Authors: Delia Owens
“Does this feel different from other stomachaches?”
“You’re almost fifteen, right?”
“Yes. What’s that got to do with it?”
He was quiet a minute. Shuffled his feet, digging his toes deeper in the sand. Looking away from her, he said, “It might be, you know, what happens to girls your age. Remember, a few months ago I brought you a pamphlet about it. It was with those biology books.” Tate glanced at her briefly, his face blazing, and looked away again.
Kya dropped her eyes as her whole body blushed. Of course, there’d been no Ma to tell her, but indeed a school booklet Tate had brought explained some. Now her time had come, and here she was sitting on the beach becoming a woman right in front of a boy. Shame and panic filled her. What was she supposed to do? What exactly would happen? How much blood would there be? She imagined it leaking into the sand around her. She sat silent as a sharp pain racked her middle.
“Can you get yourself home?” he asked, still not looking at her.
“I think so.”
“It’ll be okay, Kya. Every girl goes through this just fine. You go on home. I’ll follow way back to make sure you get there.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Don’t worry about me. Now get going.” He stood and walked to his boat, not looking at her. He motored out and waited quite far offshore until she headed up coast toward her channel. So far back he was
just a speck, he followed until she reached her lagoon. Standing on the bank, she waved briefly to him, her face down, not meeting his eyes.
Just as she had figured out most things, Kya figured out how to become a woman on her own. But the next morning at first light, she boated over to Jumpin’s. A pale sun seemed suspended in thick fog as she approached his wharf and looked for Mabel, knowing there was little chance she’d be there. Sure enough, only Jumpin’ walked out to greet her.
“Hi, Miss Kya. Ya needin’ gas a’ready?”
Still sitting in the boat, Kya answered quietly, “I need to see Mabel.”
“I’m sorry as can be, child, Mabel ain’t here today. Can I help ya?”
Head down low, she said, “I need to see Mabel bad. Soon.”
“Well then.” Jumpin’ looked across the small bay out to sea and saw no more boats coming in. Anybody needing gas at any time of day and every day including Christmas could count on Jumpin’ being here—he hadn’t missed a single day in fifty years, except when their baby angel, Daisy, died. He couldn’t leave his post. “Ya hang on there, Miss Kya, I gonna run up the lane a ways, get some chillin to fetch Mabel. Any boat come in, ya tell ’em I’ll be right back.”
“I will. Thank you.”
Jumpin’ hurried up the wharf and disappeared as Kya waited, glancing out in the bay every few seconds, dreading another boat coming in. But in no time he was back, saying some kids had gone to get Mabel; Kya should “just wait a spell.”
Jumpin’ busied himself unpacking packets of chewing tobacco on the shelves and generally doing around. Kya stayed in her boat. Finally Mabel hurried across the boards, which shook with her swing as if a small piano were being pushed down the wharf. Carrying a paper bag, she didn’t bellow out a greeting, as she would have otherwise, but stood
on the wharf above Kya and said quietly, “Mornin’, Miss Kya, what’s all this ’bout, child? What’s wrong, hon?”
Kya dropped her head more, mumbled something Mabel couldn’t hear.
“Can ya get out of that boat, or should I get in there with ya?”
Kya didn’t answer, so Mabel, almost two hundred pounds’ worth, stepped one foot, then the other into the small boat, which complained by bumping against the piling. She sat down on the center bench, facing Kya at the stern.
“Now, child, tell me what’s wrong.”
The two leaned their heads together, Kya whispering, and then Mabel pulled Kya right over to her full bosom, hugging and rocking her. Kya was rigid at first, not accustomed to yielding to hugs, but this didn’t discourage Mabel, and finally Kya went limp and slumped against the comfort of those pillows. After a while, Mabel leaned back and opened the brown paper bag.
“Well, I figured what’s wrong, so I brought ya some things.” And there, sitting in the boat at Jumpin’s wharf, Mabel explained the details to Kya.
“Now, Miss Kya, this ain’t nothin’ to be ’shamed of. It ain’t no curse, like folks say; this here’s the startin’ of all life, and only a woman can do it. You’re a woman now, baby.”
the next afternoon, she hid in thick brambles and watched him. For anyone to know her at all seemed strange enough, but now he knew about the most personal and private occurrence of her life. Her cheeks burned at the thought of it. She would hide until he left.
