[I come to you mainly for your name. The second name, of course, though since we are to meet, I’m inclined to skip the seduction of the surname and simply call you Ginny. And I promise, child, as I parachute myself to your side with these bits of electric ink—the only time-travel I ever manage—I promise to be nothing like the one who left you, the one who loaded his daughter, belly already firm with you. (Do you remember, Ginny, the feel of the ocean through the hull?) You were cargo, lifted with sacks of seed and root onto a ship of unwashed men, bound for a place where the air was said to smell of roses, where each was promised 500 acres, but even in utero, I’ll bet you knew better, understood the acres would be difficult, knew to expect nothing more than the tang of wind and salt. Three boatloads of people asked to make roses of bear grass and live oak. I swear I am nothing like that, Virginia. I am nothing if not soft.
And really, it does not matter what I call you, it does not matter the color of your eyes (whether, as I suspect, they were the first of many blue coins flipped into the open pocket of the New World). It is only the fact of your birth and the greater fact of your disappearance from the place where your grandfather left you that matters to the world. He returned with provisions three years later, on your birthday they say, and yes, clever girl, you sense my cynicism through this mess of paper and time, because even as I meander, making room for superstition, sentiment, and supposition, I do not allow for such coincidences as birthday arrivals by wayward British grandfathers; though it might be the one true thing, truer even than your eyes, so like the water off the Cape of Hatteras. It is strange, I suppose, to be so particular about what I will and will not allow.
And in the end, this is what I do.
In the end, I push myself into the air and hover over the windswept barrier islands, over tangled beaten beaches, to the string of green land wedged between the Banks and coastal Carolina, and when finally I find you, the warm weight of your body curled like a nautilus in my lap, we sit on a strip of sinking sand, your hair smelling of shellfish and juniper, skin browner than your mother would have seen fit, the sound of your murmuring in my arms, so much like waves. I watch your eyes move under closed lids. You are dreaming of scuppernong vines, I believe. You’re imagining crabbing in the Sound. Or else, because of the way I have just felt the flinch of your tiny index finger, you are having that feeling again of falling. You are. (But these words have become only an exercise in possibility, recognition of the weight of even so small a child, confirmation of my superficial devotion, for if your father’s last name were Davis, Johnston, or Hightower, I would not even be here to cradle you on the page). It is the name I wrap in buckskin and strands of Spanish moss; the name I swaddle.
Dare. Virginia Dare.
1587. The loss of the English throne is a fresh ache to Catholics. Shakespeare is still living, though on unexplained hiatus. Walter Raleigh has just been knighted for the first trip he organized to Roanoke, for the tales and tobacco and Indians paraded before the Queen, things still spoken of with wonder at court. And so they set sail, your mother and father and grandfather among them, thinking perhaps of sisters they had seen for the last time, the beds they were born in, the sounds of villages they would no longer hear. What do they speak of as they sail? (We know nothing of such things, for the writers recorded only such details as the weather and the replenishment of supplies.) Your mother, the handful of women, and all those men—how they must move with such care around each other, how they must learn to choose just the right word. All those people contained in ships, bound for land they’d never seen.
How many fools swear to the sight of land before it ever comes? Is your mother sick with you? Does she freckle, this summer, so much time spent in the sun? What are they thinking, huddled together. Or do they not think? Do they block out all but what is needed for survival, or are there certain evenings, the fat moon hanging overhead, when they allow themselves slippery talk, and speak of the taste of feasts to come, of trees that grow gold. Eventually they see land, make stops in the West Indies. They grow sick from green fruit given them in Saint Croix, gather orange saplings at St. John, hunt swans in Caicos. Then the landing. Cape Fear. Then Hatteras. Finally Roanoke. (It is said they were bound for Chesapeake, but were abandoned by their Portuguese captain. So it was Roanoke.) It is late July. The muscadines do not grow so well this year. Nor the corn. So your grandfather, colony leader, whether heroic or by design, heads once again to the sea, saying he’ll be right back, the 16th century equivalent of a run to the corner store. But there is a war with Spain to keep him, and its spoils, so that you are gone when he returns, which is the mystery, but really no big surprise. Why would anyone stay? Who, with mouth and eye, would not turn to some other source after three Christmases and Easters of scanning the horizon for signs of the man and his ship? After even a month of such waiting, everything must begin to look like a boat.
Fever might have taken you. Or starvation. But you have your mother’s breast. And stews thickened with sassafras leaves. Perhaps the Spaniards come north? But no, I see them clearly, pointed beards, stuck in Florida mud, hypnotized by flocks of flame-tipped wings, dipping and re-dipping their ladles into the fountain of youth. Perhaps there is a raid by natives, revenge taken for the beheading of their chief by the English a year before? But would someone strike down so little a girl? Some say your party heads north, as planned, to Chesapeake. No matter, I think of Tuscaroras with gray eyes and English speech and know that something of you survives beyond labels plastered to the sides of vanilla extract and canisters of tobacco. Like any child of America, you must lose your Englishness first, a necessity I think, trading in a silvery lilt for something more like tree bark, something hard and coiled at the back of the throat.
Virginia. Virginia Dare!
How much I know without knowing. The way you learn to make salve of saliva and loblolly needles, can skin a deer in five minutes flat, give birth to four healthy boys. The way, on certain evenings you hide yourself in tall grass and dune and spend time looking beyond the outer bank, not so much for the man you know will never come, but for the color of the sky as it lets itself into the ocean, somehow like the memory of your mother’s face. And isn’t it true, Ginny, that nothing is hard forever, that even the press of memory eventually relents? So that I think you feel something like flowers opening inside you as each of your children, more golden than the last, is lifted from your body.
C R O A T O A N carved onto a tree.
C R O half-started in another.
The name of a nearby tribe, those who may have saved or murdered you. (And could they be blamed, the way your people took?) But that is all legend and myth. That is the part that ceases to matter, whether you made it to Hatteras (soon men in labs will have analyzed DNA and bone fragments and a little gold ring pulled from the sand, soon all mystery will be answered) but what will that have to do with us, Ginny, and the way we have come together on the page, pulling strawberries by green crowns, counting the leaves of the willow, calling forth a menagerie of animals from a gray clouded sky. It is only the name of you, tiny girl. Only the name that needs no explanation, the fact of being born into bravery, with or without your consent.
Named for a Virgin Queen, baptized by hurricane, bug bite, and drought. Your grandfather must have held you (good or bad, he must have swelled with pride at bringing forth the first English child in America) but though he made drawings of birds and trees and basket-bearing native girls, nothing was ever made of you.
And so, child of my lap, bit of bone left lying along this beach, you remain untouched, white fawn, the first American ghost, a parenthetical aside.]