Authors: Delia Owens
One July afternoon in 1969, more than seven months after Jodie’s visit,
The Eastern Seacoast Birds
by Catherine Danielle Clark—her second book, a volume of stark detail and beauty—appeared in her mailbox. She ran her fingers over the striking jacket—her painting of a herring gull. Smiling, she said, “Hey, Big Red, you made it to the cover.”
Carrying the new book, Kya walked silently to the shady oak clearing near her shack, searching for mushrooms. The moist duff felt cool on her feet as she neared a cluster of intensely yellow toadstools. Midstride, she halted. There, sitting on the old feather stump, was a small milk carton, red and white, just like the one from so long ago. Unexpectedly, she laughed out loud.
Inside the carton, wrapped in tissue paper, was an old army-issue compass in a brass case, tarnished green-gray with age. She breathed in at the sight of it. She had never needed a compass because the directions seemed obvious to her. But on cloudy days, when the sun was elusive, the compass would guide her.
A folded note read:
Dearest Kya, This compass was my grandpa’s from the First World War. He gave it to me when I was little, but I’ve never used it, and I thought maybe you would get the best out of it. Love, Tate. P.S. I’m glad you can read this note!
Kya read the words
again. Tate. The golden-haired boy in the boat, guiding her home before a storm, gifting her feathers on a weathered stump, teaching her to read; the tender teenager steering her through her first cycle as a woman and arousing her first sexual desires as a female; the young scientist encouraging her to publish her books.
Despite gifting him the shell book, she had continued to hide in the undergrowth when she saw him in the marsh, rowing away unseen. The dishonest signals of fireflies, all she knew of love.
Even Jodie had said she should give Tate another chance. But every time she thought of him or saw him, her heart jumped from the old love to the pain of abandonment. She wished it would settle on one side or the other.
Several mornings later, she slipped through the estuaries in an early fog, the compass tucked in her knapsack, though she would not likely need it. She planned to search for rare wild flowers on a wooded tongue of sand that jutted into the sea, but part of her scanned the waterways for Tate’s boat.
The fog turned stubborn and lingered, twisting its tendrils around tree snags and low-lying limbs. The air was still; even the birds were quiet as she eased forward through the channel. Nearby, a
sounded as a slow-moving oar tapped a gunwale, and then a boat emerged ghoul-like from the haze.
Colors, which had been muted by the dimness, formed into shapes as they moved into the light. Golden hair beneath a red cap. As if coming in from a dream, Tate stood in the stern of his old fishing boat
poling through the channel. Kya cut her engine and rowed backward into a thicket to watch him pass. Always backward to watch him pass.
At sundown, calmer, heart back in place, Kya stood on the beach, and recited:
“Sunsets are never simple.
Twilight is refracted and reflected
But never true.
Eventide is a disguise
“We don’t care
That dusk deceives.
We see brilliant colors,
And never learn
The sun has dropped
Beneath the earth
By the time we see the burn.
“Sunsets are in disguise,
Covering truths, covering lies.
Joe walked through the opened door of the sheriff’s office. “Okay, got the report.”
“Let’s have a look.”
Both men scanned quickly to the last page. Ed said, “That’s it. A perfect match. Fibers from her hat were on Chase’s jacket as he lay dead.” The sheriff slapped the report across his wrist, then continued. “Let’s review what we have here. Number one, the shrimper will testify that he saw Miss Clark boating toward the fire tower just before Chase fell to his death. His colleague will back him up. Two, Patti Love said Miss Clark made the shell necklace for Chase, and it disappeared the night he died. Three, fibers from her hat were on his jacket. Four, motive: the woman wronged. And an alibi we can refute. That should do it.”
“A better motive might help,” Joe said. “Being jilted doesn’t seem like enough.”
“It’s not like we’re finished with the investigation, but we have enough to bring her in for questioning. Probably enough to charge her. We’ll see how it goes once we get her here.”
“Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? How? She’s outrun everybody for years. Truant officers, census takers,
you name it
, she’s outwit ’em all. Includin’ us. We go out there chasin’ her through swamp grass, we’ll make fools of ourselves.”
“I’m not afraid of that. Just because nobody else could catch her doesn’t mean we can’t. But that wouldn’t be the smartest way of doing it. I say we set a trap.”
“Oh yeah. Well,” the deputy said, “I know a thing or two ’bout trappin’. And when you go to trap a fox, it’s usually the trap that gets foxed. It’s not like we have surprise on our side. We been out there knockin’ on her door enough to scare off a brown bear. What about the hounds? That’d be a sure thing.”
The sheriff was silent a few seconds. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m getting old and soft at the grand ol’ age of fifty-one. But running down a woman with hounds for questioning doesn’t seem right. It’s fine for escaped convicts, people already convicted of some crime. But, like everybody else, she’s innocent until proven guilty, and I can’t see setting hounds on a female suspect. Maybe as a last resort, but not yet.”
“Okay. What kinda trap?”
“That’s what we gotta figure out.”
15, as Ed and Joe discussed options of how to bring Kya in, someone knocked on the door. The large form of a man loomed behind the frosted glass.
“Come on in,” the sheriff called.
As the man stepped inside, Ed said, “Well, hello, Rodney. What can we do for you?”
Rodney Horn, a retired mechanic, spent most of his days fishing with his pal Denny Smith. The villagers knew him as quiet and
settled, always in bib overalls. Never missed church, but wore his overalls there as well, with a nice fresh shirt ironed and starched stiff as a plank by his wife, Elsie.
Rodney took off his felt hat and held it in front of his belly. Ed offered him a chair, but Rodney shook his head. “This won’t take long,” he said. “Just something might be rel’vant to the Chase Andrews thing.”
“What ya got?” Joe asked.
“Well, it was a while back, now. Me and Denny were out fishin’ on August 30, this year, and we seen something out at Cypress Cove. Think it might be of interest to ya.”
“Go ahead,” the sheriff said. “But please sit down, Rodney. We’d all feel more comfortable if you sat.”
Rodney took the chair offered and, for the next five minutes, told them his story. After he left, Ed and Joe looked at each other.
Joe said, “Well, now we’ve got motive.”
“Let’s get her in here.”
Just days before Christmas and earlier in the morning than usual, Kya motored slowly and quietly toward Jumpin’s. Ever since the sheriff or his deputy had been sneaking out to her place, trying to catch her at home—failed efforts she’d observed from the palmettos—she’d bought her gas and supplies before first light, when only fishermen were about. Now, low clouds scudded just above a sloshing sea, and to the east, a squall—twisted tightly like a whip—threatened from the horizon. She’d have to finish at Jumpin’s quickly and get home before it hit. From a quarter of a mile out, she saw his wharf billowed in with fog. She slowed even more and looked around for other boats in the soggy quiet.
Finally, at about forty yards out, she could see Jumpin’s form in the old chair leaning against the wall. She waved. He did not. He did not stand. He shook his head slightly, just a whisper. She let go of the throttle.
She waved again. Jumpin’ stared at her, but did not move.
Jerking the stick, she turned abruptly back toward the sea. But
coming in from the fog was a large boat, the sheriff at the helm. Another couple of boats, flanking. And just behind them, the squall.
Gunning her engine, she threaded the needle between the oncoming rigs, her boat banging whitecaps as she raced for the open sea. She wanted to cut back toward the marsh, but the sheriff was too close; he’d catch her before she got there.
The sea no longer swelled in symmetrical waves but tossed in confusion. The water grew meaner as the edge of the storm engulfed her. In seconds it released a torrent. She was soaked through, long strands of hair stringing across her face. She turned into the wind to keep from capsizing, but the sea pushed over the bow.
