Lizzie Borden Took an Axe

Contributed by on 13/10/09

Lizbeth was irritated and restless. She flipped up the gold watch that hung from a pin attached to the blue satin of her bodice. It was after ten in the evening, and her husband was not yet home.

She gathered her skirt in one hand and turned away from the white front door flanked by glass sidelights. As she walked by the staircase, she put her free hand briefly on the handrail turnout that began or ended the banister that curved up to the second floor.

Lizbeth entered the sitting room and paused. Her full mouth drew together, then abruptly stretched into a grimace as she felt an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and pain. It was the same sitting room it had always been, with its cheap-looking dark carpet covered with pastel flowers. The wallpaper’s busy floral design gave her a headache. The sparse furnishings were old-fashioned and uncomfortable. She glanced at the worn plush fabric of the only sofa in the room, and the picture hanging on the wall above it. “I hate you,” she said to everyone and every thing.

Lizbeth continued into the kitchen — it was humid and gloomy. The out-of-date stove was cold.  The place smelled of fresh scrubbing and stored onions and old meat. Their housekeeper, Bridget Sullivan, had tidied up for the night and gone up the back stairs to her attic room. There was an eerie silence now, a muffling pall that sank down and spread over Lizbeth’s senses. She closed her eyes a moment, trying to steady herself, hoping her strenuous emotions wouldn’t lead to another spell. She found an oil lamp sitting on top of the pie safe, retrieved a match, adjusted her wick and lit it. A wavering glow leaped up around her, casting bent and peculiar shadows. Her husband thought it self-indulgent and wasteful to use lamps after nightfall in the summer, but he wasn’t home, and Lizbeth didn’t want to be alone in the dark.

She spun on her heels once again, walking back the way she had come, carrying the light by its wire handle. Past the wood-burning stove, through the oppressive sitting room, into the parlor, and back to the alcove formed by the rise of the front stairway. She set the lamp on the floor, and leaned the front part of her body — hips, stomach, and breasts — against the angled wall. She reached up, gripping a spindle baluster in each hand. Like a prisoner I grasp the bars of my cell, she thought.

She abruptly let go, lowered her arms. She adjusted her corset and brushed her fingers along the indigo silk braid that formed parallel lines running from her neckline to her waist. She lifted her chin and breathed deeply, trying to control herself.

Lizbeth picked up her light and calmly walked to the bottom step, hiked up her skirt in one fist, and began climbing. She hated being alone when one of her episodes hit; there was no telling where she would end up, and who she might see. She reached the landing, and stopped. “I hate this house, I hate my life,” she said out loud. Tears were pushing into the backs of her eyes and she stubbornly battled them into submission. I won’t cry, she thought. Father taught me that. Don’t cry, don’t move, don’t say a word.

As her mind formed the thought, an image of her father, Andrew Borden, flashed so suddenly it nearly made her lose her balance. “Lord help me,” she said, sinking almost to her knees, seeming to see the back of Andrew Borden’s black frock coat descend the steps below her, then dissipate like smoke.

Lizbeth shuddered, and rose to standing. She pulled herself up by the banister the rest of the way, stepping on her dress. Once she reached the second floor, she stumbled through what once was her old room, into the master bedroom that she now shared with her husband. She placed the lamp on top of the dresser.

The heat was smothering on the second floor. Lizbeth recognized the abdominal cramps that usually signaled the onset of her monthly pains. The back of her neck throbbed. She stood at the foot of the heavy and ornate darkly-stained double-bed, so neatly made up by “Maggie” hours before. The three windows were open, but the lace curtains veiling them hung limp and still in the stifling atmosphere. A growling sound escaped Lizbeth’s throat, before she even realized it was coming from her.

Then she started screaming — a low, single note of despair that lasted several minutes. She quieted, panting, listening. As always, there was no sound, no reaction. The house didn’t even settle — it was like a tomb.The perspiration rolled down her temples from her masses of auburn curls bunched around her hairline. She felt like running to one of the windows on the right that looked out on the Kelly house next door, and yelling, “You heard me, I know you heard me. It’s that crazy Lizzie again, isn’t it?” But she didn’t.

