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We Are the Roanoke
Mama predicted this would happen. Most everyone did. We knew that at one time or another, we would run out of supplies and food. We don’t know how to survive out here like the Indians do. We are just people who want a fresh, new life. People who want to escape the tight legal and religious clutches of England. We just want to survive and start a new world; to create a home for freedom.
We are the Roanoke.
It was a dark, cloudy day, I remember, when trouble started. Papa had just left for a town meeting. We were at home, watching the rain begin to fall. It came softly at first, in gentle pitter-pats. Then it became stronger, as if angry, and continued on to flood our small garden. My sister, mother, and I all crowded at the window to wait for Papa’s distinct figure to come striding up the dirt street, now muddy.
Just as the sun was beginning to show its rays of hope from behind the blanket of clouds, we saw Papa and nine of the other colony’s leading men coming up the only street we had. Their figures were hazy from the hard rains and their hats were pulled down to protect their faces. From the way their shoulders were stooped, we knew there would be no lighthearted talk in the house tonight.
“…got to come back sometime. He can’t just leave us here to rot like animals! We should have never come in the first place, Ralph.”
“Don’t talk like that,” I heard Papa’s voice say quietly. “Not around my daughters.”
“You think you can protect them from the truth, Ralph Lane. It won’t last long. They’ll know the truth you’ve tried to hide when we all begin to starve.”
“I will run my family, and you, yours.” Papa’s voice was not angered, but strong. “Richard Grenville gave me authority of this colony. Therefore, we will abide by my laws. We will discontinue this….capturing….of Indians. I will not have anyone threatening the Indians for food, even if our lives depend on it. If we make enemies with them, we will not survive. They know this land, but we have only been here ten months. Give it time, John.”
All this we heard while the men were scraping their boots at the door and hanging their coats in the front of the house. I saw Mama’s face pale a shade before she shooed me and my younger sister to our room.
We spoke nary a word between us the rest of the evening. The adults talked late into the night, and we never really went to bed until I’m sure it was early morning. We merely listened, holding our breath and pressing our ears to the wall to catch as many words as we could.
In the morning, my sister and I awoke and dressed solemnly. We quietly tiptoed out of our room and made our way to the kitchen. We didn’t bother to check the cabinets; we knew that they were vacant and dusty. Only our barrel of flour, our barrel of salted fish, and our garden kept us alive.
We were fading. People were becoming desperate. Ten months ago, we were eager to start a new life; begin a fresh record. Now, we had to keep our doors to the pantry locked, our garden surrounded with a fence. No one could trust their own neighbor anymore. We were becoming our own enemies.
“Marie and Melody, come here in our room. We wish to speak with you,” Mama’s voice carried to us from the doorway. We were able to make out her silhouette in the early light.
My sister and I gave each other a glance, then followed my mother in her nightgown to our parents’ room. We sat nimbly on the bed, and I gave Melody a quick look, trying to catch her eye. She was intent on observing the quilt pattern on Mama’s blanket. Papa drew a shallow breath and began. “You have probably noticed the troubles plaguing our colony. We might have to return to England.”
Melody suddenly began to cry. “It took us more than a month to get here. Please don’t make us go back, Papa, please!”
“It cannot be helped, Melody,” Papa said with his sad, sad, green eyes. “We are in danger from the Indians. Some settlers have taken advantage of the natives, and now we are a threat to each other. Natives do not trust us, nor us them.”
Mama shifted on the bed, her frail frame turning towards the window. “We must go.”
“The leaders have decided to try another place first, before we give up and go back to England. We will sail a two day journey to the Isle of Croatoan.”
Papa paused, and I took this moment to slowly stand and leave the room. I did not want to hear the rest. No one tried to stop me. I left the house, thinking of all we had been through to get here.
Almost a two month voyage. Every day a nightmare. The days in which we were bombarded with storms were even worse. I lost count of the times I had lost my stomach to the sea.
Finally, the day had come that our lookout cried below to us, “Land! I see land, yonder the bow!” And we had all rushed to the bow of the boat, stretching to see solid land. It took another two months to get the homes built, the lands divided up evenly, and leaders established. Richard Grenville gave Papa order of the colony Roanoke. Richard had sailed back to England to bring us more supplies until we became acquainted with the land and the vegetation that it yielded for us. The only way off of that island was by a small ship that could be mistaken for an oversized canoe.
And now, we were almost ready to give up. We were all thin and frail. We were to sail to Croatoan, where we would make new life again, away from natives and away from danger.
