Authors: Delia Owens
The Barkley Cove graveyard trailed off under tunnels of dark oaks. Spanish moss hung in long curtains, creating cavelike sanctuaries for old tombstones—the remains of a family here, a loner there, in no order at all. Fingers of gnarled roots had torn and twisted gravestones into hunched and nameless forms. Markers of death all weathered into nubbins by elements of life. In the distance, the sea and sky sang too bright for this serious ground.
Yesterday the cemetery moved with villagers, like constant ants, including all the fishermen and shopkeepers, who had come to bury Scupper. People clustered in awkward silence as Tate moved among familiar townspeople and unfamiliar relatives. Ever since the sheriff found him in the marsh to tell him his father had died, Tate simply stepped and acted as guided—a hand behind his back, a nudge to his side. He remembered none of it and walked back to the cemetery today to say good-bye.
During all those months, pining for Kya, then trying to visit her in
jail, he’d spent almost no time with Scupper. Guilt and regret needed clawing away. Had he not been so obsessed with his own heart, perhaps he would have noticed his father’s was failing. Before her arrest, Kya had shown signs of coming back—gifting him a copy of her first book, coming onto his boat to look through the microscope, laughing at the hat toss—but once the trial began she had pulled away more than ever. Jail could do that to a person, he thought.
Even now, walking toward the new grave, carrying a brown plastic case, he found himself thinking more of Kya than of his dad and swore at that. He approached the fresh-scarred mound under the oaks, the wide sea beyond. The grave lay next to his mother’s; his sister’s on the far side, all enclosed in a small wall of rough stones and mortar embedded with shells. Enough space left for him. It didn’t feel as if his dad were here at all. “I should’ve had you cremated like Sam McGee,” Tate said, almost smiling. Then, looking over the ocean, he hoped Scupper had a boat wherever he was. A red boat.
He set the plastic case—a battery-operated record player—on the ground next to the grave and put a 78 on the turntable. The needle arm wobbled, then dropped, and Miliza Korjus’s silvery voice lifted over the trees. He sat between his mother’s grave and the flower-covered mound. Oddly, the sweet, freshly turned earth smelled more like a beginning than an end.
Talking out loud, head low, he asked his dad to forgive him for spending so much time away, and he knew Scupper did. Tate remembered his dad’s definition of a man: one who can cry freely, feel poetry and opera in his heart, and do whatever it takes to defend a woman. Scupper would have understood tracking love through mud. Tate sat there quite awhile, one hand on his mother, the other on his father.
Finally, he touched the grave one last time, walked back to his truck, and drove to his boat at the town wharf. He would go back to work, immerse himself in squirming life-forms. Several fishermen walked to him on the dock, and he stood awkwardly, accepting condolences just as awkward.
Head low, determined to leave before anyone else approached, he stepped onto the aft deck of his cabin cruiser. But before he sat behind the wheel, he saw a pale brown feather resting on the seat cushion. He knew right away it was the soft breast feather of a female night heron, a long-legged secretive creature who lives deep in the marsh, alone. Yet here it was too near the sea.
He looked around. No, she wouldn’t be here, not this close to town. He turned the key, churned south through the sea, and finally the marsh.
Going too fast in the channels, he brushed past low branches that slapped at the boat. The agitated wake sloshed against the bank as he pulled into her lagoon and tied his boat next to hers. Smoke rose from the shack’s chimney, billowing and free.
“Kya,” he yelled. “Kya!”
She opened the porch door and stepped under the oak. She was dressed in a long, white skirt and pale blue sweater—the colors of wings—hair falling about her shoulders.
He waited for her to walk to him, then took her shoulders and held her against his chest. Then pushed back.
“I love you, Kya, you know that. You’ve known it for a long time.”
“You left me like all the others,” she said.
“I will never leave you again.”
“I know,” she said.
“Kya, do you love me? You’ve never spoken those words to me.”
“I’ve always loved you. Even as a child—in a time I don’t remember—I already loved you.” She dipped her head.
