Chapter no 26 – The Boat Ashore

Where the Crawdads Sing


The first week they were together, Chase pulled into Kya’s lagoon almost every day after his work at the Western Auto,

and they explored remote oak-lined channels. On Saturday morning, he took her on an expedition far up the coast to a place she’d never been because it was too far for her little boat. Here— instead of the estuaries and enormous sweeps of grass as in her marsh—clear water flowed as far as she could see through a bright and open cypress forest. Brilliant white herons and storks stood among water lilies and floating plants so green they seemed to glow. Hunched up on cypress knees as large as easy chairs, they ate pimento-cheese sandwiches and potato chips, grinning as geese glided just below their toes.

Like most people, Chase knew the marsh as a thing to be used, to boat and fish, or drain for farming, so Kya’s knowledge of its critters, currents, and cattails intrigued him. But he scoffed at her soft touch, cruising at slow speeds, drifting silently past deer, whispering near birds’ nests. He had no interest in learning the shells or feathers himself and questioned her when she scribbled notes in her journal or collected specimens.



“Why’re you painting grass?” he asked one day in her kitchen. “I’m painting their flowers.”

He laughed. “Grass doesn’t have flowers.”

“Of course they do. See these blossoms. They’re tiny, but beautiful. Each grass species has a different flower or inflorescence.”

“What’re ya gonna do with all this stuff anyway?”

“I’m keeping records so I can learn about the marsh.”

“All ya need to know is when and where the fish bite, and I can tell ya that,” he said.

She laughed for his sake, something she’d never done. Giving away another piece of herself just to have someone else.

• • •

THAT AFTERNOON, after Chase left, Kya motored into the marsh alone. But did not feel alone. She accelerated slightly faster than usual, her long hair trailing in the wind, a slight smile brushed on her lips. Just knowing she would see him again soon, be with someone, lifted her to a new place.



Then, rounding a bend of tall grass, up ahead she saw Tate. He was quite far, maybe forty yards, and had not heard her boat.

Instantly, she dropped throttle and killed the engine. Grabbed the oar and rowed backward into the grass.

“Home from college, I guess,” she whispered. She’d seen him a few times over the years, but never this close. But now there he was, his untamed hair struggling with another red cap. Tanned face.

Tate wore high-top waders and strode through a lagoon, scooping up water samples in tiny vials. Not old jelly jars as when they were barefoot kids but petite tubes clinking in a special carrying rack. Professorial. Out of her league.

She didn’t row away, but watched him awhile, thinking that every girl probably remembers her first love. She let out a long breath, then rowed back the way she came.

• • •

THE NEXT DAY, as Chase and Kya cruised north along the coast, four porpoises moved into their wake and followed them. It was a gray-sky day, and fingers of fog flirted with the waves. Chase switched off the engine, and as the boat drifted, he took out his harmonica and played the old song “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” a yearning and melodic tune sung by slaves in the 1860s as they rowed boats to the mainland from the Sea Islands of South

Carolina. Ma used to sing it while scrubbing, and Kya sort of remembered the words. As if inspired by the music, the porpoises swam closer and circled the boat, their keen eyes fixing on Kya’s. Then, two of them eased up against the hull, and she bowed her face only inches from theirs, and sang softly:

“Sister, help to trim dat boat, hallelujah Brudder lend a helpin’ hand, hallelujah.

Ma fadder gone to unknown land, hallelujah. Michael, row the boat ashore, hallelujah.



“Jordan’s river is deep and wide,

Meet my mother on the other side, hallelujah. Jordan’s river is chilly and cold

Chills the body but not the soul, hallelujah.”

The porpoises stared at Kya for a few more seconds and then slipped backward into the sea.

Over the next few weeks, Chase and Kya spent evenings lazing with the gulls on her beach, lying back on sand still warm from the sun. Chase didn’t take her into town, to the picture show or sock hops; it was the two of them, the marsh, the sea, and the sky. He didn’t kiss her, only held her hand or put his arm lightly around her shoulders in the coolness.

Then one night he stayed late into the dark, and they sat on the beach under the stars by a small fire, shoulders touching, a blanket around them. The flames threw light across their faces and dark across the shore behind them, as campfires do. Looking into her eyes, he asked, “Is it okay if I kiss you now?” She nodded, so he leaned down and kissed her softly at first, and then like a man.

