Authors: Delia Owens
Nineteen years old, legs longer, eyes larger and seemingly blacker, Kya sat on Point Beach, watching sand crabs bury themselves backward into the swash. Suddenly, from the south, she heard voices and jumped to her feet. The group of kids—now young adults—she’d watched occasionally through the years ambled toward her, tossing a football, running and kicking the surf. Anxious they would see her, she loped to the trees, sand tearing from her heels, and hid behind the broad trunk of an oak tree. Knowing how odd this made her.
Not much has changed
, she thought,
them laughing, me holing up like a sand crab
. A wild thing ashamed of her own freakish ways.
Tallskinnyblonde, Ponytailfreckleface, Alwayswearspearls, and Roundchubbycheeks romped the beach, tangled in laughs and hugs. On her rare trips to the village, she’d heard their slurs. “Yeah, the Marsh Girl gits her clothes from colored people; has to trade mussels for grits.”
Yet after all these years, they were still a group of friends. That was something. Silly-looking on the outside, yes, but as Mabel had said
several times, they were a sure troop. “Ya need some girlfriends, hon, ’cause they’re furever. Without a vow. A clutch of women’s the most tender, most tough place on Earth.”
Kya found herself laughing softly with them as they kicked salt water on one another. Then, shrieking, they rushed as one into the deeper surf. Kya’s smile faded when they pulled themselves out of the water and into their traditional group hug.
Their squeals made Kya’s silence even louder. Their togetherness tugged at her loneliness, but she knew being labeled as marsh trash kept her behind the oak tree.
Her eyes shifted to the tallest guy. Wearing khaki shorts and no shirt, he threw the football. Kya watched the cords of muscles bunching on his back. His tan shoulders. She knew he was Chase Andrews, and over the years, ever since he nearly ran her over on his bicycle, she’d seen him with these friends on the beach, walking into the diner for milk shakes, or at Jumpin’s buying gas.
Now, as the group came closer, she watched only him. When another tossed the ball, he ran to catch it and came close to her tree, his bare feet digging in the hot sand. As he raised his arm to throw, he happened to glance back and caught Kya’s eyes. After passing the ball, without giving any sign to the others, he turned and held her gaze. His hair was black, like hers, but his eyes were pale blue, his face strong, striking. A shadow-smile formed on his lips. Then he walked back to the others, shoulders relaxed, sure.
But he had noticed her. Had held her eyes. Her breath froze as a heat flowed through her.
She tracked them, mostly him, down the shore. Her mind looking one way, her desire the other. Her body watched Chase Andrews, not her heart.
The next day she returned—same tide, different time, but no one was there, just noisy sandpipers and wave-riding sand crabs.
She tried to force herself to avoid that beach and stick to the marsh, searching for bird nests and feathers. Stay safe, feeding grits to gulls. Life had made her an expert at mashing feelings into a storable size.
But loneliness has a compass of its own. And she went back to the beach to look for him the next day. And the next.
ATE ONE AFTERNOON
, after watching for Chase Andrews, Kya walks from her shack and lies back on a sliver of beach, slick from the last wave. She stretches her arms over her head, brushing them against the wet sand, and extends her legs, toes pointed. Eyes closed, she rolls slowly toward the sea. Her hips and arms leave slight indentions in the glistening sand, brightening and then dimming as she moves. Rolling nearer the waves, she senses the ocean’s roar through the length of her body and feels the question:
When will the sea touch me? Where will it touch me first?
The foamy surge rushes the shore, reaching toward her. Tingling with expectancy, she breathes deep. Turns more and more slowly. With each revolution, just before her face sweeps the sand, she lifts her head gently and takes in the sun-salt smell.
I am close, very close. It is coming. When will I feel it?
A fever builds. The sand wetter beneath her, the rumble of surf louder. Even slower, by inches she moves, waiting for the touch. Soon, soon. Almost feeling it before it comes.
She wants to open her eyes to peek, to see how much longer. But she resists, squinting her lids even tighter, the sky bright behind them, giving no hints.
Suddenly she shrieks as the power rushes beneath her, fondles her thighs, between her legs, flows along her back, swirling under her head, pulling her hair in inky strands. She rolls faster into the deepening wave, against streaming shells and ocean bits, the water embracing her. Pushing against the sea’s strong body, she is grasped, held. Not alone.
Kya sits up and opens her eyes to the ocean foaming around her in soft white patterns, always changing.
HASE HAD GLANCED
at her on the beach, she’d already gone to Jumpin’s wharf twice in one week. Not admitting to herself that she hoped to see Chase there. Being noticed by someone had lit a social cord. And now, she asked Jumpin’, “How’s Mabel doing, anyway? Are any of your grandkids home?” like the old days. Jumpin’ noticed the change, knew better than to comment. “Yessiree, got fou’ wif us right now. House full up wif giggles and I don’t know whut all.”
