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Kya is 19 years old, and one day on Point Beach she sees the group of young adults she’s been watching all her life. She hides behind a tree to watch them swim and play football. She calls the girls “Tallskinnyblonde, Ponytailfreckleface, Alwayswearspearls, and Roundchubbycheeks.” Chase Andrews comes close to her tree and throws the football. Looking back, he catches and holds Kya’s gaze. Kya becomes infatuated with Chase.
Kya lies on the beach and slowly, sensuously, rolls toward the waves, waiting for the surf to overtake her. Finally pushing into a wave she feels “the sea’s strong body,” and is not alone but “grasped, held.” Not long afterward, Chase taps Kya on her shoulder at Jumpin’s wharf. He invites her to go on a picnic. Reciting poems to herself, including one by the unknown poet Amanda Hamilton whose poem was published in the local newspaper, makes Kya think of her pain over the loss of Tate.
A flashback tells of Tate’s last visit to Kya’s marsh. Instead of visiting on the 4th of July weekend, Tate went birdwatching with a professor. He did come two weeks later, and he spotted Kya on the beach. Tate spied on her as she worked with sea creatures, then saw her startle and hide like an animal from a passing boat. Tate realized Kya would not be able to adjust to a larger world. He left in his boat and felt like a coward for not saying good-bye.
Chase and Kya go in Chase’s boat to a deserted beach. Chase plays harmonica for her and finds a rare scallop shell with a hole in it. Kya tells him the Latin name. They return and eat the picnic, then Chase begins to kiss her and becomes sexually aggressive. Kya rolls away, offended. She describes his “hurried groping hands” as “only a taking, not a sharing or giving.” She runs back to her boat.
Ten days after the picnic, Kya sees Chase and his friends from her boat. When his friends have left, Chase meets Kya and convinces her to go with him to the fire tower. It is in a “true swamp,” dark and earthy. When they get to the top of the fire tower, Kya sees the whole marsh for the first time. Chase apologizes for what happened at the picnic and Kya gives him a necklace made out of the scallop shell. Then Chase convinces her to take him to her house. He is impressed by her ability to live on her own in the primitive shack. Chase says he wants to get to know her better and will not do anything sexual unless she wants to.
Chase’s mother, Patti Love Andrews, visits the police station. She tells Ed that Chase was wearing the shell necklace when he went to the fire tower but it wasn’t on his body or with his personal effects. Patti Love tells Ed and Joe that it was a gift from Kya, the Marsh Girl, and she suspects Kya killed Chase because he married Pearl. She doesn’t know how long Chase and Kya were seeing each other. Ed and Joe drive out on two separate mornings to find Kya at her shack but she eludes them.
Kya gets closer to Chase. One day, Kya sees Tate, home from college, working in the marsh, and watches without approaching him. Tate drives his boat to Kya’s to apologize and beg her forgiveness. He now plans to finish his PhD in the marsh and then get a job as a scientist at a research lab being built nearby. He wants to marry her. However, when Tate approaches, he sees Kya and Chase kissing in Chase’s boat, and he turns back.
Kya, sick of waiting for Chase, who has been too busy for her, goes to her reading cabin for a few days. Over time she has used a local library to get more advanced books on biology and marsh ecology. Kya starts to dream of marrying Chase, and he exerts more pressure on her to have sex. Kya wants to meet Chase’s friends and family, but when she runs into his parents outside the Piggly Wiggly, they shun her.
The question of safety versus connection arises multiple times throughout the story, with Kya making different choices in different circumstances. Here begins her personal interaction with Chase Andrews. From their first brief acknowledgment on the beach to their conversation on Jumpin's wharf, Kya feels seen and desired in a way that she has never felt, and she embraces it, despite her ongoing reservations about what Chase really wants. The question is raised at several points during the novel: Is it better to stay safe and be lonely or better to risk heartbreak for the sake of human connection? The text implies there is no perfect answer.
Chase ultimately embodies the commodification of nature by humans. His interest in Kya seems genuine at times, and he wears the shell necklace she makes for him until his death. But, in the end, Kya always has a sense that she is, to him, a "curiosity." The amount of time he spends with Kya indicates that he is interested in more than a sexual relationship, so a reasonable conclusion is that Chase does care for Kya to some degree. However, his attention to her resembles that of an entrepreneur who finds an awe-inspiring object and decides to sell tickets to share it with others. Chase's understanding of the marsh—and by association Kya—is something to be used by those with the means to do so. Chase and Kya’s relationship is never uncomplicated, and it sometimes seems as though Chase may truly care for Kya in his limited capacity. But ultimately, even if the passion is true, it is based on Chase’s idealized and flaw view of Kya.