Authors: Delia Owens
A fog was lifting from an August morning in 1969 as Kya motored to a remote peninsula the locals called Cypress Cove, where she had once seen rare toadstools. August was late for mushrooms, but Cypress Cove was cool and moist, so perhaps she could find the rare species again. More than a month had passed since Tate had left the compass for her on the feather stump, and though she’d seen him in the marsh, she hadn’t ventured close enough to thank him for the gift. Neither had she used the compass, though it was tucked safely in one of the many pockets of her knapsack.
Moss-draped trees hugged the bank, and their low-hanging limbs formed a cave close to the shore through which she glided, searching the thickets for small orange mushrooms on slender stalks. And finally she saw them, bold and brilliant, clinging to the sides of an old stump, and, after beaching her boat, sat cross-legged in the cove, drawing them.
Suddenly she heard footsteps on the duff and then a voice: “Well, look who’s here. My Marsh Girl.” Whirling around, standing at the same time, she stood face-to-face with Chase.
“Hello, Kya,” he said. She looked around. How had he gotten here? She’d heard no boat. He read her question. “I was fishing, saw ya pass, so landed over yonder on the other side.”
“Please just go,” she said, stuffing her pencils and pad in the knapsack.
But he put his hand on her arm. “C’mon, Kya. I’m sorry about how things turned out.” He leaned in, wisps of breakfast bourbon on his breath.
“Don’t touch me!”
“Hey, I said I’m sorry. Ya knew we couldn’t get married. Ya never coulda lived near town. But I always cared about ya; I stayed by ya.”
“Stayed by me! What does that mean? Leave me alone.” Kya tucked the knapsack under her arm and walked toward the boat, but he grabbed her arm, holding hard.
“Kya, there’ll never be anybody else like ya, never. And I know ya love me.” She ripped her arm from his hands.
“You’re wrong! I’m not sure I ever loved you. But you talked to
about marriage, remember? You talked about building a house for you and me. Instead I found out about
to somebody else
in the newspaper. Why’d you do that? Why, Chase!”
“C’mon, Kya. It was impossible. Ya must’ve known it wouldn’t work. What’s wrong with how things were? Let’s go back to what we had.” He reached for her shoulders and pulled her toward him.
“Let go of me!” She twisted, tried to yank away, but he gripped her with both hands, hurting her arms. He put his mouth on hers and kissed her. She threw her arms up, knocking his hands away. She pulled her head back, hissing, “Don’t you dare.”
“There’s my lynx. Wilder than ever.” Grabbing her shoulders, he clipped the back of her knees with one of his legs and pushed her to the
ground. Her head bounced hard on the dirt. “I know ya want me,” he said, leering.
“No, stop!” she screamed. Kneeling, he jammed his knee in her stomach, knocking the breath from her, as he unzipped his jeans and pulled them down.
She reared up, pushing him with both hands. Suddenly he slugged her face with his right fist. A sick popping sound rang out inside her head. Her neck snapped back, and her body was thrown backward onto the ground. Just like Pa hitting Ma. Her mind blanked for seconds against a pounding pain; then she twisted and turned, trying to squirm out from under him, but he was too strong. Holding both her arms over her head with one hand, he unzipped her shorts and ripped down her panties as she kicked at him. She screamed, but there was no one to hear. Kicking at the ground, she struggled to free herself, but he grabbed her waist and flipped her over onto her stomach. Shoved her throbbing face into the dirt, then reached under her belly and pulled her pelvis up to him as he knelt behind.
“I’m not lettin’ ya go this time. Like it or not, you’re mine.”
Finding strength from somewhere primal, she pushed against the ground with her knees and arms and reared up, at the same time swinging her elbow back across his jaw. As his head swung to the side, she struck him wildly with her fists until he lost his balance and sprawled backward onto the dirt. Then, taking aim, she kicked him in his groin, square and solid.
He bent double and rolled on his side, holding his testicles and writhing. For good measure, she kicked him in the back, knowing exactly where his kidneys lay. Several times. Hard.
Pulling up her shorts, she grabbed the knapsack and ran to her boat. Snapping the starter rope, she looked back as he rose to his hands and
knees, moaning. She cussed until the motor cranked. Expecting him to chase after her any second, she turned the tiller sharply and accelerated away from the bank just as he stood. Her hands shaking, she zipped up her pants and held her body tight with one arm. Wild-eyed, she looked out to sea and saw another fishing rig nearby, two men staring at her.
After lunch, Judge Sims asked the prosecutor, “Eric, are you ready to call your first witness?”
“We are, Your Honor.” In former murder cases, Eric usually called the coroner first because his testimony introduced material evidence such as the murder weapon, time and place of death, and crime scene photographs, all of which made sharp impressions on the jurors. But in this case, there was no murder weapon, no fingerprints or footprints, so Eric intended to begin with motive.
“Your Honor, the People call Mr. Rodney Horn.”
