Authors: Delia Owens
After a bit he jerked his line. “Looky here, hon, Ah got us a big un, big as Alabamee!”
Back in the shack they fried the fish and hush puppies “fat as goose aigs.” Then she displayed her collections, carefully pinning the insects to pieces of cardboard and the feathers to the wall of the back bedroom in a soft, stirring collage. Later she lay in her bed on the porch listening to the pines. She closed her eyes, and then opened them wide. He had called her “hon.”
After finishing their morning’s investigative work at the fire tower, Sheriff Ed Jackson and Deputy Joe Purdue escorted Chase’s widow, Pearl, and his parents, Patti Love and Sam, to see him lying on a steel table under a sheet in a chilled lab at the clinic, which served as a morgue. To say good-bye. But it was too cold for any mother; unbearable for any wife. Both women had to be helped from the room.
Back at the sheriff’s office, Joe said, “Well, that was as bad as it gets . . .”
“Yeah. Don’t know how anybody gets through it.”
“Sam didn’t say a word. He never was a talker, but this’ll do him in.”
Saltwater marsh, some say, can eat a cement block for breakfast, and not even the sheriff’s bunker-style office could keep it at bay. Watermarks, outlined with salt crystals, waved across the lower walls, and black mildew spread like blood vessels toward the ceiling. Tiny dark mushrooms hunkered in the corners.
The sheriff pulled a bottle from the bottom drawer of his desk and
poured them both a double in coffee mugs. They sipped until the sun, as golden and syrupy as the bourbon, slipped into the sea.
, Joe, waving documents in the air, entered the sheriff’s office. “I got the first of the lab reports.”
“Let’s have a look.”
They sat on opposite sides of the sheriff’s desk, scanning. Joe, now and then, swatted at a single housefly.
Ed read out loud, “Time of death between midnight and two
, October 29 to 30, 1969. Just what we thought.”
After a minute of reading, he continued. “What we have is negative data.”
“You got that right. There ain’t a thing here, Sheriff.”
“Except for the two boys going up to the third switchback, there’re no fresh fingerprints on the railing, the grates, nothing. None from Chase or anybody else.” Afternoon whiskers shadowed the sheriff’s otherwise ruddy complexion.
“So somebody wiped ’em clean. Everything. If nothing else, why aren’t his fingerprints on the railing, the grate?”
“Exactly. First we had no footprints—now no fingerprints. There’s no evidence at all that he walked across the mud to the steps, walked up the steps, or opened the two grates at the top—the one above the stairs and the one he fell through. Or that anybody else did either. But negative data’s still data. Somebody cleaned up real good or killed him somewhere else and moved his body to the tower.”
“But if his body was hauled to the tower, there’d be tire tracks.”
“Right, we need to go back out there, look for tread marks besides ours and the ambulance. May have overlooked something.”
After a minute more of reading, Ed said, “Anyway, I’m confident now, this was no accident.”
Joe said, “I agree, and not just anybody can wipe up tracks this good.”
“I’m hungry. Let’s go by the diner on the way out there.”
“Well, get ready for an ambush. Everybody in town’s pretty riled up. Chase Andrews’s murder’s the biggest thing’s happened ’round here, maybe ever. Gossip’s goin’ up like smoke signals.”
“Well, keep an ear out. We might pick up a tidbit or two. Most ne’er-do-wells can’t keep their mouths shut.”
A full bank of windows, framed by hurricane shutters, covered the front of the Barkley Cove Diner, which overlooked the harbor. Only the narrow street stood between the building, constructed in 1889, and the soggy steps of the village pier. Discarded shrimp baskets and wadded-up fishing nets lined the wall under the windows, and here and there, mollusk shells littered the sidewalk. Everywhere: seabird cries, seabird dung. The aroma of sausage and biscuits, boiled turnip greens, and fried chicken thankfully overtook the high smell of fish barrels lining the dock.
A mild bustle spilled out when the sheriff opened the door. Every booth—high-backed with red padded upholstery—was taken, as were most of the tables. Joe pointed to two empty stools at the soda fountain counter, and the two walked toward them.
