Authors: Delia Owens
Murky shafts of light streamed through the tiny window of Kya’s cell. She stared at dust motes, dancing silently in one direction as though following some dreamy leader. When they hit the shadows, they vanished. Without the sun they were nothing.
She pulled the wooden crate, her only table, under the window, which was seven feet above the floor. Dressed in a gray jumpsuit with
printed on the back, she stood on the crate and stared at the sea, just visible beyond the thick glass and bars. Whitecaps slapped and spat, and pelicans, heads turning for fish, flew low over the waves. If she stretched her neck far to the right she could see the dense crown of the marsh’s edge. Yesterday she had seen an eagle dive and twist toward a fish.
The county jail consisted of six twelve-by-twelve cells in a cement-block, one-story building behind the sheriff’s office at the edge of town. The cells were in a row down the length of the building—only on one side, so inmates couldn’t see one another. Three of the walls were damp cement blocks; the fourth was made of bars including the locked door.
Each cell had a wooden bed with a bumpy cotton mattress, a feather pillow, sheets, one gray wool blanket, a sink, and a wooden-crate table, plus a toilet. Over the sink was not a mirror but a picture of Jesus, framed there by the Ladies’ Baptist Auxiliary. The only allowance made for her, the first female inmate—other than overnighters—in years, was a gray plastic curtain that could be pulled around the sink and toilet.
For two months before the trial, she’d been held in this cell without bail because of her failed attempt to escape the sheriff in her boat. Kya wondered who started using the word
. There must have been a moment in time when humanity demanded this shift. Self-scratched red webbing streaked her arms. For untracked minutes, sitting on her bed, she studied strands of her hair, plucking them like feathers. As the gulls do.
Standing on the crate, craning her neck toward the marsh, she recalled an Amanda Hamilton poem:
Broken Gull of Brandon Beach
Winged soul, you danced the skies,
And startled dawn with shrilling cries.
You followed sails and braved the sea,
Then caught the wind back to me.
You broke your wing; it dragged the land
And etched your mark upon the sand.
When feathers break, you cannot fly,
But who decides the time to die?
. . .
You disappeared, I know not where.
But your wing-marks still linger there.
A broken heart cannot fly,
But who decides the time to die?
Even though the inmates couldn’t see one another, the only other occupants—two men at the far end of the row—spent much of each day and evening jabbering. Both were doing thirty days for starting a fight, which ended in broken bar mirrors and a few bones, over who could spit the farthest at the Dog-Gone Beer Hall. Mostly they lay on their beds, calling to each other from their adjoining cells, sounding like drum squatters. Much of the banter was gossip they’d heard about Kya’s case from their visitors. Especially her odds of getting the death penalty, which had not been issued in the county for twenty years, and never to a woman.
Kya heard every word. Being dead didn’t bother her; they couldn’t scare her with threats of ending this shadow life. But the process of being killed by another’s hand, planned out and set to schedule, was so unthinkable it stopped her breath.
Sleep avoided her, slinking around the edges, then darting away. Her mind would plunge along deep walls of sudden slumber—an instant of bliss—then her body would shudder her awake.
She stepped down from the crate and sat on the bed, knees tucked under her chin. They’d brought her here after court, so it might be six by now. Only one hour passed. Or maybe not even that.
In early September, more than a week after Chase attacked her, she walked down her beach. The wind ripped at a letter in her hand, so she held it against her breasts. Her editor had invited her to meet him in Greenville, writing that he understood she didn’t come to town often, but he wanted to meet her, and the publisher would pay her expenses.
The day stood clear and hot, so she motored into the marsh. At the end of a narrow estuary, she rounded a grassy bend and saw Tate squatting on a wide sandbar, dipping up water samples in little vials. His cruiser–cum–research vessel was tied to a log and drifted across the channel, blocking it. She heaved on the tiller. Some of the swelling and bruising on her face had diminished, but ugly green and purple splotches still circled her eye. She panicked. She could not let Tate see her battered face and tried to turn her boat around quickly.
But he looked up and waved. “Pull in, Kya. I’ve got a new microscope to show you.”
