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Chapter no 27 – Out Hog Mountain Road

Where the Crawdads Sing

1966

The shack stood silent against the early stir of blackbird wings, as an earnest winter fog formed along the ground, bunching

up against the walls like large wisps of cotton. Using several weeks of mussel money, Kya had bought special groceries and fried slices of molasses ham, stirred redeye gravy, and served them with sour-cream biscuits and blackberry jam. Chase drank instant Maxwell House; she, hot Tetley tea. They’d been together nearly a year, though neither spoke of that. Chase said how lucky he was that his father owned the Western Auto: “This way we’ll have a nice house when we get married. I’m gonna build you a two-story on the beach with a wraparound veranda. Or whatever kinda house you want, Kya.”

Kya could barely breathe. He wanted her in his life. Not just a hint, but something like a proposal. She would belong to someone. Be part of a family. She sat straighter in her chair.

He continued. “I don’t think we should live right in town.

That’d be too much of a jump for you. But we could build a place on tha outskirts. Ya know, close to the marsh.”

 

 

Lately, a few vague thoughts of marriage to Chase had formed in her mind, but she had not dared dwell on them. But here he was saying it out loud. Kya’s breath was shallow, her mind disbelieving and sorting details all at the same time. I can do this, she thought. If we live away from people it could work.

Then, head low, she asked, “What about your parents? Have you told them?”

“Kya, ya gotta understand something ’bout my folks. They love me. If I say you’re my choice, that’ll be that. They’ll just fall in love with ya when they get to know ya.”

She chewed on her lips. Wanting to believe.

“I’ll build a studio for all yo’ stuff,” he continued. “With big windows so ya can see the details of all those dad-burned feathers.”

She didn’t know if she felt about Chase the way a wife should, but in this moment her heart soared with something like love. No more digging mussels.

She reached out and touched the shell necklace under his throat.

“Oh, by the way,” Chase said. “I have to drive over to Asheville in a few days to buy goods for the store. I was thinkin’, why don’t ya come with me?”

 

 

Eyes downcast, she’d said, “But that’s a large town. There’d be lots of people. And I don’t have the right clothes, or don’t even know what the right clothes are, and . . .”

“Kya, Kya. Listen. You’d be with me. I know everything. We don’t have to go anywhere fancy. You’d see a lot of North Carolina just driving over—the Piedmont, the Great Smoky Mountains, forchristsake. Then when we got there, we could just go to a drive-in for burgers. You can wear what you have on. You don’t have to talk to one soul if you don’t want to. I’ll take care of everything.

I’ve been lots of times. Even to Atlanta. Asheville’s nothing. Look, if we’re gonna get married, ya might as well start gettin’ out in tha world a bit. Spread those long wings of yours.”

She nodded. If nothing else, to see the mountains.

He continued. “It’s a two-day job, so we’ll have to stay overnight. In a casual place. You know, a small motel. It’s okay, because we’re adults.”

“Oh,” was all she said. Then whispered, “I see.”

• • •

KYA HAD NEVER driven up the road a piece, so, a few days later, as she and Chase rode west out of Barkley in his pickup, she stared out the window, holding on to the seat with both hands. The road

wound through miles of saw grass and palmettos, leaving the sea in the rear window.

For more than an hour, the familiar reaches of grass and waterways slipped by the truck’s window. Kya identified marsh wrens and egrets, comforted by the sameness, like she hadn’t left home but brought it with her.

 

 

Then abruptly, at a line drawn across the earth, the marsh meadows ended, and dusty ground—hacked raw, fenced into squares, and furrowed into rows—spread before them. Fields of paraplegic snags stood in felled forests. Poles, strung with wires, trudged toward the horizon. Of course, she knew coastal marsh didn’t cover the globe, but she’d never been beyond it. What had people done to the land? Every house, the same shoebox shape, squatted on sheared lawn. A flock of pink flamingos fed across a yard, but when Kya whirled in surprise, she saw they were plastic. The deer, cement. The only ducks flew painted on mailboxes.

“They’re incredible, huh?” Chase said. “What?”

“The houses. You’ve never seen anything like ’em, huh?” “No, I haven’t.”

