Authors: Delia Owens
Lanky yet brawny for fourteen, Kya stood on an afternoon beach, flinging crumbs to gulls. Still couldn’t count them; still couldn’t read. No longer did she daydream of winging with eagles; perhaps when you have to paw your supper from mud, imagination flattens to that of adulthood. Ma’s sundress fit snugly across her breasts and fell just below her knees; she reckoned she had caught up, and then some. She walked back to the shack, got a pole and line, and went straight to fishing from a thicket on the far side of her lagoon.
Just as she cast, a stick snapped behind her. She jerked her head around, searching. A footfall in brush. Not a bear, whose large paws squished in debris, but a solid
in the brambles. Then the crows cawed. Crows can’t keep secrets any better than mud; once they see something curious in the forest they have to tell everybody. Those who listen are rewarded: either warned of predators or alerted to food. Kya knew something was up.
She pulled in the line, wrapped it around the pole even as she pushed silently through the brush with her shoulders. Stopped again, listened.
A dark clearing—one of her favorite places—spread cavernlike under five oaks so dense only hazy streams of sunlight filtered through the canopy, striking lush patches of trillium and white violets. Her eyes scanned the clearing but saw no one.
Then a shape slunk through a thicket beyond, and her eyes swung there. It stopped. Her heart pumped harder. She hunkered down, stoop-running fast and quiet into the undergrowth on the edge of the clearing. Looking back through the branches, she saw an older boy walking fast through the woods, his head moving to and fro. He stopped as he saw her.
Kya ducked behind a thorn bush, then squeezed into a rabbit run that twisted through brambles thick as a fort wall. Still bent, she scrambled, scratching her arms on prickly scrub. Paused again, listening. Hid there in burning heat, her throat racking from thirst. After ten minutes, no one came, so she crept to a spring that pooled in moss, and drank like a deer. She wondered who that boy was and why he’d come. That was the thing about going to Jumpin’s—people saw her there. Like the underbelly of a porcupine, she was exposed.
Finally, between dusk and dark, that time when the shadows were unsure, she walked back toward the shack by way of the oak clearing.
“’Cause of him sneaking ’round, I didn’t catch any fish ta smoke.”
In the center of the clearing was a rotted-down stump, so carpeted in moss it looked like an old man hiding under a cape. Kya approached it, then stopped. Lodged in the stump and sticking straight up was a thin black feather about five or six inches long. To most it would have looked ordinary, maybe a crow’s wing feather. But she knew it was extraordinary for it was the “eyebrow” of a great blue heron, the feather that bows gracefully above the eye, extending back beyond her elegant head. One of the most exquisite fragments of the coastal marsh, right
here. She had never found one but knew instantly what it was, having squatted eye to eye with herons all her life.
A great blue heron is the color of gray mist reflecting in blue water. And like mist, she can fade into the backdrop, all of her disappearing except the concentric circles of her lock-and-load eyes. She is a patient, solitary hunter, standing alone as long as it takes to snatch her prey. Or, eyeing her catch, she will stride forward one slow step at a time, like a predacious bridesmaid. And yet, on rare occasions she hunts on the wing, darting and diving sharply, swordlike beak in the lead.
“How’d it get stuck straight up in the stump?” Whispering, Kya looked around. “That boy must’ve put it here. He could be watchin’ me right now.” She stood still, heart pounding again. Backing away, she left the feather and ran to the shack and locked the screen door, which she seldom did since it offered scant protection.
Yet as soon as dawn crept between the trees, she felt a strong pull toward the feather, at least to look at it again. At sunrise she ran to the clearing, looked around carefully, then walked to the stump and lifted the feather. It was sleek, almost velvety. Back at the shack, she found a special place for it in the center of her collection—from tiny hummingbird feathers to large eagle tails—that winged across the wall. She wondered why a boy would bring her a feather.
HE NEXT MORNING
, Kya wanted to rush to the stump to see if another one had been left, but she made herself wait. She must not run into the boy. Finally, in late morning she walked to the clearing, approaching slowly, listening. She didn’t hear or see anybody, so she stepped forward, and a rare, brief smile lit her face when she saw a thin white feather stuck into the top of the stump. It reached from her fingertips to her elbow, and curved gracefully to a slender point. She lifted
it and laughed out loud. A magnificent tail feather of a tropicbird. She’d never seen these seabirds because they didn’t occur in this region, but on rare occasions they were blown over land on hurricane wings.
Kya’s heart filled with wonder that someone had such a collection of rare feathers that he could spare this one.
