See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt: Book Review
"Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41."
There are few who aren't at least passingly familiar with the tale of Lizzie Borden, who was tried and acquitted of the axe murders of her father and stepmother in Massachusetts in 1892.
See What I Have Done revisits the days before during and after this gruesome story from the viewpoints of Lizzie, her sister Emma, their maid Bridget and a stranger called Benjamin.
Savitt perfectly captures the claustrophobia and borderline hysteria of a repressed north eastern middle class family at the turn of the last century and layers on the pace and tension of the sharpest crime novel.
Shirley Jackson would be proud.
Buy See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
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See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt: Book Extract
4 August 1892
He was still bleeding. I yelled, ‘Someone’s killed Father.’ I breathed in kerosene air, licked the thickness from my teeth. The clock on the mantel ticked ticked. I looked at Father, the way hands clutched to thighs, the way the little gold ring on his pinkie finger sat like a sun. I gave him that ring for his birthday when I no longer wanted it. ‘Daddy,’ I had said, ‘I’m giving this to you because I love you.’ He had smiled and kissed my forehead.
A long time ago now.
I looked at Father. I touched his bleeding hand, how long does it take for a body to become cold? and leaned closer to his face, tried to make eye contact, waited to see if he might blink, might recognise me. I wiped my hand across my mouth, tasted blood. My heart beat nightmares, gallop, gallop, as I looked at Father again, watched blood river down his neck and disappear into suit cloth. The clock on the mantel ticked ticked. I walked out of the room, closed the door behind me and made my way to the back stairs, shouted once more to Bridget, ‘Quickly. Someone’s killed Father.’ I wiped my hand across my mouth, licked my teeth.
Bridget came down, brought with her the smell of decayed meaty-meat. ‘Miss Lizzie, what . . .’
‘He’s in the sitting room.’ I pointed through thick, wallpapered walls.
‘Who is?’ Bridget’s face, prickly with confusion.
‘I thought he looked hurt but I wasn’t sure how badly until I got close,’ I said. Summer heat ran up my neck like a knife. My hands ached.
‘Miss Lizzie, yer scarin’ me.’
‘Father’s in the sitting room.’ It was difficult to say anything else.
Bridget ran from the back stairs through the kitchen and I followed her. She ran to the sitting room door, put her hand on the door knob, turn it, turn it.
‘His face has been cut.’ There was a part of me that wanted to push Bridget into the room, make her see what I had found.
She pulled her hand away from the knob and turned to me, owl eyes swooping over my face. A length of sweat trickled from her temple to collarbone. ‘What do ya mean?’ she said.
Like a tiny looking-glass inside my mind, I saw all of Father’s blood, a meal, the leftovers from a wild dog’s feast. The scraps of skin on his chest, his eye resting on his shoulder. His body the Book of Apocalypse. ‘Someone came in and cut him,’ I said.
Bridget was a-tremble. ‘What do ya mean, Miss Lizzie? How could someone cut his face?’ Her voice soured, a tear. I didn’t want her to cry, didn’t want to have to comfort her.
‘I’m not quite sure,’ I said. ‘They might have used an axe. Like taking down a tree.’
Bridget began to cry and strange feelings popped across my bones. She faced the door and twisted her wrist, allowed the door to crack open an inch.
‘Go get Dr Bowen,’ I said. I looked past her, tried to see Father but couldn’t.
Bridget turned to me, scratched her hand. ‘We should attend to yer father, Miss Lizzie . . .’
‘Go bring Dr Bowen.’ I grabbed her hand, all rough and sticky, and walked her to the side door. ‘You’d best hurry, Bridget.’
‘Ya shouldn’t be alone, Miss Lizzie.’
‘What if Mrs Borden was to come home? Shouldn’t I be here to tell her?’ My teeth were cold against my teeth.
She looked into the sun. ‘Alright,’ she said. ‘I’ll try ta be quick as I can.’
Bridget ran out the side of the house, let the door hit her on the backside, a paddle, and she bobbed as she ran onto Second Street, her white house-bonnet a sail in the breeze. Bridget looked over her shoulder towards me, her face dumb with worry, and I shooed her along, my wrist a flick and crunch. She kept going, hip and shouldered an old woman, made her drop her walking cane, made her cry out, ‘What’s the hurry, missy?’ Bridget didn’t respond, how naughty, disappeared from sight, and the woman picked up her cane, made it chink against stone, made a tacky-tacky sound.
I watched people pass by, liked the way their voices filled the air, made everything feel whole, and I felt my lips turn a smile as birds jumped over and under tree branches. For a moment I thought of capturing them, placing them in my pigeon aviary in the barn. How lucky they’d be with me to look after them. I thought of Father, my stomach growled hunger and I went to the pail of water by the well, let my hands sink into the cool sip sip. I brought my hands to mouth and began drinking, lapping with my tongue. It was soft, delicate. Everything slowed down. I saw a dead pigeon lying grey and still in the yard and my stomach murmured. I looked into the sun. I thought of Father, tried to remember the last words I said to him. I took a pear from the arbour, walked back inside.
On the kitchen counter were johnnycakes. I wormed my fingers into their middles until they became small pieces of flour-rocks. I threw a handful of johnnycakes against the wall, listened to them crash in stale waves. Next I went to the stove, pulled the pot of mutton broth close to me and took a deep breath.
There was nothing but my thoughts and Father. I walked towards the sitting room, sank my teeth into the pear, stopped at the door. The clock on the mantel ticked ticked. My legs began to shake and drum into the floor and I took a bite of my pear to make them still. Behind the sitting room door was the smell of tobacco pipe.
‘Father,’ I said. ‘Is that you?’
I opened the door wider then wider, sank my teeth into pear. Father was there on the sofa. He hadn’t moved. Pear skin crisped in my mouth and I caught the smell again. ‘You ought to stop with the tobacco, Father. It makes your skin smell old.’
On the floor next to the sofa was Father’s pipe. I hooked the pipe under my teeth, my tongue pressed against the small mouthpiece. I breathed in. Outside I heard Bridget call like a banshee, ‘Miss Lizzie! Miss Lizzie!’ I placed the pipe back on the floor, my fingers grazing circles of blood, and as I walked out of the room and half closed the door I took a peek at Father.
I opened the side door. Bridget looked a-fire, flame red, and she told me, ‘Dr Bowen’s not home.’
Her response made me want to spit at her. ‘Go find him. Get someone. Get going,’ I said.
Her head jarred backwards. ‘Miss Lizzie, shouldn’t we get Mrs Borden?’ Her voice an echo in a cave, enough with questions.
I cracked my heel into the floorboards, made the house moan then howl. ‘I told you, she’s not here.’
Bridget’s forehead creased. ‘Where is she? We need ta get her right now.’ Annoying, insistent.
‘Don’t tell me what to do, Bridget.’ I heard my voice fold around doors and corners. The house; brittle bone under foot. Everything sounded louder than it should, hurt the ear.
‘I’m sorry, Miss Lizzie.’ Bridget rubbed her hand.
‘Go find someone else. Father really needs help.’
Bridget let out a breath and I watched her run down the street, past a group of young children playing hopscotch. I took another bite of the pear and started to move away from the door.
From across the side fence I heard a woman call my name, felt the drilling of it, ‘Lizzie. Lizzie. Lizzie,’ bore into my ear. I squinted at a figure walking towards me. I pressed my face into the screen door, pieced together the shapes of familiarity. ‘Mrs Churchill?’ I said.
‘Are you alright, dear? I heard Bridget hollering up and down the street and then I saw you standing at the door looking so lost.’ Mrs Churchill came closer to the house, pulled at her red blouse.
On the back step she asked again, ‘Dear, are you alright?’ and my heart beat fast, fast, fast and I told her, ‘Mrs Churchill, do come in. Someone’s killed Father.’
Her eyes and nose scrunched, mouth hollowed into an O. A loud bang sounded from the basement; my neck twitched.
‘This doesn’t make sense,’ she said, a small voice. I opened the door, let her in. ‘Lizzie, what’s happened?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know. I came in and I saw him all cut up. He’s in there.’ I pointed to the sitting room.