As he pulled onto the lagoon shore and stepped out of the boat, he carried a white box tied up with string. “Yo! Kya, where are you?” he called. “I brought petite cakes from Parker’s.”
Kya had not tasted anything like cake for years. Tate lifted some books out of the boat, so Kya moseyed out of the bushes behind him.
“Oh, there you are. Look at this.” He opened the box, and there, arranged neatly, were little cakes, each only an inch square, covered in vanilla icing with a tiny pink rose perched on the top. “Come on, dig in.”
Kya lifted one and, still not looking at Tate, bit into it. Then pushed the rest of it into her mouth. Licked her fingers.
“Here.” Tate set the box next to their oak. “Have all you want. Let’s get started. I brought a new book.” And that was that. They went into the lessons, never uttering a word about the other thing.
UTUMN WAS COMING
; the evergreens might not have noticed, but the sycamores did. They flashed thousands of golden leaves across slate-gray skies. Late one afternoon, after the lesson, Tate lingering when he should have left, he and Kya sat on a log in the woods. She finally asked the question she’d wanted to ask for months. “Tate, I appreciate your teaching me to read and all those things you gave me. But why’d you do it? Don’t you have a girlfriend or somebody like that?”
“Nah—well, sometimes I do. I had one, but not now. I like being out here in the quiet and I like the way you’re so interested in the marsh, Kya. Most people don’t pay it any attention except to fish. They think it’s wasteland that should be drained and developed. People don’t understand that most sea creatures—including the very ones they eat—need the marsh.”
He didn’t mention how he felt sorry for her being alone, that he
knew how the kids had treated her for years; how the villagers called her the Marsh Girl and made up stories about her. Sneaking out to her shack, running through the dark and tagging it, had become a regular tradition, an initiation for boys becoming men. What did that say about men? Some of them were already making bets about who would be the first to get her cherry. Things that infuriated and worried him.
But that wasn’t the main reason he’d left feathers for Kya in the forest, or why he kept coming to see her. The other words Tate didn’t say were his feelings for her that seemed tangled up between the sweet love for a lost sister and the fiery love for a girl. He couldn’t come close to sorting it out himself, but he’d never been hit by a stronger wave. A power of emotions as painful as pleasurable.
Poking a grass stalk down an ant hole, she finally asked, “Where’s your ma?”
A breeze wandered through the trees, gently shaking branches. Tate didn’t answer.
“You don’t have to say nothing,” she said.
“You don’t have to say anything.”
“My mother and little sister died in a car wreck over in Asheville. My sister’s name was Carianne.”
“Oh. I’m so sorry, Tate. I bet your ma was real nice and pretty.”
“Yes. Both of them were.” He spoke to the ground, between his knees. “I’ve never talked about it before. To anybody.”
, Kya thought. Out loud she said, “My ma walked off one day and didn’t come back. The mama deer always come back.”
“Well, at least you can hope she does. Mine won’t come back for sure.”
They were silent a moment, then Tate continued. “I think . . .” But he stopped, looked away.
Kya looked at him, but he stared at the ground. Quiet.
She said, “What? You think what? You can say anything to me.”
Still he said nothing. From a patience born from knowing, she waited.
Finally, very softly he said, “I think they went to Asheville to buy my birthday present. There was this certain bike I wanted, had to have it. The Western Auto didn’t carry them, so I think they went to Asheville to buy that bike for me.”
“That doesn’t make it your fault,” she said.
“I know, but it feels like my fault,” Tate said. “I don’t even remember what kind of bike it was.”
Kya leaned closer to him, not enough to touch. But she felt a sensation—almost like the space between their shoulders had shifted. She wondered if Tate felt it. She wanted to lean in closer, just enough so their arms would gently brush together. To touch. And wondered if Tate would notice.
And just at that second, the wind picked up, and thousands upon thousands of yellow sycamore leaves broke from their life support and streamed across the sky. Autumn leaves don’t fall; they fly. They take their time and wander on this, their only chance to soar. Reflecting sunlight, they swirled and sailed and fluttered on the wind drafts.
Tate sprang from the log and called to her, “See how many leaves you can catch before they hit the ground!” Kya jumped up, and the two of them leapt and skipped through curtains of falling leaves, reaching their arms wide, snatching them before they fell to the earth. Laughing, Tate dived toward a leaf only inches from the ground, caught it, and rolled over, holding his trophy in the air. Kya threw her hands up, releasing all the leaves she had rescued back into the wind. As she ran back through them, they caught like gold in her hair.