They lay back on the blanket, and she wiggled in as close to him as she could get. Feeling his strong body. He held her tight with both of his arms, but only touched her shoulders with his hands.

Nothing more. She breathed deep, breathed in the warmth, the scents of him and the sea, the togetherness.

• • •

ONLY A FEW DAYS LATER, Tate, still home from graduate school, raced his boat toward Kya’s marsh channel, the first time he’d done so in five years. He still couldn’t explain to himself why he’d never gone back to her before now. Mostly he’d been a coward, ashamed. Finally, he was going to find her, tell her he’d never stopped loving her and beg her to forgive him.



Those four years at university, he’d convinced himself that Kya could not fit in the academic world he sought. All through undergraduate, he’d tried to forget her; after all, there were plenty of female distractions at Chapel Hill. He even had a few long-term relationships, but no one compared. What he’d learned right after DNA, isotopes, and protozoans was that he couldn’t breathe without her. True, Kya couldn’t live in the university world he had sought, but now he could live in hers.

He had it all figured out. His professor had said Tate could finish graduate school in the next three years because he’d been conducting his research for his PhD dissertation all through undergraduate and it was nearly complete. Then, recently Tate learned that a federal research lab was to be built near Sea Oaks, and that he would have an excellent chance of being hired as a full-time research scientist. No one on Earth was better qualified: he’d been studying the local marsh most of his life, and soon he would have the PhD to back it up. In just a few short years, he could live here in the marsh with Kya and work at the lab. Marry Kya. If she would have him.

Now, as he bounced across waves toward her channel, suddenly Kya’s boat zoomed south, perpendicular to his course. Letting go of the tiller, he threw both arms above his head, waving frantically to get her attention. Shouted out her name. But she was looking east. Tate glanced in that direction and saw Chase’s ski boat veering toward her. Tate idled back, watching as Kya and Chase spun around each other in the blue-gray waves, in ever-smaller circles like eagles courting in the sky. Their wakes crazed and swirling.

Tate stared as they met and touched fingers across the churning water. He’d heard the rumors from his old friends in Barkley Cove

but hoped they weren’t true. He understood why Kya would fall for such a man, handsome, no doubt romantic, whizzing her around in his fancy boat, taking her on fancy picnics. She wouldn’t know anything of his life in town—dating and courting other young women in Barkley, even Sea Oaks.

And, Tate thought, who am I to say anything? I didn’t treat her any better. I broke a promise, didn’t even have the guts to break up with her.

He dipped his head, then stole another glance just in time to see Chase lean over to kiss her. Kya, Kya, he thought. How could I have left you? Slowly, he accelerated and turned back toward the town harbor to help his dad crate and carry the catch.

• • •



FEW DAYS LATER, never knowing when Chase might come, Kya once again found herself listening for the sound of his boat. Just as she had for Tate. So whether pulling weeds, chopping stove wood, or collecting mussels, she’d tilt her head just so to catch the sound. “Squint yo’ ears,” Jodie used to say.

Tired of being weighted down by hope, she threw three days’ worth of biscuits, cold backstrap, and sardines in her knapsack and walked out to the old falling-down log cabin; the “reading cabin,” as she thought of it. Out here, in the real remote, she was free to wander, collect at will, read the words, read the wild. Not waiting for the sounds of someone was a release. And a strength.

In a scrub-oak thicket, just around the bend from the cabin, she found the tiny neck feather of a red-throated loon and laughed out loud. Had wanted this feather for as long as she could remember, and here it was a stone’s throw downstream.

Mostly she came to read. After Tate left her those years ago, she no longer had access to books, so one morning she’d motored beyond Point Beach and another ten miles to Sea Oaks, a slightly larger and much swankier town than Barkley Cove. Jumpin’ had said anyone could borrow books from the library there. She’d doubted if that was true for someone who lived in a swamp, but she had been determined to find out.

She’d tied up at the town wharf and crossed the tree-lined square overlooking the sea. As she walked toward the library, no one looked at her, whispered behind her back, or shooed her away from a window display. Here, she was not the Marsh Girl.

She handed Mrs. Hines, the librarian, a list of college textbooks. “Could you please help me find The Principles of Organic Chemistry by Geissman, Invertebrate Zoology of the Coastal Marsh by Jones, and Fundamentals of Ecology by Odum . . .” She’d seen these titles referenced in the last of the books Tate had given before he left her for college.

