Afew days after her birthday, out alone barefooting in mud, Kya bent over, watching a tadpole getting its frog legs. Suddenly
she stood. A car churned through deep sand near the end of their lane. No one ever drove here. Then the murmur of people talking
—a man and a woman—drifted through the trees. Kya ran fast to the brush, where she could see who was coming but still have ways to escape. Like Jodie taught her.
A tall woman emerged from the car, unsteadily maneuvering in high heels just like Ma had done along the sandy lane. They must be the orphanage people come to get her.
I can outrun her for sure. She’d fall nose-first in them shoes.
Kya stayed put and watched the woman step to the porch’s screen door.
“Yoo-hoo, anybody home? Truant officer here. I’ve come to take Catherine Clark to school.”
Now this was something. Kya sat mute. She was pretty sure she was supposed to go to school at six. Here they were, a year late.
She had no notion how to talk to kids, certainly not to a teacher, but she wanted to learn to read and what came after twenty-nine.
“Catherine, dear, if ya can hear me, please come on out. It’s the law, hon; ya gotta go to school. But ’sides that, you’ll like it, dear. Ya get a hot lunch every day for free. I think today they’re havin’ chicken pie with crust.”
That was something else. Kya was very hungry. For breakfast she’d boiled grits with soda crackers stirred in because she didn’t have any salt. One thing she already knew about life: you can’t eat
grits without salt. She’d eaten chicken pie only a few times in her life, but she could still see that golden crust, crunchy on the outside, soft inside. She could feel that full gravy taste, like it was round. It was her stomach acting on its own that made Kya stand up among the palmetto fronds.
“Hello, dear, I’m Mrs. Culpepper. You’re all grown up and ready to go to school, aren’t ya?”
“Yes’m,” Kya said, head low.
“It’s okay, you can go barefoot, other chillin do, but ’cause you’re a li’l girl, you have to wear a skirt. Do you have a dress or a skirt, hon?”
“Okay then, let’s go get ya dressed up.”
Mrs. Culpepper followed Kya through the porch door, having to step over a row of bird nests Kya had lined up along the boards. In the bedroom Kya put on the only dress that fit, a plaid jumper with one shoulder strap held up with a safety pin.
“That’s fine, dear, you look just fine.”
Mrs. Culpepper held out her hand. Kya stared at it. She hadn’t touched another person in weeks, hadn’t touched a stranger her whole life. But she put her small hand in Mrs. Culpepper’s and was led down the path to the Ford Crestliner driven by a silent man wearing a gray fedora. Sitting in the backseat, Kya didn’t smile and didn’t feel like a chick tucked under its mother’s wing.
Barkley Cove had one school for whites. First grade through twelfth went to a brick two-story at the opposite end of Main from the sheriff’s office. The black kids had their own school, a one-story cement block structure out near Colored Town.
When she was led into the school office, they found her name but no date of birth in the county birth records, so they put her in the second grade, even though she’d never been to school a day in her life. Anyhow, they said, the first grade was too crowded, and what difference would it make to marsh people who’d do a few months of school, maybe, then never be seen again. As the principal walked her down a wide hallway that echoed their footsteps, sweat popped out on her brow. He opened the door to a classroom and gave her a little push.
Plaid shirts, full skirts, shoes, lots of shoes, some bare feet, and eyes—all staring. She’d never seen so many people. Maybe a dozen. The teacher, the same Mrs. Arial those boys had helped, walked Kya to a desk near the back. She could put her things in the cubbyhole, she was told, but Kya didn’t have any things.
The teacher walked back to the front and said, “Catherine, please stand and tell the class your full name.”
Her stomach churned.
“Come now, dear, don’t be shy.”
Kya stood. “Miss Catherine Danielle Clark,” she said, because that was what Ma once said was her whole name.
“Can you spell dog for us?”
Staring at the floor, Kya stood silent. Jodie and Ma had taught her some letters. But she’d never spelled a word aloud for anybody.
Nerves stirred in her stomach; still, she tried. “G-o-d.” Laughter let loose up and down the rows.
“Shh! Hush, y’all!” Mrs. Arial called out. “We never laugh, ya hear me, we never laugh at each other. Y’all know better’n that.”
Kya sat down fast in her seat at the back of the room, trying to disappear like a bark beetle blending into the furrowed trunk of an oak. Yet nervous as she was, as the teacher continued the lesson, she leaned forward, waiting to learn what came after twenty-nine. So far all Miss Arial had talked about was something called phonics, and the students, their mouths shaped like O’s, echoed her sounds of ah, aa, o, and u, all of them moaning like doves.