Since she couldn’t read Ma’s old guidebook, she didn’t know the names for most of the birds or insects, so made up her own. And even though she couldn’t write, Kya had found a way to label her specimens. Her talent had matured and now she could draw, paint, and sketch anything. Using chalks or watercolors from the Five and Dime, she sketched the birds, insects, or shells on grocery bags and attached them to her samples.
That night she splurged and lit two candles and set them in saucers on the kitchen table so she could see all the colors of the white; so she could paint the tropicbird feather.
RE THAN A
there was no feather on the stump. Kya went by several times a day, cautiously peeping through ferns, but saw nothing. She sat in the cabin in midday, something she rarely did.
“Shoulda soaked beans for supper. Now it’s too late.” She walked through the kitchen, rummaging through the cupboard, drumming her fingers on the table. Thought of painting, but didn’t. Walked again to the stump.
Even from some distance she could see a long, striped tail feather of a wild turkey. It caught her up. Turkeys had been one of her favorites. She’d watched as many as twelve chicks tuck themselves under the mother’s wings even as the hen walked along, a few tumbling out of the back, then scrambling to catch up.
But about a year ago, as Kya strolled through a stand of pines, she’d
heard a high-pitched shriek. A flock of fifteen wild turkeys—mostly hens, a few toms and jakes—rushed about, pecking what looked like an oily rag crumpled in the dirt. Dust stirred from their feet and shrouded the woods, drifting up through branches, caught there. As Kya had crept closer, she saw it was a hen turkey on the ground, and the birds of her own flock were pecking and toe-scratching her neck and head. Somehow she’d managed to get her wings so tangled with briars, her feathers stuck out at strange angles and she could no longer fly. Jodie had said that if a bird becomes different from the others—disfigured or wounded—it is more likely to attract a predator, so the rest of the flock will kill it, which is better than drawing in an eagle, who might take one of them in the bargain.
A large female clawed at the bedraggled hen with her large, horny feet, then pinned her to the ground as another female jabbed at her naked neck and head. The hen squealed, looked around with wild eyes at her own flock assaulting her.
Kya ran into the clearing, throwing her arms around. “Hey, what ya doing? Git outta here. Stop it!” The flurry of wings kicked up more dust as the turkeys scattered into brush, two of them flying heavy into an oak. But Kya was too late. The hen, her eyes wide open, lay limp. Blood ran from her wrinkled neck, bent crooked on the dirt.
“Shoo, go on!” Kya chased the last of the large birds until they shuffled away, their business complete. She knelt next to the dead hen and covered the bird’s eye with a sycamore leaf.
That night after watching the turkeys, she ate a supper of leftover cornbread and beans, then lay on her porch bed, watching the moon touch the lagoon. Suddenly, she heard voices in the woods coming toward the shack. They sounded nervous, squeaky. Boys, not men. She sat straight up. There was no back door. It was get out now or still be sitting on the bed when they came. Quick as a mouse, she slipped to
the door, but just then candles appeared, moving up and down, their light jiggling in halos. Too late to run.
The voices got louder. “Here we come, Marsh Girl!”
“Hey—ya in thar? Miss Missin’ Link!”
“Show us yo’ teeth! Show us yo’ swamp grass!” Peals of laughter.
She ducked lower behind the half wall of the porch as the footsteps moved closer. The flames flickered madly, then went out altogether as five boys, maybe thirteen or fourteen years old, ran across the yard. All talking stopped as they galloped full speed to the porch and tagged the door with their palms, making slapping sounds.
Every smack a stab in the turkey hen’s heart.
Against the wall, Kya wanted to whimper but held her breath. They could break through the door easy. One hard yank, and they’d be in.
But they backed down the steps, ran into the trees again, hooting and hollering with relief that they had survived the Marsh Girl, the Wolf Child, the girl who couldn’t spell
. Their words and laughter carried back to her through the forest as they disappeared into the night, back to safety. She watched the relit candles, bobbing through the trees. Then sat staring into the stone-quiet darkness. Shamed.
Kya thought of that day and night whenever she saw wild turkeys, but she was thrilled to see the tail feather on the stump. Just to know the game was still on.
Muggy heat blurred the morning into a haze of no sea, no sky. Joe walked out of the sheriff’s building and met Ed getting out of the patrol truck. “C’mon over here, Sheriff. Got more from the lab on the Chase Andrews case. Hot as a boar’s breath inside.” He led the way to a large oak, its ancient roots punching through the bare dirt like fists. The sheriff followed, crunching acorns, and they stood in the shade, faces to the sea breeze.
He read out loud. “‘Bruising on the body, interior injuries, consistent with an extensive fall.’ He did bang the back of his head on that beam—the blood and hair samples matched his—which caused severe bruising and damage to the posterior lobe but didn’t kill him.
