Chapter no 18 – White Canoe

Where the Crawdads Sing


Now, every new word began with a squeal, every sentence a race. Tate grabbing Kya, the two of them tumbling, half

childlike, half not, through sourweed, red with autumn. “Be serious a second,” he said. “The only way to get

multiplication tables is to memorize them.” He wrote 12 × 12 = 144 in the sand, but she ran past him, dived into the breaking surf, down to the calm, and swam until he followed into a place where gray-blue light beams slanted through the quiet and highlighted their forms. Sleek as porpoises. Later, sandy and salty, they rolled across the beach, arms tight around each other as if they were one.

The next afternoon he motored into her lagoon but stayed in his boat after beaching. A large basket covered in a red-checkered cloth sat at his feet.

“What’s that? What’d you bring?” she asked. “A surprise. Go on, get in.”

They flowed through the slow-moving channels into the sea, then south to a tiny half-moon bay. After wrist-flicking the blanket onto the sand, he placed the covered basket on it, and as they sat, he lifted the cloth.

“Happy birthday, Kya,” he said. “You’re fifteen.” A two-tiered bakery cake, tall as a hatbox and decorated with shells of pink icing, rose from the basket. Her name scripted on top. Presents, wrapped in colorful paper and tied with bows, surrounded the cake.

She stared, flabbergasted, her mouth open. No one had wished her happy birthday since Ma left. No one had ever given her a

store-bought cake with her name on it. She’d never had presents in real wrapping paper with ribbons.



“How’d you know my birthday?” Having no calendar, she had no idea it was today.

“I read it in your Bible.”

While she pleaded for him not to cut through her name, he sliced enormous pieces of cake and plopped them on paper plates. Staring into each other’s eyes, they broke off bites and stuffed them in their mouths. Smacking loudly. Licking fingers. Laughing through icing-smeared grins. Eating cake the way it should be eaten, the way everybody wants to eat it.

“Want to open your presents?” He smiled.

The first: a small magnifying glass, “so you can see the fine details of insect wings.” Second: a plastic clasp, painted silver and decorated with a rhinestone seagull, “for your hair.” Somewhat awkwardly, he pulled some locks behind her ear and clipped the barrette in place. She touched it. More beautiful than Ma’s.

The last present was in a larger box, and Kya opened it to find ten jars of oil paint, tins of watercolors, and different-sized brushes: “for your paintings.”

Kya picked up each color, each brush. “I can get more when you need them. Even canvas, from Sea Oaks.”

She dipped her head. “Thank you, Tate.”

• • •

“EASY DOES IT. Go slow, now,” Scupper called out as Tate, surrounded by fishing nets, oil rags, and preening pelicans, powered the winch. The bow of The Cherry Pie bobbled on the cradle, gave a shudder, then glided onto the underwater rails at Pete’s Boat Yard, the lopsided pier and rusted-out boathouse, the only haul-out in Barkley Cove.



“Okay, good, she’s on. Bring her out.” Tate eased more power to the winch, and the boat crawled up the track and into dry dock.

They secured her in cables and set about scraping blotchy barnacles from her hull as crystal-sharp arias of Miliza Korjus rose from the record player. They’d have to apply primer, then the annual coat of red paint. Tate’s mother had chosen the color, and

Scupper would never change it. Once in a while Scupper stopped scraping and waved his large arms to the music’s sinuous shape.

Now, early winter, Scupper paid Tate adult wages to work for him after school and on weekends, but Tate couldn’t get out to Kya’s as much. He didn’t mention this to his dad; he’d never mentioned anything about Kya to his dad.

They hacked at barnacles until dark, until even Scupper’s arms burned. “I’m too tired to cook, and I reckon you are, too. Let’s grab some grub at the diner on the way home.”

Nodding at everyone, there not being one person they didn’t know, they sat at a corner table. Both ordered the special: chicken-fried steak, mash and gravy, turnips, and coleslaw. Biscuits. Pecan pie with ice cream. At the next table, a family of four joined hands and lowered their heads as the father said a blessing out loud. At “Amen” they kissed the air, squeezed hands, and passed the cornbread.