Mrs Churchill slowed into the kitchen, rubbed her fat, clean fingers over her red-queen cheeks, rubbed them over her gold cameo necklace, covered her chest with her hands. There in all its shine, her gold and diamond wedding ring, I’d like to keep that. Her chest heaved, soft, child-suckled breasts, I waited for her heart to burst through ribcage onto the kitchen floor.
‘Is he alone?’ She was a mouse.
Mrs Churchill took steps towards the sitting room door then stopped, looked at me. ‘Should I go in?’
‘He’s very hurt, Mrs Churchill. But you could go in. If you wanted to.’
She receded, came back by my side. I counted the times I had seen Father’s body since I found it. My stomach growled.
‘Where’s your mother?’ she asked.
I wrenched my head towards the ceiling, I hate that word, then closed my eyes. ‘She’s gone to visit a sick relative.’
‘We really must get her, Lizzie.’ Mrs Churchill tugged at my hand, tried to make me move.
My skin itched. I pulled away from her grip, scratched my palm. ‘I don’t want to bother her right now.’
‘Lizzie, don’t be ridiculous. This is an emergency.’ She scolded me like I was a child.
‘You can see him, if you want.’
She shook her head, baffled. ‘I don’t think I can . . .’
‘I meant, if you saw him, you would see why it isn’t a good idea to fetch Mrs Borden.’
Mrs Churchill placed the back of her hand on my forehead. ‘You feel very hot, Lizzie. You’re not thinking straight.’
‘I’m alright.’ My skin slid from underneath her hand.
Her eyes widened, threatened to outgrow the boundaries of bone, and I leaned towards Mrs Churchill. She flinched. ‘Perhaps we should go outside, Lizzie . . .’
I shook my head, absolute. ‘No. Father shouldn’t be left alone.’
Mrs Churchill and I stood side by side, faced the sitting room door. I could hear her breathe, could hear saliva swish thick over her gums, could smell Castile soap and clove in her hair. The roof cracked, made the sitting room door feather open an inch and my toes wiggled a step then a step until I was a little closer to Father. ‘Mrs Churchill,’ I said, ‘who do you think will wash his body when it comes time?’
She looked at me as if I spoke foreign words. ‘I’m . . . not really sure.’
‘Perhaps my sister could do it.’ I turned to her, watched sadness tiptoe across her brow and gave her a smile, cheer up now, cheer up.
Her lips parted, a sea. ‘Let’s not worry about that.’
‘Oh. Alright.’ I turned to face the sitting room door again.
We were quiet for a time. My palm itched. I thought of using my teeth to scratch, went to bring my hand to my mouth when Mrs Churchill said, ‘When did it happen, Lizzie?’
I rushed my hand to my side. ‘I’m not sure. I was outside then I came in and he was hurt. Bridget was upstairs. Now he’s dead.’ I tried to think but everything slowed. ‘Isn’t that funny? I can’t remember what I was doing. Does that ever happen to you, forgetting the simplest of things?’
‘I suppose so, yes.’ Her words slurped out.
‘He said he wasn’t feeling well and wanted to be alone. So I kissed him, left him asleep on the sofa and went outside.’ The roof popped. ‘That’s all I can remember.’
Mrs Churchill placed her hand on my shoulder, patted me, made me warm and tingle. ‘Don’t push yourself, dear. This is all very . . . unnatural.’
Mrs Churchill wiped her eyes, made them red with tears and rubbing. She looked strange. ‘This can’t be happening,’ she said. She looked strange and I tried not to think of Father alone on the sofa.
My skin itched. I scratched. ‘I’m really thirsty, Mrs Churchill,’ I said.
She stared at me, ruby-eyed, and went to the kitchen counter. She poured water from a jug and handed me a cup. The water looked cloud warm. I sipped. I thought of Father. The water was tar down my throat. I should have poured it onto the floor and asked Mrs Churchill to clean it up, get me something fresh. I sipped again. ‘Thank you,’ I said. I smiled.
Mrs Churchill came close to me, wrapped her arm around my shoulder and held tight. She leaned into me and began whispering but there was the smell of sour yoghurt snaking out from somewhere inside her and it made me dizzy. I pushed her away.
‘We need to get your mother, Lizzie.’
There was noise coming from outside, coming closer to the side of the house, and Mrs Churchill ran to the side door and opened it. Standing in front of me were Mrs Churchill, Bridget and Dr Bowen. ‘I found him, miss,’ Bridget said. She tried to slow her breathing, she sounds like an old dog. ‘I went as fast as I could.’
Dr Bowen pushed his silver, round-rimmed glasses up his narrow nose and said, ‘Where is he?’
I pointed to the sitting room.
Dr Bowen, his wrinkled forehead. ‘Are you alright, Lizzie? Did anybody try to hurt you?’ His voice smooth, honey-milked.
‘The person who hurt your father. They didn’t try to hurt you too?’
‘I’ve seen no one. No one is hurt but Father,’ I said. The floorboards stretched beneath my feet and for a moment I thought I would sink.
Dr Bowen stood in front of me and reached for my wrist, big hands, and he breathed out and in, his air swiping my lips. I licked them. His fingers pressed into skin until they felt blood. ‘Your pulse is too fast, Lizzie. I’ll remedy that as soon as I check your father.’
I nodded. ‘Would you like me to come in with you?’
Dr Bowen. ‘That’s . . . unnecessary.’
‘Oh,’ I said.
Dr Bowen took off his jacket and handed it to Bridget. He headed for the sitting room, took his brown, weathered leather medical bag with him. I held my breath. He opened the door like a secret, pushed his body into the room. I heard him gasp, say, ‘Lord Jesus.’ The door was open just enough. Somewhere behind me Mrs Churchill screamed and I snapped my head towards her. She screamed again, the way people do in nightmares, and her noise rattled through my body, made my muscles tighten and ache.
‘I didn’t want to see him. I didn’t want to see him,’ Mrs Churchill screamed. Bridget howled, dropped Dr Bowen’s coat on the floor. The women held each other and sobbed.
I wanted them to stop. I didn’t appreciate how they reacted to Father like that, they are shaming him. I went to Dr Bowen, stood next to him at the edge of the sofa and tried to block sight of Father’s body. Bridget called, ‘Miss Lizzie, don’t go in there.’ The room was still and Dr Bowen pushed me away. ‘Lizzie,’ he said, ‘you mustn’t be in here.’
‘I just want . . .’
‘You cannot be in here anymore. Stop looking at your father.’ He pushed me from the room and shut the door. Mrs Churchill screamed again and I covered my ears. I listened to my heart beat until everything felt numb.
After a time, Dr Bowen came out of the room, all pale and sweat, and yelled, ‘Summon the police.’ He bit his lip, his jaw a tiny thunder. On his fingertips were little drops of blood confetti, and I tried to imagine the ways he had touched Father.
‘It’s their annual picnic,’ Mrs Churchill whispered. ‘No one will be at the station.’ She rubbed her eyes, made them raw.
I wanted her to stop crying and so I smiled and said, ‘It’s alright. They’ll come eventually. Everything will be alright, won’t it, Dr Bowen?’
Dr Bowen eyed me and I looked at his hands. I thought of Father.
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I was four when I first met Mrs Borden. She let me eat spoonfuls of sugar when Father wasn’t watching. How my tongue sang! ‘Can you keep secrets, Lizzie?’ Mrs Borden asked.
I nodded my head. ‘I can keep the best secrets.’ I hadn’t even told Emma that I loved our new mother.
She spooned sugar into my mouth, my cheeks tight with the sweet surge. ‘Let’s keep our sugar meal between you and me.’
I nodded and nodded until everything was dizzy. Later, when I was running through the house yelling, ‘Karoo! Karoo!’ and climbed over the sitting room sofa, Father yelled, ‘Emma, did you let Lizzie into the sugar?’
Emma came into the sitting room, head bowed. ‘No, Father. I swear it.’
I ran by them and Father caught me by the arm, a pull at my socket. ‘Lizzie,’ he said while I giggled and hawed, ‘did you eat something you weren’t meant to?’
