I used to always hate history class, especially in middle school. If we weren’t covering a war then the class just dragged on about tiresome theory, writings, and unrelatable struggles from hundreds of years ago. Who cares about what life was like in the 1500s under British rule? I envied them in a way – they lived in a world where there was no American history to learn. I even heard many of them didn’t go to school. I’d much rather hangout with friends and hunt for my food than go to school. Admittedly I discovered colonial life was much more than that in my adult years when I started to pay attention to history. Back then, I’d sometimes skip ahead in our textbooks in the middle of class to see how many pages we had until the revolution. Taking our snail pace into account, by my estimates we wouldn’t cover it until near the end of the school year. I ended up being right. But I’d never say no to a field trip, even if it was about American history. I’d never say no until that day.
We were set to take a 2-hour bus ride from school to the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. All I knew about the location is that it was home to the Roanoke Colony, the first English settlement in the United States, and the subject of a disappearance under unclear circumstance. My 11-year old mind theorized it was aliens, or possibly sasquatch who had come to ravage the colony. I grimly hoped they hadn’t just left – I wanted reality to be more interesting. Our itinerary had little to do with the disappearance of the colony unfortunately. Ms. Kelly said we’d be starting out at the original site of the colony, then doing a nature walk, getting lunch downtown, and then going to an excruciating play about colonists in the afternoon – okay, I’ll admit she didn’t exactly use the word ‘excruciating’.
At its face, the trip sounded like more boring discussion about colonists and the country’s founding. For me it was time spent outside, away from school. It was some semblance of free time with my best friend, Samuel. But maybe most importantly, it was another chance I’d most certainly forego to talk to Lindsey Volta, my long-time crush. She had jet black hair and brown eyes and always wore a cute headband. Her smile formed dimples upon her cheeks and her teeth were so perfect she never needed braces. My only problem was nearly everyone liked her at school, and the same couldn’t be said for me. She’d probably never even heard of Collin Quincy. I knew she’d reject me on status alone, but a boy can still dream.
I tried to get some sleep on the bus, tired from a long night of Mario Kart. My parents didn’t want me playing video games during the week, but I could always sneak my Gameboy Advance into bed with me in one of my top devious acts of rebellion at that age. Every time I began dozing off, my head would rattle against the unforgiving windows as the school bus chugged on. The bus driver was apparently keen on hitting every possible bump and pothole on our long drive. Samuel hit my arm, thinking I was fast asleep. Initially, I pretended I was. “Wake up. Collin, wake up. Now’s your chance.”
I lifted my head from the window and groggily made eye-contact with him. “What?”
“Are you going to ask her out? She’s looking awfully lonely over there.”
I propped myself up in my seat and peered over the seat in front of us. A couple rows down to our left, I saw Lindsey Volta sitting alone – an extraordinarily rare occurrence. She sat with her back straight, hands folded in her lap. Her purple headband matched her long flowing dress as it nestled upon her black hair. My throat closed and stomach flipped. My eyes uncontrollably widened as much as I attempted to mask my eagerness. “I don’t want to bother her.”
“Bother her?” Samuel exaggerated his bewilderment, as if he didn’t know that would be my answer. “You just don’t have the balls to go say something to her.”
“Shut up, that’s not it.” I had no substantive counterargument to make.
“Collin’s got a crush, Collin’s got a crush,” Samuel quietly chanted. “Shut up,” I said, shaking my head. I knew he was trying to coax me into something that could have been good for me, but I stubbornly refused. He was right – I didn’t have the balls.
When we finally arrived, my head smacked against the bus window once more. I hated that window for intentionally attempting to concuss me.
“Alright kids, we’re here,” Ms. Kelly yelled over the chatter on the bus. Now let’s all stick together when we get off the bus. First, we are going to see the preserved site of the lost Roanoke colony. I’ll be testing on this in next week’s quiz so pay attention.” Her enthusiasm somehow made me even less excited for the trip. Her eyes glowed with passion as she spoke. Retroactively speaking, she was a fantastic teacher. But as I watched her and Samuel fawn over the history of Roanoke, I knew I could never match their fervor.