About eleven o’clock the warm-buttery smell of baking yeast rolls and pie pastry filled the halls and seeped into the room. Kya’s stomach panged and fitted, and when the class finally formed a single file and marched into the cafeteria, her mouth was full of saliva. Copying the others, she picked up a tray, a green plastic plate, and flatware. A large window with a counter opened into the kitchen, and laid out before her was an enormous enamel pan of chicken pie crisscrossed with thick, crispy pastry, hot gravy bubbling up. A tall black woman, smiling and calling some of the kids by name, plopped a big helping of pie on her plate, then some pink-lady peas in butter and a yeast roll. She got banana pudding and her own small red-and-white carton of milk to put on her tray.
She turned into the seating area, where most of the tables were full of kids laughing and talking. She recognized Chase Andrews and his friends, who had nearly knocked her off the sidewalk with their bikes, so she turned her head away and sat at an empty table. Several times in quick succession, her eyes betrayed her and glanced at the boys, the only faces she knew. But they, like everyone else, ignored her.
Kya stared at the pie full of chicken, carrots, potatoes, and little peas. Golden brown pastry on top. Several girls, dressed in full skirts fluffed out wide with layers of crinolines, approached. One was tall, skinny, and blond, another round with chubby cheeks.
Kya wondered how they could climb a tree or even get in a boat wearing those big skirts. Certainly couldn’t wade for frogs; wouldn’t even be able to see their own feet.
As they neared, Kya stared at her plate. What would she say if they sat next to her? But the girls passed her by, chirping like birds, and joined their friends at another table. For all the hunger in her stomach, she found her mouth had gone dry, making it difficult to swallow. So after eating only a few bites, she drank all the milk, stuffed as much pie as she could into the milk carton, carefully so nobody would see her do it, and wrapped it and the roll in her napkin.
The rest of the day, she never opened her mouth. Even when the teacher asked her a question, she sat mute. She reckoned she was supposed to learn from them, not them from her. Why put maself up for being laughed at? she thought.
At the last bell, she was told the bus would drop her three miles from her lane because the road was too sandy from there, and that she had to walk to the bus every morning. On the way home, as the bus swayed in deep ruts and passed stretches of cord grass, a chant rose from the front: “MISS Catherine Danielle Clark!” Tallskinnyblonde and Roundchubbycheeks, the girls at lunch, called out, “Where ya been, marsh hen? Where’s yo’ hat, swamp rat?”
The bus finally stopped at an unmarked intersection of tangled tracks way back in the woods. The driver cranked the door open, and Kya scooted out and ran for nearly half a mile, heaved for breath, then jogged all the way to their lane. She didn’t stop at the
shack but ran full out through the palmettos to the lagoon and down the trail that led through dense, sheltering oaks to the ocean. She broke out onto the barren beach, the sea opening its arms wide, the wind tearing loose her braided hair as she stopped at the tide line. She was as near to tears as she had been the whole day.
Above the roar of pounding waves, Kya called to the birds. The ocean sang bass, the gulls sang soprano. Shrieking and crying, they circled over the marsh and above the sand as she threw piecrust and yeast rolls onto the beach. Legs hanging down, heads twisting, they landed.
A few birds pecked gently between her toes, and she laughed from the tickling until tears streamed down her cheeks, and finally great, ragged sobs erupted from that tight place below her throat. When the carton was empty she didn’t think she could stand the pain, so afraid they would leave her like everybody else. But the gulls squatted on the beach around her and went about their business of preening their gray extended wings. So she sat down too and wished she could gather them up and take them with her to the porch to sleep. She imagined them all packed in her bed, a fluffy bunch of warm, feathered bodies under the covers together.
Two days later she heard the Ford Crestliner churning in the sand and ran into the marsh, stepping heavily across sandbars, leaving footprints as plain as day, then tiptoeing into the water, leaving no tracks, doubling back, and taking off in a different direction. When she got to mud, she ran in circles, creating a confusion of clues. Then, when she reached hard ground, she whispered across it, jumping from grass clump to sticks, leaving no trace.
They came every two or three days for a few more weeks, the man in the fedora doing the search and chase, but he never even got close. Then one week no one came. There was only the cawing of crows. She dropped her hands to her sides, staring at the empty lane.
Kya never went back to school a day in her life. She returned to heron watching and shell collecting, where she reckoned she could learn something. “I can already coo like a dove,” she told herself. “And lots better than them. Even with all them fine shoes.”
