Authors: Delia Owens
Sand keeps secrets better than mud. The sheriff parked his rig at the beginning of the fire tower lane so they wouldn’t drive over any evidence of someone driving the night of the alleged murder. But as they walked along the track, looking for vehicle treads other than their own, sand grains shifted into formless dimples with every step.
Then, at the mud holes and swampy areas near the tower, a profusion of detailed stories revealed themselves: a raccoon with her four young had trailed in and out of the muck; a snail had woven a lacy pattern interrupted by the arrival of a bear; and a small turtle had lain in the cool mud, its belly forming a smooth shallow bowl.
“Clear as a picture, but besides our rigs, not a thing man-made.”
“I dunno,” Joe said. “See this straight edge, then a little triangle. That could be a tread.”
“No, I think that’s a bit of turkey print, where a deer stepped on top, made it look geometrical like that.”
After another quarter hour, the sheriff said, “Let’s hike out to that little bay. See if somebody boated over here instead of coming by
truck.” Pushing pungent myrtle from their faces, they walked to the tiny inlet. The damp sand revealed prints of crabs, herons, and pipers, but no humans.
“Well, but look at this.” Joe pointed to a large pattern of disturbed sand crystals that fanned into an almost perfect half circle. “Could be the imprint of a round-bowed boat that was pulled on shore.”
“No. See where the wind blew this broken grass stalk back and forth through the sand. Drawing this half circle. That’s just grass in the wind.”
They stood looking around. The rest of the small half-moon beach was covered in a thick layer of broken shells, a jumble of crustacean parts, and crab claws. Shells the best secret-keepers of all.
In the winter of 1956, when Kya was ten, Pa came hobbling to the shack less and less often. Weeks passed with no whiskey bottle on the floor, no body sprawled on the bed, no Monday money. She kept expecting to see him limping through the trees, toting his poke. One full moon, then another had passed since she’d seen him.
Sycamore and hickories stretched naked limbs against a dull sky, and the relentless wind sucked any joy the winter sun might have spread across the bleakness. A useless, drying wind in a sea-land that couldn’t dry.
Sitting on the front steps, she thought about it. A poker-game fight could have ended with him beat up and dumped in the swamp on a cold, rainy night. Or maybe he just got fall-down drunk, wandered off into the woods, and fell face-first in the backwater bog.
“I guess he’s gone for good.”
She bit her lips until her mouth turned white. It wasn’t like the pain when Ma left—in fact, she struggled to mourn him at all. But being
completely alone was a feeling so vast it echoed, and the authorities were sure to find out and take her away. She’d have to pretend, even to Jumpin’, that Pa was still around.
And there would be no Monday money. She’d stretched the last few dollars for weeks, surviving on grits, boiled mussels, and the occasional remnant egg from the rangy hens. The only remaining supplies were a few matches, a nubbin of soap, and a handful of grits. A fistful of Blue Tips wouldn’t make a winter. Without them she couldn’t boil the grits, which she fixed for herself, the gulls, and the chickens.
“I don’t know how to do life without grits.”
At least, she thought, wherever Pa had disappeared to this time, he had gone on foot. Kya had the boat.
Of course, she’d have to find another way to get food, but for right now she pushed the thought to a far corner of her mind. After a supper of boiled mussels, which she had learned to smash into a paste and spread on soda crackers, she thumbed through Ma’s beloved books, play-reading the fairy tales. Even at ten she still couldn’t read.
Then the kerosene light flickered, faded, and died. One minute there was a soft circle of a world, and then darkness. She made an
sound. Pa had always bought the kerosene and filled the lamp, so she hadn’t thought much about it. Until it was dark.
She sat for a few seconds, trying to squeeze light from the leftovers, but there was almost nothing. Then the rounded hump of the Frigidaire and the window frame began to take shape in the dimness, so she touched her fingers along the countertop until she found a candle stub. Lighting it would take a match and there were only five left. But darkness was a right-now thing.