‘I ate fruit.’
Father came right into my face, smelled like butter cake. ‘And nothing else?’
‘And nothing else.’ I laughed.
Emma looked at me, tried to peer into my mouth.
‘Are you lying?’ Father asked.
‘No, Daddy. I would never.’
He had searched me over, searched dimpled cheeks for signs of disobedience. I smiled. He smiled. Off I went again, running and jumping and I passed Mrs Borden in the kitchen and she winked at me.
When the police arrived a short time later they began taking photos of the dark-grey suit Father wore to work that morning, of his black leather boots still tied over ankles and feet. Flashbulbs broke every six seconds. The young police photographer said he would prefer not to photograph the old man’s head. ‘Couldn’t someone else do it? Please?’ he said, wiped the back of his hand over his forehead, like oil was dripping from his head.
An older officer told him to go outside while they found a real man to finish the job. They didn’t need a man. A daughter would suffice. I had lovingly looked after Father all morning and his face didn’t scare me. I should have said, ‘How many photographs do you want? How close would you like me to get? Which angle will lead you to the murderer?’
Instead, Dr Bowen gave me a shot of beautiful warm medicine underneath my skin that made me feel feathery and strange. They seated me in the dining room with Mrs Churchill and Bridget and said, ‘You don’t mind that we ask each of you some questions, do you?’
The little room was cloying and heavy with the odour of warm bodies and grass, of police mouths smelling of half-digested chicken and damp yeast. ‘Of course not,’ Mrs Churchill said. ‘But I shall not discuss the state Mr Borden was in.’ She started to cry, made a whirlwind sound. In my mind I drifted away to the upstairs of the house where everyone became an echo. I thought of Father.
An officer kneeled in front of me, placed a hand over my hand and whisper-spat into my face, ‘We will find who did this and come after him with our full force.’
‘Men do such horrid things,’ I said.
‘Yes, I suppose they do,’ the officer said.
‘I hope Father didn’t feel any pain.’
The officer stared at his hands and cleared his throat. ‘I’m sure he didn’t feel too much.’ He gripped his notebook. ‘I wondered if you could tell me everything you remember about this morning?’
‘I’m not sure . . .’
‘There are no wrong answers, Miss Borden.’ A sing-song voice. His Adam’s apple bobbed, made me think of Halloween games.
I looked the officer in the eye and grinned, there are no wrong answers, how kind he was to put me at ease. I knew for sure God would smile on him from now on. ‘I was outside in the barn and then I came in and found him.’
‘Do you remember why you were in the barn?’
‘I had been trying to find lead sinkers for my fishing line.’
‘You were going to go fishing?’ Scribble, scribble.
‘My uncle is going to take me. You should see what I can catch.’
‘You’re expecting him to visit?’
‘Oh, he has already. He’s here.’
‘Where is he?’ the officer asked, a pony searching for feed.
‘He’s out conducting business. He arrived yesterday.’
‘We’ll need to ask him questions.’
‘Why?’ My fingers beat together, pulsed beat, beat, beat, beat, all the way into the centre of my body. I followed the feeling, looked down at myself, noticed a soft, grey pigeon feather stuck on my skirt. I picked it off, rubbed it between my fingers, got all hot and boiled.
‘Miss, I hate to be blunt, but a murder has occurred. We must ask your uncle if he saw anyone unusual outside.’
I flashed up at him, ‘Yes. Yes, of course.’ I stuffed the pigeon feather into my palm, carried it like love.
The officer kept with questions. I glanced around the room, then up at the ceiling, tried to see through spider-web cracked plaster and wood into the rooms above: a few hours before I had been up there, had seen Father and Mrs Borden help each other ready themselves for the day. Mrs Borden had plaited her light-grey, thick-mop hair and pinned it to the top of her head and Father had said, ‘Always charming, my dear.’ They did that from time to time, their being friendly and pleasant to one another. The officer kept with questions and a fog settled in my mind.
Next to me, I heard Bridget squeak to a second officer, ‘Her sister is visitin’ a friend in Fairhaven. She’s been gone for . . .’
‘Two weeks,’ I interrupted. ‘She’s been gone for two weeks and it’s time she came home.’
The second officer nodded, gruffed, ‘We’ll send for her immediately.’
‘Good. This is too much for me to take alone.’
Then Bridget said, ‘I lock the doors. House is shut tight all the time.’ The second officer took notes, wrote furious until sweat formed through his thick moustache. Sometimes Father’s beard would wet with anger and when he spoke to you, came close to your face so you could hear his words, the wet would stroke your chin and sink in. A fog settled in my mind. I had the feeling of wanting to stroke Father’s beard and face until he looked like the past. I glanced at the sitting room.
‘And you know for sure the doors were locked this morning?’ the second officer asked Bridget.
‘Yes. I had ta unlock the front door this mornin’ ta let poor Mr Borden in when he came home early from work.’
The way Bridget spoke about Father made me smile. I turned to face her and the officer. ‘Actually,’ I said, ‘sometimes the basement door isn’t locked.’
Bridget looked me over, her caterpillar eyebrows cracked like earth, and the second officer took notes, took notes. My feet traced circles across the carpet. I opened my eyes wide, felt the house move left then right as the heat ground into walls. Everyone pulled at their necks to unloose their tightly wound clothing. I sat still holding my hands together.
Outside, I could hear swarms of people lining themselves out the front of the house. Voices sounded cannon fire. I swayed with the heat, heard the nails in the floorboards give themselves up. The sounds of pigeon feet tacky-tacked across the roof and I thought of Father. The sun moved behind a shadow and the house popped. I jumped in my chair. Bridget jumped in her chair. Mrs Churchill too. ‘Seems we all have fright,’ I said, wanted to laugh. Mrs Churchill started crying again, made my skin shiver. Inside my head a butcher pounded all sense out of my ears and onto the dining table. My corset groped my ribs and small pools of sweat filled the spaces between arms and legs. Bridget stood from her chair, pulled her dirt-white skirt away from the backs of her thighs and went to Mrs Churchill, comforted her. They spoke. Police took notes, entered and exited rooms, watched me.
I wiped my palm across my face, let the feather fall onto the carpet, noticed tiny droplets of blood sitting on my fingers. I put them to my nose then my mouth. I licked, tasted Father, tasted myself. I swallowed. I looked down at my skirt, discovered blood spots. I stared at the stains, watched them become rivers across my lap, I know these rivers! and I thought of the times I played in the Quequechan River with Emma when we were younger, the way Father would yell out to us from the banks, ‘Don’t go in too deep. You can’t be sure how far down it goes.’
My body craved a past with Emma and Father: I wanted to be small again. I wanted to swim then fish, have Emma and me dry ourselves under the sun until our skin cooked. ‘Let’s be bears!’ I’d tell her, and we’d grow brown and giant, our bear paws swiping each other’s black noses. Emma would draw blood and I’d dig into her fur-covered ribs, touch her heart with my claws. Emma would want to swipe me again but Father would say, ‘Emma, be kind to Lizzie,’ and we’d embrace each other.
It was only two years ago that I was on my grand European tour. The freedom I had. Emma wasn’t there to tell me how to behave or what to say and so I got myself a life. On Father’s insistence I went with cousins, Bordens of blood and of marriage who I barely spoke to back at home, and we set sail, gulped ocean winds, learned how to stand against waves. The things we did.
Rome. My Boston-made shoes got stuck in mosaic-stone sidewalks, made me stumble, look a fool. I bought new, Italian calf-leather boots, walked straight lines, walked as a lady should without raising eyebrows. I’d walk, ears full of that fast Italian, made me want to jump into that sing-song, be spoken from one mouth to the other.
Everything reminded me of how small Fall River was, how big I was finally becoming. Over there the Spanish steps, covered in blooming lavender and carpet-red-coloured azaleas, men and women climbing to the top, sun-kissed faces, kissed lips, two white and black goats pulling a small grey wooden cart of orange and green vegetables, my cousin and me standing at the base of a marble fountain, pointing to a deep, Roman-red building, whispering, ‘John Keats lived inside!’ aren’t I the cultured one.