Scupper said, “Now, son, I know this job’s keeping ya from things. That’s the way it is, but you didn’t go to the homecoming dance or anything last fall, and I don’t want you to miss all of it, this being your last year. There’s that big dance at the pavilion coming up. You asking a girl?”

“Nah. I might go, not sure. But there’s nobody I want to ask.” “There’s not one single girl in school you’d go with?”




“Well then.” Scupper leaned back as the waitress put down his plate of food. “Thank you, Betty. You sure heaped it up good.” Betty moved around and set down Tate’s plate, piled even higher.

“Y’all eat up now,” she said. “Thar’s more where this come from. The special’s all-you-can-eat.” She smiled at Tate before walking with an extra hip-swing back to the kitchen.

Tate said, “The girls at school are silly. All they talk about is hairdos and high heels.”

“Well now, that’s what girls do. Sometimes you gotta take things as they are.”


“Now, son, I don’t pay much mind to idle talk, never have done. But there’s a regular riptide of gossip saying you’ve got something going with that girl in the marsh.” Tate threw up his hands. “Now

hold on, hold on,” Scupper continued. “I don’t believe all the stories about her; she’s probably nice. But take a care, son. You don’t want to go starting a family too early. You get my meaning, don’t you?”



Keeping his voice low, Tate hissed, “First you say you don’t believe those stories about her, then you say I shouldn’t start a family, showing you do believe she’s that kind of girl. Well, let me tell you something, she’s not. She’s more pure and innocent than any of those girls you’d have me go to the dance with. Oh man, some of the girls in this town, well, let’s just say they hunt in packs, take no prisoners. And yes, I’ve been going out to see Kya some. You know why? I’m teaching her how to read because people in this town are so mean to her she couldn’t even go to school.”

“That’s fine, Tate. That’s good of you. But please understand it’s my job to say things like this. It may not be pleasant and all for us to talk about, but parents have to warn their kids about things.

That’s my job, so don’t get huffy about it.”

“I know,” Tate mumbled while buttering a biscuit. Feeling very huffy.

“Come on now. Let’s get another helping, then some of that pecan pie.”

After the pie came, Scupper said, “Well, since we’ve talked about things we never mention, I might as well say something else on my mind.”

Tate rolled his eyes at his pie.

Scupper continued. “I want you to know, son, how proud I am of you. All on your own, you’ve studied the marsh life, done real well at school, applied for college to get a degree in science. And got accepted. I’m just not the kind to speak on such things much. But I’m mighty proud of you, son. All right?”

“Yeah. All right.”



Later in his room, Tate recited from his favorite poem:

“Oh when shall I see the dusky Lake, And the white canoe of my dear?”

• • •

AROUND THE WORK, as best he could, Tate got out to Kya’s, but could never stay long. Sometimes boating forty minutes for a ten-minute beach walk, holding hands. Kissing a lot. Not wasting a minute.

Boating back. He wanted to touch her breasts; would kill just to look at them. Lying awake at night, he thought of her thighs, how soft, yet firm, they must be. To think beyond her thighs sent him roiling in the sheets. But she was so young and timid. If he did things wrong, it might affect her somehow, then he’d be worse than the boys who only talked about snagging her. His desire to protect her was as strong as the other. Sometimes.

• • •

ON EVERY TRIP TO KYAS, Tate took school or library books, especially on marsh creatures and biology. Her progress was startling. She could read anything now, he said, and once you can read anything you can learn everything. It was up to her. “Nobody’s come close to filling their brains,” he said. “We’re all like giraffes not using their necks to reach the higher leaves.”

Alone for hours, by the light of the lantern, Kya read how plants and animals change over time to adjust to the ever-shifting earth; how some cells divide and specialize into lungs or hearts, while others remain uncommitted as stem cells in case they’re needed later. Birds sing mostly at dawn because the cool, moist air of morning carries their songs and their meanings much farther. All her life, she’d seen these marvels at eye level, so nature’s ways came easily to her.



Within all the worlds of biology, she searched for an explanation of why a mother would leave her offspring.

• • •

ONE COLD DAY, long after all the sycamore leaves had fallen, Tate stepped out of his boat with a present wrapped in red-and-green paper.

“I don’t have anything for you,” she said, as he held the present out for her. “I didn’t know it’s Christmas.”

“It’s not.” He smiled. “Not by a long shot,” he lied. “Come on, it’s not much.”