. She struck the match, lit the candle, and the blackness retreated to the corners. But she’d seen enough of it to know she had to
have light, and kerosene cost money. She opened her mouth in a shallow pant. “Maybe I oughta walk to town and turn myself in to the authorities. At least they’d give me food and send me to school.”
But after thinking a minute she said, “No, I cain’t leave the gulls, the heron, the shack. The marsh is all the family I got.”
Sitting in the last of the candlelight, she had an idea.
Earlier than usual, she got up the next morning when the tide was low, pulled on her overalls, and slipped out with a bucket, claw knife, and empty tow bags. Squatting in mud, she collected mussels along the sloughs like Ma had taught her, and in four hours of crouching and kneeling had two croker sacks full.
The slow sun pulled from the sea as she motored through dense fog up to Jumpin’s Gas and Bait. He stood as she neared.
“Hello, Miss Kya, ya wantin’ some gas?”
She tucked her head. Hadn’t spoken a word to anyone since her last trip to the Piggly Wiggly, and her speech was slipping some. “Maybe gas. But that depends. I hear tell you buy mussels, and I got some here. Can you pay me cash money and some gas throwed in?” She pointed to the bags.
“Yessiree, you sho’ do. They fresh?”
“I dug ’em ’fore dawn. Just now.”
“Well, then. I can give ya fifty cent for one bag, a full tank for the other.”
Kya smiled slightly. Real money she made herself. “Thank ya” was all she said.
As Jumpin’ filled the tank, Kya walked into his tiny store there on the wharf. She’d never paid it much mind because she shopped at the Piggly, but now she saw that besides bait and tobacco, he sold matches, lard, soap, sardines, Vienna sausages, grits, soda crackers, toilet paper,
and kerosene. About everything she needed in the world was right here. Lined up on the counter were five one-gallon jars filled with penny candy—Red Hots, jawbreakers, and Sugar Daddys. It seemed like more candy than would be in the world.
With the mussel money she bought matches, a candle, and grits. Kerosene and soap would have to wait for another croker full. It took all her might not to buy a Sugar Daddy instead of the candle.
“How many bags you buy a week?” she asked.
“Well now, we striking up a bidness deal?” he asked as he laughed in his particular way—mouth closed, head thrown back. “I buy ’bout forty pounds ever’ two-three days. But mind, others bring ’em in, too. If ya bring ’em in, and I already got some, well, you’d be out. It’s first come, first serve. No other way of doing it.”
“Okay. Thank you, that’d be fine. Bye, Jumpin’.” Then she added, “Oh, by the way, my pa sends his regards to ya.”
“That so, well then. Ya do the same from me, if ya please. Bye yourself, Miss Kya.” He smiled big as she motored away. She almost smiled herself. Buying her own gas and groceries surely made her a grown-up. Later, at the shack when she unpacked the tiny pile of supplies, she saw a yellow-and-red surprise at the bottom of the bag. Not too grown-up for a Sugar Daddy Jumpin’ had dropped inside.
To stay ahead of the other pickers, Kya slipped down to the marsh by candle or moon—her shadow wavering around on the glistening sand—and gathered mussels deep in the night. She added oysters to her catch and sometimes slept near gullies under the stars to get to Jumpin’s by first light. The mussel money turned out to be more reliable than the Monday money ever had, and she usually managed to beat out other pickers.
She stopped going to the Piggly, where Mrs. Singletary always asked
why she wasn’t in school. Sooner or later they’d grab her, drag her in. She got by with her supplies from Jumpin’s and had more mussels than she could eat. They weren’t that bad tossed into the grits, mashed up beyond recognition. They didn’t have eyes to look at her like the fish did.
For weeks after Pa left, Kya would look up when ravens cawed; maybe they’d seen him swing-stepping through the woods. At any strange sound in the wind, she cocked her head, listening for somebody. Anybody. Even a mad dash from the truant lady would be good sport.