Over there, men wearing rabbit-felt fedoras sat in circles drinking mud-heavy coffee. Over there, girls dressed in Virgin-laced communion. Over there, three people reading. Over there, pigeons shaking out wings, pecking seed. How I wanted one to take home. Over there, over there, over there. Eyes widened with all the things I saw. I knew more about the world than Emma did and that made me happy. I sent her postcard after postcard so she wouldn’t feel like she was missing out, gave my love, gave her reason to miss me more.
I ate and drank what I wanted in Paris. Butter, duck fat, liver fat, triple-cream brie, deep cherry–red wines, pear, clementine and lavender jelly, crème cakes, caviar, escargot in sautéed pine nuts and garlic butter. I did what the French did, licked my fingers, didn’t care if people saw, what they thought. Father would’ve hated it, would’ve told me I was uncouth. I ate everything up, ate his money, was delightful everywhere I went. I learned how to wrap my tongue around accented vowels, spoke to this stranger and that. Nobody knew me, didn’t expect anything from me. I wanted to stay like that forever.
I the explorer. The strolling I did. One day I saw a woman throw herself into the Seine, swim like a swan under arched white-stone bridges, under Pont Saint-Michel. The noises she made, an opera. She smiled, floated along, disappeared. I clapped my hands, bravoed the way she had taken charge of herself. If only Emma had been able to see. How far a woman could travel if she really put her mind to it. And I put my mind to it.
My skirt stuck to my thighs, Holy! Blood leeches, and I began peeling the heavy fabric away, tried to cover the tiny bloodstains on it. From the sitting room, Dr Bowen opened one of the doors that led into the dining room and said, ‘We need sheets for the body.’ The way he said body made my teeth grind. I shifted in my seat, tried to sneak a look into the sitting room to check if Father was alright.
Mrs Churchill asked, ‘Bridget, where are the Bordens’ sheets?’
‘They’re in the cupboard in the guestroom. I’ll come with ya.’
‘You’ll need to take the back stairs,’ an officer told them. ‘Keep away from the sitting room, ladies.’
They nodded, left the room and feet sounded out small percussion rhythms as they walked up the back stairs across the carpet. Someone handed me a glass of water. I sipped. The clock on the mantel ticked ticked. I sipped again. Dr Bowen placed his hands on my forehead and asked me how I was feeling. I began an answer when two long screams sounded from the floor above. ‘What in God’s name?’ Dr Bowen said.
Two long screams again. ‘Somebody! Somebody help us!’ Bridget yelled. The screams, the screams.
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4 August 1892
I pressed against Helen’s windowpane, felt the morning sun; warm like Mother’s touch. How it prickled my skin. How it made me think of her, all these years without. She would come into my bedroom and raise the curtain. I wanted her to stay, wanted to be her, just so I could have her forever. But baby Alice would cry from another room and mother would leave me. Alone. Then years later baby Lizzie would cry and I began to understand that there was no such thing as forever.
The morning sun. A bird flew by the window and I put Mother thoughts away.
Everything in Helen’s house was quiet: not a clock, not a foot on floorboards, not a raised voice, not a slammed door, not a father, not Abby, not a sister. My cheeks rounded to the size of a hot-air balloon. I had not had a sister for two weeks, had not had to think about someone else’s needs, feelings, heart. In this house my mind had been all for myself.
I pressed harder into the windowpane, thought about how, after I finished here in Fairhaven, I would run away, travel distances of foreign blue-stoned streets, sketch them in my workbook, colour my fingers with pastel wax crayon. Afterwards I would cleanse my hands in deep seas and on the off chance that I might think of my family, send a postcard that would simply read: Adventure continues. I would make a point to send a postcard from the places Lizzie had never reached on her own European tour, remind Father that I had sacrificed a lot to keep Lizzie well behaved and that I was deserving.
And when I did eventually return to American soil, I would move away from Second Street and live hermitically, quietly. Live like Maria a’Becket, paint my own Northern Lights. There would be no more Lizzie, no more Father, no more Abby. Finally, at forty-two, there would be no more pretending.
The sun shifted and my shoulders widened. My body growing. Downstairs in the kitchen, Helen thumped a cast-iron kettle on the stove, made me jump.
Helen called out, ‘Emma, tea?’ She almost sang it.
I smiled. ‘Yes. Always yes.’
The difference between houses.
Before I travelled those sixteen giant miles to Helen’s house in Fairhaven, Lizzie had begged me to stay at Second Street, not to leave her.
‘No,’ I had said. Everything I dreamed of was wrapped in that small word: I was going to be taking a private art class, my clandestine rebellion against Father.
She had looked at me, glass eyes. ‘You’re making a terrible mistake going away.’ Lizzie, a locomotive, tried to push me into guilt. I raised my hand, had thought of slapping her, but instead I left my sister in her room calling out. I ignored her, let her cry.
Two days after I arrived in Fairhaven, Lizzie began sending letters:
Well, I’m not having a good time of it, I’ll tell you that much, Emma. You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve had to listen to at the dining table. Father is an absolute bore. Have you ever noticed how his lips tighten when he says ‘today’?
I had not. At first Lizzie’s letters amused me. I read them out loud to Helen over dinner, and we roared laughter. Then Lizzie started writing about Abby:
I overheard Mrs Borden telling her ridiculous sister about how ‘secure’ she felt now that she was going to own all of Father’s properties when he dies and that he wasn’t going to leave us anything. Emma! What a scampy liar. Imagine the nerve. What are we going to do about it?
I could hear their voices in my head, old headache, heard them yelling across the parlour to each other, across the kitchen, the front stairs, through the walls of bedrooms. Sixteen miles away and I was still at home. I folded Lizzie into small pieces.
But the letters did not stop.
I’m having those strange dreams again, Emma. I thought they had really happened. You must come home.
Going home. I thought of Lizzie in her sheet-white bedroom, lying on her bed twisting ostrich feathers between her fork-long fingers, the feathers hanging from the headboard like overripe fruit. She would be clicking her tongue and sucking her cheeks, the way she did, and I clenched my fist, thought of beating my thighs, that old frustration, my patchwork of bruised skin. Instead, I kept burning letters.
I was slow to adjust to living away from the family. In those first days, I looked over my shoulder, prepared for confrontation anytime Helen and I happened to knock elbows or spoke at the same time. Staying at Helen’s house had been a release. I forgot the awkwardness of Abby lumbering through our house, Father’s curled arthritic fingers on his left hand, the constant thud of the fall and rise of foot traffic out the front of the house, the putrid smell of trapped breath each morning before the house was aired, Lizzie’s night-time sighing.
To ease the way into accepting a life without my family, I went into town and sketched scruffy cats, floral arrangements on restaurant tables, mothers and their children, those pleasant things. The way fingers knitted around fingers. I buried myself in strangers. On the way back to Helen’s I would stop to pick purple and yellow wildflowers. The smell of them: afternoon sun on petals, tall grass that had rubbed against stems, dried dirt. The things that came to me:
1. Raspberry jelly only needs a hint of sugar if you use apple juice.
2. Leaning over Mother in bed. ‘I promise to always look after Lizzie.’ A kiss on her cracked lips.
3. Mother handing me baby Alice to hold for the first time. ‘She smells like icky icky poo.’ Then when Mother gave me baby Alice to hold for the last time after she had convulsed herself to death, Alice didn’t smell like anything at all.
4. The time I was meant to be watching Lizzie and locked myself in my room instead, drew geometric shapes until my wrist ached. Lizzie broke her arm sliding down the front stairs banister. Father broke my pencils.
5. One day I will see Jacob’s coat of many colours at the Ashmolean Museum.
6. I wish Father had died instead of Mother.
7. Lizzie clinging to Abby’s legs. How could she love her so easily?
8. How quickly does the body forget its history?
The sun settled on my fingers. I was reminded of the last time I saw Father cry. Mother had died. He covered all the forgotten places of her body, the inside of an ankle, the underside of an eyebrow, the spaces in between fingers, with kisses. It had frightened me to watch.