This had the same effect as the truant officer calling to her about chicken pie. She slowed but didn’t answer.
“Come on. You won’t believe this magnification. You can see the pseudopods on the amoebas.”
She’d never seen an amoeba, certainly not its body parts. And seeing Tate again brought a peace, a calmness. Deciding that she could keep her bruised face turned away from him, she beached her boat and walked through the shallow water toward his. She wore cutoff jeans and a white T-shirt, her hair free. Standing at the top of the stern ladder, he held out his hand and she took it, looking away from him.
The cruiser’s soft beige blended into the marsh, and Kya had never seen anything as fine as the teak deck and brass helm. “Come on down,” he said, stepping below into the cabin. She scanned the captain’s desk, the small kitchen outfitted better than her own, and the living area that had been converted into an onboard laboratory with multiple microscopes and racks of vials. Other instruments hummed and blinked.
Tate fiddled with the largest microscope and adjusted the slide.
“Here, just a minute.” He touched a drop of marsh water onto the slide, covered it with another, and focused the eyepiece. He stood. “Have a look.”
Kya leaned over gently, as if to kiss a baby. The microscope’s light reflected in her dark pupils, and she drew in a breath as a Mardi Gras of costumed players pirouetted and careened into view. Unimaginable headdresses adorned astonishing bodies so eager for more life, they frolicked as though caught in a circus tent, not a single bead of water.
She put her hand on her heart. “I had no idea there were so many and so beautiful,” she said, still looking.
He identified some odd species, then stepped back, watching her.
She feels the pulse of life
, he thought,
because there are no layers between her and her planet
He showed her more slides.
She whispered, “It’s like never having seen the stars, then suddenly seeing them.”
“Would you like some coffee?” he asked softly.
She raised her head. “No, no, thank you.” Then she backed away from the microscope, moving toward the galley. Awkwardly, keeping her brown-green eye turned away.
Tate was accustomed to Kya being guarded, but her behavior seemed more distant and stranger than ever. Continuously keeping her head turned at an angle.
“Come on, Kya. Just have a cup of coffee.” He’d already moved into the kitchenette and poured water into a machine that dripped out a strong brew. She stood by the ladder to the deck above, and he handed her a mug, motioning for her to go up. He invited her to sit on the cushioned bench, but she stood at the stern. Catlike, she knew the exit. The brilliant white sandbar curved away from them under sheltering oaks.
“Kya . . .” He started to ask a question, but when she faced him, he saw the fading bruise on her cheek.
“What happened to your face?” He walked toward her, reaching to touch her cheek. She turned away.
“Nothing. I ran into a door in the middle of the night.” He knew that wasn’t true by the way she flung her hand to her face. Someone had hit her. Had it been Chase? Was she still seeing him even though he was married? Tate worked his jaw. Kya moved to put her mug down, as if she were going.
He forced calm. “Have you started a new book?”
“I’m almost finished with the one on mushrooms. My editor’s
coming to Greenville sometime at the end of October and wants me to meet him there. But I’m not sure.”
“You should go. It’d be good to meet him. There’s a bus from Barkley every day, one at night, too. It doesn’t take long. An hour and twenty minutes maybe, something like that.”
“I don’t know where to buy a ticket.”
“The driver’ll know everything. Just show up at the bus stop on Main; he’ll tell you what you need to do. I think Jumpin’ has the schedule tacked up in his store.” He almost mentioned that he had ridden the bus many times from Chapel Hill, but thought it better not to remind her of those days, of her waiting on a July beach.
They were quiet for a while, sipping their coffee, listening to a pair of hawks whistling along the walls of a tall cloud.
He hesitated to offer more coffee, knowing she would leave if he did. So he asked about her mushroom book, explained the protozoans he studied. Any bait to keep her.
The afternoon light softened and a cool wind picked up. Putting the mug down again, she said, “I have to go.”
“I was thinking of opening some wine. Would you like some?”
“Wait a second before you go,” Tate said as he went below to the galley and returned with a bag of leftover bread and biscuits. “Please give my regards to the gulls.”
“Thanks.” She climbed down the ladder.