But a few mornings later when Kya motored to the wharf, Jumpin’ was nowhere to be seen. Brown pelicans, hunched up on posts, eyed her as though they were minding shop. Kya smiled at them.
A touch on her shoulder made her jump.
“Hi.” She turned to see Chase standing behind her. She dropped her smile.
“I’m Chase Andrews.” His eyes, ice-pack blue, pierced her own. He seemed completely comfortable to stare into her.
She said nothing, but shifted her weight.
“I’ve seen ya around some. Ya know, over the years, in the marsh. What’s yo’ name?” For a moment he thought she wasn’t going to speak; maybe she was dumb or spoke a primal language, like some said. A less self-assured man might have walked away.
“Kya.” Obviously, he didn’t remember their sidewalk-bicycle encounter or know her in any way except as the Marsh Girl.
“Kya—that’s different. But nice. You wanta go for a picnic? In my boat, this Sunday.”
She looked past him, taking time to evaluate his words, but couldn’t see them to an end. Here was a chance to be with someone.
Finally she said, “Okay.” He told her to meet him at the oak peninsula north of Point Beach at noon. Then he stepped into his blue-and-white ski boat, metal bits gleaming from every possible surface, and accelerated away.
She turned at the sound of more footsteps. Jumpin’ scurried up the dock. “Hi, Miss Kya. Sorry, I been totin’ empty crates over yonder. Fill ’er up?”
On the way home, she cut the motor and drifted, the shore in sight. Leaning against the old knapsack, watching the sky, she recited poetry by heart, as she did sometimes. One of her favorites was John Masefield’s “Sea Fever”:
. . . all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
Kya recalled a poem written by a lesser-known poet, Amanda Hamilton, published recently in the local newspaper she’d bought at the Piggly Wiggly:
Love is a caged beast,
Eating its own flesh.
Love must be free to wander,
To land upon its chosen shore
The words made her think of Tate, and her breathing stopped. All he’d needed was to find something better and he was gone. Didn’t even come to say good-bye.
, but Tate had come back to see her.
The day before he was to bus home that Fourth of July, Dr. Blum, the professor who’d hired him, walked into the protozoology lab and asked Tate if he’d like to join a group of renowned ecologists for a birding expedition over the weekend.
“I’ve noticed your interest in ornithology and wondered if you’d like to come. I only have room for one student, and I thought of you.”
“Yes, absolutely. I’ll be there.” After Dr. Blum left, Tate stood there, alone, amid lab tables, microscopes, and the hum of the autoclave, wondering how he’d folded so fast. How quickly he’d jumped to impress his professor. The pride of being singled out, the only student invited.
His next chance to go home—and only for one night—had been fifteen days later. He was frantic to apologize to Kya, who would understand after she learned of Dr. Blum’s invitation.
He’d cut throttle as he left the sea and turned into the channel, where logs were lined with the glistening backs of sunbathing turtles. Almost halfway, he spotted her boat carefully hidden in tall cord grass. Instantly, he slowed and saw her up ahead, kneeling on a wide sandbar, apparently fascinated by some small crustacean.
Her head low to the ground, she hadn’t seen him or heard his
slow-moving boat. He quietly turned his skiff into reeds, out of view. He’d known for years that she sometimes spied on him, peeping through needle brush. On impulse, he would do the same.
Barefoot, dressed in cutoff jeans and a white T-shirt, she stood up, stretching her arms high. Showcasing her wasp-thin waist. She knelt again and scooped sand in her hands, sifting it through her fingers, examining organisms left squiggling in her palm. He smiled at the young biologist, absorbed, oblivious. He imagined her standing at the back of the birding group, trying not to be noticed but being the first to spot and identify every bird. Shyly and softly, she would have listed the precise species of grasses woven into each nest, or the age in days of a female fledgling based on the emerging colors of her wingtips. Exquisite minutiae beyond any guidebook or knowledge of the esteemed ecology group. The smallest specifics on which a species spins. The essence.
Suddenly Tate startled as Kya sprang to her feet, sand spilling from her fingers, and looked upstream, away from Tate. He could barely hear the low churn of an outboard motor coming their way, probably a fisherman or marsh dweller headed to town. A purring sound, common and calm as doves. But Kya grabbed the knapsack, sprinted across the sandbar, and scrambled into tall grass. Squatting low to the ground and snatching glances to see if the boat had come into view, she duck-walked toward her boat. Knees lifting nearly to her chin. She was closer to Tate now, and he saw her eyes, dark and crazed. When she reached her boat, she hunkered beside its girth, head low.
