on them safely, but if one was left open, you could fall to the earth sixty feet below. “Hey, look at that.” Ed pointed to the far side of the platform, where one of the grates stood open. “What the hell?” Joe said as they walked to it. Peering down, they saw the perfect outline of Chase’s misshapen form embedded in the mud. Yellowish goo and duckweed had splashed to the sides like a splatter painting. “This doesn’t figure,” Ed said. “Sometimes folks forget to close the grate over the stairs. You know, on their way back down. We’ve found it open a few times, but the others are almost never left open.” “Why would Chase open this one in the first place? Why would anybody?” “Unless somebody planned to push somebody else to their death,” Ed said. “Then why didn’t they close it afterward?” “Because if Chase had fallen through on his own, he couldn’t have closed it. Had to be left open to look like an accident.” “Look at that support beam below the hole. It’s all bashed in and splintered.” “Yeah, I see. Chase must’ve banged his head on it when he fell.” “I’ll climb out there, look for blood or hair samples. Collect some splinters.” “Thanks, Joe. And take some close-ups. I’ll go get a rope to spot you. We don’t need two bodies in this muck in one day. And we have to take fingerprints off this grate, the grate by the stairs, the railing, the banisters. Everything anybody would’ve touched. And collect any hair samples, threads.” • • • MORE THAN TWO HOURS LATER, they stretched their backs from the leaning and stooping. Ed said, “I’m not saying there was foul play. Way too early. But besides that, I can’t think of anyone who’d want to kill Chase.” “Well, I’d say there’d be quite a list,” the deputy said. “Like who? What’re you talking about?” “C’mon, Ed. Ya know how Chase was. Tom-cattin’, ruttin’ ’round like a penned bull let out. ’Fore he was married, after he was married, with single girls, married women. I seen randy dogs at a bitch fest better behaved.” “C’mon, he wasn’t that bad. Sure. He had a reputation as a ladies’ man. But I don’t see anybody in this town committin’ murder over it.” “I’m just sayin’ there’s people didn’t like him. Some jealous husband. It’d have to be somebody he knew. Somebody we all know. Not likely Chase’d climb up here with some stranger,” Joe said. “Unless he was up to his navel in debt with some out-of-towner. Something like that we didn’t know about. And a man strong enough to push Chase Andrews. No small task.” Joe said, “I can already think of a few guys up to it.” 6. A Boat and a Boy 1952 O ne morning, Pa, shaved fresh and dressed in a wrinkled button-down shirt, came into the kitchen and said he was leaving on the Trailways bus for Asheville to discuss some issues with the army. He figured he had more disability due him and was off to see about it and wouldn’t be back for three or four days. He’d never told Kya his business, where he was going, or when he was coming back, so, standing there in her too-short bib overalls, she stared up at him, mute. “Ah b’leeve ya deaf and dumb as all git-out,” he said, the porch door slapping behind him. Kya watched him gimp along the path, left leg swinging to the side, then forward. Her fingers knotted. Maybe they were all going to leave her, one by one down this lane. When he reached the road and unexpectedly looked back, she threw her hand up and waved hard. A shot to keep him tethered. Pa lifted an arm in a quick, dismissive salutation. But it was something. It was more than Ma had done. From there, she wandered to the lagoon, where early light caught the glimmer of hundreds of dragonfly wings. Oaks and thick brush encircled the water, darkening it cavelike, and she stopped as she eyed Pa’s boat drifting there on the line. If she took it into the marsh and he found out, he’d take his belt to her. Or the paddle he kept by the porch door; the “welcome bat,” Jodie had called it. Perhaps a yearning to reach out yonder pulled her toward the boat—a bent-up, flat-bottomed metal skiff Pa used for fishing. She’d been out in it all her life, usually with Jodie. Sometimes he’d let her steer. She even knew the way through some of the intricate channels and estuaries that wandered through a patchwork of water and land, land and water, finally to the sea. Because even though the ocean was just beyond the trees surrounding the shack, the only way to get there by boat was to go in the opposite direction, inland, and wind through miles of the maze of waterways that eventually hooked back to the sea. But, being only seven and a girl, she’d never taken the boat out by herself. It floated there, tied by a single cotton line to a log. Gray grunge, frayed fishing tackle, and half-crushed beer cans covered the boat floor. Stepping in, she said out loud, “Gotta check the gas like Jodie said, so Pa won’t figure I took it.” She poked a broken reed into the rusted tank. “’Nough for a short ride, I reckon.” Like any good robber, she looked around, then flicked the cotton line free of the log and poled forward with the lone paddle. The silent cloud of dragonflies parted before her. Not able to resist, she pulled the starter rope and jerked back when the motor caught the first time, sputtering and burping white smoke. Grabbing the tiller, she turned the throttle too far, and the boat turned sharply, the engine screaming. She released the throttle, threw her hands up, and the boat eased to a drift, purring. When in trouble, just let go. Go back to idle. Accelerating now more gently, she steered around the old fallen cypress, putt, putt, putt beyond the piled sticks of the beaver lodge. Then, holding her breath, she steered toward the lagoon entrance, almost hidden by brambles. Ducking beneath the low-hanging limbs of giant trees, she churned slowly through thicket for more than a hundred yards, as easy turtles slid from water-logs. A floating mat of duckweed colored the water as green as the leafy ceiling, creating an emerald tunnel. Finally, the trees parted, and she glided into a place of wide sky and reaching grasses, and the sounds of cawing birds. The view a chick gets, she reckoned, when it finally breaks its shell. Kya tooled along, a tiny speck of a girl in a boat, turning this way and that as endless estuaries branched and braided before her. Keep left at all the turns going out, Jodie had said. She barely touched the throttle, easing the boat through the current, keeping the noise low. As she broke around a stand of reeds, a whitetail doe with last spring’s fawn stood lapping water. Their heads jerked up, slinging droplets through the air. Kya didn’t stop or they would bolt, a lesson she’d learned from watching wild turkeys: if you act like a predator, they act like prey. Just ignore them, keep going slow. She drifted by, and the deer stood as still as a pine until Kya disappeared beyond the salt grass. She entered a place with dark lagoons in a throat of oaks and remembered a channel on the far side that flowed to an enormous estuary. Several times she came upon dead ends, had to backtrack to take another turn. Keeping all these landmarks straight in her mind so she could get back. Finally the estuary lay ahead, water stretching so far it captured the whole sky and all the clouds within it. The tide was going out, she knew by water lines along the creek shores. When it receded enough, any time from now, some channels would shallow up and she’d run aground, get stranded. She’d have to head back before then. As she rounded a stand of tall grass, suddenly the ocean’s face—gray, stern, and pulsing—frowned at her. Waves slammed one another, awash in their own white saliva, breaking apart on the shore with loud booms—energy searching for a beachhead. Then they flattened into quiet tongues of foam, waiting for the next surge. The surf taunted her, daring her to breach the waves and enter the sea, but without Jodie, her courage failed. Time to turn around anyway. Thunderheads grew in the western sky, forming huge gray mushrooms pressing at the seams. There’d been no other people, not even distant boats, so it was a surprise when she entered the large estuary again, and there, close against the marsh grass, was a boy fishing from another battered rig. Her course would take her only twenty feet from him. By now, she looked every bit the swamp child—hair blown into tangles, dusty cheeks streaked with wind-tears. Neither low gas nor storm threat gave her the same edgy feeling as seeing another person, especially a boy. Ma had told her older sisters to watch out for them; if you look tempting, men turn into predators. Squishing her lips tight, she thought, What am I gonna do? I gotta go right by him. From the corner of her eye, she saw he was thin, his golden curls stuffed under a red baseball cap. Much older than she, eleven, maybe twelve. Her face was grim as she approached, but he smiled at her, warm and open, and touched the brim of his hat like a gentleman greeting a fine lady in a gown and bonnet. She nodded slightly, then looked ahead, increasing the throttle and passing him by. All she could think of now was getting back to familiar footing, but somewhere she must have turned wrong, for when she reached the second string of lagoons, she couldn’t find the channel that led home. Round and round, near oak knees and myrtle thickets, she searched. A slow panic eased in. Now, the grass banks, sandbars, and bends all looked the same. She cut the engine and stood smack-dab in the middle of the boat, balancing with feet spread wide, trying to see over the reeds, but couldn’t. She sat. Lost. Low on gas. Storm coming. Stealing Pa’s words, she cussed her brother for leaving. “Damn ya, Jodie! Shit fire an’ fall in. You just shit fire an’ fall in it.” She whimpered once as the boat drifted in soft current. Clouds, gaining ground against the sun, moved weighted but silent overhead, pushing the sky and dragging shadows across the clear water. Could be a gale any minute. Worse, though: if she wandered too long, Pa would know she took the boat. She eased ahead; maybe she could find that boy. Another few minutes of creek brought a bend and the large estuary ahead, and on the other side, the boy in his boat. Egrets took flight, a line of white flags against the mounting gray clouds. She anchored him hard with her eyes. Afraid to go near him, afraid not to. Finally, she turned across the estuary. He looked up when she neared. “Hey,” he said. “Hey.” She looked beyond his shoulder into the reeds. “Which way you headed, anyhow?” he asked. “Not out, I hope. That storm’s comin’.” “No,” she said, looking down at the water. “You okay?” Her throat tightened against a sob. She nodded but couldn’t speak. “You lost?” She bobbed her head again. Wasn’t going to cry like a girl. “Well, then. I git lost all the time,” he said, and smiled. “Hey, I know you. You’re Jodie Clark’s sister.” “I used ta be. He’s gone.” “Well, you’re still his . . .” But he let it drop. “How’d you know me?” She threw a quick, direct look at his eyes. “Oh, I’ve been fishin’ with Jodie some. I saw you a couple a’ times. You were just a little kid. You’re Kya, right?” Someone knew her name. She was taken aback. Felt anchored to something; released from something else. “Yeah. You know my place? From here?” “Reckon I do. It’s ’bout time anyhow.” He nodded at the clouds. “Follow me.” He pulled his line, put tackle in the box, and started his outboard. As he headed across the estuary, he waved, and she followed. Cruising slowly, he went directly to the right channel, looked back to make sure she’d made the turn, and kept going. He did that at every bend to the oak lagoons. As he turned into the dark waterway toward home, she could see where she’d gone wrong, and would never make the mistake again. He guided her—even after she waved that she knew her way—across her lagoon, up to the shore where the shack squatted in the woods. She motored up to the old waterlogged pine and tied up. He drifted back from her boat, bobbing in their contrary wakes. “You okay now?” “Yeah.” “Well, storm’s comin’, I better git.” She nodded, then remembered how Ma taught her. “Thank ya.” “All right, then. My name’s Tate ’case ya see me again.” She didn’t respond, so he said, “Bye now.” As he headed out, slow raindrops splattered the lagoon beach, and she said, “It’s gonna rain bullfrogs; that boy’ll get soaked through.” She stooped to the gas tank and stuck in her reed dipstick, cupping her hands around the rim, so rain wouldn’t drop in. Maybe she couldn’t count coins, but she knew for sure, you can’t let water get in gas. It’s way low. Pa’s gonna know. I gotta tote a can to the Sing Oil ’fore Pa gits back. She knew the owner, Mr. Johnny Lane, always referred to her family as swamp trash, but dealing with him, the storms, and tides would be worth it, because all she could think of now was getting back into that space of grass and sky and water. Alone, she’d been scared, but that was already humming as excitement. There was something else, too. The calmness of the boy. She’d never known anybody to speak or move so steady. So sure and easy. Just being near him, and not even that close, had eased her tightness. For the first time since Ma and Jodie left, she breathed without pain; felt something other than the hurt. She needed this boat and that boy. • • • THAT SAME AFTERNOON, holding his bike by the handlebars, Tate Walker strolled through town, nodding at Miss Pansy in the Five and Dime, and past the Western Auto to the tip of the town wharf. He scanned the sea for his dad’s shrimp boat, The Cherry Pie, and spotted its bright red paint far out, the wide net-wings rocking with the swells. As it neared, escorted by its own cloud of gulls, he waved, and his father, a large man with mountain shoulders and thick red hair and a beard, threw his hand in the air. Scupper, as everyone in the village called him, tossed the line to Tate, who tied up, then jumped on board to help the crew unload the catch. Scupper tousled Tate’s hair. “How’s it, son? Thanks for coming by.” Tate smiled, nodded. “Sure.” They and the crew busied about, loading shrimp into crates, toting them to the wharf, calling out to one another about grabbing beers at the Dog-Gone, asking Tate about school. Taller by a hand than the other men, Scupper scooped up three wire crates at a time, carrying them across the plank, going back for more. His fists were bear-sized, knuckles chapped and split. In less than forty minutes the deck was hosed, nets tied, lines secured. He told the crew he’d join them another day for beer; he had to do some tuning up before going home. In the wheelhouse, Scupper put a 78 record of Miliza Korjus on the player strapped to the counter and turned the volume up. He and Tate went below and squeezed into the engine hold, where Tate handed tools to his dad as he greased parts and tightened bolts by a dim lightbulb. All the while the soaring, sweet opera lifted higher into the sky. Scupper’s great-great-grandfather, emigrating from Scotland, had shipwrecked off the coast of North Carolina in the 1760s and was the only survivor. He swam to shore, landing on the Outer Banks, found a wife, and fathered thirteen children. Many could trace their roots back to that one Mr. Walker, but Scupper and Tate stayed mostly to themselves. Didn’t join the Sunday picnic spreads of chicken salad and deviled eggs with their relatives often, not like they had when his mother and sister were still there. Finally, in the graying dusk, Scupper slapped Tate on the shoulders. “All done. Let’s get home, get supper on.” They walked up the wharf, down Main, and out a winding road to their house, a two-story with weathered cedar-shake siding, built in the 1800s. The white window trim had been painted fresh, and the lawn running almost to the sea was cut neat. But the azaleas and rosebushes next to the house sulked in weeds. Pulling off yellow boots in the mudroom, Scupper asked, “You tired of burgers?” “Never tired of burgers.” Tate stood at the kitchen counter, picking up globs of hamburger meat, forming patties, and placing them on a plate. His mother and sister, Carianne, both wearing baseball caps, grinned at him from a picture hanging next to the window. Carianne loved that Atlanta Crackers cap, had worn it everywhere. He looked away from them, started slicing tomatoes, stirring baked beans. If not for him, they’d be here. His mother basting a chicken, Carianne cutting biscuits. As usual Scupper got the burgers a bit black, but they were juicy inside and thick as a small city phone book. Both hungry, they ate in silence for a while, and then Scupper asked Tate about school. “Biology’s good; I like it, but we’re doing poetry in English class. Can’t say I like it much. We each gotta read one out loud. You used to recite some, but I don’t remember them.” “I got the poem for you, son,” Scupper said. “My favorite—‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ by Robert Service. Used to read it out to y’all. Was your mama’s favorite. She laughed every time I read it, never got tired of it.” Tate looked down at the mention of his mother, pushed his beans around. Scupper went on. “Don’t go thinking poetry’s just for sissies. There’s mushy love poems, for sure, but there’s also funny ones, lots about nature, war even. Whole point of it—they make ya feel something.” His dad had told him many times that the definition of a real man is one who cries without shame, reads poetry with his heart, feels opera in his soul, and does what’s necessary to defend a woman. Scupper walked to the sitting room, calling back, “I used to know most of it by heart, but not anymore. But here it is, I’ll read it to ya.” He sat back down at the table and began reading. When he got to this segment: “And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar; And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said, ‘Please close that door. It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm— Since I left Plumtree down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.’” Scupper and Tate chuckled. “Your mom always laughed at that.” They smiled, remembering. Just sat there a minute. Then Scupper said he’d wash up while Tate did his homework. In his room, scanning through the poetry book for one to read in class, Tate found a poem by Thomas Moore: . . . she’s gone to the Lake of the Dismal Swamp, Where, all night long, by a fire-fly lamp, She paddles her white canoe. And her fire-fly lamp I soon shall see, And her paddle I soon shall hear; Long and loving our life shall be, And I’ll hide the maid in a cypress tree, When the footstep of death is near. The words made him think of Kya, Jodie’s little sister. She’d seemed so small and alone in the marsh’s big sweep. He imagined his own sister lost out there. His dad was right—poems made you feel something. 7. The Fishing Season 1952 T hat evening, after the fishing boy led her home through the marsh, Kya sat cross-legged on her porch bed. Mist from the downpour eased through the patched-up screen, touching her face. She thought about the boy. Kind yet strong, like Jodie. The only people she ever spoke to were Pa now and then and, even less often, the cash-register lady at the Piggly Wiggly, Mrs. Singletary, who had recently taken to teaching Kya the difference between quarters, nickels, and dimes—she already knew about pennies. But Mrs. Singletary could also get nosey. “Dahlin’, what’s yo’ name, anyhow? And why don’t yo’ ma come in anymore? Haven’t seen ’er since the turnips put out.” “Ma’s got lots of chores, so she sends me to the store.” “Yeah, dear, but ya never buy nears enough for yo’ family.” “Ya know, ma’am, I gotta go. Ma needs these grits right away.” When possible, Kya avoided Mrs. Singletary, using the other checkout lady, who didn’t show any interest except to say kids shouldn’t come to the market barefoot. She thought of telling the lady she didn’t plan to pick grapes with her toes. Who could afford grapes, anyhow? More and more Kya didn’t talk to anybody but the gulls. She wondered if she could strike some bargain with Pa to use his boat. Out in the marsh, she could collect feathers and shells and maybe see the boy sometimes. She’d never had a friend, but she could feel the use of it, the pull. They could boat around in the estuaries some, explore the fens. He might think of her as a little kid, but he knew his way around the marsh and might teach her. Pa didn’t have a car. He used the boat to fish, to go to town, to maneuver through the swamp to the Swamp Guinea, a weathered bar and poker joint connected to solid ground by a rickety boardwalk through cattails. Made of rough-cut clapboard under a tin roof, it rambled from one add-on to the next, the floor at different levels depending on how high the brick chicken-legs perched it above the swamp. When Pa went there or anywhere, he took the boat, only rarely walked, so why would he lend it to her? But he’d let her brothers use it when he wasn’t, probably because they caught fish for supper. She had no interest in fishing, but maybe she could trade something else, figuring that was the way to reach him. Cook maybe, do more around the house, until Ma came back. The rain eased. A single drop, here then there, shook a leaf like the flick of a cat’s ear. Kya hopped up, cleaned out the Frigidaire-cupboard, mopped the stained plywood kitchen floor, and scraped off months of caked-on grits from the woodstove burners. Early the next morning, she scrubbed Pa’s sheets, reeking of sweat and whiskey, and draped them over the palmettos. She went through her brothers’ room, not much bigger than a closet, dusting and sweeping. Dirty socks were piled in the back of the closet and yellowed comic books strewn next to the two soiled mattresses on the floor. She tried to see the boys’ faces, the feet that went with the socks, but the details blurred. Even Jodie’s face was fading; she’d see his eyes for an instant, then they’d slip away, closing. The next morning, carrying a gallon can, she walked the sandy tracks to the Piggly and bought matches, backbone, and salt. Saved out two dimes. “Can’t get milk, gotta get gas.” She stopped by the Sing Oil filling station just outside Barkley Cove, which stood in a grove of pines surrounded by rusted-out trucks and jalopy cars stacked on cement blocks. Mr. Lane saw Kya coming. “Git on outta here, ya little beggar-hen. Marsh trash.” “I got cash money, Mr. Lane. I need gas and oil for Pa’s boat motor.” She held out two dimes, two nickels, and five pennies. “Well, it ain’t hardly worth ma trouble for such a piddly sum, but c’mon, give it here.” He reached for the bent-up, square container. She thanked Mr. Lane, who grunted again. The groceries and gas weighed more with every mile, and it took some time to get home. Finally in the shade of the lagoon, she emptied the can into the gas tank and scrubbed the boat with rags and wet sand for grist until the metal sides showed through the grime. • • • ON THE FOURTH DAY after Pa left, she started keeping a lookout. By late afternoon a cold dread set in and her breathing shallowed up. Here she was again, staring down the lane. Mean as he was, she needed him to come back. Finally, in the early evening, there he came, walking the sandy ruts. She ran to the kitchen and laid out a goulash of boiled mustard greens, backbone, and grits. She didn’t know how to make gravy, so poured the backbone stock—floating with morsels of white fat—into an empty jelly jar. The plates were cracked and didn’t match, but she had the fork on the left, the knife on the right like Ma taught her. Then she waited, flattened up against the Frigidaire like a roadkill stork. He banged the front door open against the wall and walked through the sitting room to his bedroom in three strides, without calling her or looking in the kitchen. That was normal. She heard him putting his case on the floor, pulling out drawers. He’d notice the fresh bedding, the clean floor for sure. If not his eyes, his nose would catch the difference. In a few minutes he stepped out, straight into the kitchen, and looked at the set table, at the steaming bowls of food. He saw her standing against the fridge, and they stared at each other like they’d never seen each other before. “Ah swannee, girl, what’s a’ this? Looks like ya went an’ got all growed up. Cookin’ and all.” He didn’t smile, but his face was calm. He was unshaven, with dark unwashed hair hanging across his left temple. But he was sober; she knew the signs. “Yessir. I fixed cornbread too, but it didn’t come out.” “Well, ah thankee. That’s a mighty good girl. Ah’m plumb wore out and hungry as a wallow-hog.” He pulled out a chair and sat, so she did the same. In silence they filled their plates and picked stringy meat from the stingy backbones. He lifted a vertebra and sucked out the marrow, fatty juice glistening on his whiskered cheeks. Gnawed on those bones till they were slick as silk ribbons. “This here’s better’n a cold collard sandwich,” he said. “I wish the cornbread’d come out. Maybe shoulda put more soda in, less eggs.” Kya couldn’t believe she was talking on so, but couldn’t stop herself. “Ma made it so good, but I guess I didn’t pay enough mind to the details . . .” Then thought she shouldn’t be talking about Ma, so hushed up. Pa pushed his plate toward her. “’Nough for a dab more?” “Yessir, there’s aplenty.” “Oh, and tump some of that cornbread right in tha stew. Ah got a hankerin’ for soppin’ up the stock, and my bet is that bread’s just fine, mushy like spoonbread.” She smiled to herself as she filled his plate. Who would’ve thought they’d find cornbread as a footing. But now, after thinking about it, she worried that if she asked to use the boat, he would think she’d cooked and cleaned only for the favor, which was how it started out, but now seemed somehow different. She liked sitting down and eating like a family. Her need to talk to somebody felt urgent. So she didn’t mention using the boat by herself, instead asked, “Can I go out fishin’ with ya sometime?” He laughed hard, but it was kind. The first time he’d laughed since Ma and the others left. “So ya wanta go fishin’?” “Yessir, I do.” “You’re a girl,” he said, looking at his plate, chewing backbone. “Yessir, I’m your girl.” “Well, Ah might could take ya out sometime.” The next morning, as Kya careened down the sandy lane, her arms held straight out, she sputtered wet noises from her lips, spittle spraying. She would lift off and sail over the marsh, looking for nests, then rise and fly wing to wing with eagles. Her fingers became long feathers, splayed against the sky, gathering the wind beneath her. Then suddenly she was jerked back to Earth by Pa hollering to her from the boat. Her wings collapsed, stomach pitched; he must have figured out she’d used it. She could already feel the paddle on her bottom and the backs of her legs. She knew how to hide, wait until he was drunk, and he’d never find her. But she was too far down the lane, in full view, and there he was standing with all his poles and rods, motioning for her to come. She walked over, quiet, scared. The fishing tackle was strewn about, a poke of corn likker tucked under his seat. “Git in” was all he said as invitation. She started to express glee or gratitude, but his blank expression kept her quiet, as she stepped to the bow and sat on the metal seat facing forward. He pull-cranked and they headed up the channel, ducking the overgrowth as they cruised up and down the waterways, Kya memorizing broken trees and old stump signposts. He eased the motor down in a backwater and motioned for her to sit on the center seat. “Go on now, scratch some worms from the can,” he said, a hand-rolled cigarette hanging at the corner of his mouth. He taught her to snag the bait, to cast and reel. It seemed he contorted his body in odd postures to avoid brushing against her. They only talked fishing; never ventured to other subjects, neither smiled often, but on common ground they were steady. He drank some likker but then got busy and didn’t drink more. At late day, the sun sighed, fading to the color of butter, and they may not have noticed, but their own shoulders finally rounded and their necks slacked. Secretly Kya hoped not to catch a fish, but she felt a tug, jerked her line, and raised a thick bream, flashing silver and blue. Pa leaned out and snatched it in the net, then sat back, slapping his knee and yahooing like she’d never seen. She grinned wide and they looked into each other’s eyes, closing a circuit. Before Pa strung it up, the bream flopped around in the boat bottom and Kya had to watch a distant string of pelicans, study the cloud forms, anything but look into dying fish eyes staring at a world without water, wide mouth sucking worthless air. But what it cost her and what it cost that fish was worth it to have this little shred of family. Perhaps not for the fish, but still. They went out in the boat again the next day, and in a dark lagoon, Kya spotted the soft breast feathers of a great horned owl floating on the surface. Each curled at both ends, so that they drifted around like tiny orange boats. She scooped them up and put them in her pocket. Later she found an abandoned hummingbird nest woven onto an outstretched branch, and tucked it safely in the bow. That evening, Pa cooked up a supper of fried fish—coated in cornmeal and black pepper—served with grits and greens. As Kya washed up after, Pa walked into the kitchen, carrying his old World War II–issue knapsack. Standing near the door, he flung it roughly onto one of the chairs. It slid to the floor with a thud, which made her jump and whirl around. “Thought ya could use that fer yo’ feathers, bird nests, and all that other stuff ya c’lect.” “Oh,” Kya said. “Oh, thank ya.” But he was already out the porch door. She picked up the frayed knapsack, made of canvas tough enough for a lifetime and covered in small pockets and secret compartments. Heavy-duty zips. She stared out the window. He had never given her anything. • • • EVERY WARMISH DAY OF WINTER and every day of spring, Pa and Kya went out, far up and down the coast, trolling, casting, and reeling. Whether in estuary or creek, she scanned for that boy Tate in his boat, hoping to see him again. She thought about him sometimes, wanted to be his friend, but had no idea how to go about it or even how to find him. Then, just like that, one afternoon she and Pa came around a bend, and there he was fishing, almost in that same spot where she first saw him. Right off, he grinned and waved. Without thinking, she threw her hand up and waved back, almost smiling. Then dropped her hand just as quick when Pa looked at her, surprised. “One a’ Jodie’s friends, before he left,” she said. “Ya gotta watch out for folks ’round here,” he said. “Woods’re full a’ white trash. Pert near ever’body out here’s a no-’count.” She nodded. Wanted to look back at the boy, but didn’t. Then worried he would think her unfriendly. Pa knew the marsh the way a hawk knows his meadow: how to hunt, how to hide, how to terrorize intruders. And Kya’s wide-eyed questions spurred him to explain goose seasons, fish habits, how to read weather in the clouds and riptides in the waves. Some days she packed a picnic supper in the knapsack and they ate crumbly cornbread, which she had almost mastered, with sliced onions, as the setting sun posed over the marsh. Occasionally, he forgot the bootleg and they drank tea from jelly jars. “My folks weren’t always po’, ya know,” Pa blurted out one day as they sat in oak shadows, casting lines across a brown lagoon buzzing with low-flying insects. “They had land, rich land, raised tobaccy and cott’n and such. Over near Asheville. Yo’ gramma on my side wore bonnets big as wagon wheels and long skirts. We lived in a house wif a verander that went a’ the way around, two stories high. It wa’ fine, mighty fine.” A gramma. Kya’s lips parted. Somewhere, there was or had been a grandmother. Where was she now? Kya longed to ask what happened to everybody. But was afraid. Pa continued on his own. “Then it all went wrong together. Ah was a young’un through most of it, so don’t know, but there was the D’pression, cott’n weevils, Ah don’t know what all, and it was gone. Only thang left was debts, lotsa debts.” With these sketchy details, Kya struggled to visualize his past. There was nothing of Ma’s history. Pa would go into a rage if any of them talked about their lives before Kya was born. She knew her family had lived somewhere far away before the marsh, near her other grandparents, a place where Ma wore store-bought dresses with small pearly buttons, satin ribbons, and lace trim. After they moved into the shack, Ma kept the dresses in trunks, taking one out every few years and stripping it down for a work smock because there was no money for anything new. Now those fine clothes along with their story were gone, burned in the bonfire Pa started after Jodie left. Kya and Pa cast some more, their lines swishing over soft yellow pollen floating on the still water, and she thought that was the end of it, but he added, “Someday Ah’ll take ya to Asheville, show ya the land that was our’n, shoulda been your’n.” After a bit he jerked his line. “Looky here, hon, Ah got us a big un, big as Alabamee!” Back in the shack they fried the fish and hush puppies “fat as goose aigs.” Then she displayed her collections, carefully pinning the insects to pieces of cardboard and the feathers to the wall of the back bedroom in a soft, stirring collage. Later she lay in her bed on the porch listening to the pines. She closed her eyes, and then opened them wide. He had called her “hon.” 8. Negative Data 1969 A fter finishing their morning’s investigative work at the fire tower, Sheriff Ed Jackson and Deputy Joe Purdue escorted Chase’s widow, Pearl, and his parents, Patti Love and Sam, to see him lying on a steel table under a sheet in a chilled lab at the clinic, which served as a morgue. To say good-bye. But it was too cold for any mother; unbearable for any wife. Both women had to be helped from the room. Back at the sheriff’s office, Joe said, “Well, that was as bad as it gets . . .” “Yeah. Don’t know how anybody gets through it.” “Sam didn’t say a word. He never was a talker, but this’ll do him in.” Saltwater marsh, some say, can eat a cement block for breakfast, and not even the sheriff’s bunker-style office could keep it at bay. Watermarks, outlined with salt crystals, waved across the lower walls, and black mildew spread like blood vessels toward the ceiling. Tiny dark mushrooms hunkered in the corners. The sheriff pulled a bottle from the bottom drawer of his desk and poured them both a double in coffee mugs. They sipped until the sun, as golden and syrupy as the bourbon, slipped into the sea. • • • FOUR DAYS LATER, Joe, waving documents in the air, entered the sheriff’s office. “I got the first of the lab reports.” “Let’s have a look.” They sat on opposite sides of the sheriff’s desk, scanning. Joe, now and then, swatted at a single housefly. Ed read out loud, “Time of death between midnight and two A.M., October 29 to 30, 1969. Just what we thought.” After a minute of reading, he continued. “What we have is negative data.” “You got that right. There ain’t a thing