Read Where the Crawdads Sing Online
Authors: Delia Owens
She whirled around. “Oh, really! YOU are the one who left me, who didn’t come back when you promised, who never came back. You are the one who never wrote to explain why or even if you were alive or dead. You didn’t have the nerve to break up with me. You were not man enough to face me. Just disappeared. CHICKEN SHIT ASSHOLE. You come floating in here after all these years . . . You’re worse than he is. He might not be perfect, but you’re worse by a long shot.” She stopped abruptly, staring at him.
Palms open, he pleaded, “You’re right about me, Kya. Everything you said is true. I was a chicken shit. And I had no right to bring up Chase. It’s none of my business. And I’ll never bother you again. I just
need to apologize and explain things. I’ve been sorry for years, Kya, please.”
She hung like a sail where the wind just went out. Tate was more than her first love: he shared her devotion to the marsh, had taught her to read, and was the only connection, however small, to her vanished family. He was a page of time, a clipping pasted in a scrapbook because it was all she had. Her heart pounded as the fury dissipated.
“Look at you—so beautiful. A woman. You doing okay? Still selling mussels?” He was astonished at how she had changed, her features more refined yet haunting, her cheekbones sharp, lips full.
“Here, I brought you something.” From an envelope he handed her a tiny red cheek feather from a northern flicker. She thought of tossing it on the ground, but she’d never found this feather; why shouldn’t she keep it? She tucked it in her pocket and didn’t thank him.
Talking fast, he said, “Kya, leaving you was not only wrong, it was the worst thing I have done or ever will do in my life. I have regretted it for years and will always regret it. I think of you every day. For the rest of my life, I’ll be sorry I left you. I truly thought that you wouldn’t be able to leave the marsh and live in the other world, so I didn’t see how we could stay together. But that was wrong, and it was bullshit that I didn’t come back and talk to you about it. I knew how many times you’d been left before. I didn’t want to know how badly I hurt you. I was not man enough. Just like you said.” He finished and watched her.
Finally she said, “What do you want now, Tate?”
“If only you could, some way, forgive me.” He breathed in and waited.
Kya looked at her toes. Why should the injured, the still bleeding, bear the onus of forgiveness? She didn’t answer.
“I just had to tell you, Kya.”
When still she said nothing, he continued. “I’m in graduate school, zoology. Protozoology mostly. You would love it.”
She couldn’t imagine it, and looked back over the lagoon to see if Chase was coming. Tate didn’t miss this; he’d guessed right off she was out here waiting for Chase.
Just last week Tate had watched Chase, in his white dinner jacket, at the Christmas gala, dancing with different women. The dance, like most Barkley Cove events, had been held at the high school gymnasium. As “Wooly Bully” struggled from a too-small hi-fi set up under the basketball hoop, Chase whirled a brunette. When “Mr. Tambourine Man” began, he left the dance floor and the brunette, and shared pulls of Wild Turkey from his Tar Heels flask with other former jocks. Tate was close by chatting with two of his old high school teachers and heard Chase say, “Yeah, she’s wild as a she-fox in a snare. Just what you’d expect from a marsh minx. Worth every bit a’ the gas money.”
Tate had to force himself to walk away.
COLD WIND WHIPPED
and rippled across the lagoon. Expecting Chase, Kya had run out in her jeans and light sweater. She folded her arms tightly around herself.
“You’re freezing; let’s go inside.” Tate motioned toward the shack, where smoke puffed from the rusty stovepipe.
“Tate, I think you should leave now.” She threw several quick glances at the channel. What if Chase arrived with Tate here?
“Kya, please, just for a few minutes. I really want to see your collections again.”
As answer, she turned and ran to the shack, and Tate followed her. Inside the porch, he stopped short. Her collections had grown from a child’s hobby to a natural history museum of the marsh. He lifted a
scallop shell, labeled with a watercolor of the beach where it was found, plus insets showing the creature eating smaller creatures of the sea. For each specimen—hundreds, maybe thousands of them—it was the same. He had seen some of them before, as a boy, but now as a doctoral candidate in zoology, he saw them as a scientist.
