Authors: Delia Owens
“Biology’s good; I like it, but we’re doing poetry in English class. Can’t say I like it much. We each gotta read one out loud. You used to recite some, but I don’t remember them.”
“I got the poem for you, son,” Scupper said. “My favorite—‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ by Robert Service. Used to read it out to y’all. Was your mama’s favorite. She laughed every time I read it, never got tired of it.”
Tate looked down at the mention of his mother, pushed his beans around.
Scupper went on. “Don’t go thinking poetry’s just for sissies. There’s mushy love poems, for sure, but there’s also funny ones, lots about nature, war even. Whole point of it—they make ya feel something.” His dad had told him many times that the definition of a real man is one who cries without shame, reads poetry with his heart, feels opera in his soul, and does what’s necessary to defend a woman. Scupper walked to the sitting room, calling back, “I used to know most of it by heart, but not anymore. But here it is, I’ll read it to ya.” He sat back down at the table and began reading. When he got to this segment:
“And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said, ‘Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.’”
Scupper and Tate chuckled.
“Your mom always laughed at that.”
They smiled, remembering. Just sat there a minute. Then Scupper said he’d wash up while Tate did his homework. In his room, scanning through the poetry book for one to read in class, Tate found a poem by Thomas Moore:
. . . she’s gone to the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,
Where, all night long, by a fire-fly lamp,
She paddles her white canoe.
And her fire-fly lamp I soon shall see,
And her paddle I soon shall hear;
Long and loving our life shall be,
And I’ll hide the maid in a cypress tree,
When the footstep of death is near.
The words made him think of Kya, Jodie’s little sister. She’d seemed so small and alone in the marsh’s big sweep. He imagined his own sister lost out there. His dad was right—poems made you feel something.
That evening, after the fishing boy led her home through the marsh, Kya sat cross-legged on her porch bed. Mist from the downpour eased through the patched-up screen, touching her face. She thought about the boy. Kind yet strong, like Jodie. The only people she ever spoke to were Pa now and then and, even less often, the cash-register lady at the Piggly Wiggly, Mrs. Singletary, who had recently taken to teaching Kya the difference between quarters, nickels, and dimes—she already knew about pennies. But Mrs. Singletary could also get nosey.
“Dahlin’, what’s yo’ name, anyhow? And why don’t yo’ ma come in anymore? Haven’t seen ’er since the turnips put out.”
“Ma’s got lots of chores, so she sends me to the store.”
“Yeah, dear, but ya never buy nears enough for yo’ family.”
“Ya know, ma’am, I gotta go. Ma needs these grits right away.”
When possible, Kya avoided Mrs. Singletary, using the other checkout lady, who didn’t show any interest except to say kids shouldn’t come to the market barefoot. She thought of telling the lady
she didn’t plan to pick grapes with her toes. Who could afford grapes, anyhow?
More and more Kya didn’t talk to anybody but the gulls. She wondered if she could strike some bargain with Pa to use his boat. Out in the marsh, she could collect feathers and shells and maybe see the boy sometimes. She’d never had a friend, but she could feel the use of it, the pull. They could boat around in the estuaries some, explore the fens. He might think of her as a little kid, but he knew his way around the marsh and might teach her.
Pa didn’t have a car. He used the boat to fish, to go to town, to maneuver through the swamp to the Swamp Guinea, a weathered bar and poker joint connected to solid ground by a rickety boardwalk through cattails. Made of rough-cut clapboard under a tin roof, it rambled from one add-on to the next, the floor at different levels depending on how high the brick chicken-legs perched it above the swamp. When Pa went there or anywhere, he took the boat, only rarely walked, so why would he lend it to her?
But he’d let her brothers use it when he wasn’t, probably because they caught fish for supper. She had no interest in fishing, but maybe she could trade something else, figuring that was the way to reach him. Cook maybe, do more around the house, until Ma came back.
The rain eased. A single drop, here then there, shook a leaf like the flick of a cat’s ear. Kya hopped up, cleaned out the Frigidaire-cupboard, mopped the stained plywood kitchen floor, and scraped off months of caked-on grits from the woodstove burners. Early the next morning, she scrubbed Pa’s sheets, reeking of sweat and whiskey, and draped them over the palmettos. She went through her brothers’ room, not much bigger than a closet, dusting and sweeping. Dirty socks were piled in the back of the closet and yellowed comic books strewn next to
the two soiled mattresses on the floor. She tried to see the boys’ faces, the feet that went with the socks, but the details blurred. Even Jodie’s face was fading; she’d see his eyes for an instant, then they’d slip away, closing.
The next morning, carrying a gallon can, she walked the sandy tracks to the Piggly and bought matches, backbone, and salt. Saved out two dimes. “Can’t get milk, gotta get gas.”
She stopped by the Sing Oil filling station just outside Barkley Cove, which stood in a grove of pines surrounded by rusted-out trucks and jalopy cars stacked on cement blocks.