• • •
ONE MORNING, a few weeks after her day at school, the sun glared white-hot as Kya climbed into her brothers’ tree fort at the beach and searched for sailing ships hung with skull-and-crossbones flags. Proving that imagination grows in the loneliest of soils, she shouted, “Ho! Pirates ho!” Brandishing her sword, she jumped from the tree to attack. Suddenly pain shot through her right foot, racing like fire up her leg. Knees caving in, she fell on her side and shrieked. She saw a long rusty nail sticking deep in the bottom of her foot. “Pa!” she screamed. She tried to remember if he had come home last night. “HELP me, Pa,” she cried out, but there was no answer. In one fast move, she reached down and yanked the nail out, screaming to cover the pain.
She moved her arms through the sand in nonsensical motions,
whimpering. Finally, she sat up and looked at the bottom of her foot. There was almost no blood, just the tiny opening of a small, deep wound. Right then she remembered the lockjaw. Her stomach went tight and she felt cold. Jodie had told her about a boy who stepped on a rusty nail and didn’t get a tetanus shot. His jaws jammed shut, clenched so tight he couldn’t open his mouth. Then his spine cramped backward like a bow, but there was nothing anybody could do but stand there and watch him die from the contortions.
Jodie was very clear on one point: you had to get the shot within two days after stepping on a nail, or you were doomed. Kya had no idea how to get one of those shots.
“I gotta do sump’m. I’ll lock up for sure waitin’ for Pa.” Sweat rolling down her face in beads, she hobbled across the beach, finally entering the cooler oaks around the shack.
Ma used to soak wounds in salt water and pack them with mud mixed with all kinds of potions. There was no salt in the kitchen, so Kya limped into the woods toward a brackish slipstream so salty at low tide, its edges glistened with brilliant white crystals.
She sat on the ground, soaking her foot in the marsh’s brine, all the while moving her mouth: open, close, open, close, mocking yawns, chewing motions, anything to keep it from jamming up. After nearly an hour, the tide receded enough for her to dig a hole
in the black mud with her fingers, and she eased her foot gently into the silky earth. The air was cool here, and eagle cries gave her bearing.
By late afternoon she was very hungry, so went back to the shack. Pa’s room was still empty, and he probably wouldn’t be home for hours. Playing poker and drinking whiskey kept a man busy most of the night. There were no grits, but rummaging around, she found an old greasy tin of Crisco shortening, dipped up a tiny bit of the white fat, and spread it on a soda cracker.
Nibbled at first, then ate five more.
She eased into her porch bed, listening for Pa’s boat. The approaching night tore and darted and sleep came in bits, but she must have dropped off near morning for she woke with the sun fully on her face. Quickly she opened her mouth; it still worked.
She shuffled back and forth from the brackish pool to the shack until, by tracking the sun, she knew two days had passed. She opened and closed her mouth. Maybe she had made it.
That night, tucking herself into the sheets of the floor mattress, her mud-caked foot wrapped in a rag, she wondered if she would wake up dead. No, she remembered, it wouldn’t be that easy: her back would bow; her limbs twist.
A few minutes later, she felt a twinge in her lower back and sat up. “Oh no, oh no. Ma, Ma.” The sensation in her back repeated itself and made her hush. “It’s just an itch,” she muttered. Finally, truly exhausted, she slept, not opening her eyes until doves murmured in the oak.
She walked to the pool twice a day for a week, living on saltines and Crisco, and Pa never came home the whole time. By the eighth day she could circle her foot without stiffness and the pain had retreated to the surface. She danced a little jig, favoring her foot, squealing, “I did it, I did it!”
The next morning, she headed for the beach to find more pirates.
“First thing I’m gonna do is boss my crew to pick up all them nails.”
• • •
EVERY MORNING SHE WOKE EARLY, still listening for the clatter of Ma’s busy cooking. Ma’s favorite breakfast had been scrambled eggs from her own hens, ripe red tomatoes sliced, and cornbread fritters made by pouring a mixture of cornmeal, water, and salt onto grease so hot the concoction bubbled up, the edges frying into crispy lace. Ma said you weren’t really frying something unless you could hear it crackling from the next room, and all her life Kya had heard those fritters popping in grease when she woke. Smelled the blue, hot-corn smoke. But now the kitchen was silent, cold, and Kya slipped from her porch bed and stole to the lagoon.
Months passed, winter easing gently into place, as southern winters do. The sun, warm as a blanket, wrapped Kya’s shoulders, coaxing her deeper into the marsh. Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land that caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.