Excerpt from The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Lake of Dead Languages

by Carol Goodman

The Lake of Dead Languages
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2002, 390 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2003, 413 pages

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You're the only one I can ever tell.

I stare at the words so hard that a dim halo forms around them and I have to blink to make the darkness go away. Later I'll wonder what I recognized first: the words that I wrote in my journal almost twenty years ago, or my own handwriting.

I make the students in my next class recite declensions until the sound of the other words in my head is a faint whisper, but as I walk to the dining hall the words reassert themselves in my brain. You're the only one I can ever tell. Words any teenager might write in her diary. If I hadn't recognized my own handwriting there would be no cause for alarm. The words could refer to anything, but knowing what they do refer to I can't help but wonder how someone has gotten hold of my old journal and slipped a page of it into my homework folder. At first I had thought it must be Athena, but then I realized that any of the girls could have handed me the page when she handed in her own assignment. For that matter, since I left the homework folder on my desk overnight and the classrooms are unlocked, anyone might have slipped the page into my homework folder.

I know that that particular page is from the last journal I kept senior year, and that I lost it during the spring semester. Could it have been on the property all this time--hidden under the floorboards in my old dorm room perhaps--and Athena or one of her friends has now found it? The thought of what else is in that journal floods through me and I have to actually stop at the foot of the mansion stairs and lean on the railing for a moment before I can start up the steps.

Girls in plaid skirts and white shirts coming untucked from the blue sweaters tied around their waists stream around me as I make my way up the stairs toward the massive oak doors. The doors were designed to intimidate. They are outside the human scale. The Crevecoeur family, who donated the mansion to the school, also owned the paper mill in the nearby town of Corinth. India Crevecoeur ran a tea and "improvement society" for the female mill workers. I picture those mill girls, in a tight gaggle for warmth as much as for moral support, waiting outside these doors. My own grandmother, who worked at the mill before working as a maid for the Crevecoeurs, might have been among them.

When I won the scholarship to come here I wondered what the Crevecoeurs would have thought about the granddaughter of one of their maids attending their school. I don't think they would have been amused. In the family portrait that hangs in the Music Room they look like dour, unhappy people. Their ancestors were Huguenots who fled France in the seventeenth century and eventually made their way here to this remote outpost in upstate New York. It must have been a shock to them--this wilderness, the brutal winters, the isolation. The fanlight above the door is plain glass now, but when I went here it was stained glass: a red heart split in two by a green fleur-de-lis-handled dagger and the family motto in yellow: Cor te reducit--The heart leads you back. I've always imagined them waiting for some deliverance from this savage place, to France, or God perhaps. But since I have found myself back at Heart Lake--a place I swore I'd never return to--I've begun to think the heart in the motto is the lake itself, exerting its own gravitational pull on those who have once lived on its shores and bathed in its icy green water.


•••

The faculty dining room is in the old Music Room. When I went to Heart Lake the scholarship students worked in the kitchen and served the teachers at meals. Some years ago the practice was discontinued as it was considered demeaning to the scholarship students. I never minded though. Nancy Ames, the cook, always gave us a good meal. Roasts and potatoes, creamed vegetables and poached fish. I never ate so well in all my life. She saved us the rolls she baked fresh for every meal. She gave them to us wrapped in thick linen napkins embroidered with the Heart Lake crest, which we were to remember to return. Walking back through the cold dusk--that last year at Heart Lake resides in my memory as one endless winter dusk--I felt the warmth of them in my pocket, like a small animal burrowed for shelter against my body.

Excerpted from The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman Copyright 2002 by Carol Goodman. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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