On the way they heard Mr. Lane from the Sing Oil saying to his diesel mechanic, “I reckon it was Lamar Sands. Ya r’member, he caught his wife doin’ a number wif Chase right on the deck of his fancy ski boat. There’s motive, and Lamar’s had other run-ins wif tha law.”
“He was wif that bunch that slit the sheriff’s tars.”
“They were just kids back then.”
“Thar was sump’m else too, I just cain’t r’member.”
Behind the counter, owner-cook Jim Bo Sweeny darted from flipping crab cakes on the griddle to stirring a pot of creamed corn on the burner to poking chicken thighs in the deep fryer, then back again. Putting piled-high plates in front of customers in between. People said he could mix biscuit dough with one hand while filleting a catfish with the other. He offered up his famous specialty—grilled flounder stuffed with shrimp served on pimento-cheese grits—only a few times a year. No advertising needed; word got out.
As the sheriff and deputy wove among the tables toward the counter, they heard Miss Pansy Price of Kress’s Five and Dime say to a friend, “It coulda been that woman lives out in the marsh. Crazy ’nough for the loony bin. I jus’ bet she’d be up to this kinda thing . . .”
“What d’ya mean? What’d she have to do with anything?”
“Well, for a while thar, she was got herself involved wif . . .”
As the sheriff and deputy stepped up to the counter, Ed said, “Let’s just order take-out po’boys and get out of here. We can’t get dragged into all this.”
Sitting in the bow, Kya watched low fingers of fog reaching for their boat. At first, torn-off cloud bits streamed over their heads, then mist engulfed them in grayness, and there was only the
tick, tick, tick
of the quiet motor. Minutes later, small splotches of unexpected color formed as the weathered shape of the marina gas station eased into view, as though it and not them was moving. Pa motored in, bumping gently against the dock. She’d only been here once. The owner, an old black man, sprang up from his chair to help them—the reason everybody called him Jumpin’. His white sideburns and salt-and-pepper hair framed a wide, generous face and owl eyes. Tall and spare, he seemed to never stop talking, smiling, or throwing his head back, lips shut tight in his own brand of laugh. He didn’t dress in overalls, like most workmen around, but wore an ironed blue button-down shirt, too-short dark trousers, and work boots. Not often, but now and then on the meanest summer days, a tattered straw hat.
His Gas and Bait teetered on its own wobbly wharf. A cable ran from the closest oak on shore, about forty feet across the backwater,
and held on with all its might. Jumpin’s great-grandpa had built the wharf and shack of cypress planks way back before anybody could remember, sometime before the Civil War.
Three generations had nailed bright metal signs—Nehi Grape Soda, Royal Crown Cola, Camel Filters, and twenty years’ worth of North Carolina automobile license plates—all over the shack, and that burst of color could be seen from the sea through all but the thickest fog.
“Hello, Mister Jake. How ya doin’?”
“Well, Ah woke up on the right side of dirt,” Pa answered.
Jumpin’ laughed as if he’d never heard the worn-out phrase. “Ya got your li’l daughter with you an’ all. That’s mighty fine.”
Pa nodded. Then, as an afterthought, “Yep, this here’s ma daughter, Miz Kya Clark.”
“Well, I’m mighty proud to know ya, Miss Kya.”
Kya searched her bare toes but found no words.
Jumpin’ wasn’t bothered and kept talking about the good fishing lately. Then he asked Pa, “Fill ’er up then, Mister Jake?”
“Yeah, slam ’er right up to tha top.”
The men talked weather, fishing, then more weather till the tank was full.
“Good day to y’all, now,” he said, as he tossed off the line.
Pa cruised slowly back onto a bright sea—the sun taking less time to devour the fog than it took Jumpin’ to fill a tank. They chugged around a piney peninsula for several miles to Barkley Cove, where Pa tied to the deeply etched beams of the town wharf. Fishermen busied about, packing fish, tying line.
