Where the Crawdads Sing (18 page)

BOOK: Where the Crawdads Sing
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The Rips


From the beach, Kya ran to her rig and roared full throttle into the sea, headed straight for the rips. Holding her head back, she screamed, “You mean, SHIT . . . SUMBITCH!” Sloppy and confused waves jerked the bow sideways, pulling against the tiller. As always, the ocean seemed angrier than the marsh. Deeper, it had more to say.

Long ago, Kya’d learned how to read ordinary currents and riptides; how to ride them out or break away by cutting perpendicular to their course. But she’d never headed straight into the deeper currents, some of them stirred by the Gulf Stream, which gushes four billion cubic feet of water every second, more power than all the land rivers on Earth combined—all streaming just beyond North Carolina’s outstretched arms. The surge produces cruel backcurrents, fisted eddies, and reverse circulations that swirl with coastal riptides, birthing one of the nastiest snake pits of the planet’s seas. Kya had avoided these areas all her life, but not now. Today she aimed straight for their throats, anything to outrun the pain, the anger.

Roiling water pushed toward her, rising under the bow and yanking
the boat starboard. It heaved heavily, then righted. She was pulled into a furious rip, which carried her a quarter faster. Turning out of it seemed too risky, so she fought to steer with the current, watching for sandbars, which formed ever-shifting barriers beneath the surface. One glancing touch could flip her.

Waves broke over her back, drenching her hair. Fast-moving, dark clouds streamed just above her head, blocking the sunlight and obscuring the signs of eddies and turbulence. Sucking the day’s heat.

Still, fear eluded her, even as she longed to feel terrified, anything to dislodge the blade jammed against her heart.

Suddenly the dark tumbling waters of the current shifted, and the small rig spun starboard, rearing on its side. The force slammed her onto the bottom of the boat, seawater sloshing over her. Stunned, she sat in the water, bracing for another wave.

Of course, she was nowhere near the actual Gulf Stream. This was the training camp, the mere playing fields for the serious sea. But to her, she had ventured into the mean and meant to ride it out. Win something. Kill the pain.

Having lost all sense of symmetry and pattern, slate-colored waves broke from every angle. She dragged herself back into her seat and took the tiller but didn’t know where to steer. Land slung as a distant line, surfacing only now and then between whitecaps. Just when she glimpsed solid earth, the boat spun or tilted and she lost sight of it. She’d been so sure about riding the current, but it had grown muscular, hauling her farther into the furious, darkening sea. The clouds bunched and settled low, blocking the sun. Wet through, she shivered as her energy drained, making it difficult to steer. She’d brought no foul-weather gear, no food, no water.

Finally the fear came. From a place deeper than the sea. Fear from knowing she would be alone again. Probably always. A life sentence.
Ugly gasping noises passed from her throat as the boat skewed and rolled broadside. Tipping dangerously with each wave.

By now six inches of foamy water covered the floor of the boat, burning her bare feet with its cold. How quickly the sea and clouds defeated the spring heat. Folding one arm over her chest, she tried to warm herself as she steered weakly with the other hand, not fighting the water, just moving with it.

At last, the waters calmed, and although the current swept her along to its own purpose, the ocean no longer thrashed and churned. Up ahead she saw a small, elongated sandbar, maybe a hundred feet long, glistening with sea and wet shells. Fighting the strong underflow, and just at the right second, Kya jerked the tiller and turned out of the current. She steered around to the leeward side of the bar and, in the stiller waters, beached as gently as a first kiss. She stepped onto the narrow slip and sank to the sand. Lay back and felt the solid land against her.

She knew it wasn’t Chase she mourned, but a life defined by rejections. As the sky and clouds struggled overhead, she said out loud, “I have to do life alone. But I knew this. I’ve known a long time that people don’t stay.”