We got off the bus after each kid in front of us waddled down the aisle. I briefly lost track of Lindsey, but her radiance made her easy to spot again. She headed towards the front of the group, and in paralyzed fear I thought it best to remain on the polar opposite end of the group from her – all the way in the back. Samuel stayed with me and eventually stopped egging me on, but not without a few more attempts.
Ms. Kelly had a brief exchange with a few employees in the visitor’s center. They saw our bus, recognized the school’s name, and we were free to go in. Our group moved on following closely behind Ms. Kelly. A volunteering parent came along as well, but I can’t remember whose mother she was. “Have you ever seen one of these before – a colony?” Samuel asked.
I shook my head. “No. My mom and dad went to Williamsburg a couple times.”
“I can’t wait. This is going to be awesome,” Samuel said with a mouth of patch-worked teeth.
Samuel was definitely more of a history buff than I was at the time. He asked all the questions, got all the praise, and got the top grades in our class. Let’s just say it was hard for me to earn good marks with my thin enthusiasm. But seeing Samuel get excited about the trip was beginning to rub off on me. Maybe he was right – maybe it would be ‘awesome’. After all, it is the first English colony in the entire country. We had a unique chance to see firsthand what our textbooks carried on about all quarter: a chance those books’ authors would kill for.
Samuel continued on about the colonies, “Did you know the lost colony was actually the second try at putting a colony here? The first time they tried, they got attacked and left the colony behind. The second time it was easier because all the buildings were already made, but then they had one of the worst droughts ever. It was so bad they couldn’t plant their own crops and started starving…” On and on and on. Eventually my mind drifted from his historic ramblings and back to the real subject of my mind – Lindsey. Once again, I found her easily. She was attentive to Ms. Kelly and still all the way in the front of our cluster of 7th graders moving down the path.
We reached a clearing surrounded by forest. The clearing was oddly shaped, with geometric imprints flattened into the ground. There were a couple colonial-looking wooden houses to the edge of the clearing, but I didn’t see much yet. I was anticipating a large abandoned town that you could tell once flourished with life. Ms. Kelly stopped in her tracks and turned towards us. “Ok class, quiet down.” Everyone slowly reduced their individual conversations. “So take a look around you. This right here is the original site of the Roanoke Colony. If you see the flattened areas here in the ground – those were some of the first buildings the English ever built when colonizing this area. This was home to the 115 people who came to the Americas to try starting their new – yes, Samuel?”
I glanced over to see my friend’s fingers dancing in the air, dragging his full body to the tips of his toes. He released the breath he’d been holding and dropped his arm. “Where are all the buildings?”
“Excellent question, Samuel. The original structures the colonists erected unfortunately did not stand the test of time. This is the agreed upon location of the lost colony, but the only colonist buildings you see behind you are reconstructions.”
“So they’re gone?” he pressed on.
“Yes,” Ms. Kelly said, to which the class let out a collective groan. “But the reconstructed houses which we’ll tour later are based off a lot of research from very smart people. They are ninety-nine percent accurate reconstructions, down to the plates you will see on the dining tables inside.”
This answer didn’t satisfy any of us, least of all myself. I hated history to begin with, and now we weren’t even going to see the one thing I had worked up a slimmer of excitement for? I felt my face droop in unprecedented disappointment. Ms. Kelly attempted to ignore our dismay and kept talking, but I was no longer interested enough to listen. It was then that something strange started happening.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw something, or someone lurking behind a tree in the forest beyond the clearing. I felt its presence first, staring at my right side. I whipped my neck towards the woods and its silhouette remained – the outline of a man wearing a tricorne hat, which at the time I assumed was that of a pirate. He lingered between the trees. He didn’t move, he just…stared. I gulped hard, knowing I was the only one who saw him. Despite not being able to make out any facial features, I knew his eyes locked onto mine. I twisted my body towards Samuel and tugged on his sleeve. “Sam – Samuel,” I whispered. He didn’t respond. I then turned my full head towards him and glared at him as he mesmerically watched Ms. Kelly speak. “Sam,” I hissed.