The fisherman—a merry-faced, hatted old man—puttered into view, saw neither Kya nor Tate, and disappeared beyond the bend. But she remained frozen, listening until the motor whined away, then stood, dabbing her brow. Continued to look in the direction of the boat as a deer eyes the empty brush of a departed panther.
On some level he knew she behaved this way, but since the feather game, had not witnessed the raw, unpeeled core. How tormented, isolated, and strange.
He’d been at college less than two months but had already stepped directly into the world he wanted, analyzing the stunning symmetry of the DNA molecule as if he’d crawled inside a glistening cathedral of coiling atoms and climbed the winding, acidic rungs of the helix. Seeing that all life depends on this precise and intricate code transcribed on fragile, organic slivers, which would perish instantly in a slightly warmer or colder world. At last, surrounded by enormous questions and people as curious as he to find the answers, drawing him toward his goal of research biologist in his own lab, interacting with other scientists.
Kya’s mind could easily live there, but she could not. Breathing hard, he stared at his decision hiding there in cord grass: Kya or everything else.
“Kya, Kya, I just can’t do this,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”
After she moved away, he got into his boat and motored back toward the ocean. Swearing at the coward inside who would not tell her good-bye.
The night after seeing Chase Andrews on Jumpin’s wharf, Kya sat at her kitchen table in the easy flicker of lantern light. She’d started cooking again, and she nibbled on a supper of buttermilk biscuits, turnips, and pinto beans, reading while she ate. But thoughts of the picnic-date with Chase the next day unraveled every sentence.
Kya stood and walked into the night, into the creamy light of a three-quarter moon. The marsh’s soft air fell silklike around her shoulders. The moonlight chose an unexpected path through the pines, laying shadows about in rhymes. She strolled like a sleepwalker as the moon pulled herself naked from the waters and climbed limb by limb through the oaks. The slick mud of the lagoon shore glowed in the intense light, and hundreds of fireflies dotted the woods. Wearing a secondhand white dress with a flowing skirt and waving her arms slowly about, Kya waltzed to the music of katydids and leopard frogs. She slid her hands along her sides and up her neck. Then moved them along her thighs as she held Chase Andrews’s face in her eyes. She wanted him to
touch her this way. Her breathing deepened. No one had ever looked at her as he did. Not even Tate.
She danced among the pale wings of mayflies, fluttering above the bright moon-mud.
HE NEXT MORNING
, she rounded the peninsula and saw Chase in his boat, just offshore. Here in daylight, reality drifted ahead, waiting, and her throat dried. Steering onto the beach, she stepped out and pulled her boat in, the hull crunching against the sand.
Chase drifted up alongside. “Hi.”
Looking over her shoulder, she nodded. He stepped out of his boat and held out his hand to her—long tanned fingers, an open palm. She hesitated; touching someone meant giving part of herself away, a piece she never got back.
Even so, she placed her hand lightly in his. He steadied her as she stepped into the stern and sat on the cushioned bench. A warm, fine day beamed down, and Kya, wearing denim cutoffs and a white cotton blouse—an outfit she’d copied from the others—looked normal. He sat next to her, and she felt his sleeve slide gently across her arm.
Chase eased the boat toward the ocean. The open water tossed the boat more than the quiet marsh, and she knew the pitching motion of the sea would brush her arm against his. That anticipation of touch kept her eyes straight ahead, but she did not move away.
Finally, a larger wave rose and dipped, and his arm, solid and warm, caressed hers. Jarring away, then touching again with every rise and drop. And when a swell surged beneath them, his thigh brushed against hers and her breathing stopped.
As they headed south along the coast, theirs the only boat in this remoteness, he accelerated. Ten minutes on, several miles of white
beach stretched along the tide line, protected from the rest of the world by a rounded, thick forest. Up ahead, Point Beach unfolded into the water like a brilliant white fan.
Chase had not said a word since his greeting; she had not spoken at all. He glided the boat onto shore and tucked the picnic basket in the boat’s shadow on the sand.
“Wanta walk?” he asked.
They strolled along the water, each small wave rushing their ankles in little eddies and then sucking at their feet as it was pulled back into the sea.
He didn’t hold her hand, but now and then, in natural movement, their fingers brushed. Occasionally they knelt to examine a shell or a strand of transparent seaweed spiraled into art. Chase’s blue eyes were playful; he smiled easily. His skin was dark tan like hers. Together they were tall, elegant, similar.
Kya knew Chase had chosen not to go to college but to work for his dad. He was a standout in town, the tom turkey. And somewhere within, she worried she was also a piece of beach art, a curiosity to be turned over in his hands, then tossed back on the sand. But she walked on. She’d given love a chance; now she wanted simply to fill the empty spaces. Ease the loneliness while walling off her heart.
After a half mile he faced her and bowed low, sweeping his arm in an exaggerated invitation for them to sit on the sand, against a driftwood log. They dug their feet into the white crystals and leaned back.