It hadn’t been a coincidence that Chase slyly mentioned marriage as bait, immediately bedded her, then dropped her for someone else. She knew from her studies that males go from one female to the next, so why had she fallen for this man? His fancy ski boat was the same as the pumped-up neck and outsized antlers of a buck deer in rut: appendages to ward off other males and attract one female after another. Yet she had fallen for the same ruse as Ma:
leapfrogging sneaky fuckers
. What lies had Pa told her; to what expensive restaurants had he taken her before his money gave out and he brought her home to his real territory—a swamp shack? Perhaps love is best left as a fallow field.

Speaking out loud, she recited an Amanda Hamilton poem:

“I must let go now.

Let you go.

Love is too often

The answer for staying.

Too seldom the reason

For going.

I drop the line

And watch you drift away.

“All along

You thought

The fiery current

Of your lover’s breast

Pulled you to the deep.

But it was my heart-tide

Releasing you

To float adrift

With seaweed.”

The weak sun found space between the heavy-bottomed clouds and touched the sandbar. Kya looked around. The current, the grand sweep of the sea, and this sand had conspired as a delicate catch-net, because all around her lay the most astonishing collection of shells she’d ever seen. The angle of the bar and its gentle flow gathered the shells on the leeward side and laid them gently upon the sand without breaking them. She spotted several rare ones and many of her favorites, intact and pearly. Still glistening.

Moving among them, she chose the most precious and stashed them in a pile. She flipped the boat, drained the water, and lined the shells carefully along the bottom seam. Now she planned her trip
back by standing tall and studying the waters. She read the sea and, having learned from the shells, would embark from the leeward side and head straight for land from here. Avoiding the strongest current altogether.

As she pushed off, she knew no one would ever see this sandbar again. The elements had created a brief and shifting smile of sand, angled just so. The next tide, the next current would design another sandbar, and another, but never this one. Not the one who caught her. The one who told her a thing or two.

•   •   •

, she recited her favorite Amanda Hamilton poem.

“Fading moon, follow

My footsteps

Through light unbroken

By land shadows,

And share my senses

That feel the cool

Shoulders of silence.

“Only you know

How one side of a moment

Is stretched by loneliness

For miles

To the other edge,

And how much sky

Is in one breath

When time slides backward

From the sand.”

If anyone understood loneliness, the moon would.

Drifting back to the predictable cycles of tadpoles and the ballet of fireflies, Kya burrowed deeper into the wordless wilderness. Nature seemed the only stone that would not slip midstream.

A Book


The rusted-out mailbox, mounted on a pole Pa cut, stood at the end of the road that had no name. Kya’s only mail was bulk postings sent to all residents. She had no bills to pay, no girlfriends or old aunts to send silly-sweet notes. Except for that one letter from Ma years ago, her mail was a neutral thing, and sometimes she wouldn’t empty the box for weeks.

But in her twenty-second year, more than a year after Chase and Pearl announced their engagement, she walked the sandy lane, blistering with heat, to the mailbox every day and looked inside. Finally one morning, she found a bulky manila envelope and slid the contents—an advance copy of
The Sea Shells of the Eastern Seaboard
, by Catherine Danielle Clark—into her hands. She breathed in, no one to show it to.

Sitting on her beach, she looked at every page. When Kya had written to the publisher after Tate’s initial contact and submitted more drawings, they sent her a contract by return mail. Because all her paintings and text for each shell sample had been completed for years, her editor, Mr. Robert Foster, wrote to her that the book
would be published in record time and that her second on birds would follow soon after. He included an advance payment of five thousand dollars. Pa would have tripped over his gimpy leg and spilled his poke.

Now in her hands, the final copy—every brushstroke, every carefully thought-out color, every word of the natural histories, printed in a book. There were also drawings of the creatures who live inside—how they eat, how they move, how they mate—because people forget about creatures who live in shells.

She touched the pages and remembered each shell and the story of finding it, where it lay on the beach, the season, the sunrise. A family album.