His eyes snapped out of focus and he looked to me, annoyed. “What Collin? Why can’t you pay attention?” he whispered.
“Look over there,” I jolted a finger towards the forest. “There’s a man in there. He’s watching us.” “What man?” Samuel said as he looked behind me and into the forest. “I don’t see any man. What are you talking about?”
I turned back around to that tree he stood behind. Gone. Just as quickly as he had come, he disappeared without a trace. Not even the branches rustled where he once stood.
“Collin, Sam,” Ms. Kelly called out, cocking her head. “Can I have your attention please? Thank you.”
“Great job, Collin,” Samuel grunted, jabbing his elbow into my side.
“Ow,” I muttered. I didn’t care about Sam’s protests, I knew what I saw.
We moved onto the nature walk, which I very much wished was after lunch. My stomach already grumbled and my enthusiasm for the trip in general dropped back to below zero. Based on how it had gone so far, I knew we wouldn’t see any wildlife in the forest. I was only partially right this time. The trail began adjacent to the clearing that was supposed to be the foundation of the Lost Colony, and twisted through the forest in a maze. There were trail markers here and there, but I relied on the group’s navigation rather than my own to make it through. The forest floor was covered in colorful leaves. It was the most beautiful time of year for a hike, but I still had no interest. “Come on, go talk to her,” Samuel suggested again. “Now is the perfect time.”
“I’m not in the mood, Sam,” I responded.
“What is it, the houses? I kind of expected that was going to happen. It was so lame. You should go to Williamsburg with your parents sometime. You can see colonists there and walk around a colonist village – it’s so cool.”
“Yeah I guess it’s the houses. I don’t care about any of this.”
“Oh, come on, but it’s so cool,” Samuel whined.
Somehow his pleading didn’t convince me. I was totally turned off by the idea of Roanoke. I couldn’t wait to get back home and continue playing Mario Kart. That and my growling stomach was all I was thinking about.
As the group continued on I reduced my steps to a stubborn shuffle, pouting instead of learning. My pace meant I dropped even further back, enough to be at least a few feet behind even Samuel. He was too entrenched in the history lesson to care Ms. Kelly monologued with to notice my demonstration. Then, my toe hit something hard beneath the fallen leaves. I jerked my foot back and grabbed it in my hand, wincing at the slight pain. Whatever I had kicked felt like too deliberate a shape to be a rock, and therefore was quite interesting to my distracted 11-year-old mind.
I stopped in my tracks and squatted down on the trail. I brushed the leaves aside gently to reveal a sharpened stone object wedged in the mud. It was mostly submerged with only a sharp tip pointing out. I wrapped my fingers around it and pulled – it didn’t budge. I pulled harder and harder, even pulling at my wrist with my other hand. I leaned back to use the last bit of my available leverage. Suddenly, it sprung loose from the mud and I landed flat on my back upon the soggy ground. I propped myself back up into a squatting position, finding the object next to me above the mud. I wiped the mud off with my sleeve, even though I knew my mom would kill me for it when I got home. Once the mud was off it I realized it was an arrowhead – just like the ones I always heard about growing up in North Carolina. I stroked each edge and turned it every which way, examining it in my hands. I slid my index finger along its side, haphazardly testing its sharpness. It quickly sliced my finger and I winced, almost dropping the arrowhead. But how was that possible? After over 400 years of weather and people unknowingly stepping on the arrowhead while walking down the trail, it looked like it was carved only hours ago.
Despite my minor gash, I smiled in awe at its design. A piece of a historic war: the only part of history I enjoyed. I wondered what war exactly it was used in, but I hadn’t paid enough attention to know. Still squatting, I called out for my friend. I knew he would enjoy it as much as I did if not more. “Hey Samuel, look at this.” To my surprise, he didn’t answer. “Samuel, you have to see this. It’s so cool.” Still, no answer. I broke focus from the arrowhead and began to turn around. “Hey Sam it’s an arrow-”
Nobody was behind me. The class had continued on and nobody noticed I wasn’t with them. I shot to my feet, holding onto the arrowhead tightly. “Sam,” I called louder, this time with a shaky voice. Where were they? What if they got on the bus and left without me? “Sam!” I cried out again. I heard nothing but the sounds of my voice and squirrels scampering across the leafy forest floor. My breath shortened and panic set in. I turned back and forth, looking for a sign of them. Nothing but identical trees surrounded me for as far as I could see. I hadn’t at all paid attention to our hike and there was no hint of a trail marker. The layers of leaves on the forest floor seemed higher now, making the path totally indistinguishable from the rest of the forest. I was alone.