Knowing their boats were faster, she hunched forward into the ragged wind. Maybe she could lose them in this soup or dive into the sea and make a swim for it. Her mind raced through the details of jumping in, which seemed her best chance. This close to shore, there’d be a backwash or rip, which would zip her along underwater, much faster than they’d think she could swim. Popping up to breathe now and then, she could get to land and sneak out on a brushy shore.
Behind her their motors raced louder than the storm. Getting closer. How could she simply stop? She’d never given up. She had to jump now. But suddenly, like gray sharks they massed around her, pulling close. One of the boats whipped in front of her, and she rammed its side. Thrown back against the outboard, her neck jerked. The sheriff reached out and grabbed her gunwale, all of them wallowing in the churning wakes. Two men swung into her boat as the deputy said, “Miss Catherine Clark, you’re under arrest for the murder of Mr. Chase Andrews. Ya have the right to remain silent . . .”
She didn’t hear the rest of it. No one hears the rest of it.
Kya’s eyes blinked shut against sharp light that poured from overhead lamps and windows as tall as the ceiling. For two months she’d lived in dimness, and now, opening her eyes again, caught a soft edge of the marsh outside. Rounded oaks sheltering shrub-sized ferns and winter holly. She tried to hold the vital green a second longer but was led by firm hands toward a long table and chairs where her attorney, Tom Milton, sat. Her wrists were cuffed in front, forcing her hands into an awkward prayer pose. Dressed in black slacks and a plain white blouse, with a single braid falling between her shoulder blades, she didn’t turn her head to look at the spectators. Still, she felt the heat and rustle of people knotted into the courtroom for her murder trial. Could sense people’s shoulders and heads waggling to catch a glimpse of her. To see her in handcuffs. A smell of sweat, old smoke, and cheap perfume increased her nausea. Coughing noises ceased but the hubbub rose as she neared her seat—all distant sounds to her, because mostly she heard the sickness of her own jagged breathing. She stared at the floorboards—highly polished heart pine—while the cuffs were
removed, and then sat heavy into the chair. It was 9:30
on February 25, 1970.
Tom leaned close to her and whispered that everything would be all right. She said nothing but searched his eyes for sincerity, anything to hang on. Not that she believed him, but for the first time ever, she had to put herself in the charge of another. Rather tall for seventy-one years, he wore his thick white hair and frumpy linen suits with the accidental if clichéd grace of a country statesman. He moved gently and spoke quietly behind a pleasant smile that lived on his face.
Judge Sims had appointed a young attorney for Miss Clark, since she had taken no action to do so herself, but when Tom Milton heard of this, he came out of retirement and requested to represent her pro bono. Like everyone else, he had heard stories about the Marsh Girl, and over the years had seen her occasionally, either drifting sleekly through waterways as part of the current or scurrying from the grocery like a coon from a rubbish bin.
When he first visited Kya in jail two months ago, he’d been led into a small dark room, where she sat at a table. She had not looked up at him. Tom had introduced himself, saying he would represent her, but she didn’t speak or raise her eyes. He had an overpowering urge to reach out and pat her hand, but something—maybe her upright posture or the way she stared, vacant-eyed—shielded her from touch. Moving his head at different angles—trying to capture her eyes—he explained the court procedures, what she should expect, and then asked her some questions. But she never answered, never moved, and never looked at him. As they led her from the room, she turned her head and glimpsed through a small window where she could see the sky. Seabirds shrieked over the town harbor, and Kya seemed to be watching their songs.
On his next visit Tom reached into a brown paper bag and slid a glossy coffee-table book toward her. Titled
The Rarest Shells of the World
, it opened to life-sized oil paintings of shells from the most distant shores on Earth. Her mouth partly open, she turned slowly through the pages, nodding at particular specimens. He gave her time. Then, once again he spoke to her, and this time she looked into his eyes. With easy patience, he explained the court procedures and even drew a picture of the courtroom, showing the jury box, the judge’s bench, where the attorneys and she would sit. Then he added stick figures of the bailiff, the judge, and the recorder and explained their roles.