He turned to her, still standing in the doorway. “Kya, these are wonderful, beautifully detailed. You could publish these. This could be a book—lots of books.”
“No, no. They’re just for me. They help me learn, is all.”
“Kya, listen to me. You know better than anybody that the reference books for this area are almost nonexistent. With these notations, technical data, and splendid drawings, these are the books everyone’s been waiting for.” It was true. Ma’s old guidebooks to the shells, plants, birds, and mammals of the area were the only ones printed, and they were pitifully inaccurate, with only simple black-and-white pictures and sketchy information on each entry.
“If I can take a few samples, I’ll find out about a publisher, see what they say.”
She stared, not knowing how to see this. Would she have to go somewhere, meet people? Tate didn’t miss the questions in her eyes.
“You wouldn’t have to leave home. You could mail your samples to a publisher. It would bring some money in. Probably not a huge amount, but maybe you wouldn’t have to dig mussels the rest of your life.”
Still, Kya didn’t say anything. Once again Tate was nudging her to care for herself, not just offering to care for her. It seemed that all her life, he had been there. Then gone.
“Give it a try, Kya. What can it hurt?”
She finally agreed that he could take some samples, and he chose a selection of soft watercolors of shells and the great blue heron because
of her detailed sketches of the bird in each season, and a delicate oil of the curved eyebrow feather.
Tate lifted the painting of the feather—a profusion of hundreds of the thinnest brushstrokes of rich colors culminating into a deep black so reflective it seemed sunlight was touching the canvas. The detail of a slight tear in the shaft was so distinctive that both Tate and Kya realized at the same second that this was a painting of the very first feather he’d gifted her in the forest. They looked up from the feather into each other’s eyes. She turned away from him. Forcing herself not to feel. She would not be drawn back to someone she couldn’t trust.
He stepped up to her and touched her shoulder. Tried gently to turn her around. “Kya, I’m so sorry about leaving you. Please, can’t you forgive me?”
Finally, she turned and looked at him. “I don’t know how to, Tate. I could never believe you again. Please, Tate, you have to go now.”
“I know. Thank you for listening to me, for giving me this chance to apologize.” He waited for a beat, but she said no more. At least he was leaving with something. The hope for a publisher was a reason to contact her again.
“Good-bye, Kya.” She didn’t answer. He stared at her, and she looked into his eyes but then turned away. He walked out the door toward his boat.
She waited until he was gone, then sat on the damp, cold sand of the lagoon waiting for Chase. Speaking out loud, she repeated the words she’d said to Tate. “Chase may not be perfect, but you’re worse.”
But as she stared deep into the dark waters, Tate’s words about Chase—“
drive away after a party with a blonde in his pickup
”—wouldn’t leave her mind.
until a week after Christmas. Pulling into the lagoon, he said he could stay all night, ring in the New Year together. Arm in arm, they walked to the shack, where the same fog, it seemed, draped across the roof. After lovemaking, they cuddled in blankets around the stove. The dense air couldn’t hold another molecule of moisture, so when the kettle boiled, heavy droplets swelled on the cool windowpanes.
Chase slipped the harmonica from his pocket and, pressing it along his lips, played the wistful tune “Molly Malone.” “Now her ghost wheels her barrow through the streets broad and narrow, singing cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o.”
It seemed to Kya that when Chase played these melancholy tunes was when he most had a soul.
At beer time the Dog-Gone served up better gossip than the diner. The sheriff and Joe stepped inside the elongated, jam-packed beer hall and up to the bar, made from a single longleaf pine, which extended down the left side of the room, seemingly out of sight into the dim. Locals—all men, since women weren’t allowed—bunched up to the bar or sat at scattered tables. The two barkeeps roasted hot dogs; fried shrimp, oysters, and hush puppies; stirred grits; poured beers and bourbon. The only light emitted from various flashing beer signs, giving off an amber glow, like campfires licking whiskered faces. The
s of billiard balls sounded from the back quarter.
