Authors: Delia Owens
After Ma left, over the next few weeks, Kya’s oldest brother and two sisters drifted away too, as if by example. They had endured Pa’s red-faced rages, which started as shouts, then escalated into fist-slugs, or backhanded punches, until one by one, they disappeared. They were nearly grown anyway. And later, just as she forgot their ages, she couldn’t remember their real names, only that they were called Missy, Murph, and Mandy. On her porch mattress, Kya found a small pile of socks left by her sisters.
On the morning when Jodie was the only sibling left, Kya awakened to the
and hot grease of breakfast. She dashed into the kitchen, thinking Ma was home frying corn fritters or hoecakes. But it was Jodie, standing at the woodstove, stirring grits. She smiled to hide the letdown, and he patted the top of her head, gently shushing her to be quiet: if they didn’t wake Pa, they could eat alone. Jodie didn’t know how to make biscuits, and there wasn’t any bacon, so he cooked grits and scrambled eggs in lard, and they sat down together, silently exchanging glances and smiles.
They washed their dishes fast, then ran out the door toward the marsh, he in the lead. But just then Pa shouted and hobbled toward them. Impossibly lean, his frame seemed to flop about from poor gravity. His molars yellow as an old dog’s teeth.
Kya looked up at Jodie. “We can run. Hide in the mossy place.”
“It’s okay. It’ll be okay,” he said.
, Jodie found Kya on the beach staring at the sea. As he stepped up beside her, she didn’t look at him but kept her eyes on the roiling waves. Still, she knew by the way he spoke that Pa had slugged his face.
“I hafta go, Kya. Can’t live here no longer.”
She almost turned to him, but didn’t. Wanted to beg him not to leave her alone with Pa, but the words jammed up.
“When you’re old enough you’ll understand,” he said. Kya wanted to holler out that she may be young, but she wasn’t stupid. She knew Pa was the reason they all left; what she wondered was why no one took her with them. She’d thought of leaving too, but had nowhere to go and no bus money.
“Kya, ya be careful, hear. If anybody comes, don’t go in the house. They can get ya there. Run deep in the marsh, hide in the bushes. Always cover yo’ tracks; I learned ya how. And ya can hide from Pa, too.” When she still didn’t speak, he said good-bye and strode across the beach to the woods. Just before he stepped into the trees, she finally turned and watched him walk away.
“This little piggy stayed home,” she said to the waves.
Breaking her freeze, she ran to the shack. Shouted his name down the hall, but Jodie’s things were already gone, his floor bed stripped bare.
She sank onto his mattress, watching the last of that day slide down the wall. Light lingered after the sun, as it does, some of it pooling in the room, so that for a brief moment the lumpy beds and piles of old clothes took on more shape and color than the trees outside.
A gnawing hunger—such a mundane thing—surprised her. She walked to the kitchen and stood at the door. All her life the room had been warmed from baking bread, boiling butter beans, or bubbling fish stew. Now, it was stale, quiet, and dark. “Who’s gonna cook?” she asked out loud. Could have asked,
Who’s gonna dance?
She lit a candle and poked at hot ashes in the woodstove, added kindling. Pumped the bellows till a flame caught, then more wood. The Frigidaire served as a cupboard because no electricity came near the shack. To keep the mold at bay, the door was propped open with the flyswatter. Still, greenish-black veins of mildew grew in every crevice.
Getting out leftovers, she said, “I’ll tump the grits in lard, warm ’em up,” which she did and ate from the pot, looking through the window for Pa. But he didn’t come.
When light from the quarter moon finally touched the shack, she crawled into her porch bed—a lumpy mattress on the floor with real sheets covered in little blue roses that Ma had got at a yard sale—alone at night for the first time in her life.
At first, every few minutes, she sat up and peered through the screen. Listening for footsteps in the woods. She knew the shapes of all the trees; still some seemed to dart here and there, moving with the moon. For a while she was so stiff she couldn’t swallow, but on cue, the familiar songs of tree frogs and katydids filled the night. More comforting than three blind mice with a carving knife. The darkness held an odor of sweetness, the earthy breath of frogs and salamanders who’d made it through one more stinky-hot day. The marsh snuggled in closer with a low fog, and she slept.
OR THREE DAYS
Pa didn’t come and Kya boiled turnip greens from Ma’s garden for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She’d walked out to the chicken coop for eggs but found it bare. Not a chicken or egg anywhere.
