A dark stretch of hardtop splits the North Carolina coastal forest like the cry of a bald eagle soaring above pierces the afternoon's thick heat. Beside her husband in the Ford Model-A delivery van, Millie Hammond works her home-made fan with desperation.
"Oh, Lou. Can't we start back home now? We got lots more nice places to visit before Hanson's in sight again, and here you are, driving so slow, s'hardly any air comin' in!"
Louis Hammond, still dressed in his best suit complete with hat and wing-tip shoes, waves his hand out over the dash. "Look, darling, at this nice, smooth, piece a road. Brand-spanking new highway. Takes us right through shagbark hickory country, ain't that what the young feller at the pump said?"
Millie actually lays down the folded newspaper to cross her arms, never a good sign. "Besides the wedding, we came on this trip to relax, you said so yourself. Running through swampy woods chasing after nuts ain't my idea of a vacation. Hickory nuts may be worth a pretty penny in California, but how many do you think you're gonna find by yourself? Really, Lou! And anyway, our girls are probably wearing on each other about now like a thresher belt, and you haven't called home to check on 'em the whole week."
Lou sighs. "Listen, Flo's a sensible girl; she's a whole lot more grown up than you give her credit for. Why she'd be almost ready to make a good farmer's wife, if she didn't have bigger aspirations."
"Bigger than our pocketbook," Millie emphasizes. "How in heaven's name are we to send her to college like she wants, when we could barely afford this vacation after twenty years? You know the last time we went more than a day's drive from home was our own honeymoon?"
"I know, darling, and I'm sorry it worked out that way. Farming's a tough business in the best of times, which we ain't had, and you've been more'n patient. But now that we've got the store, and the van . . . . Look! Right there, that's what that feller was talking about!"
A grove of hickory trees trails the edge of a creek into the forest. Lou brakes hard, and pulls the van half off the road, right to the edge of the causeway. Leaving his jacket and tie behind on the seat, he steps out and rolls up his sleeves. Then around to the back, past the sign that reads, "Hammond's Implement Co.," he opens the door and retrieves two buckets.
At the passenger window, he pauses. "One last time, I promise." Millie, with a look of bemused resignation, points to his shoes. But Lou shakes his head. "It's dry, it ain't rained for days. And I won't go far. If I don't find nothin', I'll be back directly." On impulse, he gives Millie a little kiss on the cheek.
"Oh, you -- you hurry up," she demurs. Lou scurries down the bank and jumps the ditch. "And watch for snakes!" Millie calls after him.
Diving under the shade of the trees, Lou follows the creek, gingerly scuffing his gleaming wing-tips through the leaf litter. He picks a few hickory nuts, drops them in a bucket, and moves on. A few more feet, more clangs in the bucket. The brown gold lies in a seemingly endless trail deep into the woods. Soon, he fills the first bucket.
Before he starts on the second, he remembers -- the first rule of sales: always check the merchandise. On the creek bank, he finds a suitable rock, round and small enough to fit in his hand. Now, he just needs another. But bigger rocks are nowhere to be seen. Lou scans the ground, but leaves cover everything in a coat of many colors. And Millie will be waiting, door open, her blue-flowered hat on, the little brown canteen in hand. Better hurry, like she said. As he swings his foot across, his toe hits hard on something hidden in the leaves.
He bends down to check the damage to his shoe. The point of a deeply weathered stone barely projects above the leaf litter. "Ah, here we go." He selects one nut, places the shell atop the stone, and whacks it with his simple hammer. The shell cracks wide apart, and the fruit falls. Lou reaches down to pick up the fruit, placing one half in his mouth before his eyes have fully adjusted to the darkness among the leaves. Then he sees it.
On the stone, near the top, is the faint trace of a crudely etched cross, one end of the bar wider than the other. Chewing slowly, he brushes the leaves aside. His finger follows down the vertical of the mark until it reaches another -- a letter "D" carved in a line of text. "What the . . . ."
Hands shaking, Lou begins digging at the base with his little nutcracker rock. Slowly, the whole stone reveals itself, a dirt and moss encrusted slab more than a foot tall and more than two inches thick. Using his own spit, Lou rubs at the letter "D" until he can just make out another letter beside it. A tombstone? A marker for buried treasure? Lou realizes he can't know until he can properly clean the stone. He hefts it in his hands. At about twenty pounds, it's easy enough, though it soils his shirt before he notices. Leaving the buckets where they stand, Lou rushes for the car.