Everyone in court watched Rodney Horn step onto the witness stand and swear to tell the truth. Kya recognized his face even though she’d seen it for only a few seconds. She turned away. A retired mechanic, he was one of them, spending most of his days fishin’, huntin’, or playin’ poker at the Swamp Guinea. Could hold his likker like a rain barrel. Today, as ever, he wore his denim bib overalls with a clean plaid shirt, starched so stiff the collar stood at attention. He held his fishing
cap in his left hand as he was sworn in with the right, then sat down in the witness box, hat on his knee.
Eric stepped casually to the witness stand. “Good morning, Rodney.”
“Now, Rodney, I believe you were fishing with a friend near Cypress Cove on the morning of August 30, 1969? Is that correct?”
“That’s ’xactly right. Me and Denny were out there fishin’. Been there since dawn.”
“For the record, that would be Denny Smith?”
“Yeah, me ’n’ Denny.”
“All right. I would like you to tell the court what you saw that morning.”
“Well, like I said, we been there since dawn, and it was near ’leven I reckon, and hadn’t had a nibble for some time, so we was ’bout to pull our lines and head out, when we heard a commotion in the trees over on the point. In the woods.”
“What kind of commotion?”
“Well, there was voices, kinda muffled at first, then louder. A man and a woman. But we couldn’t see ’em, just heard them like they was fussin’.”
“Then what happened?”
“Well, the woman started hollerin’, so we motored over to get a better look. See if she was in trouble.”
“And what did you see?”
“Well, by the time we got closer, we seen the woman was standin’ next to the man and was kicking him right in the . . .” Rodney looked at the judge.
Judge Sims said, “Where did she kick him? You can say it.”
“She kicked him right in the balls and he slumped over on his side,
moanin’ and groanin’. Then she kicked him again and again in his back. Mad as a mule chewin’ bumblebees.”
“Did you recognize the woman? Is she in the courtroom today?”
“Yeah, we knew ’er all right. It’s that ’un there, the defendant. The one folks call the Marsh Girl.”
Judge Sims leaned toward the witness. “Mr. Horn, the defendant’s name is Miss Clark. Do not refer to her by any other name.”
“A’right, then. It was Miss Clark we seen.”
Eric continued. “Did you recognize the man she was kicking?”
“Well, we couldn’t see him then ’cause he was writhin’ and wigglin’ around on the ground. But a few minutes later he stood up and it was Chase Andrews, the quarterback a few years back.”
“And then what happened?”
“She came stumblin’ out toward her boat, and well, she was partway undressed. Her shorts ’round her ankles and her knickers ’round her knees. She was tryin’ to pull up her shorts and run at the same time. The whole time shoutin’ at him. She went to her boat, jumped in, and zoomed away, still pullin’ at her pants. When she passed us by, she looked at us right in the eyes. That’s how I know ’xactly who it was.”
“You said she was shouting at him the entire time she was running toward her boat. Did you hear exactly what she said?”
“Yeah, we could hear her plain as day by then ’cause we were pretty close.”
“Please tell the court what you heard her shout.”
“She was screamin’, ‘Leave me alone, you bastard! You bother me again, I’ll kill ya!’”
A loud murmur shot through the courtroom and didn’t stop. Judge Sims banged his gavel. “That’s it. That’ll do it.”
Eric said to his witness, “That will be all, thank you, Rodney. No further questions. Your witness.”
Tom brushed past Eric and stepped to the witness stand.
“Now, Rodney, you testified that at first, when you heard those muffled but loud voices, you couldn’t see what was going on between Miss Clark and Mr. Andrews. Is that correct?”
“That’s right. We couldn’t see ’em till we moved up some.”
“And you said the woman, who you later identified as Miss Clark, was hollering as if she was in trouble. Correct?”
“You didn’t see any kissing or any sexual behavior between two consenting adults. You heard a woman shouting like she was being attacked, as if she was in trouble. Isn’t that correct?”
“So, isn’t it possible that when Miss Clark kicked Mr. Andrews she was defending herself—a woman alone in the woods—against a very strong, athletic man? A former quarterback, who had attacked her?”
“Yeah, I reckon that’s possible.”
“No further questions.”
“Yes, Your Honor,” Eric said, standing at the prosecution table.
“So, Rodney, no matter whether certain behavior was consensual or not between the two of them, is it accurate to say that the defendant, Miss Clark, was extremely mad at the deceased, Chase Andrews?”
“Yeah, plenty mad.”
“Mad enough to scream that if he bothered her again, she would kill him. Isn’t that correct?”
“Yeah, that’s how it was.”
“No further questions, Your Honor.”
Kya’s hands fumbled at the tiller as she looked back to see if Chase was following in his boat from Cypress Cove. She motored fast to her lagoon and limp-ran to the shack on swelling knees. In the kitchen, she dropped to the floor, crying, touching her swollen eye and spitting grit from her mouth. Then listened for sounds of him coming.
She had seen the shell necklace. He still wore it. How could that be?
“You’re mine,” he’d said. He’d be mad as hell that she kicked him and he’d come for her. He might come today. Or wait for night.