She began removing her sash, and overskirt, then unfastening her blouse. She walked over to the full-length floor mirror that stood on the other side of the bed, tilted slightly in a way that made her look compact and squared. She had become too thin, she thought, as she inspected her reflection now clad only in her chemise, corset, and stockings. She had once been robust and assertive, now she was a man’s property, a wife, childless and barren. Her face once again contorted, twisted with pain, as she thought of her husband touching her, forcing her. It’s a woman’s lot, her sister Emma had told her over and over. Emma, who was a forty-year-old spinster living on her own in New Bedford, what did she know about marriage?

Lizbeth ground her teeth together to keep from screaming again. “It’s the same house, the same room, the same God-forsaken room. I’ve never left, I’ll never leave. I was my father’s — thing — and then he passed me along to a man of his choice, a man made in his image, twice my age. An old, evil man….” She threw up her hands to cover her face as it mutated into something agonized and unrecognizable.

“I’m only thirty-two years old, God help me,” she cried. Again, she sucked in her breath, clamped down on her emotions, dropped her arms and straightened. “Stop,” she told the image of the woman in the mirror. “Stop it now.” She reached around with both hands and deftly began unlacing the corset, moving from the small of her back upward. She averted her face from the mirror as she removed the last of her clothing and found her cotton nightgown and slipped that over her head.

She looked once more into the depths of the looking glass as she picked out the pins in her hair, shook the mass of it lose so that it fell in bumpy waves covering her breasts. At least my father is gone now, she said in her mind.

Andrew Borden had died after contracting diphtheria two years before. He had never remarried after Lizbeth and Emma’s mother died in 1863. “Oh he wanted to,” Lizbeth whispered like a hiss in the air. “He wanted that big oaf of a woman Abby Gray, but Emma put a stop to that.” She had been five years old at the time, and Emma twelve. The Great War was over, and Mr. Lincoln was dead, and Andrew Borden, undertaker, landlord, hated by the entire town of Fall River, had wanted another wife. But Emma, sister Emma, pubescent and her father’s pet until little Lizzie should be old enough, convinced the old man that his two daughters were enough to satisfy him.

Lizbeth wanted to spit at the mirror, wanted to run into Emma’s old room and tear it apart as she’d done many times before. Stomping, screeching, her face a mask of wretchedness as she threw bed linens and coverlets, ripped apart pillows and smashed the ceramic water pitcher and basin. In the past, such incidents had inspired her father, then her husband, to hit her and lock her in a closet to make her calm down. Eventually, specialists were consulted. The men got together and concluded, these episodes were Lizzie’s “spells” brought on by her monthly burden.

She turned to glance through the master bedroom doorway, that led to her old room. “How convenient,” she said. She gazed back at the Lizbeth in the mirror. “How nice of you father, to chose an old friend of yours to be my husband, to let him live in our old house, to give us your old bed. You at least had the courtesy to move to the guest bedroom.” Her stomach roiled, her abdomen felt heavy and contracted, as if it were an overripe fruit about to burst. “I was only twenty years old when you married me off,” she said to a shadow she saw before her, or was it behind her, a man with a hard face and a white beard. “And all I ever wanted was to be free, free of you, of all men, of everyone. Free to do whatever I please.”

She leaned slightly forward — was there something moving beyond her duplicate self that seemed to bend towards a light, as if the polished surface had its own source of illumination. A single eyeball suddenly appeared blinking from the middle of her forehead. Lizbeth, shocked, leaped backwards. But while her form moved when she did and her reflection disappeared from the mirror, the single blinking eye hovered in the same place.

Lizbeth jerked her head to the left, to the right. She spun in a circle, searching for who was in the room. There was no one else present. She angrily flung herself around to confront the mirror once more. Now there were two eyes, floating disembodied in the depths. “Who are you?” she asked aloud. “What is this?” The irises were a brilliant aquamarine color framed by brown-gold lashes. Brows, cheekbones, the faint smudge of a nose were almost visible. Lizbeth felt a chill. Her eyes were aquamarine framed by golden brown lashes. She felt some kind of enormous pressure, as if she were under water. She managed to shuffle a step closer. The face looking back at her, intermingled with her reflection, appeared frightened. The woman who was manifesting in the mirror, growing more and more solid, looked very familiar.