I spun back around to where I found the arrowhead to see I wasn’t as alone as I thought. A man stood with his back turned to me – the man in the tricorne hat. He scratched at the tree in front of him vigorously and muttered something under his breath. This time he was no longer just a silhouette. His long blue coat was tattered and muddied. His tricorne hat looked burned and chewed up on the right side. He wore stockings that used to be white which I briefly giggled at when I noticed. I sighed in fleeting relief. “Oh thank god,” I said for maybe the first time in my life. “Excuse me sir. I am with my school here today and lost my class. Do you know where they are?”
He kept scratching and muttering. I realized I didn’t have his attention, but I didn’t want to startle him. Instead of tugging on his long blue coat I walked over to his side so he could see me. Once I reached his peripheral he stopped scratching. I noticed he didn’t have a knife in his hand, or any kind of tool for that matter. He lowered his hand from the tree, his fingernails covered in blood. His skin was pale and battered and his eyes were closed. I wondered how long he had been in the forest. “Excuse me sir,” I repeated nervously. “I’m looking for my class and can’t find them. I’m lost can you please help me?”
His head shot up straight to attention, but his eyes remained welded shut. He turned his body towards me and rested his bloodied hand upon my shoulder. He revealed the other half of his face, covered in burns. He stunk worse than a garbage dump, enough to make me gag. His arm shot out and grabbed my shoulder, his stubby fingertips attempting to grasp my shoulder. I looked at the tree he’d been scratching at. His blood dripped from the center of the tree trunk. It dripped from the letters “CRO”. Then his rancid jaw dropped open, splitting his patchy facial hair into a gaping horror. His eyelids shot open, revealing his black lifeless eyes. “Have you seen my daughter?” he croaked with tears in streaming down his cheeks. “I can’t find my daughter.” He blinked rapidly and fury shaped in his brow.
I squirmed out from his grasp and shoved him away, but he hardly moved. Even his arm remained locked where it had once held my shoulder. I stumbled over a fallen branch and struggled to find my feet again. “Have you seen my daughter,” he asked again.
“Get away from me,” I screamed out. I planted my feet upon the leafy ground and began to run. I didn’t care whether it was in the right direction, just as long as it was away from him.
He called out louder, “Have you seen my daughter? I cannot find her.”
I glanced back to see him shuffling towards me, crunching the leaves beneath his feet with every step. His arm was still extended, dark fingers dripping blood.
Before I could look ahead again, I smacked straight into someone’s prominent rib cage. I fell to the ground again, slightly disoriented and rubbed my eyes. “Please help me, please, please. There’s a man out there and he’s chasing me, I don’t know – ”
My vision straightened upon a woman – frail with starvation. She looked elderly, not a week away from death. Her black and white lace clothing sagged, too large for her withering figure. Her eyeshadow smeared down her cheeks. And then I noticed…one of her ribs stuck out of her punctured abdomen. “We’re starving. Please help us. John said he’d be back soon.”
Then I looked down to see a knife in her hand. She grasped it tightly with all the strength she had left. “Please help us. You’re our only hope. She lunged and slashed at the air immediately in front of me. “Please,” she continued. Her eyes were as black as the man’s, skin as pale. She clenched her teeth and blood splattered upon her lips. “Help us.”
I stood again, this time regaining my footing faster, and continued to run. In my brief pause, the man had grown nearer. I ran as fast as I could. I weaved between trees and stumbled on roots and broken sticks. “Sam,” I cried out again. “Ms. Kelly.” No answer.
