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The Haunting of Elora Donnelly” (Introduction)

I began writing “The Carving Circle” as soon as we moved from London and into our two hundred year old house in East Sussex, England. I had always wanted to write the heartbreaking story of my great-great grandmother, Elora Donnelly, and for many years had started and discarded manuscripts. It felt as though I’d been waiting to write the story inside of Hole Wood Cottage and as soon as I arrived, the presence of the story was powerful and pushed through me.

It is often said that a character will take possession of their writer, and this has certainly been my experience. However, the possession I speak of when I speak of Elora is a real and genuine haunting, for it wasn’t long before we discovered that Elora had actually lived inside of Hole Wood Cottage. The house deeds state that she took ownership of Hole Wood Cottage in 1905, while three thousand miles away, a gravestone in Illinois claims that she died in 1897.

Hole Wood Cottage

I am writing this diary because Elora has pulled me to her, over prairie and ocean, to document the truth of her existence, as well as my ancestry.

Though I am not a stranger to her presence, as Elora used to visit me when I was a child. I remember the morning I heard about her death. The day was a grey drizzle against the window and I sensed her, once again, inside my bedroom. When she arrived, it was as though the house levitated and I felt this floating as I lay there with my eyes shut.

The sensation of her began in my chest and slowly crawled into my mind, where, it liked to sit behind my eyes and direct my vision towards what I deemed then as unholy. She was in the corner, a shadowed filminess of cold air.

One of the areas on the property where Elora’s presence is most accutely felt.

I never saw her fleshed outside of my imagination. She stood in my awareness, harmless and sad with white hair, eyes and clothes all a flicker. Her skin had the burnish of unpolished silver with a singed patina. She did as she always did and showed me her black glove, turning it this way and that, pointing to a tear in the thumb and imploring me to hold it. Then she’d fade away from my mind and reenter the walls of the house where I could feel her despondency. I didn’t know what to do with her torment. I didn’t want it, though I pitied her for grieving, I didn’t want her in my life.

But that morning was different. She didn’t leave; instead, she bled from the corner and into the ceiling above me, then down to the doorway, where she seemed to be listening. I could hear my mother speaking in whispers in the kitchen.

I crept down the hallway, stood silently at the kitchen door and heard this story of my great, great grandmother Elora. 

Elora’s husband, Herbert, and her two grown sons, Dave and Jim, left her at home while they attended a horse sale a few hours ride away in Springfield.  On the ride home, the men saw the house, which was in the middle of a prairie that stretched to the banks of the Mississippi, consumed by flames. The sons ran inside and found their mother gagged, tied up and dead.

The onyx brooch she wore at her throat was missing, as well as her wedding ring. There had been rumors that a convict from the local penitentiary had escaped and was on the run. They believed that this criminal had tried to burgle the house, and when Elora attempted to stop him, he murdered her and set the house on fire. They searched the property and found a single black glove. Herbert gave the glove to his bloodhounds and, along with his sons, mounted his horse.

Elora’s brooch

The dogs trailed the murderer to the railroad track that ran parallel to the Mississippi river. Ahead, the men watched the 19:02 Burlington freight train steam it’s way to Kansas City. The sons rode up and jumped the train. They searched and found Elora’s murderer hidden inside a boxcar full of empty crates. In his pocket he had the onyx broach and her wedding ring. The brooch was a carving of her mother, Clementine Shipley. They recovered the broach and the ring, slit the murderer’s throat and threw his body into the river.

On the ride back to the house, Herbert suffered a massive heart attack, the shock of his wife’s death being too much to bear. So the sons buried both of their parents on the same day. The tremor of such a tragedy forced both men to abandon the land. Jim went west and Dave boarded a ship to England.  It was the last time they saw one another. However, the deeds to the land remained within the family and, generations later, my grandfather had a house built on the prairie nearest to the Mississippi.

My mother and I moved into this house after my parents divorced, and as I heard this story I realized that the woman inside my room was my great great grandmother Elora. I turned and acknowledged her; she nodded her approval, disappeared into the wall and removed her presence from the house entirely, though she remained inside my dreams.

You can see her in her grey filminess at the end of the woodland path

Over time, my family mythologized the story as a great catastrophe that divided the two brothers and left us with a half formed lineage, for we are the descendants of Jim Donnelly. Dave Donnelly was never heard from again. The story became such a part of my family identity that I hardly registered its influence, and it dissolved inside me like salt in water.

Even Elora’s visits, which moved from infrequent to almost never, felt like nostalgic and comical childhood notions and as I grew older. I tried to ignore her spirit to prevent looking like a fool. I thought that by ignoring her I was playing my part as a good and mature person. I confined her to the place where we sequester our fears and beasts. The fear I felt when I thought of her, as well as the circumstances of her death, was the fear of being discovered as deranged, not of her presence.

I wanted to forget that side of myself. I think most of us do. We are happy to be scared of beasts, but only in a peripheral sense, inside a story or a movie, and not as a personality that we internalize as our own. We don’t like to believe we are beastly. It can make us feel less intellectually principal and evolved. People of the past or of indigenous persuasions have beasts, not us, and so the idea of the beast has been amputated and categorized as evil by the current myth we are creating for ourselves.

There are some places on the property that only photograph as a red haze despite my adapting the lens.

Even our authorities say this sacrifice is necessary in order to remain civilized, but I think this is the mistake. 

The beast should be acknowledged as indispensable to humanity and not just a sensationalized sideshow that happens to someone else, someone different. The beast should be honored as a great balancer, for without attention, it simmers silently into irrationality. And it is the irrational things that the heart fastens itself to, obsessively, lovingly, horribly, and it is always the heart that wins in the end. What I have learned is that to acknowledge the beast is to speak of it, and to speak of a thing, is to set it free.

This diary is a way for me to discover an ancestral truth, but also to relearn an old language that I have recently discovered still dwells within me. It is the language I use to speak to my beast. The language to address our own beast is not a lost language but, out of a commitment to maintaining a gentile society, we’ve moved our understanding and acceptance of this language into our subconscious. And because we don’t know how to directly communicate with our own beasts, we don’t know how to speak to the beasts that consume others, so paralyze ourselves with panic and the need to kill what we struggle to articulate.

I don’t seek freedom from the darkness, rather, the freedom to coexist as an illumination of light alongside it, attempting to communicate animal to animal. To begin, there is no better place than one’s own lair.   

New chapters of “The Haunting of Elora Donnelly” will be released on the first of each month. 

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