“Chicken shits! You’re just a bunch of chicken shits!” She’d been meaning to tend them since Ma left but hadn’t done much of anything. Now they’d escaped as a motley flock, clucking far in the trees beyond. She’d have to scatter grits, see if she could keep them close.
On the evening of the fourth day, Pa showed up with a bottle and sprawled across his bed.
Walking into the kitchen the next morning, he hollered, “Whar’s ev’body got to?”
“I don’t know,” she said, not looking at him.
“Ya don’t know much as a cur-dawg. Useless as tits on a boar hog.”
Kya slipped quietly out the porch door, but walking along the beach searching for mussels, she smelled smoke and looked up to see a plume rising from the direction of the shack. Running as fast as she could, she broke through the trees and saw a bonfire blazing in the yard. Pa was throwing Ma’s paintings, dresses, and books onto the flames.
“No!” Kya screamed. He didn’t look at her, but threw the old battery-operated radio into the fire. Her face and arms burned as she reached toward the paintings, but the heat pushed her back.
She rushed to the shack to block Pa’s return for more, locking eyes with him. Pa raised his backhand toward Kya, but she stood her ground. Suddenly, he turned and limp-stepped toward his boat.
Kya sank onto the brick ’n’ boards, watching Ma’s watercolors of the marsh smolder into ash. She sat until the sun set, until all the buttons
glowed as embers and the memories of dancing the jitterbug with Ma melted into the flames.
Over the next few days, Kya learned from the mistakes of the others, and perhaps more from the minnows, how to live with him. Just keep out of the way, don’t let him see you, dart from sunspots to shadows. Up and out of the house before he rose, she lived in the woods and water, then padded into the house to sleep in her bed on the porch as close to the marsh as she could get.
A HAD FOUGHT
in the Second World War, where his left femur caught shrapnel and shattered, their last source of pride. His weekly disability checks, their only source of income. A week after Jodie left, the Frigidaire stood empty and hardly any turnips remained. When Kya walked into the kitchen that Monday morning, Pa pointed to a crumpled dollar and loose coins on the kitchen table.
“This here’ll get ya food fer the week. Thar ain’t no such thang as handouts,” he said. “Ever’thang cost sump’m, and fer the money ya gotta keep the house up, stove wood c’lected, and warsh the laundree.”
For the first time ever Kya walked alone toward the village of Barkley Cove to buy groceries—
this little piggy went to market.
She plodded through deep sand or black mud for four miles until the bay glistened ahead, the hamlet on its shore.
Everglades surrounded the town, mixing their salty haze with that of the ocean, which swelled in high tide on the other side of Main Street. Together the marsh and sea separated the village from the rest of the world, the only connection being the single-lane highway that limped into town on cracked cement and potholes.
There were two streets: Main ran along the oceanfront with a row of
shops; the Piggly Wiggly grocery at one end, the Western Auto at the other, the diner in the middle. Mixed in there were Kress’s Five and Dime, a Penney’s (catalog only), Parker’s Bakery, and a Buster Brown Shoe Shop. Next to the Piggly was the Dog-Gone Beer Hall, which offered roasted hot dogs, red-hot chili, and fried shrimp served in folded paper boats. No ladies or children stepped inside because it wasn’t considered proper, but a take-out window had been cut out of the wall so they could order hot dogs and Nehi cola from the street. Coloreds couldn’t use the door or the window.
The other street, Broad, ran from the old highway straight toward the ocean and into Main, ending right there. So the only intersection in town was Main, Broad, and the Atlantic Ocean. The stores and businesses weren’t joined together as in most towns but were separated by small, vacant lots brushed with sea oats and palmettos, as if overnight the marsh had inched in. For more than two hundred years, sharp salty winds had weathered the cedar-shingled buildings to the color of rust, and the window frames, most painted white or blue, had flaked and cracked. Mostly, the village seemed tired of arguing with the elements, and simply sagged.
The town wharf, draped in frayed ropes and old pelicans, jutted into the small bay, whose water, when calm, reflected the reds and yellows of shrimp boats. Dirt roads, lined with small cedar houses, wound through the trees, around lagoons, and along the ocean on either end of the shops. Barkley Cove was quite literally a backwater town, bits scattered here and there among the estuaries and reeds like an egret’s nest flung by the wind.