Hours later, out on the flatlands of the Piedmont, she saw the Appalachians sketched in gentle blue lines along the horizon. As they neared, peaks rose around them and forested mountains flowed softly into the distance as far as Kya could see.

Clouds lazed in the folded arms of the hills, then billowed up and drifted away. Some tendrils twisted into tight spirals and traced the warmer ravines, behaving like mist tracking the dank fens of the marsh. The same game of physics playing on a different field of biology.

Kya was of the low country, a land of horizons, where the sun set and the moon rose on time. But here, where the topography was a jumble, the sun balanced along the summits, setting behind a ridge one moment and then popping up again when Chase’s truck ascended the next rise. In the mountains, she noticed, the time of sunset depended on where you stood on the hill.

 

 

She wondered where her grandpa’s land was. Maybe her kin had kept pigs in a weather-grayed barn like the one she saw in a meadow, creek running by. A family that should have been hers

once toiled, laughed, and cried in this landscape. Some would still be here, scattered through the county. Anonymous.

The road became a four-lane highway, and Kya held on tight as Chase’s truck sped within feet of other fast-moving vehicles. He turned onto a curving roadway that rose magically into the air and led them toward the town. “A cloverleaf exit,” he said proudly.

Enormous buildings, eight and ten stories high, stood against the outline of the mountains. Scores of cars scuttled like sand crabs, and there were so many people on the sidewalks, Kya pushed her face to the window, searching their faces, thinking surely Ma and Pa must be among them. One boy, tanned and dark-haired, running down the sidewalk, looked like Jodie, and she spun around to watch him. Her brother would be grown now, of course, but she tracked the boy until they turned a corner.

On the other side of town, Chase booked them into a motel out Hog Mountain Road, a single-story row of brown rooms, lit up by neon lights the shape of palm trees, of all things.

After Chase unlocked their door, she stepped into a room that seemed clean enough but reeked of Pine-Sol and was furnished in America cheap: fake-panel walls, sagging bed with a nickel vibrator machine, and a black-and-white TV secured to the table with an impossibly large chain and padlock. The bedspreads were lime green, the carpet orange shag. Kya’s mind went back to all the places they had lain together—in crystal sand by tidal pools, in moonlit drifting boats. Here, the bed loomed as the centerpiece, but the room didn’t look like love.

She stood knowingly near the door. “It’s not great,” he said, putting his duffel bag on the chair.

He walked toward her. “It’s time, don’t you agree, Kya? It’s time.”

 

 

Of course, it had been his plan. But she was ready. Her body had been longing for months and, after the talk of marriage, her mind gave in. She nodded.

He came toward her slowly and unbuttoned her blouse, then turned her gently around and unfastened her bra. Traced his fingers across her breasts. An excited heat flowed from her breasts to her thighs. As he pulled her down onto the bed in the glow of the red and green neon lights filtering through thin curtains, she

closed her eyes. Before, during all those almost-times, when she had stopped him, his wandering fingers had taken on a magical touch, bringing parts of her to life, causing her body to arch toward him, to long and want. But now, with permission finally granted, an urgency gripped him and he seemed to bypass her needs and push his way. She cried out against a sharp tearing, thinking something was wrong.

“It’s okay. It’ll be better now,” he said with great authority. But it didn’t get much better, and soon he fell to her side, grinning.

As he passed into sleep, she watched the blinking lights of the

Vacancy sign.

• • •

SEVERAL WEEKS LATER, after finishing a breakfast of fried eggs and ham-grits at Kya’s shack, she and Chase sat at her kitchen table. She was wrapped snugly in a blanket after lovemaking, which had improved only slightly since their first attempt at the motel. Each time left her wanting, but she didn’t have the faintest notion how to broach such a subject. And anyway, she didn’t know how she was supposed to feel. Maybe this was normal.

Chase stood from the table and, lifting her chin with his fingers, kissed her, saying, “Well, I won’t be out much in the next few days with Christmas comin’ up and all. There’s lots of events and stuff, and some relatives comin’ in.”