Over the coming months, up and down the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Florida, and New England, gift shops and bookstores put her book in their windows or on display tables. The royalty checks would come in every six months, they said, and might be several thousand dollars each.

•   •   •

, she drafted a letter of thanks to Tate, but as she read it over, her heart paused. A note did not seem enough. Because of his kindness, her love of the marsh could now be her life’s work. Her life. Every feather, shell, or insect she collected could be shared with others, and no longer would she have to dig through mud for her supper. Might not have to eat grits every day.

Jumpin’ had told her Tate was working as an ecologist at the new institute and laboratory near Sea Oaks, which had assigned him a spiffed-up research boat. At times, she’d seen him in the distance, but steered clear.

She added a postscript to the note: “If you’re near my place
sometime, stop by. I’d like to give you a copy of the book,” and addressed it to him at the lab.

The next week she hired a fix-it man, Jerry, who put in running water, a water heater, and a full bathroom with a claw-foot tub in the back bedroom. He set a sink in a cabinet topped with tiles and installed a flush toilet. Electricity was brought in, and Jerry put in a range and new refrigerator. Kya insisted on keeping the old woodstove, firewood piled next to it, because it heated the shack, but mostly because it had baked a thousand biscuits from her mother’s heart. What if Ma came back and her stove was gone? He made kitchen cabinets of heart pine, hung a new front door, a new screen on the porch, and made shelves for her specimens from floor to ceiling. She ordered a sofa, chairs, beds, mattresses, and rugs from Sears, Roebuck but kept the old kitchen table. And now she had a real closet to store a few mementos—a little scrap-closet of her fallen-away family.

As before, the shack stood unpainted on the outside, the weathered pine boards and tin roof rich in gray and rust colors, brushed by Spanish moss from the overhanging oak. Less rickety, but still woven into the weft of the marsh. Kya continued sleeping on the porch, except in the coldest of winter. But now she had a bed.

•   •   •

, Jumpin’ told Kya developers were coming to the area with big plans to drain the “murky swamp” and build hotels. Now and then, over the last year she’d seen large machines cutting entire stands of oaks in a week, then digging channels to dry the marsh. When finished, they moved on to new spots, leaving tracks of thirst and hardpan behind. Apparently, they had not read Aldo Leopold’s book.

A poem by Amanda Hamilton said it clearly.

Child to child

Eye to eye

We grew as one,

Sharing souls.

Wing by wing,

Leaf by leaf

You left this world,

You died before the child.

My friend, the Wild.

Kya didn’t know if her family owned the land or just squatted it, as had most marsh people for four centuries. Over the years, searching for clues of Ma’s whereabouts, she’d read every scrap of paper in the shack and had never seen anything like a deed.

As soon as she got home from Jumpin’s, she wrapped the old Bible in a cloth and took it to the Barkley Cove courthouse. The county clerk, a white-haired man with an enormous forehead and tiny shoulders, brought out a large leather volume of records, some maps, and a few aerial photographs, which he spread on the counter. Running her finger across the map, Kya pointed out her lagoon and outlined the rough boundaries of what she thought of as her land. The clerk checked the reference number and searched for the deed in an old wooden filing cabinet.

“Yep, here et is,” he said. “It were surveyed proper and bought up in 1897 by a Mr. Napier Clark.”

“That’s my grandpa,” Kya said. She thumbed through the thin pages of the Bible, and there, in the records of births and deaths, was one Napier Murphy Clark. Such a grand name. The same as her brother’s. She told the clerk her pa was dead, which he probably was.

“It’s ne’er been sold. So, yessiree bobtail, I reckon it b’longs to you.
But I’m afred to tell ya, there’re some back taxes, Miz Clark, and to keep the land you gotta pay ’em. In fact, ma’am, the way the law reads, whoever comes along and pays off them back taxes owns the land even if they don’t got no deed.”