She couldn’t tell anybody. Jumpin’ would insist they call in the sheriff, but the law would never believe the Marsh Girl over Chase Andrews. She wasn’t sure what the two fishermen had seen, but they’d never defend her. They’d say she had it coming because, before Chase left her, she’d been seen smooching with him for years, behaving unladylike.
Actin’ the ho
, they’d say.
Outside, the wind howled from the sea and she worried that she’d never hear his motor coming, so, moving slowly from the pain, she
packed biscuits, cheese, and nuts in her knapsack and, head low against a manic gale, hurried through cord grass along channels toward the reading cabin. The walk took forty-five minutes, and at every sound her sore and stiff body flinched and her head jerked to the side, scanning the undergrowth. Finally, the old log structure, up to its knees in tall grasses and clinging to the creek bank, whispered into view. Here the wind was calmer. The soft meadow quiet. She’d never told Chase about her hideout, but he might have known about it. She wasn’t sure.
The packrat smell was gone. After the ecology lab hired Tate, he and Scupper fixed up the old cabin so he could stay overnight on some of his expeditions. They had shored up the walls, straightened the roof, and brought in basic furniture—a small quilt-covered bed, a cookstove, a table and chair. Pots and pans hung from the rafters. Then, out-of-place and plastic covered, a microscope sat on a folding table. In the corner, an old metal trunk stored tins of baked beans, sardines. Nothing to bring the bears in.
But inside, she felt trapped, unable to see if Chase was coming, so she sat on the edge of the creek, searching the grassy water land with her right eye. The left was swollen shut.
Downstream a herd of five female deer ignored her and wandered along the water’s edge nibbling leaves. If only she could join in, belong to them. Kya knew it wasn’t so much that the herd would be incomplete without one of its deer, but that each deer would be incomplete without her herd. One lifted her head, dark eyes searching north into the trees, stomping her right front foot, then the left. The others looked up, then whistled in alarm. Instantly, Kya’s good eye probed the forest for signs of Chase or some other predator. But all was quiet. Perhaps the breeze had startled them. They stopped stomping but slowly moved away into the tall grass, leaving Kya alone and uneasy.
She scanned the meadow again for intruders, but the listening and
searching sucked all her energy, so she went back into the cabin. Dug sweaty cheese from her bag. Then slumped on the floor and ate mindlessly, touching her bruised cheek. Her face, arms, and legs were cut and smeared with bloody grit. Knees scratched and throbbing. She sobbed, fighting shame, suddenly spitting the cheese out in a chunky, wet spray.
She’d brought this on herself. Consorting unchaperoned. A natural wanting had led her unmarried to a cheap motel, but still unsatisfied. Sex under flashing neon lights, marked only by blood smudged across the sheets like animal tracks.
Chase had probably bragged about their doings to everyone. No wonder people shunned her—she was unfit, disgusting.
As the half moon appeared between fast-moving clouds, she searched through the small window for manlike forms, hunched and sneaking. Finally she crawled into Tate’s bed and slept under his quilt. Waking often, listening for footsteps, then pulling the soft fabric closely around her face.
ORE CRUMBLING CHEESE
for breakfast. Her face darkened to green-purple now, eye swollen like a boiled egg, neck stove-up. Parts of her upper lip twisted grotesquely. Like Ma, monstrous, afraid to go home. In sudden clarity Kya saw what Ma had endured and why she left. “Ma, Ma,” she whispered. “I see. Finally I understand why you had to leave and never come back. I’m sorry I didn’t know, that I couldn’t help you.” Kya dropped her head and sobbed. Then jerked her head up and said, “I will never live like that—a life wondering when and where the next fist will fall.”
She hiked home that afternoon, but even though she was hungry and needed supplies, she didn’t go to Jumpin’s. Chase might see her
there. Besides, she didn’t want anyone, especially Jumpin’, to see her battered face.
After a simple meal of hard bread and smoked fish, she sat on the edge of her porch bed, staring through the screen. Just at that moment she noticed a female praying mantis stalking along a branch near her face. The insect was plucking moths with her articulated forelegs, then chewing them up, their wings still flapping in her mouth. A male mantis, head high and proud as a pony, paraded along to court her. She appeared interested, her antennae flailing about like wands. His embrace might have been tight or tender, Kya couldn’t tell, but while he probed about with his copulatory organ to fertilize her eggs, the female turned back her long, elegant neck and bit off his head. He was so busy humping, he didn’t notice. His neck stump waved about as he continued his business, and she nibbled on his thorax, and then his wings. Finally, his last foreleg protruded from her mouth as his headless, heartless lower body copulated in perfect rhyme.
Female fireflies draw in strange males with dishonest signals and eat them; mantis females devour their own mates. Female insects, Kya thought, know how to deal with their lovers.
After a few days, she boated into the marsh, exploring areas Chase wouldn’t know, but was jumpy and alert, making it difficult to paint. Her eye was still puffed around a thin slit, and the bruise had leached its nauseated colors across half her face. Much of her body throbbed with pain. At the chirp of a chipmunk she whirled around, listened keenly to the caws of crows—a language before words were, when communication was simple and clear—and wherever she went, mapped an escape route in her mind.