“There you have it; he died where we found him, had not been moved. The blood and hair on the crossbeam prove it. ‘Cause of death: sudden impact on occipital and parietal lobe of the posterior cerebral cortex, severed spine’—from falling off the tower.”
“So somebody did destroy all the foot- and fingerprints. Anything else?”
“Listen to this. They found lots of foreign fibers on his jacket. Red wool fibers that didn’t come from any of his clothes. Sample included.” The sheriff shook a small plastic bag.
Both men peered at the fuzzy red threads flattened against the plastic like spider webbing.
“Wool, it says. Could be a sweater, scarf, hat,” Joe said.
“Shirt, skirt, socks, cape. Hell, it could be anything. And we have to find it.”
The next noon, hands on her cheeks, Kya approached the stump slowly, almost in prayer. But no feather on the stump. Her lips pinched.
“A’ course. I gotta leave something for him.”
Her pocket brought a tail feather from an immature bald eagle she’d found that morning. Only someone who knew birds well would know this splotchy, tatty feather was eagle. A three-year-old, not yet crowned. Not as precious as the tail feather of the tropicbird, but still a dear thing. She laid it carefully on the stump with a little rock on top, pinned from the wind.
That night, arms folded under her head, she lay on her porch bed, a slight smile on her face. Her family had abandoned her to survive a swamp, but here was someone who came on his own, leaving gifts for her in the forest. Uncertainty lingered, but the more she thought about it, the less likely it seemed the boy meant her harm. It didn’t fit that anyone who liked birds would be mean.
The next morning, she sprang from bed and went about doing what
Ma had called a “deep clean.” At Ma’s dresser, Kya meant only to cull the remnants of the drawers, but as she picked up her mother’s brass-and-steel scissors—the finger holes curled and shaped with intricate patterns of lilies—she suddenly pulled back her hair, not trimmed since Ma left more than seven years ago, and cut off eight inches. Now it fell just below her shoulders. She looked at herself in the mirror, tossed her head a bit, smiled. Scrubbed her fingernails and brushed her hair till it shone.
Replacing the brush and scissors, she looked down among some of Ma’s old cosmetics. The liquid foundation and rouge had dried and cracked, but the shelf life of lipstick must be decades because when she opened a tube, it looked fresh. For the first time, never having played dress-up as a little girl, she put some on her lips. Smacked, then smiled again in the mirror. Thought she looked a bit pretty. Not like Ma, but pleasing enough. She giggled, then wiped it off. Just before closing the drawer, she saw a bottle of dried-up Revlon fingernail polish—Barely Pink.
Kya lifted the little jar, remembering how Ma had walked back from town one day with this bottle of fingernail polish, of all things. Ma said it would look real good with their olive skin. She lined up Kya and her two older sisters in a row on the faded sofa, told them to stick out their bare feet, and painted all those toes and then their fingernails. Then she did her own, and they laughed and had a fine time flouncing around the yard, flashing their pink nails. Pa was off somewhere, but the boat was moored at the lagoon. Ma came up with the idea of all the girls going out in the boat, something they had never done.
They climbed into the old skiff, still cavorting like they were tipsy. It took a few pulls to get the outboard cranked, but finally it jumped to, and off they went, Ma steering across the lagoon and into the narrow channel that led to the marsh. They breezed along the waterways, but
Ma didn’t know all that much about it, and when they went into a shallow lagoon, they got stuck in gummy black mud, thick as tar. They poled this way and that but couldn’t budge. There was nothing left to do but climb over the side, skirts and all, sinking in the muck up to their knees.
Ma hollering, “Now don’t turn it over, girls, don’t turn it over,” they hauled on the boat until it was free, squealing at one another’s muddy faces. It took some doing to get back in, flopping over the side like so many landed fish. And, instead of sitting on the seats, the four of them squinched up on the bottom of the boat all in a line, holding their feet to the sky, wiggling their toes, their pink nails gleaming through the mud.
Lying there Ma said, “You all listen now, this is a real lesson in life. Yes, we got stuck, but what’d we girls do? We made it fun, we laughed. That’s what sisters and girlfriends are all about. Sticking together even in the mud, ’specially in mud.”
Ma hadn’t bought any polish remover, so when it began to peel and chip, they had faded, patchy pink nails on all their fingers and toes, reminding them of the good time they’d had, and that real-life lesson.
Looking at the old bottle, Kya tried to see her sisters’ faces. And said out loud, “Where’re you now, Ma? Why didn’t you stick?”
S SOON AS SHE
the oak clearing the next afternoon, Kya saw bright, unnatural colors against the muted greens and browns of the forest. On the stump was a small red-and-white milk carton and next to it another feather. It seemed the boy had upped the ante. She walked over and picked up the feather first.
