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Chapter no 15 – The Game

Where the Crawdads Sing

1960

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he 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?”

 

 

• • •

AS SOON AS SHE REACHED 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.”

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