“Ah reckon we can git us some rest’rant vittles,” Pa said, and led her along the pier toward the Barkley Cove Diner. Kya had never eaten restaurant food; had never set foot inside. Her heart thumped as she brushed dried mud from her way-too-short overalls and patted down
her tangled hair. As Pa opened the door, every customer paused midbite. A few men nodded faintly at Pa; the women frowned and turned their heads. One snorted, “Well, they prob’ly can’t read the
shirt and shoes required
Pa motioned for her to sit at a small table overlooking the wharf. She couldn’t read the menu, but he told her most of it, and she ordered fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, white acre peas, and biscuits fluffy as fresh-picked cotton. He had fried shrimp, cheese grits, fried “okree,” and fried green tomatoes. The waitress put a whole dish of butter pats perched on ice cubes and a basket of cornbread and biscuits on their table, and all the sweet iced tea they could drink. Then they had blackberry cobbler with ice cream for dessert. So full, Kya thought she might get sick, but figured it’d be worth it.
As Pa stood at the cash register paying the bill, Kya stepped out onto the sidewalk, where the ripe smell of fishing boats hung over the bay. She held a greasy napkin wrapped around the leftover chicken and biscuits. Her overalls pockets were stuffed with packages of saltines, which the waitress had left right on the table for the taking.
“Hi.” Kya heard a tiny voice behind her and turned to see a girl of about four years with blond ringlets looking up at her. She was dressed in a pale blue frock and reached out her hand. Kya stared at the little hand; it was puffy-soft and maybe the cleanest thing Kya had ever seen. Never scrubbed with lye soap, certainly no mussel mud beneath the nails. Then she looked into the girl’s eyes, in which she herself was reflected as just another kid.
Kya shifted the napkin to her left hand and extended her right slowly toward the girl’s.
“Hey there, get away!” Suddenly Mrs. Teresa White, wife of the Methodist preacher, rushed from the door of the Buster Brown Shoe Shop.
Barkley Cove served its religion hard-boiled and deep-fried. Tiny as it was, the village supported four churches, and those were just for the whites; the blacks had three more.
Of course, the pastors and preachers, and certainly their wives, enjoyed highly respected positions in the village, always dressing and behaving accordingly. Teresa White often wore pastel skirts and white blouses, matching pumps and purse.
Now she hurried toward her daughter and lifted her in her arms. Stepping away from Kya, she put the girl back on the sidewalk and squatted next to the child.
“Meryl Lynn, dahlin’, don’t go near that girl, ya hear me. She’s dirty.”
Kya watched the mother run her fingers through the curls; didn’t miss how long they held each other’s eyes.
A woman came out of the Piggly Wiggly and walked quickly up to them. “Ya all right, Teresa? What happened here? Was that girl botherin’ Meryl Lynn?”
“I saw her in time. Thank you, Jenny. I wish those people wouldn’t come to town. Look at her. Filthy. Plumb nasty. There’s that stomach flu goin’ around and I just know for a fact it came in with them. Last year they brought in that case of measles, and that’s serious.” Teresa walked away, clutching the child.
Just then Pa, carrying some beer in a brown paper bag, called behind her, “Whatcha doin’? C’mon, we gotta git outta here. Tide’s goin’ out.” Kya turned and followed, and as they steered home to the marsh, she saw the curls and eyes of mother and child.
Pa still disappeared some, not coming back for several days, but not as often as before. And when he did show up, he didn’t collapse in a stupor but ate a meal and talked some. One night they played gin
rummy, he guffawing when she won, and she giggling with her hands over her mouth like a regular girl.
off the porch, she looked down the lane, thinking that even though the wild wisteria was fading with late spring and her mother had left late the previous summer, she might see Ma walking home through the sand. Still in her fake alligator heels. Now that she and Pa were fishing and talking, maybe they could try again to be a family. Pa had beat all of them, mostly when he was drunk. He’d be all right for a few days at a time—they would eat chicken stew together; once they flew a kite on the beach. Then: drink, shout, hit. Details of some of the bouts were sharp in her mind. Once Pa shoved Ma into the kitchen wall, hitting her until she slumped to the floor. Kya, sobbing for him to quit, touched his arm. He grabbed Kya by the shoulders, shouted for her to pull down her jeans and underpants, and bent her over the kitchen table. In one smooth, practiced motion he slid the belt from his pants and whipped her. Of course, she remembered the hot pain slicing her bare bottom, but curiously, she recalled the jeans pooled around her skinny ankles in more vivid detail. And Ma crumpled into the corner by the cookstove, crying out. Kya didn’t know what all the fighting was about.