Carefully she took the paper off to find a secondhand Webster’s dictionary. “Oh, Tate, thank you.”

“Look inside,” he said. Tucked in the section was a pelican feather, forget-me-not blossoms pressed between two pages of the Fs, a dried mushroom under M. So many treasures were stashed among the pages, the book would not completely close.

“I’ll try to come back the day after Christmas. Maybe I can bring a turkey dinner.” He kissed her good-bye. After he left, she swore out loud. Her first chance since Ma left to give a gift to someone she loved, and she’d missed it.

A few days later, shivering in the sleeveless, peach-colored chiffon dress, she waited for Tate on the lagoon shore. Pacing, she clutched her present for him—a head tuft from a male cardinal— wrapped in the paper he had used. As soon as he stepped out of his boat, she stuck the present into his hands, insisting he open it there, so he did. “Thank you, Kya. I don’t have one.”

Her Christmas complete.

“Now let’s get you inside. You must be freezing in that dress.” The kitchen was warm from the woodstove, but still he suggested she change into a sweater and jeans.

Working together they heated the food he’d brought: turkey, cornbread dressing, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, and pumpkin pie—all leftovers from Christmas dinner at the diner with his dad. Kya had made biscuits, and they ate at the kitchen table, which she had decorated with wild holly and seashells.



“I’ll wash up,” she said, as she poured hot water from the woodstove into the basin.

“I’ll help you.” And he came up behind her and put his arms around her waist. She leaned her head back against his chest, eyes closed. Slowly his fingers moved under her sweater, across her sleek stomach, toward her breasts. As usual, she wore no bra, and his fingers circled her nipples. His touch lingered there, but a sensation spread down her body as though his hands had moved between her legs. A hollowness that urgently needed filling pulsed through her. But she didn’t know what to do, what to say, so pushed back.

“It’s okay,” he said. And just held her there. Both of them breathing deep.

• • •

THE SUN, still shy and submissive to winter, peeped in now and then between days of mean wind and bitter rain. Then one afternoon, just like that, spring elbowed her way in for good. The day warmed, and the sky shone as if polished. Kya spoke quietly, as she and Tate walked along the grassy bank of a deep creek, overhung with tall sweetgum trees. Suddenly he grabbed her hand, shushing her. Her eyes followed his to the water’s edge, where a bullfrog, six inches wide, hunkered under foliage. A common enough sight, except this frog was completely and brilliantly white.

Tate and Kya grinned at each other and watched until he disappeared in one silent, big-legged leap. Still, they were quiet as they backed away into the brush another five yards. Kya put her hands over her mouth and giggled. Bounced away from him in a girlish jig in a body not quite so girlish.

Tate watched her for a second, no longer thinking about frogs. He stepped toward her purposely. His expression stopped her in front of a broad oak. He took her shoulders and pushed her firmly against the tree. Holding her arms along her sides, he kissed her, his groin pushing against hers. Since Christmas they had kissed and explored slowly; not like this. He had always taken the lead but had watched her questioningly for signs to desist; not like now.

He pulled away, the deep golden-brown layers of his eyes boring into hers. Slowly he unbuttoned her shirt and pulled it off, exposing her breasts. He took his time to examine them with his eyes and fingers, circling her nipples. Then he unzipped her shorts and pulled them down, until they dropped to the ground. Almost naked for the first time in front of him, she panted and moved her hands to cover herself. Gently he moved her hands away and took his time looking at her body. Her groin throbbed as if all her blood had surged there. He stepped out of his shorts and, still staring at her, pushed his erection against her.



When she turned away in shyness, he lifted her chin and said, “Look at me. Look me in the eyes, Kya.”

“Tate, Tate.” She reached out, trying to kiss him, but he held her back, forcing only her eyes to take him in. She didn’t know raw nakedness could bring such want. He whispered his hands against her inner thighs, and instinctively she stepped each foot to the side slightly. His fingers moved between her legs and slowly massaged parts of her she never knew existed. She threw her head back and whimpered.

Abruptly, he pushed away from her and stepped back. “God, Kya, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Tate, please, I want to.” “Not like this, Kya.”

“Why not? Why not like this?”

She reached for his shoulders and tried to pull him back to her. “Why not?” she said again.