here, Sheriff.” “Except for the two boys going up to the third switchback, there’re no fresh fingerprints on the railing, the grates, nothing. None from Chase or anybody else.” Afternoon whiskers shadowed the sheriff’s otherwise ruddy complexion. “So somebody wiped ’em clean. Everything. If nothing else, why aren’t his fingerprints on the railing, the grate?” “Exactly. First we had no footprints—now no fingerprints. There’s no evidence at all that he walked across the mud to the steps, walked up the steps, or opened the two grates at the top—the one above the stairs and the one he fell through. Or that anybody else did either. But negative data’s still data. Somebody cleaned up real good or killed him somewhere else and moved his body to the tower.” “But if his body was hauled to the tower, there’d be tire tracks.” “Right, we need to go back out there, look for tread marks besides ours and the ambulance. May have overlooked something.” After a minute more of reading, Ed said, “Anyway, I’m confident now, this was no accident.” Joe said, “I agree, and not just anybody can wipe up tracks this good.” “I’m hungry. Let’s go by the diner on the way out there.” “Well, get ready for an ambush. Everybody in town’s pretty riled up. Chase Andrews’s murder’s the biggest thing’s happened ’round here, maybe ever. Gossip’s goin’ up like smoke signals.” “Well, keep an ear out. We might pick up a tidbit or two. Most ne’er-do-wells can’t keep their mouths shut.” A full bank of windows, framed by hurricane shutters, covered the front of the Barkley Cove Diner, which overlooked the harbor. Only the narrow street stood between the building, constructed in 1889, and the soggy steps of the village pier. Discarded shrimp baskets and wadded-up fishing nets lined the wall under the windows, and here and there, mollusk shells littered the sidewalk. Everywhere: seabird cries, seabird dung. The aroma of sausage and biscuits, boiled turnip greens, and fried chicken thankfully overtook the high smell of fish barrels lining the dock. A mild bustle spilled out when the sheriff opened the door. Every booth—high-backed with red padded upholstery—was taken, as were most of the tables. Joe pointed to two empty stools at the soda fountain counter, and the two walked toward them. On the way they heard Mr. Lane from the Sing Oil saying to his diesel mechanic, “I reckon it was Lamar Sands. Ya r’member, he caught his wife doin’ a number wif Chase right on the deck of his fancy ski boat. There’s motive, and Lamar’s had other run-ins wif tha law.” “What run-ins?” “He was wif that bunch that slit the sheriff’s tars.” “They were just kids back then.” “Thar was sump’m else too, I just cain’t r’member.” Behind the counter, owner-cook Jim Bo Sweeny darted from flipping crab cakes on the griddle to stirring a pot of creamed corn on the burner to poking chicken thighs in the deep fryer, then back again. Putting piled-high plates in front of customers in between. People said he could mix biscuit dough with one hand while filleting a catfish with the other. He offered up his famous specialty—grilled flounder stuffed with shrimp served on pimento-cheese grits—only a few times a year. No advertising needed; word got out. As the sheriff and deputy wove among the tables toward the counter, they heard Miss Pansy Price of Kress’s Five and Dime say to a friend, “It coulda been that woman lives out in the marsh. Crazy ’nough for the loony bin. I jus’ bet she’d be up to this kinda thing . . .” “What d’ya mean? What’d she have to do with anything?” “Well, for a while thar, she was got herself involved wif . . .” As the sheriff and deputy stepped up to the counter, Ed said, “Let’s just order take-out po’boys and get out of here. We can’t get dragged into all this.” 9. Jumpin’ 1953 S itting in the bow, Kya watched low fingers of fog reaching for their boat. At first, torn-off cloud bits streamed over their heads, then mist engulfed them in grayness, and there was only the tick, tick, tick of the quiet motor. Minutes later, small splotches of unexpected color formed as the weathered shape of the marina gas station eased into view, as though it and not them was moving. Pa motored in, bumping gently against the dock. She’d only been here once. The owner, an old black man, sprang up from his chair to help them—the reason everybody called him Jumpin’. His white sideburns and salt-and-pepper hair framed a wide, generous face and owl eyes. Tall and spare, he seemed to never stop talking, smiling, or throwing his head back, lips shut tight in his own brand of laugh. He didn’t dress in overalls, like most workmen around, but wore an ironed blue button-down shirt, too-short dark trousers, and work boots. Not often, but now and then on the meanest summer days, a tattered straw hat. His Gas and Bait teetered on its own wobbly wharf. A cable ran from the closest oak on shore, about forty feet across the backwater, and held on with all its might. Jumpin’s great-grandpa had built the wharf and shack of cypress planks way back before anybody could remember, sometime before the Civil War. Three generations had nailed bright metal signs—Nehi Grape Soda, Royal Crown Cola, Camel Filters, and twenty years’ worth of North Carolina automobile license plates—all over the shack, and that burst of color could be seen from the sea through all but the thickest fog. “Hello, Mister Jake. How ya doin’?” “Well, Ah woke up on the right side of dirt,” Pa answered. Jumpin’ laughed as if he’d never heard the worn-out phrase. “Ya got your li’l daughter with you an’ all. That’s mighty fine.” Pa nodded. Then, as an afterthought, “Yep, this here’s ma daughter, Miz Kya Clark.” “Well, I’m mighty proud to know ya, Miss Kya.” Kya searched her bare toes but found no words. Jumpin’ wasn’t bothered and kept talking about the good fishing lately. Then he asked Pa, “Fill ’er up then, Mister Jake?” “Yeah, slam ’er right up to tha top.” The men talked weather, fishing, then more weather till the tank was full. “Good day to y’all, now,” he said, as he tossed off the line. Pa cruised slowly back onto a bright sea—the sun taking less time to devour the fog than it took Jumpin’ to fill a tank. They chugged around a piney peninsula for several miles to Barkley Cove, where Pa tied to the deeply etched beams of the town wharf. Fishermen busied about, packing fish, tying line. “Ah reckon we can git us some rest’rant vittles,” Pa said, and led her along the pier toward the Barkley Cove Diner. Kya had never eaten restaurant food; had never set foot inside. Her heart thumped as she brushed dried mud from her way-too-short overalls and patted down her tangled hair. As Pa opened the door, every customer paused midbite. A few men nodded faintly at Pa; the women frowned and turned their heads. One snorted, “Well, they prob’ly can’t read the shirt and shoes required.” Pa motioned for her to sit at a small table overlooking the wharf. She couldn’t read the menu, but he told her most of it, and she ordered fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, white acre peas, and biscuits fluffy as fresh-picked cotton. He had fried shrimp, cheese grits, fried “okree,” and fried green tomatoes. The waitress put a whole dish of butter pats perched on ice cubes and a basket of cornbread and biscuits on their table, and all the sweet iced tea they could drink. Then they had blackberry cobbler with ice cream for dessert. So full, Kya thought she might get sick, but figured it’d be worth it. As Pa stood at the cash register paying the bill, Kya stepped out onto the sidewalk, where the ripe smell of fishing boats hung over the bay. She held a greasy napkin wrapped around the leftover chicken and biscuits. Her overalls pockets were stuffed with packages of saltines, which the waitress had left right on the table for the taking. “Hi.” Kya heard a tiny voice behind her and turned to see a girl of about four years with blond ringlets looking up at her. She was dressed in a pale blue frock and reached out her hand. Kya stared at the little hand; it was puffy-soft and maybe the cleanest thing Kya had ever seen. Never scrubbed with lye soap, certainly no mussel mud beneath the nails. Then she looked into the girl’s eyes, in which she herself was reflected as just another kid. Kya shifted the napkin to her left hand and extended her right slowly toward the girl’s. “Hey there, get away!” Suddenly Mrs. Teresa White, wife of the Methodist preacher, rushed from the door of the Buster Brown Shoe Shop. Barkley Cove served its religion hard-boiled and deep-fried. Tiny as it was, the village supported four churches, and those were just for the whites; the blacks had three more. Of course, the pastors and preachers, and certainly their wives, enjoyed highly respected positions in the village, always dressing and behaving accordingly. Teresa White often wore pastel skirts and white blouses, matching pumps and purse. Now she hurried toward her daughter and lifted her in her arms. Stepping away from Kya, she put the girl back on the sidewalk and squatted next to the child. “Meryl Lynn, dahlin’, don’t go near that girl, ya hear me. She’s dirty.” Kya watched the mother run her fingers through the curls; didn’t miss how long they held each other’s eyes. A woman came out of the Piggly Wiggly and walked quickly up to them. “Ya all right, Teresa? What happened here? Was that girl botherin’ Meryl Lynn?” “I saw her in time. Thank you, Jenny. I wish those people wouldn’t come to town. Look at her. Filthy. Plumb nasty. There’s that stomach flu goin’ around and I just know for a fact it came in with them. Last year they brought in that case of measles, and that’s serious.” Teresa walked away, clutching the child. Just then Pa, carrying some beer in a brown paper bag, called behind her, “Whatcha doin’? C’mon, we gotta git outta here. Tide’s goin’ out.” Kya turned and followed, and as they steered home to the marsh, she saw the curls and eyes of mother and child. Pa still disappeared some, not coming back for several days, but not as often as before. And when he did show up, he didn’t collapse in a stupor but ate a meal and talked some. One night they played gin rummy, he guffawing when she won, and she giggling with her hands over her mouth like a regular girl. • • • EACH TIME KYA STEPPED off the porch, she looked down the lane, thinking that even though the wild wisteria was fading with late spring and her mother had left late the previous summer, she might see Ma walking home through the sand. Still in her fake alligator heels. Now that she and Pa were fishing and talking, maybe they could try again to be a family. Pa had beat all of them, mostly when he was drunk. He’d be all right for a few days at a time—they would eat chicken stew together; once they flew a kite on the beach. Then: drink, shout, hit. Details of some of the bouts were sharp in her mind. Once Pa shoved Ma into the kitchen wall, hitting her until she slumped to the floor. Kya, sobbing for him to quit, touched his arm. He grabbed Kya by the shoulders, shouted for her to pull down her jeans and underpants, and bent her over the kitchen table. In one smooth, practiced motion he slid the belt from his pants and whipped her. Of course, she remembered the hot pain slicing her bare bottom, but curiously, she recalled the jeans pooled around her skinny ankles in more vivid detail. And Ma crumpled into the corner by the cookstove, crying out. Kya didn’t know what all the fighting was about. But if Ma came back now, when Pa was acting decent, maybe they could start over. Kya never thought it would be Ma who left and Pa who stayed. But she knew her mother wouldn’t leave her forever; if she was out there somewhere in the world, she’d come back. Kya could still see the full, red lips as Ma sang to the radio, and hear her words, “Now listen close to Mr. Orson Welles; he speaks proper like a gentleman. Don’t ever say ain’t, it isn’t even a word.” Ma had painted the estuaries and sunsets in oils and watercolors so rich they seemed peeled from the earth. She had brought some art supplies with her and could buy bits and pieces at Kress’s Five and Dime. Sometimes Ma had let Kya paint her own pictures on brown paper bags from the Piggly Wiggly. • • • IN EARLY SEPTEMBER of that fishing summer, on one afternoon that paled with heat, Kya walked to the mailbox at the end of the lane. Leafing through the grocery ads, she stopped dead when she saw a blue envelope addressed in Ma’s neat hand. A few sycamore leaves were turning the same shade of yellow as when she left. All that time without a trace and now a letter. Kya stared at it, held it to the light, ran her fingers across the slanted, perfect script. Her heart banged against her chest. “Ma’s alive. Living somewhere else. Why hasn’t she come home?” She thought of tearing the letter open, but the only word she could read for sure was her name, and it was not on the envelope. She ran to the shack, but Pa had motored somewhere in the boat. So she propped the letter against the saltshaker on the table where he’d see it. As she boiled black-eyed peas with onions, she kept an eye on the letter lest it disappear. Every few seconds, she ducked to the kitchen window to listen for the boat’s whirr. Then suddenly Pa was limp-walking up the steps. All courage left her, and she dashed past him, hollering that she was going to the outhouse; supper would be ready soon. She stood inside the smelly latrine, her heart running races to her stomach. Balancing on the wooden bench, she watched through the quarter-moon slit in the door, not knowing exactly what she expected. Then the porch door slammed, and she saw Pa walking fast toward the lagoon. He went straight to the boat, a poke in his hand, and motored away. She ran back to the house, into the kitchen, but the letter was gone. She flung open his dresser drawers, rummaged through his closet, searching. “It’s mine, too! It’s mine as much as yours.” Back in the kitchen, she looked in the trash can and found the letter’s ashes, still fringed in blue. With a spoon she dipped them up and laid them on the table, a little pile of black and blue remains. She picked, bit by bit, through the garbage; maybe some words had drifted to the bottom. But there was nothing but traces of cinder clinging to onionskin. She sat at the table, the peas still singing in the pot, and stared at the little mound. “Ma touched these. Maybe Pa’ll tell me what she wrote. Don’t be stupid—that’s as likely as snow fallin’ in the swamp.” Even the postmark was gone. Now she’d never know where Ma was. She put the ashes in a little bottle and kept it in her cigar box next to her bed. • • • PA DIDN’T COME HOME that night or the next day, and when he finally did, it was the old drunk who staggered through the door. When she mounted the courage to ask about the letter, he barked, “It ain’t none a’ yo’ bidness.” And then, “She ain’t comin’ back, so ya can just forget ’bout that.” Carrying a poke, he shuffled toward the boat. “That isn’t true,” Kya hollered at his back, her fists bunched at her sides. She watched him leaving, then shouted at the empty lagoon, “Ain’t isn’t even a word!” Later she would wonder if she should have opened the letter on her own, not even shown it to Pa. Then she could have saved the words to read someday, and he’d have been better off not knowing them. Pa never took her fishing again. Those warm days were just a thrown-in season. Low clouds parting, the sun splashing her world briefly, then closing up dark and tight-fisted again. • • • KYA COULDN’T REMEMBER how to pray. Was it how you held your hands or how hard you squinted your eyes that mattered? “Maybe if I pray, Ma and Jodie will come home. Even with all the shouting and fussing, that life was better than this lumpy-grits.” She sang mis-snippets of hymns—“and He walks with me when dew is still on the roses”—all she remembered from the little white church where Ma had taken her a few times. Their last visit had been Easter Sunday before Ma left, but all Kya remembered about the holiday was shouting and blood, somebody falling, she and Ma running, so she dropped the memory altogether. Kya looked through the trees at Ma’s corn and turnip patch, all weeds now. Certainly there were no roses. “Just forget it. No god’s gonna come to this garden.” 10. Just Grass in the Wind 1969 S and keeps secrets better than mud. The sheriff parked his rig at the beginning of the fire tower lane so they wouldn’t drive over any evidence of someone driving the night of the alleged murder. But as they walked along the track, looking for vehicle treads other than their own, sand grains shifted into formless dimples with every step. Then, at the mud holes and swampy areas near the tower, a profusion of detailed stories revealed themselves: a raccoon with her four young had trailed in and out of the muck; a snail had woven a lacy pattern interrupted by the arrival of a bear; and a small turtle had lain in the cool mud, its belly forming a smooth shallow bowl. “Clear as a picture, but besides our rigs, not a thing man-made.” “I dunno,” Joe said. “See this straight edge, then a little triangle. That could be a tread.” “No, I think that’s a bit of turkey print, where a deer stepped on top, made it look geometrical like that.” After another quarter hour, the sheriff said, “Let’s hike out to that little bay. See if somebody boated over here instead of coming by truck.” Pushing pungent myrtle from their faces, they walked to the tiny inlet. The damp sand revealed prints of crabs, herons, and pipers, but no humans. “Well, but look at this.” Joe pointed to a large pattern of disturbed sand crystals that fanned into an almost perfect half circle. “Could be the imprint of a round-bowed boat that was pulled on shore.” “No. See where the wind blew this broken grass stalk back and forth through the sand. Drawing this half circle. That’s just grass in the wind.” They stood looking around. The rest of the small half-moon beach was covered in a thick layer of broken shells, a jumble of crustacean parts, and crab claws. Shells the best secret-keepers of all. 11. Croker Sacks Full 1956 I n the winter of 1956, when Kya was ten, Pa came hobbling to the shack less and less often. Weeks passed with no whiskey bottle on the floor, no body sprawled on the bed, no Monday money. She kept expecting to see him limping through the trees, toting his poke. One full moon, then another had passed since she’d seen him. Sycamore and hickories stretched naked limbs against a dull sky, and the relentless wind sucked any joy the winter sun might have spread across the bleakness. A useless, drying wind in a sea-land that couldn’t dry. Sitting on the front steps, she thought about it. A poker-game fight could have ended with him beat up and dumped in the swamp on a cold, rainy night. Or maybe he just got fall-down drunk, wandered off into the woods, and fell face-first in the backwater bog. “I guess he’s gone for good.” She bit her lips until her mouth turned white. It wasn’t like the pain when Ma left—in fact, she struggled to mourn him at all. But being completely alone was a feeling so vast it echoed, and the authorities were sure to find out and take her away. She’d have to pretend, even to Jumpin’, that Pa was still around. And there would be no Monday money. She’d stretched the last few dollars for weeks, surviving on grits, boiled mussels, and the occasional remnant egg from the rangy hens. The only remaining supplies were a few matches, a nubbin of soap, and a handful of grits. A fistful of Blue Tips wouldn’t make a winter. Without them she couldn’t boil the grits, which she fixed for herself, the gulls, and the chickens. “I don’t know how to do life without grits.” At least, she thought, wherever Pa had disappeared to this time, he had gone on foot. Kya had the boat. Of course, she’d have to find another way to get food, but for right now she pushed the thought to a far corner of her mind. After a supper of boiled mussels, which she had learned to smash into a paste and spread on soda crackers, she thumbed through Ma’s beloved books, play-reading the fairy tales. Even at ten she still couldn’t read. Then the kerosene light flickered, faded, and died. One minute there was a soft circle of a world, and then darkness. She made an oh sound. Pa had always bought the kerosene and filled the lamp, so she hadn’t thought much about it. Until it was dark. She sat for a few seconds, trying to squeeze light from the leftovers, but there was almost nothing. Then the rounded hump of the Frigidaire and the window frame began to take shape in the dimness, so she touched her fingers along the countertop until she found a candle stub. Lighting it would take a match and there were only five left. But darkness was a right-now thing. Swish. She struck the match, lit the candle, and the blackness retreated to the corners. But she’d seen enough of it to know she had to have light, and kerosene cost money. She opened her mouth in a shallow pant. “Maybe I oughta walk to town and turn myself in to the authorities. At least they’d give me food and send me to school.” But after thinking a minute she said, “No, I cain’t leave the gulls, the heron, the shack. The marsh is all the family I got.” Sitting in the last of the candlelight, she had an idea. Earlier than usual, she got up the next morning when the tide was low, pulled on her overalls, and slipped out with a bucket, claw knife, and empty tow bags. Squatting in mud, she collected mussels along the sloughs like Ma had taught her, and in four hours of crouching and kneeling had two croker sacks full. The slow sun pulled from the sea as she motored through dense fog up to Jumpin’s Gas and Bait. He stood as she neared. “Hello, Miss Kya, ya wantin’ some gas?” She tucked her head. Hadn’t spoken a word to anyone since her last trip to the Piggly Wiggly, and her speech was slipping some. “Maybe gas. But that depends. I hear tell you buy mussels, and I got some here. Can you pay me cash money and some gas throwed in?” She pointed to the bags. “Yessiree, you sho’ do. They fresh?” “I dug ’em ’fore dawn. Just now.” “Well, then. I can give ya fifty cent for one bag, a full tank for the other.” Kya smiled slightly. Real money she made herself. “Thank ya” was all she said. As Jumpin’ filled the tank, Kya walked into his tiny store there on the wharf. She’d never paid it much mind because she shopped at the Piggly, but now she saw that besides bait and tobacco, he sold matches, lard, soap, sardines, Vienna sausages, grits, soda crackers, toilet paper, and kerosene. About everything she needed in the world was right here. Lined up on the counter were five one-gallon jars filled with penny candy—Red Hots, jawbreakers, and Sugar Daddys. It seemed like more candy than would be in the world. With the mussel money she bought matches, a candle, and grits. Kerosene and soap would have to wait for another croker full. It took all her might not to buy a Sugar Daddy instead of the candle. “How many bags you buy a week?” she asked. “Well now, we striking up a bidness deal?” he asked as he laughed in his particular way—mouth closed, head thrown back. “I buy ’bout forty pounds ever’ two-three days. But mind, others bring ’em in, too. If ya bring ’em in, and I already got some, well, you’d be out. It’s first come, first serve. No other way of doing it.” “Okay. Thank you, that’d be fine. Bye, Jumpin’.” Then she added, “Oh, by the way, my pa sends his regards to ya.” “That so, well then. Ya do the same from me, if ya please. Bye yourself, Miss Kya.” He smiled big as she motored away. She almost smiled herself. Buying her own gas and groceries surely made her a grown-up. Later, at the shack when she unpacked the tiny pile of supplies, she saw a yellow-and-red surprise at the bottom of the bag. Not too grown-up for a Sugar Daddy Jumpin’ had dropped inside. To stay ahead of the other pickers, Kya slipped down to the marsh by candle or moon—her shadow wavering around on the glistening sand—and gathered mussels deep in the night. She added oysters to her catch and sometimes slept near gullies under the stars to get to Jumpin’s by first light. The mussel money turned out to be more reliable than the Monday money ever had, and she usually managed to beat out other pickers. She stopped going to the Piggly, where Mrs. Singletary always asked why she wasn’t in school. Sooner or later they’d grab her, drag her in. She got by with her supplies from Jumpin’s and had more mussels than she could eat. They weren’t that bad tossed into the grits, mashed up beyond recognition. They didn’t have eyes to look at her like the fish did. 12. Pennies and Grits 1956 F or weeks after Pa left, Kya would look up when ravens cawed; maybe they’d seen him swing-stepping through the woods. At any strange sound in the wind, she cocked her head, listening for somebody. Anybody. Even a mad dash from the truant lady would be good sport. Mostly she looked for the fishing boy. A few times over the years, she’d seen him in the distance, but hadn’t spoken to him since she was seven, three years ago when he showed her the way home through the marsh. He was the only soul she knew in the world besides Jumpin’ and a few salesladies. Wherever she glided through the waterways, she scanned for him. One morning, as she motored into a cord grass estuary, she saw his boat tucked in the reeds. Tate wore a different baseball cap and was taller now, but even from more than fifty yards, she recognized the blond curls. Kya idled down, maneuvered quietly into long grass, and peered out at him. Working her lips, she thought of cruising over, maybe asking if he had caught any fish. That seemed to be what Pa and anybody else in the marsh said when they came across somebody: “Anythang bitin’? Had any nibbles?” But she only stared, didn’t move. She felt a strong pull toward him and a strong push away, the result being stuck firmly in this spot. Finally, she eased toward home, her heart pushing against her ribs. Every time she saw him it was the same: watching him as she did the herons. She still collected feathers and shells, but left them, salty and sandy, strewn around the brick-’n’-board steps. She dallied some of each day while dishes piled up in the sink, and why wash overalls that got muddied up again? Long ago she’d taken to wearing the old throwaway overalls from gone-away siblings. Her shirts full of holes. She had no more shoes at all. One evening Kya slipped the pink-and-green flowery sundress, the one Ma had worn to church, from the wire hanger. For years now she had fingered this beauty—the only dress Pa didn’t burn—had touched the little pink flowers. There was a stain across the front, a faded brown splotch under the shoulder straps, blood maybe. But it was faint now, scrubbed out like other bad memories. Kya pulled the dress over her head, down her thin frame. The hem came almost to her toes; that wouldn’t do. She pulled it off, hung it up to wait for another few years. It’d be a shame to cut it up, wear it to dig mussels. A few days later Kya took the boat over to Point Beach, an apron of white sand several miles south of Jumpin’s. Time, waves, and winds had modeled it into an elongated tip, which collected more shells than other beaches, and she had found rare ones there. After securing her boat at the southern end, she strolled north, searching. Suddenly distant voices—shrill and excited—drifted on the air. Instantly, she ran across the beach toward the woods, where an oak, more than eighty feet from one side to the other, stood knee-deep in tropical ferns. Hiding behind the tree, she watched a band of kids strolling down the sand, now and then dashing around in the waves, kicking up sea spray. One boy ran ahead; another threw a football. Against the white sand, their bright madras shorts looked like colorful birds and marked the changing season. Summer was walking toward her down the beach. As they moved closer, she flattened herself against the oak and peered around. Five girls and four boys, a bit older than she, maybe twelve. She recognized Chase Andrews throwing the ball to those boys he was always with. The girls—Tallskinnyblonde, Ponytailfreckleface, Shortblackhair, Alwayswearspearls, and Roundchubbycheeks—hung back in a little covey, walking slower, chattering and giggling. Their voices lifted up to Kya like chimes. She was too young to care much about the boys; her eyes fixed on the troop of girls. Together they squatted to watch a crab skittering sideways across the sand. Laughing, they leaned against one another’s shoulders until they flopped on the sand in a bundle. Kya bit her bottom lip as she watched. Wondering how it would feel to be among them. Their joy created an aura almost visible against the deepening sky. Ma had said women need one another more than they need men, but she never told her how to get inside the pride. Easily, she slipped deeper into the forest and watched from behind the giant ferns until the kids wandered back down the beach, until they were little spots on the sand, the way they came. • • • DAWN SMOLDERED beneath gray clouds as Kya pulled up to Jumpin’s wharf. He walked out of the little shop shaking his head. “I’m sorry as can be, Miss Kya,” he said. “But they beatcha to it. I got my week’s quota of mussels, cain’t buy no mo’.” She cut the engine and the boat banged against a piling. This was the second week she’d been beat out. Her money was gone and she couldn’t buy a single thing. Down to pennies and grits. “Miss Kya, ya gotta find some udder ways to bring cash in. Ya can’t git all yo’ coons up one tree.” Back at her place, she sat pondering on the brick ’n’ boards, and came up with another idea. She fished for eight hours straight, then soaked her catch of twenty in saltwater brine through the night. At daybreak she lined them up on the shelves of Pa’s old smokehouse—the size and shape of an outhouse—built a fire in the pit, and poked green sticks into the flames like he’d done. Blue-gray smoke billowed and puffed up the chimney and through every crack in the walls. The whole shack huffing. The next day she motored to Jumpin’s and, still standing in her boat, held up her bucket. In all it was a pitiful display of small bream and carp, falling apart at the seams. “Ya buy smoked fish, Jumpin’? I got some here.” “Well, I declare, ya sho’ did, Miss Kya. Tell ya what: I’ll take ’em on consignment like. If I sell ’em, ya get the money; if I don’t, ya get ’em back like they is. That do?” “Okay, thanks, Jumpin’.” • • • THAT EVENING Jumpin’ walked down the sandy track to Colored Town—a cluster of shacks and lean-tos, and even a few real houses squatting about on backwater bogs and mud sloughs. The scattered encampment was in deep woods, back from the sea, with no breeze, and “more skeeters than the whole state of Jawja.” After about three miles he could smell the smoke from cookfires drifting through the pines and hear the chatter of some of his grandchillin. There were no roads in Colored Town, just trails leading off through the woods this way and that to different family dwellings. His was a real house he and his pa had built with pine lumber and a raw-wood fence around the hardpan dirt yard, which Mabel, his good-sized wife, swept clean as a whistle just like a floor. No snake could slink within thirty yards of the steps without being spotted by her hoe. She came out of the house to meet him with a smile, as she often did, and he handed her the pail with Kya’s smoked fish. “What’s this?” she asked. “Looks like sump’m even dogs wouldn’t drag in.” “It’s that girl again. Miss Kya brung ’em. Sometimes she ain’t the first one with mussels, so she’s gone to smokin’ fish. Wants me to sell ’em.” “Lawd, we gotta do something ’bout that child. Ain’t nobody gonna buy them fish; I can cook ’em up in stew. Our church can come up wif some clothes, other things for her. We’ll tell ’er there’s some family that’ll trade jumpers for carpies. What size is she?” “Ya askin’ me? Skinny. All’s I know is she’s skinny as a tick on a flagpole. I ’spect she’ll be there first thing in the mornin’. She’s plumb broke.” • • • AFTER EATING A BREAKFAST of warmed-up mussels-in-grits, Kya motored over to Jumpin’s to see if any money’d come in from the smoked fish. In all these years it had just been him there or customers, but as she approached slowly she saw a large black woman sweeping the wharf like it was a kitchen floor. Jumpin’ was sitting in his chair, leaning back against the store wall doing figures in his ledger. Seeing her, he jumped up, waved. “G’mornin’,” she called quietly, drifting expertly up to the dock. “Hiya, Miss Kya. Got somebody here for ya to meet. This here’s ma wife, Mabel.” Mabel walked up and stood next to Jumpin’, so that when Kya stepped onto the wharf, they were close. Mabel reached out and took Kya’s hand, held it gently in hers, and said, “It’s mighty fine to meet ya, Miss Kya. Jumpin’s told me what a fine girl ya are. One a’ de best oryster pickers.” In spite of hoeing her garden, cooking half of every day, and scrubbing and mending for whites, Mabel’s hand was supple. Kya kept her fingers in that velvet glove but didn’t know what to say, so stood quiet. “Now, Miss Kya, we got a family who’ll trade clothes and other stuff ya need for yo’ smoked fish.” Kya nodded. Smiled at her feet. Then asked, “What about gas for ma boat?” Mabel turned question eyes at Jumpin’. “Well now,” he said, “I’ll give ya some today ’cause I know you’re short. But ya keep bringin’ in mussels and such when ya can.” Mabel said in her big voice, “Lawd, child, let’s don’t worry none about the details. Now let me look atcha. I gotta calculate yo’ size to tell ’em.” She led her into the tiny shop. “Let’s sit right here, and ya tell me what clothes and what-all else ya need.” After they discussed the list, Mabel traced Kya’s feet on a piece of brown paper bag, then said, “Well, come back tomorrer and there’ll be a stack here for ya.” “I’m much obliged, Mabel.” Then, her voice low, said, “There’s something else. I found these old packages of seeds, but I don’t know about gardenin’.” “Well now.” Mabel leaned back and laughed deep in her generous bosom. “I can sure do a garden.” She went over every step in great detail, then reached into some cans on the shelf and brought out squash, tomato, and pumpkin seeds. She folded each kind into some paper and drew a picture of the vegetable on the outside. Kya didn’t know if Mabel did this because she couldn’t write or because she knew Kya couldn’t read, but it worked fine for both of them. She thanked them as she stepped into her boat. “I’m glad to help ya, Miss Kya. Now come back tomorrer for yo’ things,” Mabel said. That very afternoon, Kya started hoeing the rows where Ma’s garden used to be. The hoe made clunking sounds as it moved down the rows, releasing earthy smells and uprooting pinkish worms. Then a different clink sounded, and Kya bent to uncover one of Ma’s old metal-and-plastic barrettes. She swiped it gently against her overalls until all the grit fell clear. As if reflected in the cheap artifact, Ma’s red mouth and dark eyes were clearer than they’d been in years. Kya looked around; surely Ma was walking up the lane even now, come to help turn this earth. Finally home. Such