The Expiring of Emma Hollingsworth

Submitted into Contest #127 in response to: Begin your story with a character having a gut feeling they cannot explain.... view prompt


Historical Fiction Friendship

New England, 1815

Emma Hollingsworth was dead alright. The carriage door must not have been secured properly for it slipped open and Emma tumbled out and hit her head on a rock. She lay where she fell as limp as a boned-fish. When the doctor was rushed onto the scene to examine her battered body and bruised head, he pronounced her expired. 

Now she serenely lay under six-feet of spring soil and a heap of sympathetic flowers. All manner of folk in town came to cry over her grave. I tried very hard to cry like a dutiful mourner, but the tears were stubborn and refused to show, which was rather rude of them considering the current situation. 

Emma Hollingsworth and I had been friends since infancy. Townsfolk knew we were inseparable. You were like to hear them say, “Wherever Ruth goes, Emma is soon to follow.” This was true throughout our childhood and remained true into our teen years. Likely it would have been true our entire lives if Emma hadn’t croaked unexpectedly. I should have been bawling my heart out at the funeral of my dearest friend, but I hadn’t shed a tear.

Emma Hollingsworth was very much dead, so why was my gut telling me she wasn’t? 

We townsfolk left the funeral looking like a swarm of crows. We were all clad in black, as if to leave no doubt that we were rendered utterly miserable by Emma’s expiring. 

Mother squeezed my hand and smiled at me with pitying eyes. “There are times, Ruth, where tears are alright.” 

“Tears are a sin,” I said. Then I winced. Perhaps the funeral of my dearest friend was not the time to be saucy. 

Mother tucked a strand of my unruly hair behind the ribbon of my bonnet. “I know how much she meant to you.” 

Emma did mean the world to me. We were like bread and butter, or a pair of mittens. One simply wasn’t right without the other. 

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that Emma was not the sort of girl to die an untimely death. She was cautious with every step. She always wore a thimble when she sewed. Meanwhile I would prick my finger repeatedly, regretting every time that I hadn’t put a thimble on, but never learned from my mistake. She always pinned her bonnet on securely so it wouldn’t fall off. She carried around a little safety satchel under her skirt. It contained healing herbs, rolls of bandages, a pocket bible, a bell to ring for help, and a small knife to protect herself from wild animals and men. She was always prepared for the worst, but always optimistic that she would never have to face it. How could a girl who stepped so carefully into the world die in such a way? A girl like Emma should have lived long past myself who, flighty and wild as I was, was likely to blunder my way to the wrong side of the grass at some point or another. It hardly seemed fair and it certainly didn't seem real. 

There was a reception at the Hollingsworth home after the funeral. In the dining room there were appetizers. The Hollingsworth’s housekeeper had made Emma’s favorite, apricot marmalade cakes, which was rather cruel seeing as Emma couldn’t eat them. 

Something resembling a shrine was set-up in the parlor. A painting of Emma done when she was a child rested on top of the piano Emma only played when her parents reminded her how much they had paid for the piano. Emma was the only girl I knew rich enough to have her portrait painted. The brush strokes perfectly captured her round face and soft smile. Little trinkets beloved to Emma surrounded the portrait, including her diaries. They sat open for anyone's perusal. 

It irked me to see Emma’s privacy disregarded in such a way. Emma was not only a dutiful journaler, but a passionate one. She confessed the thoughts of her heart to two things, me and her diaries. Likely Mr and Mrs. Hollingsworth believed their daughter was so sweet and innocent that her diaries would only be an honor to her good character, but even sweet, innocent girls write sinful secrets in their diaries from time to time. 

Frances Neighbor, a girl my age, was dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief as she read a page of Emma’s diary. I resisted the urge to snatch it out of her hand and bludgeon her parents over the head with it until they took their daughters' privacy into consideration. 

“What a tragedy,” Frances sobbed as I approached. “Look, here Emma wrote about her future children, but she’ll never have any!”

I didn’t look. “Emma won’t be happy when she finds out people have been reading her diary.” 

My words were enough to silence even Frances Neighbors pathetic wailing. As she stared at me with wide, confused eyes, I realized what I said. 

“I meant Emma wouldn’t be happy if she were alive and saw her diaries being read. But she won’t. Because she’s dead.” I laughed awkwardly, making it all worse than it already was. 

While nobody was looking, I took Emma’s diaries and dropped them behind the piano so no one one else could explore Emma’s secrets. 

It was no surprise when I couldn’t fall asleep that night. That day I had attended the funeral and reception of my dearest friend and laid lavender on her grave, yet despite all irrefutable proof, my gut was still telling me that Emma was not dead. 

I allowed myself to explore the possibility. Perhaps she had a twin no one knew about who had died. Or maybe it was all a ruse created by Mr and Mrs. Hollingsworth and there wasn’t anybody in that coffin at all. No one had seen her dead body aside from her parents and the doctor. 

