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Kaya sometimes sees Tate in his boat, and once approaches him, but she never speaks to him. One day looking for shells on Point Beach, Kya sees a group of kids, including Chase Andrews and the mean girls from school. Kya hides and watches them.
Because Jumpin’ has a weekly limit on how many mussels he can buy, Kya smokes 20 small fish to supplement her income. Jumpin’ feels sorry for her, but he knows no one will buy the pitiful fish. He takes them home to his wife Mabel in Colored Town, where the Black people live in swamp land and are very poor. Mabel collects boxes of clothes and essential items for Kya and leaves them for her at Jumpin’s wharf. Mabel and Jumpin’ lie and say they are in exchange for the fish. The clothes and shoes are the finest Kya has ever had.
When she is 14 years old, Kya is interrupted while fishing by a boy nearby. Kya hides. When she gets near home she finds an extraordinary feather, the “eyebrow” of a great blue heron, sticking straight up from a stump. The next day Kya finds a white tail feather from an unusual tropical bird in the stump. More than a week passes before she finds a wild turkey feather in the stump. The feather reminds her of a day when she found a flock of turkeys pecking to death an injured hen. Late that night after watching the turkeys, a group of teenage boys come to her door. She hides in the house, but they don’t come inside. They run up as if on a dare, tap the porch door, then run away, calling her “Marsh Girl,” “Missing Link,” and “Wolf Girl.”
Ed and Joe receive a report confirming Chase died from a severed spine. Included is a plastic bag containing red wool fibers found on Chase Andrews’ blue jacket. The fibers are their only clue.
Kya leaves a juvenile eagle feather at the stump. While cleaning the house, she explores Ma’s make-up, gives herself a haircut, and puts on lipstick. A dried-up bottle of nail polish reminds her of an outing with her mother and sisters and the fun they had. The next day, in addition to a night heron feather, Kya finds a milk carton with vegetable seeds, a spare spark plug for her boat, and a note she can’t read. She leaves a tundra swan tail feather in return. The following day, Tate is waiting for her. He approaches her carefully and offers to teach her to read.
Kya goes to Colored Town to give Jumpin’ and Mabel two jars of raspberry jam to repay their kindness. On the way, she sees two boys throwing rocks at Jumpin’, who is walking home. Kya knocks one of them down with the bag of jam. The other boy runs away.
Tate teaches Kya the alphabet and brings her A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold as a reader. The book teaches her to read but also many things about the natural world. At night, Kya practices reading.
Jumpin’ warns Kya that men from social services are looking for her to put her in foster care. Kya shows Tate a secret, fallen-down cabin deep in the marsh. Tate runs errands for Kya. He begins teaching her math and introduces her to poetry. Kya finds Ma’s old collection of poems and reads Ma’s favorites.
When Tate starts his senior year of high school, he brings Kya discarded textbooks, including Biology. Kya reads the novel Rebecca and thinks about love. One day Mabel meets her at Jumpin’s wharf and gives her a beautiful dress and her first bra. Later, Tate finds Kya sitting on Point Beach with stomach cramps. Tate gently explains that she is getting her period. The next day Kya sends Jumpin’ to find Mabel, who brings her supplies and tells her she has become a woman. Tate brings her a box of pastries to distract from their embarrassment, and they continue the lessons. As the weather gets colder, Kya invites him inside and he sees her collection of natural objects. He tells her that his mother and sister Carianne died in a car crash in Asheville, where they had gone to buy him a special bike for his birthday. One late afternoon, as they are catching leaves in a windstorm, Tate kisses Kya, and she becomes his girlfriend.
Kya's familial abandonment is complete, but her drive to connect with people cannot be completely severed, even if she wants to divorce herself from humanity completely. When she comes across a group of girls that she met at school, she doesn't interact with them. Despite her mother's insistence that women need one another, Kya doesn't feel capable of making friends with these girls who seem entirely alien. Kya is portrayed as a young girl who yearns for some measure of companionship but is ultimately cut off from the camaraderie she needs and desires.
By learning to read and write, Kya ultimately learns how to both express herself and how to understand the world around her. Left to her own devices, Kya's intelligence is constrained, fixed by her inability to express herself in a way that others can understand. It is Tate's offer to teach Kya to read that opens Kya's eyes to the world beyond her marsh. The fact that Kya cannot thrive as a lone animal is reinforced here. For all of her work to make herself as self-contained as possible, Kya’s curiosity and intelligence are only given free rein as she learns to read and write. Kya is both desperate to learn more than simply what she can observe, and capable of contributing important information to the wider world's understanding of life in the marsh.
One of the motifs throughout the book is literature, especially poetry. Poetry is portrayed as another bridge between nature and humans, particularly the human mind. Excerpts and entire poems populate the narrative, with work from poets like Robert Service and Galway Kinnell presented as tools to process the world, providing words for experiences that seem to defy articulation. In times of crisis, Kya often recites the poetry of Amanda Hamilton, whose work mostly concerns the natural world and human interaction with it. These poems provide solace for Kya, never allowing her to stray too far from the realm of human consideration. Poetry is shown in the novel to be a kind of wild thing, something that provides both a lens through which Kya can consider the world, as well as a mechanism to catch and capture all the disparate ways the world can make sense.
Chapter 17 represents Kya’s shift toward maturity in multiple ways. Her desire for reading material brings her closer to Tate, who is able to provide her with books, in part to make up for his inability to visit often. Their shared enthusiasm for and love of the marsh produces a kind of intimacy, even if Kya and Tate are not always able to share it together. When Kya gets her first period, she is not sure how to process it in terms of her growing attraction to Tate, even though she has witnessed examples of sexual maturation in animals. Tate becomes the only other person to go inside her house since Pa left. Again, shared intimacy is something that Kya craves, even as she understands the threat of pain. Allowing someone into her home is letting them into her life. Kya and Tate’s kiss cements both their connection and Kya’s newfound vulnerability.