As she walked toward her boat, he called out, “Kya, it’s gotten cooler, don’t you want a jacket or something?”
“No. I’m fine.”
“Here, at least take my cap,” and he tossed a red ski cap toward her. She caught it and slung it back to him. He threw it again, farther, and she jogged across the sandbar, leaned low and scooped it up. Laughing,
she jumped into her boat, cranked the motor, and, as she boated near him, pitched the hat back into his boat. He grinned and she giggled. Then they stopped laughing and simply looked at each other as they lobbed the cap back and forth until she motored around the bend. She sat down hard on the stern seat and put her hand over her mouth. “No,” she said out loud. “I cannot fall for him again. I will not get hurt all over again.”
Tate stayed at the stern. Clenching his fists at the image of someone hitting her.
She hugged the coastline just beyond the surf, heading south. On this route she would pass her beach before reaching the channel that led through the marsh to her shack. Usually she didn’t stop at her beach, but motored through the maze of waterways to her lagoon, and then walked to the shore.
But as she passed by, the gulls spotted her and swarmed the boat. Big Red landed on the bow, bobbing his head. She laughed. “Okay then, you win.” Breaking through the surf, she beached her boat behind tall sea oats and stood at the shoreline tossing the crumbs Tate had given her.
As the sun spread gold and pink across the water, she sat on the sand while the gulls settled around her. Suddenly she heard a motor and saw Chase’s ski boat racing toward her channel. He could not see her boat behind the sea oats, but she was in plain sight on the open sand. Instantly she lay flat, turning her head to the side, so she could watch him. He stood at the helm, hair blowing back, face in an ugly scowl. But he didn’t look in her direction as he turned into the channel toward her shack.
When he was out of sight, she sat up. If she hadn’t beached here with the gulls, he would have caught her at home. She’d learned over and over from Pa: these men had to have the last punch. Kya had left
Chase sprawled on the dirt. The two old fishermen had probably seen her flatten him. As Pa would have it, Kya had to be taught a lesson.
As soon as he discovered she wasn’t at the shack, he’d walk here to her beach. She ran to her boat, throttled up, and headed back toward Tate. But she didn’t want to tell Tate what Chase had done to her; shame overwhelmed reason. She slowed down and drifted on swells as the sun disappeared. She had to hide and wait for Chase to leave. If she didn’t see him go, she wouldn’t know when it was safe to motor home.
She turned into the channel, panicked that he could roar in her direction at any second. Her motor just above idle, so she could hear his boat, she eased into a backwater thicket of overhanging trees and brush. She reversed deeper into the undergrowth, pushing limbs aside until layers of leaves and the falling night hid her.
Breathing hard, she listened. Finally she heard his engine screaming across the soft evening air. She ducked lower as he approached, suddenly worried that the tip of her boat was visible. The sound came very close, and in seconds his boat zoomed by. She sat there for nearly thirty minutes until it was truly dark, then cruised home by starlight.
She took her bedding to the beach and sat with the gulls. They paid her no mind, preening outstretched wings before settling down on the sand like feathered stones. As they chortled softly and tucked their heads for the night, she lay as close to them as she could get. But even among their soft cooing and ruffling, Kya couldn’t sleep. Mostly she tossed from one side to the other, sitting up each time the wind mimicked footfalls.
Dawn surf roared on a slapping wind that stung her cheeks. She sat up among the birds, who wandered nearby, stretching and kick-scratching. Big Red—eyes wide, neck cocked—seemed to have found something most interesting in his underwing, an act that would normally have made Kya laugh. But the birds brought her no cheer.
She walked to the water’s edge. Chase would not let this go. Being isolated was one thing; living in fear, quite another.
She imagined taking one step after the other into the churning sea, sinking into the stillness beneath the waves, strands of her hair suspending like black watercolor into the pale blue sea, her long fingers and arms drifting up toward the backlit blaze of the surface. Dreams of escape—even through death—always lift toward the light. The dangling, shiny prize of peace just out of grasp until finally her body descends to the bottom and settles in murky quiet. Safe.
Who decides the time to die?