Kya looked up at him and said, “I was hoping maybe I could . . . you know, go to some of the parties and things. At least maybe Christmas dinner with your family.”

 

 

Chase sat back down in his chair. “Kya, look, I’ve been wantin’ to talk ta ya ’bout this. I wanta ask ya to the Elks Club dance and stuff like that, but I know how shy you are, how ya don’t ever do stuff in town. I know you’d be miserable. You wouldn’t know anybody, ya don’t have the right clothes. Do ya even know how to dance? None a’ those things are what you do. You understand that, right?”

Looking at the floor, she said, “Yes, and all that’s true. But, well, I have to start fitting in with some of your life. Spread my wings,

like you said. I guess I have to get the right clothes, meet some of your friends.” She raised her head. “You could teach me to dance.”

“Well sure, an’ I will. But I think of you and me as what we have out here. I love our time here together, just you and me. To tell you the truth, I’m gittin’ kinda tired a’ those stupid dances. Been the same fer years. High school gym. Old folks, young folks all together. Same dumb music. I’m ready to move on. You know, when we’re married, we won’t do stuff like that anyway, so why drag ya into it now? Don’t make any sense. Okay?”

She looked back at the floor, so he lifted her chin again and held her eyes with his own. Then, grinning big, he said, “And, man, as far as having Christmas dinner wif ma family. Ma ancient aunts come in from Florida. Never stop talkin’. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. ’Specially you. Believe me, you ain’t missin’ a thing.”

She was silent.

“Really, Kya, I wantcha to be okay with this. What we have out here is the most special thing anybody could hope for. All that other stuff”—he swiped his hands through the air—“is just stupid.”

He reached over and pulled her into his lap, and she rested her head on his shoulder.

“This is where it’s at, Kya. Not that other stuff.” And he kissed her, warm and tender. Then stood. “Okay. Gotta go.”

Kya spent Christmas alone with the gulls, as she had every year since Ma left.

 

 

• • •

TWO DAYS AFTER CHRISTMAS, Chase still hadn’t come. Breaking her self-promise to never wait for anyone again, Kya paced the shore of the lagoon, her hair woven into a French braid, mouth painted with Ma’s old lipstick.

The marsh beyond lay in its winter cloak of browns and grays. Miles of spent grasses, having dispersed their seeds, bowed their heads to the water in surrender. The wind whipped and tore, rattling the coarse stems in a noisy chorus. Kya yanked her hair down and wiped her lips with the back of her hand.

The morning of the fourth day, she sat alone in the kitchen pushing biscuits and eggs around her plate. “For all his talk of ‘this

being where it’s at,’ where is he now?” she spat. In her mind, she saw Chase playing touch football with friends or dancing at parties. “Those stupid things he’s getting tired of.”

Finally the sound of his boat. She sprang from the table, banged the door shut, and ran from the shack to the lagoon, as the boat chugged into view. But it wasn’t Chase’s ski boat or Chase, but a young man with yellow-gold hair, cut shorter but still barely contained under a ski cap. It was the old fishing rig, and there, standing, even as the boat moved forward, was Tate, grown into a man. Face no longer boyish, but handsome, mature. His eyes formed a question, his lips a shy smile.

Her first thought was to run. But her mind screamed, NO! This is my lagoon; I always run. Not this time. Her next thought was to pick up a rock, and she hurled it at his face from twenty feet. He ducked quickly, the stone whizzing by his forehead.

“Shit, Kya! What the hell? Wait,” he said as she picked up another rock and took aim. He put his hands over his face. “Kya, for God’s sake, stop. Please. Can’t we talk?”

The rock hit him hard on the shoulder.

“GET OUT OF MY LAGOON! YOU LOW-DOWN DIRTY

CREEP! HOW’S THAT FOR TALK!” The screaming fishwife looked frantically for another rock.

 

 

“Kya, listen to me. I know you’re with Chase now. I respect that.

I just want to talk with you. Please, Kya.”

“Why should I talk with you? I never want to see you again EVER!” She picked up a handful of smaller stones and slung them at his face.

He jerked to the side, bent forward, and grabbed the gunwale as his boat ran aground.

