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BOOK: Where the Crawdads Sing
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32.
Alibi

1969

Low dark clouds raced over a steel sea toward Barkley Cove. The wind hit first, rattling windows and hurling waves over the wharf. Boats, tied to the dock, bobbed up and down like toys, as men in yellow slickers tied this line or that, securing. Then sideways rain slammed the village, obscuring everything except the odd yellow form moving about in the grayness.

The wind whistled through the sheriff’s window, and he raised his voice. “So, Joe, you had something to tell me?”

“Sure do. I found out where Miss Clark will claim she was the night Chase died.”

“What? Did you finally catch up to her?”

“Ya kiddin’? She’s slipperier’n a damn eel. Gets gone ever’ time I get near. So I drove over to Jumpin’s marina this morning to see if he knew when she’d be coming next. Like everybody else she hasta go there for gas, so I figured I’d catch her up sooner or later. You won’t believe what I found out.”

“Let’s have it.”

“I got two reliable sources say she was outta town that night.”

“What? Who? She never goes out of town, and even if she did, who’d know about it?”

“Ya remember Tate Walker? Dr. Walker now. Works out at the new ecology lab.”

“Yeah, I know him. His dad’s a shrimper. Scupper Walker.”

“Well, Tate says he knew Kya—he calls her Kya—quite well when they were younger.”

“Oh?”

“Not like that. They were just kids. He taught her to read, ’parently.”

“He tell you this himself?”

“Yep. He was there at Jumpin’s. I was askin’ Jumpin’ if he knew where or how I could ask the Marsh Girl some questions. He said he didn’t know from one minute to the next when he’d see her.”

“Jumpin’s always been good to her. Doubt if he’ll tell us much.”

“Well, I asked him if, by any chance, he knew what she was doin’ the night Chase died. And he said that as a matter of fact he did, that she’d come to his place the second mornin’ after Chase died, and that he was the very one who told her he was dead. He said she’d been in Greenville for two nights, including the night Chase died.”

“Greenville?”

“That’s what he said, and then Tate, who’d been standin’ there all that time, he piped in and said, yeah, she’d been in Greenville, that he was the one who told her how to buy the bus ticket.”

“Well, that is some news,” Sheriff Jackson said. “And very convenient that they were both standing there with the same story. Why would she go over to Greenville?”

“Tate said that a publishing company—ya know, she’s gone and written a book on shells and one of seabirds—well, they paid her expenses to go over there and meet ’em.”

“Hard to imagine fancy publishing people wanting to meet her. I guess it’ll be pretty easy to check out. What’d Tate say about teaching her to read?”

“I asked him how he knew her. He said he useta go out near her place to fish, and when he found out she couldn’t read, he taught her.”

“Um. That so?”

Joe said, “Anyway, this changes everything. She does have an alibi. A good one. I’d say being in Greenville’s a pretty good alibi.”

“Yeah. On the surface. You know what they say about good alibis. And we got that shrimper saying he saw her boating directly toward the fire tower the very night Chase fell off it.”

“He could’ve been wrong. It was dark. No moon until after two
A.M.
Maybe she was in Greenville, and he saw somebody else out there in a boat looks like hers.”

“Well, like I said, this supposed trip to Greenville should be easy to check out.”

The storm abated into a whine and drizzle; still, instead of walking to the diner, the two lawmen sent a runner for a takeout of chicken ’n’ dumplings, butter beans, summer squash casserole, cane syrup, and biscuits.

•   •   •

R
IGHT AFTER LUNCH
, a knock sounded on the sheriff’s door. Miss Pansy Price opened it and stepped inside. Joe and Ed stood. Her turban hat glistened a rose color.

“Afternoon, Miss Pansy.” Both nodded.

“Good afternoon, Ed. Joe. May I have a seat? I won’t take long. I believe I have important information concerning the case.”