stillness was rare; even the crows were quiet, and she could hear her own breathing. Sweeping up bunches of her hair, she pinned the barrette above her left ear. Maybe Ma was never coming home. Maybe some dreams should just fade away. She lifted the hoe and clobbered a chunk of hard clay into smithereens. • • • WHEN KYA MOTORED up to Jumpin’s wharf the next morning, he was alone. Perhaps the large form of his wife and her fine ideas had been an illusion. But there, sitting on the wharf, were two boxes of goods that Jumpin’ was pointing to, a wide grin on his face. “G’mornin’, Miss Kya. This here’s for ya.” Kya jumped onto the wharf and stared at the overflowing crates. “Go on, then,” Jumpin’ said. “It’s all your’n.” Gently she pulled out overalls, jeans, and real blouses, not just T-shirts. A pair of navy blue lace-up Keds and some Buster Brown two-tone saddle shoes, polished brown and white so many times they glowed. Kya held up a white blouse with a lace collar and a blue satin bow at the neck. Her mouth opened a little bit. The other box had matches, grits, a tub of oleo, dried beans, and a whole quart of homemade lard. On top, wrapped in newspaper, were fresh turnips and greens, rutabagas, and okra. “Jumpin’,” she said softly, “this is more than those fish woulda cost. This could be a month’s fish.” “Well now, what’a folks gonna do with old clothes layin’ ’round the house? If they got these things extra, and ya need ’em, and ya got fish, and they need fish, then that’s the deal. Ya gotta take ’em now, ’cause I ain’t got room for that junk ’round here.” Kya knew that was true. Jumpin’ had no extra space, so she’d be doing him a favor to take them off his wharf. “I’ll take ’em, then. But you tell ’em thank you, will you? And I’ll smoke more fish and bring it in soon as I can.” “Okay then, Miss Kya. That’ll be fine. Ya bring in fish when ya git ’em.” Kya chugged back into the sea. Once she rounded the peninsula, out of sight of Jumpin’s, she idled down, dug in the box, and pulled out the blouse with the lace collar. She put it on right over her scratchy bib overalls with patched knees, and tied the little satin ribbon into a bow at her neck. Then, one hand on the tiller, the other on lace, she glided across ocean and estuaries toward home. 13. Feathers 1960 L anky yet brawny for fourteen, Kya stood on an afternoon beach, flinging crumbs to gulls. Still couldn’t count them; still couldn’t read. No longer did she daydream of winging with eagles; perhaps when you have to paw your supper from mud, imagination flattens to that of adulthood. Ma’s sundress fit snugly across her breasts and fell just below her knees; she reckoned she had caught up, and then some. She walked back to the shack, got a pole and line, and went straight to fishing from a thicket on the far side of her lagoon. Just as she cast, a stick snapped behind her. She jerked her head around, searching. A footfall in brush. Not a bear, whose large paws squished in debris, but a solid clunk in the brambles. Then the crows cawed. Crows can’t keep secrets any better than mud; once they see something curious in the forest they have to tell everybody. Those who listen are rewarded: either warned of predators or alerted to food. Kya knew something was up. She pulled in the line, wrapped it around the pole even as she pushed silently through the brush with her shoulders. Stopped again, listened. A dark clearing—one of her favorite places—spread cavernlike under five oaks so dense only hazy streams of sunlight filtered through the canopy, striking lush patches of trillium and white violets. Her eyes scanned the clearing but saw no one. Then a shape slunk through a thicket beyond, and her eyes swung there. It stopped. Her heart pumped harder. She hunkered down, stoop-running fast and quiet into the undergrowth on the edge of the clearing. Looking back through the branches, she saw an older boy walking fast through the woods, his head moving to and fro. He stopped as he saw her. Kya ducked behind a thorn bush, then squeezed into a rabbit run that twisted through brambles thick as a fort wall. Still bent, she scrambled, scratching her arms on prickly scrub. Paused again, listening. Hid there in burning heat, her throat racking from thirst. After ten minutes, no one came, so she crept to a spring that pooled in moss, and drank like a deer. She wondered who that boy was and why he’d come. That was the thing about going to Jumpin’s—people saw her there. Like the underbelly of a porcupine, she was exposed. Finally, between dusk and dark, that time when the shadows were unsure, she walked back toward the shack by way of the oak clearing. “’Cause of him sneaking ’round, I didn’t catch any fish ta smoke.” In the center of the clearing was a rotted-down stump, so carpeted in moss it looked like an old man hiding under a cape. Kya approached it, then stopped. Lodged in the stump and sticking straight up was a thin black feather about five or six inches long. To most it would have looked ordinary, maybe a crow’s wing feather. But she knew it was extraordinary for it was the “eyebrow” of a great blue heron, the feather that bows gracefully above the eye, extending back beyond her elegant head. One of the most exquisite fragments of the coastal marsh, right here. She had never found one but knew instantly what it was, having squatted eye to eye with herons all her life. A great blue heron is the color of gray mist reflecting in blue water. And like mist, she can fade into the backdrop, all of her disappearing except the concentric circles of her lock-and-load eyes. She is a patient, solitary hunter, standing alone as long as it takes to snatch her prey. Or, eyeing her catch, she will stride forward one slow step at a time, like a predacious bridesmaid. And yet, on rare occasions she hunts on the wing, darting and diving sharply, swordlike beak in the lead. “How’d it get stuck straight up in the stump?” Whispering, Kya looked around. “That boy must’ve put it here. He could be watchin’ me right now.” She stood still, heart pounding again. Backing away, she left the feather and ran to the shack and locked the screen door, which she seldom did since it offered scant protection. Yet as soon as dawn crept between the trees, she felt a strong pull toward the feather, at least to look at it again. At sunrise she ran to the clearing, looked around carefully, then walked to the stump and lifted the feather. It was sleek, almost velvety. Back at the shack, she found a special place for it in the center of her collection—from tiny hummingbird feathers to large eagle tails—that winged across the wall. She wondered why a boy would bring her a feather. • • • THE NEXT MORNING, Kya wanted to rush to the stump to see if another one had been left, but she made herself wait. She must not run into the boy. Finally, in late morning she walked to the clearing, approaching slowly, listening. She didn’t hear or see anybody, so she stepped forward, and a rare, brief smile lit her face when she saw a thin white feather stuck into the top of the stump. It reached from her fingertips to her elbow, and curved gracefully to a slender point. She lifted it and laughed out loud. A magnificent tail feather of a tropicbird. She’d never seen these seabirds because they didn’t occur in this region, but on rare occasions they were blown over land on hurricane wings. Kya’s heart filled with wonder that someone had such a collection of rare feathers that he could spare this one. Since she couldn’t read Ma’s old guidebook, she didn’t know the names for most of the birds or insects, so made up her own. And even though she couldn’t write, Kya had found a way to label her specimens. Her talent had matured and now she could draw, paint, and sketch anything. Using chalks or watercolors from the Five and Dime, she sketched the birds, insects, or shells on grocery bags and attached them to her samples. That night she splurged and lit two candles and set them in saucers on the kitchen table so she could see all the colors of the white; so she could paint the tropicbird feather. • • • FOR MORE THAN A WEEK there was no feather on the stump. Kya went by several times a day, cautiously peeping through ferns, but saw nothing. She sat in the cabin in midday, something she rarely did. “Shoulda soaked beans for supper. Now it’s too late.” She walked through the kitchen, rummaging through the cupboard, drumming her fingers on the table. Thought of painting, but didn’t. Walked again to the stump. Even from some distance she could see a long, striped tail feather of a wild turkey. It caught her up. Turkeys had been one of her favorites. She’d watched as many as twelve chicks tuck themselves under the mother’s wings even as the hen walked along, a few tumbling out of the back, then scrambling to catch up. But about a year ago, as Kya strolled through a stand of pines, she’d heard a high-pitched shriek. A flock of fifteen wild turkeys—mostly hens, a few toms and jakes—rushed about, pecking what looked like an oily rag crumpled in the dirt. Dust stirred from their feet and shrouded the woods, drifting up through branches, caught there. As Kya had crept closer, she saw it was a hen turkey on the ground, and the birds of her own flock were pecking and toe-scratching her neck and head. Somehow she’d managed to get her wings so tangled with briars, her feathers stuck out at strange angles and she could no longer fly. Jodie had said that if a bird becomes different from the others—disfigured or wounded—it is more likely to attract a predator, so the rest of the flock will kill it, which is better than drawing in an eagle, who might take one of them in the bargain. A large female clawed at the bedraggled hen with her large, horny feet, then pinned her to the ground as another female jabbed at her naked neck and head. The hen squealed, looked around with wild eyes at her own flock assaulting her. Kya ran into the clearing, throwing her arms around. “Hey, what ya doing? Git outta here. Stop it!” The flurry of wings kicked up more dust as the turkeys scattered into brush, two of them flying heavy into an oak. But Kya was too late. The hen, her eyes wide open, lay limp. Blood ran from her wrinkled neck, bent crooked on the dirt. “Shoo, go on!” Kya chased the last of the large birds until they shuffled away, their business complete. She knelt next to the dead hen and covered the bird’s eye with a sycamore leaf. That night after watching the turkeys, she ate a supper of leftover cornbread and beans, then lay on her porch bed, watching the moon touch the lagoon. Suddenly, she heard voices in the woods coming toward the shack. They sounded nervous, squeaky. Boys, not men. She sat straight up. There was no back door. It was get out now or still be sitting on the bed when they came. Quick as a mouse, she slipped to the door, but just then candles appeared, moving up and down, their light jiggling in halos. Too late to run. The voices got louder. “Here we come, Marsh Girl!” “Hey—ya in thar? Miss Missin’ Link!” “Show us yo’ teeth! Show us yo’ swamp grass!” Peals of laughter. She ducked lower behind the half wall of the porch as the footsteps moved closer. The flames flickered madly, then went out altogether as five boys, maybe thirteen or fourteen years old, ran across the yard. All talking stopped as they galloped full speed to the porch and tagged the door with their palms, making slapping sounds. Every smack a stab in the turkey hen’s heart. Against the wall, Kya wanted to whimper but held her breath. They could break through the door easy. One hard yank, and they’d be in. But they backed down the steps, ran into the trees again, hooting and hollering with relief that they had survived the Marsh Girl, the Wolf Child, the girl who couldn’t spell dog. Their words and laughter carried back to her through the forest as they disappeared into the night, back to safety. She watched the relit candles, bobbing through the trees. Then sat staring into the stone-quiet darkness. Shamed. Kya thought of that day and night whenever she saw wild turkeys, but she was thrilled to see the tail feather on the stump. Just to know the game was still on. 14. Red Fibers 1969 M uggy heat blurred the morning into a haze of no sea, no sky. Joe walked out of the sheriff’s building and met Ed getting out of the patrol truck. “C’mon over here, Sheriff. Got more from the lab on the Chase Andrews case. Hot as a boar’s breath inside.” He led the way to a large oak, its ancient roots punching through the bare dirt like fists. The sheriff followed, crunching acorns, and they stood in the shade, faces to the sea breeze. He read out loud. “‘Bruising on the body, interior injuries, consistent with an extensive fall.’ He did bang the back of his head on that beam—the blood and hair samples matched his—which caused severe bruising and damage to the posterior lobe but didn’t kill him. “There you have it; he died where we found him, had not been moved. The blood and hair on the crossbeam prove it. ‘Cause of death: sudden impact on occipital and parietal lobe of the posterior cerebral cortex, severed spine’—from falling off the tower.” “So somebody did destroy all the foot- and fingerprints. Anything else?” “Listen to this. They found lots of foreign fibers on his jacket. Red wool fibers that didn’t come from any of his clothes. Sample included.” The sheriff shook a small plastic bag. Both men peered at the fuzzy red threads flattened against the plastic like spider webbing. “Wool, it says. Could be a sweater, scarf, hat,” Joe said. “Shirt, skirt, socks, cape. Hell, it could be anything. And we have to find it.” 15. The Game 1960 T he next noon, hands on her cheeks, Kya approached the stump slowly, almost in prayer. But no feather on the stump. Her lips pinched. “A’ course. I gotta leave something for him.” Her pocket brought a tail feather from an immature bald eagle she’d found that morning. Only someone who knew birds well would know this splotchy, tatty feather was eagle. A three-year-old, not yet crowned. Not as precious as the tail feather of the tropicbird, but still a dear thing. She laid it carefully on the stump with a little rock on top, pinned from the wind. That night, arms folded under her head, she lay on her porch bed, a slight smile on her face. Her family had abandoned her to survive a swamp, but here was someone who came on his own, leaving gifts for her in the forest. Uncertainty lingered, but the more she thought about it, the less likely it seemed the boy meant her harm. It didn’t fit that anyone who liked birds would be mean. The next morning, she sprang from bed and went about doing what Ma had called a “deep clean.” At Ma’s dresser, Kya meant only to cull the remnants of the drawers, but as she picked up her mother’s brass-and-steel scissors—the finger holes curled and shaped with intricate patterns of lilies—she suddenly pulled back her hair, not trimmed since Ma left more than seven years ago, and cut off eight inches. Now it fell just below her shoulders. She looked at herself in the mirror, tossed her head a bit, smiled. Scrubbed her fingernails and brushed her hair till it shone. Replacing the brush and scissors, she looked down among some of Ma’s old cosmetics. The liquid foundation and rouge had dried and cracked, but the shelf life of lipstick must be decades because when she opened a tube, it looked fresh. For the first time, never having played dress-up as a little girl, she put some on her lips. Smacked, then smiled again in the mirror. Thought she looked a bit pretty. Not like Ma, but pleasing enough. She giggled, then wiped it off. Just before closing the drawer, she saw a bottle of dried-up Revlon fingernail polish—Barely Pink. Kya lifted the little jar, remembering how Ma had walked back from town one day with this bottle of fingernail polish, of all things. Ma said it would look real good with their olive skin. She lined up Kya and her two older sisters in a row on the faded sofa, told them to stick out their bare feet, and painted all those toes and then their fingernails. Then she did her own, and they laughed and had a fine time flouncing around the yard, flashing their pink nails. Pa was off somewhere, but the boat was moored at the lagoon. Ma came up with the idea of all the girls going out in the boat, something they had never done. They climbed into the old skiff, still cavorting like they were tipsy. It took a few pulls to get the outboard cranked, but finally it jumped to, and off they went, Ma steering across the lagoon and into the narrow channel that led to the marsh. They breezed along the waterways, but Ma didn’t know all that much about it, and when they went into a shallow lagoon, they got stuck in gummy black mud, thick as tar. They poled this way and that but couldn’t budge. There was nothing left to do but climb over the side, skirts and all, sinking in the muck up to their knees. Ma hollering, “Now don’t turn it over, girls, don’t turn it over,” they hauled on the boat until it was free, squealing at one another’s muddy faces. It took some doing to get back in, flopping over the side like so many landed fish. And, instead of sitting on the seats, the four of them squinched up on the bottom of the boat all in a line, holding their feet to the sky, wiggling their toes, their pink nails gleaming through the mud. Lying there Ma said, “You all listen now, this is a real lesson in life. Yes, we got stuck, but what’d we girls do? We made it fun, we laughed. That’s what sisters and girlfriends are all about. Sticking together even in the mud, ’specially in mud.” Ma hadn’t bought any polish remover, so when it began to peel and chip, they had faded, patchy pink nails on all their fingers and toes, reminding them of the good time they’d had, and that real-life lesson. Looking at the old bottle, Kya tried to see her sisters’ faces. And said out loud, “Where’re you now, Ma? Why didn’t you stick?” • • • AS SOON AS SHE REACHED the oak clearing the next afternoon, Kya saw bright, unnatural colors against the muted greens and browns of the forest. On the stump was a small red-and-white milk carton and next to it another feather. It seemed the boy had upped the ante. She walked over and picked up the feather first. Silver and soft, it was from the crest of a night heron, one of the most beautiful of the marsh. Then she looked inside the milk carton. Rolled up tight were some packages of seeds—turnips, carrots, and green beans—and, at the bottom of the carton, wrapped in brown paper, a spark plug for her boat engine. She smiled again and turned a little circle. She had learned how to live without most things, but now and then she needed a spark plug. Jumpin’ had taught her a few minor engine repairs, but every part meant a walk to town and cash money. And yet here was an extra spark plug, to be set aside until needed. A surplus. Her heart filled up. The same feeling as having a full tank of gas or seeing the sunset under a paint-brushed sky. She stood absolutely still, trying to take it in, what it meant. She had watched male birds wooing females by bringing them gifts. But she was pretty young for nesting. At the bottom of the carton was a note. She unfolded it and looked at the words, written carefully in simple script that a child could read. Kya knew the time of the tides in her heart, could find her way home by the stars, knew every feather of an eagle, but even at fourteen, couldn’t read these words. She had forgotten to bring anything to leave. Her pockets yielded only ordinary feathers, shells, and seedpods, so she hurried back to the shack and stood in front of her feather-wall, window-shopping. The most graceful were the tail feathers from a tundra swan. She took one from the wall to leave at the stump next time she passed. As evening fell, she took her blanket and slept in the marsh, close to a gully full of moon and mussels, and had two tow bags filled by dawn. Gas money. They were too heavy to tote, so she dragged the first one back toward the lagoon. Even though it wasn’t the shortest route, she went by way of the oak clearing to leave the swan feather. She walked into the trees without looking, and there, leaning against the stump, was the feather boy. She recognized him as Tate, who had shown her the way home through the marsh when she was a little girl. Tate, who, for years, she had watched from a distance without the courage to go near. Of course, he was taller and older, probably eighteen. His golden hair stuck out from his cap in all manner of curls and loose bits, and his face was tan, pleasing. He was calm, smiled wide, his whole face beaming. But it was his eyes that caught her up; they were golden brown with flecks of green, and fixed on hers the way heron eyes catch a minnow. She halted, shaken by the sudden break in the unwritten rules. That was the fun of it, a game where they didn’t have to talk or even be seen. Heat rose in her face. “Hey, Kya. Please . . . don’t . . . run. It’s . . . just me . . . Tate,” he said very quietly, slowly, like she was dumb or something. That was probably what the townspeople said of her, that she barely spoke human. Tate couldn’t help staring. She must be thirteen or fourteen, he thought. But even at that age, she had the most striking face he’d ever seen. Her large eyes nearly black, her nose slender over shapely lips, painted her in an exotic light. She was tall, thin, giving her a fragile, lithesome look as though molded wild by the wind. Yet young, strapping muscles showed through with quiet power. Her impulse, as always, was to run. But there was another sensation. A fullness she hadn’t felt for years. As if something warm had been poured inside her heart. She thought of the feathers, the spark plug, and the seeds. All of it might end if she ran. Without speaking, she lifted her hand and held the elegant swan feather toward him. Slowly, as though she might spring like a startled fawn, he walked over and studied it in her hand. She watched in silence, looking only at the feather, not his face, nowhere near his eyes. “Tundra swan, right? Incredible, Kya. Thank you,” he said. He was much taller and bent slightly as he took it from her. Of course, this was the time for her to thank him for his gifts, but she stood silent, wishing he would go, wishing they could stick to their game. Trying to fill the silence, he continued. “My dad’s the one who taught me birds.” Finally she looked up at him and said, “I can’t read yo’ note.” “Well, sure, since you don’t go to school. I forgot. All it said was, I saw you a couple of times when I was fishing, and it got me thinking that maybe you could use the seeds and the spark plug. I had extra and thought it might save you a trip to town. I figured you’d like the feathers.” Kya hung her head and said, “Thank you for them; that was mighty fine of you.” Tate noticed that while her face and body showed early inklings and foothills of womanhood, her mannerisms and turns of phrase were somewhat childlike, in contrast to the village girls whose mannerisms—overdoing their makeup, cussing, and smoking—outranked their foothills. “You’re welcome. Well, I better be going, getting late. I’ll drop by now and then, if that’s okay.” Kya didn’t say a word to that. The game must be over. As soon as he realized she wasn’t going to speak again, he nodded to her, touched his hat, and turned to go. But just as he ducked his head to step into the brambles, he looked back at her. “You know, I could teach you to read.” 16. Reading 1960 F or days, Tate didn’t return for the reading lessons. Before the feather game, loneliness had become a natural appendage to Kya, like an arm. Now it grew roots inside her and pressed against her chest. Late one afternoon, she struck out in her boat. “I cain’t just sit ’round waitin’.” Instead of docking at Jumpin’s, where she’d be seen, she stashed her rig in a small cove just south and, carrying a croker sack, walked down the shaded path toward Colored Town. A soft rain had fallen most of the day, and now as the sun neared the horizon, the forest formed its own fog that drifted through succulent glades. She’d never gone to Colored Town, but knew where it was and figured she could find Jumpin’ and Mabel’s place once she got there. She wore jeans and a pink blouse from Mabel. In the croker sack were two pint jars of real runny blackberry jam she’d made herself to return Jumpin’ and Mabel’s kindness. A need to be with someone, a chance to talk with a woman friend urged her toward them. If Jumpin’ wasn’t home yet, maybe she could sit down with Mabel and visit a spell. Then, nearing a bend in the road, Kya heard voices coming toward her. She stopped, listened carefully. Quickly she stepped off the path into the woods and hid behind a myrtle thicket. A minute later, two white boys, dressed in raggedy bib overalls, came around the bend, toting fishing tackle and a string of catfish long as her arm. She froze behind the thicket and waited. One of the boys pointed down the lane. “Lookee up thar.” “Ain’t we lucky. Here comes a nigger walkin’ to Nigger Town.” Kya looked down the path, and there, walking home for the evening, was Jumpin’. Quite close, he had surely heard the boys, but he simply dropped his head, stepped into the woods to give them a berth, and moved on. What’s the matter with ’im, why don’t he do sump’m? Kya raged to herself. She knew nigger was a real bad word—she knew by the way Pa had used it like a cussword. Jumpin’ could have knocked the boys’ heads together, taught them a lesson. But he walked on fast. “Jest an ol’ nigger walkin’ to town. Watch out, nigger-boy, don’t fall down,” they taunted Jumpin’, who kept his eyes on his toes. One of the boys reached down, picked up a stone, and slung it at Jumpin’s back. It hit just under his shoulder blade with a thud. He lurched over a bit, kept walking. The boys laughed as he disappeared around the bend, then they picked up more rocks and followed him. Kya stalked through brush until she was ahead of them, her eyes glued on their caps bobbing above the branches. She crouched at a spot where thick bushes grew next to the lane, where in seconds they would pass within a foot of her. Jumpin’ was up ahead, out of sight. She twisted the cloth bag with the jam so that it was wrung tight and knotted against the jars. As the boys drew even with the thicket, she swung the heavy bag and whacked the closest one hard across the back of his head. He pitched forward and fell on his face. Hollering and screeching, she rushed the other boy, ready to bash his head too, but he took off. She slipped about fifty yards into the trees and watched until the first boy stood, holding his head and cussing. Toting the bag of jam jars, she turned back toward her boat and motored home. Thought she’d probably never go viztin’ again. • • • THE NEXT DAY, when the sound of Tate’s motor chugged through the channel, Kya ran to the lagoon and stood in the bushes, watching him step out of his boat, holding a rucksack. Looking around, he called out to her, and she stepped slowly forward dressed in jeans that fit and a white blouse with mismatched buttons. “Hey, Kya. Sorry I couldn’t get here sooner. Had to help my dad, but we’ll get you reading in no time.” “Hey, Tate.” “Let’s sit here.” He pointed to an oak knee in deep shade of the lagoon. From the rucksack he pulled out a thin, faded book of the alphabet and a lined writing pad. With a careful slow hand, he formed the letters between the lines, a A, b B, asking her to do the same, patient with her tongue-between-lips effort. As she wrote, he said the letters out loud. Softly, slowly. She remembered some of the letters from Jodie and Ma but didn’t know much at all about putting them into proper words. After only minutes, he said, “See, you can already write a word.” “What d’ya mean?” “C-a-b. You can write the word cab.” “What’s cab?” she asked. He knew not to laugh. “Don’t worry if you don’t know it. Let’s keep going. Soon you’ll write a word you know.” Later he said, “You’ll have to work lots more on the alphabet. It’ll take a little while to get it, but you can already read a bit. I’ll show you.” He didn’t have a grammar reader, so her first book was his dad’s copy of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. He pointed to the opening sentence and asked her to read it back to him. The first word was There and she had to go back to the alphabet and practice the sound of each letter, but he was patient, explaining the special sound of th, and when she finally said it, she threw her arms up and laughed. Beaming, he watched her. Slowly, she unraveled each word of the sentence: “‘There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.’” “Oh,” she said. “Oh.” “You can read, Kya. There will never be a time again when you can’t read.” “It ain’t just that.” She spoke almost in a whisper. “I wadn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know a sentence could be so full.” He smiled. “That’s a very good sentence. Not all words hold that much.” • • • OVER THE COMING DAYS, sitting on the oak knee in shade or the shore in sun, Tate taught her how to read the words, which sang of the geese and cranes, real all around them. “What if there be no more goose music?” In between helping his dad or pitching baseball with his friends, he came to Kya’s place several times a week and, now, no matter what she was doing—weeding the garden, feeding the chickens, searching for shells—she listened for the sound of his boat humming up the channel. On the beach one day, reading about what chickadees eat for lunch, she asked him, “You live with yo’ family in Barkley Cove?” “I live with my dad. Yes, in Barkley.” Kya didn’t ask if he had more family, now gone. His ma must have left him, too. Part of her longed to touch his hand, a strange wanting, but her fingers wouldn’t do it. Instead she memorized the bluish veins on the inside of his wrist, as intricate as those sketched on the wings of wasps. • • • AT NIGHT, sitting at the kitchen table, she went over the lessons by kerosene lamp, its soft light seeping through the shack windows and touching the lower branches of the oaks. The only light for miles and miles of blackness except for the soft glow of fireflies. Carefully, she wrote and said each word over and over. Tate said long words were simply little ones strung together—so she wasn’t afraid of them, went straight to learning Pleistocene along with sat. Learning to read was the most fun she’d ever had. But she couldn’t figure why Tate had offered to teach po’ white trash like her, why he’d come in the first place, bringing exquisite feathers. But she didn’t ask, afraid it might get him thinking on it, send him away. Now at last Kya could label all her precious specimens. She took each feather, insect, shell, or flower, looked up how to spell the name in Ma’s books, and wrote it carefully on her brown-paper-bag painting. • • • “WHAT COMES AFTER TWENTY-NINE?” she asked Tate one day. He looked at her. She knew more about tides and snow geese, eagles and stars than most ever would, yet she couldn’t count to thirty. He didn’t want to shame her, so didn’t show surprise. She was awfully good at reading eyes. “Thirty,” he said simply. “Here, I’ll show you the numbers and we’ll do some basic arithmetic. It’s easy. I’ll bring you some books about it.” She went around reading everything—the directions on the grits bag, Tate’s notes, and the stories from her fairy-tale books she had pretended to read for years. Then one night she made a little oh sound, and took the old Bible from the shelf. Sitting at the table, she turned the thin pages carefully to the one with the family names. She found her own at the very bottom. There it was, her birthday: Miss Catherine Danielle Clark, October 10, 1945. Then, going back up the list, she read the real names of her brothers and sisters: Master Jeremy Andrew Clark, January 2, 1939. “Jeremy,” she said out loud. “Jodie, I sure never thought a’ you as Master Jeremy.” Miss Amanda Margaret Clark, May 17, 1937. Kya touched the name with her fingers. Repeated it several times. She read on. Master Napier Murphy Clark, April 4, 1936. Kya spoke softly, “Murph, ya name was Napier.” At the top, the oldest, Miss Mary Helen Clark, September 19, 1934. She rubbed her fingers over the names again, which brought faces before her eyes. They blurred, but she could see them all squeezed around the table eating stew, passing cornbread, even laughing some. She was ashamed that she had forgotten their names, but now that she’d found them, she would never let them go again. Above the list of children she read: Mister Jackson Henry Clark married Miss Julienne Maria Jacques, June 12, 1933. Not until that moment had she known her parents’ proper names. She sat there for a few minutes with the Bible open on the table. Her family before her. Time ensures children never know their parents young. Kya would never see the handsome Jake swagger into an Asheville soda fountain in early 1930, where he spotted Maria Jacques, a beauty with black curls and red lips, visiting from New Orleans. Over a milkshake he told her his family owned a plantation and that after high school he’d study to be a lawyer and live in a columned mansion. But when the Depression deepened, the bank auctioned the land out from under the Clarks’ feet, and his father took Jake from school. They moved down the road to a small pine cabin that once, not so long ago really, had been occupied by slaves. Jake worked the tobacco fields, stacking leaves with black men and women, babies strapped on their backs with colorful shawls. One night two years later, without saying good-bye, Jake left before dawn, taking with him as many fine clothes and family treasures—including his great-grandfather’s gold pocket watch and his grandmother’s diamond ring—as he could carry. He hitchhiked to New Orleans and found Maria living with her family in an elegant home near the waterfront. They were descendants of a French merchant, owners of a shoe factory. Jake pawned the heirlooms and entertained her in fine restaurants hung with red velvet curtains, telling her that he would buy her that columned mansion. As he knelt under a magnolia tree, she agreed to marry him, and they wed in 1933 in a small church ceremony, her family standing silent. By now, the money was gone, so he accepted a job from his father-in-law in the shoe factory. Jake assumed he would be made manager, but Mr. Jacques, a man not easily taken in, insisted Jake learn the business from the bottom up like any other employee. So Jake labored at cutting out soles. He and Maria lived in a small garage apartment furnished with a few grand pieces from her dowry mixed with flea-market tables and chairs. He enrolled in night classes to finish high school but usually skipped out to play poker and, stinking of whiskey, came home late to his new wife. After only three weeks, the teacher dropped him from the classes. Maria begged him to stop drinking, to show enthusiasm for his job so that her father would promote him. But the babies started coming and the drinking never stopped. Between 1934 and 1940 they had four children, and Jake was promoted only once. The war with Germany was an equalizer. Boiled down to