Authors: Delia Owens
For days, Tate didn’t return for the reading lessons. Before the feather game, loneliness had become a natural appendage to Kya, like an arm. Now it grew roots inside her and pressed against her chest.
Late one afternoon, she struck out in her boat. “I cain’t just sit ’round waitin’.”
Instead of docking at Jumpin’s, where she’d be seen, she stashed her rig in a small cove just south and, carrying a croker sack, walked down the shaded path toward Colored Town. A soft rain had fallen most of the day, and now as the sun neared the horizon, the forest formed its own fog that drifted through succulent glades. She’d never gone to Colored Town, but knew where it was and figured she could find Jumpin’ and Mabel’s place once she got there.
She wore jeans and a pink blouse from Mabel. In the croker sack were two pint jars of real runny blackberry jam she’d made herself to return Jumpin’ and Mabel’s kindness. A need to be with someone,
a chance to talk with a woman friend urged her toward them. If Jumpin’ wasn’t home yet, maybe she could sit down with Mabel and visit a spell.
Then, nearing a bend in the road, Kya heard voices coming toward her. She stopped, listened carefully. Quickly she stepped off the path into the woods and hid behind a myrtle thicket. A minute later, two white boys, dressed in raggedy bib overalls, came around the bend, toting fishing tackle and a string of catfish long as her arm. She froze behind the thicket and waited.
One of the boys pointed down the lane. “Lookee up thar.”
“Ain’t we lucky. Here comes a nigger walkin’ to Nigger Town.” Kya looked down the path, and there, walking home for the evening, was Jumpin’. Quite close, he had surely heard the boys, but he simply dropped his head, stepped into the woods to give them a berth, and moved on.
What’s the matter with ’im, why don’t he do sump’m?
Kya raged to herself. She knew
was a real bad word—she knew by the way Pa had used it like a cussword. Jumpin’ could have knocked the boys’ heads together, taught them a lesson. But he walked on fast.
“Jest an ol’ nigger walkin’ to town. Watch out, nigger-boy, don’t fall down,” they taunted Jumpin’, who kept his eyes on his toes. One of the boys reached down, picked up a stone, and slung it at Jumpin’s back. It hit just under his shoulder blade with a thud. He lurched over a bit, kept walking. The boys laughed as he disappeared around the bend, then they picked up more rocks and followed him.
Kya stalked through brush until she was ahead of them, her eyes glued on their caps bobbing above the branches. She crouched at a spot where thick bushes grew next to the lane, where in seconds they would pass within a foot of her. Jumpin’ was up ahead, out of sight. She
twisted the cloth bag with the jam so that it was wrung tight and knotted against the jars. As the boys drew even with the thicket, she swung the heavy bag and whacked the closest one hard across the back of his head. He pitched forward and fell on his face. Hollering and screeching, she rushed the other boy, ready to bash his head too, but he took off. She slipped about fifty yards into the trees and watched until the first boy stood, holding his head and cussing.
Toting the bag of jam jars, she turned back toward her boat and motored home. Thought she’d probably never go viztin’ again.
HE NEXT DAY
, when the sound of Tate’s motor chugged through the channel, Kya ran to the lagoon and stood in the bushes, watching him step out of his boat, holding a rucksack. Looking around, he called out to her, and she stepped slowly forward dressed in jeans that fit and a white blouse with mismatched buttons.
“Hey, Kya. Sorry I couldn’t get here sooner. Had to help my dad, but we’ll get you reading in no time.”
“Let’s sit here.” He pointed to an oak knee in deep shade of the lagoon. From the rucksack he pulled out a thin, faded book of the alphabet and a lined writing pad. With a careful slow hand, he formed the letters between the lines,
, asking her to do the same, patient with her tongue-between-lips effort. As she wrote, he said the letters out loud. Softly, slowly.
She remembered some of the letters from Jodie and Ma but didn’t know much at all about putting them into proper words.
After only minutes, he said, “See, you can already write a word.”
“What d’ya mean?”
You can write the word
?” she asked. He knew not to laugh.
