Where the Crawdads Sing (10 page)

BOOK: Where the Crawdads Sing
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Soon after they arrived, dressed in their best, she hiked the children to Barkley Cove to register them in school. Jake, however, scoffed at the notion of education, and more days than not, told Murph and Jodie to skip school and bring in squirrels or fish for supper.

Jake took Maria for only one moonlit boat ride, the result of which was their last child, a daughter named Catherine Danielle; later nicknamed Kya because, when first asked, that’s what she said her name was.

Now and then, when sober, Jake dreamed again of completing school, making a better life for them all, but the shadow of the foxhole would move across his mind. Once sure and cocky, handsome and fit, he could no longer wear the man he had become and he’d take a swig from his poke. Blending in with the fighting, drinking, cussing renegades of the marsh was the easiest thing Jake ever did.

17.
Crossing the Threshold

1960

One day during the reading summer when she motored to Jumpin’s, he said, “Now, Miss Kya, there’s sump’m else. Some men been pokin’ ’round, askin’ ’bout ya.”

She looked right at him instead of off to the side. “Who, what d’they want?”

“I b’lieve they’re from the Sochul Services. They askin’ all kinds of questions. Is yo’ pa still ’round, where ya ma is, if ya goin’ to school this fall. An when ya come here; they ’specially wanta know what times ya come here.”

“What’d you tell ’em, Jumpin’?”

“Well, I done ma best to put ’em off ya. Told ’em ya pa just fine, out fishin’s all.” He laughed, threw his head back. “Then I told ’em I neva know when ya boat in here. Now, don’t ya worry none, Miss Kya. Jumpin’ll send ’em on a snipe hunt if they come again.”

“Thank ya.” After filling her tank, Kya headed straight home. She’d have to be on guard more now, maybe find a place in the marsh where she could hide out some until they gave up on her.

Late that afternoon, as Tate pulled up to the shore, the hull crunching softly on sand, she said, “Can we meet somewheres else, ’sides here?”

“Hey, Kya, good to see you.” Tate greeted her, still sitting at the tiller.

“What d’ya think?”

“It’s
besides
, not
’sides
, and it’s polite to greet people before asking a favor.”

“You say
’sides
sometimes,” she said, almost smiling.

“Yeah, we all got magnolia mouth, being from the North Carolina sticks, but we have to try.”

“Good afternoon, Mr. Tate,” she said, making a little curtsy. He caught a glimpse of the spunk and sass somewhere inside. “Now, can we meet somewhere besides here? Please.”

“Sure, I guess, but why?”

“Jumpin’ said the Social Services are lookin’ for me. I’m scared they’ll pull me in like a trout, put me in a foster home or sump’m.”

“Well, we better hide way out there where the crawdads sing. I pity any foster parents who take you on.” Tate’s whole face smiled.

“What d’ya mean, where the crawdads sing? Ma used to say that.” Kya remembered Ma always encouraging her to explore the marsh: “Go as far as you can—way out yonder where the crawdads sing.”

“Just means far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters. Now, you got any ideas where we can meet?”

“There’s a place I found one time, an old fallin’-down cabin. Once you know the turnoff, ya can get there by boat; I can walk there from here.”

“Okay then, get in. Show me this time; next time we’ll meet there.”

“If I’m out there I’ll leave a little pile of rocks right here by the
tyin’-up log.” Kya pointed to a spot on the lagoon beach. “Otherwise, I’m ’round here somewhere and will come out when I hear yo’ motor.”

They puttered slowly through the marsh, then planed off south through open sea, away from town. She bounced along in the bow, wind-tears streaming across her cheeks and tickling cool in her ears. When they reached a small cove, she guided him up a narrow freshwater creek hung low with brambles. Several times the creek seemed to peter out, but Kya motioned that it was okay to go on, and they crashed through more brush.

Finally they broke into a wide meadow where the stream ran by an old one-room log cabin, collapsed on one end. The logs had buckled, some lying around the ground like pick-up sticks. The roof, still sitting on the half wall, sloped down from high end to low like a lopsided hat. Tate pulled the boat up onto the mud and they silently walked to the open door.

Inside was dark and reeked of rat urine. “Well, I hope you don’t plan on living here—the whole thing could collapse on your head.” Tate pushed at the wall. It seemed sturdy enough.

“It’s just a hideout. I can stash some food ’case I have to go on the run awhile.”

Tate turned and looked at her as their eyes adjusted to the dark.

“Kya, you ever thought of just going back to school? It wouldn’t kill you, and they might leave you alone if you did.”