Mostly she looked for the fishing boy. A few times over the years, she’d seen him in the distance, but hadn’t spoken to him since she was seven, three years ago when he showed her the way home through the marsh. He was the only soul she knew in the world besides Jumpin’ and a few salesladies. Wherever she glided through the waterways, she scanned for him.
One morning, as she motored into a cord grass estuary, she saw his boat tucked in the reeds. Tate wore a different baseball cap and was taller now, but even from more than fifty yards, she recognized the blond curls. Kya idled down, maneuvered quietly into long grass, and peered out at him. Working her lips, she thought of cruising over, maybe asking if he had caught any fish. That seemed to be what Pa and
anybody else in the marsh said when they came across somebody: “Anythang bitin’? Had any nibbles?”
But she only stared, didn’t move. She felt a strong pull toward him and a strong push away, the result being stuck firmly in this spot. Finally, she eased toward home, her heart pushing against her ribs.
Every time she saw him it was the same: watching him as she did the herons.
She still collected feathers and shells, but left them, salty and sandy, strewn around the brick-’n’-board steps. She dallied some of each day while dishes piled up in the sink, and why wash overalls that got muddied up again? Long ago she’d taken to wearing the old throwaway overalls from gone-away siblings. Her shirts full of holes. She had no more shoes at all.
One evening Kya slipped the pink-and-green flowery sundress, the one Ma had worn to church, from the wire hanger. For years now she had fingered this beauty—the only dress Pa didn’t burn—had touched the little pink flowers. There was a stain across the front, a faded brown splotch under the shoulder straps, blood maybe. But it was faint now, scrubbed out like other bad memories.
Kya pulled the dress over her head, down her thin frame. The hem came almost to her toes; that wouldn’t do. She pulled it off, hung it up to wait for another few years. It’d be a shame to cut it up, wear it to dig mussels.
A few days later Kya took the boat over to Point Beach, an apron of white sand several miles south of Jumpin’s. Time, waves, and winds had modeled it into an elongated tip, which collected more shells than other beaches, and she had found rare ones there. After securing her boat at the southern end, she strolled north, searching. Suddenly distant voices—shrill and excited—drifted on the air.
Instantly, she ran across the beach toward the woods, where an oak, more than eighty feet from one side to the other, stood knee-deep in tropical ferns. Hiding behind the tree, she watched a band of kids strolling down the sand, now and then dashing around in the waves, kicking up sea spray. One boy ran ahead; another threw a football. Against the white sand, their bright madras shorts looked like colorful birds and marked the changing season. Summer was walking toward her down the beach.
As they moved closer, she flattened herself against the oak and peered around. Five girls and four boys, a bit older than she, maybe twelve. She recognized Chase Andrews throwing the ball to those boys he was always with.
The girls—Tallskinnyblonde, Ponytailfreckleface, Shortblackhair, Alwayswearspearls, and Roundchubbycheeks—hung back in a little covey, walking slower, chattering and giggling. Their voices lifted up to Kya like chimes. She was too young to care much about the boys; her eyes fixed on the troop of girls. Together they squatted to watch a crab skittering sideways across the sand. Laughing, they leaned against one another’s shoulders until they flopped on the sand in a bundle.
Kya bit her bottom lip as she watched. Wondering how it would feel to be among them. Their joy created an aura almost visible against the deepening sky. Ma had said women need one another more than they need men, but she never told her how to get inside the pride. Easily, she slipped deeper into the forest and watched from behind the giant ferns until the kids wandered back down the beach, until they were little spots on the sand, the way they came.
beneath gray clouds as Kya pulled up to Jumpin’s wharf. He walked out of the little shop shaking his head.
“I’m sorry as can be, Miss Kya,” he said. “But they beatcha to it. I got my week’s quota of mussels, cain’t buy no mo’.”
She cut the engine and the boat banged against a piling. This was the second week she’d been beat out. Her money was gone and she couldn’t buy a single thing. Down to pennies and grits.