“I SAID, GET OUT OF HERE!” Still yelling but softer, she said, “Yes, I am with someone else now.”

Tate steadied himself after the jolt of hitting the shore, and then sat on the bow seat of his boat. “Kya, please, there’re things you should know about him.” Tate had not planned on having a conversation about Chase. None of this surprise visit to see Kya was going as he’d imagined.

“What are you talking about? You have no right to talk to me about my private life.” She had walked up to within five feet of him

and spat her words.

Firmly he said, “I know I don’t, but I’m doing it anyway.”

At this, Kya turned to leave, but Tate talked louder at her back. “You don’t live in town. You don’t know that Chase goes out with other women. Just the other night I watched him drive away after a party with a blonde in his pickup. He’s not good enough for you.”

She whirled around. “Oh, really! YOU are the one who left me, who didn’t come back when you promised, who never came back. You are the one who never wrote to explain why or even if you were alive or dead. You didn’t have the nerve to break up with me. You were not man enough to face me. Just disappeared.

 

 

CHICKEN SHIT ASSHOLE. You come floating in here after all these years . . . You’re worse than he is. He might not be perfect, but you’re worse by a long shot.” She stopped abruptly, staring at him.

Palms open, he pleaded, “You’re right about me, Kya.

Everything you said is true. I was a chicken shit. And I had no right to bring up Chase. It’s none of my business. And I’ll never bother you again. I just need to apologize and explain things. I’ve been sorry for years, Kya, please.”

She hung like a sail where the wind just went out. Tate was more than her first love: he shared her devotion to the marsh, had taught her to read, and was the only connection, however small, to her vanished family. He was a page of time, a clipping pasted in a scrapbook because it was all she had. Her heart pounded as the fury dissipated.

“Look at you—so beautiful. A woman. You doing okay? Still selling mussels?” He was astonished at how she had changed, her features more refined yet haunting, her cheekbones sharp, lips full.

“Yes. Yes.”

“Here, I brought you something.” From an envelope he handed her a tiny red cheek feather from a northern flicker. She thought of tossing it on the ground, but she’d never found this feather; why shouldn’t she keep it? She tucked it in her pocket and didn’t thank him.

Talking fast, he said, “Kya, leaving you was not only wrong, it was the worst thing I have done or ever will do in my life. I have

regretted it for years and will always regret it. I think of you every day. For the rest of my life, I’ll be sorry I left you. I truly thought that you wouldn’t be able to leave the marsh and live in the other world, so I didn’t see how we could stay together. But that was wrong, and it was bullshit that I didn’t come back and talk to you about it. I knew how many times you’d been left before. I didn’t want to know how badly I hurt you. I was not man enough. Just like you said.” He finished and watched her.

Finally she said, “What do you want now, Tate?”

 

 

“If only you could, some way, forgive me.” He breathed in and waited.

Kya looked at her toes. Why should the injured, the still bleeding, bear the onus of forgiveness? She didn’t answer.

“I just had to tell you, Kya.”

When still she said nothing, he continued. “I’m in graduate school, zoology. Protozoology mostly. You would love it.”

She couldn’t imagine it, and looked back over the lagoon to see if Chase was coming. Tate didn’t miss this; he’d guessed right off she was out here waiting for Chase.

Just last week Tate had watched Chase, in his white dinner jacket, at the Christmas gala, dancing with different women. The dance, like most Barkley Cove events, had been held at the high school gymnasium. As “Wooly Bully” struggled from a too-small hi-fi set up under the basketball hoop, Chase whirled a brunette. When “Mr. Tambourine Man” began, he left the dance floor and the brunette, and shared pulls of Wild Turkey from his Tar Heels flask with other former jocks. Tate was close by chatting with two of his old high school teachers and heard Chase say, “Yeah, she’s wild as a she-fox in a snare. Just what you’d expect from a marsh minx. Worth every bit a’ the gas money.”

Tate had to force himself to walk away.

• • •

COLD WIND WHIPPED UP and rippled across the lagoon. Expecting Chase, Kya had run out in her jeans and light sweater. She folded her arms tightly around herself.

