Emmeline. It started with her. I thought it had to end with her. But I was wrong.
The surveyors found it when they went looking for a spot to put up a commercial office building. It was almost intact. Only the roof was partially collapsed. The basement was filled with dirt. There were unusual scorch marks on the walls and floors of almost every room of the sixteen-room house. Unusual in that they didn’t seem to be caused by fire. The ceilings of each room—and only the ceilings—were covered with vines that once must have been ropey but in the present were petrified to the hardness of a twigs and branches.
The preliminary research into the area had uncovered no historical significance. But having stumbled onto the house, the surveyors followed protocol and brought in archaeologists and historians to check and make sure there was no historical significance to the house. I was one of those researchers. We would have thirty days to make our report and recommendation. If we did not find a valid and provable reason why the house should be preserved, the company could begin clearing and preparing the area for construction.
When I first visited the house, I expected a mostly gray ruin, smelling of moist earth, and filled with dust and cobwebs. I was surprised at how big it was. I was not the first to wonder how it had gotten buried. I hoped we would find out in the course of our investigation. I was surprised too at how fine it was. We had to climb down from the roof level. The surveyors had installed lanterns all throughout the house, and yet it still seemed dimmed, and indeed gray. But the house’s grandeur still shown in the weak lantern light and through the gray layer of age and earth.
There were chandeliers and spiraling staircases, windows of stained glass in the house’s private chapel, and fountains of marble in the main hall. The house was no ramshackle affair. The initial search may not have found anything of consequence to report, but I was certain that was soon to change. There must have been records of such a grand house tucked away somewhere.
We began our investigation, and so too began the hauntings.
One of the surveyors saw her first, but he didn’t know she was a ghost. He saw her by the edge of the forest and even spoke to her, told her it was dangerous to be around the site. Someone called out to him, diverting his attention for just a moment. When he turned back to speak to the girl again, she was gone. He asked the other men to keep their eyes out for her, worried that she might return out of curiosity. But he soon forgot her.
Then others began to see her. She startled a surveyor, who saw her when he turned around after taking photographs of the kitchens. He dropped his lantern. By the time he picked it up again and looked, she was gone. He called out to her and searched for her, afraid she would hurt herself in the ruins of that old house. When asked to recall her appearance, he only remembered that she had long, dark hair that was loose upon her shoulders and that she clutched a doll to her chest.
I was less afraid of being startled by ghosts than becoming trapped in the wreck of the house, should it collapse on top of us while we were searching it. The survey and construction team assured us they had shored up the inside of the house well. But there were a few incidents, minor so far. I only spent a few days out of the week visiting the house for further clues. So I was not present for any of the incidents. The lantern lights in one section of the house went dark and were found to have been shattered and pulled down from the walls. The dirt that had been removed from the basement had all been replaced overnight. More scorch marks appeared on the walls and floors. Small ones at first, so it took a few days for anyone to notice.
A feeling of unease settled on some of the surveyors and researchers, who worried that they might have uncovered a haunted house.
Then there were the sounds. It was expected that there would be creaks and moans. We listened for sounds like cracks or snaps that would warn us to flee in case the shoring failed and the house collapsed. We expected the sounds of voices, even coming from strange places, as the voices of surveyors and researchers moved and echoed along tunnels and bounced against walls. Eerie sounds surrounded our daily lives and had nothing to do with ghosts or hauntings.
I was responsible for searching through public records to find some reference to the house, but thus far, I had found nothing. If there had been any records to begin with, they must have been lost or destroyed. Considering the house appeared to be about two hundred years old, I was not too surprised. There had been a major fire in the city a hundred back. Since then, the city had been hit by a dozen storms major enough to cause the destruction of buildings. Records tended to get lost and destroyed during such disasters.
One rainy day, while sifting through the news archives, I received a message from my supervisor. He told me that the surveyors had worked night and day to dig up that basement, and they had found a clue at last.
There had been no records inside the house, though there was a library and a study, and writing desks in every bedroom. There had been no plaque revealing the house’s address or name, or the names of its occupants. In the basement, the surveyors had found the first bit of writing we had discovered in the house. Scratched into the wooden surface of the ceiling, which was otherwise unmarred and not covered with vines or scorch marks, was a single word. A name.
Without a last name to accompany it, the one name was not much of a clue. My colleagues and I performed a search of birth records from the time, but there were large periods of time for which such records were missing.