“Miss Kya, ya gotta find some udder ways to bring cash in. Ya can’t git all yo’ coons up one tree.”
Back at her place, she sat pondering on the brick ’n’ boards, and came up with another idea. She fished for eight hours straight, then soaked her catch of twenty in saltwater brine through the night. At daybreak she lined them up on the shelves of Pa’s old smokehouse—the size and shape of an outhouse—built a fire in the pit, and poked green sticks into the flames like he’d done. Blue-gray smoke billowed and puffed up the chimney and through every crack in the walls. The whole shack huffing.
The next day she motored to Jumpin’s and, still standing in her boat, held up her bucket. In all it was a pitiful display of small bream and carp, falling apart at the seams. “Ya buy smoked fish, Jumpin’? I got some here.”
“Well, I declare, ya sho’ did, Miss Kya. Tell ya what: I’ll take ’em on consignment like. If I sell ’em, ya get the money; if I don’t, ya get ’em back like they is. That do?”
“Okay, thanks, Jumpin’.”
Jumpin’ walked down the sandy track to Colored Town—a cluster of shacks and lean-tos, and even a few real houses squatting about on backwater bogs and mud sloughs. The scattered encampment was in deep woods, back from the sea, with no breeze, and “more skeeters than the whole state of Jawja.”
After about three miles he could smell the smoke from cookfires drifting through the pines and hear the chatter of some of his grandchillin. There were no roads in Colored Town, just trails leading off through the woods this way and that to different family dwellings. His was a real house he and his pa had built with pine lumber and a raw-wood fence around the hardpan dirt yard, which Mabel, his good-sized wife, swept clean as a whistle just like a floor. No snake could slink within thirty yards of the steps without being spotted by her hoe.
She came out of the house to meet him with a smile, as she often did, and he handed her the pail with Kya’s smoked fish.
“What’s this?” she asked. “Looks like sump’m even dogs wouldn’t drag in.”
“It’s that girl again. Miss Kya brung ’em. Sometimes she ain’t the first one with mussels, so she’s gone to smokin’ fish. Wants me to sell ’em.”
“Lawd, we gotta do something ’bout that child. Ain’t nobody gonna buy them fish; I can cook ’em up in stew. Our church can come up wif some clothes, other things for her. We’ll tell ’er there’s some family that’ll trade jumpers for carpies. What size is she?”
“Ya askin’ me? Skinny. All’s I know is she’s skinny as a tick on a flagpole. I ’spect she’ll be there first thing in the mornin’. She’s plumb broke.”
TING A BREAKFAST
of warmed-up mussels-in-grits, Kya motored over to Jumpin’s to see if any money’d come in from the smoked fish. In all these years it had just been him there or customers, but as she approached slowly she saw a large black woman sweeping the wharf like it was a kitchen floor. Jumpin’ was sitting in his chair,
leaning back against the store wall doing figures in his ledger. Seeing her, he jumped up, waved.
“G’mornin’,” she called quietly, drifting expertly up to the dock.
“Hiya, Miss Kya. Got somebody here for ya to meet. This here’s ma wife, Mabel.” Mabel walked up and stood next to Jumpin’, so that when Kya stepped onto the wharf, they were close.
Mabel reached out and took Kya’s hand, held it gently in hers, and said, “It’s mighty fine to meet ya, Miss Kya. Jumpin’s told me what a fine girl ya are. One a’ de best oryster pickers.”
In spite of hoeing her garden, cooking half of every day, and scrubbing and mending for whites, Mabel’s hand was supple. Kya kept her fingers in that velvet glove but didn’t know what to say, so stood quiet.
“Now, Miss Kya, we got a family who’ll trade clothes and other stuff ya need for yo’ smoked fish.”
Kya nodded. Smiled at her feet. Then asked, “What about gas for ma boat?”
Mabel turned question eyes at Jumpin’.
“Well now,” he said, “I’ll give ya some today ’cause I know you’re short. But ya keep bringin’ in mussels and such when ya can.”