“They must’ve figured out I’m alone, and if I go, they’ll grab me, put me in a home. Anyway, I’m too old for school now. Where would they put me, first grade?” Her eyes widened at the notion of sitting in a tiny chair, surrounded by little kids who could pronounce words, count to fifty.

“What, so you plan to live alone in the marsh forever?”

“Better than going to a foster home. Pa used to say he’d farm us out to one if we were bad. Told us they’re mean.”

“No, they’re not. Not always. Most of them are nice people who like kids,” he said.

“You sayin’ you’d go to a foster home ’fore you’d live in the marsh?” she asked, chin jutted out, hand on her hip.

He was silent a minute. “Well, bring some blankets out, matches in case it gets cold. Maybe some tins of sardines. They last forever. But don’t keep fresh food; it’ll bring the bears in.”

“I ain’t scared of bears.”

“I’m not scared of bears.”

•   •   •

F
OR THE REST
of the summer Kya and Tate did the reading lessons at the tumbledown cabin. By mid-August they had read through
A Sand County Almanac
, and although she couldn’t read every word, she got most of it. Aldo Leopold taught her that floodplains are living extensions of the rivers, which will claim them back any time they choose. Anyone living on a floodplain is just waiting in the river’s wings. She learned where the geese go in winter, and the meaning of their music. His soft words, sounding almost like poetry, taught her that soil is packed with life and one of the most precious riches on Earth; that draining wetlands dries the land for miles beyond, killing plants and animals along with the water. Some of the seeds lie dormant in the desiccated earth for decades, waiting, and when the water finally comes home again, they burst through the soil, unfolding their faces. Wonders and real-life knowledge she would’ve never learned in school. Truths everyone should know, yet somehow, even though they lay exposed all around, seemed to lie in secret like the seeds.

They met at the log cabin several times a week, but she slept most nights in her shack or on the beach with the gulls. She had to collect firewood before winter, so made a mission of it, toting loads from near and far and stacking them somewhat neatly between two pines. The turnips in her garden barely poked their heads above the goldenrod; still she had more vegetables than she and the deer could eat. She harvested the last of the late-summer crop and stored the squash and beets in the cool shade of the brick-’n’-board steps.

But all the while, she kept her ears out for the lugging sounds of an automobile, filled with men come to take her away. Sometimes the listening was tiresome and creepy, so she’d walk to the log cabin and sleep the night on the dirt floor, wrapped in her spare blanket. She timed her mussel collecting and fish smoking so that Tate could take them to Jumpin’s and bring back her supplies. Keeping her underbelly less exposed.

•   •   •

“R
EME
MBER WHEN YOU READ
your first sentence, you said that some words hold a lot?” Tate said one day, sitting on the creek bank.

“Yeah, I remember, why?”

“Well, especially poems. The words in poems do more than say things. They stir up emotions. Even make you laugh.”

“Ma used to read poems, but I don’t remember any.”

“Listen to this; it’s by Edward Lear.” He took out a folded envelope and read,

“Then Mr. Daddy Long-legs

And Mr. Floppy Fly

Rushed downward to the foamy sea

With one sponge-taneous cry;

And there they found a little boat,

Whose sails were pink and gray;

And off they sailed among the waves,

Far, and far away.”

Smiling, she said, “It makes a rhythm like waves hitting the beach.”

After that she went into a poem-writing phase, making them up as she boated through the marsh or looked for shells—simple verses, singsong and silly. “There’s a mama blue jay lifting from a branch; I’d fly too, if I had a chance.” They made her laugh out loud; filled up a few lonely minutes of a long, lonely day.

One late afternoon, reading at the kitchen table, she remembered Ma’s book of poetry and scrounged until she found it. The volume so worn, the covers had long since gone, the pages held together by two frayed rubber bands. Kya carefully took them off and thumbed through the pages, reading Ma’s notes in the margins. At the end was a list of page numbers of Ma’s favorites.

Kya turned to one by James Wright:

Suddenly lost and cold,

I knew the yard lay bare,

I longed to touch and hold

My child, my talking child,

Laughing or tame or wild . . .

Trees and the sun were gone,

Everything gone but us.

His mother sang in the house,

And kept our supper warm,

And loved us, God knows how,

The wide earth darkened so.

And this one by Galway Kinnell.

I did care. . . .

I did say everything I thought

In the mildest words I knew. And now, . . .

I have to say I am relieved it is over:

At the end I could feel only pity

For that urge toward more life.