But if Ma came back now, when Pa was acting decent, maybe they could start over. Kya never thought it would be Ma who left and Pa who stayed. But she knew her mother wouldn’t leave her forever; if she was out there somewhere in the world, she’d come back. Kya could still see the full, red lips as Ma sang to the radio, and hear her words, “Now listen close to Mr. Orson Welles; he speaks proper like a gentleman. Don’t ever say
, it isn’t even a word.”
Ma had painted the estuaries and sunsets in oils and watercolors so rich they seemed peeled from the earth. She had brought some art supplies with her and could buy bits and pieces at Kress’s Five and Dime. Sometimes Ma had let Kya paint her own pictures on brown paper bags from the Piggly Wiggly.
of that fishing summer, on one afternoon that paled with heat, Kya walked to the mailbox at the end of the lane. Leafing through the grocery ads, she stopped dead when she saw a blue envelope addressed in Ma’s neat hand. A few sycamore leaves were turning the same shade of yellow as when she left. All that time without a trace and now a letter. Kya stared at it, held it to the light, ran her fingers across the slanted, perfect script. Her heart banged against her chest.
“Ma’s alive. Living somewhere else. Why hasn’t she come home?” She thought of tearing the letter open, but the only word she could read for sure was her name, and it was not on the envelope.
She ran to the shack, but Pa had motored somewhere in the boat. So she propped the letter against the saltshaker on the table where he’d see it. As she boiled black-eyed peas with onions, she kept an eye on the letter lest it disappear.
Every few seconds, she ducked to the kitchen window to listen for the boat’s
. Then suddenly Pa was limp-walking up the steps. All courage left her, and she dashed past him, hollering that she was going to the outhouse; supper would be ready soon. She stood inside the smelly latrine, her heart running races to her stomach. Balancing on the wooden bench, she watched through the quarter-moon slit in the door, not knowing exactly what she expected.
Then the porch door slammed, and she saw Pa walking fast toward
the lagoon. He went straight to the boat, a poke in his hand, and motored away. She ran back to the house, into the kitchen, but the letter was gone. She flung open his dresser drawers, rummaged through his closet, searching. “It’s mine, too! It’s mine as much as yours.” Back in the kitchen, she looked in the trash can and found the letter’s ashes, still fringed in blue. With a spoon she dipped them up and laid them on the table, a little pile of black and blue remains. She picked, bit by bit, through the garbage; maybe some words had drifted to the bottom. But there was nothing but traces of cinder clinging to onionskin.
She sat at the table, the peas still singing in the pot, and stared at the little mound. “Ma touched these. Maybe Pa’ll tell me what she wrote. Don’t be stupid—that’s as likely as snow fallin’ in the swamp.”
Even the postmark was gone. Now she’d never know where Ma was. She put the ashes in a little bottle and kept it in her cigar box next to her bed.
T COME HOME
that night or the next day, and when he finally did, it was the old drunk who staggered through the door. When she mounted the courage to ask about the letter, he barked, “It ain’t none a’ yo’ bidness.” And then, “She ain’t comin’ back, so ya can just forget ’bout that.” Carrying a poke, he shuffled toward the boat.
“That isn’t true,” Kya hollered at his back, her fists bunched at her sides. She watched him leaving, then shouted at the empty lagoon, “
isn’t even a word!”
Later she would wonder if she should have opened the letter on her own, not even shown it to Pa. Then she could have saved the words to read someday, and he’d have been better off not knowing them.
Pa never took her fishing again. Those warm days were just a
thrown-in season. Low clouds parting, the sun splashing her world briefly, then closing up dark and tight-fisted again.
how to pray. Was it how you held your hands or how hard you squinted your eyes that mattered? “Maybe if I pray, Ma and Jodie will come home. Even with all the shouting and fussing, that life was better than this lumpy-grits.”
She sang mis-snippets of hymns—“and He walks with me when dew is still on the roses”—all she remembered from the little white church where Ma had taken her a few times. Their last visit had been Easter Sunday before Ma left, but all Kya remembered about the holiday was shouting and blood, somebody falling, she and Ma running, so she dropped the memory altogether.
Kya looked through the trees at Ma’s corn and turnip patch, all weeds now. Certainly there were no roses.
“Just forget it. No god’s gonna come to this garden.”