As on the first meeting, he tried to explain the evidence against her and to ask about her whereabouts on the night Chase died, but she pulled back into her shell at any mention of details. Later, when he stood to leave, she slid the book back across the table, but he said, “No, I brought it for you. It’s yours.”
She bit her lips and blinked.
ND NOW IN THE
for the first time, he tried to distract her from the bustle behind them by pointing out the features of the courtroom in the drawing. But diversion was useless. By 9:45
the gallery overflowed with villagers filling every pew and buzzed with high-pitched comments about the evidence, the death penalty. A small balcony at the rear seated twenty more, and though not marked, everybody understood colored people were restricted to the balcony. Today, it was filled mostly with whites, with only a few blacks, this being a white case through and through. Sectioned off near the front sat a few journalists from the
. People who couldn’t find seats bunched along the back wall and along the
sides by the tall windows. Fidgeting, muttering, gossiping. The Marsh Girl put up for murder; it didn’t get any better than this. Sunday Justice, the courthouse cat—his back black, his face white with a black mask around green eyes—stretched out in a puddle of sunlight in one of the deep windowsills. A courthouse fixture for years, he cleared the basement of rats and the courtroom of mice, earning his place.
Because Barkley Cove was the first village settled in this torn and marshy stretch of the North Carolina coast, the Crown had declared it the county seat and built the original courthouse in 1754. Later, even though other towns such as Sea Oaks became more populated and developed, Barkley Cove remained the official hub for county government.
Lightning struck the original courthouse in 1912, burning much of the wooden structure to ashes. Rebuilt the next year on the same square at the end of Main Street, it was a brick two-story with twelve-foot windows trimmed in granite. By the 1960s, wild grasses and palmettos, and even a few cattails, had moved in from the marsh and taken over the once-groomed grounds. A lily-choked lagoon flooded in spring and, over the years, had eaten part of the sidewalk.
In contrast, the courtroom itself, designed to replicate the original, was imposing. The elevated judge’s bench, made of dark mahogany with a colorful inlay of the state’s seal, stood under multiple flags, including the Confederate. The half wall of the jury box, also of mahogany, was trimmed in red cedar, and the windows that lined one side of the room framed the sea.
As the officials entered the courtroom, Tom pointed to the stick figures in his drawing and explained who they were. “That’s the bailiff, Hank Jones,” he said as a lanky man of sixty with a hairline that receded past his ears, making his head almost exactly half bald and half
not, walked to the front of the room. He wore a gray uniform and a wide belt, hung with a radio, a flashlight, an impressive set of keys, and a holstered Colt six-shooter.
Mr. Jones called out to the crowd. “Sorry, folks, but y’all know the fire marshal’s rules. If ya don’t have a seat, ya gotta leave.”
“That’s Miss Henrietta Jones, the bailiff’s daughter, the court recorder,” Tom explained as a young woman, as tall and thin as her father, walked in quietly and sat at a desk near the judge’s bench. Already seated, the prosecuting attorney, Mr. Eric Chastain, unpacked note pads from his briefcase. Eric, a broad-chested, redheaded man of nearly six feet, dressed in blue suits and wide bright ties purchased at Sears, Roebuck in Asheville.
Bailiff Jones called, “All rise. This court is in session. The Honorable Judge Harold Sims presiding.” Sudden silence fell. The chamber door opened and Judge Sims entered and nodded for everyone to sit, and asked both the prosecuting and defense attorneys to approach the bench. A large-boned man with a round face and bold white sideburns, he lived in Sea Oaks but had officiated over Barkley Cove cases for nine years. He was generally considered to be a no-nonsense, levelheaded, and fair arbitrator. His voice boomed across the room.