 . . . Goodbye.

Kya touched the words as if they were a message, as though Ma had underlined them specifically so her daughter would read them someday by this dim kerosene flame and understand. It wasn’t much, not a handwritten note tucked in the back of a sock drawer, but it was something. She sensed that the words clinched a powerful meaning, but she couldn’t shake it free. If she ever became a poet, she’d make the message clear.

•   •   •

A
FTER
T
ATE STARTED
his senior year in September, he couldn’t come to Kya’s place as often, but when he did, he brought her discarded textbooks from school. He didn’t say a word about the biology books being too advanced for her, so she plowed through chapters she wouldn’t have seen for four years in school. “Don’t worry,” he’d say, “you’ll get a little more every time you read it.” And that was true.

As the days grew shorter, again they met near her shack because there wasn’t enough daylight to get to the reading cabin. They had
always studied outside, but when a crazed wind blew one morning, Kya built up the fire in the woodstove. No one had crossed the shack’s threshold since Pa disappeared more than four years ago, and to ask anybody inside would seem unthinkable. Anyone but Tate.

“Wanta sit in the kitchen by the stove?” she said when he dragged his rig onto the lagoon shore.

“Sure,” he said, knowing not to make a big deal of the invitation.

As soon as he stepped inside the porch, he took nearly twenty minutes to explore and exclaim over her feathers and shells and bones and nests. When they finally settled at the table, she pulled her chair close to his, their arms and elbows nearly touching. Just to feel him near.

With Tate so busy helping his dad, the days dragged slow from nose to tail. Late one evening she took her first novel,
Rebecca
by Daphne du Maurier, from Ma’s bookshelf and read about love. After a while she closed the book and walked to the closet. She slipped on Ma’s sundress and swished around the room, flipping the skirt about, whirling in front of the mirror. Her mane and hips swaying, she imagined Tate asking her to dance. His hand on her waist. As if she were Mrs. de Winter.

Abruptly she caught herself and bent over, giggling. Then stood very still.

•   •   •

“C
OME O
N UP HERE
,
CHILD
,” Mabel sang out one afternoon. “I got ya some things.” Jumpin’ usually brought the boxes of goods for Kya, but when Mabel showed up, there was usually something special.

“Go on then, pick up yo’ stuff. I’ll fill yo’ tank,” Jumpin’ said, so Kya hopped onto the wharf.

“Look here, Miss Kya,” Mabel said, as she lifted a peach-colored dress with a layer of chiffon over the flowered skirt, the most beautiful piece of clothing Kya had ever seen, prettier than Ma’s sundress. “This
dress is fit for a princess like you.” She held it in front of Kya, who touched it and smiled. Then, facing away from Jumpin’, Mabel leaned over at the middle with some effort and lifted a white bra from the box.

Kya felt heat all over.

“Now, Miss Kya, don’t be shy, hon. Ya be needin’ this ’bout now. And, child, if there’s ever anything ya need to talk to me about, anything ya don’t understand, ya let ol’ Mabel know. Ya heah?”

“Yes’m. Thank you, Mabel.” Kya tucked the bra deep in the box, under some jeans and T-shirts, a bag of black-eyed peas, and a jar of put-up peaches.

A few weeks later, watching pelicans float and feed in the sea, her boat riding up and down waves, Kya’s stomach suddenly cramped up. She’d never been seasick, and this felt different from any pain she’d ever had. She pulled her boat ashore at Point Beach and sat on the sand, legs folded to one side like a wing. The pain sharpened, and she grimaced, made a little moan. She must have the runs coming.

Suddenly she heard the purr of a motor and saw Tate’s rig cutting through the white-capped surf. He turned inland the instant he saw her and made for shore. She spat out some of Pa’s cussing. She always liked seeing Tate, but not when she might have to run to the oak woods any second with diarrhea. After dragging his boat next to hers, he plopped down on the sand beside her.

“Hey, Kya. What’re you doing? I was just going out to your place.”

“Hey, Tate. It’s good to see you.” She tried to sound normal, but her stomach twisted tightly.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t look good. What’s wrong?”

“I think I’m sick. My stomach’s cramping real hard.”

“Oh.” Tate looked out over the sea. Dug his bare toes in the sand.

“Maybe you should go,” she said, head down.

“Maybe I should stay till you’re better. Suppose you can’t get yourself home?”

“I might have to go to the woods. I might be sick.”

“Maybe. But I don’t think that’s going to help,” he said quietly.

“What do you mean? You don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

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