After a few days, I grew tired of sitting and staring at papers that gave no answers. I felt a sudden whim to visit the house. It was midday, so there were several people there working. The house was so big that the surveyors and builders were still digging through and shoring up. Having a blueprint would have helped them greatly. Based on its design and the style of various fixtures and decorations, the architects surmised there had once been a greenhouse nearby, perhaps an orchard, and some detached buildings. There might even be a guest house or two nearby. If they were all buried, then tunnels would have to be built to reach all the detached structures.
I was not an architect or an archaeologist. I would likely gain no further knowledge from direct observation. Sharper eyes than mine were searching the house. Still, I wanted to see the basement, to see that name etched on the ceiling with my own eyes.
I went down to the basement alone. I had not been to the house in several days and the survey team was finished with the basement. There were strings of lanterns along all the walls. But it was still dim, as if something were draining the light. The name looked as it had in the photographs I’d been sent. Seeing it in person gave me no sudden epiphanies. I sensed movement in the room as I was staring up at the ceiling. I dropped my gaze, and there she was.
I was not startled or scared. But a slow dread began to creep across my skin and down into my bones as I watched the girl. She was no translucent specter. She did not have hollow eyes or black eyes or red glowing eyes. She had bright blue eyes. And straight black hair that fell loosely over her shoulders. She clutched a doll to her chest. She was wearing a long white gown dotted with little pink flowers. It looked like a nightgown. Her feet were bare and it was cold in the basement, but she did not shiver. She stared at me with those bright eyes, her expression both curious and wary.
I dared to speak.
A slow frown darkened her face as the dim lanterns too seemed to darken. I heard a creaking sound from behind me. I turned to face it, trying to keep the girl in the corner of my vision. The entrance to the basement had become blocked by something. I glanced back to where the girl had been standing, unsurprised that she wasn’t there. But now my dread was intensifying. The basement seemed to be growing dimmer and dimmer.
I climbed up the basement steps and found that the doorway had become covered with those strange vines. They were not green and new, but just as hard and petrified as the ones we’d found elsewhere in the house. I pulled at them, then pushed, but they would not come loose. I searched the basement for an ax or any kind of tool, but found nothing. I called out, hoping someone was close enough to hear me, that the vines would not dampen or block the sound of my voice.
Someone called back to me right away and told me to stand clear. I glanced about the basement while they worked to clear the vines, but I did not see the girl. Within moments, the basement door was cleared and I rushed up and patted the backs of the men who had freed me.
They told me that such things had been happening, so everyone had been keeping a watch over each other. And no one worked in the house past sundown.
I couldn’t have seen what I thought I saw. I reported it, of course, as per our protocol. But I explained that I did not believe the girl to be a ghost.
There may have been some chemical in the dust of the house or around the grounds that was causing hallucinations. One man had seen a little girl, leading others to see her as well, through the power of subconscious suggestion. If not a chemical, perhaps a spore or fungus was growing in the rotting structure. No one had yet explained what all the strange vines were, nor the scorch marks that were not caused by fire.
Again, I was no expert in such fields. Those who were had already ruled out such things, but there must have been something they missed. There must have been many alternate explanations that did not require a belief in something so extraordinary and unlikely as a ghost.
Rumors abounded about the little girl and the house. She had died there tragically in these rumors. Disease was not gruesome enough, so it was decided she had been killed, perhaps by someone she loved and trusted. It was she who had marked her name on the ceiling to place her claim on the house. She who had returned to haunt that house and drive away those who had harmed her in life, and buried the house from the world and from all memory. She had foiled our attempts to dig out the basement, because she did not want us to know her name.
Still, despite the rumors, and the unease that many of the surveyors and even researchers felt, none had felt so strongly as to stop their exploration.
That all changed in the days that followed. The girl began to appear more often. She seemed to appear as a harbinger to some disaster. Whenever someone saw her, she would frown, and sometimes point. If she pointed, vines would grow and block some doorway or break through support struts. The girl’s appearance and disappearance might have been a hallucination, but those vines were not. No one could explain what they were and how they were appearing, or how the girl was making them appear. Some reported that the girl was now accompanied by a shadow that stood behind her. It had no eyes but seemed to be watching. The sounds of weeping, wailing, and sweeping could be heard in the morning until just after sunrise.