the same uniform-hue as everyone else, he could hide his shame, once again play proud. But one night, sitting in a muddy foxhole in France, someone shouted that their sergeant was shot and sprawled bleeding twenty yards away. Mere boys, they should have been sitting in a dugout waiting to bat, nervous about some fastball. Still, they jumped at once, scrambling to save the wounded man—all but one. Jake hunched in a corner, too scared to move, but a mortar exploded yellow-white just beyond the hole, shattering the bones of his left leg into fragments. When the soldiers tumbled back into the trench, dragging the sergeant, they assumed Jake had been hit while helping the others rescue their comrade. He was declared a hero. No one would ever know. Except Jake. With a medal and a medical discharge, he was sent home. Determined not to work again in the shoe factory, Jake stayed only a few nights in New Orleans. With Maria standing by silently, he sold all her fine furniture and silver, then packed his family onto the train and moved them to North Carolina. He discovered from an old friend that his mother and father had died, clearing the way for his plan. He’d convinced Maria that living in a cabin his father had built as a fishing retreat on the coast of North Carolina would be a new start. There would be no rent and Jake could finish high school. He bought a small fishing boat in Barkley Cove and motored through miles of marsh waterways with his family and all their possessions piled around them—a few fine hatboxes perched on top. When they finally broke into the lagoon, where the ratty shack with rusted-out screens hunkered under the oaks, Maria clutched her youngest child, Jodie, fighting tears. Pa assured her, “Don’t ya worry none. I’ll get this fixed up in no time.” But Jake never improved the shack or finished high school. Soon after they arrived, he took up drinking and poker at the Swamp Guinea, trying to leave that foxhole in a shot glass. Maria did what she could to make a home. She bought sheets from rummage sales for the floor mattresses and a stand-alone tin bathtub; she washed the laundry under the yard spigot, and figured out on her own how to plant a garden, how to keep chickens. Soon after they arrived, dressed in their best, she hiked the children to Barkley Cove to register them in school. Jake, however, scoffed at the notion of education, and more days than not, told Murph and Jodie to skip school and bring in squirrels or fish for supper. Jake took Maria for only one moonlit boat ride, the result of which was their last child, a daughter named Catherine Danielle; later nicknamed Kya because, when first asked, that’s what she said her name was. Now and then, when sober, Jake dreamed again of completing school, making a better life for them all, but the shadow of the foxhole would move across his mind. Once sure and cocky, handsome and fit, he could no longer wear the man he had become and he’d take a swig from his poke. Blending in with the fighting, drinking, cussing renegades of the marsh was the easiest thing Jake ever did. 17. Crossing the Threshold 1960 O ne day during the reading summer when she motored to Jumpin’s, he said, “Now, Miss Kya, there’s sump’m else. Some men been pokin’ ’round, askin’ ’bout ya.” She looked right at him instead of off to the side. “Who, what d’they want?” “I b’lieve they’re from the Sochul Services. They askin’ all kinds of questions. Is yo’ pa still ’round, where ya ma is, if ya goin’ to school this fall. An when ya come here; they ’specially wanta know what times ya come here.” “What’d you tell ’em, Jumpin’?” “Well, I done ma best to put ’em off ya. Told ’em ya pa just fine, out fishin’s all.” He laughed, threw his head back. “Then I told ’em I neva know when ya boat in here. Now, don’t ya worry none, Miss Kya. Jumpin’ll send ’em on a snipe hunt if they come again.” “Thank ya.” After filling her tank, Kya headed straight home. She’d have to be on guard more now, maybe find a place in the marsh where she could hide out some until they gave up on her. Late that afternoon, as Tate pulled up to the shore, the hull crunching softly on sand, she said, “Can we meet somewheres else, ’sides here?” “Hey, Kya, good to see you.” Tate greeted her, still sitting at the tiller. “What d’ya think?” “It’s besides, not ’sides, and it’s polite to greet people before asking a favor.” “You say ’sides sometimes,” she said, almost smiling. “Yeah, we all got magnolia mouth, being from the North Carolina sticks, but we have to try.” “Good afternoon, Mr. Tate,” she said, making a little curtsy. He caught a glimpse of the spunk and sass somewhere inside. “Now, can we meet somewhere besides here? Please.” “Sure, I guess, but why?” “Jumpin’ said the Social Services are lookin’ for me. I’m scared they’ll pull me in like a trout, put me in a foster home or sump’m.” “Well, we better hide way out there where the crawdads sing. I pity any foster parents who take you on.” Tate’s whole face smiled. “What d’ya mean, where the crawdads sing? Ma used to say that.” Kya remembered Ma always encouraging her to explore the marsh: “Go as far as you can—way out yonder where the crawdads sing.” “Just means far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters. Now, you got any ideas where we can meet?” “There’s a place I found one time, an old fallin’-down cabin. Once you know the turnoff, ya can get there by boat; I can walk there from here.” “Okay then, get in. Show me this time; next time we’ll meet there.” “If I’m out there I’ll leave a little pile of rocks right here by the tyin’-up log.” Kya pointed to a spot on the lagoon beach. “Otherwise, I’m ’round here somewhere and will come out when I hear yo’ motor.” They puttered slowly through the marsh, then planed off south through open sea, away from town. She bounced along in the bow, wind-tears streaming across her cheeks and tickling cool in her ears. When they reached a small cove, she guided him up a narrow freshwater creek hung low with brambles. Several times the creek seemed to peter out, but Kya motioned that it was okay to go on, and they crashed through more brush. Finally they broke into a wide meadow where the stream ran by an old one-room log cabin, collapsed on one end. The logs had buckled, some lying around the ground like pick-up sticks. The roof, still sitting on the half wall, sloped down from high end to low like a lopsided hat. Tate pulled the boat up onto the mud and they silently walked to the open door. Inside was dark and reeked of rat urine. “Well, I hope you don’t plan on living here—the whole thing could collapse on your head.” Tate pushed at the wall. It seemed sturdy enough. “It’s just a hideout. I can stash some food ’case I have to go on the run awhile.” Tate turned and looked at her as their eyes adjusted to the dark. “Kya, you ever thought of just going back to school? It wouldn’t kill you, and they might leave you alone if you did.” “They must’ve figured out I’m alone, and if I go, they’ll grab me, put me in a home. Anyway, I’m too old for school now. Where would they put me, first grade?” Her eyes widened at the notion of sitting in a tiny chair, surrounded by little kids who could pronounce words, count to fifty. “What, so you plan to live alone in the marsh forever?” “Better than going to a foster home. Pa used to say he’d farm us out to one if we were bad. Told us they’re mean.” “No, they’re not. Not always. Most of them are nice people who like kids,” he said. “You sayin’ you’d go to a foster home ’fore you’d live in the marsh?” she asked, chin jutted out, hand on her hip. He was silent a minute. “Well, bring some blankets out, matches in case it gets cold. Maybe some tins of sardines. They last forever. But don’t keep fresh food; it’ll bring the bears in.” “I ain’t scared of bears.” “I’m not scared of bears.” • • • FOR THE REST of the summer Kya and Tate did the reading lessons at the tumbledown cabin. By mid-August they had read through A Sand County Almanac, and although she couldn’t read every word, she got most of it. Aldo Leopold taught her that floodplains are living extensions of the rivers, which will claim them back any time they choose. Anyone living on a floodplain is just waiting in the river’s wings. She learned where the geese go in winter, and the meaning of their music. His soft words, sounding almost like poetry, taught her that soil is packed with life and one of the most precious riches on Earth; that draining wetlands dries the land for miles beyond, killing plants and animals along with the water. Some of the seeds lie dormant in the desiccated earth for decades, waiting, and when the water finally comes home again, they burst through the soil, unfolding their faces. Wonders and real-life knowledge she would’ve never learned in school. Truths everyone should know, yet somehow, even though they lay exposed all around, seemed to lie in secret like the seeds. They met at the log cabin several times a week, but she slept most nights in her shack or on the beach with the gulls. She had to collect firewood before winter, so made a mission of it, toting loads from near and far and stacking them somewhat neatly between two pines. The turnips in her garden barely poked their heads above the goldenrod; still she had more vegetables than she and the deer could eat. She harvested the last of the late-summer crop and stored the squash and beets in the cool shade of the brick-’n’-board steps. But all the while, she kept her ears out for the lugging sounds of an automobile, filled with men come to take her away. Sometimes the listening was tiresome and creepy, so she’d walk to the log cabin and sleep the night on the dirt floor, wrapped in her spare blanket. She timed her mussel collecting and fish smoking so that Tate could take them to Jumpin’s and bring back her supplies. Keeping her underbelly less exposed. • • • “REMEMBER WHEN YOU READ your first sentence, you said that some words hold a lot?” Tate said one day, sitting on the creek bank. “Yeah, I remember, why?” “Well, especially poems. The words in poems do more than say things. They stir up emotions. Even make you laugh.” “Ma used to read poems, but I don’t remember any.” “Listen to this; it’s by Edward Lear.” He took out a folded envelope and read, “Then Mr. Daddy Long-legs And Mr. Floppy Fly Rushed downward to the foamy sea With one sponge-taneous cry; And there they found a little boat, Whose sails were pink and gray; And off they sailed among the waves, Far, and far away.” Smiling, she said, “It makes a rhythm like waves hitting the beach.” After that she went into a poem-writing phase, making them up as she boated through the marsh or looked for shells—simple verses, singsong and silly. “There’s a mama blue jay lifting from a branch; I’d fly too, if I had a chance.” They made her laugh out loud; filled up a few lonely minutes of a long, lonely day. One late afternoon, reading at the kitchen table, she remembered Ma’s book of poetry and scrounged until she found it. The volume so worn, the covers had long since gone, the pages held together by two frayed rubber bands. Kya carefully took them off and thumbed through the pages, reading Ma’s notes in the margins. At the end was a list of page numbers of Ma’s favorites. Kya turned to one by James Wright: Suddenly lost and cold, I knew the yard lay bare, I longed to touch and hold My child, my talking child, Laughing or tame or wild . . . Trees and the sun were gone, Everything gone but us. His mother sang in the house, And kept our supper warm, And loved us, God knows how, The wide earth darkened so. And this one by Galway Kinnell. I did care. . . . I did say everything I thought In the mildest words I knew. And now, . . . I have to say I am relieved it is over: At the end I could feel only pity For that urge toward more life. . . . Goodbye. Kya touched the words as if they were a message, as though Ma had underlined them specifically so her daughter would read them someday by this dim kerosene flame and understand. It wasn’t much, not a handwritten note tucked in the back of a sock drawer, but it was something. She sensed that the words clinched a powerful meaning, but she couldn’t shake it free. If she ever became a poet, she’d make the message clear. • • • AFTER TATE STARTED his senior year in September, he couldn’t come to Kya’s place as often, but when he did, he brought her discarded textbooks from school. He didn’t say a word about the biology books being too advanced for her, so she plowed through chapters she wouldn’t have seen for four years in school. “Don’t worry,” he’d say, “you’ll get a little more every time you read it.” And that was true. As the days grew shorter, again they met near her shack because there wasn’t enough daylight to get to the reading cabin. They had always studied outside, but when a crazed wind blew one morning, Kya built up the fire in the woodstove. No one had crossed the shack’s threshold since Pa disappeared more than four years ago, and to ask anybody inside would seem unthinkable. Anyone but Tate. “Wanta sit in the kitchen by the stove?” she said when he dragged his rig onto the lagoon shore. “Sure,” he said, knowing not to make a big deal of the invitation. As soon as he stepped inside the porch, he took nearly twenty minutes to explore and exclaim over her feathers and shells and bones and nests. When they finally settled at the table, she pulled her chair close to his, their arms and elbows nearly touching. Just to feel him near. With Tate so busy helping his dad, the days dragged slow from nose to tail. Late one evening she took her first novel, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, from Ma’s bookshelf and read about love. After a while she closed the book and walked to the closet. She slipped on Ma’s sundress and swished around the room, flipping the skirt about, whirling in front of the mirror. Her mane and hips swaying, she imagined Tate asking her to dance. His hand on her waist. As if she were Mrs. de Winter. Abruptly she caught herself and bent over, giggling. Then stood very still. • • • “COME ON UP HERE, CHILD,” Mabel sang out one afternoon. “I got ya some things.” Jumpin’ usually brought the boxes of goods for Kya, but when Mabel showed up, there was usually something special. “Go on then, pick up yo’ stuff. I’ll fill yo’ tank,” Jumpin’ said, so Kya hopped onto the wharf. “Look here, Miss Kya,” Mabel said, as she lifted a peach-colored dress with a layer of chiffon over the flowered skirt, the most beautiful piece of clothing Kya had ever seen, prettier than Ma’s sundress. “This dress is fit for a princess like you.” She held it in front of Kya, who touched it and smiled. Then, facing away from Jumpin’, Mabel leaned over at the middle with some effort and lifted a white bra from the box. Kya felt heat all over. “Now, Miss Kya, don’t be shy, hon. Ya be needin’ this ’bout now. And, child, if there’s ever anything ya need to talk to me about, anything ya don’t understand, ya let ol’ Mabel know. Ya heah?” “Yes’m. Thank you, Mabel.” Kya tucked the bra deep in the box, under some jeans and T-shirts, a bag of black-eyed peas, and a jar of put-up peaches. A few weeks later, watching pelicans float and feed in the sea, her boat riding up and down waves, Kya’s stomach suddenly cramped up. She’d never been seasick, and this felt different from any pain she’d ever had. She pulled her boat ashore at Point Beach and sat on the sand, legs folded to one side like a wing. The pain sharpened, and she grimaced, made a little moan. She must have the runs coming. Suddenly she heard the purr of a motor and saw Tate’s rig cutting through the white-capped surf. He turned inland the instant he saw her and made for shore. She spat out some of Pa’s cussing. She always liked seeing Tate, but not when she might have to run to the oak woods any second with diarrhea. After dragging his boat next to hers, he plopped down on the sand beside her. “Hey, Kya. What’re you doing? I was just going out to your place.” “Hey, Tate. It’s good to see you.” She tried to sound normal, but her stomach twisted tightly. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “What do you mean?” “You don’t look good. What’s wrong?” “I think I’m sick. My stomach’s cramping real hard.” “Oh.” Tate looked out over the sea. Dug his bare toes in the sand. “Maybe you should go,” she said, head down. “Maybe I should stay till you’re better. Suppose you can’t get yourself home?” “I might have to go to the woods. I might be sick.” “Maybe. But I don’t think that’s going to help,” he said quietly. “What do you mean? You don’t know what’s wrong with me.” “Does this feel different from other stomachaches?” “Yes.” “You’re almost fifteen, right?” “Yes. What’s that got to do with it?” He was quiet a minute. Shuffled his feet, digging his toes deeper in the sand. Looking away from her, he said, “It might be, you know, what happens to girls your age. Remember, a few months ago I brought you a pamphlet about it. It was with those biology books.” Tate glanced at her briefly, his face blazing, and looked away again. Kya dropped her eyes as her whole body blushed. Of course, there’d been no Ma to tell her, but indeed a school booklet Tate had brought explained some. Now her time had come, and here she was sitting on the beach becoming a woman right in front of a boy. Shame and panic filled her. What was she supposed to do? What exactly would happen? How much blood would there be? She imagined it leaking into the sand around her. She sat silent as a sharp pain racked her middle. “Can you get yourself home?” he asked, still not looking at her. “I think so.” “It’ll be okay, Kya. Every girl goes through this just fine. You go on home. I’ll follow way back to make sure you get there.” “You don’t have to.” “Don’t worry about me. Now get going.” He stood and walked to his boat, not looking at her. He motored out and waited quite far offshore until she headed up coast toward her channel. So far back he was just a speck, he followed until she reached her lagoon. Standing on the bank, she waved briefly to him, her face down, not meeting his eyes. Just as she had figured out most things, Kya figured out how to become a woman on her own. But the next morning at first light, she boated over to Jumpin’s. A pale sun seemed suspended in thick fog as she approached his wharf and looked for Mabel, knowing there was little chance she’d be there. Sure enough, only Jumpin’ walked out to greet her. “Hi, Miss Kya. Ya needin’ gas a’ready?” Still sitting in the boat, Kya answered quietly, “I need to see Mabel.” “I’m sorry as can be, child, Mabel ain’t here today. Can I help ya?” Head down low, she said, “I need to see Mabel bad. Soon.” “Well then.” Jumpin’ looked across the small bay out to sea and saw no more boats coming in. Anybody needing gas at any time of day and every day including Christmas could count on Jumpin’ being here—he hadn’t missed a single day in fifty years, except when their baby angel, Daisy, died. He couldn’t leave his post. “Ya hang on there, Miss Kya, I gonna run up the lane a ways, get some chillin to fetch Mabel. Any boat come in, ya tell ’em I’ll be right back.” “I will. Thank you.” Jumpin’ hurried up the wharf and disappeared as Kya waited, glancing out in the bay every few seconds, dreading another boat coming in. But in no time he was back, saying some kids had gone to get Mabel; Kya should “just wait a spell.” Jumpin’ busied himself unpacking packets of chewing tobacco on the shelves and generally doing around. Kya stayed in her boat. Finally Mabel hurried across the boards, which shook with her swing as if a small piano were being pushed down the wharf. Carrying a paper bag, she didn’t bellow out a greeting, as she would have otherwise, but stood on the wharf above Kya and said quietly, “Mornin’, Miss Kya, what’s all this ’bout, child? What’s wrong, hon?” Kya dropped her head more, mumbled something Mabel couldn’t hear. “Can ya get out of that boat, or should I get in there with ya?” Kya didn’t answer, so Mabel, almost two hundred pounds’ worth, stepped one foot, then the other into the small boat, which complained by bumping against the piling. She sat down on the center bench, facing Kya at the stern. “Now, child, tell me what’s wrong.” The two leaned their heads together, Kya whispering, and then Mabel pulled Kya right over to her full bosom, hugging and rocking her. Kya was rigid at first, not accustomed to yielding to hugs, but this didn’t discourage Mabel, and finally Kya went limp and slumped against the comfort of those pillows. After a while, Mabel leaned back and opened the brown paper bag. “Well, I figured what’s wrong, so I brought ya some things.” And there, sitting in the boat at Jumpin’s wharf, Mabel explained the details to Kya. “Now, Miss Kya, this ain’t nothin’ to be ’shamed of. It ain’t no curse, like folks say; this here’s the startin’ of all life, and only a woman can do it. You’re a woman now, baby.” • • • WHEN KYA HEARD TATE’S BOAT the next afternoon, she hid in thick brambles and watched him. For anyone to know her at all seemed strange enough, but now he knew about the most personal and private occurrence of her life. Her cheeks burned at the thought of it. She would hide until he left. As he pulled onto the lagoon shore and stepped out of the boat, he carried a white box tied up with string. “Yo! Kya, where are you?” he called. “I brought petite cakes from Parker’s.” Kya had not tasted anything like cake for years. Tate lifted some books out of the boat, so Kya moseyed out of the bushes behind him. “Oh, there you are. Look at this.” He opened the box, and there, arranged neatly, were little cakes, each only an inch square, covered in vanilla icing with a tiny pink rose perched on the top. “Come on, dig in.” Kya lifted one and, still not looking at Tate, bit into it. Then pushed the rest of it into her mouth. Licked her fingers. “Here.” Tate set the box next to their oak. “Have all you want. Let’s get started. I brought a new book.” And that was that. They went into the lessons, never uttering a word about the other thing. • • • AUTUMN WAS COMING; the evergreens might not have noticed, but the sycamores did. They flashed thousands of golden leaves across slate-gray skies. Late one afternoon, after the lesson, Tate lingering when he should have left, he and Kya sat on a log in the woods. She finally asked the question she’d wanted to ask for months. “Tate, I appreciate your teaching me to read and all those things you gave me. But why’d you do it? Don’t you have a girlfriend or somebody like that?” “Nah—well, sometimes I do. I had one, but not now. I like being out here in the quiet and I like the way you’re so interested in the marsh, Kya. Most people don’t pay it any attention except to fish. They think it’s wasteland that should be drained and developed. People don’t understand that most sea creatures—including the very ones they eat—need the marsh.” He didn’t mention how he felt sorry for her being alone, that he knew how the kids had treated her for years; how the villagers called her the Marsh Girl and made up stories about her. Sneaking out to her shack, running through the dark and tagging it, had become a regular tradition, an initiation for boys becoming men. What did that say about men? Some of them were already making bets about who would be the first to get her cherry. Things that infuriated and worried him. But that wasn’t the main reason he’d left feathers for Kya in the forest, or why he kept coming to see her. The other words Tate didn’t say were his feelings for her that seemed tangled up between the sweet love for a lost sister and the fiery love for a girl. He couldn’t come close to sorting it out himself, but he’d never been hit by a stronger wave. A power of emotions as painful as pleasurable. Poking a grass stalk down an ant hole, she finally asked, “Where’s your ma?” A breeze wandered through the trees, gently shaking branches. Tate didn’t answer. “You don’t have to say nothing,” she said. “Anything.” “You don’t have to say anything.” “My mother and little sister died in a car wreck over in Asheville. My sister’s name was Carianne.” “Oh. I’m so sorry, Tate. I bet your ma was real nice and pretty.” “Yes. Both of them were.” He spoke to the ground, between his knees. “I’ve never talked about it before. To anybody.” Me neither, Kya thought. Out loud she said, “My ma walked off one day and didn’t come back. The mama deer always come back.” “Well, at least you can hope she does. Mine won’t come back for sure.” They were silent a moment, then Tate continued. “I think . . .” But he stopped, looked away. Kya looked at him, but he stared at the ground. Quiet. She said, “What? You think what? You can say anything to me.” Still he said nothing. From a patience born from knowing, she waited. Finally, very softly he said, “I think they went to Asheville to buy my birthday present. There was this certain bike I wanted, had to have it. The Western Auto didn’t carry them, so I think they went to Asheville to buy that bike for me.” “That doesn’t make it your fault,” she said. “I know, but it feels like my fault,” Tate said. “I don’t even remember what kind of bike it was.” Kya leaned closer to him, not enough to touch. But she felt a sensation—almost like the space between their shoulders had shifted. She wondered if Tate felt it. She wanted to lean in closer, just enough so their arms would gently brush together. To touch. And wondered if Tate would notice. And just at that second, the wind picked up, and thousands upon thousands of yellow sycamore leaves broke from their life support and streamed across the sky. Autumn leaves don’t fall; they fly. They take their time and wander on this, their only chance to soar. Reflecting sunlight, they swirled and sailed and fluttered on the wind drafts. Tate sprang from the log and called to her, “See how many leaves you can catch before they hit the ground!” Kya jumped up, and the two of them leapt and skipped through curtains of falling leaves, reaching their arms wide, snatching them before they fell to the earth. Laughing, Tate dived toward a leaf only inches from the ground, caught it, and rolled over, holding his trophy in the air. Kya threw her hands up, releasing all the leaves she had rescued back into the wind. As she ran back through them, they caught like gold in her hair. Then, as she whirled around, she bumped into Tate, who had stood, and they froze, staring into each other’s eyes. They stopped laughing. He took her shoulders, hesitated an instant, then kissed her lips, as the leaves rained and danced around them as silently as snow. She knew nothing about kissing and held her head and lips stiff. They broke away and looked at each other, wondering where that had come from and what to do next. He lifted a leaf gently from her hair and dropped it to the ground. Her heart beat wildly. Of all the ragged loves she’d known from wayward family, none had felt like this. “Am I your girlfriend now?” she asked. He smiled. “Do you want to be?” “Yes.” “You might be too young,” he said. “But I know feathers. I bet the other girls don’t know feathers.” “All right, then.” And he kissed her again. This time she tilted her head to the side and her lips softened. And for the first time in her life, her heart was full. 18. White Canoe 1960 N ow, every new word began with a squeal, every sentence a race. Tate grabbing Kya, the two of them tumbling, half childlike, half not, through sourweed, red with autumn. “Be serious a second,” he said. “The only way to get multiplication tables is to memorize them.” He wrote 12 ? 12 = 144 in the sand, but she ran past him, dived into the breaking surf, down to the calm, and swam until he followed into a place where gray-blue light beams slanted through the quiet and highlighted their forms. Sleek as porpoises. Later, sandy and salty, they rolled across the beach, arms tight around each other as if they were one. The next afternoon he motored into her lagoon but stayed in his boat after beaching. A large basket covered in a red-checkered cloth sat at his feet. “What’s that? What’d you bring?” she asked. “A surprise. Go on, get in.” They flowed through the slow-moving channels into the sea, then south to a tiny half-moon bay. After wrist-flicking the blanket onto the sand, he placed the covered basket on it, and as they sat, he lifted the cloth. “Happy birthday, Kya,” he said. “You’re fifteen.” A two-tiered bakery cake, tall as a hatbox and decorated with shells of pink icing, rose from the basket. Her name scripted on top. Presents, wrapped in colorful paper and tied with bows, surrounded the cake. She stared, flabbergasted, her mouth open. No one had wished her happy birthday since Ma left. No one had ever given her a store-bought cake with her name on it. She’d never had presents in real wrapping paper with ribbons. “How’d you know my birthday?” Having no calendar, she had no idea it was today. “I read it in your Bible.” While she pleaded for him not to cut through her name, he sliced enormous pieces of cake and plopped them on paper plates. Staring into each other’s eyes, they broke off bites and stuffed them in their mouths. Smacking loudly. Licking fingers. Laughing through icing-smeared grins. Eating cake the way it should be eaten, the way everybody wants to eat it. “Want to open your presents?” He smiled. The first: a small magnifying glass, “so you can see the fine details of insect wings.” Second: a plastic clasp, painted silver and decorated with a rhinestone seagull, “for your hair.” Somewhat awkwardly, he pulled some locks behind her ear and clipped the barrette in place. She touched it. More beautiful than Ma’s. The last present was in a larger box, and Kya opened it to find ten jars of oil paint, tins of watercolors, and different-sized brushes: “for your paintings.” Kya picked up each color, each brush. “I can get more when you need them. Even canvas, from Sea Oaks.” She dipped her head. “Thank you, Tate.” • • • “EASY DOES IT. Go slow, now,” Scupper called out as Tate, surrounded by fishing nets, oil rags, and preening pelicans, powered the winch. The bow of The Cherry Pie bobbled on the cradle, gave a shudder, then glided onto the underwater rails at Pete’s Boat Yard, the lopsided pier and rusted-out boathouse, the only haul-out in Barkley Cove. “Okay, good, she’s on. Bring her out.” Tate eased more power to the winch, and the boat crawled up the track and into dry dock. They secured her in cables and set about scraping blotchy barnacles from her hull as crystal-sharp arias of Miliza Korjus rose from the record player. They’d have to apply primer, then the annual coat of red paint. Tate’s mother had chosen the color, and Scupper would never change it. Once in a while Scupper stopped scraping and waved his large arms to the music’s sinuous shape. Now, early winter, Scupper paid Tate adult wages to work for him after school and on weekends, but Tate couldn’t get out to Kya’s as much. He didn’t mention this to his dad; he’d never mentioned anything about Kya to his dad. They hacked at barnacles until dark, until even Scupper’s arms burned. “I’m too tired to cook, and I reckon you are, too. Let’s grab some grub at the diner on the way home.” Nodding at everyone, there not being one person they didn’t know, they sat at a corner table. Both ordered the special: chicken-fried steak, mash and gravy, turnips, and coleslaw. Biscuits. Pecan pie with ice cream. At the next table, a family of four joined hands and lowered their heads as the father said a blessing out loud. At “Amen” they kissed the air, squeezed hands, and passed the cornbread. Scupper said, “Now, son, I know this job’s keeping ya from things. That’s the way it is, but you didn’t go to the homecoming dance or anything last fall, and I don’t want you to miss all of it, this being your last year. There’s that big dance at the pavilion coming up. You asking a girl?” “Nah. I might go, not sure. But there’s nobody I want to ask.” “There’s not one single girl in school you’d go with?” “Nope.” “Well then.” Scupper leaned back as the waitress put down his plate of food. “Thank you, Betty. You sure heaped it up good.” Betty moved around and set down Tate’s plate, piled even higher. “Y’all eat up now,” she said. “Thar’s more where this come from. The special’s all-you-can-eat.” She smiled at Tate before walking with an extra hip-swing back to the kitchen. Tate said, “The girls at school are silly. All they talk about is hairdos and high heels.” “Well now, that’s what girls do. Sometimes you gotta take things as they are.” “Maybe.” “Now, son, I don’t pay much mind to idle talk, never have done. But there’s a regular riptide of gossip saying you’ve got something going with that girl in the marsh.” Tate threw up his hands. “Now hold on, hold on,” Scupper continued. “I don’t believe all the stories about her; she’s probably nice. But take a care, son. You don’t want to go starting a family too early. You get my meaning, don’t you?” Keeping his voice low, Tate hissed, “First you say you don’t believe those stories about her, then you say I shouldn’t start a family, showing you do believe she’s that kind of girl. Well, let me tell you something, she’s not. She’s more pure and innocent than any of those girls you’d have me go to the dance with. Oh man, some of the girls in this town, well, let’s just say they hunt in packs, take no prisoners. And yes, I’ve been going out to see Kya some. You know why? I’m teaching her how to read because people in this town are so mean to her she couldn’t even go to school.” “That’s fine, Tate. That’s good of you. But please understand it’s my job to say things like this. It may not be pleasant and all for us to talk about, but parents have to warn their kids about things. That’s my job, so don’t get huffy about it.” “I know,” Tate mumbled while buttering a biscuit. Feeling very huffy. “Come on now. Let’s get another helping, then some of that pecan pie.” After the pie came, Scupper said, “Well, since we’ve talked about things we never mention, I might as well say something else on my mind.” Tate rolled his eyes at his pie. Scupper continued. “I want you to know, son, how proud I am of you. All on your own, you’ve studied the marsh life, done real well at school, applied for college to get a degree in science. And got accepted. I’m just not the kind to speak on such things much. But I’m mighty proud of you, son. All right?” “Yeah. All right.” Later in his room, Tate recited from his favorite poem: “Oh when shall I see the dusky Lake, And the white canoe of my dear?” • • • AROUND THE WORK, as best he could, Tate got out to Kya’s, but could never stay long. Sometimes boating forty minutes for a ten-minute beach walk, holding hands. Kissing a lot. Not wasting a minute. Boating back. He wanted to touch her breasts; would kill just to look at them. Lying awake at night, he thought of her thighs, how soft, yet firm, they must be. To think beyond her thighs sent him roiling in the sheets. But she was so young and timid. If he did things wrong, it might affect her somehow, then he’d be worse than the boys who only talked about snagging her. His desire to protect her was as strong as the other. Sometimes. • • • ON EVERY TRIP TO