“You’re freezing; let’s go inside.” Tate motioned toward the shack, where smoke puffed from the rusty stovepipe.

“Tate, I think you should leave now.” She threw several quick glances at the channel. What if Chase arrived with Tate here?

 

 

“Kya, please, just for a few minutes. I really want to see your collections again.”

As answer, she turned and ran to the shack, and Tate followed her. Inside the porch, he stopped short. Her collections had grown from a child’s hobby to a natural history museum of the marsh. He lifted a scallop shell, labeled with a watercolor of the beach where it was found, plus insets showing the creature eating smaller creatures of the sea. For each specimen—hundreds, maybe thousands of them—it was the same. He had seen some of them before, as a boy, but now as a doctoral candidate in zoology, he saw them as a scientist.

He turned to her, still standing in the doorway. “Kya, these are wonderful, beautifully detailed. You could publish these. This could be a book—lots of books.”

“No, no. They’re just for me. They help me learn, is all.” “Kya, listen to me. You know better than anybody that the

reference books for this area are almost nonexistent. With these notations, technical data, and splendid drawings, these are the books everyone’s been waiting for.” It was true. Ma’s old guidebooks to the shells, plants, birds, and mammals of the area were the only ones printed, and they were pitifully inaccurate, with only simple black-and-white pictures and sketchy information on each entry.

“If I can take a few samples, I’ll find out about a publisher, see what they say.”

She stared, not knowing how to see this. Would she have to go somewhere, meet people? Tate didn’t miss the questions in her eyes.

“You wouldn’t have to leave home. You could mail your samples to a publisher. It would bring some money in. Probably not a huge amount, but maybe you wouldn’t have to dig mussels the rest of your life.”

Still, Kya didn’t say anything. Once again Tate was nudging her to care for herself, not just offering to care for her. It seemed that

all her life, he had been there. Then gone. “Give it a try, Kya. What can it hurt?”

She finally agreed that he could take some samples, and he chose a selection of soft watercolors of shells and the great blue heron because of her detailed sketches of the bird in each season, and a delicate oil of the curved eyebrow feather.

 

 

Tate lifted the painting of the feather—a profusion of hundreds of the thinnest brushstrokes of rich colors culminating into a deep black so reflective it seemed sunlight was touching the canvas. The detail of a slight tear in the shaft was so distinctive that both Tate and Kya realized at the same second that this was a painting of the very first feather he’d gifted her in the forest. They looked up from the feather into each other’s eyes. She turned away from him.

Forcing herself not to feel. She would not be drawn back to someone she couldn’t trust.

He stepped up to her and touched her shoulder. Tried gently to turn her around. “Kya, I’m so sorry about leaving you. Please, can’t you forgive me?”

Finally, she turned and looked at him. “I don’t know how to, Tate. I could never believe you again. Please, Tate, you have to go now.”

“I know. Thank you for listening to me, for giving me this chance to apologize.” He waited for a beat, but she said no more. At least he was leaving with something. The hope for a publisher was a reason to contact her again.

 

 

“Good-bye, Kya.” She didn’t answer. He stared at her, and she looked into his eyes but then turned away. He walked out the door toward his boat.

She waited until he was gone, then sat on the damp, cold sand of the lagoon waiting for Chase. Speaking out loud, she repeated the words she’d said to Tate. “Chase may not be perfect, but you’re worse.”

But as she stared deep into the dark waters, Tate’s words about Chase—“drive away after a party with a blonde in his pickup”— wouldn’t leave her mind.

• • •

CHASE DIDNT COME until a week after Christmas. Pulling into the lagoon, he said he could stay all night, ring in the New Year together. Arm in arm, they walked to the shack, where the same fog, it seemed, draped across the roof. After lovemaking, they cuddled in blankets around the stove. The dense air couldn’t hold another molecule of moisture, so when the kettle boiled, heavy droplets swelled on the cool windowpanes.

Chase slipped the harmonica from his pocket and, pressing it along his lips, played the wistful tune “Molly Malone.” “Now her ghost wheels her barrow through the streets broad and narrow, singing cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o.”

It seemed to Kya that when Chase played these melancholy tunes was when he most had a soul.

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