“Look at me,” he said gently. She hesitated, face downcast. “Kya, I need to know that the running and hiding are over. That you can love without being afraid.”
She lifted her face and looked into his eyes, then led him through the woods to the oak grove, the place of the feathers.
They slept the first night on the beach, and he moved into the shack with her the next day. Packing and unpacking within a single tide. As sand creatures do.
As they walked along the tide line in late afternoon, he took her hand and looked at her. “Will you marry me, Kya?”
“We are married. Like the geese,” she said.
“Okay. I can live with that.”
Each morning they rose at dawn and, while Tate percolated coffee, Kya fried corn fritters in Ma’s old iron skillet—blackened and dented—or stirred grits and eggs as sunrise eased over the lagoon. The heron posing one-legged in the mist. They cruised estuaries, waded waterways, and slipped through narrow streams, collecting feathers and amoebas. In the evenings, they drifted in her old boat until sunset, then swam naked in moonlight or loved in beds of cool ferns.
Archbald Lab offered Kya a job, but she turned it down and continued writing her books. She and Tate hired the fix-it man again, and he built a lab and studio—of raw wood, hand-hewn posts, and tin
roof—for her behind the shack. Tate gave her a microscope and installed worktables, shelves, and closets for her specimens. Trays of instruments and supplies. Then they refurbished the shack, adding a new bedroom and bath, a larger sitting room. She insisted on keeping the kitchen as it was and the exterior unpainted, so that the dwelling, more of a cabin now, remained weathered and real.
From a phone in Sea Oaks she called Jodie and invited him and his wife, Libby, for a visit. The four of them explored the marsh and fished some. When Jodie pulled in a large bream, Kya squealed, “Lookee there. You got one big as Alabamee!” They fried up fish and hush puppies big as “goose aigs.”
Kya never went to Barkley Cove again in her life, and for the most part, she and Tate spent their time in the marsh alone. The villagers saw her only as a distant shape gliding through fog, and over the years the mysteries of her story became legend, told over and over with buttermilk pancakes and hot pork sausages at the diner. The theories and gossip over how Chase Andrews died never stopped.
As time passed, most everyone agreed the sheriff never should’ve arrested her. After all, there was no hard evidence against her, no real proof of a crime. It had been truly cruel to treat a shy, natural creature that way. Now and then a new sheriff—Jackson was never elected again—would open the folder, make some inquiries about other suspects, but not much came of it. Over the years the case, too, eased into legend. And though Kya was never completely healed from the scorn and suspicion surrounding her, a soft contentment, a near-happiness settled into her.
Y ON THE
near the lagoon one afternoon, waiting for Tate to return from a collecting trip. She breathed deep, knowing he
would always come back, that for the first time in her life she would not be abandoned. She heard the deep purr of his cruiser, chugging up the channel; could feel the quiet rumble through the ground. She sat up as his boat pushed through the thickets and waved to him at the helm. He waved back but didn’t smile. She stood.
He tied to the small wharf he had built and walked up to her on the shore.
“Kya, I’m so sorry. I have bad news. Jumpin’ died last night in his sleep.”
An ache pushed against her heart. All those who left her had chosen to do so. This was different. This was not rejection; this was like the Cooper’s hawk returning to the sky. Tears rolled down her cheeks, and Tate held her.
Tate and almost everyone in town went to Jumpin’s funeral. Kya did not. But after the services, she walked to Jumpin’ and Mabel’s house, with some blackberry jam long overdue.
Kya paused at the fence. Friends and family stood in the dirt yard, swept clean as a whistle. Some talked, some laughed at old Jumpin’ stories, and some cried. As she opened the gate everyone looked at her, then stepped aside to make a path. Standing on the porch, Mabel rushed to Kya. They hugged, rocking back and forth, crying.
“Lawd, he loved ya like his own dawder,” Mabel said.
“I know,” Kya said, “and he was my pa.”
Later, Kya walked to her beach and said farewell to Jumpin’ in her own words, in her own way, alone.
