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Chase starts talking about marrying Kya. He invites her to drive with him to Asheville on a business errand and says they will have to stay overnight in a motel. Kya knows this means they will have sex, and she agrees to the trip, surprised by the landscape as they drive west. The motel room is ugly and cheap, and the sex is initially painful. Chase is not attentive, just has sex and falls asleep.
Kya and Chase’s relationship continues at the shack. As Christmas approaches, Chase tells Kya he will need to stay in town for family celebrations. Kya wants Chase to take her to the family Christmas dinner and a dance, but he says they’re unpleasant events he just has to get through. He doesn’t visit the cabin for a week.
Meanwhile, Tate comes to the lagoon and Kya is furious, throwing rocks at him and shouting. He warns her that Chase is seeing other women in town. Kya lets Tate come inside the shack, where he tells Kya she could publish her paintings of natural objects and takes a few to show a publisher. Chase finally comes back to the shack on New Year’s Eve and they make love.
At a local bar, The Dog-Gone, Ed and Joe go looking for information. A shrimper named Hal Miller tells them he and another man on the crew saw “the Marsh Girl” in her boat at 1:45 a.m. on the night of Chase’s murder, headed toward the fire tower. Ed and Joe decide to get a warrant to question Kya.
Chase visits Kya at the shack through the winter. One spring day, she motors to town and runs into Chase and a bunch of his friends on the dock. Chase has his arm around one of the girls. He pulls back and introduces Kya to everyone. Chase leaves with his friends, and Kya spends all her money on ingredients for a birthday dinner and cake for Chase. She also buys a newspaper and when she gets home, she sees an engagement announcement for Chase and Pearl, the girl Kya called “Alwayswearspearls.” Kya cries, and when she hears Chase’s boat approaching, she hides, knowing he will see the newspaper on her kitchen table.
In her anger and pain, Kya drives her boat right into the rip tides and most dangerous part of the sea. It tosses her and she is drenched in seawater before she sidles up to a sandbar where the sea is calm. She calms herself by reciting her favorite Amanda Hamilton poems. Back at the shack, she returns to her natural history project, determined to live out her life alone.
Chase's talk of marriage demonstrates Kya's inability to wholly abandon the human world. After a year of seeing each other in the marsh, their conversation about marriage and building a home is intoxicating. The draw of once again belonging to a family is one that has particular pull for Kya, even in the absence of any indication that there is room for her in Chase's life in town. A life alone has given Kya many things, but nothing resembling the sense of acceptance and belonging from a family. It is with that prospect in mind that Kya finally has sex with Chase, which is unsatisfying for her and does not seem to be in any way meaningful for him.
Kya wants to believe in the possibility of a life with Chase even with all evidence standing against a lasting relationship. Chase's refusal to include Kya in his family’s Christmas celebrations is a warning sign that begins unraveling Kya’s vision of a shared future. The unpleasant recent interaction between Kya and Chase's mother reinforced Kya's feelings of separateness from Chase's life in town—in a sense, his "real" life. That their relationship has taken place entirely apart from his town life is a clue that these two realms cannot, and will not, be reconciled. Kya, who represents nature, can never be truly incorporated into Chase's life, which symbolizes human society.
Tate's return exemplifies the willingness of humanity to approach the natural world with wonder and humility. His study of zoology is the scientific counterpoint to Kya's intuitive, artistic, immersive approach to nature. He is not trying to change, fix, or steal from nature; he wants to better understand the world and learn from it. In this way, Tate is portrayed as a mirror of Kya and a foil for Chase, who Tate explains is dating other women. Tate does not want to take anything from Kya, but he wants to teach her how to take care of herself and give her the tools with which to do so. Even his interest in her collection is not about what he can gain, but how it can benefit her. His desire is to understand and share the wonder of nature with those outside, not to take anything away or change it. He approaches Kya with this attitude as well, reinforcing her role as an avatar of nature.
Kya's reaction to learning of Chase's engagement marks the end of her hopes of any integration into human society. The realization that he has been lying to her is the breaking point for Kya. Her escape into the open sea—her literal immersion in water—is a kind of renewal of Kya’s dedication to nature, a baptism in the water that is part of her true home. Even if it can never provide the love, compassion, and companionship she craves, nature is the only safe space for her body and spirit.