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Authors: Walter Satterthwait

Miss Lizzie

BOOK: Miss Lizzie

Miss Lizzie

Walter Satterthwait


Open Road Integrated Media Ebook

This book is for Bobbi

Lizzie Borden took an axe

and gave her mother forty whacks

and when she saw what she had done

she gave her father forty-one

Yoshitsune was a famous warrior who lived in medieval Japan. Because of the situation of the country at that time, he was sent to the northern provinces, where he was killed. Before he left he bade farewell to his wife, and soon after she wrote in a poem, “Just as you unreel the thread from a spool, I want the past to become present.” When she said this, actually she made past time present. In her mind the past became alive and
the present. So as Dogen said, “Time goes from present to past.” This is not true in our logical mind, but it is in the actual experience of making past time present. There we have poetry, and there we have human life.


Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind



THE DAYS WERE longer then, in that long-ago summer at the shore, and the air was softer, and the sunlight more golden as it winked and wobbled off a bluer sea. The men wore immaculate white linen and jaunty boaters of straw as they sauntered, hands in pockets, up and down the boardwalk; the women wore white lace and white bonnets, broad-brimmed and gay. The dress I wore most often that summer (yet felt I had not worn enough,
could not
wear enough) was in fact my very first lace, and to this day I can hear the whisper it made when the breeze, warm and sweet and smelling of salt, came fluting in off the water. And I can hear the rustle of the crinoline beneath; and, at my throat, as precise and real as though it were happening at this moment, I can feel the flutter and tickle of the bonnet ribbons. Time does not really pass away; people do.

There must have been other women that summer, besides Miss Lizzie, who wore mourning; but for the life of me I cannot recall them. Perhaps they kept themselves and their griefs indoors, never ventured out into that bright white sunswept world where grief would have seemed beggarly, derelict. Or perhaps, so self-involved was I that season, so intoxicated by a sense of my own, and the world's, infinite possibilities, that I simply never noticed them.

For, two years after the end of the War to End All Wars, the country had at last unbuckled its belt and loosened its tie. Women had obtained the vote; and, with it, they had helped replace the Democrats—represented by sad somber Mr. Wilson and his would-be successor, Mr. Cox—with the Republicans—represented by the hearty handsome Mr. Harding. There was everywhere a feeling of expectation, of Something Wonderful trembling just around the corner. Little wonder, then, that a thirteen-year-old girl (having just arrived, so she saw it, on the shores of womanhood) might have failed to notice anything so shabby, so offensive, as mourning.

Difficult it would have been, however, not to notice Miss Lizzie. She was, for one thing, our nearest neighbor. She rented the white clapboard cottage next to ours, and every morning from the parlor I would watch her bustle down the steps and across the small sandy yard, tufted with weed, to the gate of the picket fence. She would unlatch the gate, slip through it, then turn and latch it once more, carefully, deliberately, like someone who took care against intruders. And then she would set off down the street, a short squarish figure, her hands folded into the sleeves of her black dress, her purse hanging from her forearm like a padlock. She moved with her shoulders hunched and bent slightly forward, leaning into a private wind, and she wore her black, I thought, almost proudly: as though it were a uniform, as though she were on march.

For another thing, of course, she was notorious. I doubt there was a single child in all New England, in all the country, who had not heard the famous bit of doggerel about her and the axe. I remember my disbelief, and my secret thrill of excitement, when Father revealed to me that, yes, the woman next door was indeed
Lizzie, the woman who had been tried, almost thirty years before, for the awful murder of her parents. And had been found, he added gravely, pointedly, not guilty.

“So the truth,” I said, hugely disappointed, “is that she didn't do it?”

“The truth?” Father smiled sadly and stroked his mustache. As on every Sunday after-church afternoon, part of the
Boston Herald
was spread out across his lap, while the rest of it—except for the Katzenjammer Kids, whom I had appropriated to my nest on the sofa—lay scattered about the floor around his easy chair. Music was waltzing from the gramophone, outside the sun was shining, and the day was one of those lazy Sundays, now extinct, that seemed filled with time enough for everything and everyone.

“The truth,” he said, “may never be known, Amanda, except to Miss Lizzie and the Lord. But legally she is entitled to our respect, and—”

Across the parlor, working methodically on her needlepoint, my stepmother sniffed once. Loudly.