Instantly, without warning, the other broke through. Solidifying, emerging with a crackling sound, the woman tumbled forward while praying rapidly in a high-pitched, terrified voice. Lizbeth scrambled back to get out of the apparition’s way.

The sounds of gasping and rapid breathing and a rattling stream of barely audible words “Oh God oh God oh God oh God….” echoed in the stagnant air. Lizbeth was the first to pull herself together. She stood sentinel like, her arms slightly raised, as she studied the trembling woman huddled on the rug at her feet.

“Who are you?” Lizbeth asked.

The other took a few more deep gulps of air, then looked up at and into Lizbeth’s face.

She felt as if she’d been struck by lightning, as if electricity had nailed her to the floor. The other gradually stood, weaving and swaying. She appeared to be amazed. They stared at each other for several minutes.

“Are you … Lizbeth?” Lizbeth asked.

“I’m Lizzie, Lizzie Borden. Are you ….”

“I’m Lizbeth, Lizbeth Borden Beaumont. You came through my mirror.”

“I….” She tilted her head as if this would help her understand. “I broke into my father’s room, while he was out late. I was using his mirror.”

They were both dressed in the same nightgown, their hair an identical length. But the other, Lizzie, was chubbier, with an attitude of entitlement about her. “How old are you?” Lizbeth asked, no longer frightened.

Lizzie leaned to the left, then to the right, her gaze running up and down Lizbeth’s body. “I’m thirty-two. What day is this? What year is this?”

“It’s August 3, 1892,” Lizbeth said, while adjusting her position as the other Lizzie orbited around her, studying her. “What do you mean you ‘broke into’ father’s room?”

Lizzie stopped and recoiled somewhat. She turned her head slightly, watching Lizbeth from the side, from the corner of her eye, like a wary animal. “He keeps everything locked now. He keeps all the keys.”

“He’s still alive, then? Andrew Borden?”

“Yes, yes he is. Where’s Emma?”

“My sister Emma lives in New Bedford now. Father is dead. I live here with my husband, Charles Beaumont. Or I should say, my husband keeps me here like a pet, to do with as he pleases. I only exist to please him.”

Lizzie’s round cheeks reddened, her brows lifted, her lips parted as if to say something, but no words came out. They peered at each other for a time. Finally, the other, Lizzie, said, “You are not me. I wouldn’t let that happen to me. It’s not going to happen to me. I’m going to find a way to get out of this house.”

“You’ll never escape,” Lizbeth said, and shook her head slowly.

“If I had the strength, if I had a way, I’d kill them both, Abby and Father. He’s giving all his money to her, to her relatives. Emma and I will be destitute. If I could find someone I could trust, to help me….” she stopped, suspicion and fear flickering in her eyes. “I shouldn’t have told you that,” she muttered.

Lizbeth felt light-headed. A surge of understanding coursed through her mind, a kind of fire filled her veins. “You can trust me,” she said with an icy calm. “You are me. I am you — I will be you. Stay here for twenty-four hours, let me take your place. I can give you the life I will never have.”

Lizzie’s color darkened, her skin glistened, her eyes gleamed. “You will kill them for me?” she ventured, her voice like that of a little girl. “You would do that for me?”

“I will go through that mirror, I will take your place, I will take care of your problem, yes. And then I shall return and you will resume your life. You might be accused, you might have to endure some hardship, but in the end the authorities will not be able to convict you. Because the evidence, the perpetrator, will be somewhere else, somewhere they can’t find her.”

Lizzie furrowed her brows, frowned slightly. “But, I’m afraid. I don’t want to stay here, I don’t want to meet your husband. Do you promise you’ll come back and get me?”

“Of course I will,” Lizbeth said, grinning. “You’re innocent, a virgin, with the rest of your life ahead of you. Why would I condemn you to my hell? Now tell me, did father kill your pet pigeons with a stout axe like he killed mine?”

Lizzie nodded, tears in her eyes.

“And is the hatchet still in the cellar where he left it?”

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