“Don’t worry if you don’t know it. Let’s keep going. Soon you’ll write a word you know.”
Later he said, “You’ll have to work lots more on the alphabet. It’ll take a little while to get it, but you can already read a bit. I’ll show you.” He didn’t have a grammar reader, so her first book was his dad’s copy of Aldo Leopold’s
Sand County Almanac
. He pointed to the opening sentence and asked her to read it back to him. The first word was
and she had to go back to the alphabet and practice the sound of each letter, but he was patient, explaining the special sound of
, and when she finally said it, she threw her arms up and laughed. Beaming, he watched her.
Slowly, she unraveled each word of the sentence: “‘There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.’”
“Oh,” she said. “Oh.”
“You can read, Kya. There will never be a time again when you can’t read.”
“It ain’t just that.” She spoke almost in a whisper. “I wadn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know a sentence could be so full.”
He smiled. “That’s a very good sentence. Not all words hold that much.”
VER THE COMING DAYS
, sitting on the oak knee in shade or the shore in sun, Tate taught her how to read the words, which sang of the geese and cranes, real all around them. “What if there be no more goose music?”
In between helping his dad or pitching baseball with his friends, he came to Kya’s place several times a week and, now, no matter what she was doing—weeding the garden, feeding the chickens, searching for shells—she listened for the sound of his boat humming up the channel.
On the beach one day, reading about what chickadees eat for lunch, she asked him, “You live with yo’ family in Barkley Cove?”
“I live with my dad. Yes, in Barkley.”
Kya didn’t ask if he had more family, now gone. His ma must have left him, too. Part of her longed to touch his hand, a strange wanting, but her fingers wouldn’t do it. Instead she memorized the bluish veins on the inside of his wrist, as intricate as those sketched on the wings of wasps.
, sitting at the kitchen table, she went over the lessons by kerosene lamp, its soft light seeping through the shack windows and touching the lower branches of the oaks. The only light for miles and miles of blackness except for the soft glow of fireflies.
Carefully, she wrote and said each word over and over. Tate said long words were simply little ones strung together—so she wasn’t afraid of them, went straight to learning
. Learning to read was the most fun she’d ever had. But she couldn’t figure why Tate had offered to teach po’ white trash like her, why he’d come in the first place, bringing exquisite feathers. But she didn’t ask, afraid it might get him thinking on it, send him away.
Now at last Kya could label all her precious specimens. She took each feather, insect, shell, or flower, looked up how to spell the name in Ma’s books, and wrote it carefully on her brown-paper-bag painting.
?” she asked Tate one day.
He looked at her. She knew more about tides and snow geese, eagles and stars than most ever would, yet she couldn’t count to thirty. He didn’t want to shame her, so didn’t show surprise. She was awfully good at reading eyes.
“Thirty,” he said simply. “Here, I’ll show you the numbers and we’ll do some basic arithmetic. It’s easy. I’ll bring you some books about it.”
She went around reading everything—the directions on the grits bag, Tate’s notes, and the stories from her fairy-tale books she had pretended to read for years. Then one night she made a little
sound, and took the old Bible from the shelf. Sitting at the table, she turned the thin pages carefully to the one with the family names. She found her own at the very bottom. There it was, her birthday:
Miss Catherine Danielle Clark, October 10, 1945
. Then, going back up the list, she read the real names of her brothers and sisters:
Master Jeremy Andrew Clark, January 2, 1939.
“Jeremy,” she said out loud. “Jodie, I sure never thought a’ you as Master Jeremy.”
Miss Amanda Margaret Clark, May 17, 1937.
Kya touched the name with her fingers. Repeated it several times.
She read on.
Master Napier Murphy Clark, April 4, 1936
. Kya spoke softly, “Murph, ya name was Napier.”
At the top, the oldest,
Miss Mary Helen Clark, September 19, 1934
. She rubbed her fingers over the names again, which brought faces before her eyes. They blurred, but she could see them all squeezed around the table eating stew, passing cornbread, even laughing some. She was ashamed that she had forgotten their names, but now that she’d found them, she would never let them go again.
