THE LURKER IN THE RUINS
A tale is told in New Orleans of a young widow who came to grief when she lost her only child in 1878 during the last yellow fever epidemic to hit that storied city. Her husband, a riverboat pilot, had perished barely a year earlier when his vessel exploded. The mother had cherished their daughter as the symbol of her brief time with her husband. Once the little girl was committed to the earth, the woman stood staring down even after the priest left. An hour later, she turned and walked slowly away, as if in a trance, never to be seen again in the Crescent City. Legend has it that she stopped only when she reached some ancient ruins outside the city limits, so old that no one knew who had built the place. There she settled and waited for her child to return to her, for she was not fully resigned to the three-year-old girl’s passing. Though she had witnessed her burial, the forlorn mother could not or would not accept the fact. Over the years, stories circulated in the district of a glowing female figure moving about in the ruins.
For decades afterward, every night when the moon failed to appear, any female child who strayed into that neighborhood past twilight went missing. The locals believed that the woman’s spirit was searching for her own child and would not cease until she was found. Although the mothers in the area began keeping stricter tabs on their girls, an occasional one would somehow manage to wander off,
as if attracted by some unseen force emanating from the ruins, never to be seen again.
More recently, on a languid, moonless summer night outside New Orleans, a young single mother was walking home with her three-year-old daughter in tow. They had just come from a birthday party for the girl's best friend. The little one was telling her mother about the party as she
fingered the bright red macramé necklace she had received as a favor. As they passed the old ruins, the woman's cell phone rang; when she stopped to answer it, her daughter let go of her hand and ran toward the eroded structures. The woman quickly ended the conversation and ran after her daughter. As she stumbled through the underbrush, she called the girl's name, but received no response. The mother continued
calling as she made her way slowly through the tangled shrubbery.
Up ahead, the child's tiny feet carried her closer and closer to the dilapidated structures, as she trailed a glowing female figure. The apparition turned and beckoned to the little girl, who followed eagerly. There was no illumination inside the building, yet the aura about the phantom made her visible to the toddler. Through labyrinthine twists and turns the figure led the child until they reached a stairway leading downward. Descending slowly, the wraith watched as the tot carefully took the steep steps one at a time. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, the specter glided across the dank floor
toward an alcove wherein sat a very pretty canopy bed. The bed clothes were all cream-colored; a diaphanous curtain covered the whole. The woman drew back the curtain and lay on the bed. Smiling sweetly at the little girl, she crooked her finger, then patted the mattress, indicating that she wished the child to join her.
Giggling with delight, the girl climbed onto the bed, laid her head on the soft pillow and said no more after the woman hugged her tightly to her breast.
As the young mother entered the building, she felt a damp chill, even though it was a sultry night. The farther in she went, the colder she felt; soon her very marrow felt like ice. The darkness was daunting; how would she ever find her child? She called her daughter’s name, which echoed
mockingly in the subterranean chamber. Recalling the flashlight attached to her key ring, she aimed the beam ahead of her. It didn't give much light, but it was better than nothing. Treading carefully over the debris scattered about the floor, the distressed woman reached the stairway and cautiously descended.
As she stepped onto the basement floor, the single mother stopped to catch her breath. She aimed the beam around the moldy space and thought she saw something off to her left. Continuing in that direction, the woman came upon a pile of musty brown cloth in an alcove. Spotting what looked like a human foot under the pile, the distraught parent stretched out her own foot and moved the rags aside. She gasped as she uncovered the mummified forms of a woman with a child clasped to her breast. Knowing of the legend, the young parent’s initial feeling was one of pity. That feeling soon turned to one of horror when the light revealed a red macramé necklace about the child's neck. The young mother's screams reverberated through the empty rooms and continued until the shocked woman could scream no more.
Combing the ruins three days later, a search party suddenly froze as they heard a female voice coming from the basement. Descending the stairway, the four men pointed their flashlight beams toward the source of the sound.
The light revealed the woman they were seeking, sitting cross-legged on the floor, clutching a handful of dirty rags while she swayed and cooed. She seemed not to notice the light or the men as they slowly approached her. One of them called her name softly; still no response. Another reached for her arm to lift her up; as he grabbed her, she crumbled into a mound of dust.
It was later discovered that the woman was a lineal descendant of the bereaved widow and that her daughter bore an uncanny resemblance to the fever victim.