“Yes, of course. Sit down, please.” The two men sat as soon as Miss Pansy settled like a fair-sized hen into the chair, tucking feathers here
and there, her pocketbook perching on her lap like a prized egg. The sheriff, continuing, couldn’t resist. “And what case would that be, Miss Pansy?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Ed. You know what case. Who murdered Chase Andrews. That case.”

“We don’t know if he was murdered, Miss Pansy. All right? Now, what do you have for us?”

“As you know, I’m employed at Kress’s.” She never lowered her standing by referring to the entire name: Kress’s Five and Dime. She waited for the sheriff to acknowledge her comment with a nod—even though they all knew she’d worked there since she sold toy soldiers to him as a boy—and then continued. “I believe the Marsh Girl is a suspect. Is that correct?”

“Who told you that?”

“Oh, lots of people are convinced, but Patti Love’s the main source.”

“I see.”

“Well, from Kress’s me and some other employees saw the Marsh Girl get on and off the bus on days that woulda put her out of town the night Chase died. I can testify to those dates and times.”

“That so?” Joe and Ed exchanged glances. “What are the dates and times?”

Miss Pansy sat straighter in her chair. “She left on the 2:30
P.M.
bus on October 28 and returned at 1:16 on the thirtieth.”

“You said others saw her, too?”

“Yes. I can get a list if you like.”

“That won’t be necessary. We’ll come over to the Five and Dime if we want statements. Thank you, Miss Pansy.” The sheriff stood, so Miss Pansy and Ed did as well.

She moved toward the door. “Well, thank you for your time. As you said, you know where to find me.”

They said good-byes.

Joe sat back down. “Well, there it is. Confirms what Tate and Jumpin’ said. She was in Greenville that night, or leastwise, she got on a bus and went somewheres.”

The sheriff blew out a long breath. “Appears so. But I reckon if somebody can bus over to Greenville by day, they can bus back here at night. Do their business. Bus back to Greenville. Nobody the wiser.”

“I guess. Seems a bit of a stretch.”

“Go get the bus schedules. We’ll see if the times work out. If a return trip is possible in one night.”

Before Joe stepped out, Ed continued. “Could be she wanted to be seen out there in broad daylight getting on and off of buses. When you think about it, she had to do something out of the ordinary for an alibi. To claim that she’d been alone in her shack the night Chase died, as she usually is, would be no alibi at all. Zip. So she planned up something that lots of people would see her do. Making a great alibi right in front of all those folks on Main Street. Brilliant.”

“Well yeah, that’s a good point. Anyhow, we don’t have to play gumshoe anymore. We can set right here drinkin’ coffee and let the ladies of this town waltz in and outta here with all the goods. I’ll go get the bus schedules.”

Joe returned fifteen minutes later.

“Well, you’re right,” he said. “See here, it would be possible to bus from Greenville to Barkley Cove and then back again all in one night. Easy, really.”

“Yeah, plenty of time between the two buses to push somebody off the fire tower. I say we get a warrant.”

33.
The Scar

1968

In the winter of 1968, Kya sat at her kitchen table one morning, sweeping orange and pink watercolors across paper, creating the plump form of a mushroom. She had finished her book on seabirds and now worked on a guide to mushrooms. Already had plans for another on butterflies and moths.

Black-eyed peas, red onions, and salt ham boiled in the old dented pot on the woodstove, which she still preferred to the new range. Especially in winter. The tin roof sang under a light rain. Then, suddenly the sounds of a truck laboring through sand came down her lane. Rumbling louder than the roof. Panic rising, she stepped to the window and saw a red pickup maneuvering the muddy ruts.

Kya’s first thought was to run, but the truck was already pulling up to the porch. Hunched down below the windowsill, she watched a man in a gray-green military uniform step out. He just stood there, truck door ajar, looking through the woods, down the path toward the lagoon. Then, closing the door softly, he jogged through the rain to the porch door and knocked.

She cussed. He was probably lost, would ask directions and go on, but she didn’t want to deal with him. She could hide here in the kitchen, hope he went away. But she heard him call. “Yo! Anybody home? Hello!”