My feet guided me outside, where I went to our garden. My boot scuffed the dirt and I ground some stones beneath my heel as I thought. There were only seven other children in the colony besides my sister and I. Five of them were boys, with whom I was always wrestling, exploring, and tearing my skirts climbing trees. My mind wandered to numerous topics as I walked down the only street of our town. My boot suddenly caught on a rough stick poking above the earth’s surface. I picked up the stick and took it with me, unsure of its purpose. I meandered through the colony, observing the ten houses on one side, nine on the other. At the end of the street was a single building that served as the church, meeting house, and court. I was on my way back home when I saw a broken fence. Jiggling my stick in my left hand, I moved towards the fence until I was just before it. I sighed, lifted my hand, and with sure, steady strokes, carved a single word in the fence post. Somehow, it gave me a sense of security. As if this place would forever remain mine, with my memory on it. I stared at the sharp letters.
I turned around to return to the house. I thought to myself, Marie, you have the chance of a lifetime. Few girls in the world have gotten to travel to another land, let alone by boat. So few have survived the long voyage. Be proud, Marie. Be strong.
God help us.
“Marie, help me with my buttons,” Melody called to me. It was the day of the voyage. Our burlap bags were filled, our bonnets were on our heads, and we were ready to make a leap of faith. I left my window to button up the back of Melody’s dress. I pushed her honey-gold hair out of the way and took my time. “Oh, do hurry,” she squirmed. I smiled at her lack of patience.
“Marie! Melody! Let us go!” I let out a sigh at the sound of Papa’s voice calling through our house. I guided Melody by her shoulders and willed my eyes not to look back, not to look behind me. Instead, they teared up and blurred my vision. For the second time in a year, I was leaving a place I had come to call home.
All 113 colonists were crowded around the ship Richard had left for us lest there was an emergency. Originally, there were 117 of us, but three died on the voyage and one man died here from the fever.
Papa boarded the ship and opened his arms wide, a signal of welcome and of helplessness. “May God have mercy on us all.” And he lowered his arms to his sides, his eyes drilling us all with an unavoidable stare. We clambered aboard the ship, almost in complete silence, save for a few whispers and sighs of sadness. When we were all aboard, the sails were unfurled, and the wind carried us west, towards Croatoan.
We all settled our possessions below decks, creating makeshift beds and placing hammocks in whatever spots were convenient. The first day came and went, but on the first night, the seas began to churn. Clouds closed in overhead and grew dark and threatening. Overnight, the seas grew more and more violent. Men were on deck at all times. Women and children were below deck, comforting one another and battling seasickness.
Alas, on the morning of the second day, our ship had taken enough. She hit a rock concealed by the raging water and left a gaping hole in her side. We clambered up on deck, women screaming, men yelling orders at one another.
As soon as I saw the damage, my heart began to beat faster, like a stampede of a thousand horses. There was a great roaring in my ears and my very soul went frantic with panic. Fear’s icy fingers squeezed its way into my mind, draining all hope from my thoughts. Melody’s face was white as snow, and Papa was standing in the midst of his men, fully aware that their efforts to save the boat were in vain. Mama clutched the side of the boat, her knuckles white and jaw strong. Our ship swayed, the rain beat us down, and the winds swept over us, taking our hopes with it.
With one final blow and a gust of wind, our ship turned over, and we went flying overboard. A scream of fear beyond my mind erupted from my mouth. I felt my very soul fall with me into the ocean. I was aware of my sister and Mama beside me, clawing wildly at the air.
We all seemed to hit the water at once. The icy water shocked my body and I instinctively curled into a ball. I sank lower and lower in the ocean, my lungs burning for air. My clothing and heavy boots weighed me down. I knew I was going to die. It was impossible to make it to the surface in time to survive. Melody lay beside me, her head cradled in the sand. The urge to claw for the surface and gasp for air screamed through my body, but I was too weak to satisfy my longing for oxygen. Unbearable pain exploded in my chest. It felt as if my lungs were being torn out of me.
And then I fell by my sister, exhausted. I saw no survivors above; no signs of life in the raging sea far above my head. I tried to work my way to the surface, but my muscles were weak and my mind had already given up.
Our ship slowly sunk beside us, creating a soft tremor. My lungs were on fire, aching for a single breath of air. A white light, blinding, flashed before me and exploded in my brain. I saw one last glimpse of the deep blue waters around me, and then I left the mortal world.
We are brave; we are strong.
We rejoice with God.
We are the Roanoke.