Chapter no 9 – Jumpin’

Where the Crawdads Sing


Sitting in the bow, Kya watched low fingers of fog reaching for their boat. At first, torn-off cloud bits streamed over their

heads, then mist engulfed them in grayness, and there was only the tick, tick, tick of the quiet motor. Minutes later, small splotches of unexpected color formed as the weathered shape of the marina gas station eased into view, as though it and not them was moving. Pa motored in, bumping gently against the dock.

She’d only been here once. The owner, an old black man, sprang up from his chair to help them—the reason everybody called him Jumpin’. His white sideburns and salt-and-pepper hair framed a wide, generous face and owl eyes. Tall and spare, he seemed to never stop talking, smiling, or throwing his head back, lips shut tight in his own brand of laugh. He didn’t dress in overalls, like most workmen around, but wore an ironed blue button-down shirt, too-short dark trousers, and work boots. Not often, but now and then on the meanest summer days, a tattered straw hat.

His Gas and Bait teetered on its own wobbly wharf. A cable ran from the closest oak on shore, about forty feet across the backwater, and held on with all its might. Jumpin’s great-grandpa had built the wharf and shack of cypress planks way back before anybody could remember, sometime before the Civil War.

Three generations had nailed bright metal signs—Nehi Grape Soda, Royal Crown Cola, Camel Filters, and twenty years’ worth of North Carolina automobile license plates—all over the shack, and that burst of color could be seen from the sea through all but the thickest fog.

“Hello, Mister Jake. How ya doin’?”

“Well, Ah woke up on the right side of dirt,” Pa answered. Jumpin’ laughed as if he’d never heard the worn-out phrase.

“Ya got your li’l daughter with you an’ all. That’s mighty fine.”

Pa nodded. Then, as an afterthought, “Yep, this here’s ma daughter, Miz Kya Clark.”

“Well, I’m mighty proud to know ya, Miss Kya.” Kya searched her bare toes but found no words.

Jumpin’ wasn’t bothered and kept talking about the good fishing lately. Then he asked Pa, “Fill ’er up then, Mister Jake?”

“Yeah, slam ’er right up to tha top.”

The men talked weather, fishing, then more weather till the tank was full.

“Good day to y’all, now,” he said, as he tossed off the line.



Pa cruised slowly back onto a bright sea—the sun taking less time to devour the fog than it took Jumpin’ to fill a tank. They chugged around a piney peninsula for several miles to Barkley Cove, where Pa tied to the deeply etched beams of the town wharf. Fishermen busied about, packing fish, tying line.

“Ah reckon we can git us some rest’rant vittles,” Pa said, and led her along the pier toward the Barkley Cove Diner. Kya had never eaten restaurant food; had never set foot inside. Her heart thumped as she brushed dried mud from her way-too-short overalls and patted down her tangled hair. As Pa opened the door, every customer paused midbite. A few men nodded faintly at Pa; the women frowned and turned their heads. One snorted, “Well, they prob’ly can’t read the shirt and shoes required.”

Pa motioned for her to sit at a small table overlooking the wharf. She couldn’t read the menu, but he told her most of it, and she ordered fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, white acre peas, and biscuits fluffy as fresh-picked cotton. He had fried shrimp, cheese grits, fried “okree,” and fried green tomatoes. The waitress put a whole dish of butter pats perched on ice cubes and a basket of cornbread and biscuits on their table, and all the sweet iced tea they could drink. Then they had blackberry cobbler with ice cream for dessert. So full, Kya thought she might get sick, but figured it’d be worth it.

As Pa stood at the cash register paying the bill, Kya stepped out onto the sidewalk, where the ripe smell of fishing boats hung over the bay. She held a greasy napkin wrapped around the leftover chicken and biscuits. Her overalls pockets were stuffed with packages of saltines, which the waitress had left right on the table for the taking.

