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FroM ThE DESK OF :         Grace Stroup.
 

The  Secrets  a  Cypress  Keeps 

chapter one.

 

           Momma said there was something in the air and that's why he had to leave. Something about something with the wind. I was too young, too little to know that sometimes daddies get up in the middle of the night and never come back.  I remember that our house felt colder that morning as if he'd left the sliding doors wide open when he walked out, letting the bobcats and the darkness from the night creep in. At least that is how it shows up in my memory. 

           Cold. Distant. Foggy. 

           I wouldn't know my daddy standing in front of me in a room full of people. I don't know what he smells like or what his hair looks like in a hat, what kind of clothes he wears, what snacks he reaches for after a long day if his hands are weathered by his work. I don't know what his favorite food is, if he ever misses my momma if theirs was a love they ever thought they would lose. I don't tell many people that anymore. They look at me like I've hurt them when I do.  

           People love to tell me I'm the spitting image of my momma. It's as if my body knew my daddy was a deadbeat and slurped all of him out of me when I was too young to notice. When I was a girl, in those couple years after he left, I’d stand in front of the mirror, and I’d peel my eyelids back with my little lanky hands and try to find similarities. Maybe it was the slight dimple in my nose, or the way my knees buckled, like a baby horse learning to walk. Maybe there was nothing. I’d shut my eyes and plant my feet firmly in my shoes and will myself to remember. But all I could see was a tall shadow, someone standing in the doorway, letting all the heat out.

           And there I was, just a girl who never knew her daddy, never quite sure if parts of him would one day just show up and if her momma would be all right with that. Torn between wanting to see him in me and knowing momma might like me less. Borders and straight lines that sometimes I

wished my figure would shrug out of, slink away, and just show me a freckle or a lonesome mole, something to jiggle my memory into remembering anything at all. Something that would discern some semblance of my daddy.  

           I’ve never been able to find anything. 

           I guess it would have been really hard. He isn’t from this state or our town, a northern boy who tried his hand at hard work and simple nights before tiring of it and likely moving back to the cash and ease of Connecticut. Maybe he grew tired of being just someone in a small little place made up of other someone’s who’ve been here for centuries. Maybe he didn’t like the wallpaper peeling off our walls, or the sunshine yellow curtains Momma chose when I was a baby and how they spray bright light all over the house in a warm buttercup haze. Or maybe he just didn’t like me. Maybe he didn’t like our people, our country roads, our diners. It seems impossible—to hate a place with sunsets like ours, and soil so saturated in marshlands—but maybe Port Royal isn’t for everyone.

           It’s a tiny town on the southern coast of South Carolina, divided between the rich whites vacationing from the Northeast who golf at Calawassie and the Old Tabby Golf Links and people like us, the ones who wait on the couples in cashmere, people like Momma and Ms. Patty, people who have weathered the coast and basked in the sun, and waded out into the marsh. We know those waters like the back of our hand. There are houses and docks, dinghies, and a couple of restaurants that fry up shrimp and butter Martin’s potato rolls and serve one kind of beer. We know the trails and who’s seeing who, when the shrimp boats are coming in to trawl in the marsh, when the bars close, and when the surf is calm enough to walk out and wade in the sand banks. We know who’s sleeping with who, what new family is moving onto the island, how much the new house is going to cost them, and have a history that’s been reduced to just sit above the surface of the marsh, what people these days call the low country.  

           I’m a Laytia at heart. We’re tall with blonde hair, with pretty plain and pointy faces, averagely skinny, and often without makeup on. My momma’s like that and her momma is like that, and so am I. We have boney hips and long toes, are always cold even in the South Carolina sun, and have eyes that can kill when we get pissed. That's what Ms. Patty says anyway. The Laytias are southerners, a family that knows South Carolina inside out. 

           "Your momma. Don't mess with her when she gets her crazy eyes. I know to stay outta the way when she gets all serious with all of that. You better know that too, Jane. I bet you do, now, don't you?" she says before smacking her thigh, as if we're in on a hugely hilarious inside joke. 

She always lights up after, cackling and doubling over as we catch up before service. She imitates my momma, standing with one foot in front of the other, hands on hips, sticking her eyes out before taking her voice up an octave. 