Neither seemed very plausible, but I couldn’t feel sad over Emma’s death until it felt real to me and I couldn’t shake the feeling that tomorrow I would hear her knock on the door right between the hours of breakfast and dinner like I did everyday. She would embrace me in a hug that always smelled of lavender and we would galavant through town, arm in arm. I would plow ahead and blunder into awkward situations, and Emma, with all her caution and gracious social skills, would get us out. 

I fell asleep only to wake a few hours later at midnight in a fever-like sweat. I’d heard Emma calling my name. But when I looked around the room, there was no Emma. Only moonlight. 

“Of course she’s not here,” I muttered to myself. “She is dead.”

A thought struck me. What if it were all a dream? What if Emma’s death was only a nightmare? What if everything that had passed since Emma fell from her carriage were just figments of an overactive brain? The thought washed over me like spring rain. It all made sense. It was natural to have nightmares of losing the ones you loved. But how could I be sure?

It hit me like a cannonball. I would go to Emma’s grave. If it were all a dream, then naturally the grave wouldn’t exist. 

Nighttime escapes were a specialty of mine. I’d roped Emma into a few. I rolled softly out of bed so as not to bounce the feather mattress and wake my siblings slumbering beside me. I pulled on stockings to soften the shuffling of my feet and tiptoed through the house, wincing at each creaking stair step and outspoken door. 

The moon illuminated my path. In the woods, the trees whispered gently and owls called out to each other. I passed the church with candles glowing in the window. Right behind the church was the graveyard, surrounded by a toppling gray stone wall. 

I climbed over the wall and into the home of the dead. The ground was mossy and soft. When we were younger, Emma was afraid the soft ground would give out and we would fall into the arms of a skeleton. 

Emma was buried somewhere in the middle of the graveyard. When I saw the tall grave of the Hollingsworth ancestors, my stomach twisted. Emma’s grave, if it was there, would be just behind them. I turned the corner. 

Though there was no gravestone yet, the pile of fresh flowers marked where Emma was buried early yesterday. 

“It can’t be,” I whispered. I took two steps forward, then fell to my knees at the foot of Emma’s flower bed. “It can’t be.” 

A rush of sorrow made my throat swell and ache. Tears did not just fill my eyes, they flooded down my cheeks. I clutched at the fresh flowers, crushing them in my fists, and buried my face in my hands. My Emma was dead. 

Through the pain and misery howling through my heart and mind, there was the soft jingle of a bell. Too overwrought to pay it any mind, I dismissed it as a delusion of sorrow. But it kept going. So distant, yet so urgent. It was as if it were coming from the ground.

I dropped the crushed flower petals as if they had scorched me. My tears came to an abrupt halt. Blurry eyed, I stared at the grave before me. The only explanation for a bell to be ringing beneath the ground was for someone beneath the ground to be ringing it. And the only people under the ground were dead. Or at least they were believed to be. 

Unwilling to be fooled by the desperate, and somewhat insane, hopes of a saddened heart, I pushed aside the heaps of flowers on Emma’s grave and put my ear to the fresh dirt. The ringing continued, as faint and desperate as ever. 

All at once I knew; that gut feeling which had felt like a betrayal to the memory of my dearest friend was not just a feeling, but truth and intuition telling me she was still alive. 

I’d heard tales of people being buried alive before. But I’d never fully believed them. It was the kind of people dismissed as happening to someone else. Sure, it might have happened a few towns over, but it would never happen in our town. But it was happening right now. 

“I have to get her out before she suffocates.” 

I clawed desperately at the dirt as quickly as I could. Dirt flew in every direction. Some hit my eye but I impatiently rubbed it away. After several moments of digging with my hands, I’d made merely a dent. I wouldn’t be able to do this myself. I looked around. Sitting in the shadows cast by the moonlight was a small shack just outside the graveyard wall. This was where the gravedigger lived. 

When I knocked wildly on the door, Mr. Grant appeared. He was bleary eyed and cranky. 

“Someone die?” Mr. Grant demanded. “If so, I start digging at dawn. No sooner. The body will keep overnight.” 

“Yes.” I amended myself. “But no. Emma Hollingsworth. She was buried yesterday, but she’s not dead.” 

“Say what?” Mr. Grant leaned his ear towards me. 

Panic was rising in my chest like a flood. “There has been a mistake. She’s alive!”

The gravedigger stared at me. “What you on about?” 

“She's alive! I can hear her ringing a bell!” 

“Where in tarnation would she get a bell?” 

I opened my mouth, then closed it. That was something I hadn’t considered. Where would she get a bell? I was about to declare that didn’t matter right now, but then I remembered. 

“She always carried a satchel under her skirt with a bell in it for safety. You need to help me dig her out or she will suffocate!” 

“I can’t dig up a grave!” said the old man, appalled. 

“That’s your job!”

“Only when there ain’t anyone dead in there yet! I ain’t a criminal.” 