Then, as she whirled around, she bumped into Tate, who had stood,
and they froze, staring into each other’s eyes. They stopped laughing. He took her shoulders, hesitated an instant, then kissed her lips, as the leaves rained and danced around them as silently as snow.
She knew nothing about kissing and held her head and lips stiff. They broke away and looked at each other, wondering where that had come from and what to do next. He lifted a leaf gently from her hair and dropped it to the ground. Her heart beat wildly. Of all the ragged loves she’d known from wayward family, none had felt like this.
“Am I your girlfriend now?” she asked.
He smiled. “Do you want to be?”
“You might be too young,” he said.
“But I know feathers. I bet the other girls don’t know feathers.”
“All right, then.” And he kissed her again. This time she tilted her head to the side and her lips softened. And for the first time in her life, her heart was full.
Now, every new word began with a squeal, every sentence a race. Tate grabbing Kya, the two of them tumbling, half childlike, half not, through sourweed, red with autumn.
“Be serious a second,” he said. “The only way to get multiplication tables is to memorize them.” He wrote
12 × 12 = 144
in the sand, but she ran past him, dived into the breaking surf, down to the calm, and swam until he followed into a place where gray-blue light beams slanted through the quiet and highlighted their forms. Sleek as porpoises. Later, sandy and salty, they rolled across the beach, arms tight around each other as if they were one.
The next afternoon he motored into her lagoon but stayed in his boat after beaching. A large basket covered in a red-checkered cloth sat at his feet.
“What’s that? What’d you bring?” she asked.
“A surprise. Go on, get in.”
They flowed through the slow-moving channels into the sea, then south to a tiny half-moon bay. After wrist-flicking the blanket onto the sand, he placed the covered basket on it, and as they sat, he lifted the cloth.
“Happy birthday, Kya,” he said. “You’re fifteen.” A two-tiered bakery cake, tall as a hatbox and decorated with shells of pink icing, rose from the basket. Her name scripted on top. Presents, wrapped in colorful paper and tied with bows, surrounded the cake.
She stared, flabbergasted, her mouth open. No one had wished her happy birthday since Ma left. No one had ever given her a store-bought cake with her name on it. She’d never had presents in real wrapping paper with ribbons.
“How’d you know my birthday?” Having no calendar, she had no idea it was today.
“I read it in your Bible.”
While she pleaded for him not to cut through her name, he sliced enormous pieces of cake and plopped them on paper plates. Staring into each other’s eyes, they broke off bites and stuffed them in their mouths. Smacking loudly. Licking fingers. Laughing through icing-smeared grins. Eating cake the way it should be eaten, the way everybody wants to eat it.
“Want to open your presents?” He smiled.
The first: a small magnifying glass, “so you can see the fine details of insect wings.” Second: a plastic clasp, painted silver and decorated with a rhinestone seagull, “for your hair.” Somewhat awkwardly, he pulled some locks behind her ear and clipped the barrette in place. She touched it. More beautiful than Ma’s.
The last present was in a larger box, and Kya opened it to find ten
jars of oil paint, tins of watercolors, and different-sized brushes: “for your paintings.”
Kya picked up each color, each brush. “I can get more when you need them. Even canvas, from Sea Oaks.”
She dipped her head. “Thank you, Tate.”
ASY DOES IT
. Go slow, now,” Scupper called out as Tate, surrounded by fishing nets, oil rags, and preening pelicans, powered the winch. The bow of
bobbled on the cradle, gave a shudder, then glided onto the underwater rails at Pete’s Boat Yard, the lopsided pier and rusted-out boathouse, the only haul-out in Barkley Cove.
“Okay, good, she’s on. Bring her out.” Tate eased more power to the winch, and the boat crawled up the track and into dry dock. They secured her in cables and set about scraping blotchy barnacles from her hull as crystal-sharp arias of Miliza Korjus rose from the record player. They’d have to apply primer, then the annual coat of red paint. Tate’s mother had chosen the color, and Scupper would never change it. Once in a while Scupper stopped scraping and waved his large arms to the music’s sinuous shape.
Now, early winter, Scupper paid Tate adult wages to work for him after school and on weekends, but Tate couldn’t get out to Kya’s as much. He didn’t mention this to his dad; he’d never mentioned anything about Kya to his dad.