One afternoon when I came back from town, I opened Helen’s front door, went to the sitting room, filled a vase with the flowers. Helen came behind me, said, ‘Were you expecting a visitor?’
‘No.’ Please do not say that Lizzie had visited.
‘A man came looking for you. He claimed he was your uncle.’
My jaw tightened. ‘Did he have slightly enlarged front teeth?’
Helen nodded. ‘That’s him. Your favourite is he?’ She smiled.
‘No. That’s John. He’s my mother’s brother. Why in the world would he be coming here to see me?’ I pulled at my throat. How had he known I was here? Lizzie? Surely she would not send him to make me come home? She knew I wouldn’t listen to him, that I had come to hate his visits: hated the way John spoke to Father, like he wanted things; the way Lizzie fawned then asked for pocket money and got it; the way he seemed to always be up to something; how he kept telling me I looked like Mother, made me miss her all the more.
‘Did he say whether he was coming back?’
‘I didn’t get a chance to ask. He looked angry, almost slammed my own front door on me. He really wanted to talk to you.’
I shook my head. ‘I’m sorry he did that.’ Always apologising for family.
‘You know you can stay for as long as you like.’ Helen came close, took my hand. The warmth. Helen, the good friend. I held tight. The possibility of not going home. I would take that. What a new life would mean.
‘Would that be a burden for you?’ I said.
Helen shooed her free hand towards me. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. You could live here a hundred years as long as Lizzie doesn’t move in.’
A century of me. Finally doing what I wanted. I could not wait to tell Lizzie I was staying longer.
I wrote my own letter to Lizzie. Then I took a long route to the post office, walked until paved streets became dirt roads, houses turned into fields. I held wildflowers and leaves to my lips before pulling them apart and studying the structure of nature. Rebirth. Trees welcomed me with birdsong, encouraged me to keep walking, not to turn back. My ankles loosened. The sun hit grass, warmed the dirt underneath and I sat, ran my fingers over blades of green and yellow.
I pushed away from the windowpane, slowly began to dress, rubbed my hand over my body to loosen muscle. It was as if I was home alone at Second Street, as if I were reliving a morning from over twenty years ago, as if Father was out on business, as if Abby had taken a chattering Lizzie out for ice-cream sodas. Abby had asked me if I would like to join them.
‘No.’ I was blunt, had already made plans for myself.
‘You’re being rude! You shouldn’t talk to Mother like that,’ Lizzie said, waggled her ink-stained finger.
‘Again, no, thank you.’ Then I was left alone in the house. I waited a few moments before shrieking, before filling the house with my voice and body until the glass tumblers chinked inside the dining room cabinet. Father would have severely disapproved of this childish outburst. But there was no one to tell me to act my age and so I did what felt best. I stood in the sitting room and listened to the house, to the way it swayed ever so slightly with the wind, made cooing noises in the walls. The house made me feel as if I were standing inside a giant, inside a pyramid, inside an ocean-deep well: like I would be swallowed up. I smiled. What a thing to want.
I walked around the house as if I owned it. I went to my bedroom, stood in the little doorway that led to Lizzie’s nun-sized room. If things were fair in life, I would make Lizzie move to the guestroom, make the tiny space my studio. I would not have to worry about Lizzie running off to Father and telling him everything I said or did. Father could never understand the problem with sisters living on top of each other.
‘It’s a room within a room. Doesn’t it make you feel like you’ve always got her near?’ Father and his salt-and-pepper chin-length hair, the way it moved when he was trying to be helpful.
‘That room is supposed to be a closet!’
‘Rooms are rooms.’
‘And she talks in her sleep. It’s distracting.’
He had clicked his fingers, made my eardrum itch. ‘There’s a door. Shut it and you’ve got a separate space.’
At twenty-one, I knew my room was still decorated in fantasy. On a dark-wood desk: a world globe, a photograph of me sitting on Mother’s knee, a postcard of the Paris opera house (found in my aunt’s travel case), a set of charcoals. On a shelf: encyclopaedias, a collection of sheet music, a small leather-bound Bible given to me by John. After Mother died, he had hoped I would use it to find a way to God, to find peace and acceptance. I did not want to accept. For a time, I had blamed Lizzie. If she had been more of a loving child, Mother would have had more reason to stay by our sides. The dust that Bible has collected.
Right there in the silent house, all alone, I lifted my skirt above my ankles and removed my stockings, was shocked at how pale I was. Then I took my skirt off. How I could move. I went down to the sitting room, sat on Father’s sofa, rested my head on the backboard and widened my legs, a mimic of manhood. I had invaded my father’s space. I had thoughts of how I would run the household if I were in charge. If this could be a future, I had much to look forward to. I smiled.
A small pigeon flew into the closed window, its breast bone slamming hard before its beak tapped on the glass. I pulled my legs together, sat up straight, calmed my heart. I looked down at my half-nakedness. Should I be ashamed? The day for being myself was over.
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Helen called out again. ‘Emma, tea is ready.’
I made my way to the kitchen. Helen had made banana pancakes, had set a pot of apple marmalade on the table. ‘How did you sleep?’ she asked.
‘I am afraid to say that I was a bit too excited about the class to sleep properly.’
‘Are you sure you’re not ten?’ Helen poured tea, poured milk, dolloped cream, blew brown hair out of her eyes.
‘Not cute, Helen.’ Laughter.
We buttered pancakes. Helen looked at me, said, ‘Are you alright? You look like you’ve got a plague of hives.’
‘I’m fine.’ But I knew this feeling. It was happening again. Years before I had heard Abby complain to Dr Bowen of rising temperatures, of volcanic anger. He had said nothing and Abby continued to live with her moods and weeping eyes. Then I started to feel it too, like a strange hereditary gift, this thing that was traded from woman to woman, whether it was wanted or not. It was the same when I first menstruated. For a long time, I thought I was defective, broken inside. I was late to it all; seventeen. The last of my friendship circle to be seen as a woman. My friends made fun of me but Abby had been kind about it. ‘I was late too. Once we get this, it’s there for years.’ The way she insisted on ‘we’, like she and I were from the same seed.
‘Look on the bright side,’ she said, stroked my shoulder. ‘You’ll be able to be a mother now.’ I considered what growing a baby might be like, the expectation of children. Once, after baby Alice died, I foolishly prayed to God that she would be returned to me, come live in my body. I would do what mothers did and push out screaming skin, and together we would pick up our sisterhood where it had left off and live happily ever after. Then Lizzie came along. Would I be disappointed if my daughter was not like Alice, turned out like Lizzie instead: one part love, one part brilliance, one part mystery?
‘If it’s so good, why don’t you have children?’ I did not mean it the way it came out; unkind.
Abby shrugged. ‘Sadly, that’s how life goes sometimes. We don’t get everything we want when we want. You’ll learn that eventually.’ Something about what she said felt instantly true, made me hate her.
We heard carts roll down the street, heavy wood grinding into stone at the mill. Helen yawned, made me do it too. Funny how doing so little makes you tired. ‘I guess I should start my day properly,’ Helen said.
‘Or not. You should relax.’ I caught myself in my ear. I almost sounded like Lizzie.
‘If I don’t get this baking done, there won’t be anything for the Woman’s Temperance Union to sell on Saturday.’
‘That’s why you need a maid. Lizzie usually gets Bridget to bake for her chapter.’
‘I wouldn’t expect anything less,’ Helen said.
‘Still. Bridget’s soda bread raises a lot of money.’
We sipped our tea. Then Helen said, ‘You should probably get
yourself ready for your big afternoon.’
I looked at the little gold watch hanging from my chest. Ten
o’clock. The day was slipping. I let it go, and it swung a pendulum. ‘I think I’ll go outside, let the day inspire me.’
Helen clapped. ‘Marvellous.’