Annoyed yet curious, she walked through the newly furnished sitting room to the porch. The stranger, tall with dark hair, stood on the front step holding the screen door open, five feet from her. His uniform seemed stiff enough to stand on its own, as if it were holding him together. The breast of his jacket was covered with colorful rectangular medals. But most eye-catching of all was a jagged red scar that cut his face in half from his left ear to the top of his lips. Kya gasped.

In an instant she returned to the Easter Sunday about six months before Ma left for good. Singing “Rock of Ages,” she and Ma walked arm in arm through the sitting room to the kitchen and gathered up the brilliantly colored eggs they had painted the night before. The other kids were out fishing, so she and Ma had time to hide the eggs, then get the chicken and biscuits into the oven. The brothers and sisters were too old to hunt for treats, but they would run around searching, pretending not to find them, then holding each discovered treasure high in the air, laughing.

Ma and Kya were leaving the kitchen with their baskets of eggs and chocolate bunnies from the Five and Dime, just as Pa rounded the corner from the hall.

Yanking Kya’s Easter bonnet from her head and waving it around, he screamed at Ma, “Whar ya git the money for these fancy thangs? Bonnets and shiny leather shoes? Them prissy eggs and chocolate bunnies? Say. Whar?”

“Come on, Jake, please hush. It’s Easter; this is for the kids.”

He shoved Ma backward. “Ya out whoring, that’s what. That how you git the money? Tell me
now
.” He grabbed Ma by the arms and
shook her so hard her face seemed to rattle around her eyes, which stayed very still and wide open. Eggs tumbled from the basket and rolled in wobbly pastels across the floor.

“Pa, please, stop!” Kya cried out, then sobbed.

He lifted his hand and slapped Kya hard across the cheek. “Shut up, ya prissy-pot crybaby! Git that silly-looking dress and fancy shoes off ya. Them’s whorin’ clothes.”

She ducked down, holding her face, chasing after Ma’s hand-painted eggs.

“I’m talkin’ to ya, woman! Whar ya gettin’ yo’ money?” He lifted the iron fire poker from the corner and moved toward Ma.

Kya screamed as loud as she could and grabbed at Pa’s arm as he slammed the poker across Ma’s chest. Blood popped out on the flowery sundress like red polka dots. Then a big body moved down the hall and Kya looked up to see Jodie tackle Pa from behind, sending them both sprawling across the floor. Her brother got between Ma and Pa and hollered for Kya and Ma to run, and they did. But before she turned, Kya saw Pa raise the poker and whack Jodie across the face, his jaw twisting grossly, blood spewing. The scene played out in her mind now in a flash. Her brother crumbling onto the floor, lying among purple-pink eggs and chocolate bunnies. She and Ma running through palmettos, hiding in brush. Her dress bloody, Ma kept saying it was fine, the eggs wouldn’t break, and they could still cook the chicken. Kya didn’t understand why they stayed hidden there—she was sure her brother was dying, needed their help, but she was too afraid to move. They waited for a long time and then snuck back, looking through the windows to make sure Pa was gone.

Jodie lay cold on the floor, blood pooled around him, and Kya cried that he was dead. But Ma roused him and moved him to the sofa, where she stitched up his face with her sewing needle. When all was quiet,
Kya snatched her bonnet from the floor and ran fast through the woods and threw it with all her might into the saw grass.

Now she looked into the eyes of the stranger standing on her porch and said, “Jodie.”

He smiled, the scar going crooked, and replied, “Kya, I hoped you’d be here.” They stared, each searching for the other in older eyes. Jodie couldn’t know he had been with her all these years, that scores of times he had shown her the way through the marsh, taught her over and over about herons and fireflies. More than anyone else, she had wanted to see Jodie or Ma again. Her heart had erased the scar and all the pain in that package. No wonder her mind buried the scene; no wonder Ma had left. Hit by a poker across the chest. Kya saw those rubbed-out stains on the flowered sundress as blood again.