Above the list of children she read:
Mister Jackson Henry Clark married Miss Julienne Maria Jacques, June 12, 1933
. Not until that moment had she known her parents’ proper names.
She sat there for a few minutes with the Bible open on the table. Her family before her.
Time ensures children never know their parents young. Kya would never see the handsome Jake swagger into an Asheville soda fountain in early 1930, where he spotted Maria Jacques, a beauty with black curls and red lips, visiting from New Orleans. Over a milkshake he told her his family owned a plantation and that after high school he’d study to be a lawyer and live in a columned mansion.
But when the Depression deepened, the bank auctioned the land out from under the Clarks’ feet, and his father took Jake from school. They moved down the road to a small pine cabin that once, not so long ago really, had been occupied by slaves. Jake worked the tobacco fields, stacking leaves with black men and women, babies strapped on their backs with colorful shawls.
One night two years later, without saying good-bye, Jake left before dawn, taking with him as many fine clothes and family treasures—including his great-grandfather’s gold pocket watch and his grandmother’s diamond ring—as he could carry. He hitchhiked to New Orleans and found Maria living with her family in an elegant home near the waterfront. They were descendants of a French merchant, owners of a shoe factory.
Jake pawned the heirlooms and entertained her in fine restaurants hung with red velvet curtains, telling her that he would buy her that columned mansion. As he knelt under a magnolia tree, she agreed to marry him, and they wed in 1933 in a small church ceremony, her family standing silent.
By now, the money was gone, so he accepted a job from his
father-in-law in the shoe factory. Jake assumed he would be made manager, but Mr. Jacques, a man not easily taken in, insisted Jake learn the business from the bottom up like any other employee. So Jake labored at cutting out soles.
He and Maria lived in a small garage apartment furnished with a few grand pieces from her dowry mixed with flea-market tables and chairs. He enrolled in night classes to finish high school but usually skipped out to play poker and, stinking of whiskey, came home late to his new wife. After only three weeks, the teacher dropped him from the classes.
Maria begged him to stop drinking, to show enthusiasm for his job so that her father would promote him. But the babies started coming and the drinking never stopped. Between 1934 and 1940 they had four children, and Jake was promoted only once.
The war with Germany was an equalizer. Boiled down to the same uniform-hue as everyone else, he could hide his shame, once again play proud. But one night, sitting in a muddy foxhole in France, someone shouted that their sergeant was shot and sprawled bleeding twenty yards away. Mere boys, they should have been sitting in a dugout waiting to bat, nervous about some fastball. Still, they jumped at once, scrambling to save the wounded man—all but one.
Jake hunched in a corner, too scared to move, but a mortar exploded yellow-white just beyond the hole, shattering the bones of his left leg into fragments. When the soldiers tumbled back into the trench, dragging the sergeant, they assumed Jake had been hit while helping the others rescue their comrade. He was declared a hero. No one would ever know. Except Jake.
With a medal and a medical discharge, he was sent home. Determined not to work again in the shoe factory, Jake stayed only a few nights in New Orleans. With Maria standing by silently, he sold all her
fine furniture and silver, then packed his family onto the train and moved them to North Carolina. He discovered from an old friend that his mother and father had died, clearing the way for his plan.
He’d convinced Maria that living in a cabin his father had built as a fishing retreat on the coast of North Carolina would be a new start. There would be no rent and Jake could finish high school. He bought a small fishing boat in Barkley Cove and motored through miles of marsh waterways with his family and all their possessions piled around them—a few fine hatboxes perched on top. When they finally broke into the lagoon, where the ratty shack with rusted-out screens hunkered under the oaks, Maria clutched her youngest child, Jodie, fighting tears.
Pa assured her, “Don’t ya worry none. I’ll get this fixed up in no time.”
But Jake never improved the shack or finished high school. Soon after they arrived, he took up drinking and poker at the Swamp Guinea, trying to leave that foxhole in a shot glass.
Maria did what she could to make a home. She bought sheets from rummage sales for the floor mattresses and a stand-alone tin bathtub; she washed the laundry under the yard spigot, and figured out on her own how to plant a garden, how to keep chickens.