I dug out a notebook and pencil and headed for the empty lot behind Helen’s house. I sat in direct sunlight. Everything around me glowed and for a moment I understood how it was possible for Lizzie to believe in God as strongly as she did. The leaves on trees; slow movements of branches; the way the wind blew wheat grass; patterns that were made then erased: this was what I sketched. When I was still at school, I used to draw pictures for Father. I gave my best drawing—‘Landscape with horse’—to him as a gift. I went to Father while he was in his bedroom, took a gamble that I would be allowed in. I had wanted a private moment between us, and I anticipated his compliments. ‘Emma, so beautiful.’
And he would kiss me on the forehead.
But when I gave it to him he said nothing more than, ‘Oh.’ He cleared his throat. He put the drawing on the ground. ‘Go find out what your sister is up to.’
Out I went, shut the door. My fingers curled into small deflated balls.
I found myself drawing a small child who was playing in the nearby creek. I made it plump, like Lizzie had been. I drew the baby’s head large, gave it a mass of curls, a butterfly wing mouth, soft blubber cheeks. This cherub of a being.
There have been times when Lizzie was away from home that I nursed absence. Always two ways of feeling: relief and loneliness. The longest absence between us was when Lizzie took her grand European tour. Only thirty and seeing the world. I cried foul: as the eldest, I had been denied my chance, more than once, was told that I had far greater responsibility at home, that the family, one of Fall River’s richest, couldn’t afford it. I suspected that the real reason Father didn’t want me to go to Europe was because he knew I would never come back, would encourage Lizzie to move out of the house too. And if I wasn’t housebound, I wasn’t Borden-bound. And he would be right.
When Lizzie had asked Father over dinner if she could travel with our cousins, he said, ‘Yes, of course.’ He sounded almost joyous.
Lizzie had not mentioned any plans to me. That sneak.
Abby wiped a napkin over her mouth and smiled, showed her greying teeth. ‘We know how much this means to you, Lizzie. You’re going to have a wonderful time.’
Lizzie grinned triumph. ‘Emma, isn’t this so marvellous and unexpected?’
I was furious, lost my appetite. ‘Very.’
Father pointed a finger at me. ‘You be happy for your sister.’
I loosened my necktie. ‘May I be excused?’ I pushed away from the dining table, left them behind, took off to the backyard, and tried to calm myself. How long had Lizzie been cooking up this plan? I wanted to scream but thought better of it. I did nothing, let crickets surround me. Later, Father came outside, kept his reason for letting Lizzie go simple: ‘For once you need to put Lizzie’s needs before your own. You’re the mature one. Let her see the world and become a woman.’
It took all I had to say nothing.
In the months leading up to the trip, Lizzie held court in her little nun room, packed and unpacked her travelling trunk for days on end. ‘I just can’t decide what to bring.’ Lizzie knew nothing about practicality. I knew what I would take: a few dresses, notebooks and pencils, a book, Mother’s fur coat. I thought about all the time I would have away from Abby, away from Lizzie. Things unlikely. There would be an upside to her leaving.
As the departure drew near, Lizzie buried herself at Father’s side, spoke softly and followed him to church. Father’s little girl returned. I often overheard Lizzie tell Abby, ‘I’m already beginning to miss you.’ All that love she pretended they shared.
Afterwards Lizzie would tell me, ‘I hate her, Emma. Father’s just as bad.’
And then Lizzie was gone. The morning she left, a white coach pulled up at the house, the white draught horse’s bridle decorated with vermilion rosettes and ribbons. ‘Do you like it?’ Lizzie asked me before stepping out the front door. ‘I made them dress her up. It adds a certain touch, doesn’t it?’
Half the street had come to see Lizzie off and she waved to them. ‘Don’t go changing Fall River on me while I’m away.’ Some laughed, others glared. Mrs Churchill gave Lizzie a piece of cherry pie to take with her for the journey. ‘Don’t you forget what home tastes like.’ Lizzie kissed her on the cheeks, sniffed the pie, licked it, placed it on the coach seat. I wanted the street to open up, swallow them all.
The driver lumbered Lizzie’s trunk onto the coach and Lizzie came to me, a bear hug, whispered, ‘I’ll miss you, Em Em.’
Childhood names. I wasn’t that cold-hearted. ‘You too, Swizzy.’
Lizzie kissed me dead on the lips. We were warm. The driver said, ‘It’s time to go.’ We separated. Lizzie said last goodbyes to Father and Abby and before we knew it the horse was clopping down Second Street, and the crowd went back to their own lives.
The house was quiet. Sometimes I would open the bedroom door that separated us and stand in the middle. I raised my arms above my head, a lack of knowing what to do with myself. I had that feeling: happiness and loss hitched together. It felt like I was missing a limb.
I became more attuned to Father’s and Abby’s presence, their winter-years bodies, the way they slurped their food, the way Father held his breath when he snored, Abby’s too-round face that made the dimple in her cheek look like a crescent moon. They were always there.
Occasionally Lizzie would send me a postcard: ‘Small walks taken through Rome’, ‘Endless Spanish steps’, ‘The food, Emma! The glorious food.’ I swallowed Lizzie’s words. Some of that should have been mine. I took countless walks through Fall River, tried to take my mind off things. But it was hard to take the summer heat on my back without her.
I walked. The cotton mill’s industrial calls thumped over stone. In the mornings factory steam covered Fall River in a summer fog, thick with a chemical smell that made me cough on my way downtown. Every so often I would pretend Fall River was the French Riviera, an impossible feat without the prospect of an ocean. Downtown was always the same: birds in cages, cawing and singing, hung from house verandas and shopfronts; horses and carts carried human movement; children jumped over kerbsides, boiled sweets pushed hard into swollen cheeks; Mr Potter, the Western Union Telegraph officer, waved to businessmen, trying to hide the extra pinkie finger on his right hand. On the hottest days, the police station would open the outer doors of cell rooms, exposing the screaming and cursing drunkards behind iron bars to the street. Once I watched a prisoner pull down his pants and take his penis in his hand, wave it around before letting warm urine stream down his legs. ‘Hey, love,’ he called to me, ‘Oh, love. How sweet it is.’
At the end of my walks, I would stand outside the confectioner’s store and stare at the yellow cheesecloth curtains, remember all the times Lizzie and I had spent there. I waited for the doors to open and inhaled sugar. Then I would walk away.
When Lizzie finally returned home, I welcomed her with kisses. She demanded we swap rooms.
‘I think it’s time you let me have it.’ Lizzie chewed each word as it came out, a dragon spitting out carcasses. She’d barely asked me how I was, how I had spent my time.
‘I don’t think so,’ I told her.
Lizzie closed in, squeezed my cheeks. ‘I’ll tell Father your big secret,’ she whispered. Samuel. I pulled her hands away, squeezed them in my own, made Lizzie’s blue eyes widen like sky. I wanted to break a bone. Instead, Lizzie got the room and I shamed myself for missing my sister as much as I had.
‘Oh, God, Emma!’ Helen shouted, filled the paddock.
I snapped to attention. Behind me, feet sounded small thunders across hard land. My name again. I twisted around, pulled towards the voice.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s terrible news.’ Helen stood back. There was the loss of gravity as images presented themselves: a burning home, Mother’s grave desecrated, Father striking Lizzie, Bridget abandoning her station. Thoughts of being alone with Abby.
‘There’s been a terrible accident.’ Helen, a quake.
A small fist settled at the bottom of my abdomen. Lizzie. What had happened to baby Lizzie? I wanted our mother.
Helen handed me a telegram. My legs pulled me towards the house even though I wanted to stand still. Somehow bags were packed. Then I was in a horse and carriage on the way to the train station, the way home. Down the road. Further down the road. My lips dried, throat tight. Further down the road my hands shook. Horses’ hooves: cymbals. Down the road. Down the road. I arrived at the train station.
I was uncomfortable on the train’s leather seat. My body stammered, muscle memory: ‘Your mother is not well,’ Father had told me when I was only ten. ‘She’ll need you to help her around the house.’ For weeks Father had avoided looking me in the eye. I took his impending grief for disappointment and resentment towards me. I had tried to be the best I could by staying out of his way, by making sure that little Lizzie was bathed, was read to at night. Every now and then I would sit on Mother’s bed and recite the day’s news: marriages, births, important business, district policy. Obituaries were never mentioned. ‘Doesn’t anyone die anymore, Emma?’ Mother laughed. But they did, they had. She would. Lizzie had simply wanted to hold Mother’s hands and stick them in her mouth. I did not understand how her world kept spinning. ‘Lots of wet kisses,’ Lizzie told me, and then she would yell, ‘Mama, wake up! I eat you.’