Ed and Joe eased into a midbar cluster of fishermen, and as soon as they ordered Millers and fried oysters, the questions began: Anything new? How come there’s no fingerprints; that part true? Ya guys thoughta ol’ man Hanson? He’s crazy as a loon, be just like sump’m he’d do, climb the tower, push off whoever comes along. This ’un got ya bumfuzzled, ain’t it?
Joe facing one way, Ed the other, they rode the buzz. Answering,
listening, nodding. Then through the hubbub, the sheriff’s ear caught the corner of an even voice, a balanced tone, and turned to face Hal Miller, shrimper crew for Tim O’Neal.
“Can I talk with ya a minute, Sheriff? Alone?”
Ed backed away from the bar. “Sure can, Hal, come with me.” He led him to a small table next to the wall, and they sat. “Need a refill on that beer?”
“No, fine fer now. Thank ya, though.”
“Something on your mind, Hal?”
“Yeah, sure is. Gotta git her out, too. Been drivin’ me a bit ditty.”
“Let’s have it.”
“Oh man.” Hal shook his head. “I don’t know. May be nothing, either that, or I shoulda told ya sooner. I been haunted by what I seen.”
“Just tell me, Hal. Together, we’ll sort out if it’s important or not.”
“Well, it’s about the Chase Andrews thing. It was the very night he died, well, I was crewing for Tim, and we were comin’ into the bay late, way past midnight, and me and Allen Hunt seen that woman, the one people call the Marsh Girl, motoring just outta the bay.”
“Is that so? How long after midnight?”
“Must’a been ’bout one forty-five in the mornin’.”
“Where was she motoring?”
“Well, that’s the thing, Sheriff. She was headed right toward the fire tower. If she stayed her course, she woulda landed at that little bay out from the tower.”
Ed breathed out. “Yeah, Hal. That’s important info. Very important. Can you be sure it was her?”
“Well, Allen and I talked about it at the time and were pretty sure it was her. I mean, we both thought the same thing. Wondered what the hell she was doin’ out that late, cruisin’ along with no lights on. Lucky we seen her, might’ve run her over. Then we just forgot about it.
It was only later I put two and two together and realized it was the same night Chase died at the tower. Well, then I reckoned I better speak up.”
“Did anybody else on the boat see her?”
“Well, I don’t know ’bout that. Others were about, fer sure, we were headin’ in. All hands up. But I never talked to the others ’bout it. Ya know, just no reason to at the time. And haven’t asked ’em since.”
“I understand. Hal, you did the right thing to tell me. It’s your duty to speak up like this. Don’t worry about anything. All you can do is tell me what you saw. I’ll ask you and Allen in to make a statement. Can I buy you that beer now?”
“No, I think I’ll just go on home. G’night.”
“Good night. Thanks again.” As soon as Hal stood, Ed waved for Joe, who had been glancing over every few seconds to read the sheriff’s face. They gave Hal a minute to clear the room with good-byes, then stepped onto the street.
Ed told Joe what Hal had witnessed.
“Man,” Joe said, “that just about does it. Don’t you think?”
“I think the judge may issue a warrant on this. Not sure, and I’d like to be sure before I ask. With a warrant we can search her place for any trace of red fibers that match those found on Chase’s clothes. We gotta find out her story for that night.”
Through the winter, Chase came to Kya’s shack often, usually spending one night each weekend. Even on cold, damp days, they glided through misty thickets, her collecting, him playing whimsical tunes on his harmonica. The notes floated with the fog, dissipating into the darker reaches of the lowland forests, and seemed somehow to be absorbed and memorized by the marsh because whenever Kya passed those channels again, she heard his music.
One morning in early March, Kya eased alone through the sea toward the village, the sky in a frumpy sweater of gray clouds. Chase’s birthday was in two days, and she was headed to the Piggly to buy ingredients for a special supper—featuring her first caramel cake. Had pictured setting the candlelit cake in front of him at the table—an event that hadn’t happened in the kitchen since Ma left. Several times recently he’d said he was saving money for their house. She reckoned she’d better learn to bake.