           Ms. Patty is my second momma. She fed me orange Julius’ and slipped me a peppermint patty when I sat in the river house while momma was at home getting better. That’s what we used to call it at least. She was sick—depressed—for about three or four months, I think. If I had to guess. We don’t like to talk about the time in our lives anymore. I’d fall asleep in the room over, sitting up and peering over my bed’s banister. Momma just cried and cried as the TV groaned on through the night, casting shadows on her face in the dark. 

           The weekends following consisted of Ms. Patty being my stand-in momma and pretty much that alone. She would come, the car horn would honk twice, and I would know it was time to go. We parked in the back of the river house and would take two steps up before pausing and entering through the kitchen. She’d stop me, lean down and whisper in my ear. 

           “Quiet caps. Let’s put them on.” 

           Pots and pans hung from the ceiling, and nobody said a word. February settled and I would spend my days inside sneaking sweet tea, sometimes wondering about when momma would come

back to work, and some days not. I would sit right on the inside of the swinging doors, drawing pictures for Mr. Rick—Riley’s Daddy who taught me to fry shrimp when I turned eleven—to take breaks from looking out at the fancy men coming in from the golf course.  I was pretty sure Daddy wasn’t a fancy man—that maybe he wouldn’t have left me if he was so fancy.                        

           The couples from New Jersey were still in their cashmere sweater vests and loafers, walking through the golf house, grabbing coffee before they hit off the first tee. Chocolates and bright red roses were placed delicately on the tables in the foyers and my teachers at school wore beaded necklaces with plastic hearts that would glow up every other second, like hearts beating, over and over again. Momma locked herself in the house and Ms. Patty and I hung out all of the time. She taught me how to cream corn and make big batches of grits for the morning. We’d have movie nights on Fridays and supermarket Saturdays, she trained me to work at the Club House, referred me to Mr. Johnson to be a server, and is a five-foot-four, fifty-three-year-old bundle of joy who happens to be my closest friend. 

           If I was real special Ms. Patty would take us on over into Beaufort for hotdogs and some candy at Southern Sweets. Some days I wondered if we’d run into my daddy over there. If he’d just wandered out in the dark and got lost. Ms. Patty always told me to hush about that nonsense. 

           “Now you be quiet, girl. He ain’t coming back.”

           She yanked me along past the coffee shop. When I acted up, she didn’t share her chocolate whipped cream with me, even when I begged.  

           “Not when you talk that nonsense. You know better.” 

           I would sulk and slink behind her, letting my feet drag behind me, not understanding why he was so bad, why we hadn’t been enough to stay. Ms. Patty never said a word about my daddy. She still won’t. 

            One day I wrangled my hand out of hers and sat down in the middle of the sidewalk, throwing a fit, wanting answers to questions I hadn’t had the courage to ask as summer slowed and melted around us.

            “Why do you hate my daddy so much?” I remember asking. 

She stopped, squatted to meet my eyes and opened her mouth, and then closed it, over and over, as if she didn’t quite know what to say. 

            “I hate your daddy ’cause I love your momma. Lots and lots I love her. And I love your daddy because he gave me you.” 

            She pulled me close and held my head, and I remember thinking she was shivering, unsure how she could be cold on a hot day in July. 

Momma won't tell me the story about it, not even now.  She threw out the VHS of their wedding and tossed the pictures of him in the fire in those couple weeks after he was gone. It was before Christmas. He hadn’t been coming home much, and then he did come home, and they were yelling, and then he was gone again. I remember tip-toeing out of my room on Christmas Eve and watching as she sat in front of the fire, her knees tucked under her thighs, smiling down at pictures I’d never seen. I didn’t remember his face anymore. The Christmas tree lights were on. My momma looked younger, her face flushed, splotched with tears. I stood, holding my blankie in my hand, chewing on the ears of my stuffed animal. She would take a picture, hold it in her hands, sometimes would even pull it close and kiss it, and then lay it in the flames, as if she was trying to will the memory out of her, making a wish to forget the love she once had.  I couldn’t fathom wanting to forget such a great story, especially now, because I don’t remember it.