On the train back to Fall River I watched a coughing child and fussing mother. Further down the track. Further down the track. A terrible accident. I remembered two months before, the way Lizzie had crawled into my bed at dawn and whispered, ‘I just want to make him suffer . . .’ The way she had laughed. ‘Imagine if he fell down the stairs! What sound do you think he would make?’
I had thought nothing of it. The train went further down the track. Further still. Further still. The telegram in my lap the entire time:
Father hurt. Mrs Borden missing. A terrible accident. Come home.
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3 August 1892
The first time I tried to leave the house, Mrs Borden miracled herself an almighty flu, got her arms and legs shaking, got herself all hot, all sweat, all types of pain. Dr Bowen had to be summoned over and he told her, ‘Bed rest, love and attention is what you need.’ Mr Borden told me to take care of his wife. I’d take food to her, chicken broth and scone dumplings, have it splashing down the bowl, down my fingers, and she’d be propped up on white cotton-covered pillows, her royal blue bonnet tied tight around her sagging jowls, and she’d say, ‘What would I do without you? You’re looking after me just like you would a mother.’ She’d slurp her broth, dribble a little. I’d mop her up. Oh, she wasn’t anywhere close to my mammy, but I felt for her. I’d be there, cloth in hand, dabbing her forehead, telling her stories from home, rubbing cramps out of her feet, her lips curling like a cat, pushing her cheeks into plump. I felt for her. And that’s how she made me stay the first time, made me give her the love and care until I had no choice but to stay.
The second time I tried to leave, after Emma and Lizzie temporarily split the house in two by locking all the adjoining doors, Mrs Borden raised my wages to three dollars a week and gave me Sundays to myself. ‘Don’t let them put you off,’ she’d said quietly. ‘It happens from time to time. We’ll get over it.’
I weighed my options. I was the luck of the Irish. I took the money, took everything that came along with it. Mrs Borden said I’d made the right decision. I had no other choice. I could send money home and one day money could take me back home, to moss-green fields and craggy rock, to the place where smells of fresh salmon and bottom-mud water swam through the air, the place where I laughed most, to where Nanna’s ghost was waiting for me, to where my childhood lived in streets and trees and my cramped, thatch-roofed house, to the place where people talked about love like it was part of breathing.
I listened to the house, heard nothing but a crack in the roof and I stretched my legs out long in my bed, cotton sheets stuck to my skin. How long could I keep serving the Bordens? I thought of my family, all those faces, those suffocating hugs, those voices saying, ‘God love us,’ when things went wrong, and ‘Bridget this, Bridget that,’ those people around me all day and night, loving and bickering, my nanna and granddaddy, mammy and daddy, my brothers and sisters, all in that house, all together. Sometimes it could be too much and not enough.
I rolled over and lit the kerosene lamp, shined it at my wall. Seven years gone from them. The lonely time. On my wall, the photo taken at my American wake, my nineteen-year-old skinny-fed body, towards Nanna’s little old lady face, her body bones in her chair. We couldn’t afford the photographer but Mammy insisted, said, ‘We’ll pay the price later.’ Two copies were made: one for me and my journey, one for them and Ireland.
‘I’ll see ya again,’ I told them. ‘I want ta see ya again.’
I left the next day.
Now I was twenty-six. Now I was with the Bordens. It was getting hard to go back. Oh, but I had tried.
I didn’t want to face another day with Lizzie, not another day with any of them, not another day of God knows what. It was hot in the attic. The walls popped around me, the old wood, and looking at Nanna, at my family, I told them, ‘I’ve a plan to tell Mrs Borden that I’ll be leavin’ soon. I’m gonna come home.’ I smiled. It felt good. I sat up in bed, stretched. Then I was on hands and knees on the floor, my arm under the bed. I pulled out a heavy, round metal spice tin, green paint flaking, and coins rattled inside. I lifted the lid, lifted my St Matthew card, kissed him on the lips, counted my savings. One hundred and four dollars. Almost two years of saving in secret. It was enough for the ship home, to tide me over till I found another job.
When I had first arrived in Fall River from Pennsylvania, Mrs McKenney, the work agent, told me, ‘I’ll place you with the best families.’ The best families would bring higher wages, four dollars at least. The best families would bring me closer to my own. Mrs McKenney had checked me over, had read my references.
‘They don’t always like us Irish in their homes but we’re the most loyal.’
‘You look like a wonderful domestic. I know a family who could use you well.’ So she sent me along with my bag down Second Street to see Mr Borden. The street was lined with beech and poplar trees, the green blocking the sun, making my skin pimple up. I passed St Mary’s Cathedral, heard a choir hymn the Lord and I quickly Father, Son, Holy-Spirited myself, kept walking, was pushed to the edge of the sidewalk by a bald-headed child, his paw-hands chubbed against my legs. I knew women back home who’d’ve clipped him across the ears. Oh, I thought of it, and laughed at him. Second Street was full of manure, little green wildflowers in the middle of the street. I crossed the road, weaved through the manure field and knocked on a green door. A tower of a man, Mr Borden, his grey hair all neat, a pipe in his hand, answered the door, then let me in. ‘I pay two dollars a week,’ he’d said. It wasn’t what I’d hoped for.
I ran my fingers over the coins, sniffed old grease nickel and the tinge of nutmeg on my skin. It stung my nose and I sneezed. I put the lid back on, pushed the tin under my bed. My heart beat loud under my nightie. It was time to meet the day.
I went down the back stairs, held the lamp high, smelled kerosene like a miner. When I reached Mr and Mrs Borden’s door I put my ear against it, waited for their bed to squeak, waited for Mr Borden to pass gas, for Mrs Borden to roll over in bed. I didn’t have to wait long. Oh, how I knew them.
Down the stairs, in the kitchen, the clock struck double time to mark the half-hour. Five thirty.
Outside, the faint wind-chime sound of glass bottles, the milkman dropping off fresh fattened milk. It would be our turn soon. I stood by the side door and waited until he arrived.
‘You beat me to it, Bridget.’ He placed his wooden crate on the step, stretched a bit.
‘It was too hot, couldn’t sleep.’
He handed me a bottle, cool to the touch. ‘Old Borden say anything more about going off to the Swansea farm so you can have some peace and quiet?’
‘They’ll go nowhere now. Last night I heard Mr Borden sayin’ he’s got some property sales he wants finalisin’. That got Miss Lizzie all boiled up.’
‘Nothing new there.’ His mouth had the habit of opening too wide when he spoke, always showing his chipped teeth.
‘It’s just ’cause she misses Miss Emma. I don’t reckon she’ll be comin’ home anytime soon.’
‘I’d stay away too.’
‘It’s not always bad,’ I said. Oh, but it gets bad.
‘You girls all say that.’ He bent down to pick up our empty bottles, hips cracked from the strain. Not even Mr Borden’s body did that. He lifted his crate. ‘Well, I’ll be seeing you tomorrow.’
He left. I took the fresh milk inside, unscrewed the lid and took a sneak sip from the bottle. The thick cream, a taste of grass. I set the milk in the icebox in the scullery, went about stacking a fire for the stove. On the kitchen counter was the large pot of mutton broth we’d been eating at luncheon for days. The thought of having to eat it one more time made my stomach flip. I went outside, got some fresh air. I heard a pigeon coo in the barn and I got to thinking that Lizzie would be up soon to check on her beloved birds, gently nursing them against her chest, stroking a wing, a head, letting them feed off seed from her hand. She should’ve long been out of the house and into her own family. Birds are no substitute. Once, she asked me to come into the barn and help keep the pigeons still while she checked for lice. I held the birds against my chest, used my left hand to stop necks from moving. I was afraid I’d strangle them. Their little claws at my wrists, not a thing I was used to, nor what I liked. Lizzie parted feathers, leaned in close, said, ‘Pretty, pretty bird,’ and whistled. The pigeons cooed. I’d never seen her face soften so quick.