“Hi.” Kya heard a tiny voice behind her and turned to see a girl of about four years with blond ringlets looking up at her. She was dressed in a pale blue frock and reached out her hand. Kya stared at the little hand; it was puffy-soft and maybe the cleanest thing Kya had ever seen. Never scrubbed with lye soap, certainly no mussel mud beneath the nails. Then she looked into the girl’s eyes, in which she herself was reflected as just another kid.

Kya shifted the napkin to her left hand and extended her right slowly toward the girl’s.

“Hey there, get away!” Suddenly Mrs. Teresa White, wife of the Methodist preacher, rushed from the door of the Buster Brown Shoe Shop.

Barkley Cove served its religion hard-boiled and deep-fried.

Tiny as it was, the village supported four churches, and those were just for the whites; the blacks had three more.

Of course, the pastors and preachers, and certainly their wives, enjoyed highly respected positions in the village, always dressing and behaving accordingly. Teresa White often wore pastel skirts and white blouses, matching pumps and purse.

Now she hurried toward her daughter and lifted her in her arms. Stepping away from Kya, she put the girl back on the sidewalk and squatted next to the child.

“Meryl Lynn, dahlin’, don’t go near that girl, ya hear me. She’s dirty.”



Kya watched the mother run her fingers through the curls; didn’t miss how long they held each other’s eyes.

A woman came out of the Piggly Wiggly and walked quickly up to them. “Ya all right, Teresa? What happened here? Was that girl botherin’ Meryl Lynn?”

“I saw her in time. Thank you, Jenny. I wish those people wouldn’t come to town. Look at her. Filthy. Plumb nasty. There’s that stomach flu goin’ around and I just know for a fact it came in

with them. Last year they brought in that case of measles, and that’s serious.” Teresa walked away, clutching the child.

Just then Pa, carrying some beer in a brown paper bag, called behind her, “Whatcha doin’? C’mon, we gotta git outta here. Tide’s goin’ out.” Kya turned and followed, and as they steered home to the marsh, she saw the curls and eyes of mother and child.

Pa still disappeared some, not coming back for several days, but not as often as before. And when he did show up, he didn’t collapse in a stupor but ate a meal and talked some. One night they played gin rummy, he guffawing when she won, and she giggling with her hands over her mouth like a regular girl.

• • •

EACH TIME KYA STEPPED off the porch, she looked down the lane, thinking that even though the wild wisteria was fading with late spring and her mother had left late the previous summer, she might see Ma walking home through the sand. Still in her fake alligator heels. Now that she and Pa were fishing and talking, maybe they could try again to be a family. Pa had beat all of them, mostly when he was drunk. He’d be all right for a few days at a time—they would eat chicken stew together; once they flew a kite on the beach. Then: drink, shout, hit. Details of some of the bouts were sharp in her mind. Once Pa shoved Ma into the kitchen wall, hitting her until she slumped to the floor. Kya, sobbing for him to quit, touched his arm. He grabbed Kya by the shoulders, shouted for her to pull down her jeans and underpants, and bent her over the kitchen table. In one smooth, practiced motion he slid the belt from his pants and whipped her. Of course, she remembered the hot pain slicing her bare bottom, but curiously, she recalled the jeans pooled around her skinny ankles in more vivid detail. And Ma crumpled into the corner by the cookstove, crying out. Kya didn’t know what all the fighting was about.

But if Ma came back now, when Pa was acting decent, maybe

they could start over. Kya never thought it would be Ma who left and Pa who stayed. But she knew her mother wouldn’t leave her forever; if she was out there somewhere in the world, she’d come back. Kya could still see the full, red lips as Ma sang to the radio,

and hear her words, “Now listen close to Mr. Orson Welles; he speaks proper like a gentleman. Don’t ever say ain’t, it isn’t even a word.”



