Where the Crawdads Sing
Where the Crawdads Sing
#1 New York Times Bestseller
More than 4 million copies sold
A Reese Witherspoon x Hello Sunshine Book Club Pick
"I can't even express how much I love this book! I didn't want this story to end!"--Reese Witherspoon
"Painfully beautiful."-- The New York Times Book Review
"Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver."-- *Bustle
For years, rumors of the "Marsh Girl" have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life--until the unthinkable happens.
Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.
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Also by Delia Owens
WITH MARK OWENS
Secrets of the Savanna
The Eye of the Elephant
Cry of the Kalahari
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
Publishers Since 1838
An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
375 Hudson Street
New York, New York 10014
Copyright © 2018 by Delia Owens
Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.
Excerpts from “The Correspondence School Instructor Says Goodbye to His Poetry Students” from Three Books by Galway Kinnell. Copyright © 1993 by Galway Kinnell. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
“Evening” from Above the River: The Complete Poems © 1990 by Anne Wright. Published by Wesleyan University Press. Used by permission.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Owens, Delia, author.
Title: Where the crawdads sing / Delia Owens.
Description: New York : G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018.
Identifiers: LCCN 2018010775| ISBN 9780735219090 (hardback) | ISBN 9780735219113 (epub)
Subjects: | BISAC: FICTION / Literary. | FICTION / Coming of Age. | FICTION / Contemporary Women.
Classification: LCC PS3615.W447 W48 2018 | DDC 813/.6—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018010775
Map and illustrations by Meighan Cavanaugh
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
To Amanda, Margaret, and Barbara
Here’s to’d ya
If I never see’d ya
I never knowed ya.
I see’d ya
I knowed ya
I loved ya,
Also by Delia Owens
PART 1 | The Marsh
6. A Boat and a Boy
7. The Fishing Season
8. Negative Data
10. Just Grass in the Wind
11. Croker Sacks Full
12. Pennies and Grits
14. Red Fibers
15. The Game
17. Crossing the Threshold
18. White Canoe
19. Something Going On
20. July 4
PART 2 | The Swamp
22. Same Tide
23. The Shell
24. The Fire Tower
25. A Visit from Patti Love
26. The Boat Ashore
27. Out Hog Mountain Road
28. The Shrimper
30. The Rips
31. A Book
33. The Scar
34. Search the Shack
35. The Compass
36. To Trap a Fox
37. Gray Sharks
38. Sunday Justice
39. Chase by Chance
40. Cypress Cove
41. A Small Herd
42. A Cell
43. A Microscope
44. Cell Mate
45. Red Cap
46. King of the World
47. The Expert
48. A Trip
50. The Journal
51. Waning Moon
52. Three Mountains Motel
53. Missing Link
54. Vice Versa
55. Grass Flowers
56. The Night Heron
57. The Firefly
About the Author
Marsh 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.
The 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.
After 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.
The 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?”
“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?”
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?”
“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.
Overhead, 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.”
A Boat and a Boy
One 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.
Her throat tightened against a sob. She nodded but couldn’t speak.
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?”
“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.
The Fishing Season
That 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.”
After 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.”
“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.”
Sitting 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