One evening, a couple of surveyors were just finishing up for the day. There was still light in the sky, but the sun had sunk below the tree line. By that time, most of the people who worked onsite regularly had seen the girl. Many had been victim of some mishap or other or had rescued their colleague from danger. The sight of the girl scared them, but it was a calm and alert fear. They would watch her as she watched them, and wait for something to happen. They had even established an evacuation protocol should they see her.
The two surveyors saw the girl that night and began to make their way out of the house. They called out to their supervisor, who was above ground, waiting by the ladders for them to come out. Suddenly, the supervisor heard screams and crashing. He shined his light down and called out to his men, but they did not answer. Himself frightened, he hesitated. But he knew he must help his men. His climbed down the ladder. The lanterns had all gone out, and he was in the attic with only his own lantern—bright as it was—as a light. The full moon was bright overhead and he blessed it. He found his men against the far wall, huddled together. One of them was bleeding. The three men managed to climb up the ladder.
As they rode to the hospital, the two men said they had seen the girl and the shadow behind her. The shadow took on form as it passed by the girl and moved toward the men. Its eyes became visible, red balls outlined in ghostly white. It make no sound but heavy breathing through its open mouth, a mouth filled with rows of long sharp teeth. They could feel its hot and suffocating breath. It raised its arms as it came for them, and clawed hands reached for them. The men screamed and began to run up the stairs, higher and higher until they reached the attic. But the shadow managed to reach them in time to rake the legs of one man who fell. They were in the attic by then. The moonlight and their supervisor’s lantern pierced through the shadows, and the creature vanished.
The doctors in the hospital treated the man, though they were surprised to hear he had been attached by a clawed creature. They told him the wounds did not appear to be claw marks from any animal they were familiar with. The next morning, a pick-ax covered in blood was found on the floor below the attic.
The ghostly girl was troubling. The accidents that some believed were caused by her were troubling. But none wanted to believe in a ghost that would attack and beat them. So all accepted that the two men had become frightened, and one of them had raked himself with the pick-ax in his frenzy to escape.
Some blamed me for calling out to the girl with her own name. They said I had angered her. I felt at once guilty and offended. I redoubled my efforts to find any information about Emmeline and the house she was haunting. The surveyors had already told their employer about the problems and their concerns. Two of the surveyors had requested transfers to another job site. One man had resigned altogether. The company was waiting for the official research report. They were likely hoping that it would contradict what their superstitious survey and construction team was reporting.
I began to search the archive of photographs, staying long into the night. Long after the site of the house would be shut down for the day, I would sit in the archives by special permission, searching for Emmeline.
I found her.
And I found her house.
By the time Emmeline Copperton was born, her family had been living in the house for almost ten years. Her father came from a family whose wealth, while not yet considerable, was growing. Emmeline’s father was the youngest son and gained much from the experiences and support of his elder brothers. Among those gains was a house that he would otherwise not have dreamed he could afford. It stood just outside a prosperous and growing town. Emmeline’s father was well-read and well-educated. He kept detailed chronicles of his business and his family life. Once I found those records, I learned a great deal about the Coppertons, focusing first on their only daughter.
Emmeline had two older brothers and two younger brothers. While she lived, the Coppertons were respected and loved within the nearby town. While she lived they were a happy and lively family. There was boisterous commotion in the vast house from the family and from a growing company of servants. They had sad times as did any family. But all was bearable until Emmeline reached the age of nine.
She caught pneumonia. The illness struck her hard and brutally. The doctors of her time could do little but make her comfortable and try to convince her mother and father that they must begin to let go of their daughter.
There was one particularly bad night. As if on cue, a storm came and raged all night while Emmeline held weakly to life. By morning, the weather had calmed. The world was wet and quiet. Still dripping but still. Emmeline woke to the sound of distant thunder…and weeping. All around her bed were mourners.
Emmeline tried to speak, but could not. So she lay her hand on the back of the woman who was prostrated on the bed, her shoulders heaving with a terrible grief. That woman was Emmeline’s mother. The brave woman raised her head to look upon what she thought was her dead child. Instead, she saw the clear blue eyes of her third child and only daughter.
The clouds were clearing out and a ray of light shown outside. It brightened the bedroom window with a golden glow. Everyone rejoiced.
According to her father’s accounts, Emmeline lived another eleven years. She often spoke of being haunted by the ghost of that child she was on that night she almost died. If she kept any journals herself, I had yet to find them. But her father wrote of her with the tenderness and fondness that fathers only had for their daughters.
