Lizzie Borden was not Bluebeard’s first wife. Nor was she the youngest, though she was just past sixteen. (If you’re already horrified, then you are reading the wrong story. No— the right story, the best one, the one you must read. This is how things used to be. This is how things still are, if we don’t pay attention.)
You could say it began when the 40-something man with the deep blue beard and unreadable black eyes came to widow Borden’s home. You could say it began when the wealthy landlord stayed his horse to watch a girl working in the potato field the previous autumn. Or you could say it began when the world began and men and women were divided up into the strong and the weak; when people stopped talking to one another about the Truth; when people hushed not only children but also their still, small voices within. You could say Lizzie Borden’s problem began when people started being Good.
In any case, Lizzie didn’t know when it started. She wouldn’t have even known that Lord Bluebeard was in her home had she not broken her hoe and been sent back to search for a new blade and bring water to the others still out in the fields. As it went, Lizzie never went back to the potato field, not that day.
We who tell this story have heard it all before, seen it play out over and over again; but still we perked up and watched. A beginning is notable, even (or especially) for a tragedy.
“I seek a wife,” he said. Those were the first words Lizzie heard from her husband’s blue-shrouded mouth. She froze, sweaty and dirt-covered as she was, out of sight, just beyond the door frame.
“My lord,” said Widow Borden (whose name was Beatrice, but who was never called anything but her title, ‘Widow’ since Mr. Borden had been thrown from a horse and killed nearly ten years before). “My lord,” she said again. She was not accustomed to speaking to gentlemen of rank. Through the crack of where the door hinged Lizzie could see that her mother looked at the floor, not at the man’s face. And she could see that the man, Bluebeard, did not sit, but stood, legs out as if to make himself unshakable as a pyramid. He wore a black velvet cap with a long and swooping white feather in it. He wore the gauntlets (?) of a falconer, and the puffed sleeves of a duke. His calves, exposed through blue stockings, were muscled, his shoes darkly shined. He waited only a moment, then continued.
“Widow, I seek a wife. I require a wife. As any man does, though you must know I am not ‘any’ man.”
“No, no my lord. I am aware.”
Lizzie strained to hear and understand. Her skin prickled though her sweat had long since cooled. She felt her heart in her throat when she swallowed. Was it desire or repulsion she felt? Fear or anticipation? It takes a woman of more than sixteen to tell the two apart, but Lizzie Borden was not so wise yet.
“Have you not… I thought I had heard…” her mother faltered. Lizzie only felt impatience then, but let us see if later she will realize the great courage these feeble sentences took when she understands what the Widow attempted to bring to light.
“Hush. I will not listen to such talk. I require a wife,” a beat, “I desire your daughter.” Lizzie’s body flushed hot, groin to neck. “Have her pack her things or leave them. She will want for nothing. Her life will be as brilliant as a jewel set in a crown.”
The woman mumbled something too quietly for Lizzie to hear. Bluebeard snorted like a horse and fairly stamped his foot.
“Then go out and fetch her. I shall wait a quarter of an hour and no more.”
There was a swish of blue velvet cloak and the large man was gone from the room and the little cottage.
Lizzie stood still as a statue. Waited. She smelled the man’s cologne; a heavy, permeating musk that soaked into her dirt-streaked clothes. ‘I desire your daughter.’ When had such a thing ever been said of her before? Never.
Widow Borden sat still as a stone, hands drawn into her lap, mending forgotten. Then a small shudder escaped her, a ragged bit of breath that floated like a cloud in the man’s wake. She shook her capped head slightly, then again. Then she stood up and brushed her skirts, gathered herself in small gasps until she stood straight and strict as she had ever been throughout her children’s hard, thin life.
Lizzie didn’t know what made her bolt, dart out the back door and shut it without making a sound, but we know. Something in her sensed the importance of her mother’s lie, knew the widow couldn’t tell it if she knew what Lizzie had heard. Knew she wouldn’t ever leave this crofter’s cottage or endless potato field without the strange and terrifying gentleman. Knew she wanted out— or at least, wanted to smell his scent again. We do foolish things when we are young. And they teach us to do more foolish things when we are old.
When Widow Borden rounded the cottage toward the potato field she gave a start to see her [middle child and only remaining daughter] but a hundred paces from the house.
“Why are you home so soon?” Her voice was sudden as a freshly sharpened hoe. She was already feeling the terrible poison/guilt of her lie.
“Broken,” said Lizzie, holding up the two pieces, wood and iron. I came home for a splint, and to bring a drink to the others. It’s hot today.”
“As for the hoe, you’ll have no more need of it. I’ll sell it to the Tinker when he passes through next month. As for water, I shall carry it there myself after I see you off.”
Lizzie worked hard to keep her face implacable. She was most often no good at this. This time her mother was too distracted to notice and suspect. “Why, what is it? Where am I going but back to pick potatoes?”
“It is time you were wed, and a suitor of significant means has come to call. Take a dipper from the well/rain barrel and wash your face. If you are good, I’ll plait your hair. Then it’s time to go.”
So it went.
When Lizzie walked into the front yard her husband turned his great black horse and his burning black eyes and she stumbled. Her mother tsked but did not leave her place on the front step.
He swung her up in front of him and flicked the reigns. They thundered off, every part of Lizzie on fire, bouncing on the enormous horse, enveloped in the musk, pressed between his arms. The voice in the well faded and was swallowed by the dust in their wake, and Lizzie Borden, like so many others, was gone.
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