They hacked at barnacles until dark, until even Scupper’s arms burned. “I’m too tired to cook, and I reckon you are, too. Let’s grab some grub at the diner on the way home.”
Nodding at everyone, there not being one person they didn’t know, they sat at a corner table. Both ordered the special: chicken-fried steak,
mash and gravy, turnips, and coleslaw. Biscuits. Pecan pie with ice cream. At the next table, a family of four joined hands and lowered their heads as the father said a blessing out loud. At “Amen” they kissed the air, squeezed hands, and passed the cornbread.
Scupper said, “Now, son, I know this job’s keeping ya from things. That’s the way it is, but you didn’t go to the homecoming dance or anything last fall, and I don’t want you to miss all of it, this being your last year. There’s that big dance at the pavilion coming up. You asking a girl?”
“Nah. I might go, not sure. But there’s nobody I want to ask.”
“There’s not one single girl in school you’d go with?”
“Well then.” Scupper leaned back as the waitress put down his plate of food. “Thank you, Betty. You sure heaped it up good.” Betty moved around and set down Tate’s plate, piled even higher.
“Y’all eat up now,” she said. “Thar’s more where this come from. The special’s all-you-can-eat.” She smiled at Tate before walking with an extra hip-swing back to the kitchen.
Tate said, “The girls at school are silly. All they talk about is hairdos and high heels.”
“Well now, that’s what girls do. Sometimes you gotta take things as they are.”
“Now, son, I don’t pay much mind to idle talk, never have done. But there’s a regular riptide of gossip saying you’ve got something going with that girl in the marsh.” Tate threw up his hands. “Now hold on, hold on,” Scupper continued. “I don’t believe all the stories about her; she’s probably nice. But take a care, son. You don’t want to go starting a family too early. You get my meaning, don’t you?”
Keeping his voice low, Tate hissed, “First you say you don’t believe
those stories about her, then you say I shouldn’t start a family, showing you do believe she’s that kind of girl. Well, let me tell you something, she’s not. She’s more pure and innocent than any of those girls you’d have me go to the dance with. Oh man, some of the girls in this town, well, let’s just say they hunt in packs, take no prisoners. And yes, I’ve been going out to see Kya some. You know why? I’m teaching her how to read because people in this town are so mean to her she couldn’t even go to school.”
“That’s fine, Tate. That’s good of you. But please understand it’s my job to say things like this. It may not be pleasant and all for us to talk about, but parents have to warn their kids about things. That’s my job, so don’t get huffy about it.”
“I know,” Tate mumbled while buttering a biscuit. Feeling very huffy.
“Come on now. Let’s get another helping, then some of that pecan pie.”
After the pie came, Scupper said, “Well, since we’ve talked about things we never mention, I might as well say something else on my mind.”
Tate rolled his eyes at his pie.
Scupper continued. “I want you to know, son, how proud I am of you. All on your own, you’ve studied the marsh life, done real well at school, applied for college to get a degree in science. And got accepted. I’m just not the kind to speak on such things much. But I’m mighty proud of you, son. All right?”
“Yeah. All right.”
Later in his room, Tate recited from his favorite poem:
“Oh when shall I see the dusky Lake,
And the white canoe of my dear?”
ROUND THE WORK
, as best he could, Tate got out to Kya’s, but could never stay long. Sometimes boating forty minutes for a ten-minute beach walk, holding hands. Kissing a lot. Not wasting a minute. Boating back. He wanted to touch her breasts; would kill just to look at them. Lying awake at night, he thought of her thighs, how soft, yet firm, they must be. To think beyond her thighs sent him roiling in the sheets. But she was so young and timid. If he did things wrong, it might affect her somehow, then he’d be worse than the boys who only talked about snagging her. His desire to protect her was as strong as the other. Sometimes.
N EVERY TRIP T
, Tate took school or library books, especially on marsh creatures and biology. Her progress was startling. She could read anything now, he said, and once you can read anything you can learn everything. It was up to her. “Nobody’s come close to filling their brains,” he said. “We’re all like giraffes not using their necks to reach the higher leaves.”
Alone for hours, by the light of the lantern, Kya read how plants and animals change over time to adjust to the ever-shifting earth; how some cells divide and specialize into lungs or hearts, while others remain uncommitted as stem cells in case they’re needed later. Birds sing mostly at dawn because the cool, moist air of morning carries their songs and their meanings much farther. All her life, she’d seen these marvels at eye level, so nature’s ways came easily to her.