And as she wandered the beach remembering Jumpin’, thoughts of her mother pushed into her mind. As though Kya were once again the little girl of six, she saw Ma walking down the sandy lane in her old gator shoes, maneuvering the deep ruts. But in this version, Ma stopped at the end of the trail and looked back, waving her hand high
in farewell. She smiled at Kya, turned onto the road, and disappeared into the forest. And this time, finally, it was okay.
With no tears or censure, Kya whispered, “Good-bye, Ma.” She thought of the others briefly—Pa, her brother and sisters. But she didn’t have enough of that bygone family to bid farewell.
That regret faded too when Jodie and Libby began bringing their two children—Murph and Mindy—to visit Kya and Tate several times a year. Once again the shack swelled with family around the old cookstove, serving up Ma’s corn fritters, scrambled eggs, and sliced tomatoes. But this time there was laughter and love.
over the years. A man from Raleigh built a fancy marina where Jumpin’s shack had leaned for more than a hundred years. With bright blue awnings over each slip, yachts could pull in. Boaters from up and down the coastline moseyed up to Barkley Cove and paid $3.50 for an espresso.
Little sidewalk cafés with smart-colored umbrellas and art galleries with seascapes sprouted on Main. A lady from New York opened a gift shop that sold everything the villagers didn’t need but every tourist had to have. Almost every shop had a special table displaying the books by
Catherine Danielle Clark ~ Local Author ~ Award-Winning Biologist
. Grits were listed on the menus as polenta in mushroom sauce and cost $6.00. And one day, some women from Ohio walked into the Dog-Gone Beer Hall, never imagining they were the first females to pass through the door, and ordered spicy shrimp in paper boats, and beer, now on draft. Adults of either sex or any color can walk through the door now, but the window, which was cut out of the wall so that women could order from the sidewalk, is still there.
Tate continued his job at the lab, and Kya published seven more award-winning books. And though she was granted many accolades—including an honorary doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—she never once accepted the invitations to speak at universities and museums.
for a family, but a child never came. The disappointment wove them closer together, and they were seldom separated for more than a few hours of any day.
Sometimes Kya walked alone to the beach, and as the sunset streaked the sky, she felt the waves pounding her heart. She’d reach down and touch the sand, then stretch her arms toward the clouds. Feeling the
. Not the connections Ma and Mabel had spoken of—Kya never had her troop of close friends, nor the connections Jodie described, for she never had her own family. She knew the years of isolation had altered her behavior until she was different from others, but it wasn’t her fault she’d been alone. Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would. If consequences resulted from her behaving differently, then they too were functions of life’s fundamental core.
Tate’s devotion eventually convinced her that human love is more than the bizarre mating competitions of the marsh creatures, but life also taught her that ancient genes for survival still persist in some undesirable forms among the twists and turns of man’s genetic code.
For Kya, it was enough to be part of this natural sequence as sure as the tides. She was bonded to her planet and its life in a way few people are. Rooted solid in this earth. Born of this mother.
Kya’s long black hair had turned as white as the sand. One evening she did not return from a collecting trip, so Tate puttered around in the marsh, searching. As dusk eased in, he came around a bend and saw her drifting in her boat in a lagoon surrounded by sycamores touching the sky. She had slumped backward, her head lying against the old knapsack. He called her name softly, and, when she didn’t move, he shouted, then screamed. Pulling his boat next to hers, he stumbled awkwardly into the stern of her boat. Reaching out his long arms, he took her shoulders and gently shook her. Her head slumped farther to the side. Her eyes not seeing.
“Kya, Kya, no. No!” he screamed.
Still young, so beautiful, her heart had quietly stopped. She had lived long enough to see the bald eagles make a comeback; for Kya that was long enough. Folding her in his arms, he rocked back and forth, weeping. He wrapped her in a blanket and towed her back to her lagoon in the old boat through the maze of creeks and estuaries, passing the herons and deer for the last time.
And I’ll hide the maid in a cypress tree,
When the footstep of death is near.