Barefoot and dressed in too-short bib overalls, Kya stood where the marsh track met the road. Biting her lip, wanting to run home. She couldn’t reckon what she’d say to people; how she’d figure the grocery money. But hunger was a pushing thing, so she stepped onto Main and
walked, head down, toward the Piggly Wiggly on a crumbling sidewalk that appeared now and then between grass clumps. As she approached the Five and Dime, she heard a commotion behind her and jumped to the side just as three boys, a few years older than she, sped by on bikes. The lead boy looked back at her, laughing at the near miss, and then almost collided with a woman stepping from the store.
“CHASE ANDREWS, you get back here! All three of you boys.” They pedaled a few more yards, then thought better of it and returned to the woman, Miss Pansy Price, saleslady in fabric and notions. Her family had once owned the largest farm on the outskirts of the marsh and, although they were forced to sell out long ago, she continued her role as genteel landowner. Which wasn’t easy living in a tiny apartment above the diner. Miss Pansy usually wore hats shaped like silk turbans, and this morning her headwear was pink, setting off red lipstick and splotches of rouge.
She scolded the boys. “I’ve a mind to tell y’all’s mamas about this. Or better, yo’ papas. Ridin’ fast like that on the sidewalk, nearly runnin’ me over. What ya got to say for yo’self, Chase?”
He had the sleekest bike—red seat and chrome handlebars, raised up. “We’re sorry, Miss Pansy, we didn’t see ya ’cause that girl over yonder got in the way.” Chase, tanned with dark hair, pointed at Kya, who had stepped back and stood half inside a myrtle shrub.
“Never mind her. You cain’t go blamin’ yo’ sins on somebody else, not even swamp trash. Now, you boys gotta do a good deed, make up fer this. There goes Miss Arial with her groceries, go help carry ’em to her truck. And put yo’ shirttails in.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the boys said as they biked toward Miss Arial, who had taught them all second grade.
Kya knew that the parents of the dark-haired boy owned the Western Auto store, which was why he rode the snazziest bike. She’d seen
him unloading big cardboard boxes of merchandise from the truck, packing it in, but she had never spoken a word to him or the others.
She waited a few minutes, then, head low again, walked toward the grocery. Inside the Piggly Wiggly, Kya studied the selection of grits and chose a one-pound bag of coarse ground yellow because a red tag hung from the top—a
special of the week
. Like Ma taught her. She fretted in the aisle until no other customers stood at the register, then walked up and faced the checkout lady, Mrs. Singletary, who asked, “Where’s ya mama at?” Mrs. Singletary’s hair was cut short, curled tight, and colored purple as an iris in sunlight.
“Doin’ chores, ma’am.”
“Well, ya got money for the grits, or don’t ya?”
“Yes’m.” Not knowing how to count the exact amount, she laid down the whole dollar.
Mrs. Singletary wondered if the child knew the difference in the coins, so as she placed the change into Kya’s open palm she counted slowly, “Twenty-five, fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, eighty-five and three pennies. ’Cause the grits cost twelve cents.”
Kya felt sick to her stomach. Was she supposed to count something back? She stared to the puzzle of coins in her palm.
Mrs. Singletary seemed to soften. “Okay, then. Git on with ya.”
Kya dashed from the store and walked as fast as she could toward the marsh track. Plenty of times, Ma had told her, “Never run in town or people’ll think you stole something.” But as soon as Kya reached the sandy track, she ran a good half mile. Then speed-walked the rest.
Back home, thinking she knew how to fix grits, she threw them into boiling water like Ma had done, but they lumped up all together in one big ball that burned on the bottom and stayed raw in the middle. So rubbery she could only eat a few bites, so she searched the garden again
and found a few more turnip greens between the goldenrod. Then boiled them up and ate them all, slurping down the pot likker.
In a few days she got the hang of fixing grits, although no matter how hard she stirred, they lumped up some. The next week she bought backbones—marked with a red tag—and boiled them with grits and collard greens in a mush that tasted fine.
Kya had done the laundry plenty with Ma, so knew how to scrub clothes on the rub board under the yard spigot with bars of lye soap. Pa’s overalls were so heavy wet she couldn’t wring them out with her tiny hands, and couldn’t reach the line to hang them, so draped them sopping over the palmetto fronds at the edge of the woods.