KYA’S, Tate took school or library books, especially on marsh creatures and biology. Her progress was startling. She could read anything now, he said, and once you can read anything you can learn everything. It was up to her. “Nobody’s come close to filling their brains,” he said. “We’re all like giraffes not using their necks to reach the higher leaves.” Alone for hours, by the light of the lantern, Kya read how plants and animals change over time to adjust to the ever-shifting earth; how some cells divide and specialize into lungs or hearts, while others remain uncommitted as stem cells in case they’re needed later. Birds sing mostly at dawn because the cool, moist air of morning carries their songs and their meanings much farther. All her life, she’d seen these marvels at eye level, so nature’s ways came easily to her. Within all the worlds of biology, she searched for an explanation of why a mother would leave her offspring. • • • ONE COLD DAY, long after all the sycamore leaves had fallen, Tate stepped out of his boat with a present wrapped in red-and-green paper. “I don’t have anything for you,” she said, as he held the present out for her. “I didn’t know it’s Christmas.” “It’s not.” He smiled. “Not by a long shot,” he lied. “Come on, it’s not much.” Carefully she took the paper off to find a secondhand Webster’s dictionary. “Oh, Tate, thank you.” “Look inside,” he said. Tucked in the P section was a pelican feather, forget-me-not blossoms pressed between two pages of the Fs, a dried mushroom under M. So many treasures were stashed among the pages, the book would not completely close. “I’ll try to come back the day after Christmas. Maybe I can bring a turkey dinner.” He kissed her good-bye. After he left, she swore out loud. Her first chance since Ma left to give a gift to someone she loved, and she’d missed it. A few days later, shivering in the sleeveless, peach-colored chiffon dress, she waited for Tate on the lagoon shore. Pacing, she clutched her present for him—a head tuft from a male cardinal—wrapped in the paper he had used. As soon as he stepped out of his boat, she stuck the present into his hands, insisting he open it there, so he did. “Thank you, Kya. I don’t have one.” Her Christmas complete. “Now let’s get you inside. You must be freezing in that dress.” The kitchen was warm from the woodstove, but still he suggested she change into a sweater and jeans. Working together they heated the food he’d brought: turkey, cornbread dressing, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, and pumpkin pie—all leftovers from Christmas dinner at the diner with his dad. Kya had made biscuits, and they ate at the kitchen table, which she had decorated with wild holly and seashells. “I’ll wash up,” she said, as she poured hot water from the woodstove into the basin. “I’ll help you.” And he came up behind her and put his arms around her waist. She leaned her head back against his chest, eyes closed. Slowly his fingers moved under her sweater, across her sleek stomach, toward her breasts. As usual, she wore no bra, and his fingers circled her nipples. His touch lingered there, but a sensation spread down her body as though his hands had moved between her legs. A hollowness that urgently needed filling pulsed through her. But she didn’t know what to do, what to say, so pushed back. “It’s okay,” he said. And just held her there. Both of them breathing deep. • • • THE SUN, still shy and submissive to winter, peeped in now and then between days of mean wind and bitter rain. Then one afternoon, just like that, spring elbowed her way in for good. The day warmed, and the sky shone as if polished. Kya spoke quietly, as she and Tate walked along the grassy bank of a deep creek, overhung with tall sweetgum trees. Suddenly he grabbed her hand, shushing her. Her eyes followed his to the water’s edge, where a bullfrog, six inches wide, hunkered under foliage. A common enough sight, except this frog was completely and brilliantly white. Tate and Kya grinned at each other and watched until he disappeared in one silent, big-legged leap. Still, they were quiet as they backed away into the brush another five yards. Kya put her hands over her mouth and giggled. Bounced away from him in a girlish jig in a body not quite so girlish. Tate watched her for a second, no longer thinking about frogs. He stepped toward her purposely. His expression stopped her in front of a broad oak. He took her shoulders and pushed her firmly against the tree. Holding her arms along her sides, he kissed her, his groin pushing against hers. Since Christmas they had kissed and explored slowly; not like this. He had always taken the lead but had watched her questioningly for signs to desist; not like now. He pulled away, the deep golden-brown layers of his eyes boring into hers. Slowly he unbuttoned her shirt and pulled it off, exposing her breasts. He took his time to examine them with his eyes and fingers, circling her nipples. Then he unzipped her shorts and pulled them down, until they dropped to the ground. Almost naked for the first time in front of him, she panted and moved her hands to cover herself. Gently he moved her hands away and took his time looking at her body. Her groin throbbed as if all her blood had surged there. He stepped out of his shorts and, still staring at her, pushed his erection against her. When she turned away in shyness, he lifted her chin and said, “Look at me. Look me in the eyes, Kya.” “Tate, Tate.” She reached out, trying to kiss him, but he held her back, forcing only her eyes to take him in. She didn’t know raw nakedness could bring such want. He whispered his hands against her inner thighs, and instinctively she stepped each foot to the side slightly. His fingers moved between her legs and slowly massaged parts of her she never knew existed. She threw her head back and whimpered. Abruptly, he pushed away from her and stepped back. “God, Kya, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” “Tate, please, I want to.” “Not like this, Kya.” “Why not? Why not like this?” She reached for his shoulders and tried to pull him back to her. “Why not?” she said again. He picked up her clothes and dressed her. Not touching her where she wanted, where parts of her body still pounded. Then he lifted her and carried her to the creek bank. Put her down, and sat beside her. “Kya, I want you more than anything. I want you forever. But you’re too young. You’re only fifteen.” “So what? You’re only four years older. It’s not like you’re suddenly mister know-it-all adult.” “Yes, but I can’t get pregnant. And I can’t be damaged as easily by this. I won’t do it, Kya, because I love you.” Love. There was nothing about the word she understood. “You still think I’m a little girl,” she whined. “Kya, you’re sounding more and more like a little girl every second.” But he smiled as he said it, and pulled her closer. “When, then, if not now? When can we?” “Just not yet.” They were quiet for a moment, and then she asked, “How did you know what to do?” Head down, shy again. “The same way you did.” • • • ONE AFTERNOON IN MAY as they walked from the lagoon, he said, “You know, I’m going away soon. To college.” He had spoken of going to Chapel Hill, but Kya had pushed it from her mind, knowing at least they had summer. “When? Not now.” “Not long. A few weeks.” “But why? I thought college started in the fall.” “I got accepted for a job in a biology lab on campus. I can’t pass that up. So I’m starting summer quarter.” Of all the people who left her, only Jodie had said good-bye. Everyone else had walked away forever, but this didn’t feel any better. Her chest burned. “I’ll come back as much as I can. It’s not that far, really. Less than a day by bus.” She sat quiet. Finally she said, “Why do you have to go, Tate? Why can’t you stay here, shrimp like your dad?” “Kya, you know why. I just can’t do that. I want to study the marsh, be a research biologist.” They had reached the beach and sat on the sand. “Then what? There’re no jobs like that here. You’ll never come home again.” “Yes, I will. I won’t leave you, Kya. I promise. I’ll come back to you.” She jumped to her feet, startling the plovers, who flew up, squawking. She ran from the beach into the woods. Tate ran after her, but as soon as he reached the trees, he stopped, looked around. She had already lost him. But just in case she stood in earshot, he called out, “Kya, you can’t run from every whipstitch. Sometimes you have to discuss things. Face things.” Then with less patience, “Damn it, Kya. Damn it to hell!” • • • A WEEK LATER, Kya heard Tate’s boat whirring across her lagoon and hid behind a bush. As he eased through the channel, the heron lifted on slow silver wings. Some part of her wanted to run, but she stepped onto the shore, waiting. “Hey,” he said. For once he didn’t wear a cap, and his wild blond curls wafted about his tanned face. It seemed that in the last few months, his shoulders had widened into those of a man. “Hey.” He stepped from the boat, took her hand, and led her to the reading-log, where they sat. “Turns out I’m leaving sooner than I thought. I’m skipping the graduation ceremonies so I can start my job. Kya, I’ve come to say good-bye.” Even his voice seemed manlike, ready for a more serious world. She didn’t answer, but sat looking away from him. Her throat pulled in tight. He placed two bags of school and library rejects, mostly science books, at her feet. She wasn’t sure she could speak. She wanted him to take her again to the place of the white frog. In case he never came back, she wanted him to take her there now. “I’m going to miss you, Kya. Every day, all day.” “You might forget me. When you get busy with all that college stuff and see all those pretty girls.” “I’ll never forget you. Ever. You take care of the marsh till I get back, you hear? And be careful.” “I will.” “I mean it now, Kya. Watch out for folks; don’t let strangers get near you.” “I think I can hide or outrun anybody.” “Yes, I believe you can. I’ll come home in about a month, I promise. For the Fourth of July. I’ll be back before you know it.” She didn’t answer, and he stood, jammed his hands into his jeans pockets. She stood next to him, but they both looked away, into the trees. He took her shoulders and kissed her for a long time. “Good-bye, Kya.” For a moment she looked somewhere over his shoulder and then into his eyes. A chasm she knew to its greatest depths. “Good-bye, Tate.” Without another word, he got in his boat and motored across the lagoon. Just before entering the thick brambles of the channel, he turned and waved. She lifted her hand high above her head, and then touched it to her heart. 19. Something Going On 1969 T he morning after reading the second lab report, the eighth day since finding Chase Andrews’s body in the swamp, Deputy Purdue pushed open the door to the sheriff’s office with his foot and stepped inside. He carried two paper cups of coffee and a bag of hot donuts—just pulled from the fryer. “Oh man, the smell of Parker’s,” Ed said as Joe placed the goods on the desk. Each man dug an enormous donut from the brown paper bag splotched with grease stains. Smacked loudly, licked glazed fingers. Speaking over each other, both men announced, “Well, I got something.” “Go ahead,” Ed said. “I got it from several sources that Chase had something goin’ on in the marsh.” “Going on? What do you mean?” “Not sure, but some guys at the Dog-Gone say ’bout four years ago he started goin’ out to the marsh a lot by himself, was real secretive about it. He’d still go fishin’ or boatin’ with his friends, but made a lot of trips alone. I was thinkin’ maybe he got himself mixed up with some potheads or worse. Got over his head with some nasty drug thug. Ya lie down with dogs, ya get up with fleas. Or in this case, not get up at all.” “I don’t know. He was such an athlete; hard to picture him getting mixed up in drugs,” the sheriff said. “Former athlete. And anyhow, lots of ’em get tangled up in drugs. When the grand days of hero dry up, they gotta get a high from somewheres else. Or maybe he had a woman out there.” “I just don’t know of any ladies out there that’d be his type. He only hung out with the so-called Barkley elite. Not trash.” “Well, if he thought of himself as slummin’, maybe that’s why he was so quiet about it.” “True,” the sheriff said. “Anyway, whatever he had going on out there, it opens up a whole new side of his life we didn’t know about. Let’s do some snooping, see what he was up to.” “Ya said you got something, too?” “Not sure what. Chase’s mother called, said she had something important to tell us about the case. Something to do with a shell necklace he wore all the time. She’s sure it’s a clue. Wants to come in here to tell us about it.” “When’s she coming?” “This afternoon, pretty soon.” “It’d be nice to have a real clue. Beats walkin’ around looking for some guy wearin’ a red wool sweater with a motive attached. We gotta admit, if this was a murder, it was a clever one. The marsh chewed up and swallowed all the evidence, if there was any. Do we have time for lunch before Patti Love gets here?” “Sure. And the special’s fried pork chops. Blackberry pie.” 20. July 4 1961 D ressed in the now too-short peach chiffon, Kya walked barefoot to the lagoon on July 4 and sat on the reading-log. Cruel heat shrugged off the last wisps of fog, and a dense humidity she could barely breathe filled the air. Now and then she knelt to the lagoon and splashed cool water on her neck, all the while listening for the hum of Tate’s boat. She didn’t mind waiting; she read the books he’d given her. The day dragged itself by minutes, the sun getting stuck in the middle. The log hardened, so she settled on the ground, her back against a tree. Finally, hungry, she rushed back to the shack for a leftover sausage and biscuit. Ate fast, afraid he would come while she quit her post. The muggy afternoon rallied mosquitoes. No boat; no Tate. At dusk, she stood straight and still and silent as a stork, staring at the empty-quiet channel. Breathing hurt. Stepping out of the dress, she eased into the water and swam in the dark coolness, the water sliding over her skin, releasing heat from her core. She pulled from the lagoon and sat on a mossy patch of the bank, nude until she dried, until the moon slipped beneath the earth. Then, carrying her clothes, walked inside. She waited the next day. Each hour warmed until noon, blistered after midday, throbbed past sunset. Later, the moon threw hope across the water, but that died, too. Another sunrise, another white-hot noon. Sunset again. All hope gone to neutral. Her eyes shifted listlessly, and though she listened for Tate’s boat, she was no longer coiled. The lagoon smelled of life and death at once, an organic jumbling of promise and decay. Frogs croaked. Dully she watched fireflies scribbling across the night. She never collected lightning bugs in bottles; you learn a lot more about something when it’s not in a jar. Jodie had taught her that the female firefly flickers the light under her tail to signal to the male that she’s ready to mate. Each species of firefly has its own language of flashes. As Kya watched, some females signed dot, dot, dot, dash, flying a zigzag dance, while others flashed dash, dash, dot in a different dance pattern. The males, of course, knew the signals of their species and flew only to those females. Then, as Jodie had put it, they rubbed their bottoms together like most things did, so they could produce young. Suddenly Kya sat up and paid attention: one of the females had changed her code. First she flashed the proper sequence of dashes and dots, attracting a male of her species, and they mated. Then she flickered a different signal, and a male of a different species flew to her. Reading her message, the second male was convinced he’d found a willing female of his own kind and hovered above her to mate. But suddenly the female firefly reached up, grabbed him with her mouth, and ate him, chewing all six legs and both wings. Kya watched others. The females got what they wanted—first a mate, then a meal—just by changing their signals. Kya knew judgment had no place here. Evil was not in play, just life pulsing on, even at the expense of some of the players. Biology sees right and wrong as the same color in different light. She waited another hour for Tate, and finally walked toward the shack. • • • THE NEXT MORNING, swearing at the shreds of cruel hope, she went back to the lagoon. Sitting at the water’s edge, she listened for the sound of a boat chugging down the channel or across the distant estuaries. At noon she stood and screamed, “TATE, TATE, NO, NO.” Then dropped to her knees, her face against the mud. She felt a strong pull out from under her. A tide she knew well. 21. Coop 1961 H ot wind rattled the palmetto fronds like small dry bones. For three days after giving up on Tate, Kya didn’t get out of bed. Drugged by despair and heat, she tossed in clothes and sheets damp from sweat, her skin sticky. She sent her toes on missions to scout for cool spots between the sheets, but they found none. She didn’t note the time of moonrise or when a great horned owl took a diurnal dive at a blue jay. From bed, she heard the marsh beyond in the lifting of blackbird wings, but didn’t go to it. She hurt from the crying songs of the gulls above the beach, calling to her. But for the first time in her life, did not go to them. She hoped the pain from ignoring them would displace the tear in her heart. It did not. Listless, she wondered what she had done to send everyone away. Her own ma. Her sisters. Her whole family. Jodie. And now Tate. Her most poignant memories were unknown dates of family members disappearing down the lane. The last of a white scarf trailing through the leaves. A pile of socks left on a floor mattress. Tate and life and love had been the same thing. Now there was no Tate. “Why, Tate, why?” She mumbled into the sheets, “You were supposed to be different. To stay. You said you loved me, but there is no such thing. There is no one on Earth you can count on.” From somewhere very deep, she made herself a promise never to trust or love anyone again. She’d always found the muscle and heart to pull herself from the mire, to take the next step, no matter how shaky. But where had all that grit brought her? She drifted in and out of thin sleep. Suddenly, the sun—full, bright, and glaring—struck her face. Never in her life had she slept until midday. She heard a soft rustling sound and, raising herself onto her elbows, saw a raven-sized Cooper’s hawk standing on the other side of the screen door, peering in. For the first time in days, an interest stirred in her. She roused herself as the hawk took wing. Finally, she made a mush of hot water and grits and headed to the beach to feed the gulls. When she broke onto the beach, all of them swirled and dived in flurries, and she dropped to her knees and tossed the food on the sand. As they crowded around her, she felt their feathers brushing her arms and thighs, and threw her head back, smiling with them. Even as tears streamed her cheeks. • • • FOR A MONTH AFTER JULY 4, Kya did not leave her place, did not go into the marsh or to Jumpin’s for gas or supplies. She lived on dried fish, mussels, oysters. Grits and greens. When all her shelves were empty, she finally motored to Jumpin’s for supplies but didn’t chat with him as usual. Did her business and left him standing, staring after her. Needing people ended in hurt. A few mornings later, the Cooper’s hawk was back on her steps, peering at her through the screen. How odd, she thought, cocking her head at him. “Hey, Coop.” With a little hop, he lifted, made a flyby, then soared high into the clouds. Watching him, at last, Kya said to herself, “I have to get back into the marsh,” and she took the boat out, easing along the channels and slipstreams, searching for bird nests, feathers, or shells for the first time since Tate abandoned her. Even so, she couldn’t avoid thoughts of him. The intellectual fascinations or the pretty girls of Chapel Hill had drawn him in. She couldn’t imagine college women, but whatever form they took would be better than a tangled-haired, barefoot mussel-monger who lived in a shack. By the end of August, her life once more found its footing: boat, collect, paint. Months passed. She only went to Jumpin’s when low supplies demanded, but spoke very little to him. Her collections matured, categorized methodically by order, genus, and species; by age according to bone wear; by size in millimeters of feathers; or by the most fragile hues of greens. The science and art entwined in each other’s strengths: the colors, the light, the species, the life; weaving a masterpiece of knowledge and beauty that filled every corner of her shack. Her world. She grew with them—the trunk of the vine—alone, but holding all the wonders together. But just as her collection grew, so did her loneliness. A pain as large as her heart lived in her chest. Nothing eased it. Not the gulls, not a splendid sunset, not the rarest of shells. Months turned into a year. The lonely became larger than she could hold. She wished for someone’s voice, presence, touch, but wished more to protect her heart. Months passed into another year. Then another. PART 2 The Swamp 22. Same Tide 1965 N ineteen years old, legs longer, eyes larger and seemingly blacker, Kya sat on Point Beach, watching sand crabs bury themselves backward into the swash. Suddenly, from the south, she heard voices and jumped to her feet. The group of kids—now young adults—she’d watched occasionally through the years ambled toward her, tossing a football, running and kicking the surf. Anxious they would see her, she loped to the trees, sand tearing from her heels, and hid behind the broad trunk of an oak tree. Knowing how odd this made her. Not much has changed, she thought, them laughing, me holing up like a sand crab. A wild thing ashamed of her own freakish ways. Tallskinnyblonde, Ponytailfreckleface, Alwayswearspearls, and Roundchubbycheeks romped the beach, tangled in laughs and hugs. On her rare trips to the village, she’d heard their slurs. “Yeah, the Marsh Girl gits her clothes from colored people; has to trade mussels for grits.” Yet after all these years, they were still a group of friends. That was something. Silly-looking on the outside, yes, but as Mabel had said several times, they were a sure troop. “Ya need some girlfriends, hon, ’cause they’re furever. Without a vow. A clutch of women’s the most tender, most tough place on Earth.” Kya found herself laughing softly with them as they kicked salt water on one another. Then, shrieking, they rushed as one into the deeper surf. Kya’s smile faded when they pulled themselves out of the water and into their traditional group hug. Their squeals made Kya’s silence even louder. Their togetherness tugged at her loneliness, but she knew being labeled as marsh trash kept her behind the oak tree. Her eyes shifted to the tallest guy. Wearing khaki shorts and no shirt, he threw the football. Kya watched the cords of muscles bunching on his back. His tan shoulders. She knew he was Chase Andrews, and over the years, ever since he nearly ran her over on his bicycle, she’d seen him with these friends on the beach, walking into the diner for milk shakes, or at Jumpin’s buying gas. Now, as the group came closer, she watched only him. When another tossed the ball, he ran to catch it and came close to her tree, his bare feet digging in the hot sand. As he raised his arm to throw, he happened to glance back and caught Kya’s eyes. After passing the ball, without giving any sign to the others, he turned and held her gaze. His hair was black, like hers, but his eyes were pale blue, his face strong, striking. A shadow-smile formed on his lips. Then he walked back to the others, shoulders relaxed, sure. But he had noticed her. Had held her eyes. Her breath froze as a heat flowed through her. She tracked them, mostly him, down the shore. Her mind looking one way, her desire the other. Her body watched Chase Andrews, not her heart. The next day she returned—same tide, different time, but no one was there, just noisy sandpipers and wave-riding sand crabs. She tried to force herself to avoid that beach and stick to the marsh, searching for bird nests and feathers. Stay safe, feeding grits to gulls. Life had made her an expert at mashing feelings into a storable size. But loneliness has a compass of its own. And she went back to the beach to look for him the next day. And the next. • • • LATE ONE AFTERNOON, after watching for Chase Andrews, Kya walks from her shack and lies back on a sliver of beach, slick from the last wave. She stretches her arms over her head, brushing them against the wet sand, and extends her legs, toes pointed. Eyes closed, she rolls slowly toward the sea. Her hips and arms leave slight indentions in the glistening sand, brightening and then dimming as she moves. Rolling nearer the waves, she senses the ocean’s roar through the length of her body and feels the question: When will the sea touch me? Where will it touch me first? The foamy surge rushes the shore, reaching toward her. Tingling with expectancy, she breathes deep. Turns more and more slowly. With each revolution, just before her face sweeps the sand, she lifts her head gently and takes in the sun-salt smell. I am close, very close. It is coming. When will I feel it? A fever builds. The sand wetter beneath her, the rumble of surf louder. Even slower, by inches she moves, waiting for the touch. Soon, soon. Almost feeling it before it comes. She wants to open her eyes to peek, to see how much longer. But she resists, squinting her lids even tighter, the sky bright behind them, giving no hints. Suddenly she shrieks as the power rushes beneath her, fondles her thighs, between her legs, flows along her back, swirling under her head, pulling her hair in inky strands. She rolls faster into the deepening wave, against streaming shells and ocean bits, the water embracing her. Pushing against the sea’s strong body, she is grasped, held. Not alone. Kya sits up and opens her eyes to the ocean foaming around her in soft white patterns, always changing. • • • SINCE CHASE HAD GLANCED at her on the beach, she’d already gone to Jumpin’s wharf twice in one week. Not admitting to herself that she hoped to see Chase there. Being noticed by someone had lit a social cord. And now, she asked Jumpin’, “How’s Mabel doing, anyway? Are any of your grandkids home?” like the old days. Jumpin’ noticed the change, knew better than to comment. “Yessiree, got fou’ wif us right now. House full up wif giggles and I don’t know whut all.” But a few mornings later when Kya motored to the wharf, Jumpin’ was nowhere to be seen. Brown pelicans, hunched up on posts, eyed her as though they were minding shop. Kya smiled at them. A touch on her shoulder made her jump. “Hi.” She turned to see Chase standing behind her. She dropped her smile. “I’m Chase Andrews.” His eyes, ice-pack blue, pierced her own. He seemed completely comfortable to stare into her. She said nothing, but shifted her weight. “I’ve seen ya around some. Ya know, over the years, in the marsh. What’s yo’ name?” For a moment he thought she wasn’t going to speak; maybe she was dumb or spoke a primal language, like some said. A less self-assured man might have walked away. “Kya.” Obviously, he didn’t remember their sidewalk-bicycle encounter or know her in any way except as the Marsh Girl. “Kya—that’s different. But nice. You wanta go for a picnic? In my boat, this Sunday.” She looked past him, taking time to evaluate his words, but couldn’t see them to an end. Here was a chance to be with someone. Finally she said, “Okay.” He told her to meet him at the oak peninsula north of Point Beach at noon. Then he stepped into his blue-and-white ski boat, metal bits gleaming from every possible surface, and accelerated away. She turned at the sound of more footsteps. Jumpin’ scurried up the dock. “Hi, Miss Kya. Sorry, I been totin’ empty crates over yonder. Fill ’er up?” Kya nodded. On the way home, she cut the motor and drifted, the shore in sight. Leaning against the old knapsack, watching the sky, she recited poetry by heart, as she did sometimes. One of her favorites was John Masefield’s “Sea Fever”: . . . all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying, And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying. Kya recalled a poem written by a lesser-known poet, Amanda Hamilton, published recently in the local newspaper she’d bought at the Piggly Wiggly: Trapped inside, Love is a caged beast, Eating its own flesh. Love must be free to wander, To land upon its chosen shore And breathe. The words made her think of Tate, and her breathing stopped. All he’d needed was to find something better and he was gone. Didn’t even come to say good-bye. • • • KYA DIDN’T KNOW, but Tate had come back to see her. The day before he was to bus home that Fourth of July, Dr. Blum, the professor who’d hired him, walked into the protozoology lab and asked Tate if he’d like to join a group of renowned ecologists for a birding expedition over the weekend. “I’ve noticed your interest in ornithology and wondered if you’d like to come. I only have room for one student, and I thought of you.” “Yes, absolutely. I’ll be there.” After Dr. Blum left, Tate stood there, alone, amid lab tables, microscopes, and the hum of the autoclave, wondering how he’d folded so fast. How quickly he’d jumped to impress his professor. The pride of being singled out, the only student invited. His next chance to go home—and only for one night—had been fifteen days later. He was frantic to apologize to Kya, who would understand after she learned of Dr. Blum’s invitation. He’d cut throttle as he left the sea and turned into the channel, where logs were lined with the glistening backs of sunbathing turtles. Almost halfway, he spotted her boat carefully hidden in tall cord grass. Instantly, he slowed and saw her up ahead, kneeling on a wide sandbar, apparently fascinated by some small crustacean. Her head low to the ground, she hadn’t seen him or heard his slow-moving boat. He quietly turned his skiff into reeds, out of view. He’d known for years that she sometimes spied on him, peeping through needle brush. On impulse, he would do the same. Barefoot, dressed in cutoff jeans and a white T-shirt, she stood up, stretching her arms high. Showcasing her wasp-thin waist. She knelt again and scooped sand in her hands, sifting it through her fingers, examining organisms left squiggling in her palm. He smiled at the young biologist, absorbed, oblivious. He imagined her standing at the back of the birding group, trying not to be noticed but being the first to spot and identify every bird. Shyly and softly, she would have listed the precise species of grasses woven into each nest, or the age in days of a female fledgling based on the emerging colors of her wingtips. Exquisite minutiae beyond any guidebook or knowledge of the esteemed ecology group. The smallest specifics on which a species spins. The essence. Suddenly Tate startled as Kya sprang to her feet, sand spilling from her fingers, and looked upstream, away from Tate. He could barely hear the low churn of an outboard motor coming their way, probably a fisherman or marsh dweller headed to town. A purring sound, common and calm as doves. But Kya grabbed the knapsack, sprinted across the sandbar, and scrambled into tall grass. Squatting low to the ground and snatching glances to see if the boat had come into view, she duck-walked toward her boat. Knees lifting nearly to her chin. She was closer to Tate now, and he saw her eyes, dark and crazed. When she reached her boat, she hunkered beside its girth, head low. The fisherman—a merry-faced, hatted old man—puttered into view, saw neither Kya nor Tate, and disappeared beyond the bend. But she remained frozen, listening until the motor whined away, then stood, dabbing her brow. Continued to look in the direction of the boat as a deer eyes the empty brush of a departed panther. On some level he knew she behaved this way, but since the feather game, had not witnessed the raw, unpeeled core. How tormented, isolated, and strange. He’d been at college less than two months but had already stepped directly into the world he wanted, analyzing the stunning symmetry of the DNA molecule as if he’d crawled inside a glistening cathedral of coiling atoms and climbed the winding, acidic rungs of the helix. Seeing that all life depends on this precise and intricate code transcribed on fragile, organic slivers, which would perish instantly in a slightly warmer or colder world. At last, surrounded by enormous questions and people as curious as he to find the answers, drawing him toward his goal of research biologist in his own lab, interacting with other scientists. Kya’s mind could easily live there, but she could not. Breathing hard, he stared at his decision hiding there in cord grass: Kya or everything else. “Kya, Kya, I just can’t do this,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.” After she moved away, he got into his boat and motored back toward the ocean. Swearing at the coward inside who would not tell her good-bye. 23. The Shell 1965 T he night after seeing Chase Andrews on Jumpin’s wharf, Kya sat at her kitchen table in the easy flicker of lantern light. She’d started cooking again, and she nibbled on a supper of buttermilk biscuits, turnips, and pinto beans, reading while she ate. But thoughts of the picnic-date with Chase the next day unraveled every sentence. Kya stood and walked into the night, into the creamy light of a three-quarter moon. The marsh’s soft air fell silklike around her shoulders. The moonlight chose an unexpected path through the pines, laying shadows about in rhymes. She strolled like a sleepwalker as the moon pulled herself naked from the waters and climbed limb by limb through the oaks. The slick mud of the lagoon shore glowed in the intense light, and hundreds of fireflies dotted the woods. Wearing a secondhand white dress with a flowing skirt and waving her arms slowly about, Kya waltzed to the music of katydids and leopard frogs. She slid her hands along her sides and up her neck. Then moved them along her thighs as she held Chase Andrews’s face in her eyes. She wanted him to touch her this way. Her breathing deepened. No one had ever looked at her as he did. Not even Tate. She danced among the pale wings of mayflies, fluttering above the bright moon-mud. • • • THE NEXT MORNING, she rounded the peninsula and saw Chase in his boat, just offshore. Here in daylight, reality drifted ahead, waiting, and her throat dried. Steering onto the beach, she stepped out and pulled her boat in, the hull crunching against the sand. Chase drifted up alongside. “Hi.” Looking over her shoulder, she nodded. He stepped out of his boat and held out his hand to her—long tanned fingers, an open palm. She hesitated; touching someone meant giving part of herself away, a piece she never got back. Even so, she placed her hand lightly in his. He steadied her as she stepped into the stern and sat on the cushioned bench. A warm, fine