            These past couple of years I’ve been searching for a history that I’ve never been told. Ours is an island with a history that sits below the oyster beds, underneath thick layers of mud, an oral tradition of staying silent on things that were pretty downright bad. The library on the

island has computers and pretty good internet, and I spend thirty minutes every evening after my shift searching for my dad’s name all over Google. Ms. Paula lets me stay even though it’s for members only, and I tiptoe to the back, past the ladies playing bridge and eating finger sandwiches, and find the laptop that sits overlooking the marsh, dolphins popping up as the sun sets, the curated picture-perfect evening settling for the wealthy in town from the north. The search goes well until it really doesn’t. I still don’t know his last name; a detail momma is too stubborn to share nearly nineteen years later. 

            : Laytia divorce

            : Michael, spring island golf house worker

            : Connecticut asshole, leaves behind single mom and beautiful daughter

            : WHO IS MY FATHER

            No one likes to talk about my daddy, something in my twenty-three years I haven’t really been able to figure out why, so my knowledge is limited, and if I sit for too long it starts to make me feel like shit. It’s gotten easier as I’ve gotten older, but it can still sting some days. Not knowing is better and somehow way worse than just knowing.  

           I didn’t visit the library today. It’s Thursday, so book club takes over around 4:30. My momma isn’t the same willowy blonde that she used to be. She has a couple of wrinkles and a bad back but spends the same cool mornings before her lunch shift staring out into nothing. She doesn’t talk about it much. She is committed to her routines and rhythms and serving members fancy salads at the river house, the restaurant on the island, is one that stuck. She’s been there nearly twenty-six years now, but we rarely work the same days or shifts. I think they do it on purpose; to give us both a break from one another. And sometimes I wonder what it means for me to follow so directly in my momma’s footsteps, to stay home, to stay here in Port Royal. But it pays well, and I love the food and the family I have. 

           Dinner service was busier for a Thursday, but Mr. Rick let me leave early to meet Riley for a beer at the pier. It’s nice out these days, and I’ve done well, enough.  Momma and Ms. Patty still have Tuesday night drinks, I still come home late from work, and I’ve worked really hard to not only fixate on finding my father.  I’ve graduated from high school, have my associate’s degree from Beaufort, and am thinking of going back to school to get a degree in hospitality.  

           It’s sixty-seven and slightly cloudy, the boats are coming in and I am trying to focus on the ground in front of me and not the stories that coax me deep into shrouded family mystery. And we’re good. Me and Riley. We get along just fine. He sits and doesn’t ask questions I don’t have answers to.  We’re a future-forward couple. Devoted to whatever comes next, not worrying to dwell on things we can’t change. 

           "I can't wait for that."  

           That’s what he says a lot, about pretty much anything. He can’t wait for everything: our life, peach ice cream in the summer months, Christmas lights up in November, lunch dates, and days in the summer that last into the next. He is simple, with soft and boyish brown hair that’s getting long, a goofy and adorable smile, and can’t be bothered by anything. He likes watching birds with his momma and helps Mr. Rick at the river house. He does food prep, fileting and butchering of meats, and recipe development. There are inherent perks to having a dad who runs the kitchen you work in, I guess. Not that he doesn’t work hard, because he does, and is there often after everyone else. Even so, he doesn’t complain. In fact, he never really complains about anything.

           He is patient with me and my momma, has all the time in the world to sit with me in our silences, and loves me like I’m brand new.  To put it simple, he’s pretty great. He likes learning about the outside world, wants to start something of his own, and wants us to do that together. He thinks my dad sucks, adores Momma, and comes over for dinner often.   

           Momma likes him enough. I know because she always looks him in the eye when he comes in through the front door and tries her best to stay present when he’s talking. She can’t even do that with me most days.  Ms. Patty can’t get enough of him. We’ve been together a while now and are thinking lots and lots about the next steps. He wants to get into fishing seriously, to get his own place, and sell from there, just a small little shack with oysters and redfish, trout, and vegetables from other locals, creating a space for our food to flourish.    