“Oh, my. I see. We’ll have to get a library loan from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for these books.”

So now, sitting outside the old cabin, she picked up a scientific digest. One article on reproductive strategies was titled “Sneaky Fuckers.” Kya laughed.

As is well known, the article began, in nature, usually the males with the most prominent secondary sexual characteristics, such as the biggest antlers, deepest voices, broadest chests, and superior knowledge secure the best territories because they have fended off weaker males. The females choose to mate with these imposing alphas and are thereby inseminated with the best DNA around, which is passed on to the female’s offspring—one of the most powerful phenomena in the adaptation and continuance of life.



Plus, the females get the best territory for their young.

However, some stunted males, not strong, adorned, or smart enough to hold good territories, possess bags of tricks to fool the females. They parade their smaller forms around in pumped-up postures or shout frequently—even if in shrill voices. By relying on pretense and false signals, they manage to grab a copulation here or there. Pint-sized male bullfrogs, the author wrote, hunker down in the grass and hide near an alpha male who is croaking with great gusto to call in mates. When several females are attracted to his strong vocals at the same time, and the alpha is busy copulating with one, the weaker male leaps in and mates one of the others. The imposter males were referred to as “sneaky fuckers.”

Kya remembered, those many years ago, Ma warning her older

sisters about young men who overrevved their rusted-out pickups

or drove jalopies around with radios blaring. “Unworthy boys make a lot of noise,” Ma had said.

She read a consolation for females. Nature is audacious enough to ensure that the males who send out dishonest signals or go from one female to the next almost always end up alone.

Another article delved into the wild rivalries between sperm. Across most life-forms, males compete to inseminate females. Male lions occasionally fight to the death; rival bull elephants lock tusks and demolish the ground beneath their feet as they tear at each other’s flesh. Though very ritualized, the conflicts can still end in mutilations.

To avoid such injuries, inseminators of some species compete in less violent, more creative methods. Insects, the most imaginative. The penis of the male damselfly is equipped with a small scoop, which removes sperm ejected by a previous opponent before he supplies his own.



Kya dropped the journal on her lap, her mind drifting with the clouds. Some female insects eat their mates, overstressed mammal mothers abandon their young, many males design risky or shifty ways to outsperm their competitors. Nothing seemed too indecorous as long as the tick and the tock of life carried on. She knew this was not a dark side to Nature, just inventive ways to endure against all odds. Surely for humans there was more.

• • •

AFTER FINDING KYA GONE three days in a row, Chase started asking if he could come on a certain day, at a given time to see her at her shack or this or that beach, and always arrived on time. From far off she would see his brightly colored boat—like vivid feathers of a male bird’s breeding plumage—floating on the waves and know he’d come just for her.

Kya started to picture him taking her on a picnic with his friends. All of them laughing, running into the waves, kicking the surf. Him lifting her, swirling around. Then sitting with the others sharing sandwiches and drinks from coolers. Bit by bit, pictures of marriage and children formed in spite of her resistance. Probably some biological urge to push me into reproducing, she told

herself. But why couldn’t she have loved ones like everybody else? Why not?

Yet every time she tried to ask when he would introduce her to his friends and parents, the words stuck to her tongue.



Drifting offshore, on a hot day a few months after they met, he said it was perfect for a swim. “I won’t look,” he said. “Take off your clothes and jump in, then I will.” She stood in front of him, balancing in the boat, but as she pulled her T-shirt over her head, he didn’t turn away. He reached out and ran his fingers lightly across her firm breasts. She didn’t stop him. Pulling her closer, he unzipped her shorts and slipped them easily from her slender hips. Then he took off his shirt and shorts and pushed her down gently onto the towels.

Kneeling at her feet, without saying a word, he ran his fingers like a whisper along her left ankle up to the inside of her knee, slowly along the inside of her thigh. She raised her body toward his hand. His fingers lingered at the top of her thigh, rubbed over her panties, then moved across her belly, light as a thought. She sensed his fingers moving up her stomach toward her breasts and twisted her body away from him. Firmly, he pushed her flat and slid his fingers to her breast, slowly outlining the nipple with one finger. He looked at her, unsmiling, as he moved his hand down and pulled at the top of her panties. She wanted him, all of him, and her body pushed against his. But seconds later, she put her hand on his.