day beamed down, and Kya, wearing denim cutoffs and a white cotton blouse—an outfit she’d copied from the others—looked normal. He sat next to her, and she felt his sleeve slide gently across her arm. Chase eased the boat toward the ocean. The open water tossed the boat more than the quiet marsh, and she knew the pitching motion of the sea would brush her arm against his. That anticipation of touch kept her eyes straight ahead, but she did not move away. Finally, a larger wave rose and dipped, and his arm, solid and warm, caressed hers. Jarring away, then touching again with every rise and drop. And when a swell surged beneath them, his thigh brushed against hers and her breathing stopped. As they headed south along the coast, theirs the only boat in this remoteness, he accelerated. Ten minutes on, several miles of white beach stretched along the tide line, protected from the rest of the world by a rounded, thick forest. Up ahead, Point Beach unfolded into the water like a brilliant white fan. Chase had not said a word since his greeting; she had not spoken at all. He glided the boat onto shore and tucked the picnic basket in the boat’s shadow on the sand. “Wanta walk?” he asked. “Yes.” They strolled along the water, each small wave rushing their ankles in little eddies and then sucking at their feet as it was pulled back into the sea. He didn’t hold her hand, but now and then, in natural movement, their fingers brushed. Occasionally they knelt to examine a shell or a strand of transparent seaweed spiraled into art. Chase’s blue eyes were playful; he smiled easily. His skin was dark tan like hers. Together they were tall, elegant, similar. Kya knew Chase had chosen not to go to college but to work for his dad. He was a standout in town, the tom turkey. And somewhere within, she worried she was also a piece of beach art, a curiosity to be turned over in his hands, then tossed back on the sand. But she walked on. She’d given love a chance; now she wanted simply to fill the empty spaces. Ease the loneliness while walling off her heart. After a half mile he faced her and bowed low, sweeping his arm in an exaggerated invitation for them to sit on the sand, against a driftwood log. They dug their feet into the white crystals and leaned back. From his pocket Chase pulled out a harmonica. “Oh,” she said, “you play.” The words felt rough on her tongue. “Not very good. But when I got an audience leanin’ against driftwood on the beach . . .” Closing his eyes, he played “Shenandoah,” his palm fluttering on the instrument like a bird trapped against glass. It was a lovely, plaintive sound, like a note from a faraway home. Then, abruptly, he stopped midsong and picked up a shell slightly larger than a nickel, creamy white with bright splotches of red and purple. “Hey, look at this,” he said. “Oh, it’s an ornate scallop, Pecten ornatus,” Kya said. “I only see them rarely. There are many of that genus here, but this particular species usually inhabits regions south of this latitude because these waters are too cool for them.” He stared at her. Of all the gossip, no one ever mentioned that the Marsh Girl, the girl who couldn’t spell dog, knew the Latin names of shells, where they occurred—and why, forchristsake. “I don’t know about that,” he said, “but look here, it’s twisted.” The little wings flaring on either side of the hinge were crooked, and there was a perfect little hole at the base. He turned it over in his palm. “Here, you keep it. You’re the shell girl.” “Thanks.” She slid it into her pocket. He played a few more songs, ending with a stampede of “Dixie,” and then they walked back to the wicker picnic basket and sat on a plaid blanket eating cold fried chicken, salt-cured ham and biscuits, and potato salad. Sweet and dill pickles. Slices of four-layer cake with half-inch-thick caramel icing. All homemade, wrapped in wax paper. He opened two bottles of Royal Crown Cola and poured them into Dixie cups—her first drink of soda pop in her life. The generous spread was incredible to her, with the neatly arranged cloth napkins, plastic plates and forks. Even minuscule pewter salt and pepper shakers. His mother must have packed it, she thought, not knowing he was meeting the Marsh Girl. They talked softly of sea things—pelicans gliding and sandpipers prancing—no touching, little laughing. As Kya pointed out a jagged cord of pelicans, he nodded and maneuvered closer to her, so their shoulders brushed lightly. When she looked at him, he lifted her chin with his hand and kissed her. He touched her neck lightly, then feathered his fingers over her blouse toward her breast. Kissing and holding her, more firmly now, he leaned back until they were lying on the blanket. Slowly he moved until he was on top of her, pushed his groin between her legs, and in one movement pulled up her blouse. She jerked her head away and squirmed out from under him, her blacker-than-night eyes blazing. Tugged her top down. “Easy, easy. It’s okay.” She lay there—hair strewn across the sand, face flushed, red mouth slightly parted—stunning. Carefully, he reached up to touch her face, but fast as a cat, she sprang away, and stood. Kya breathed hard. Last night, dancing alone on the lagoon shore, swaying about with the moon and mayflies, she’d imagined she was ready. Thought she knew all about mating from watching doves. No one had ever told her about sex, and her only experience with foreplay had been with Tate. But she knew the details from her biology books and had seen more creatures copulating—and it wasn’t merely “rubbing their bottoms together” like Jodie had said—than most people ever would. But this was too abrupt—picnic, then mate the Marsh Girl. Even male birds woo the females for a while, flashing brilliant feathers, building bowers, staging magnificent dances and love songs. Yes, Chase had laid out a banquet, but she was worth more than fried chicken. And “Dixie” didn’t count as a love song. She should’ve known it would be like this. Only time male mammals hover is when they’re in the rut. The silence grew as they stared at each other, broken only by the sound of their breathing and the breakers beyond. Chase sat up and reached for her arm, but she jerked it away. “I’m sorry. It’s okay,” he said as he stood. True, he’d come here to snag her, to be the first, but watching those eyes firing, he was entranced. He tried again. “C’mon, Kya. I said I’m sorry. Let’s just forget it. I’ll take you back to yo’ boat.” At that she turned and walked across the sand toward the woods. Her long body swaying. “What’re ya doin’? You can’t walk back from here. It’s miles.” But she was already in the trees, and ran a crow-route, first inland, then across the peninsula, toward her boat. The area was new to her, but blackbirds guided her across the inland marsh. She didn’t slow for bogs or gullies, splashed right through creeks, jumped logs. Finally, she bent over and, heaving, fell to her knees. Cussing worn-out words. As long as she ranted, sobs couldn’t surface. But nothing could stop the burning shame and sharp sadness. A simple hope of being with someone, of actually being wanted, of being touched, had drawn her in. But these hurried groping hands were only a taking, not a sharing or giving. She listened for sounds of him coming after her, not sure whether she wanted him to break through the brush and hold her, begging for forgiveness, or not. Raging again at that. Then, spent, she stood and walked the rest of the way to her boat. 24. The Fire Tower 1965 T hunderheads piled and pushed against the horizon as Kya motored into the afternoon sea. She hadn’t seen Chase since their beach picnic ten days ago, but still felt the shape and firmness of his body pinning hers against the sand. No other boats were in sight as she steered toward an inlet south of Point Beach, where she had once seen unusual butterflies—so powerfully white they might have been albino. But forty yards out, she suddenly released the throttle when she saw Chase’s friends packing picnic baskets and bright towels into their boats. Kya turned quickly to speed away but, against a strong pull, turned back and searched for him. She knew that no part of this yearning made sense. Illogical behavior to fill an emptiness would not fulfill much more. How much do you trade to defeat lonesomeness? And there, near the spot where he kissed her, she saw him walking with fishing rods toward his boat. Behind him, Alwayswearspearls carried a cooler. Suddenly, Chase turned his head and looked directly at her drifting in her boat. She didn’t turn away but stared back at him. As always shyness won, so she broke eye contact, sped off, and steered into a shadowy cove. She’d wait until their little navy left before going to the beach herself. Ten minutes later, she motored back into the sea and, up ahead, saw Chase alone in his boat, bobbing waves. Waiting. The old longing swelled. He was still interested in her. True, he’d come on too strong at the picnic, but he’d stopped when she brushed him away. Had apologized. Perhaps she should give him another chance. He motioned her over and called, “Hi, Kya.” She didn’t go toward him, but not away either. He motored closer. “Kya, I’m sorry ’bout the other day. Okay? C’mon, I wanta show you the fire tower.” She said nothing, still drifting his way, knowing it was weakness. “Look, if you’ve never climbed the tower, it’s a great way to see the marsh. Follow me.” She increased throttle and turned her boat toward his, all the while scanning the sea to make sure his friends were out of sight. Chase motioned her north past Barkley Cove—the village serene and colorful in the distance—and landed on the beach of a small bay tucked in deep forest. After securing the boats, he led her down an overgrown path of wax myrtle and prickly holly. She’d never been to this watery and rooty forest, because it stood on the other side of the village and was too close to people. As they walked, thin runnels of backwater seeped under the brush—slinky reminders that the sea owned this land. Then a true swamp settled deep with its low-earth smell and fusty air. Sudden, subtle, and silent all at once, it stretched into the mouth of the dark receding forest. Kya saw the weathered wooden platform of the abandoned fire tower above the canopy, and a few minutes later, they arrived at its straddle-legged base, made of rough-cut poles. Black mud oozed around the legs and under the tower, and damp rot ate its way along the beams. Stairs switched to the top, the structure narrowing at each level. After crossing the sludge, they started the climb, Chase leading. By the fifth switchback, the rounded oak forests tumbled west as far as they could see. In every other direction, slipstreams, lagoons, creeks, and estuaries wove through brilliant green grass to the sea. Kya had never been this high above the marsh. Now all the pieces lay beneath her, and she saw her friend’s full face for the first time. When they reached the last step, Chase pushed open the iron grate covering the stairwell. After they climbed onto the platform, he eased it down again. Before stepping on it, Kya tested it by tapping it with her toes. Chase laughed lightly. “It’s fine, don’t worry.” He led her to the railing, where they looked over the marshland. Two red-tailed hawks, the wind whistling through their wings, soared by at eye level, their heads cocked in surprise to see a young man and woman standing in their airspace. Chase turned to her and said, “Thanks for comin’, Kya. For giving me another chance to say I’m sorry ’bout the other day. I was way outta line and it won’t happen again.” She said nothing. Parts of her wanted to kiss him now, to feel his strength against her. Reaching into her jeans pocket, she said, “I made a necklace with the shell you found. You don’t have to wear it if you don’t want to.” She’d strung the shell on the rawhide the night before, thinking to herself she would wear it, but knowing all along she hoped to see Chase again and would give it to him if she had the chance. But even her wistful daydream had not envisioned them standing together on top of the fire tower overlooking the world. A summit. “Thank ya, Kya,” he said. He looked at it, and then he put it on over his head, fingering the shell as it rested against his throat. “’Course I’ll wear it.” He said nothing trite like I’ll wear it forever, till the day I die. “Take me to your house,” Chase said. Kya imagined the shack hunkered under oaks, its gray boards stained with blood from the rusting roof. The screens more holes than mesh. A place of patches. “It’s far,” is all she said. “Kya, I don’t care how far or what it’s like. C’mon, let’s go.” This chance of acceptance might go away if she said no. “All right.” They climbed down the tower, and he led her back to the bay, motioning for her to lead the way in her boat. She cruised south to the maze of estuaries and ducked her head as she slipped into her channel, overhung with green. His boat was almost too big to fit in the jungle growth, certainly too blue and white, but it squeezed through, limbs screeching along the hull. When her lagoon opened before them, the delicate details of every mossy branch and brilliant leaf reflected in the clear dark water. Dragonflies and snowy egrets lifted briefly at his strange boat, then resettled gracefully on silent wings. Kya tied up as Chase motored up to the shore. The great blue heron, having long ago accepted those less wild, stood stork-still only feet away. Her laundry of faded overalls and T-shirts hung tatty on the line, and so many turnips had spread into the forests, it was difficult to tell where the garden ended and the wilderness began. Looking at the patched screen porch, he asked, “How long ya lived out here by yourself?” “I don’t know exactly when Pa left. But about ten years, I think.” “That’s neat. Livin’ out here with no parents to tell ya what to do.” Kya didn’t respond except to say, “There’s nothing to see inside.” But he was already walking up the brick-’n’-board steps. The first things he saw were her collections lining homemade shelves. A collage of the shimmering life just beyond the screen. “You did all this?” he said. “Yes.” He looked at some butterflies briefly but quickly lost interest. Thought, Why keep stuff you can see right outside your door? Her little mattress on the porch floor had a cover as worn as an old bathrobe, but it was made up neat. A few steps took them through the tiny sitting room, with its sagging sofa, and then he peeped into the back bedroom, where feathers in every color, shape, and size winged across the walls. She motioned him into the kitchen, wondering what she could offer him. For sure she had no Coca-Cola or iced tea, no cookies or even cold biscuits. The leftover cornbread sat on the stovetop next to a pot of black-eyed peas, shelled and ready to boil for supper. Not one thing for a guest. Out of habit she stuck a few pieces of wood into the stove’s firebox. Stoking it just so with the poker; flames jumping to instantly. “That’s it,” she said, keeping her back to him, as she pumped the hand crank and filled the dented-in kettle—a picture of the 1920s propped up here in the 1960s. No running water, no electricity, no bathroom. The tin bathtub, its rim bent and rusted, stood in the corner of the kitchen, the stand-alone pie chest held leftovers covered neatly with tea towels, and the humped refrigerator gaped open, a flyswatter in its mouth. Chase had never seen anything like it. He cranked the pump, watched the water come out into the enamel basin that served as the sink. Touched the wood stacked neatly against the stove. The only lights were a few kerosene lanterns, their chimneys smoked gray. Chase was her first visitor since Tate, who had seemed as natural and accepting as other marsh creatures. With Chase, she felt exposed, as if someone were filleting her like a fish. Shame welled up inside. She kept her back to him but felt him move around the room, followed by the familiar creaks of the floor. Then he came up behind her, turned her gently, and embraced her lightly. He put his lips against her hair, and she could feel his breath near her ear. “Kya, nobody I know could’ve lived out here alone like this. Most kids, even the guys, would’ve been too scared.” She thought he was going to kiss her, but he dropped his arms and walked to the table. “What do you want with me?” she asked. “Tell me the truth.” “Look, I’m not gonna lie. You’re gorgeous, free, wild as a dang gale. The other day, I wanted to get as close as I could. Who wouldn’t? But that ain’t right. I shouldn’t’ve come on like that. I just wanta be with ya, okay? Get to know each other.” “Then what?” “We’ll just find out how we feel. I won’t do anything unless ya want me to. How’s that?” “That’s fine.” “Ya said you had a beach. Let’s go to the beach.” She cut off pieces of the leftover cornbread for the gulls and walked ahead of him down the path until it opened wide to the bright sand and sea. As she let out her soft cry, the gulls appeared and circled above and around her shoulders. The large male, Big Red, landed and walked back and forth across her feet. Chase stood a little distance away, watching as Kya disappeared into the spiraling birds. He hadn’t planned on feeling anything for this strange and feral barefoot girl, but watching her swirl across the sand, birds at her fingertips, he was intrigued by her self-reliance as well as her beauty. He’d never known anyone like Kya; a curiosity as well as desire stirred in him. When she came back to where he stood, he asked if he could come again the next day, promised he would not even hold her hand, that he just wanted to be near her. She simply nodded. The first hope in her heart since Tate left. 25. A Visit from Patti Love 1969 A light knock sounded on the door of the sheriff’s office. Joe and Ed looked up as Patti Love Andrews, Chase’s mother, appeared shadowy and fractured through the frosted glass. Still, they could recognize her in a black dress and hat. Graying brown hair in a tidy bun. An appropriately dull shade of lipstick. Both men stood, and Ed opened the door, “Patti Love, hello. Come on in. Sit down. Can I offer you some coffee?” She glanced at the half-empty mugs, lip-drips running down the rims. “No, thank you, Ed.” She sat in the chair Joe pulled up. “Do you have any leads yet? Any more information since the lab report?” “No. No, we don’t. We’re going over everything with a fine-tooth comb, and you and Sam’ll be the first to know if we come up with anything.” “But it wasn’t an accident, Ed. Right? I know it wasn’t an accident. Chase woulda never just fallen off the tower by himself. You know what an athlete he was. And smart.” “We agree there’s evidence enough to suspect foul play. But it’s an ongoing investigation and nothing definite yet. Now, you said you had something to tell us?” “Yes, and I think it’s important.” Patti Love looked from Ed to Joe and back to Ed. “There was a shell necklace that Chase wore all the time. Had for years. I know he was wearin’ it the night he went to the tower. Sam and I had him over for dinner, remember I told you that—Pearl couldn’t come; it was her bridge night—and he had on the necklace right before he went out to the tower. And then after he . . . well, when we saw him at the clinic, he didn’t have the necklace on. I assumed the coroner had taken it off him, so I didn’t mention it then, and with the funeral and all, I had forgotten about it. Then, the other day I drove over to Sea Oaks and asked the coroner if I could see Chase’s things, his personal effects. You know, they had kept them for the lab work, but I wanted to hold them, just to feel what he wore that last night. So they let me sit at a table and go through them, and, Sheriff, that shell necklace wasn’t there. I asked the coroner if he had taken it off, and he said no, he had not. He said he never saw any necklace at all.” “That’s very curious,” Ed said. “What was it strung with? Maybe it came off when he fell.” “It was a single shell hung on a piece of rawhide that was just long enough to go over his head. It wasn’t loose and was tied in a knot. I just don’t see how it could’ve flung off.” “I agree. Rawhide’s tough and makes a mean knot,” Ed said. “Why did he wear it all the time? Did somebody special make it for him? Give it to him?” Patti Love sat silent, looking off to the side of the sheriff’s desk. She dreaded saying more because she’d never admitted that her son had been involved with marsh trash. Of course, there had been village rumors that Chase and the Marsh Girl had been involved for more than a year before his marriage. And Patti Love suspected even after, but when friends had asked about the stories, she’d always denied them. But now it was different. Now she had to speak out because she just knew that wench had something to do with his death. “Yes, I know who made the necklace for Chase. It was that woman who boats around in that old rattletrap boat; has for years. She made it and gave it to him when they were seeing each other for a while.” “You talking about the Marsh Girl?” the sheriff asked. Joe spoke up. “You seen her lately? She’s not a girl anymore, probably mid-twenties and a real looker.” “The Clark woman? Just trying to be clear,” Ed asked. Brows bunched. Patti Love said, “I don’t know her name. Or even if she has one. People do call her the Marsh Girl. You know, she sold mussels to Jumpin’ for years.” “Right. We’re talking about the same person. Go ahead.” “Well, I was shocked when the coroner said Chase didn’t have on the necklace. And then it occurred to me that she’s the only one who’d have any interest in taking it. Chase had broken off their relationship and married Pearl. She couldn’t have him, so maybe she killed him and took the necklace from his neck.” Patti Love trembled slightly, then caught her breath. “I see. Well, this is very important, Patti Love, and worth pursuing. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Ed said. “You’re sure she gave it to him?” “Yes, I’m sure. I know because Chase didn’t want to tell me, but he finally did.” “Do you know anything else about the necklace or their relationship?” “Not much at all. I don’t even know for sure how long they saw each other. Probably nobody does. He was very sneaky about it. Like I said, he didn’t tell me for months. Then after he told me, I never knew whether he was going out in his boat with his other friends or with her.” “Well, we’ll look into it. I promise you that.” “Thank you. I’m sure this is a clue.” She rose to leave, and Ed opened the door for her. “Come back anytime you want to talk, Patti Love.” “Bye, Ed, Joe.” • • • AFTER CLOSING THE DOOR, Ed sat again, and Joe asked, “Well, what d’ya think?” “If somebody took the necklace off Chase at the tower, that would at least put them at the scene, and I can see somebody from the marsh being involved in this thing. They got their own laws. But I just don’t know if a woman could’ve pushed a big guy like Chase through that hole.” “She coulda lured him up there, opened the grate before he got there, then when he came toward her in the dark, she coulda pushed him in before he even saw her,” Joe said. “Seems possible. Not easy, but possible. It’s not much of a lead. The absence of a shell necklace,” the sheriff said. “At this point it’s our only lead. ’Cept for the absence of prints and some mysterious red fibers.” “Right.” “But what I can’t figure,” Joe said, “is why she’d bother to take the necklace off him? Okay, as the woman wronged, she was hell-bent on killin’ him. Even that’s a stretch for motive, but why take the necklace when it could connect her smack-dab to the crime?” “You know how it is. Seems like there’s something in every murder case that doesn’t make sense. People mess up. Maybe she was shocked and furious that he still wore the necklace, and after committing murder, it didn’t seem like a big deal to snatch it off his neck. She wouldn’t have known anybody could link the necklace to her. Your sources said Chase had something going on out there. Maybe, like you said earlier, it wasn’t drugs at all, but a woman. This woman.” Joe said, “’Nother kind of drug.” “And marsh folks know how to cover prints because they snare, track, trap, and such. Well, it won’t hurt to go out there and have a talk with her. Ask her where she was that night. We can question her about the necklace and see if it shakes her up a bit.” Joe asked, “You know how ta get ta her place?” “Not sure by boat, but I think I can find it in the truck. Down that real windy road that goes way past a long chain of lagoons. A while back, I had to make house calls to see her father a few times. Nasty piece of work, that one.” “When we going?” “Crack of day, see if we can get there before she takes off. Tomorrow. But first, we better go out to the tower and search really good for that necklace. Maybe it’s been there all along.” “I don’t see how. We’ve searched all over that place, looking for tracks, treads, clues.” “Still, we gotta do it. Let’s go.” Later, after combing through the muck under the tower with rakes and fingers, they declared no shell necklace present. • • • PALE LIGHT SEEPED UNDER a low, heavy dawn as Ed and Joe drove down the marsh track, hoping to get to the Marsh Girl’s place before she boated off somewhere. They took several wrong turns and ended up at dead ends or at some ramshackle dwelling. At one shack somebody yelled, “Sheriff!” and mostly naked bodies took off in all directions, charging through brambles. “Damn potheads,” the sheriff said. “At least the moonshiners kept their clothes on.” But finally they came to the long lane that led to Kya’s shack. “This is it,” Ed said. He turned his outsized pickup onto the track and cruised quietly toward the dwelling, easing to a stop fifty feet from the door. Both men got out without a sound. Ed knocked on the wooden frame of the screen door. “Hello! Anybody home?” Silence followed, so he tried again. They waited two to three minutes. “Let’s have a look ’round back, see if her boat’s there.” “Nope. Looks like that log’s where she ties up. She’s a’ready gone. Dag-nabit,” Joe said. “Yep, heard us coming. She can probably hear a rabbit sleeping.” The next time they went before dawn, parked way down the road, and found her boat tied to its log. Still no one answered the door. Joe whispered, “I get this feelin’ she’s right here watchin’ us. Don’t you? She’s squattin’ right here in the damn palmettos. Purt’ near. I just know it.” His head swung, eyes scanning the brambles. “Well, this isn’t going to work. If we come up with anything else we can get a warrant. Let’s get outta here.” 26. The Boat Ashore 1965 T he first week they were together, Chase pulled into Kya’s lagoon almost every day after his work at the Western Auto, and they explored remote oak-lined channels. On Saturday morning, he took her on an expedition far up the coast to a place she’d never been because it was too far for her little boat. Here—instead of the estuaries and enormous sweeps of grass as in her marsh—clear water flowed as far as she could see through a bright and open cypress forest. Brilliant white herons and storks stood among water lilies and floating plants so green they seemed to glow. Hunched up on cypress knees as large as easy chairs, they ate pimento-cheese sandwiches and potato chips, grinning as geese glided just below their toes. Like most people, Chase knew the marsh as a thing to be used, to boat and fish, or drain for farming, so Kya’s knowledge of its critters, currents, and cattails intrigued him. But he scoffed at her soft touch, cruising at slow speeds, drifting silently past deer, whispering near birds’ nests. He had no interest in learning the shells or feathers himself and questioned her when she scribbled notes in her journal or collected specimens. “Why’re you painting grass?” he asked one day in her kitchen. “I’m painting their flowers.” He laughed. “Grass doesn’t have flowers.” “Of course they do. See these blossoms. They’re tiny, but beautiful. Each grass species has a different flower or inflorescence.” “What’re ya gonna do with all this stuff anyway?” “I’m keeping records so I can learn about the marsh.” “All ya need to know is when and where the fish bite, and I can tell ya that,” he said. She laughed for his sake, something she’d never done. Giving away another piece of herself just to have someone else. • • • THAT AFTERNOON, after Chase left, Kya motored into the marsh alone. But did not feel alone. She accelerated slightly faster than usual, her long hair trailing in the wind, a slight smile brushed on her lips. Just knowing she would see him again soon, be with someone, lifted her to a new place. Then, rounding a bend of tall grass, up ahead she saw Tate. He was quite far, maybe forty yards, and had not heard her boat. Instantly, she dropped throttle and killed the engine. Grabbed the oar and rowed backward into the grass. “Home from college, I guess,” she whispered. She’d seen him a few times over the years, but never this close. But now there he was, his untamed hair struggling with another red cap. Tanned face. Tate wore high-top waders and strode through a lagoon, scooping up water samples in tiny vials. Not old jelly jars as when they were barefoot kids but petite tubes clinking in a special carrying rack. Professorial. Out of her league. She didn’t row away, but watched him awhile, thinking that every girl probably remembers her first love. She let out a long breath, then rowed back the way she came. • • • THE NEXT DAY, as Chase and Kya cruised north along the coast, four porpoises moved into their wake and followed them. It was a gray-sky day, and fingers of fog flirted with the waves. Chase switched off the engine, and as the boat drifted, he took out his harmonica and played the old song “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” a yearning and melodic tune sung by slaves in the 1860s as they rowed boats to the mainland from the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Ma used to sing it while scrubbing, and Kya sort of remembered the words. As if inspired by the music, the porpoises swam closer and circled the boat, their keen eyes fixing on Kya’s. Then, two of them eased up against the hull, and she bowed her face only inches from theirs, and sang softly: “Sister, help to trim dat boat, hallelujah Brudder lend a helpin’ hand, hallelujah. Ma fadder gone to unknown land, hallelujah. Michael, row the boat ashore, hallelujah. “Jordan’s river is deep and wide, Meet my mother on the other side, hallelujah. Jordan’s river is chilly and cold Chills the body but not the soul, hallelujah.” The porpoises stared at Kya for a few more seconds and then slipped backward into the sea. Over the next few weeks, Chase and Kya spent evenings lazing with the gulls on her beach, lying back on sand still warm from the sun. Chase didn’t take her into town, to the picture show or sock hops; it was the two of them, the marsh, the sea, and the sky. He didn’t kiss her, only held her hand or put his arm lightly around her shoulders in the coolness. Then one night he stayed late into the dark, and they sat on the beach under the stars by a small fire, shoulders touching, a blanket around them. The flames threw light across their faces and dark across the shore behind them, as campfires do. Looking into her eyes, he asked, “Is it okay if I kiss you now?” She nodded, so he leaned down and kissed her softly at first, and then like a man. They lay back on the blanket, and she wiggled in as close to him as she could get. Feeling his strong body. He held her tight with both of his arms, but only touched her shoulders with his hands. Nothing more. She breathed deep, breathed in the warmth, the scents of him and the sea, the togetherness. • • • ONLY A FEW DAYS LATER, Tate, still home from graduate school, raced his boat toward Kya’s marsh channel, the first time he’d done so in five years. He still couldn’t explain to himself why he’d never gone back to her before now. Mostly he’d been a coward, ashamed. Finally, he was going to find her, tell her he’d never stopped loving her and beg her to forgive him. Those four years at university, he’d convinced himself that Kya could not fit in the academic world he sought. All through undergraduate, he’d tried to forget her; after all, there were plenty of female distractions at Chapel Hill. He even had a few long-term relationships, but no one compared. What he’d learned right after DNA, isotopes, and protozoans was that he couldn’t breathe without her. True, Kya couldn’t live in the university world he had sought, but now he could live in hers. He had it all figured out. His professor had said Tate could finish graduate school in the next three years because he’d been conducting his research for his PhD dissertation all through undergraduate and it was nearly complete. Then, recently Tate learned that a federal research lab was to be built near Sea Oaks, and that he would have an excellent chance of being hired as a full-time research scientist. No one on Earth was better qualified: he’d been studying the local marsh most of his life, and soon he would have the PhD to back it up. In just a few short years, he could live here in the marsh with Kya and work at the lab. Marry Kya. If she would have him. Now, as he bounced across waves toward her channel, suddenly Kya’s boat zoomed south, perpendicular to his course. Letting go of the tiller, he threw both arms above his head, waving frantically to get her attention. Shouted out her name. But she was looking east. Tate glanced in that direction and saw Chase’s ski boat veering toward her. Tate idled back, watching as Kya and Chase spun around each other in the blue-gray waves, in ever-smaller circles like eagles courting in the sky. Their wakes crazed and swirling. Tate stared as they met and touched fingers across the churning water. He’d heard the rumors from his old friends in Barkley Cove but hoped they weren’t true. He understood why Kya would fall for such a man, handsome, no doubt romantic, whizzing her around in his fancy boat, taking her on fancy picnics. She wouldn’t know anything of his life in town—dating and courting other young women in Barkley, even Sea Oaks. And, Tate thought, who am I to say anything? I didn’t treat her any better. I broke a promise, didn’t even have the guts to break up with her. He dipped his head, then stole another glance just in time to see Chase lean over to kiss her. Kya, Kya, he thought. How could I have left you? Slowly, he accelerated and turned back toward the town harbor to help his dad crate and carry the catch. • • • A FEW DAYS LATER, never knowing when Chase might come, Kya once again found herself listening for the sound of his boat. Just as she had for Tate. So whether pulling weeds, chopping stove wood, or collecting mussels, she’d tilt her head just so to catch the sound. “Squint yo’ ears,” Jodie used to say. Tired of being weighted down by hope, she threw three days’ worth of biscuits, cold backstrap, and sardines in her knapsack and walked out to the old falling-down log cabin; the “reading cabin,” as she thought of it. Out here, in the real remote, she was free to