Mr. Lane saw Kya coming. “Git on outta here, ya little beggar-hen. Marsh trash.”
“I got cash money, Mr. Lane. I need gas and oil for Pa’s boat motor.” She held out two dimes, two nickels, and five pennies.
“Well, it ain’t hardly worth ma trouble for such a piddly sum, but c’mon, give it here.” He reached for the bent-up, square container.
She thanked Mr. Lane, who grunted again. The groceries and gas weighed more with every mile, and it took some time to get home. Finally in the shade of the lagoon, she emptied the can into the gas tank and scrubbed the boat with rags and wet sand for grist until the metal sides showed through the grime.
E FOURTH DAY
after Pa left, she started keeping a lookout. By late afternoon a cold dread set in and her breathing shallowed up. Here she was again, staring down the lane. Mean as he was, she needed him to come back. Finally, in the early evening, there he came, walking the sandy ruts. She ran to the kitchen and laid out a goulash of boiled mustard greens, backbone, and grits. She didn’t know how to make gravy, so poured the backbone stock—floating with morsels of white
fat—into an empty jelly jar. The plates were cracked and didn’t match, but she had the fork on the left, the knife on the right like Ma taught her. Then she waited, flattened up against the Frigidaire like a roadkill stork.
He banged the front door open against the wall and walked through the sitting room to his bedroom in three strides, without calling her or looking in the kitchen. That was normal. She heard him putting his case on the floor, pulling out drawers. He’d notice the fresh bedding, the clean floor for sure. If not his eyes, his nose would catch the difference.
In a few minutes he stepped out, straight into the kitchen, and looked at the set table, at the steaming bowls of food. He saw her standing against the fridge, and they stared at each other like they’d never seen each other before.
“Ah swannee, girl, what’s a’ this? Looks like ya went an’ got all growed up. Cookin’ and all.” He didn’t smile, but his face was calm. He was unshaven, with dark unwashed hair hanging across his left temple. But he was sober; she knew the signs.
“Yessir. I fixed cornbread too, but it didn’t come out.”
“Well, ah thankee. That’s a mighty good girl. Ah’m plumb wore out and hungry as a wallow-hog.” He pulled out a chair and sat, so she did the same. In silence they filled their plates and picked stringy meat from the stingy backbones. He lifted a vertebra and sucked out the marrow, fatty juice glistening on his whiskered cheeks. Gnawed on those bones till they were slick as silk ribbons.
“This here’s better’n a cold collard sandwich,” he said.
“I wish the cornbread’d come out. Maybe shoulda put more soda in, less eggs.” Kya couldn’t believe she was talking on so, but couldn’t stop herself. “Ma made it so good, but I guess I didn’t pay enough mind to the details . . .” Then thought she shouldn’t be talking about Ma, so hushed up.
Pa pushed his plate toward her. “’Nough for a dab more?”
“Yessir, there’s aplenty.”
“Oh, and tump some of that cornbread right in tha stew. Ah got a hankerin’ for soppin’ up the stock, and my bet is that bread’s just fine, mushy like spoonbread.”
She smiled to herself as she filled his plate. Who would’ve thought they’d find cornbread as a footing.
But now, after thinking about it, she worried that if she asked to use the boat, he would think she’d cooked and cleaned only for the favor, which was how it started out, but now seemed somehow different. She liked sitting down and eating like a family. Her need to talk to somebody felt urgent.
So she didn’t mention using the boat by herself, instead asked, “Can I go out fishin’ with ya sometime?”
He laughed hard, but it was kind. The first time he’d laughed since Ma and the others left. “So ya wanta go fishin’?”
“Yessir, I do.”
“You’re a girl,” he said, looking at his plate, chewing backbone.
“Yessir, I’m your girl.”
“Well, Ah might could take ya out sometime.”
The next morning, as Kya careened down the sandy lane, her arms held straight out, she sputtered wet noises from her lips, spittle spraying. She would lift off and sail over the marsh, looking for nests, then rise and fly wing to wing with eagles. Her fingers became long feathers, splayed against the sky, gathering the wind beneath her. Then suddenly she was jerked back to Earth by Pa hollering to her from the boat. Her wings collapsed, stomach pitched; he must have figured out she’d used it. She could already feel the paddle on her bottom and the backs of her legs. She knew how to hide, wait until he was drunk, and he’d never find her. But she was too far down the lane, in full view, and there he
was standing with all his poles and rods, motioning for her to come. She walked over, quiet, scared. The fishing tackle was strewn about, a poke of corn likker tucked under his seat.
“Git in” was all he said as invitation. She started to express glee or gratitude, but his blank expression kept her quiet, as she stepped to the bow and sat on the metal seat facing forward. He pull-cranked and they headed up the channel, ducking the overgrowth as they cruised up and down the waterways, Kya memorizing broken trees and old stump signposts. He eased the motor down in a backwater and motioned for her to sit on the center seat.