He wanted to hug her, fold her into his arms, but as he moved toward her, she hung her head low to the side in profound shyness and backed up. So he simply stepped onto the porch.

“Come in,” she said, and led him into the small living room chock-full with her specimens.

“Oh,” he said. “Yes, then. I saw your book, Kya. I didn’t know for sure if it was you, but yes, now I can see it was. It’s amazing.” He walked around looking at her collections, also examining the room with its new furniture, glancing down the halls to the bedrooms. Not wanting to snoop, but taking it all in.

“Do you want coffee, tea?” She didn’t know if he’d come for a visit or to stay. What did he want after all these years?

“Coffee would be great. Thank you.”

In the kitchen, he recognized the old woodstove next to the new gas range and refrigerator. He ran his hand over the old kitchen table, which she had kept as it was. With all its peeling-paint history. She poured the coffee in mugs, and they sat.

“You’re a soldier, then.”

“Two tours in ’Nam. I’m staying in the army for a few more months. They’ve been good to me. Paid for my college degree—mechanical engineering, Georgia Tech. Least I can do is stay in a while.”

Georgia wasn’t all that far away—he could have visited sooner. But he was here now.

“You all left,” she said. “Pa stayed a while after you, but then he went, too. I don’t know where, don’t know if he’s alive or not.”

“You’ve been here by yourself since then?”

“Yes.”

“Kya, I shouldn’t have left you with that monster. I’ve ached, felt terrible about it for years. I was a coward, a stupid coward. These damned medals don’t mean a thing.” He swiped at his chest. “I left you, a little girl, alone to survive in a swamp with a madman. I don’t expect you to forgive me, ever.”

“Jodie, it’s okay. You were just a kid yourself. What could you do?”

“I could’ve come back when I was older. At first it was day-to-day survival on the back streets of Atlanta.” He sneered. “I left here with seventy-five cents in my pocket. Stole it from the money Pa left in the kitchen; took it knowing it would leave you short. I scraped by on odd jobs till the army took me in. After training, it was straight to war. When I got home, so much time had passed, I figured you were long gone, run away yourself. That’s the reason I didn’t write; I think I signed up to go back as a kind of self-punishment. What I deserved for leaving you. Then after I graduated from Tech, a couple of months ago, I saw your book in a shop. Catherine Danielle Clark. My heart just broke and leapt for joy all at once. I had to find you—figured I’d start here and track you down.”

“Well, here we are then.” She smiled for the first time. His eyes were the same as they had been. Faces change with life’s toll, but eyes
remain a window to what was, and she could see him there. “Jodie, I’m so sorry you worried about leaving me. Not once did I blame you. We were the victims, not the guilty.”

He smiled. “Thank you, Kya.” Tears welled, and they both looked away.

She hesitated, then said, “This may be hard to believe, but for a while Pa was good to me. He drank less, taught me to fish, and we went out in the boat a lot, all over the marsh. But then, of course, he went back to drinking and left me to fend for myself.”

Jodie nodded. “Yeah, I saw that side of him a few times, but he always went back to the bottle. He told me once it had something to do with the war. I’ve been to war myself and seen things that could drive a man to drink. But he shouldn’t have taken it out on his wife, his own kids.”

“What about Ma, the others?” she asked. “Did you ever hear from them, know where they went?”

“I don’t know a thing about Murph, Mandy, or Missy. I wouldn’t know them if I passed them in the street. By now I ’spose they’ve scattered with the wind. But Ma, well, Kya, that’s another reason I wanted to find you. There is some news of her.”

“Some news? What? Tell me.” Chills flowed from Kya’s arms to her fingertips.

“Kya, it’s not good. I only found out last week. Ma died two years ago.”

She bent at the waist, holding her face in her hands. Soft groans came from her throat. Jodie tried to hold her, but she moved away from him.