Father sighed. With a patience that had over the years been drained of its original fondness, he turned to her and said, “Yes, Audrey?”

“They arrested her, didn't they?” she said, her lips set in the thin grim line they assumed whenever she expressed what she knew would be an unpopular opinion. “Where there's smoke, there's fire.” This she delivered, nodding her head slightly, with the absolute conviction she reserved for all her platitudes; and then she took a chocolate bonbon from the box that lay (as always) on the coffee table, plopped it into her mouth, and bent once again over her needlepoint.

“Legally,” Father said to me gently, “she is entitled to our respect. And spiritually she is, like everyone else, entitled to our compassion.”

My stepmother sniffed again and said, without looking up, “Nothing good ever came out of Fall River.”

No people are more provincial than the metropolitan middle class. Had Miss Lizzie come from Boston, instead of Fall River with its mills and its tradesmen, my stepmother would have asked her over for tea. Had she come from Back Bay, axe murderer or no, my stepmother would have been camping on her front porch.

This conversation took place, as I say, on Sunday. With a neatness of coincidence that in fiction would seem suspicious, but in real life (when you are thirteen) seems inevitable, I met Miss Lizzie face-to-face on Monday.

Annie Holmes and I were in Drummond's Candy Store on Broad Street, ostensibly to buy licorice whips but actually to display our summer finery to Roger, the son of the owner. He was tall and lean and dark, and he had poetic hollows below his cheekbones and fine black hairs along the backs of his long tanned fingers. (And also a sleek black Shaw motor-bicycle.) He was our Heathcliff, Annie's and mine, and both of us would have gladly let him ravish us; even, I am sure, if we had known exactly what that meant.

As we left, I turned at the doorway and drawled over my shoulder—with the insouciance, I believed, of the born coquette—“So
nice to see you again, Roger.”

Annie snorted explosively beside me, and for an instant I was furious, and then suddenly the giggles were upon us both, overpowering, and Annie pushed me quickly out the screen door. Directly into Miss Lizzie and an armload of packages that went soaring abruptly off in every direction.

I stood there, immobilized, while Annie scuttled around me to help the woman. There were fewer parcels, only three or four, than their eruption had made them seem, and in only a moment Miss Lizzie had collected them all. Then she turned to me and said, “Why the open mouth, child? Catching flies?”

I closed a mouth that I had not, until then, realized was open.

She narrowed her eyes. Behind the pince-nez clipped to the bridge of her nose, they were a very pale blue, almost gray, and large, which made them seem expectant, waiting. “You're the Burton girl,” she said. “Next door to me.”

I nodded. Her hair, pulled back into a chignon beneath her black bonnet, was silver-white. She must have been in her late fifties or early sixties, but her skin was fine-pored, neither wrinkled nor freckled. Like most women in the first few years of the 1920s, before rouge and lipstick became emblems of chic, she wore no makeup.

“Well then,” she said, and she smiled, “do you have a first name?” It was really quite an extraordinary smile, creating two deep dimples in her cheeks, transforming what had been a stern, severe face into one of great liveliness and charm.

“Amanda,” I said, finding my voice. It was raspy, threaded, as though I had not used it for years; I cleared it and repeated, “Amanda.”

Her left arm grasping the packages, she held out her right hand for me to shake. At thirteen, I had received few offers of a handshake, and I felt very sophisticated accepting hers. (And very grateful to her for giving me the opportunity to demonstrate this sophistication.) Her hand was small and plump and dry.

“Lizzie Borden,” she said, and if she was waiting for a reaction from me, a flinch of horror, a gasp of surprise, she gave no sign of it. Nor did I provide such a reaction. Unaccountably, I felt a sense of kinship with the woman.

Annie, however, reacted. Her body stiffened and her eyes grew wide. She held out her hand reluctantly, as though putting it into a flame, took Miss Lizzie's, and jerked it back immediately after whispering her own name.

With a small smile, amused and inward-looking, Miss Lizzie turned to me. “And how is it, Amanda, that you haven't come avisiting?”

I smiled back, and already it seemed to me that we were sharing some private joke; although what it was, I could not have said. “But I haven't been invited.”

She laughed. It was a full laugh, almost a man's laugh, loose and easy and up from the diaphragm. “Well then,” she said, “we must rectify that at once. Would you care to come to tea at four o'clock?”

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