‘Ever think of gettin’ a dog, Miss Lizzie? It’d be nice ta have one runnin’ about.’
She preened her pigeon, nipped her fingers together like tweezers, pulled a little critter from its body. ‘And risk them being hit by horse and cart around here? I wouldn’t have it.’ She squished the critter between her fingers, wiped her hand on her skirt. Lizzie spread the pigeon’s wings, all delicate, and said, ‘Look how far you can go!’
I began preparing breakfast. From the icebox out came the thick-cut pork steak I got from Whitehead’s market two days before. Oh, the meal I was going to make. Spoons of butter, salt and pepper, bread to scoop the juices. A little something nice to start the day. I did things and I did things.
There was hard, loud walking down the back stairs, like bricks falling on bricks. There was a cough. Mr Borden. He was on the bottom step when he said, ‘Bridget, where is the castor oil?’
‘Sir, we don’t have any left.’
His arms crossed his stomach and he leaned against the doorjamb.
‘Would ya like a chair, Mr Borden?’
He waved me away. ‘I’ll be fine. I’m queasy is all.’ He took a moment before heading out the side door. I rushed after him, heard him heaving in the backyard, long and deep, a cow labouring. I hoped he’d not messed himself. I did not care to clean his suit.
When he came inside, he eyed the steak. ‘You’ve cut the meat too thick.’ He poked the pork with his finger. Mr Whitehead’s butcher boy had cut it. I thought it a fine cut.
‘They said it was a large pig, Mr Borden.’
He grunted, let me alone, went to the sitting room and I heard him pull a book from the bookshelf, pass wind, old trumpet. The frypan reached its heat and I lumped butter into it, watched the creamy yellow melt and bubble, begin to brown. On went the pork. The sizzle. I set about making johnnycakes and the morning continued like always.
Later, Mrs Borden came down, just as pale. ‘You right, marm?’
She shook her head. ‘My stomach is feeling violent.’
‘Again? Mr Borden is the same.’
She rubbed her balloon stomach. ‘I’m beginning to think we’re being poisoned.’ The drama of her, how she sweated, pulled her face tight.
‘I’d never, marm.’
She came close, touched my elbow. ‘I didn’t even think it.’
‘Is Miss Lizzie sick too?’
She shrugged. ‘You’d know as much as me.’
I flipped the pork steak. Her stomach made all kinds of noise. It wasn’t long before she took herself out the side door like Mr Borden had, and was sick. When she came back, she wiped her arm across her mouth, said, ‘Do we have any castor oil?’
‘Oh dear.’ She scratched at her temples and left the kitchen.
I went back to cooking and soon breakfast was ready. I set everything on the dining table and cut the pork steak into portions. Mr Borden came in to see, said, ‘Go get Lizzie. I want her eating with us.’
I nodded. I didn’t like the chances. I went into the scullery, over to the sugar sack. Inside was a little thimble and I filled it with sugar, put it in my apron pocket, went up the front stairs, made them holler under my feet. As I got closer to Lizzie’s bedroom, I heard, ‘As the Lord liveth, there shall no punishment happen to thee for this thing.’ She’d been saying the prayer for weeks. There was no love in what she said, no rhythm or heart. I’d a mind to tell her sometimes: He is deaf, it doesn’t matter how much you pray, things go unanswered.
I knocked on the door.
‘Miss Lizzie, yer father says ta come down for breakfast.’
Her feet across the carpet. She opened the door. Half her hair was plaited and rolled on top of her head, the other half in auburn semi-curls dragging below her shoulders, a horse’s mane. ‘What are we having?’
She chewed the insides of her cheeks, puckered her mouth. ‘Is there anything extra special for me?’
I shoved my hand into my apron pocket, pulled out the thimble. Lizzie snatched it, licked her pinkie and stuck it in, sucked sugar. ‘Are they waiting?’
I nodded, she sighed. ‘Fine. I’ll be . . .’
‘They’ve been sick this mornin’.’
‘Really? How bad?’
‘Stomachs are a-talkin’. They’ve already been out the backyard.’
She smiled at this, stuck her tongue in the thimble. ‘I’ll fix my hair and come.’ She gave the thimble back and closed the door. I was sick of this routine.
I was standing against the dining room wall, waiting to be of service, when Lizzie came down, sat at the end of the table. ‘Good morning,’ Mrs Borden said. I wondered why she bothered. Lizzie broke a johnnycake in half, stuffed it into her mouth.
‘What are your plans today, Father?’
‘Work, of course.’
‘Of course, Father.’
‘And what will you do today?’ Mrs Borden asked her.
‘I’ve Sunday school planning.’ Lizzie sweet as the thimble.
Mrs Borden sipped tea. ‘What will you teach the children this time?’
Lizzie cocked her head. ‘What would you teach them?’ Her voice was a tart raspberry pulling on cheeks.
Mrs Borden blushed. ‘I wouldn’t know. I’d probably stick to hymns.’
Mr Borden chewed slowly, said nothing.
Lizzie rolled her eyes. ‘You can’t teach children the moral life by singing, Mrs Borden.’
Mr Borden placed his knife and fork on the clean tablecloth, made pork butter stains. One more thing I’d have to clean. He cupped his hand over his mouth and belched. ‘And sometimes you can’t teach children the moral life no matter what method you use.’
Lizzie reddened. ‘Father?’
‘I’m surprised the Reverend lets you teach as often as you do.’
Lizzie’s jaw angled. ‘I’m a good teacher, Father. The children like me.’
‘Children like children, I suppose.’
‘Andrew . . .’ Mrs Borden choked her words.
I pushed myself into the wall, wanted to disappear inside of it, did not want to see a grown woman squirm in front of her father. The wall was hot against my hands and Lizzie shot me a look, made my face burn. I did not care to see, did not care to listen to the conversation.
Lizzie said, ‘What’s wrong, Father?’
‘Your mother and I have been ill.’
Lizzie straightened her back, got stiff. ‘Bridget mentioned.’
‘There’s no reason we should be.’
‘I’m not sure . . .’
‘Unless, of course, there’s disease in the house.’
‘There’s not, Father.’
He arrowed a finger towards her. ‘You’ve not got rid of your pigeons, Lizzie.’
‘That’s because I shouldn’t have to. They’re kept safe in the barn.’
‘Nonsense. You let them out and they come inside through the roof and leave their filth around.’ He pointed to the ceiling, the sky, to God.
Lizzie tightened her fists under the table. I did not care to be in the room.
‘I’ve not done that, Father.’
‘I want you to get rid of them.’
Mr Borden pushed himself upright, a giant. ‘Don’t defy me, Lizzie.’
‘But they’re mine. You should fix the roof if you’re so worried about disease.’ Her eyes wide. I sunk against the wall, hard in my back. Lizzie should’ve known better.
‘What’s that you teach the children? Obey and honour?’ Mr Borden leaned into his chair, made it creak, made me think he’d fall back and Jack and Jill his head.
Lizzie slammed her hands on the dining room table, made her piece of pork jump off the plate and onto the floor. ‘That’s different.’
Mr Borden stood then, adjusted his trousers and came towards Lizzie. I’d seen this before. I prepared myself. I could see little yellow string-saliva in his beard. He went in close to Lizzie, slapped her across the face. Oh, the sound filled the room, that noise of skin, a cleaver working meat, and Lizzie’s head snapped to the side, her shoulders metered wide, wings, and my heart raced, my knees weakened, brought sweat to my brow. Lizzie stared at her father.
‘Andrew, please.’ Mrs Borden held her napkin tight.
‘You better start listening to me, Lizzie.’
Lizzie shook her head. ‘You’re a nasty.’
Mr Borden struck her again. I did not know where to look. Lizzie ran out of the dining room, went up the stairs and slammed the door. Mr and Mrs Borden didn’t say anything and I collected the dishes, careful not to make too much noise. I left the room, my face ran hot, the feel of wanting to cry. How I wanted to leave the house right there and then.
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