He got special permission for her to be buried on her land under an oak overlooking the sea, and the whole town came out for the funeral. Kya would not have believed the long lines of slow-moving mourners. Of course, Jodie and his family came and all of Tate’s cousins. Some curiosity-seekers attended, but most people came out of respect for how she had survived years alone in the wild. Some remembered the little girl, dressed in an oversized, shabby coat, boating to the wharf,
walking barefoot to the grocery to buy grits. Others came to her graveside because her books had taught them how the marsh links the land to the sea, both needing the other.
By now, Tate understood that her nickname was not cruel. Only few become legend, so he chose as the epitaph for her tombstone:
CATHERINE DANIELLE CLARK
THE MARSH GIRL
HE EVENING O
, when everyone was finally gone, Tate stepped into her homemade lab. Her carefully labeled samples, more than fifty years’ worth, was the longest-running, most complete collection of its kind. She had requested that it be donated to Archbald Lab, and someday he would do so, but parting with it now was unthinkable.
Walking into the shack—as she always called it—Tate felt the walls exhaling her breath, the floors whispering her steps so clear he called out her name. Then he stood against the wall, weeping. He lifted the old knapsack and held it to his chest.
The officials at the courthouse had asked Tate to look for her will and birth certificate. In the old back bedroom, which had once been her parents’, he rummaged through the closet and found boxes of her life stuffed in the bottom, almost hidden, under some blankets. He pulled them onto the floor and sat beside them.
Ever so carefully he opened the old cigar box, the one where all the collecting began. The box still smelled of sweet tobacco and little girl. Among a few birds’ feathers, insects’ wings, and seeds was the small jar with the ashes from her ma’s letter, and a bottle of Revlon fingernail
polish, Barely Pink. The bits and bones of a life. The stones of her stream.
Tucked in the bottom was the deed for the property, which Kya had put in a conservation easement, protecting it from development. At least this fragment of the marsh would always be wild. But there was no will or personal papers, which did not surprise him; she would not have thought of such things. Tate planned to live out his days at her place, knowing she had wanted that and that Jodie would not object.
Late in the day, the sun dipping behind the lagoon, he stirred corn mush for the gulls and mindlessly glanced at the kitchen floor. He cocked his head as he noticed for the first time that the linoleum had not been installed under the woodpile or the old stove. Kya had kept firewood stacked high, even in summer, but now it was low, and he saw the edge of a cutout in the floorboard. He moved the remaining logs aside and saw a trapdoor in the plywood. Kneeling down, he slowly opened it to find an enclosed compartment between the joists, which held, among other things, an old cardboard box covered in dust. He pulled it out and found inside scores of manila envelopes and a smaller box. All the envelopes were marked with the initials
, and from them he pulled out pages and pages of poetry by Amanda Hamilton, the local poet who had published simple verses in regional magazines. Tate had thought Hamilton’s poems rather weak, but Kya had always saved the published clippings, and here were envelopes full of them. Some of the written pages were completed poems, but most of them were unfinished, with lines crossed out and some words rewritten in the margin in the poet’s handwriting—
. Kya was the poet.
Tate’s face grimaced in disbelief. Through the years she must have put the poems in the rusty mailbox, submitting them to local publications. Safe behind a nom de plume. Perhaps a reaching-out, a way to
express her feelings to someone other than gulls. Somewhere for her words to go.
He glanced through some of the poems, most about nature or love. One was folded neatly in its own envelope. He pulled it out and read:
Luring him was as easy
As flashing valentines.
But like a lady firefly
They hid a secret call to die.
A final touch,
The last step, a trap.
Down, down he falls,
His eyes still holding mine
Until they see another world.
I saw them change.
First a question,
Then an answer,
Finally an end.
And love itself passing
To whatever it was before it began. A.H.
Still kneeling on the floor, he read it again. He held the paper next to his heart, throbbing inside his chest. He looked out the window,
making certain no one was coming down the lane—not that they would, why would they? But to be sure. Then he opened the small box, knowing what he would find. There, laid out carefully on cotton, was the shell necklace Chase had worn until the night he died.