I clenched my fists in frustration. Emma was dying beneath the ground at this very moment. “You will be if you don’t help me!” 

It took a little more convincing, and a few threats, but finally Mr. Grant agreed to help me. 

We stood atop the soil of Emma’s grave with spades in hand.  

“Forgive me, Lord,” said Mr. Grant, looking up at the stars then plunging his spade into the soil. 

Side by side, we began to dig Emma out. As we dug, the ringing became more and more audible, though Mr. Grant insisted he couldn’t hear it. 

It was nearly daybreak when we hit the coffin. A dusty pink sunrise was beginning to set across the sky as we pulled Emma out, cold, clammy and breathless after a night six feet under the cold ground. She fell into my arms, clinging to me as if she were drowning and I were a lifeboat. I hugged her back, fiercely. 

“I didn’t know where I was. I thought I was going to die,” she sobbed. All I could do was laugh in utter relief. 

Although I would have been happy to stay there in my friend's arms, which smelled as much like lavender as ever and not at all like a dead person, there was business to be attended to. First, Emma’s parents needed to be informed of the miracle. Mr. Grant carried Emma, weak as she was, home. Her mother fainted clear away when she saw her pale, ghostlike daughter on the doorstep in the gravedigger's arms. Which gave us a second reason to call Dr. Froth. The first reason was to demand an explanation on how he’d let someone be buried alive before their time.

Emma, weak from multiple near-death experiences, was brought to bed with a cup of tea and apricot cakes leftover from her funeral reception. I told her I would come visit her again after I had “heard what that damn doctor has to say.”

Dr. Froth was flabbergasted. He insisted that Emma had been dead as a doornail when he examined her. The Hollingsworths sent him from their home in disgust. 

They turned to a doctor who hadn’t sent their daughter prematurely to the grave for answers. He was a doctor from a city a few towns over. He admitted that being buried alive was not as uncommon as one might hope. He determined that the cause of Emma’s erroneous death was an injury of the head which had rendered her unconscious temporarily, although it was unclear why no one had detected a pulse. It was safe to say the Hollingsworths would never go to Dr. Froth again. 

When I returned home, weary from the whirlwind which had proved my intuition to be stronger than I’d ever given it any credit for, I found my family at breakfast. 

“Ruth, where on earth were you?” demanded Mother as I entered the kitchen still in my nightshift and covered in dirt. 

“I was visiting with Emma.” 

There was a clatter of spoons as everyone looked up at me.

“Ruth,” said Mother gently. “Emma is dead.”

“Nay,” I said. “She is alive.” 

It was not an easy thing to explain. My family thought I had finally gone insane. But soon Mr. Hollingsworth came by to explain the whole story. He said he didn’t want anyone to see Emma and think she was a ghost then expire as well. And, as words from an adult are always more believed than those of a teen, my family accepted the truth. 

Emma was bed-ridden for a good week before her headaches ceased and her bruises healed. Meanwhile, rumors circulated around town. The worst of which was that Emma’s parents had intentionally buried their child alive, and the most exciting was that I could raise people from the dead. 

When Emma was fully recovered, we were back to our old haunts and went collecting wild flowers the first day. 

As we gathered daisies in a big wide, sun dappled field, we both made a solemn vow to each other. I looked Emma straight on and said, “I swear, if you ever die, I will let your body decay for a week straight before burying you.” Emma repeated the oath. We embraced, then continued collecting flowers as if promising not to bury your friend until their body had rotted away was the most normal thing in the world. 

That was not the only thing we did to ensure someone did not suffer the same as Emma did. Though she did not let on much, Emma was greatly affected by that one night she spent in the darkness of her coffin, trapped, alone and nearly suffocating. 

I went to the town leaders to advocate that the town should take precautions to ensure no one else was buried alive. I thanked the Lord that Emma always carried that satchel with her. So many times I had teased her for it, but it had saved her life in the end. From that day forward every person in our town was buried with a large cow bell in their coffin. Later, the town provided safety coffins being used in other places. These coffins had cords attached to bells above the ground so the person in the coffin could ring for help. This was far more efficient than a bell beneath the ground. 

Years into the future, many people would question our tale. How could a girl spend a whole night under the ground and not suffocate? How could the other girl have heard the bell from six feet under? The science didn’t agree. Our story, the expiring of Emma Hollingsworth, would join the many questionable stories about people who were buried alive.

January 06, 2022 01:42

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00:21 Jan 07, 2022

This was captivating! I was hooked from start to finish. I thought there was a really good ebb and flow to the story, with Ruth at first being sceptical about if Emma is dead (to the point of a midnight jaunt to the graveyard), to accepting her death, to the euphoria of finding her alive. The pacing worked well with little anecdotes and pieces of information to flesh out why Emma is so important to Ruth. And I'll never complain about a happy ending. Thanks for the enjoyable read. :)


15:08 Jan 09, 2022

Thank you for your detailed comment! I’m so glad you enjoyed the story!


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