Within all the worlds of biology, she searched for an explanation of why a mother would leave her offspring.
NE COLD DAY
, long after all the sycamore leaves had fallen, Tate stepped out of his boat with a present wrapped in red-and-green paper.
“I don’t have anything for you,” she said, as he held the present out for her. “I didn’t know it’s Christmas.”
“It’s not.” He smiled. “Not by a long shot,” he lied. “Come on, it’s not much.”
Carefully she took the paper off to find a secondhand Webster’s dictionary. “Oh, Tate, thank you.”
“Look inside,” he said. Tucked in the
section was a pelican feather, forget-me-not blossoms pressed between two pages of the
s, a dried mushroom under
. So many treasures were stashed among the pages, the book would not completely close.
“I’ll try to come back the day after Christmas. Maybe I can bring a turkey dinner.” He kissed her good-bye. After he left, she swore out loud. Her first chance since Ma left to give a gift to someone she loved, and she’d missed it.
A few days later, shivering in the sleeveless, peach-colored chiffon dress, she waited for Tate on the lagoon shore. Pacing, she clutched her present for him—a head tuft from a male cardinal—wrapped in the paper he had used. As soon as he stepped out of his boat, she stuck the present into his hands, insisting he open it there, so he did. “Thank you, Kya. I don’t have one.”
Her Christmas complete.
“Now let’s get you inside. You must be freezing in that dress.” The kitchen was warm from the woodstove, but still he suggested she change into a sweater and jeans.
Working together they heated the food he’d brought: turkey,
cornbread dressing, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, and pumpkin pie—all leftovers from Christmas dinner at the diner with his dad. Kya had made biscuits, and they ate at the kitchen table, which she had decorated with wild holly and seashells.
“I’ll wash up,” she said, as she poured hot water from the woodstove into the basin.
“I’ll help you.” And he came up behind her and put his arms around her waist. She leaned her head back against his chest, eyes closed. Slowly his fingers moved under her sweater, across her sleek stomach, toward her breasts. As usual, she wore no bra, and his fingers circled her nipples. His touch lingered there, but a sensation spread down her body as though his hands had moved between her legs. A hollowness that urgently needed filling pulsed through her. But she didn’t know what to do, what to say, so pushed back.
“It’s okay,” he said. And just held her there. Both of them breathing deep.
, still shy and submissive to winter, peeped in now and then between days of mean wind and bitter rain. Then one afternoon, just like that, spring elbowed her way in for good. The day warmed, and the sky shone as if polished. Kya spoke quietly, as she and Tate walked along the grassy bank of a deep creek, overhung with tall sweetgum trees. Suddenly he grabbed her hand, shushing her. Her eyes followed his to the water’s edge, where a bullfrog, six inches wide, hunkered under foliage. A common enough sight, except this frog was completely and brilliantly white.
Tate and Kya grinned at each other and watched until he disappeared in one silent, big-legged leap. Still, they were quiet as they
backed away into the brush another five yards. Kya put her hands over her mouth and giggled. Bounced away from him in a girlish jig in a body not quite so girlish.
Tate watched her for a second, no longer thinking about frogs. He stepped toward her purposely. His expression stopped her in front of a broad oak. He took her shoulders and pushed her firmly against the tree. Holding her arms along her sides, he kissed her, his groin pushing against hers. Since Christmas they had kissed and explored slowly; not like this. He had always taken the lead but had watched her questioningly for signs to desist; not like now.
He pulled away, the deep golden-brown layers of his eyes boring into hers. Slowly he unbuttoned her shirt and pulled it off, exposing her breasts. He took his time to examine them with his eyes and fingers, circling her nipples. Then he unzipped her shorts and pulled them down, until they dropped to the ground. Almost naked for the first time in front of him, she panted and moved her hands to cover herself. Gently he moved her hands away and took his time looking at her body. Her groin throbbed as if all her blood had surged there. He stepped out of his shorts and, still staring at her, pushed his erection against her.
When she turned away in shyness, he lifted her chin and said, “Look at me. Look me in the eyes, Kya.”
“Tate, Tate.” She reached out, trying to kiss him, but he held her back, forcing only her eyes to take him in. She didn’t know raw nakedness could bring such want. He whispered his hands against her inner thighs, and instinctively she stepped each foot to the side slightly. His fingers moved between her legs and slowly massaged parts of her she never knew existed. She threw her head back and whimpered.