Today's Reading

I took advantage of the dark when I wouldn't have to look at Penn. I'd raised her in a world of engines and oils, machines that could be repaired, men who predictably woke and worked. Stories were novel, coming from my mouth. But as Penn and I marched on, I found it was easier than I thought to let the old tale whisper its way back into the world. "But what we know about our family started even before Evertell. My mama once told me she knew the fate of a woman named Eleanor White Dare. She was part of a first colony from England that disappeared. They were called the Lost Colony of Roanoke."

"Oh, wait," Penn said quickly. "You mean like the message on that rock at Brenau Academy?"

"That's right." Of course she knew about the stone. "The Dare Stone, yes. Eleanor's part of the story." Penn knew everything about Brenau but nothing of our history with that stone. I spoke carefully, gently laying out the details. "It turned up in 1937. It was found in North Carolina. Some man just tripped over it one day and it was a big discovery, all over the news. Everybody said it wasn't real, just a big hoax."

Penn looked puzzled. I could see she was trying to make a connection, waiting for answers. "Grandmama Claire knew about Eleanor Dare? We learned about her last year in class, about the actual history. A whole bunch of poor English people got left behind on an island in North Carolina somewhere. And nobody knows if they were killed or went somewhere else to live with the Indians, right? Nobody ever found them."

I took a breath, slowing my pace a little. "Well, people think different things about that. But used to be, that stone they have at the college was placed in the forest of our property here."

"The same one?" Penn asked, confused but suddenly more animated.

"I think so. The pictures in the paper looked the same. It was carved with the same message. It was supposed to be Eleanor Dare's message to her father, telling him what happened to her. And if you believe that, the women in Grandmama Claire's family are what happened after that. The book has a list of descendants, starting with Eleanor's name and all the way through the ones who built Evertell, all the way to my mama. If you believe it, it's our family myth."

"You're making this up." Of course she didn't believe me. How much easier it would be if I could pretend it was all a joke.

"No," I admitted. For once, Penn said nothing, only listened. "The way it was explained to me, the women in our family knew where Eleanor first put that stone, but Grandmama Claire didn't think we ever had any business moving it here. It was a message to say Eleanor had survived, but it was also a gravestone. It marked the place where she lost her family." I could hear my mama saying all this even now, an accusation, spitting it out like too much salt. I tried to tell it to Penn as I had been told. The names of the heirs marched through my head, and I did my best to keep the details simple for Penn.

"Bernadette Reece Telfair started it all," I said. She'd been the heir who had finally completed Evertell in 1799. But over the years, she'd become obsessed with a hand-drawn map in the commonplace book, initialed EWD, showing Eleanor's journey. She sent some men to find the place where the journey began in the wilds of the new world, to retrieve the marker Eleanor had left for her father, inscribed with the terrible fate of his family. The stone was found just where the map said it would be and brought to Georgia, to our forest, to protect it from anyone who might want to steal or deface it.

"Bernadette thought she was correcting a wrong, that she was honoring Eleanor's legacy, bringing Eleanor home, I guess," I said. "The trouble was, this was never Eleanor's home, and it wasn't long before people got fed up with Bernadette and how highly she thought of herself after that. They got a bad taste in their mouth about that stone, started whispering things about it, that it was asking for trouble to have it here.

"So when Bernadette's daughter, Camille, had a little girl, then disappeared about three years later, just a few weeks after that stone came here, everybody blamed the stone. Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe Camille took off with some man. Nobody knows. But even Bernadette believed she'd brought a curse on our family."

Penn had taken my hand as we walked. "But Grandmama Claire loved Eleanor and tried to make peace with her. She visited the stone. She loved Eleanor's book and all the things the other heirs had drawn or written there, their secrets and dreams. She wanted me to love them too. She believed that was what Eleanor had wanted, for us to have the book. My mama said it was a book written by women, full of women's wisdom and mysteries."

Penn was listening intently. And I realized with a kind of wonder that I was enjoying being the storyteller, a disarming thought. "You won't find any of those stories in your history books, but I can tell you for sure that Eleanor Dare was a very real girl, just like you. Even if nobody knows what happened to her, just like nobody knows if the words on that stone were true or if we really are her descendants. That's why I said it's a myth."

"I want to read this book."

"We'll have to see. Maybe we'll look at it together. Girls read it after they come of age. Thirteen, like you. But it's not a game or a toy, okay? It's very old, something Grandmama Claire kept put away safe." I saw her ponder this. "Anyway, we left it all behind—the house and everything that went with it. There's no guarantee any of it is still there."

This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book BLOOMSBURY GIRLS by Natalie Jenner.

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