He picked up her clothes and dressed her. Not touching her where she wanted, where parts of her body still pounded. Then he lifted her and carried her to the creek bank. Put her down, and sat beside her.

“Kya, I want you more than anything. I want you forever. But you’re too young. You’re only fifteen.”

“So what? You’re only four years older. It’s not like you’re suddenly mister know-it-all adult.”

“Yes, but I can’t get pregnant. And I can’t be damaged as easily by this. I won’t do it, Kya, because I love you.” Love. There was nothing about the word she understood.

“You still think I’m a little girl,” she whined.

“Kya, you’re sounding more and more like a little girl every second.” But he smiled as he said it, and pulled her closer.

“When, then, if not now? When can we?” “Just not yet.”



They were quiet for a moment, and then she asked, “How did you know what to do?” Head down, shy again.

“The same way you did.”

• • •

ONE AFTERNOON IN MAY as they walked from the lagoon, he said, “You know, I’m going away soon. To college.”

He had spoken of going to Chapel Hill, but Kya had pushed it from her mind, knowing at least they had summer.

“When? Not now.”

“Not long. A few weeks.”

“But why? I thought college started in the fall.”

“I got accepted for a job in a biology lab on campus. I can’t pass that up. So I’m starting summer quarter.”

Of all the people who left her, only Jodie had said good-bye. Everyone else had walked away forever, but this didn’t feel any better. Her chest burned.

“I’ll come back as much as I can. It’s not that far, really. Less than a day by bus.”

She sat quiet. Finally she said, “Why do you have to go, Tate?

Why can’t you stay here, shrimp like your dad?”

“Kya, you know why. I just can’t do that. I want to study the marsh, be a research biologist.” They had reached the beach and sat on the sand.

“Then what? There’re no jobs like that here. You’ll never come home again.”

“Yes, I will. I won’t leave you, Kya. I promise. I’ll come back to you.”

She jumped to her feet, startling the plovers, who flew up, squawking. She ran from the beach into the woods. Tate ran after her, but as soon as he reached the trees, he stopped, looked around. She had already lost him.

But just in case she stood in earshot, he called out, “Kya, you can’t run from every whipstitch. Sometimes you have to discuss things. Face things.” Then with less patience, “Damn it, Kya.

Damn it to hell!”



• • •

WEEK LATER, Kya heard Tate’s boat whirring across her lagoon and hid behind a bush. As he eased through the channel, the heron lifted on slow silver wings. Some part of her wanted to run, but she stepped onto the shore, waiting.

“Hey,” he said. For once he didn’t wear a cap, and his wild blond curls wafted about his tanned face. It seemed that in the last few months, his shoulders had widened into those of a man.


He stepped from the boat, took her hand, and led her to the reading-log, where they sat.

“Turns out I’m leaving sooner than I thought. I’m skipping the graduation ceremonies so I can start my job. Kya, I’ve come to say good-bye.” Even his voice seemed manlike, ready for a more serious world.

She didn’t answer, but sat looking away from him. Her throat pulled in tight. He placed two bags of school and library rejects, mostly science books, at her feet.

She wasn’t sure she could speak. She wanted him to take her again to the place of the white frog. In case he never came back, she wanted him to take her there now.

“I’m going to miss you, Kya. Every day, all day.”

“You might forget me. When you get busy with all that college stuff and see all those pretty girls.”

“I’ll never forget you. Ever. You take care of the marsh till I get back, you hear? And be careful.”

“I will.”

“I mean it now, Kya. Watch out for folks; don’t let strangers get near you.”

“I think I can hide or outrun anybody.”



“Yes, I believe you can. I’ll come home in about a month, I promise. For the Fourth of July. I’ll be back before you know it.” She didn’t answer, and he stood, jammed his hands into his jeans pockets. She stood next to him, but they both looked away,

into the trees.

He took her shoulders and kissed her for a long time.

“Good-bye, Kya.” For a moment she looked somewhere over his shoulder and then into his eyes. A chasm she knew to its greatest depths.

“Good-bye, Tate.”

Without another word, he got in his boat and motored across the lagoon. Just before entering the thick brambles of the channel,

he turned and waved. She lifted her hand high above her head, and then touched it to her heart.

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