“How much?” Kya had not opened a bank account, and all the cash she owned after the improvements to her house, some three thousand dollars, was right in her knapsack. But they must be talking forty years of back taxes—thousands and thousands of dollars.

“Well, let’s lookee here. It’s listed as ‘waste-land cateegory,’ so the taxes fer most of them years was about five dollars. Let’s see here, I gotta calc’late it.” He stepped over to a fat and clunky adding machine, punched in numbers, and, after every entry, pulled back the crank handle, which made a churning sound as if it were actually summing up.

“Looks like it’ll be ’bout eight hundr’d dollars total—put the land free and clear.”

Kya walked out of the courthouse with a full deed in her name for three hundred ten acres of lush lagoons, sparkling marsh, oak forests, and a long private beach on the North Carolina coastline. “Wasteland
. Murky swamp.”

Pulling back into her lagoon at dusk, she had a talk with the heron. “It’s all right. That spot’s your’n!”

•   •   •

there was a note from Tate in her mailbox, which seemed strange and somehow formal since he’d only ever left messages for her on the feather stump. He thanked her for the invitation to stop by her place for a copy of her book and added that he’d be there that very afternoon.

Carrying one of the six copies of her new book the publishers had
given her, she waited on the old reading-log. In about twenty minutes she heard the sound of Tate’s old boat chugging up the channel and stood. As he eased into view from the undergrowth, they waved and smiled softly. Both guarded. The last time he’d pulled in here, she’d hurled rocks in his face.

After tying up, Tate stepped up to her. “Kya, your book is a wonder.” He leaned slightly forward, as if to hug her, but the hardened rinds of her heart held her back.

Instead she handed him the book. “Here, Tate. This is for you.”

“Thank you, Kya,” he said as he opened it and paged through. He didn’t mention that, of course, he’d already bought one at the Sea Oaks Bookshelf and marveled at every page. “Nothing like this has ever been published. I’m sure this is just a beginning for you.”

She simply bowed her head and smiled slightly.

Then, turning to the title page, he said, “Oh, you haven’t signed it. You have to inscribe it for me. Please.”

She jerked her head up at him. Had not thought of that. What words could she possibly write to Tate?

He took a pen from his jeans pocket and handed it to her.

She took it and, after a few seconds, wrote:

To the Feather Boy

Thank you

From the Marsh Girl

Tate read the words, then turned away, staring far across the marsh because he couldn’t hold her. Finally, he lifted her hand and squeezed it.

“Thank you, Kya.”

“It was you, Tate,” she said, and then thought,
It was always you
. One side of her heart longing, the other shielding.

He stood for a minute, and when she didn’t say more, he turned to go. But as he got into his boat, he said, “Kya, when you see me out in the marsh, please don’t hide in the grass like a spotted fawn. Just call out to me and we can do some exploring together. Okay?”

“All right.”

“Thanks again for the book.”

“Good-bye, Tate.” She watched until he disappeared in the thicket and then said, “I could have at least invited him in for tea. That wouldn’t hurt anything. I could be his friend.” Then with rare pride she thought of her book. “I could be his colleague.”

•   •   •

, Kya motored to Jumpin’s wharf, another copy of her book tucked in her knapsack. As she approached, she saw him leaning against the wall of his weathered shop. He stood and waved to her, but she did not wave back. Knowing something was different, he waited silently as she tied up. She stepped up to him, lifted his hand, and put the book in his palm. At first he didn’t understand, but she pointed to her name and said, “I’m okay now, Jumpin’. Thank you, and thank Mabel for all you did for me.”

He stared at her. In another time and place, an old black man and a young white woman might have hugged. But not there, not then. She covered his hand with hers, turned, and motored away. It was the first time she’d seen him speechless. She kept on buying gas and supplies from him but never accepted a handout from them again. And each time she came to his wharf, she saw her book propped up in the tiny window for all to see. As a father would have shown it.

BOOK: Where the Crawdads Sing
13.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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