wander, collect at will, read the words, read the wild. Not waiting for the sounds of someone was a release. And a strength. In a scrub-oak thicket, just around the bend from the cabin, she found the tiny neck feather of a red-throated loon and laughed out loud. Had wanted this feather for as long as she could remember, and here it was a stone’s throw downstream. Mostly she came to read. After Tate left her those years ago, she no longer had access to books, so one morning she’d motored beyond Point Beach and another ten miles to Sea Oaks, a slightly larger and much swankier town than Barkley Cove. Jumpin’ had said anyone could borrow books from the library there. She’d doubted if that was true for someone who lived in a swamp, but she had been determined to find out. She’d tied up at the town wharf and crossed the tree-lined square overlooking the sea. As she walked toward the library, no one looked at her, whispered behind her back, or shooed her away from a window display. Here, she was not the Marsh Girl. She handed Mrs. Hines, the librarian, a list of college textbooks. “Could you please help me find The Principles of Organic Chemistry by Geissman, Invertebrate Zoology of the Coastal Marsh by Jones, and Fundamentals of Ecology by Odum . . .” She’d seen these titles referenced in the last of the books Tate had given before he left her for college. “Oh, my. I see. We’ll have to get a library loan from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for these books.” So now, sitting outside the old cabin, she picked up a scientific digest. One article on reproductive strategies was titled “Sneaky Fuckers.” Kya laughed. As is well known, the article began, in nature, usually the males with the most prominent secondary sexual characteristics, such as the biggest antlers, deepest voices, broadest chests, and superior knowledge secure the best territories because they have fended off weaker males. The females choose to mate with these imposing alphas and are thereby inseminated with the best DNA around, which is passed on to the female’s offspring—one of the most powerful phenomena in the adaptation and continuance of life. Plus, the females get the best territory for their young. However, some stunted males, not strong, adorned, or smart enough to hold good territories, possess bags of tricks to fool the females. They parade their smaller forms around in pumped-up postures or shout frequently—even if in shrill voices. By relying on pretense and false signals, they manage to grab a copulation here or there. Pint-sized male bullfrogs, the author wrote, hunker down in the grass and hide near an alpha male who is croaking with great gusto to call in mates. When several females are attracted to his strong vocals at the same time, and the alpha is busy copulating with one, the weaker male leaps in and mates one of the others. The imposter males were referred to as “sneaky fuckers.” Kya remembered, those many years ago, Ma warning her older sisters about young men who overrevved their rusted-out pickups or drove jalopies around with radios blaring. “Unworthy boys make a lot of noise,” Ma had said. She read a consolation for females. Nature is audacious enough to ensure that the males who send out dishonest signals or go from one female to the next almost always end up alone. Another article delved into the wild rivalries between sperm. Across most life-forms, males compete to inseminate females. Male lions occasionally fight to the death; rival bull elephants lock tusks and demolish the ground beneath their feet as they tear at each other’s flesh. Though very ritualized, the conflicts can still end in mutilations. To avoid such injuries, inseminators of some species compete in less violent, more creative methods. Insects, the most imaginative. The penis of the male damselfly is equipped with a small scoop, which removes sperm ejected by a previous opponent before he supplies his own. Kya dropped the journal on her lap, her mind drifting with the clouds. Some female insects eat their mates, overstressed mammal mothers abandon their young, many males design risky or shifty ways to outsperm their competitors. Nothing seemed too indecorous as long as the tick and the tock of life carried on. She knew this was not a dark side to Nature, just inventive ways to endure against all odds. Surely for humans there was more. • • • AFTER FINDING KYA GONE three days in a row, Chase started asking if he could come on a certain day, at a given time to see her at her shack or this or that beach, and always arrived on time. From far off she would see his brightly colored boat—like vivid feathers of a male bird’s breeding plumage—floating on the waves and know he’d come just for her. Kya started to picture him taking her on a picnic with his friends. All of them laughing, running into the waves, kicking the surf. Him lifting her, swirling around. Then sitting with the others sharing sandwiches and drinks from coolers. Bit by bit, pictures of marriage and children formed in spite of her resistance. Probably some biological urge to push me into reproducing, she told herself. But why couldn’t she have loved ones like everybody else? Why not? Yet every time she tried to ask when he would introduce her to his friends and parents, the words stuck to her tongue. Drifting offshore, on a hot day a few months after they met, he said it was perfect for a swim. “I won’t look,” he said. “Take off your clothes and jump in, then I will.” She stood in front of him, balancing in the boat, but as she pulled her T-shirt over her head, he didn’t turn away. He reached out and ran his fingers lightly across her firm breasts. She didn’t stop him. Pulling her closer, he unzipped her shorts and slipped them easily from her slender hips. Then he took off his shirt and shorts and pushed her down gently onto the towels. Kneeling at her feet, without saying a word, he ran his fingers like a whisper along her left ankle up to the inside of her knee, slowly along the inside of her thigh. She raised her body toward his hand. His fingers lingered at the top of her thigh, rubbed over her panties, then moved across her belly, light as a thought. She sensed his fingers moving up her stomach toward her breasts and twisted her body away from him. Firmly, he pushed her flat and slid his fingers to her breast, slowly outlining the nipple with one finger. He looked at her, unsmiling, as he moved his hand down and pulled at the top of her panties. She wanted him, all of him, and her body pushed against his. But seconds later, she put her hand on his. “C’mon, Kya,” he said. “Please. We’ve waited forever. I’ve been pretty patient, don’t ya think?” “Chase, you promised.” “Damn it, Kya. What’re we waiting for?” He sat up. “Surely, I showed ya I care for you. Why not?” Sitting up, she pulled down her T-shirt. “What happens next? How do I know you won’t leave me?” “How does anybody ever know? But, Kya, I’m not going anywhere. I’m falling in love with you. I want to be with you all the time. What else can I do to show you?” He had never mentioned love. Kya searched his eyes for truth but found only a hard stare. Unreadable. She didn’t know exactly how she felt about Chase, but she was no longer lonely. That seemed enough. “Soon, okay?” He pulled her close to him. “It’s okay. C’mere.” He held her and they lay under the sun, drifting on the sea, the slosh, slosh, slosh of the waves beneath them. Day drained away and night settled heavily, the village lights dancing here and there on the distant shore. Stars twinkling above their world of sea and sky. Chase said, “I wonder what makes stars twinkle.” “Disturbance in the atmosphere. You know, like high atmospheric winds.” “That so?” “I’m sure you know that most stars are too far away for us to see. We see only their light, which can be distorted by the atmosphere. But, of course, the stars are not stationary, but moving very fast.” Kya knew from reading Albert Einstein’s books that time is no more fixed than the stars. Time speeds and bends around planets and suns, is different in the mountains than in the valleys, and is part of the same fabric as space, which curves and swells as does the sea. Objects, whether planets or apples, fall or orbit, not because of a gravitational energy, but because they plummet into the silky folds of spacetime—like into the ripples on a pond—created by those of higher mass. But Kya said none of this. Unfortunately, gravity holds no sway on human thought, and the high school text still taught that apples fall to the ground because of a powerful force from the Earth. “Oh, guess what,” Chase said. “They’ve asked me to help coach the high school football team.” She smiled at him. Then thought, Like everything else in the universe, we tumble toward those of higher mass. • • • THE NEXT MORNING, on a rare trip to the Piggly Wiggly to buy personal items Jumpin’ didn’t carry, Kya stepped out of the grocery and nearly bumped right into Chase’s parents—Sam and Patti Love. They knew who she was—everyone did. She’d seen them in town occasionally through the years, mostly from a distance. Sam could be seen behind the counter in the Western Auto, dealing with customers, opening the cash register. Kya remembered how when she was a girl, he shooed her away from the window as though she might frighten away real customers. Patti Love didn’t work full time at the store, allowing time for her to hurry along the street, handing out pamphlets for the Annual Quilting Contest or the Blue-Crab Queen Festival. Always dressed in a fine outfit with high-heel pumps, pocketbook, and hat, in matching colors demanded by the southern season. No matter the subject, she managed to mention Chase as being the best quarterback the town had ever seen. Kya smiled shyly, looking right into Patti Love’s eyes, hoping they would speak to her in some personal way and introduce themselves. Maybe acknowledge her as Chase’s girl. But they halted abruptly, said nothing, and sidestepped around her—making a wider berth than necessary. Moved on. The evening after bumping into them, Kya and Chase drifted in her boat under an oak so huge its knees jutted over the water, creating little grottoes for otters and ducks. Keeping her voice low, partly so she wouldn’t disturb the mallards and partly in fear, Kya told Chase about seeing his parents and asked if she would meet them soon. Chase sat silent, making her stomach lump up. Finally he said, “’Course you will. Soon, I promise.” But he didn’t look at her when he said it. “They know about me, right? About us?” she asked. “A’ course.” The boat must have drifted too close to the oak, because right then a great horned owl, plump and cushy as a down pillow, dropped from the tree on reaching wings, then stroked slow and easy across the lagoon, his breast feathers reflecting soft patterns on the water. Chase reached out and took Kya’s hand, wringing the doubt from her fingers. For weeks, sunsets and moonrises followed Chase and Kya’s easy movements through the marsh. But each time she resisted his advances, he stopped. Images of does or turkey hens alone with their demanding young, the males long gone to other females, weighed solid in her mind. Lying around near naked in the boat was as far as it went, no matter what the townspeople said. Although Chase and Kya kept to themselves, the town was small and people saw them together in his boat or on the beaches. The shrimpers didn’t miss much on the seas. There was talk. Tittle-tattle. 27. Out Hog Mountain Road 1966 T he shack stood silent against the early stir of blackbird wings, as an earnest winter fog formed along the ground, bunching up against the walls like large wisps of cotton. Using several weeks of mussel money, Kya had bought special groceries and fried slices of molasses ham, stirred redeye gravy, and served them with sour-cream biscuits and blackberry jam. Chase drank instant Maxwell House; she, hot Tetley tea. They’d been together nearly a year, though neither spoke of that. Chase said how lucky he was that his father owned the Western Auto: “This way we’ll have a nice house when we get married. I’m gonna build you a two-story on the beach with a wraparound veranda. Or whatever kinda house you want, Kya.” Kya could barely breathe. He wanted her in his life. Not just a hint, but something like a proposal. She would belong to someone. Be part of a family. She sat straighter in her chair. He continued. “I don’t think we should live right in town. That’d be too much of a jump for you. But we could build a place on tha outskirts. Ya know, close to the marsh.” Lately, a few vague thoughts of marriage to Chase had formed in her mind, but she had not dared dwell on them. But here he was saying it out loud. Kya’s breath was shallow, her mind disbelieving and sorting details all at the same time. I can do this, she thought. If we live away from people it could work. Then, head low, she asked, “What about your parents? Have you told them?” “Kya, ya gotta understand something ’bout my folks. They love me. If I say you’re my choice, that’ll be that. They’ll just fall in love with ya when they get to know ya.” She chewed on her lips. Wanting to believe. “I’ll build a studio for all yo’ stuff,” he continued. “With big windows so ya can see the details of all those dad-burned feathers.” She didn’t know if she felt about Chase the way a wife should, but in this moment her heart soared with something like love. No more digging mussels. She reached out and touched the shell necklace under his throat. “Oh, by the way,” Chase said. “I have to drive over to Asheville in a few days to buy goods for the store. I was thinkin’, why don’t ya come with me?” Eyes downcast, she’d said, “But that’s a large town. There’d be lots of people. And I don’t have the right clothes, or don’t even know what the right clothes are, and . . .” “Kya, Kya. Listen. You’d be with me. I know everything. We don’t have to go anywhere fancy. You’d see a lot of North Carolina just driving over—the Piedmont, the Great Smoky Mountains, forchristsake. Then when we got there, we could just go to a drive-in for burgers. You can wear what you have on. You don’t have to talk to one soul if you don’t want to. I’ll take care of everything. I’ve been lots of times. Even to Atlanta. Asheville’s nothing. Look, if we’re gonna get married, ya might as well start gettin’ out in tha world a bit. Spread those long wings of yours.” She nodded. If nothing else, to see the mountains. He continued. “It’s a two-day job, so we’ll have to stay overnight. In a casual place. You know, a small motel. It’s okay, because we’re adults.” “Oh,” was all she said. Then whispered, “I see.” • • • KYA HAD NEVER driven up the road a piece, so, a few days later, as she and Chase rode west out of Barkley in his pickup, she stared out the window, holding on to the seat with both hands. The road wound through miles of saw grass and palmettos, leaving the sea in the rear window. For more than an hour, the familiar reaches of grass and waterways slipped by the truck’s window. Kya identified marsh wrens and egrets, comforted by the sameness, like she hadn’t left home but brought it with her. Then abruptly, at a line drawn across the earth, the marsh meadows ended, and dusty ground—hacked raw, fenced into squares, and furrowed into rows—spread before them. Fields of paraplegic snags stood in felled forests. Poles, strung with wires, trudged toward the horizon. Of course, she knew coastal marsh didn’t cover the globe, but she’d never been beyond it. What had people done to the land? Every house, the same shoebox shape, squatted on sheared lawn. A flock of pink flamingos fed across a yard, but when Kya whirled in surprise, she saw they were plastic. The deer, cement. The only ducks flew painted on mailboxes. “They’re incredible, huh?” Chase said. “What?” “The houses. You’ve never seen anything like ’em, huh?” “No, I haven’t.” Hours later, out on the flatlands of the Piedmont, she saw the Appalachians sketched in gentle blue lines along the horizon. As they neared, peaks rose around them and forested mountains flowed softly into the distance as far as Kya could see. Clouds lazed in the folded arms of the hills, then billowed up and drifted away. Some tendrils twisted into tight spirals and traced the warmer ravines, behaving like mist tracking the dank fens of the marsh. The same game of physics playing on a different field of biology. Kya was of the low country, a land of horizons, where the sun set and the moon rose on time. But here, where the topography was a jumble, the sun balanced along the summits, setting behind a ridge one moment and then popping up again when Chase’s truck ascended the next rise. In the mountains, she noticed, the time of sunset depended on where you stood on the hill. She wondered where her grandpa’s land was. Maybe her kin had kept pigs in a weather-grayed barn like the one she saw in a meadow, creek running by. A family that should have been hers once toiled, laughed, and cried in this landscape. Some would still be here, scattered through the county. Anonymous. The road became a four-lane highway, and Kya held on tight as Chase’s truck sped within feet of other fast-moving vehicles. He turned onto a curving roadway that rose magically into the air and led them toward the town. “A cloverleaf exit,” he said proudly. Enormous buildings, eight and ten stories high, stood against the outline of the mountains. Scores of cars scuttled like sand crabs, and there were so many people on the sidewalks, Kya pushed her face to the window, searching their faces, thinking surely Ma and Pa must be among them. One boy, tanned and dark-haired, running down the sidewalk, looked like Jodie, and she spun around to watch him. Her brother would be grown now, of course, but she tracked the boy until they turned a corner. On the other side of town, Chase booked them into a motel out Hog Mountain Road, a single-story row of brown rooms, lit up by neon lights the shape of palm trees, of all things. After Chase unlocked their door, she stepped into a room that seemed clean enough but reeked of Pine-Sol and was furnished in America cheap: fake-panel walls, sagging bed with a nickel vibrator machine, and a black-and-white TV secured to the table with an impossibly large chain and padlock. The bedspreads were lime green, the carpet orange shag. Kya’s mind went back to all the places they had lain together—in crystal sand by tidal pools, in moonlit drifting boats. Here, the bed loomed as the centerpiece, but the room didn’t look like love. She stood knowingly near the door. “It’s not great,” he said, putting his duffel bag on the chair. He walked toward her. “It’s time, don’t you agree, Kya? It’s time.” Of course, it had been his plan. But she was ready. Her body had been longing for months and, after the talk of marriage, her mind gave in. She nodded. He came toward her slowly and unbuttoned her blouse, then turned her gently around and unfastened her bra. Traced his fingers across her breasts. An excited heat flowed from her breasts to her thighs. As he pulled her down onto the bed in the glow of the red and green neon lights filtering through thin curtains, she closed her eyes. Before, during all those almost-times, when she had stopped him, his wandering fingers had taken on a magical touch, bringing parts of her to life, causing her body to arch toward him, to long and want. But now, with permission finally granted, an urgency gripped him and he seemed to bypass her needs and push his way. She cried out against a sharp tearing, thinking something was wrong. “It’s okay. It’ll be better now,” he said with great authority. But it didn’t get much better, and soon he fell to her side, grinning. As he passed into sleep, she watched the blinking lights of the Vacancy sign. • • • SEVERAL WEEKS LATER, after finishing a breakfast of fried eggs and ham-grits at Kya’s shack, she and Chase sat at her kitchen table. She was wrapped snugly in a blanket after lovemaking, which had improved only slightly since their first attempt at the motel. Each time left her wanting, but she didn’t have the faintest notion how to broach such a subject. And anyway, she didn’t know how she was supposed to feel. Maybe this was normal. Chase stood from the table and, lifting her chin with his fingers, kissed her, saying, “Well, I won’t be out much in the next few days with Christmas comin’ up and all. There’s lots of events and stuff, and some relatives comin’ in.” Kya looked up at him and said, “I was hoping maybe I could . . . you know, go to some of the parties and things. At least maybe Christmas dinner with your family.” Chase sat back down in his chair. “Kya, look, I’ve been wantin’ to talk ta ya ’bout this. I wanta ask ya to the Elks Club dance and stuff like that, but I know how shy you are, how ya don’t ever do stuff in town. I know you’d be miserable. You wouldn’t know anybody, ya don’t have the right clothes. Do ya even know how to dance? None a’ those things are what you do. You understand that, right?” Looking at the floor, she said, “Yes, and all that’s true. But, well, I have to start fitting in with some of your life. Spread my wings, like you said. I guess I have to get the right clothes, meet some of your friends.” She raised her head. “You could teach me to dance.” “Well sure, an’ I will. But I think of you and me as what we have out here. I love our time here together, just you and me. To tell you the truth, I’m gittin’ kinda tired a’ those stupid dances. Been the same fer years. High school gym. Old folks, young folks all together. Same dumb music. I’m ready to move on. You know, when we’re married, we won’t do stuff like that anyway, so why drag ya into it now? Don’t make any sense. Okay?” She looked back at the floor, so he lifted her chin again and held her eyes with his own. Then, grinning big, he said, “And, man, as far as having Christmas dinner wif ma family. Ma ancient aunts come in from Florida. Never stop talkin’. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. ’Specially you. Believe me, you ain’t missin’ a thing.” She was silent. “Really, Kya, I wantcha to be okay with this. What we have out here is the most special thing anybody could hope for. All that other stuff”—he swiped his hands through the air—“is just stupid.” He reached over and pulled her into his lap, and she rested her head on his shoulder. “This is where it’s at, Kya. Not that other stuff.” And he kissed her, warm and tender. Then stood. “Okay. Gotta go.” Kya spent Christmas alone with the gulls, as she had every year since Ma left. • • • TWO DAYS AFTER CHRISTMAS, Chase still hadn’t come. Breaking her self-promise to never wait for anyone again, Kya paced the shore of the lagoon, her hair woven into a French braid, mouth painted with Ma’s old lipstick. The marsh beyond lay in its winter cloak of browns and grays. Miles of spent grasses, having dispersed their seeds, bowed their heads to the water in surrender. The wind whipped and tore, rattling the coarse stems in a noisy chorus. Kya yanked her hair down and wiped her lips with the back of her hand. The morning of the fourth day, she sat alone in the kitchen pushing biscuits and eggs around her plate. “For all his talk of ‘this being where it’s at,’ where is he now?” she spat. In her mind, she saw Chase playing touch football with friends or dancing at parties. “Those stupid things he’s getting tired of.” Finally the sound of his boat. She sprang from the table, banged the door shut, and ran from the shack to the lagoon, as the boat chugged into view. But it wasn’t Chase’s ski boat or Chase, but a young man with yellow-gold hair, cut shorter but still barely contained under a ski cap. It was the old fishing rig, and there, standing, even as the boat moved forward, was Tate, grown into a man. Face no longer boyish, but handsome, mature. His eyes formed a question, his lips a shy smile. Her first thought was to run. But her mind screamed, NO! This is my lagoon; I always run. Not this time. Her next thought was to pick up a rock, and she hurled it at his face from twenty feet. He ducked quickly, the stone whizzing by his forehead. “Shit, Kya! What the hell? Wait,” he said as she picked up another rock and took aim. He put his hands over his face. “Kya, for God’s sake, stop. Please. Can’t we talk?” The rock hit him hard on the shoulder. “GET OUT OF MY LAGOON! YOU LOW-DOWN DIRTY CREEP! HOW’S THAT FOR TALK!” The screaming fishwife looked frantically for another rock. “Kya, listen to me. I know you’re with Chase now. I respect that. I just want to talk with you. Please, Kya.” “Why should I talk with you? I never want to see you again EVER!” She picked up a handful of smaller stones and slung them at his face. He jerked to the side, bent forward, and grabbed the gunwale as his boat ran aground. “I SAID, GET OUT OF HERE!” Still yelling but softer, she said, “Yes, I am with someone else now.” Tate steadied himself after the jolt of hitting the shore, and then sat on the bow seat of his boat. “Kya, please, there’re things you should know about him.” Tate had not planned on having a conversation about Chase. None of this surprise visit to see Kya was going as he’d imagined. “What are you talking about? You have no right to talk to me about my private life.” She had walked up to within five feet of him and spat her words. Firmly he said, “I know I don’t, but I’m doing it anyway.” At this, Kya turned to leave, but Tate talked louder at her back. “You don’t live in town. You don’t know that Chase goes out with other women. Just the other night I watched him drive away after a party with a blonde in his pickup. He’s not good enough for you.” She whirled around. “Oh, really! YOU are the one who left me, who didn’t come back when you promised, who never came back. You are the one who never wrote to explain why or even if you were alive or dead. You didn’t have the nerve to break up with me. You were not man enough to face me. Just disappeared. CHICKEN SHIT ASSHOLE. You come floating in here after all these years . . . You’re worse than he is. He might not be perfect, but you’re worse by a long shot.” She stopped abruptly, staring at him. Palms open, he pleaded, “You’re right about me, Kya. Everything you said is true. I was a chicken shit. And I had no right to bring up Chase. It’s none of my business. And I’ll never bother you again. I just need to apologize and explain things. I’ve been sorry for years, Kya, please.” She hung like a sail where the wind just went out. Tate was more than her first love: he shared her devotion to the marsh, had taught her to read, and was the only connection, however small, to her vanished family. He was a page of time, a clipping pasted in a scrapbook because it was all she had. Her heart pounded as the fury dissipated. “Look at you—so beautiful. A woman. You doing okay? Still selling mussels?” He was astonished at how she had changed, her features more refined yet haunting, her cheekbones sharp, lips full. “Yes. Yes.” “Here, I brought you something.” From an envelope he handed her a tiny red cheek feather from a northern flicker. She thought of tossing it on the ground, but she’d never found this feather; why shouldn’t she keep it? She tucked it in her pocket and didn’t thank him. Talking fast, he said, “Kya, leaving you was not only wrong, it was the worst thing I have done or ever will do in my life. I have regretted it for years and will always regret it. I think of you every day. For the rest of my life, I’ll be sorry I left you. I truly thought that you wouldn’t be able to leave the marsh and live in the other world, so I didn’t see how we could stay together. But that was wrong, and it was bullshit that I didn’t come back and talk to you about it. I knew how many times you’d been left before. I didn’t want to know how badly I hurt you. I was not man enough. Just like you said.” He finished and watched her. Finally she said, “What do you want now, Tate?” “If only you could, some way, forgive me.” He breathed in and waited. Kya looked at her toes. Why should the injured, the still bleeding, bear the onus of forgiveness? She didn’t answer. “I just had to tell you, Kya.” When still she said nothing, he continued. “I’m in graduate school, zoology. Protozoology mostly. You would love it.” She couldn’t imagine it, and looked back over the lagoon to see if Chase was coming. Tate didn’t miss this; he’d guessed right off she was out here waiting for Chase. Just last week Tate had watched Chase, in his white dinner jacket, at the Christmas gala, dancing with different women. The dance, like most Barkley Cove events, had been held at the high school gymnasium. As “Wooly Bully” struggled from a too-small hi-fi set up under the basketball hoop, Chase whirled a brunette. When “Mr. Tambourine Man” began, he left the dance floor and the brunette, and shared pulls of Wild Turkey from his Tar Heels flask with other former jocks. Tate was close by chatting with two of his old high school teachers and heard Chase say, “Yeah, she’s wild as a she-fox in a snare. Just what you’d expect from a marsh minx. Worth every bit a’ the gas money.” Tate had to force himself to walk away. • • • A COLD WIND WHIPPED UP and rippled across the lagoon. Expecting Chase, Kya had run out in her jeans and light sweater. She folded her arms tightly around herself. “You’re freezing; let’s go inside.” Tate motioned toward the shack, where smoke puffed from the rusty stovepipe. “Tate, I think you should leave now.” She threw several quick glances at the channel. What if Chase arrived with Tate here? “Kya, please, just for a few minutes. I really want to see your collections again.” As answer, she turned and ran to the shack, and Tate followed her. Inside the porch, he stopped short. Her collections had grown from a child’s hobby to a natural history museum of the marsh. He lifted a scallop shell, labeled with a watercolor of the beach where it was found, plus insets showing the creature eating smaller creatures of the sea. For each specimen—hundreds, maybe thousands of them—it was the same. He had seen some of them before, as a boy, but now as a doctoral candidate in zoology, he saw them as a scientist. He turned to her, still standing in the doorway. “Kya, these are wonderful, beautifully detailed. You could publish these. This could be a book—lots of books.” “No, no. They’re just for me. They help me learn, is all.” “Kya, listen to me. You know better than anybody that the reference books for this area are almost nonexistent. With these notations, technical data, and splendid drawings, these are the books everyone’s been waiting for.” It was true. Ma’s old guidebooks to the shells, plants, birds, and mammals of the area were the only ones printed, and they were pitifully inaccurate, with only simple black-and-white pictures and sketchy information on each entry. “If I can take a few samples, I’ll find out about a publisher, see what they say.” She stared, not knowing how to see this. Would she have to go somewhere, meet people? Tate didn’t miss the questions in her eyes. “You wouldn’t have to leave home. You could mail your samples to a publisher. It would bring some money in. Probably not a huge amount, but maybe you wouldn’t have to dig mussels the rest of your life.” Still, Kya didn’t say anything. Once again Tate was nudging her to care for herself, not just offering to care for her. It seemed that all her life, he had been there. Then gone. “Give it a try, Kya. What can it hurt?” She finally agreed that he could take some samples, and he chose a selection of soft watercolors of shells and the great blue heron because of her detailed sketches of the bird in each season, and a delicate oil of the curved eyebrow feather. Tate lifted the painting of the feather—a profusion of hundreds of the thinnest brushstrokes of rich colors culminating into a deep black so reflective it seemed sunlight was touching the canvas. The detail of a slight tear in the shaft was so distinctive that both Tate and Kya realized at the same second that this was a painting of the very first feather he’d gifted her in the forest. They looked up from the feather into each other’s eyes. She turned away from him. Forcing herself not to feel. She would not be drawn back to someone she couldn’t trust. He stepped up to her and touched her shoulder. Tried gently to turn her around. “Kya, I’m so sorry about leaving you. Please, can’t you forgive me?” Finally, she turned and looked at him. “I don’t know how to, Tate. I could never believe you again. Please, Tate, you have to go now.” “I know. Thank you for listening to me, for giving me this chance to apologize.” He waited for a beat, but she said no more. At least he was leaving with something. The hope for a publisher was a reason to contact her again. “Good-bye, Kya.” She didn’t answer. He stared at her, and she looked into his eyes but then turned away. He walked out the door toward his boat. She waited until he was gone, then sat on the damp, cold sand of the lagoon waiting for Chase. Speaking out loud, she repeated the words she’d said to Tate. “Chase may not be perfect, but you’re worse.” But as she stared deep into the dark waters, Tate’s words about Chase—“drive away after a party with a blonde in his pickup”—wouldn’t leave her mind. • • • CHASE DIDN’T COME until a week after Christmas. Pulling into the lagoon, he said he could stay all night, ring in the New Year together. Arm in arm, they walked to the shack, where the same fog, it seemed, draped across the roof. After lovemaking, they cuddled in blankets around the stove. The dense air couldn’t hold another molecule of moisture, so when the kettle boiled, heavy droplets swelled on the cool windowpanes. Chase slipped the harmonica from his pocket and, pressing it along his lips, played the wistful tune “Molly Malone.” “Now her ghost wheels her barrow through the streets broad and narrow, singing cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o.” It seemed to Kya that when Chase played these melancholy tunes was when he most had a soul. 28. The Shrimper 1969 A t beer time the Dog-Gone served up better gossip than the diner. The sheriff and Joe stepped inside the elongated, jam-packed beer hall and up to the bar, made from a single longleaf pine, which extended down the left side of the room, seemingly out of sight into the dim. Locals—all men, since women weren’t allowed—bunched up to the bar or sat at scattered tables. The two barkeeps roasted hot dogs; fried shrimp, oysters, and hush puppies; stirred grits; poured beers and bourbon. The only light emitted from various flashing beer signs, giving off an amber glow, like campfires licking whiskered faces. The clonks and clinks of billiard balls sounded from the back quarter. Ed and Joe eased into a midbar cluster of fishermen, and as soon as they ordered Millers and fried oysters, the questions began: Anything new? How come there’s no fingerprints; that part true? Ya guys thoughta ol’ man Hanson? He’s crazy as a loon, be just like sump’m he’d do, climb the tower, push off whoever comes along. This ’un got ya bumfuzzled, ain’t it? Joe facing one way, Ed the other, they rode the buzz. Answering, listening, nodding. Then through the hubbub, the sheriff’s ear caught the corner of an even voice, a balanced tone, and turned to face Hal Miller, shrimper crew for Tim O’Neal. “Can I talk with ya a minute, Sheriff? Alone?” Ed backed away from the bar. “Sure can, Hal, come with me.” He led him to a small table next to the wall, and they sat. “Need a refill on that beer?” “No, fine fer now. Thank ya, though.” “Something on your mind, Hal?” “Yeah, sure is. Gotta git her out, too. Been drivin’ me a bit ditty.” “Let’s have it.” “Oh man.” Hal shook his head. “I don’t know. May be nothing, either that, or I shoulda told ya sooner. I been haunted by what I seen.” “Just tell me, Hal. Together, we’ll sort out if it’s important or not.” “Well, it’s about the Chase Andrews thing. It was the very night he died, well, I was crewing for Tim, and we were comin’ into the bay late, way past midnight, and me and Allen Hunt seen that woman, the one people call the Marsh Girl, motoring just outta the bay.” “Is that so? How long after midnight?” “Must’a been ’bout one forty-five in the mornin’.” “Where was she motoring?” “Well, that’s the thing, Sheriff. She was headed right toward the fire tower. If she stayed her course, she woulda landed at that little bay out from the tower.” Ed breathed out. “Yeah, Hal. That’s important info. Very important. Can you be sure it was her?” “Well, Allen and I talked about it at the time and were pretty sure it was her. I mean, we both thought the same thing. Wondered what the hell she was doin’ out that late, cruisin’ along with no lights on. Lucky we seen her, might’ve run her over. Then we just forgot about it. It was only later I put two and two together and realized it was the same night Chase died at the tower. Well, then I reckoned I better speak up.” “Did anybody else on the boat see her?” “Well, I don’t know ’bout that. Others were about, fer sure, we were headin’ in. All hands up. But I never talked to the others ’bout it. Ya know, just no reason to at the time. And haven’t asked ’em since.” “I understand. Hal, you did the right thing to tell me. It’s your duty to speak up like this. Don’t worry about anything. All you can do is tell me what you saw. I’ll ask you and Allen in to make a statement. Can I buy you that beer now?” “No, I think I’ll just go on home. G’night.” “Good night. Thanks again.” As soon as Hal stood, Ed waved for Joe, who had been glancing over every few seconds to read the sheriff’s face. They gave Hal a minute to clear the room with good-byes, then stepped onto the street. Ed told Joe what Hal had witnessed. “Man,” Joe said, “that just about does it. Don’t you think?” “I think the judge may issue a warrant on this. Not sure, and I’d like to be sure before I ask. With a warrant we can search her place for any trace of red fibers that match those found on Chase’s clothes. We gotta find out her story for that night.” 