Then I turned into a clearing and saw a pile, burning before me. But it wasn’t a pile of leaves. It wasn’t even garbage a hiker had left behind. The pile was of…corpses. It consisted of men for the most part, but women and children too in small numbers. Some of the bodies were already too burnt to recognize their gender. Their incinerating scent wafted into my lungs. I covered my mouth and violently coughed. Among the pile, an unusually small hand stuck out. It still twitched beneath the burning mound. “Have you seen my daughter?” I heard in the distance. “Have you seen my daughter?”
I darted away from the burning bodies, trying not to throw-up. I felt I’d be lost forever amongst these people. I would be subject to the same fate as them – starving and hobbling around the forest, bleeding from everywhere and eventually burned atop a pile of human remains. I ran and ran, more than I ever had in my life, still clutching that arrowhead.
And then, I finally heard it. “Collin?” someone yelled. It sounded like Ms. Kelly. I stopped and pivoted to the right to follow the sound. “Collin,” she yelled again.
“Hello,” I tried meekly responding. She didn’t hear me at first. Then I saw movement between the trees. I began furiously waving my arms. “I’m over here,” I cried out. “I’m over here, Ms. Kelly.”
She saw me approaching. “Collin.” She closed her eyes and whined in ecstatic relief.
I finally reached her. I stumbled once more, but caught myself by grabbing onto her top. I didn’t initially care about what my classmates thought of it. I panted and collapsed onto the leaves again, trying to catch my breath. “Collin, where were you?”
Samuel pushed through, curiosity dawning over his face.
“There was a man out there. He said he was looking for his daughter.”
“A man? Collin, what? Who?” Ms. Kelly shrieked. Her eyes shortened and she squatted beside me. Her neck uncontrollably flailed across the forest around us. “Collin who was it? You need to tell me everything. What did he look like?”
At the time, I was confused by her level of concern. It sounded as if she knew something was in that forest. “I was walking behind you guys and stopped for just a minute, and then you were gone. I was looking everywhere and then there was a man and this woman and a pile of bodies.”
“Collin what are you saying?” Ms. Kelly demanded. I looked beyond her to see the whole class standing in a half-circle, staring at me like I had seven heads.
I stammered, unable to find my words.
“Are you bleeding?” she asked. “What is this?” Ms. Kelly brushed my shoulder with her hand and then pressed harder with her sleeve, trying to wipe the blood off me. It came off rather easily, but then her eyes turned to horror. “Collin, who’s blood is this? What happened?”
“There – there – there was a man in a pirate hat. He was looking for his daughter. Half his face was burned. His eyes were black,” I said.
Ms. Kelly shook her head. “Come on, you have to tell the park rangers what you saw back in the visitor’s center, okay?”
And so I did, but reluctantly so. In monotone, I recited back each aspect of my story to the park rangers as they half listened, constantly interrupting. I’m not sure if a police report was ever filed that day, but I’m sure they didn’t believe me enough to pursue the case heavily. What were the police to go off of anyway? A charred man wandering the forest in a pirate hat looking for his daughter sounded unlikely at least.
Over the years even I questioned what I saw. Surely, I wasn’t the only one who knew what actually came of the Roanoke colony. I couldn’t be the only one who knew they lurked those very forests still acutely suffering after 400 years. But then I saw it – in 2013 a picture emerged online from the forest of the old Roanoke Colony. A crudely etched 3 letters were found inscribed on a tree about 500 yards off the trail. In large, fresh, and bloody print, those 3 letters blared through my screen and seared into my mind. “CRO”. I rubbed the arrowhead between my shaking fingers. Researchers say the letters inscribed on the tree match the written account of the original Roanoke governor, John White. When he returned to the colony after being gone for 3 years, he found no sign of human life or even the struggle of an invasion. The only thing he found was 3 letters inscribed on a tree. To match the story, the letters had to have been carved over 400 years ago, but samples from the tree indicate it was carved less than ten years prior to 2013. But the scientists concluded it was the work of a prankster. it couldn’t have been a colonist. I felt his eyes burn into mine. I could hear him chanting to me. “Have you seen my daughter?”