From his pocket Chase pulled out a harmonica.
“Oh,” she said, “you play.” The words felt rough on her tongue.
“Not very good. But when I got an audience leanin’ against driftwood on the beach . . .” Closing his eyes, he played “Shenandoah,” his palm fluttering on the instrument like a bird trapped against glass. It
was a lovely, plaintive sound, like a note from a faraway home. Then, abruptly, he stopped midsong and picked up a shell slightly larger than a nickel, creamy white with bright splotches of red and purple.
“Hey, look at this,” he said.
“Oh, it’s an ornate scallop,
,” Kya said. “I only see them rarely. There are many of that genus here, but this particular species usually inhabits regions south of this latitude because these waters are too cool for them.”
He stared at her. Of all the gossip, no one ever mentioned that the Marsh Girl, the girl who couldn’t spell
, knew the Latin names of shells, where they occurred—and why, forchristsake.
“I don’t know about that,” he said, “but look here, it’s twisted.” The little wings flaring on either side of the hinge were crooked, and there was a perfect little hole at the base. He turned it over in his palm. “Here, you keep it. You’re the shell girl.”
“Thanks.” She slid it into her pocket.
He played a few more songs, ending with a stampede of “Dixie,” and then they walked back to the wicker picnic basket and sat on a plaid blanket eating cold fried chicken, salt-cured ham and biscuits, and potato salad. Sweet and dill pickles. Slices of four-layer cake with half-inch-thick caramel icing. All homemade, wrapped in wax paper. He opened two bottles of Royal Crown Cola and poured them into Dixie cups—her first drink of soda pop in her life. The generous spread was incredible to her, with the neatly arranged cloth napkins, plastic plates and forks. Even minuscule pewter salt and pepper shakers. His mother must have packed it, she thought, not knowing he was meeting the Marsh Girl.
They talked softly of sea things—pelicans gliding and sandpipers prancing—no touching, little laughing. As Kya pointed out a jagged cord of pelicans, he nodded and maneuvered closer to her, so their
shoulders brushed lightly. When she looked at him, he lifted her chin with his hand and kissed her. He touched her neck lightly, then feathered his fingers over her blouse toward her breast. Kissing and holding her, more firmly now, he leaned back until they were lying on the blanket. Slowly he moved until he was on top of her, pushed his groin between her legs, and in one movement pulled up her blouse. She jerked her head away and squirmed out from under him, her blacker-than-night eyes blazing. Tugged her top down.
“Easy, easy. It’s okay.”
She lay there—hair strewn across the sand, face flushed, red mouth slightly parted—stunning. Carefully, he reached up to touch her face, but fast as a cat, she sprang away, and stood.
Kya breathed hard. Last night, dancing alone on the lagoon shore, swaying about with the moon and mayflies, she’d imagined she was ready. Thought she knew all about mating from watching doves. No one had ever told her about sex, and her only experience with foreplay had been with Tate. But she knew the details from her biology books and had seen more creatures copulating—and it wasn’t merely “rubbing their bottoms together” like Jodie had said—than most people ever would.
But this was too abrupt—picnic, then mate the Marsh Girl. Even male birds woo the females for a while, flashing brilliant feathers, building bowers, staging magnificent dances and love songs. Yes, Chase had laid out a banquet, but she was worth more than fried chicken. And “Dixie” didn’t count as a love song. She should’ve known it would be like this. Only time male mammals hover is when they’re in the rut.
The silence grew as they stared at each other, broken only by the sound of their breathing and the breakers beyond. Chase sat up and reached for her arm, but she jerked it away.
“I’m sorry. It’s okay,” he said as he stood. True, he’d come here to snag her, to be the first, but watching those eyes firing, he was entranced.
He tried again. “C’mon, Kya. I said I’m sorry. Let’s just forget it. I’ll take you back to yo’ boat.”
At that she turned and walked across the sand toward the woods. Her long body swaying.
“What’re ya doin’? You can’t walk back from here. It’s miles.”
But she was already in the trees, and ran a crow-route, first inland, then across the peninsula, toward her boat. The area was new to her, but blackbirds guided her across the inland marsh. She didn’t slow for bogs or gullies, splashed right through creeks, jumped logs.
Finally, she bent over and, heaving, fell to her knees. Cussing worn-out words. As long as she ranted, sobs couldn’t surface. But nothing could stop the burning shame and sharp sadness. A simple hope of being with someone, of actually being wanted, of being touched, had drawn her in. But these hurried groping hands were only a
, not a
She listened for sounds of him coming after her, not sure whether she wanted him to break through the brush and hold her, begging for forgiveness, or not. Raging again at that. Then, spent, she stood and walked the rest of the way to her boat.