After Emmeline’s bout with near-death, the house became witness to many more tragedies. One of her elder brothers went off to war. He never returned. His mother received the news as she stood at the foot of the stairs in the main hall. She was caught by her maids as she collapsed into grief for another child. The other of Emmeline’s elder brothers had an affair with one of their maids, though he was engaged to another woman. He tried to be honorable. He broke off his engagement and proposed marriage to the maid. His parents grudgingly approved. The marriage was an awkward event. But it was a joy compared to what came after, for the baby that the maid had been carrying even before she was married was stillborn. Emmeline’s mother comforted her daughter-in-law. But days later, she was found in the forest almost frozen to death, holding the swaddled body of her stillborn grandson.
After that, Emmeline’s mother was sent to a hospital. She never returned to the house. Emmeline’s brother took his new wife away to another town and another house. In the years to follow, they lost another child, but had three who lived and thrived. They prospered and were happy.
Emmeline had two younger brothers, who had both adored their elder sister. The youngest too prospered, but only after he moved away as his brother had. The one closest in age to Emmeline stayed in the house. Emmeline’s father hoped that his last remaining son would inherit the house and look after it. But after Emmeline’s death, her brother refused to leave the house or even go out onto the grounds of his own property.
The Coppertons’ business continued to prosper, but their house grew empty of joy. And it became filled only with the memory of death and sorrow.
Those who had once sympathized with the family began to gossip, for the Coppertons who still resided in the house seemed to have gone mad.
I found three photographs of Emmeline, all when she was a little girl. One was of her family in happier times. Her father looked stern but proud. Her mother smiled and looked ahead, but her arms were draped lovingly over her daughter. In another, Emmeline sat with her youngest brothers. The third was a rarity from those days, an un-posed photograph of Emmeline playing.
She had two dolls in her hands. One was the figure of a beautiful girl with flowing hair and a pretty dress, an expected toy for a little girl. The other was half-hidden in Emmeline’s shadow. By modern standards, it was a troubling-looking thing to fashion into a child’s toy. But by the standards of Emmeline’s time, it was likely not unusual. I could make out the claws, the razor-toothed smile, and the crazed red eyes.
It was the monster that had attacked the men.
The breath was knocked out of me. I could not speak.
She conjured it, I thought. I believed, at last, that what I had seen, what almost all of us had seen, was a ghost.
I wondered if the ghost of Emmeline had been the cause of her family’s grief and decline. Had she and her shadow driven them either to madness or escape?
Emmeline’s father had a theory of what had happened to his family. He did not speak of unhappy events in his journals. But he wrote many letters to his brother about his troubles and his grief. In one of them, he spoke of the house in a way he never had before.
“Only my Emmeline has escaped it. But for how long? The house has corrupted all others who resided here, who were infected by its rot. The disease attacks one’s very soul. I have called in the holiest of men and women to cleanse the house. None have succeeded. Even the strongest of chemicals, of exploding powders, has not been enough to destroy it. It is the very core of evil. We feed it with our evil deeds. And it returns that evil back to us.”
Emmeline’s father went on to explain by telling his brother the story of an ancient myth about evil. He didn’t write what country or culture the tale belonged to, but the tale seemed familiar to me. Our ancestors wanted to be rid of evil once and for all. Humanity has always tried to be rid of evil.
The ancient peoples attempted to devise and build a trap, a box made of and with powerful magic, even divine magic and energy, and used to contain evil. They succeeded in gathering all the evil in the world in one place and trapping it in the box, which they then tried to destroy. To no avail. The evil could not be destroyed. So they buried the box. The plan worked. For thousands upon thousands of years, peace and prosperity reigned among all of humanity. There were differences and disagreements, to be sure. There was impatience and anger. There was loneliness and grief. There was fear and death. But there always remained that one thing that evil took from the one who committed evil and the one who fell victim to evil. Dignity. So long as each respected the dignity of the other, all could live together, even in disagreement.
In time, the very name of evil was forgotten. So no one knew what was to come when one day a group of men went digging in a place that had once been well-protected and heavily guarded. A place that was once marked as deadly, and once marked as sacred, all to keep at bay the natural curiosity of humanity. Over time such guards had fallen away and faded. The place, whether sacred or dangerous, or both, had become another patch of grass. The men dug. Their purpose was soon forgotten by history. For they found a most unusual box. A beautiful box.
They opened it. They, though innocent and good, released evil back into the world.