Mabel said in her big voice, “Lawd, child, let’s don’t worry none about the details. Now let me look atcha. I gotta calculate yo’ size to tell ’em.” She led her into the tiny shop. “Let’s sit right here, and ya tell me what clothes and what-all else ya need.”
After they discussed the list, Mabel traced Kya’s feet on a piece of brown paper bag, then said, “Well, come back tomorrer and there’ll be a stack here for ya.”
“I’m much obliged, Mabel.” Then, her voice low, said, “There’s something else. I found these old packages of seeds, but I don’t know about gardenin’.”
“Well now.” Mabel leaned back and laughed deep in her generous bosom. “I can sure do a garden.” She went over every step in great detail, then reached into some cans on the shelf and brought out squash, tomato, and pumpkin seeds. She folded each kind into some paper and drew a picture of the vegetable on the outside. Kya didn’t know if Mabel did this because she couldn’t write or because she knew Kya couldn’t read, but it worked fine for both of them.
She thanked them as she stepped into her boat.
“I’m glad to help ya, Miss Kya. Now come back tomorrer for yo’ things,” Mabel said.
That very afternoon, Kya started hoeing the rows where Ma’s garden used to be. The hoe made clunking sounds as it moved down the rows, releasing earthy smells and uprooting pinkish worms. Then a different
sounded, and Kya bent to uncover one of Ma’s old metal-and-plastic barrettes. She swiped it gently against her overalls until all the grit fell clear. As if reflected in the cheap artifact, Ma’s red mouth and dark eyes were clearer than they’d been in years. Kya looked around; surely Ma was walking up the lane even now, come to help turn this earth. Finally home. Such stillness was rare; even the crows were quiet, and she could hear her own breathing.
Sweeping up bunches of her hair, she pinned the barrette above her left ear. Maybe Ma was never coming home. Maybe some dreams should just fade away. She lifted the hoe and clobbered a chunk of hard clay into smithereens.
up to Jumpin’s wharf the next morning, he was alone. Perhaps the large form of his wife and her fine ideas had been an illusion. But there, sitting on the wharf, were two boxes of goods that Jumpin’ was pointing to, a wide grin on his face.
“G’mornin’, Miss Kya. This here’s for ya.”
Kya jumped onto the wharf and stared at the overflowing crates.
“Go on, then,” Jumpin’ said. “It’s all your’n.”
Gently she pulled out overalls, jeans, and real blouses, not just T-shirts. A pair of navy blue lace-up Keds and some Buster Brown two-tone saddle shoes, polished brown and white so many times they glowed. Kya held up a white blouse with a lace collar and a blue satin bow at the neck. Her mouth opened a little bit.
The other box had matches, grits, a tub of oleo, dried beans, and a whole quart of homemade lard. On top, wrapped in newspaper, were fresh turnips and greens, rutabagas, and okra.
“Jumpin’,” she said softly, “this is more than those fish woulda cost. This could be a month’s fish.”
“Well now, what’a folks gonna do with old clothes layin’ ’round the house? If they got these things extra, and ya need ’em, and ya got fish, and they need fish, then that’s the deal. Ya gotta take ’em now, ’cause I ain’t got room for that junk ’round here.”
Kya knew that was true. Jumpin’ had no extra space, so she’d be doing him a favor to take them off his wharf.
“I’ll take ’em, then. But you tell ’em thank you, will you? And I’ll smoke more fish and bring it in soon as I can.”
“Okay then, Miss Kya. That’ll be fine. Ya bring in fish when ya git ’em.”
Kya chugged back into the sea. Once she rounded the peninsula, out of sight of Jumpin’s, she idled down, dug in the box, and pulled out the blouse with the lace collar. She put it on right over her scratchy bib overalls with patched knees, and tied the little satin ribbon into a bow at her neck. Then, one hand on the tiller, the other on lace, she glided across ocean and estuaries toward home.