“Go on now, scratch some worms from the can,” he said, a hand-rolled cigarette hanging at the corner of his mouth. He taught her to snag the bait, to cast and reel. It seemed he contorted his body in odd postures to avoid brushing against her. They only talked fishing; never ventured to other subjects, neither smiled often, but on common ground they were steady. He drank some likker but then got busy and didn’t drink more. At late day, the sun sighed, fading to the color of butter, and they may not have noticed, but their own shoulders finally rounded and their necks slacked.
Secretly Kya hoped not to catch a fish, but she felt a tug, jerked her line, and raised a thick bream, flashing silver and blue. Pa leaned out and snatched it in the net, then sat back, slapping his knee and yahooing like she’d never seen. She grinned wide and they looked into each other’s eyes, closing a circuit.
Before Pa strung it up, the bream flopped around in the boat bottom and Kya had to watch a distant string of pelicans, study the cloud forms, anything but look into dying fish eyes staring at a world without water, wide mouth sucking worthless air. But what it cost her and what it cost that fish was worth it to have this little shred of family. Perhaps not for the fish, but still.
They went out in the boat again the next day, and in a dark lagoon, Kya spotted the soft breast feathers of a great horned owl floating on the surface. Each curled at both ends, so that they drifted around like tiny orange boats. She scooped them up and put them in her pocket. Later she found an abandoned hummingbird nest woven onto an outstretched branch, and tucked it safely in the bow.
That evening, Pa cooked up a supper of fried fish—coated in cornmeal and black pepper—served with grits and greens. As Kya washed up after, Pa walked into the kitchen, carrying his old World War II–issue knapsack. Standing near the door, he flung it roughly onto one of the chairs. It slid to the floor with a thud, which made her jump and whirl around.
“Thought ya could use that fer yo’ feathers, bird nests, and all that other stuff ya c’lect.”
“Oh,” Kya said. “Oh, thank ya.” But he was already out the porch door. She picked up the frayed knapsack, made of canvas tough enough for a lifetime and covered in small pockets and secret compartments. Heavy-duty zips. She stared out the window. He had never given her anything.
VERY WARMISH DAY OF
and every day of spring, Pa and Kya went out, far up and down the coast, trolling, casting, and reeling. Whether in estuary or creek, she scanned for that boy Tate in his boat, hoping to see him again. She thought about him sometimes, wanted to be his friend, but had no idea how to go about it or even how to find him. Then, just like that, one afternoon she and Pa came around a bend, and there he was fishing, almost in that same spot where she first saw him. Right off, he grinned and waved. Without thinking, she
threw her hand up and waved back, almost smiling. Then dropped her hand just as quick when Pa looked at her, surprised.
“One a’ Jodie’s friends, before he left,” she said.
“Ya gotta watch out for folks ’round here,” he said. “Woods’re full a’ white trash. Pert near ever’body out here’s a no-’count.”
She nodded. Wanted to look back at the boy, but didn’t. Then worried he would think her unfriendly.
Pa knew the marsh the way a hawk knows his meadow: how to hunt, how to hide, how to terrorize intruders. And Kya’s wide-eyed questions spurred him to explain goose seasons, fish habits, how to read weather in the clouds and riptides in the waves.
Some days she packed a picnic supper in the knapsack and they ate crumbly cornbread, which she had almost mastered, with sliced onions, as the setting sun posed over the marsh. Occasionally, he forgot the bootleg and they drank tea from jelly jars.
“My folks weren’t always po’, ya know,” Pa blurted out one day as they sat in oak shadows, casting lines across a brown lagoon buzzing with low-flying insects.
“They had land, rich land, raised tobaccy and cott’n and such. Over near Asheville. Yo’ gramma on my side wore bonnets big as wagon wheels and long skirts. We lived in a house wif a verander that went a’ the way around, two stories high. It wa’ fine, mighty fine.”
Kya’s lips parted. Somewhere, there was or had been a grandmother. Where was she now? Kya longed to ask what happened to everybody. But was afraid.
Pa continued on his own. “Then it all went wrong together. Ah was a young’un through most of it, so don’t know, but there was the D’pression, cott’n weevils, Ah don’t know what all, and it was gone. Only thang left was debts, lotsa debts.”
With these sketchy details, Kya struggled to visualize his past. There was nothing of Ma’s history. Pa would go into a rage if any of them talked about their lives before Kya was born. She knew her family had lived somewhere far away before the marsh, near her other grandparents, a place where Ma wore store-bought dresses with small pearly buttons, satin ribbons, and lace trim. After they moved into the shack, Ma kept the dresses in trunks, taking one out every few years and stripping it down for a work smock because there was no money for anything new. Now those fine clothes along with their story were gone, burned in the bonfire Pa started after Jodie left.
Kya and Pa cast some more, their lines swishing over soft yellow pollen floating on the still water, and she thought that was the end of it, but he added, “Someday Ah’ll take ya to Asheville, show ya the land that was our’n, shoulda been your’n.”