After securing her boat, as she walked along the dock toward the single file of shops, she saw Chase standing at the end talking with
friends. His arms draped the shoulders of a slim, blond girl. Kya’s mind strained to make sense of this, even as her legs kept moving on their own. She’d never approached him when he was with others or in town, but short of jumping into the sea, there was no way to avoid them.
Chase and his friends turned at once to look at her, and in the same instant, he dropped his arm from the girl. Kya was dressed in white cutoff denims, setting off her long legs. A black braid fell over each breast. The group stopped talking and stared. Knowing she couldn’t run up to him burned her heart with the wrongness of things.
As she reached the end of the wharf, where they stood, he said, “Oh, Kya, hi.”
Looking from him to them, she said, “Hi, Chase.”
She heard him saying, “Kya, you remember Brian, and Tim, Pearl, Tina.” He rattled off a few more names until his voice faded. Turning toward Kya, he said, “And this is Kya Clark.”
Of course, she didn’t remember them; she’d never been introduced to them. Only knew them as Tallskinnyblonde and the rest. She felt like seaweed dragged on a line but managed to smile and say hello. This was the opportunity for which she’d waited. Here she was standing among the friends she wanted to join. Her mind fought for words, something clever to say that might interest them. Finally, two of them greeted her coolly and turned abruptly away, the others following quickly like a school of minnows finning down the street.
“Well, so here we are,” Chase said.
“I don’t want to interrupt anything. I’ve just come for supplies, then back home.”
“You’re not interrupting. I just ran into them. I’ll be out on Sunday, like I said.”
Chase shifted his feet, fingered the shell necklace.
“I’ll see you then,” she said, but he’d already turned to catch the
others. She hurried toward the market, stepping around a family of mallard ducks waddling down Main Street, their bright feet surprisingly orange against the dull pavement. In the Piggly Wiggly, pushing the vision of Chase and the girl from her head, she rounded the end of the bread aisle and saw the truant lady, Mrs. Culpepper, only four feet away. They stood there like a rabbit and a coyote caught together in a yard fence. Kya was now taller than the woman and much more educated, though neither would have thought of that. After all the running, she wanted to bolt, but stood her ground and returned Mrs. Culpepper’s stare. The woman nodded slightly, then moved on.
Kya found the picnic items—cheese, French bread, and cake ingredients—costing all the money she’d managed to save for the occasion. But it seemed someone else’s hand lifted the items and put them into the cart. All she could see was Chase’s arm resting on the girl’s shoulder. She bought a local newspaper because the headlines mentioned a marine laboratory that was to open up the coast nearby.
Once out of the store, head down, she scurried like a robber-ferret to the pier. Back at the shack, she sat down at the kitchen table to read the article about the new lab. Sure enough, a swanky scientific facility was being developed twenty miles south of Barkley Cove near Sea Oaks. Scientists would study the ecology of the marsh, which contributed to the survival of almost half of sea life in one way or another, and . . .
Kya turned the page to continue the story, and there loomed a large picture of Chase and a girl above an engagement announcement:
Bunches of words jumped out, then sobs, and finally ragged heaves. She stood, looking at the paper from a distance. Picked it up again to see—surely she had imagined it. There they were, their faces close together, smiling. The girl, Pearl Stone, beautiful, rich-looking, with a pearl necklace and lace blouse. The one his arm had been around.
Touching the wall, Kya made her way to the porch and fell on the bed, hands over her opened mouth. Then she heard a motor. Abruptly, she sat up, looked toward the lagoon, and saw Chase pulling his boat onto the shore.
Quick as a mouse escaping a lidless box, she slipped out the porch door before he saw her and ran into the woods, away from the lagoon. Squatting behind palmettos, she watched as he went into the shack, calling her. He would see the article spread open on the table. In a few minutes, he came out again and walked toward the beach, figuring he would find her there.
She didn’t budge, even when he came back, still shouting her name. Not until he motored away did she emerge from the brambles. Moving sluggishly, she got food for the gulls and followed the sun to the beach. A strong ocean breeze pushed up the path, so that when she emerged on the beach, at least she had the wind to lean on. She called the gulls and flung large bits of French bread into the air. Then swore louder and meaner than the wind.