Silver and soft, it was from the crest of a night heron, one of the most beautiful of the marsh. Then she looked inside the milk carton. Rolled
up tight were some packages of seeds—turnips, carrots, and green beans—and, at the bottom of the carton, wrapped in brown paper, a spark plug for her boat engine. She smiled again and turned a little circle. She had learned how to live without most things, but now and then she needed a spark plug. Jumpin’ had taught her a few minor engine repairs, but every part meant a walk to town and cash money.
And yet here was an extra spark plug, to be set aside until needed. A surplus. Her heart filled up. The same feeling as having a full tank of gas or seeing the sunset under a paint-brushed sky. She stood absolutely still, trying to take it in, what it meant. She had watched male birds wooing females by bringing them gifts. But she was pretty young for nesting.
At the bottom of the carton was a note. She unfolded it and looked at the words, written carefully in simple script that a child could read. Kya knew the time of the tides in her heart, could find her way home by the stars, knew every feather of an eagle, but even at fourteen, couldn’t read these words.
She had forgotten to bring anything to leave. Her pockets yielded only ordinary feathers, shells, and seedpods, so she hurried back to the shack and stood in front of her feather-wall, window-shopping. The most graceful were the tail feathers from a tundra swan. She took one from the wall to leave at the stump next time she passed.
As evening fell, she took her blanket and slept in the marsh, close to a gully full of moon and mussels, and had two tow bags filled by dawn. Gas money. They were too heavy to tote, so she dragged the first one back toward the lagoon. Even though it wasn’t the shortest route, she went by way of the oak clearing to leave the swan feather. She walked into the trees without looking, and there, leaning against the stump, was the feather boy. She recognized him as Tate, who had shown her the way home through the marsh when she was a little girl. Tate, who,
for years, she had watched from a distance without the courage to go near. Of course, he was taller and older, probably eighteen. His golden hair stuck out from his cap in all manner of curls and loose bits, and his face was tan, pleasing. He was calm, smiled wide, his whole face beaming. But it was his eyes that caught her up; they were golden brown with flecks of green, and fixed on hers the way heron eyes catch a minnow.
She halted, shaken by the sudden break in the unwritten rules. That was the fun of it, a game where they didn’t have to talk or even be seen. Heat rose in her face.
“Hey, Kya. Please . . . don’t . . . run. It’s . . . just me . . . Tate,” he said very quietly, slowly, like she was dumb or something. That was probably what the townspeople said of her, that she barely spoke human.
Tate couldn’t help staring. She must be thirteen or fourteen, he thought. But even at that age, she had the most striking face he’d ever seen. Her large eyes nearly black, her nose slender over shapely lips, painted her in an exotic light. She was tall, thin, giving her a fragile, lithesome look as though molded wild by the wind. Yet young, strapping muscles showed through with quiet power.
Her impulse, as always, was to run. But there was another sensation. A fullness she hadn’t felt for years. As if something warm had been poured inside her heart. She thought of the feathers, the spark plug, and the seeds. All of it might end if she ran. Without speaking, she lifted her hand and held the elegant swan feather toward him. Slowly, as though she might spring like a startled fawn, he walked over and studied it in her hand. She watched in silence, looking only at the feather, not his face, nowhere near his eyes.
“Tundra swan, right? Incredible, Kya. Thank you,” he said. He was much taller and bent slightly as he took it from her. Of course, this was the time for her to thank him for his gifts, but she stood silent, wishing he would go, wishing they could stick to their game.
Trying to fill the silence, he continued. “My dad’s the one who taught me birds.”
Finally she looked up at him and said, “I can’t read yo’ note.”
“Well, sure, since you don’t go to school. I forgot. All it said was, I saw you a couple of times when I was fishing, and it got me thinking that maybe you could use the seeds and the spark plug. I had extra and thought it might save you a trip to town. I figured you’d like the feathers.”
Kya hung her head and said, “Thank you for them; that was mighty fine of you.”
Tate noticed that while her face and body showed early inklings and foothills of womanhood, her mannerisms and turns of phrase were somewhat childlike, in contrast to the village girls whose mannerisms—overdoing their makeup, cussing, and smoking—outranked their foothills.
“You’re welcome. Well, I better be going, getting late. I’ll drop by now and then, if that’s okay.”
Kya didn’t say a word to that. The game must be over. As soon as he realized she wasn’t going to speak again, he nodded to her, touched his hat, and turned to go. But just as he ducked his head to step into the brambles, he looked back at her.
“You know, I could teach you to read.”