Ma had painted the estuaries and sunsets in oils and watercolors so rich they seemed peeled from the earth. She had brought some art supplies with her and could buy bits and pieces at Kress’s Five and Dime. Sometimes Ma had let Kya paint her own pictures on brown paper bags from the Piggly Wiggly.

• • •

IN EARLY SEPTEMBER of that fishing summer, on one afternoon that paled with heat, Kya walked to the mailbox at the end of the lane. Leafing through the grocery ads, she stopped dead when she saw a blue envelope addressed in Ma’s neat hand. A few sycamore leaves were turning the same shade of yellow as when she left. All that time without a trace and now a letter. Kya stared at it, held it to the light, ran her fingers across the slanted, perfect script. Her heart banged against her chest.

“Ma’s alive. Living somewhere else. Why hasn’t she come home?” She thought of tearing the letter open, but the only word she could read for sure was her name, and it was not on the envelope.

She ran to the shack, but Pa had motored somewhere in the boat. So she propped the letter against the saltshaker on the table where he’d see it. As she boiled black-eyed peas with onions, she kept an eye on the letter lest it disappear.

Every few seconds, she ducked to the kitchen window to listen for the boat’s whirr. Then suddenly Pa was limp-walking up the steps. All courage left her, and she dashed past him, hollering that she was going to the outhouse; supper would be ready soon. She stood inside the smelly latrine, her heart running races to her stomach. Balancing on the wooden bench, she watched through the quarter-moon slit in the door, not knowing exactly what she expected.

Then the porch door slammed, and she saw Pa walking fast toward the lagoon. He went straight to the boat, a poke in his hand, and motored away. She ran back to the house, into the

kitchen, but the letter was gone. She flung open his dresser drawers, rummaged through his closet, searching. “It’s mine, too! It’s mine as much as yours.” Back in the kitchen, she looked in the trash can and found the letter’s ashes, still fringed in blue. With a spoon she dipped them up and laid them on the table, a little pile of black and blue remains. She picked, bit by bit, through the garbage; maybe some words had drifted to the bottom. But there was nothing but traces of cinder clinging to onionskin.

She sat at the table, the peas still singing in the pot, and stared at the little mound. “Ma touched these. Maybe Pa’ll tell me what she wrote. Don’t be stupid—that’s as likely as snow fallin’ in the swamp.”

Even the postmark was gone. Now she’d never know where Ma was. She put the ashes in a little bottle and kept it in her cigar box next to her bed.

• • •

PA DIDNT COME HOME that night or the next day, and when he finally did, it was the old drunk who staggered through the door. When she mounted the courage to ask about the letter, he barked, “It ain’t none a’ yo’ bidness.” And then, “She ain’t comin’ back, so ya can just forget ’bout that.” Carrying a poke, he shuffled toward the boat.

“That isn’t true,” Kya hollered at his back, her fists bunched at her sides. She watched him leaving, then shouted at the empty lagoon, “Ain’t isn’t even a word!”

Later she would wonder if she should have opened the letter on her own, not even shown it to Pa. Then she could have saved the words to read someday, and he’d have been better off not knowing them.

Pa never took her fishing again. Those warm days were just a thrown-in season. Low clouds parting, the sun splashing her world briefly, then closing up dark and tight-fisted again.



• • •

KYA COULDNT REMEMBER how to pray. Was it how you held your hands or how hard you squinted your eyes that mattered? “Maybe if I pray, Ma and Jodie will come home. Even with all the shouting and fussing, that life was better than this lumpy-grits.”

She sang mis-snippets of hymns—“and He walks with me when dew is still on the roses”—all she remembered from the little white church where Ma had taken her a few times. Their last visit had been Easter Sunday before Ma left, but all Kya remembered about the holiday was shouting and blood, somebody falling, she and Ma running, so she dropped the memory altogether.

Kya looked through the trees at Ma’s corn and turnip patch, all weeds now. Certainly there were no roses.

“Just forget it. No god’s gonna come to this garden.”

You'll Also Like