“The Haunting of Elora Donnelly” (Chapter One)
I’ll start from the beginning.
By the time I moved to England, I hadn’t been visited by Elora in half a decade and had all but forgotten her, so I was surprised to receive the onyx broach in the post after the birth of my daughter.
You were always fascinated by that old story, wrote my grandmother on a post-it stuck to a ball of bubble wrap. This should be yours.
I unraveled the plastic and placed the broach laid inside my palm. The mystery of my childhood surrounding Elora came back to me. I felt ready to acknowledge that she had been real, now that I had children and understood that the world was full of marvels, though I wanted her to remain confined to my mind, therefore, controllable.
I felt a secret shame for laughing her off as a figment of a child’s overactive imagination. I thought that holding the broach would revive her, but it didn’t, though that was because she was waiting for me elsewhere.
I heard the post slide in through the mailbox and drop to the floor. Inside was a letter from an estate agent. After many years of living in London, my husband and I had decided it was time to move to the countryside of East Sussex. We had been house hunting for over a year, plenty were nice, but none felt right.
I opened the letter from the agency. A house that fit our requirements had recently come to market and when I saw the pictures, I instantly knew it was the one for us. We drove down to Sussex that evening for a viewing and fell in love with the property. Whole Wood House. It was attached to thirty acres of ancient woodland and required extensive renovation.
The house had been unloved for quite some time and we felt bound to it in an unexplainable way. The brambles were chest high and a grove of un-harvested pines was thick and foreboding, beyond that was a stream and indigenous woodland. The whole place felt enchanting in a melancholic; sleeping beauty kind of way and we set about taming the weed infested garden and mending the derelict inside.
After the roof was fixed, we decided to knock down a partition wall that had been built between the living room and the study. By doing this we uncovered the original doorway and found the cornicing was still intact. It was an intricate molding of grapes, roses and ivy and in the middle, once white, now covered with fifty years of dust, was plaque engraved with the name Elora.
Sure enough, when we researched the old deeds of the house, we discovered that until 1910 the houses name had been Elora as well as belonging to an Elora Donnelly. There was no obvious indication as to why the house name had been changed or why she would name a house after herself.
Two owners previous to us had renamed the house Whole Wood House. The shock I displayed was feigned, for in my heart I’d always known that Elora was as inescapable as the story I’d eventually write about her.
The house stirred with charisma and authority. She had found me.
I had been struggling to write The Carving Circle for many years. I understood that the retelling of my great, great grandmother would legitimize her existence, though I didn’t know where she wanted me to begin. On the day we uncovered her name, the plot for The Carving Circle came to me in its entirety. As I wrote it, it felt as though the life I was giving her character was the life she’d have liked to have lived.
This life that she’d begun to orchestrate for herself, through me, was entirely unexpected at first, yet when I began researching her past, I realized that no one knew the actual truth of her existence. That the story my family told of her had become our truth, despite being almost entirely false, though, in many ways, it worked to keep her identity hidden. The genuine truth is irrelevant when compared to the influence of a story.
When I understood this, she began to reveal herself as a presence once more. A filmy figure stood protectively on the stairway. When I splashed water on my face at night, I often felt someone behind me, yet when I looked up from the basin and into the mirror, it was as though a figure had just vanished. Fuses would blow, leaving us in the dark, and we would hear footsteps on the decking outside and along the hallway. Sometimes, I would wake from a deep sleep with the feeling of breath on my cheek, as though someone were peering down at me, and a shadow would fall over my wardrobe mirror.
You need to understand that although I felt afraid, I also felt loved, yet in a devotedly defensive way.
My young children felt it too and would often wave and smile at air, nothing. When they were playing in the woodland, I knew she was there. When they were in the treehouse, I knew she was there. When they were sitting by the fire and listening to stories, I knew she was there. In this way, she became regular. I suppose like a disease become regular when you’ve lived with it for a long time.
In my heart, I knew it was the same Elora, for the beast of her has always been inside me, black as peat and flammable, pickaxed from the ground soft with soft rain and fueling many forms. She is one of the soil and gentle, though calculating, as she folds into the version of myself that I carry around in my mind.
Though she was a temperate haunt, I had to be sure that she hadn’t died on the date written on her gravestone. I needed proof to communicate with her. Regular or not, temperate or not, I worried that by accepting her I was inevitably inviting other spirits in, who may not be as benevolent.
It took an afternoon on Ancestory.com to locate the names aboard the passenger ship Iconic Star that left New York on September 20, 1897. It’s destination was Portsmouth, England. I read the name Clementine Shipley, and I knew it was Elora. She’d taken the name of her mother, owner of the broach I now had in my possession. Clementine was traveling with another man. Crawford Valdene. Could it have been her son? Her lover?
I am determined to find out.