29. Seaweed 1967 T hrough the winter, Chase came to Kya’s shack often, usually spending one night each weekend. Even on cold, damp days, they glided through misty thickets, her collecting, him playing whimsical tunes on his harmonica. The notes floated with the fog, dissipating into the darker reaches of the lowland forests, and seemed somehow to be absorbed and memorized by the marsh because whenever Kya passed those channels again, she heard his music. One morning in early March, Kya eased alone through the sea toward the village, the sky in a frumpy sweater of gray clouds. Chase’s birthday was in two days, and she was headed to the Piggly to buy ingredients for a special supper—featuring her first caramel cake. Had pictured setting the candlelit cake in front of him at the table—an event that hadn’t happened in the kitchen since Ma left. Several times recently he’d said he was saving money for their house. She reckoned she’d better learn to bake. After securing her boat, as she walked along the dock toward the single file of shops, she saw Chase standing at the end talking with friends. His arms draped the shoulders of a slim, blond girl. Kya’s mind strained to make sense of this, even as her legs kept moving on their own. She’d never approached him when he was with others or in town, but short of jumping into the sea, there was no way to avoid them. Chase and his friends turned at once to look at her, and in the same instant, he dropped his arm from the girl. Kya was dressed in white cutoff denims, setting off her long legs. A black braid fell over each breast. The group stopped talking and stared. Knowing she couldn’t run up to him burned her heart with the wrongness of things. As she reached the end of the wharf, where they stood, he said, “Oh, Kya, hi.” Looking from him to them, she said, “Hi, Chase.” She heard him saying, “Kya, you remember Brian, and Tim, Pearl, Tina.” He rattled off a few more names until his voice faded. Turning toward Kya, he said, “And this is Kya Clark.” Of course, she didn’t remember them; she’d never been introduced to them. Only knew them as Tallskinnyblonde and the rest. She felt like seaweed dragged on a line but managed to smile and say hello. This was the opportunity for which she’d waited. Here she was standing among the friends she wanted to join. Her mind fought for words, something clever to say that might interest them. Finally, two of them greeted her coolly and turned abruptly away, the others following quickly like a school of minnows finning down the street. “Well, so here we are,” Chase said. “I don’t want to interrupt anything. I’ve just come for supplies, then back home.” “You’re not interrupting. I just ran into them. I’ll be out on Sunday, like I said.” Chase shifted his feet, fingered the shell necklace. “I’ll see you then,” she said, but he’d already turned to catch the others. She hurried toward the market, stepping around a family of mallard ducks waddling down Main Street, their bright feet surprisingly orange against the dull pavement. In the Piggly Wiggly, pushing the vision of Chase and the girl from her head, she rounded the end of the bread aisle and saw the truant lady, Mrs. Culpepper, only four feet away. They stood there like a rabbit and a coyote caught together in a yard fence. Kya was now taller than the woman and much more educated, though neither would have thought of that. After all the running, she wanted to bolt, but stood her ground and returned Mrs. Culpepper’s stare. The woman nodded slightly, then moved on. Kya found the picnic items—cheese, French bread, and cake ingredients—costing all the money she’d managed to save for the occasion. But it seemed someone else’s hand lifted the items and put them into the cart. All she could see was Chase’s arm resting on the girl’s shoulder. She bought a local newspaper because the headlines mentioned a marine laboratory that was to open up the coast nearby. Once out of the store, head down, she scurried like a robber-ferret to the pier. Back at the shack, she sat down at the kitchen table to read the article about the new lab. Sure enough, a swanky scientific facility was being developed twenty miles south of Barkley Cove near Sea Oaks. Scientists would study the ecology of the marsh, which contributed to the survival of almost half of sea life in one way or another, and . . . Kya turned the page to continue the story, and there loomed a large picture of Chase and a girl above an engagement announcement: Andrews-Stone. Bunches of words jumped out, then sobs, and finally ragged heaves. She stood, looking at the paper from a distance. Picked it up again to see—surely she had imagined it. There they were, their faces close together, smiling. The girl, Pearl Stone, beautiful, rich-looking, with a pearl necklace and lace blouse. The one his arm had been around. Alwayswearspearls. Touching the wall, Kya made her way to the porch and fell on the bed, hands over her opened mouth. Then she heard a motor. Abruptly, she sat up, looked toward the lagoon, and saw Chase pulling his boat onto the shore. Quick as a mouse escaping a lidless box, she slipped out the porch door before he saw her and ran into the woods, away from the lagoon. Squatting behind palmettos, she watched as he went into the shack, calling her. He would see the article spread open on the table. In a few minutes, he came out again and walked toward the beach, figuring he would find her there. She didn’t budge, even when he came back, still shouting her name. Not until he motored away did she emerge from the brambles. Moving sluggishly, she got food for the gulls and followed the sun to the beach. A strong ocean breeze pushed up the path, so that when she emerged on the beach, at least she had the wind to lean on. She called the gulls and flung large bits of French bread into the air. Then swore louder and meaner than the wind. 30. The Rips 1967 F rom the beach, Kya ran to her rig and roared full throttle into the sea, headed straight for the rips. Holding her head back, she screamed, “You mean, SHIT . . . SUMBITCH!” Sloppy and confused waves jerked the bow sideways, pulling against the tiller. As always, the ocean seemed angrier than the marsh. Deeper, it had more to say. Long ago, Kya’d learned how to read ordinary currents and riptides; how to ride them out or break away by cutting perpendicular to their course. But she’d never headed straight into the deeper currents, some of them stirred by the Gulf Stream, which gushes four billion cubic feet of water every second, more power than all the land rivers on Earth combined—all streaming just beyond North Carolina’s outstretched arms. The surge produces cruel backcurrents, fisted eddies, and reverse circulations that swirl with coastal riptides, birthing one of the nastiest snake pits of the planet’s seas. Kya had avoided these areas all her life, but not now. Today she aimed straight for their throats, anything to outrun the pain, the anger. Roiling water pushed toward her, rising under the bow and yanking the boat starboard. It heaved heavily, then righted. She was pulled into a furious rip, which carried her a quarter faster. Turning out of it seemed too risky, so she fought to steer with the current, watching for sandbars, which formed ever-shifting barriers beneath the surface. One glancing touch could flip her. Waves broke over her back, drenching her hair. Fast-moving, dark clouds streamed just above her head, blocking the sunlight and obscuring the signs of eddies and turbulence. Sucking the day’s heat. Still, fear eluded her, even as she longed to feel terrified, anything to dislodge the blade jammed against her heart. Suddenly the dark tumbling waters of the current shifted, and the small rig spun starboard, rearing on its side. The force slammed her onto the bottom of the boat, seawater sloshing over her. Stunned, she sat in the water, bracing for another wave. Of course, she was nowhere near the actual Gulf Stream. This was the training camp, the mere playing fields for the serious sea. But to her, she had ventured into the mean and meant to ride it out. Win something. Kill the pain. Having lost all sense of symmetry and pattern, slate-colored waves broke from every angle. She dragged herself back into her seat and took the tiller but didn’t know where to steer. Land slung as a distant line, surfacing only now and then between whitecaps. Just when she glimpsed solid earth, the boat spun or tilted and she lost sight of it. She’d been so sure about riding the current, but it had grown muscular, hauling her farther into the furious, darkening sea. The clouds bunched and settled low, blocking the sun. Wet through, she shivered as her energy drained, making it difficult to steer. She’d brought no foul-weather gear, no food, no water. Finally the fear came. From a place deeper than the sea. Fear from knowing she would be alone again. Probably always. A life sentence. Ugly gasping noises passed from her throat as the boat skewed and rolled broadside. Tipping dangerously with each wave. By now six inches of foamy water covered the floor of the boat, burning her bare feet with its cold. How quickly the sea and clouds defeated the spring heat. Folding one arm over her chest, she tried to warm herself as she steered weakly with the other hand, not fighting the water, just moving with it. At last, the waters calmed, and although the current swept her along to its own purpose, the ocean no longer thrashed and churned. Up ahead she saw a small, elongated sandbar, maybe a hundred feet long, glistening with sea and wet shells. Fighting the strong underflow, and just at the right second, Kya jerked the tiller and turned out of the current. She steered around to the leeward side of the bar and, in the stiller waters, beached as gently as a first kiss. She stepped onto the narrow slip and sank to the sand. Lay back and felt the solid land against her. She knew it wasn’t Chase she mourned, but a life defined by rejections. As the sky and clouds struggled overhead, she said out loud, “I have to do life alone. But I knew this. I’ve known a long time that people don’t stay.” It hadn’t been a coincidence that Chase slyly mentioned marriage as bait, immediately bedded her, then dropped her for someone else. She knew from her studies that males go from one female to the next, so why had she fallen for this man? His fancy ski boat was the same as the pumped-up neck and outsized antlers of a buck deer in rut: appendages to ward off other males and attract one female after another. Yet she had fallen for the same ruse as Ma: leapfrogging sneaky fuckers. What lies had Pa told her; to what expensive restaurants had he taken her before his money gave out and he brought her home to his real territory—a swamp shack? Perhaps love is best left as a fallow field. Speaking out loud, she recited an Amanda Hamilton poem: “I must let go now. Let you go. Love is too often The answer for staying. Too seldom the reason For going. I drop the line And watch you drift away. “All along You thought The fiery current Of your lover’s breast Pulled you to the deep. But it was my heart-tide Releasing you To float adrift With seaweed.” The weak sun found space between the heavy-bottomed clouds and touched the sandbar. Kya looked around. The current, the grand sweep of the sea, and this sand had conspired as a delicate catch-net, because all around her lay the most astonishing collection of shells she’d ever seen. The angle of the bar and its gentle flow gathered the shells on the leeward side and laid them gently upon the sand without breaking them. She spotted several rare ones and many of her favorites, intact and pearly. Still glistening. Moving among them, she chose the most precious and stashed them in a pile. She flipped the boat, drained the water, and lined the shells carefully along the bottom seam. Now she planned her trip back by standing tall and studying the waters. She read the sea and, having learned from the shells, would embark from the leeward side and head straight for land from here. Avoiding the strongest current altogether. As she pushed off, she knew no one would ever see this sandbar again. The elements had created a brief and shifting smile of sand, angled just so. The next tide, the next current would design another sandbar, and another, but never this one. Not the one who caught her. The one who told her a thing or two. • • • LATER, WANDERING HER BEACH, she recited her favorite Amanda Hamilton poem. “Fading moon, follow My footsteps Through light unbroken By land shadows, And share my senses That feel the cool Shoulders of silence. “Only you know How one side of a moment Is stretched by loneliness For miles To the other edge, And how much sky Is in one breath When time slides backward From the sand.” If anyone understood loneliness, the moon would. Drifting back to the predictable cycles of tadpoles and the ballet of fireflies, Kya burrowed deeper into the wordless wilderness. Nature seemed the only stone that would not slip midstream. 31. A Book 1968 T he rusted-out mailbox, mounted on a pole Pa cut, stood at the end of the road that had no name. Kya’s only mail was bulk postings sent to all residents. She had no bills to pay, no girlfriends or old aunts to send silly-sweet notes. Except for that one letter from Ma years ago, her mail was a neutral thing, and sometimes she wouldn’t empty the box for weeks. But in her twenty-second year, more than a year after Chase and Pearl announced their engagement, she walked the sandy lane, blistering with heat, to the mailbox every day and looked inside. Finally one morning, she found a bulky manila envelope and slid the contents—an advance copy of The Sea Shells of the Eastern Seaboard, by Catherine Danielle Clark—into her hands. She breathed in, no one to show it to. Sitting on her beach, she looked at every page. When Kya had written to the publisher after Tate’s initial contact and submitted more drawings, they sent her a contract by return mail. Because all her paintings and text for each shell sample had been completed for years, her editor, Mr. Robert Foster, wrote to her that the book would be published in record time and that her second on birds would follow soon after. He included an advance payment of five thousand dollars. Pa would have tripped over his gimpy leg and spilled his poke. Now in her hands, the final copy—every brushstroke, every carefully thought-out color, every word of the natural histories, printed in a book. There were also drawings of the creatures who live inside—how they eat, how they move, how they mate—because people forget about creatures who live in shells. She touched the pages and remembered each shell and the story of finding it, where it lay on the beach, the season, the sunrise. A family album. Over the coming months, up and down the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Florida, and New England, gift shops and bookstores put her book in their windows or on display tables. The royalty checks would come in every six months, they said, and might be several thousand dollars each. • • • SITTING AT THE KITCHEN TABLE, she drafted a letter of thanks to Tate, but as she read it over, her heart paused. A note did not seem enough. Because of his kindness, her love of the marsh could now be her life’s work. Her life. Every feather, shell, or insect she collected could be shared with others, and no longer would she have to dig through mud for her supper. Might not have to eat grits every day. Jumpin’ had told her Tate was working as an ecologist at the new institute and laboratory near Sea Oaks, which had assigned him a spiffed-up research boat. At times, she’d seen him in the distance, but steered clear. She added a postscript to the note: “If you’re near my place sometime, stop by. I’d like to give you a copy of the book,” and addressed it to him at the lab. The next week she hired a fix-it man, Jerry, who put in running water, a water heater, and a full bathroom with a claw-foot tub in the back bedroom. He set a sink in a cabinet topped with tiles and installed a flush toilet. Electricity was brought in, and Jerry put in a range and new refrigerator. Kya insisted on keeping the old woodstove, firewood piled next to it, because it heated the shack, but mostly because it had baked a thousand biscuits from her mother’s heart. What if Ma came back and her stove was gone? He made kitchen cabinets of heart pine, hung a new front door, a new screen on the porch, and made shelves for her specimens from floor to ceiling. She ordered a sofa, chairs, beds, mattresses, and rugs from Sears, Roebuck but kept the old kitchen table. And now she had a real closet to store a few mementos—a little scrap-closet of her fallen-away family. As before, the shack stood unpainted on the outside, the weathered pine boards and tin roof rich in gray and rust colors, brushed by Spanish moss from the overhanging oak. Less rickety, but still woven into the weft of the marsh. Kya continued sleeping on the porch, except in the coldest of winter. But now she had a bed. • • • ONE MORNING, Jumpin’ told Kya developers were coming to the area with big plans to drain the “murky swamp” and build hotels. Now and then, over the last year she’d seen large machines cutting entire stands of oaks in a week, then digging channels to dry the marsh. When finished, they moved on to new spots, leaving tracks of thirst and hardpan behind. Apparently, they had not read Aldo Leopold’s book. A poem by Amanda Hamilton said it clearly. Child to child Eye to eye We grew as one, Sharing souls. Wing by wing, Leaf by leaf You left this world, You died before the child. My friend, the Wild. Kya didn’t know if her family owned the land or just squatted it, as had most marsh people for four centuries. Over the years, searching for clues of Ma’s whereabouts, she’d read every scrap of paper in the shack and had never seen anything like a deed. As soon as she got home from Jumpin’s, she wrapped the old Bible in a cloth and took it to the Barkley Cove courthouse. The county clerk, a white-haired man with an enormous forehead and tiny shoulders, brought out a large leather volume of records, some maps, and a few aerial photographs, which he spread on the counter. Running her finger across the map, Kya pointed out her lagoon and outlined the rough boundaries of what she thought of as her land. The clerk checked the reference number and searched for the deed in an old wooden filing cabinet. “Yep, here et is,” he said. “It were surveyed proper and bought up in 1897 by a Mr. Napier Clark.” “That’s my grandpa,” Kya said. She thumbed through the thin pages of the Bible, and there, in the records of births and deaths, was one Napier Murphy Clark. Such a grand name. The same as her brother’s. She told the clerk her pa was dead, which he probably was. “It’s ne’er been sold. So, yessiree bobtail, I reckon it b’longs to you. But I’m afred to tell ya, there’re some back taxes, Miz Clark, and to keep the land you gotta pay ’em. In fact, ma’am, the way the law reads, whoever comes along and pays off them back taxes owns the land even if they don’t got no deed.” “How much?” Kya had not opened a bank account, and all the cash she owned after the improvements to her house, some three thousand dollars, was right in her knapsack. But they must be talking forty years of back taxes—thousands and thousands of dollars. “Well, let’s lookee here. It’s listed as ‘waste-land cateegory,’ so the taxes fer most of them years was about five dollars. Let’s see here, I gotta calc’late it.” He stepped over to a fat and clunky adding machine, punched in numbers, and, after every entry, pulled back the crank handle, which made a churning sound as if it were actually summing up. “Looks like it’ll be ’bout eight hundr’d dollars total—put the land free and clear.” Kya walked out of the courthouse with a full deed in her name for three hundred ten acres of lush lagoons, sparkling marsh, oak forests, and a long private beach on the North Carolina coastline. “Wasteland cateegory. Murky swamp.” Pulling back into her lagoon at dusk, she had a talk with the heron. “It’s all right. That spot’s your’n!” • • • THE NEXT NOON there was a note from Tate in her mailbox, which seemed strange and somehow formal since he’d only ever left messages for her on the feather stump. He thanked her for the invitation to stop by her place for a copy of her book and added that he’d be there that very afternoon. Carrying one of the six copies of her new book the publishers had given her, she waited on the old reading-log. In about twenty minutes she heard the sound of Tate’s old boat chugging up the channel and stood. As he eased into view from the undergrowth, they waved and smiled softly. Both guarded. The last time he’d pulled in here, she’d hurled rocks in his face. After tying up, Tate stepped up to her. “Kya, your book is a wonder.” He leaned slightly forward, as if to hug her, but the hardened rinds of her heart held her back. Instead she handed him the book. “Here, Tate. This is for you.” “Thank you, Kya,” he said as he opened it and paged through. He didn’t mention that, of course, he’d already bought one at the Sea Oaks Bookshelf and marveled at every page. “Nothing like this has ever been published. I’m sure this is just a beginning for you.” She simply bowed her head and smiled slightly. Then, turning to the title page, he said, “Oh, you haven’t signed it. You have to inscribe it for me. Please.” She jerked her head up at him. Had not thought of that. What words could she possibly write to Tate? He took a pen from his jeans pocket and handed it to her. She took it and, after a few seconds, wrote: To the Feather Boy Thank you From the Marsh Girl Tate read the words, then turned away, staring far across the marsh because he couldn’t hold her. Finally, he lifted her hand and squeezed it. “Thank you, Kya.” “It was you, Tate,” she said, and then thought, It was always you. One side of her heart longing, the other shielding. He stood for a minute, and when she didn’t say more, he turned to go. But as he got into his boat, he said, “Kya, when you see me out in the marsh, please don’t hide in the grass like a spotted fawn. Just call out to me and we can do some exploring together. Okay?” “All right.” “Thanks again for the book.” “Good-bye, Tate.” She watched until he disappeared in the thicket and then said, “I could have at least invited him in for tea. That wouldn’t hurt anything. I could be his friend.” Then with rare pride she thought of her book. “I could be his colleague.” • • • AN HOUR AFTER TATE LEFT, Kya motored to Jumpin’s wharf, another copy of her book tucked in her knapsack. As she approached, she saw him leaning against the wall of his weathered shop. He stood and waved to her, but she did not wave back. Knowing something was different, he waited silently as she tied up. She stepped up to him, lifted his hand, and put the book in his palm. At first he didn’t understand, but she pointed to her name and said, “I’m okay now, Jumpin’. Thank you, and thank Mabel for all you did for me.” He stared at her. In another time and place, an old black man and a young white woman might have hugged. But not there, not then. She covered his hand with hers, turned, and motored away. It was the first time she’d seen him speechless. She kept on buying gas and supplies from him but never accepted a handout from them again. And each time she came to his wharf, she saw her book propped up in the tiny window for all to see. As a father would have shown it. 32. Alibi 1969 L ow dark clouds raced over a steel sea toward Barkley Cove. The wind hit first, rattling windows and hurling waves over the wharf. Boats, tied to the dock, bobbed up and down like toys, as men in yellow slickers tied this line or that, securing. Then sideways rain slammed the village, obscuring everything except the odd yellow form moving about in the grayness. The wind whistled through the sheriff’s window, and he raised his voice. “So, Joe, you had something to tell me?” “Sure do. I found out where Miss Clark will claim she was the night Chase died.” “What? Did you finally catch up to her?” “Ya kiddin’? She’s slipperier’n a damn eel. Gets gone ever’ time I get near. So I drove over to Jumpin’s marina this morning to see if he knew when she’d be coming next. Like everybody else she hasta go there for gas, so I figured I’d catch her up sooner or later. You won’t believe what I found out.” “Let’s have it.” “I got two reliable sources say she was outta town that night.” “What? Who? She never goes out of town, and even if she did, who’d know about it?” “Ya remember Tate Walker? Dr. Walker now. Works out at the new ecology lab.” “Yeah, I know him. His dad’s a shrimper. Scupper Walker.” “Well, Tate says he knew Kya—he calls her Kya—quite well when they were younger.” “Oh?” “Not like that. They were just kids. He taught her to read, ’parently.” “He tell you this himself?” “Yep. He was there at Jumpin’s. I was askin’ Jumpin’ if he knew where or how I could ask the Marsh Girl some questions. He said he didn’t know from one minute to the next when he’d see her.” “Jumpin’s always been good to her. Doubt if he’ll tell us much.” “Well, I asked him if, by any chance, he knew what she was doin’ the night Chase died. And he said that as a matter of fact he did, that she’d come to his place the second mornin’ after Chase died, and that he was the very one who told her he was dead. He said she’d been in Greenville for two nights, including the night Chase died.” “Greenville?” “That’s what he said, and then Tate, who’d been standin’ there all that time, he piped in and said, yeah, she’d been in Greenville, that he was the one who told her how to buy the bus ticket.” “Well, that is some news,” Sheriff Jackson said. “And very convenient that they were both standing there with the same story. Why would she go over to Greenville?” “Tate said that a publishing company—ya know, she’s gone and written a book on shells and one of seabirds—well, they paid her expenses to go over there and meet ’em.” “Hard to imagine fancy publishing people wanting to meet her. I guess it’ll be pretty easy to check out. What’d Tate say about teaching her to read?” “I asked him how he knew her. He said he useta go out near her place to fish, and when he found out she couldn’t read, he taught her.” “Um. That so?” Joe said, “Anyway, this changes everything. She does have an alibi. A good one. I’d say being in Greenville’s a pretty good alibi.” “Yeah. On the surface. You know what they say about good alibis. And we got that shrimper saying he saw her boating directly toward the fire tower the very night Chase fell off it.” “He could’ve been wrong. It was dark. No moon until after two A.M. Maybe she was in Greenville, and he saw somebody else out there in a boat looks like hers.” “Well, like I said, this supposed trip to Greenville should be easy to check out.” The storm abated into a whine and drizzle; still, instead of walking to the diner, the two lawmen sent a runner for a takeout of chicken ’n’ dumplings, butter beans, summer squash casserole, cane syrup, and biscuits. • • • RIGHT AFTER LUNCH, a knock sounded on the sheriff’s door. Miss Pansy Price opened it and stepped inside. Joe and Ed stood. Her turban hat glistened a rose color. “Afternoon, Miss Pansy.” Both nodded. “Good afternoon, Ed. Joe. May I have a seat? I won’t take long. I believe I have important information concerning the case.” “Yes, of course. Sit down, please.” The two men sat as soon as Miss Pansy settled like a fair-sized hen into the chair, tucking feathers here and there, her pocketbook perching on her lap like a prized egg. The sheriff, continuing, couldn’t resist. “And what case would that be, Miss Pansy?” “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Ed. You know what case. Who murdered Chase Andrews. That case.” “We don’t know if he was murdered, Miss Pansy. All right? Now, what do you have for us?” “As you know, I’m employed at Kress’s.” She never lowered her standing by referring to the entire name: Kress’s Five and Dime. She waited for the sheriff to acknowledge her comment with a nod—even though they all knew she’d worked there since she sold toy soldiers to him as a boy—and then continued. “I believe the Marsh Girl is a suspect. Is that correct?” “Who told you that?” “Oh, lots of people are convinced, but Patti Love’s the main source.” “I see.” “Well, from Kress’s me and some other employees saw the Marsh Girl get on and off the bus on days that woulda put her out of town the night Chase died. I can testify to those dates and times.” “That so?” Joe and Ed exchanged glances. “What are the dates and times?” Miss Pansy sat straighter in her chair. “She left on the 2:30 P.M. bus on October 28 and returned at 1:16 on the thirtieth.” “You said others saw her, too?” “Yes. I can get a list if you like.” “That won’t be necessary. We’ll come over to the Five and Dime if we want statements. Thank you, Miss Pansy.” The sheriff stood, so Miss Pansy and Ed did as well. She moved toward the door. “Well, thank you for your time. As you said, you know where to find me.” They said good-byes. Joe sat back down. “Well, there it is. Confirms what Tate and Jumpin’ said. She was in Greenville that night, or leastwise, she got on a bus and went somewheres.” The sheriff blew out a long breath. “Appears so. But I reckon if somebody can bus over to Greenville by day, they can bus back here at night. Do their business. Bus back to Greenville. Nobody the wiser.” “I guess. Seems a bit of a stretch.” “Go get the bus schedules. We’ll see if the times work out. If a return trip is possible in one night.” Before Joe stepped out, Ed continued. “Could be she wanted to be seen out there in broad daylight getting on and off of buses. When you think about it, she had to do something out of the ordinary for an alibi. To claim that she’d been alone in her shack the night Chase died, as she usually is, would be no alibi at all. Zip. So she planned up something that lots of people would see her do. Making a great alibi right in front of all those folks on Main Street. Brilliant.” “Well yeah, that’s a good point. Anyhow, we don’t have to play gumshoe anymore. We can set right here drinkin’ coffee and let the ladies of this town waltz in and outta here with all the goods. I’ll go get the bus schedules.” Joe returned fifteen minutes later. “Well, you’re right,” he said. “See here, it would be possible to bus from Greenville to Barkley Cove and then back again all in one night. Easy, really.” “Yeah, plenty of time between the two buses to push somebody off the fire tower. I say we get a warrant.” 33. The Scar 1968 I n the winter of 1968, Kya sat at her kitchen table one morning, sweeping orange and pink watercolors across paper, creating the plump form of a mushroom. She had finished her book on seabirds and now worked on a guide to mushrooms. Already had plans for another on butterflies and moths. Black-eyed peas, red onions, and salt ham boiled in the old dented pot on the woodstove, which she still preferred to the new range. Especially in winter. The tin roof sang under a light rain. Then, suddenly the sounds of a truck laboring through sand came down her lane. Rumbling louder than the roof. Panic rising, she stepped to the window and saw a red pickup maneuvering the muddy ruts. Kya’s first thought was to run, but the truck was already pulling up to the porch. Hunched down below the windowsill, she watched a man in a gray-green military uniform step out. He just stood there, truck door ajar, looking through the woods, down the path toward the lagoon. Then, closing the door softly, he jogged through the rain to the porch door and knocked. She cussed. He was probably lost, would ask directions and go on, but she didn’t want to deal with him. She could hide here in the kitchen, hope he went away. But she heard him call. “Yo! Anybody home? Hello!” Annoyed yet curious, she walked through the newly furnished sitting room to the porch. The stranger, tall with dark hair, stood on the front step holding the screen door open, five feet from her. His uniform seemed stiff enough to stand on its own, as if it were holding him together. The breast of his jacket was covered with colorful rectangular medals. But most eye-catching of all was a jagged red scar that cut his face in half from his left ear to the top of his lips.