The Model-A, sun flashing off its chromed radiator and headlights, jolts to a stop at the edge of a steep, sandy bank. Below, the west bank of the Chowan River laps languidly beneath the shade of fire-orange cypress trees, their trunks rising steep and silent from the water. Lou swings to the rear of the van and jerks open the door. There on the boards lies the mysterious stone. He tucks it under one arm, feeling again its weight, and begins to clamber down the bank.
From the car window, Millie calls helplessly, "Be careful! You twist your ankle or something, who's gonna drive?"
Lou ignores her and, shaking with eagerness, pushes through the undergrowth in a narrow depression that leads directly to the waterside. Once on the strip of clear sand, he begins to vigorously scrub the moss-encrusted rock with a wire brush. At last, more letters reveal themselves in a line beneath the cross. Lou sprinkles some sand in the depressions, until he can clearly read: "Ananias Dare y Virginia went Hence vnto Heaven 1591."
"Just as I thought," he murmurs to himself, "a grave marker. But . . . so old!" Louis can't remember from his history class the exact date for the first colonies on the east coast. In California in the early 1900s, all that had seemed a world away. And, anyway, his brother had always been the scholar. Louis had known from childhood that he wanted to be a farmer, maybe even a mechanic, but never any sort of man tied behind a desk. He could afford to have fun in school and draw pictures in the margins of his notebooks when the teacher wasn't looking. Only now did he wish he'd paid a bit closer attention.
He continues scrubbing. And then near the roughly pointed base of the stone, another two lines of text ramble across. Again, he sprinkles the sand. And this time, what he reads confuses him: "Anye Engliſh man ſhew Iohn White Govr Via."
He turns the stone over and scrubs again: more letters, but smaller, and packed tightly together. This was unlike any gravestone he'd ever seen. He calls out to Millie, "C'mon, darling, and have a look! This is sure a strange rock."
Millie steps gingerly out of the car and picks her way to the edge of the bank. From her vantage point, she can see the wide Albemarle Sound stretching far away to the east, rimmed with more flaming cypress."I ain't climbing down there dressed like this. Tell me what you see."
Lou squints at the odd assemblage of letters made suddenly visible by the light golden sand of the sound. He has an uncomfortable feeling of being watched. Glancing up at the bank, dark shadows gather into inscrutable thickets. In the water next to him, the ancient cypress trees seem to whisper as their needles flutter in the breeze.
"If it's a tombstone, it must be one of the oldest around here. Talks about a Virginia that died in 1591. But then it says something about a John White, Governor of Virginia. Kinda odd. That name sounds familiar, though I can't remember why. Probably oughta put it back. Bad luck an' all."
From the bank, Millie presses him, unperturbed. "That name, Virginia . . . wasn't that the name of the girl? In the play, I mean. The one about the Lost Colony of Roanoke. I read about it in the paper at the hotel, remember? Virginia . . . Virginia Dare! It's her; it has to be. Oh, dear God, Lou, what're we gonna do?"
Lou studies the stone again, his heart and mind racing. "If this is connected with that colony, what next? City folks will be descending on us like they did the Hanson airstrip after Miss Earhart disappeared, asking questions everywhere. And what if it's not? There's more writing on the back, but I . . . I can't make it out. Maybe that explains what's on the front. Maybe it is a grave marker. In that case, I should just set it back down where I found it, you know."
Millie, however, is not convinced. Being a mother, she feels somehow responsible. "The whole colony disappeared, Lou. Those English people were never heard from again. But think about it, if Virginia died, and someone lived to carve this stone with her name on it, that means someone survived until 1591 at least."
"So?" Lou continues, "Surely they buried some from time to time. It's not --"
"No! Oh . . . just wait!" Millie turns and rushes inexplicably for the car. A few seconds later she returns, waving the folded newspaper like a flag. "It's here; it's in the article. The year, Lou." She unfolds the paper on the front page. "1587! This stone was carved four years later! How can that be? And why here? This place is miles and miles from Roanoke."
Louis looks up at the sound, rippling a dark blue between the jagged strips of land that marked the edges of a continent, a whole ocean away from the home of those time-distant travellers. If Amelia Earhart can simply vanish without a trace in this new age of airplanes and radio, how completely lost must those English have been in a world without phones, or telegraphs, or even ships driven by steam? Their only lifeline might be a few words carved on a ragged rock -- a hope beyond hope that someone, someday, might get their message: "Anye Engliſh man ſhew Iohn White . . . ," a message which now lay in his hands.
Without another word, Louis picks up the stone and carries it to the van. Gently, he packs it into the cargo area, as Millie hovers at his elbow, awaiting an explanation. But all he offers is, "Well, we better take it with us, I guess. This sort of thing's not in our lane, darling. I think I'll call my brother at the university for advice, after I call home, of course."
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