Jodie continued. “Ma had a sister, Rosemary, who tried to track us down through the Red Cross when Ma died, but they couldn’t find us. Then a couple of months ago they found me through the army and put me in touch with Rosemary.”

In hoarse tones Kya mumbled, “Ma was alive until two years ago. I’ve been waiting all these years for her to walk down the lane.” She stood and held on to the sink. “Why didn’t she come back? Why didn’t somebody tell me where she was? And now it’s too late.”

Jodie went to her, and even though she tried to turn away, he put his arms around her. “I’m sorry, Kya. Come sit down. I’ll tell you what Rosemary said.”

He waited for her, then said, “Ma was ill from a major breakdown when she left us and went to New Orleans—that’s where she grew up. She was mentally and physically ill. I remember New Orleans a little bit. I guess I was five when we left. All I remember is a nice house, big windows overlooking a garden. But once we moved here, Pa wouldn’t let any of us talk about New Orleans, our grandparents, or any of it. So it was all wiped away.”

Kya nodded. “I never knew.”

Jodie continued. “Rosemary said their parents had been against Ma’s marriage to Pa from the start, but Ma went off to North Carolina with her husband, not a penny to their names. Eventually Ma began writing to Rosemary and told her of her circumstances—living in a swamp shack with a drunk man who beat her and her children. Then one day, years later, Ma showed up. She had on those fake alligator heels that she cherished. Hadn’t bathed or combed her hair in days.

“For months Ma was mute, didn’t speak one word. She stayed in her old room in her parents’ home, barely eating. Of course, they had doctors come out, but no one could help her. Ma’s father contacted the sheriff in Barkley Cove to ask if Ma’s children were all right, but his office said they didn’t even try to keep track of the marsh people.”

Kya sniffed now and then.

“Finally, almost a year later, Ma became hysterical and told Rosemary she remembered she had left her children. Rosemary helped her
write a letter to Pa asking if she could come get us and bring us to live with her in New Orleans. He wrote back that if she returned or contacted any of us, he would beat us unrecognizable. She knew he was capable of such a thing.”

The letter in the blue envelope. Ma had asked for her, for all of them. Ma had wanted to see her. But the outcome of the letter had been vastly different. The words had enraged Pa and sent him back to drinking, and then Kya had lost him as well. She didn’t mention to Jodie that she still kept the letter’s ashes in a little jar.

“Rosemary said Ma never made friends, never dined with the family or interacted with anybody. She allowed herself no life, no pleasure. After a while, she started talking more, and all she talked about was her children. Rosemary said Ma loved us all her life but was frozen in some horrible place of believing that we’d be harmed if she returned and abandoned if she didn’t. She didn’t leave us to have a fling; she’d been driven to madness and barely knew she’d left.”

Kya asked, “How did she die?”

“She had leukemia. Rosemary said it was possibly treatable, but she refused all medication. She just became weaker and weaker, and slipped away two years ago. Rosemary said she died much as she had lived. In darkness, in silence.”

Jodie and Kya sat still. Kya thought of the poem by Galway Kinnell that Ma had underlined in her book:

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.

Jodie stood. “Come with me, Kya, I want to show you something.” He led her outside to his pickup and they climbed into the back.
Carefully, he removed a tarp and opened a large cardboard box, and one by one, pulled out and unwrapped oil paintings. He stood them up around the bed of the truck. One was of three young girls—Kya and her sisters—squatting by the lagoon, watching dragonflies. Another of Jodie and their brother holding up a string of fish.

“I brought them in case you were still here. Rosemary sent these to me. She said that for years, day and night, Ma painted us.”

One painting showed all five children as if they were watching the artist. Kya stared into the eyes of her sisters and brothers, looking back at her.

In a whisper, she asked, “Who’s who?”

“What?”

“There were never any photographs. I don’t know them. Who’s who?”

“Oh.” He couldn’t breathe, then finally said, “Well, this is Missy, the oldest. Then Murph. Mandy. Of course, this little cutie is me. And that’s you.”

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