“Mr. Milton, your motion to relocate this trial to another county on the grounds that Miss Clark cannot get a fair trial due to prejudices against her in this community is denied. I accept that she has lived in unusual circumstances and been subjected to some prejudice, but I see no evidence that she has endured more prejudices than many people on trial in small towns all across this nation. And some large towns, for that matter. We will proceed here and now.” Nods of approval eased through the room as the attorneys returned to their seats.
He continued. “Catherine Danielle Clark of Barkley County, North
Carolina, you are charged with murder in the first degree of Chase Lawrence Andrews, formerly of Barkley Cove. First-degree murder is defined as a premeditated act and, in such cases, the state is allowed to seek the death penalty. The prosecutor has announced that they will do so if you are found guilty.” The room murmured.
Tom seemed to have inched slightly closer to Kya, and she didn’t deny herself that comfort.
“We will begin the jury selection.” Judge Sims turned toward the first two rows filled with potential jurors. As he read off a list of rules and conditions, Sunday Justice jumped down from the windowsill with a thud and, in one fluid motion, leapt onto the judge’s bench. Absentmindedly, Judge Sims stroked the cat’s head as he continued.
“In capital cases, the State of North Carolina allows a juror to be excused if he or she does not believe in the death penalty. Please raise your hand if you will not or cannot impose the death sentence if a guilty verdict is delivered.” No hands were raised.
“Death penalty” was all Kya heard.
The judge continued. “Another legitimate reason to be excused from the jury is if you have now or had in the past such a close relationship with either Miss Clark or Mr. Andrews that you cannot be objective in this case. Please let me know now if you feel this is true.”
From the middle of the second row, Mrs. Sally Culpepper lifted her hand and stated her name. Her gray hair was pulled back severely in a tiny knot, and her hat, suit, and shoes bore the same dull brown.
“All right, Sally, tell me what’s on your mind,” the judge said.
“As you know, I was the truant officer for Barkley County for nearly twenty-five years. Miss Clark was one of my cases, and so I had some dealings with her, or tried to.”
Kya couldn’t see Mrs. Culpepper or anyone in the main gallery unless she turned around, which of course she’d never do. But she
remembered clearly the last time Mrs. Culpepper sat in the car while the man in the fedora tried to chase her down. Kya had been as easy on the old man as she could, taking off noisily through brambles to give him a clue, then circling back and hiding in some bushes next to the car. But Fedora ran in the opposite direction toward the beach.
Crouching there, Kya shook a holly branch against the car door, and Mrs. Culpepper looked out the window directly into her eyes. She thought at the time that the truant lady smiled slightly. In any case, she made no attempt to give her away when Fedora returned, cussing up a streak, then driving down the road for good.
Now, Mrs. Culpepper said to the judge, “Well, since I had dealings with her, I don’t know if that means I should be excused.”
Judge Sims said, “Thank you, Sally. Some of you may have dealt with Miss Clark in the shops or in official ways, as in Mrs. Culpepper’s case, the truant officer. The point is: can you listen to the testimony given here and decide whether she’s guilty or innocent based on the evidence, not on past experience or feelings?”
“Yessir, I’m sure I can do that. Your Honor.”
“Thank you, Sally, you can stay.”
By 11:30 seven women and five men sat in the jury box. From there Kya could see them and stole glances at their faces. Most of them she recognized from the village, though she knew few of the names. Mrs. Culpepper sat squarely in the middle and gave slight comfort to Kya. But next to her sat Teresa White, blond wife of the Methodist preacher, who years ago had rushed from the shoe shop to whisk her daughter away from Kya as she stood on the curb after having lunch in the diner with Pa—that one and only time. Mrs. White, who had told her daughter that Kya was dirty, now sat on the jury.
Judge Sims called for a lunch recess until 1:00
The diner would
bring over tuna fish, chicken salad, and ham sandwiches for the jurors, who would eat in the deliberation room. To be fair to the town’s two eating establishments, the Dog-Gone Beer Hall would deliver hot dogs, chili, and shrimp po’boys on alternative days. They always brought something for the cat, too. Sunday Justice preferred the po’boys.