“C’mon, Kya,” he said. “Please. We’ve waited forever. I’ve been

pretty patient, don’t ya think?” “Chase, you promised.”

“Damn it, Kya. What’re we waiting for?” He sat up. “Surely, I showed ya I care for you. Why not?”

Sitting up, she pulled down her T-shirt. “What happens next?

How do I know you won’t leave me?”



“How does anybody ever know? But, Kya, I’m not going anywhere. I’m falling in love with you. I want to be with you all the time. What else can I do to show you?”

He had never mentioned love. Kya searched his eyes for truth but found only a hard stare. Unreadable. She didn’t know exactly

how she felt about Chase, but she was no longer lonely. That seemed enough.

“Soon, okay?”

He pulled her close to him. “It’s okay. C’mere.” He held her and they lay under the sun, drifting on the sea, the slosh, slosh, slosh of the waves beneath them.

Day drained away and night settled heavily, the village lights dancing here and there on the distant shore. Stars twinkling above their world of sea and sky.

Chase said, “I wonder what makes stars twinkle.” “Disturbance in the atmosphere. You know, like high

atmospheric winds.” “That so?”

“I’m sure you know that most stars are too far away for us to see. We see only their light, which can be distorted by the atmosphere. But, of course, the stars are not stationary, but moving very fast.”

Kya knew from reading Albert Einstein’s books that time is no more fixed than the stars. Time speeds and bends around planets and suns, is different in the mountains than in the valleys, and is part of the same fabric as space, which curves and swells as does the sea. Objects, whether planets or apples, fall or orbit, not because of a gravitational energy, but because they plummet into the silky folds of spacetime—like into the ripples on a pond— created by those of higher mass.

But Kya said none of this. Unfortunately, gravity holds no sway on human thought, and the high school text still taught that apples fall to the ground because of a powerful force from the Earth.



“Oh, guess what,” Chase said. “They’ve asked me to help coach the high school football team.”

She smiled at him.

Then thought, Like everything else in the universe, we tumble toward those of higher mass.

• • •

THE NEXT MORNING, on a rare trip to the Piggly Wiggly to buy personal items Jumpin’ didn’t carry, Kya stepped out of the

grocery and nearly bumped right into Chase’s parents—Sam and Patti Love. They knew who she was—everyone did.

She’d seen them in town occasionally through the years, mostly from a distance. Sam could be seen behind the counter in the Western Auto, dealing with customers, opening the cash register. Kya remembered how when she was a girl, he shooed her away from the window as though she might frighten away real customers. Patti Love didn’t work full time at the store, allowing time for her to hurry along the street, handing out pamphlets for the Annual Quilting Contest or the Blue-Crab Queen Festival.

Always dressed in a fine outfit with high-heel pumps, pocketbook, and hat, in matching colors demanded by the southern season. No matter the subject, she managed to mention Chase as being the best quarterback the town had ever seen.

Kya smiled shyly, looking right into Patti Love’s eyes, hoping they would speak to her in some personal way and introduce themselves. Maybe acknowledge her as Chase’s girl. But they halted abruptly, said nothing, and sidestepped around her— making a wider berth than necessary. Moved on.

The evening after bumping into them, Kya and Chase drifted in her boat under an oak so huge its knees jutted over the water, creating little grottoes for otters and ducks. Keeping her voice low, partly so she wouldn’t disturb the mallards and partly in fear, Kya told Chase about seeing his parents and asked if she would meet them soon.

Chase sat silent, making her stomach lump up.

Finally he said, “’Course you will. Soon, I promise.” But he didn’t look at her when he said it.

“They know about me, right? About us?” she asked. “A’ course.”



The boat must have drifted too close to the oak, because right then a great horned owl, plump and cushy as a down pillow, dropped from the tree on reaching wings, then stroked slow and easy across the lagoon, his breast feathers reflecting soft patterns on the water.

Chase reached out and took Kya’s hand, wringing the doubt from her fingers.

For weeks, sunsets and moonrises followed Chase and Kya’s easy movements through the marsh. But each time she resisted his advances, he stopped. Images of does or turkey hens alone with their demanding young, the males long gone to other females, weighed solid in her mind.

Lying around near naked in the boat was as far as it went, no matter what the townspeople said. Although Chase and Kya kept to themselves, the town was small and people saw them together in his boat or on the beaches. The shrimpers didn’t miss much on the seas. There was talk. Tittle-tattle.

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