There were more people in the world by then. Spread wide over many lands and realms. After thousands upon thousands of years of falling prey to evil and becoming evil, humanity rediscovered how their ancestors had managed to defeat evil once. They tried to contain it again, but they could not. Perhaps it had spread too far. Perhaps they did not have the knowledge their ancestors had. Evil was so rampant that it corrupted and rotted every living soul. Eventually, humanity found a way to create new containers and contain evil bit by bit.
It seemed that Emmeline’s father believed the house was such a container for evil, or perhaps the container from the ancient myths. The house had been built some thirty years before the Coppertons moved in. Emmeline’s father had seen the need for new construction. He had the greenhouse built and a guesthouse. He had a basement dug. He did not find any boxes, ornate or otherwise. But he believed his family’s trouble began then, when little Emmeline was only five years old.
One of the last things Emmeline’s father wrote about her was that she was engaged to be married to a young man from another town and would be leaving soon. She died at the age of twenty. Her father did not write how, nor could I find any other accounts of her death. He died shortly after, and with him died the history of the Coppertons. I could not find what became of Emmeline’s mother, or the brother who would not leave the house. I did not know who had buried the house. But the fatalistic letter that Emmeline’s father wrote to his brother reminded me that I was reading the first-hand accounts of a man who had suffered grief and had much at stake in the stories he told.
So, much as I wanted to gather all the surveyors and researchers together to tell them the story I had uncovered, I could not rush the work of uncovering the true and complete story. I did not even know for certain how old Emmeline was when she died if her father’s accounts were to be believed.
So I took my time and searched. While the surveyors took their precautions and watched for the ghost girl and the demonic creature that shadowed her, I learned all I could about the Coppertons and their house.
The more I read and the more often I began to visit the site of the house, the more difficult it became to think that either the house or Emmeline were evil. Perhaps they were both just sad and in pain. Perhaps they had been resting in some kind of peace until we woke them and woke their sadness and pain. And perhaps, once I had as much of her story as I could find, I could help Emmeline tor rest.
Emmeline had never lived past the age of nine. Her fever never broke. Her mother had never raised her weeping head to look upon the bright-eyed waking face of her dear daughter. It was not Emmeline who lived another eleven years. It was her father. He was haunted by her, not just by the little girl she was, but by his own dreams and wishes of what she might have grown up to be.
As far as I could see the house had been a great comfort to Emmeline. And Emmeline both in life and in death had been a great comfort to her family. The terrible crimes and tragedies that haunted her family had causes beyond the simple but tempting reason that they had been infected by evil from outside themselves, an evil that came from a demonic house.
The house did not contain all the evil of the world, nor even the evil of one family. It was a house, like any other. And it was haunted. It was haunted by sad memories.
Someone had granted that house and its one remaining inhabitant the only mercy that were left to them. Someone had buried them. Rumor and speculation had it that it was Emmeline’s youngest brother. That he was the one who removed all trace of misery and tragedy from the house. That he recovered all the family records for the nearby town’s archives. I imagined him also finding and tending to the remains of his shut-in brother, who had died in the basement, lying on the floor, staring at the word he had etched in the ceiling, the name of his lost sister.
Emmeline’s ghost was real. Even though I had seen her, I did not know if that little girl was real, or that creature that attacked the men one night. But I did know that the little girl and the house that she had once lived in deserved to be put to rest. They deserved peace. I had found the plans for the house and grounds, including the plot where all the Coppertons were to be buried. Emmeline should have been buried there, but I found no record or account of her burial. So we dug, and we checked. We found her bones where we expected to, the bones of a little girl. She had been laid properly to rest, and we returned her to that rest.
But I had already expected that her family had taken care of Emmeline. It was a hunch, but what I really expected not to find were her brother’s bones. The one who had died in the house as she had died in the house. The second youngest brother. There was no coffin and no bones where his gravestone was erected.
So, he was the restless spirit. And Emmeline had stayed with him, for him. She had stayed to keep him company, to comfort him. Perhaps if she had lived, she could have done more than that. She could have taken him out into the world and helped him to be free of his need for her and for their house. Emmeline had done her best. The house had done its best. It was up to us now to do what her own family had been unable to do, though some had tried.
We had to keep digging, even if we encountered more mishaps and danger. We had to find her brother’s bones. We had to put him to rest. Perhaps then Emmeline could see and her house would see, that they too could finally rest.
Copyright © 2016. Nila L. Patel