           I don’t know much about fishing. I know that I like fish and I’m pretty decent at cooking it.  All I really know is that he wants us to buy our own land and our own animals, and to make our own way, to claim a stake of these tributaries and these waters. We aren’t there yet. But soon. We're just now in the stage of growing out of all nouns: people, places, things, sometimes at different stages. He's pulling back and I am pushing forward on the slack line that's tied tightly around both of our waistlines. We're just in that weird in-between thing. I just like to say that it's part of being in your early twenties. It's what I tell myself most days and it generally tends to make me feel better.  

           He wants chickens and little pigs, ducks for me, maybe donkeys to remind me of my grandpa, maybe a cow or two. He wants to build the house himself, right on the cusp of the marsh, overlooking the island, far away enough so we aren’t the help, but close enough to look over our kingdom. Close enough so mansions from the Island can look over, but far enough that they can’t see what’s for dinner. Just so they know we’re there along with them. 

           Port Royal is home, so leaving would feel like a departure from myself, and that conversation isn’t something that’s come up. But we’ve talked about it. What having our own place in the marsh would mean, what momma and Rick are going to say, what being together forever means logically, if we want a house with just two bedrooms or four, for the kids we could one day have. 

           But I don't want kids, a truth that has remained steadfast as I've grown up with a single mother. There are too many undeniable sacrifices parents have to make to support families, and I’d never want my daughter to grow up in a kitchen with an absent father. That is to say that in this make-pretend future where I have children, Riley would turn out to be just as much of a deadbeat as my daddy. It’s unlikely. But possible.  

           And children are work and lots of it. At this point, there is too much I want for myself, for my career, my inner peace. I'd never want my child to come second. And I'm not sure I can stop putting myself first in life. I don't know if I want to stop.  I'd love to be an aunt, a Ms. Patty, or to live next to a family with lots of little kids. But there is much I don't know, in fact, I don't more things than I do know things. Truth changes. I could too. 

           I would love to get good at gardening, at growing kale and spinach, pumpkins in the fall, and long stalks of corn, billowing over the tiny house he wants to make for me. I’d love to be a teacher or volunteer at the community center, teaching kids from here the history of the land we walk on, how to make Frogmore stew, and why Daufuskie Island is so important. 

           I’d love to wade out into the marsh when the water’s low and sink my hands deep in the plough mud pulling at the oysters to bring home to cook over low and slow coals. I imagine coming home in my waders as the sun starts to turn from deep orange to light lilac. Riley sits on our deck with a book in his hand, and our sliding door is wide open, and bright light streams into our living room, a yellow hue settling over the old furniture, over our eyes, and our movements—slow and intentional. And I feel good. Over and over again. It sounds simple, dreamlike, and really great. 

           All of the guests here know us now. It’s like I’ve traversed two worlds, made my way into a space that’s never been mine.  We talk about it a lot, what it would be like to have family that lived here, what our summer vacations might have been as children. Where we would have gone to college. What would be new.  Or different. 

           I wonder what my momma thinks of Mr. Townesly or what Ms. Patty thinks about her family’s land being divvied up and parceled out to the highest bidder. She doesn’t mention it often, only when she’s had a couple too many, but I think once upon a time the river house belonged to her family’s name, which means she’s cooking in a kitchen that was once a home she could have come home to. It would make me crazy.  It makes me wonder how she’s worked on the island so long. Or why. And I try to reconcile it, to see things not so starkly for what they are, instead to see the murkiness of the world and acknowledge the nuance of partial histories or the necessity of good work, but it’s hard.  Even so, Riley is quick to remind me the dangers of getting so stuck in the past—there’s nowhere to go.

grace_stroup.jpg

The Secrets a Cypress Keeps is a novel that follows Jane Laytia, a young woman searching for her father in the marsh of Port Royal, South Carolina. Deeply rooted in tradition and the natural world, this story is about coming home, growing up, and falling into place. 

 

Grace Stroup is a writer from the Washington, D.C., area. She went to UNC Chapel Hill and majored in English and Religious Studies with a concentration in Creative Writing, where she began writing stories centered on family, history, loss, and land. Her work was published across the UNC campus in Cornell’s literary magazine, Rainy Day, and other literary magazines.

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