My publisher is re-releasing my book, Lizzie Borden, as the first in their new Horror that Happened line.
In celebration, I am posting the Prologue to that volume here.
Prologue – April, 1865
“Come over here, Lizzie. Sit beside me. That’s my girl. Your worm still on the hook?”
Little Lizzie Borden, age five, sat down on the stream bank and lifted her fishing stick to show the pale worm to her father.
“Good girl. Put it back down there now, and we’ll wait for a big trout to come and eat it.”
Slowly, feeling sorry for the worm, Lizzie lowered her stick. Her papa had whittled the stick for her the day before up at the farmhouse. Tied onto the end of the stick was a length of black fishing line, and tied onto the end of the line was a hook. Stuck onto the hook was a worm, a big one they’d dug out of the stream bank. But then it was happy, fat and red, and now it was kind of skinny, shriveled and white. Lizzie didn’t think too much of fishing.
“Isn’t this peaceful?”
She looked up at her father. Then she looked downstream for sight of Emma. Emma was squatting at the edge of the water, looking intently into its depths. She’d been like that for what seemed like hours. Lizzie was always amazed at the way Emma could be absolutely still for the longest time. Waiting was something Emma could do very well. Lizzie had no patience at all. But then Emma was fifteen. Emma knew everything, and Lizzie was sure that when she turned fifteen, she would be able to wait, too.
The country, at first, seemed silent, but then Lizzie heard the stream running, the flutter of the reed that had been caught in the water. She heard birds clucking and chirping and a sudden flutter of wings, she heard the underlying hum of all the insects as they went about their business.
Maybe Emma wasn’t waiting after all. Maybe she was listening.
It felt odd to be away from home, out in the country, all the way out at the farm. It was odd to have Papa home all day long, but that’s what they called a vacation. Lizzie loved the farm. She loved being out here with Emma and Papa. Mother was back at the farmhouse baking wonderful fruit pies. Lizzie had helped pull stalks of rhubarb with their gigantic green leaves. She wiped the dirt off one of the red stalks and took a bite. Just the right kind of sour that tasted good and made her mouth wrinkle up and go dry. With lots of sugar, Mother would turn that into a glorious pie. Then, Mother said, when they came back with their mess of fish to fry up, she’d be cooling those sweet pies on the windowsill. Lizzie had grabbed her fishing stick and was the first one ready to go. She wanted to get back home to those pies.
She looked down at her shoes. They were new, a pretty brownish red leather, but she was sure she’d get them dirty here and vacation or not, Mother would be cranky about it. She lifted up her fishing stick again to look at the worm.
“You have to leave the worm in the water, Lizzie. The fish won’t bite it if it keeps flying out of the water like that.”
“He’s not cold. He’s a worm. Put him back.”
She let the worm go back down into the water. She leaned over and watched him disappear into the green.
“Isn’t this nice,” Papa said, and leaned up against a rock “Spring is my favorite time of year. The sun is hot and the air is cool. Everything is green and fresh—” he put his arm around her— “and I’ve got my best girl right here by my side.”
Lizzie leaned into his side, resting her head against his chest.
He stroked her hair. She closed her eyes.
“We have a nice mother, don’t we?”
Lizzie nodded. Her eyes felt sleepy.
“Yes,” he said, smoothing her fine blonde hair from her forehead. “We have a nice mother now, and Emma is old enough to take care of herself as well as you, and things are back to being normal.”
He reached down and took off his shoes, then his socks. His long toes were white and hairy, and his toenails were long and cracked. Kind of yellow. He wiggled them.
“This is the kind of day that you should try to memorize, Lizzie,” he said. “Look around you and see everything. Focus on everything. The way the water runs so shiny and fast in the middle of the stream, yet swirls slowly near the bank. The way the reeds grow in the shallows here. The color of the new leaves, the dampness of the earth. The clouds… This is the kind of day that you put in your heart and you remember during those times when life isn’t quite so good, when life turns hard and mean, you pull out this stream bed and you and me under the clouds…”
Lizzie looked around because she knew he wanted her to. Then she put her head back against him, hoping he’d start to talk again so she could hear his words through his chest instead of through her ears.
“I have wonderful dreams for you, Lizzie. Wonderful dreams. Do you want to hear?”
Lizzie nodded. She opened her eyes for a moment and thought she saw a fish come up and take a gulp of air on the other side of the bank, showing her its big orange mouth. Her eyelids were getting heavier and heavier in the warm sunshine. She’d tell him about it later.
“You’ll be beautiful when you grow up. Your blonde hair will be long and luxuriant. You will live in a big house in the hill with a nice view, and have many, many friends. Dozens of friends. Famous friends.”
Lizzie could feel him talk more than she could hear him. Her ear rested on the side of his chest and she loved the vibrations of his deep voice.
“I’m going to make us rich, Lizzie, very rich, very, very rich, and you will have your pick of thousands of eligible young men who will come courting. But you hold out for the very best. You’ll have a substantial dowry, and you should have the very best husband. The very best.”
Lizzie dreamed about the little rag doll that Emma had made for her.
“Lizzie, are you asleep?”
“Lizzie, I have to know. When you are so rich and popular, and I am such an old, old man, will you still love me?”
“Of course, Papa,” she muttered, her voice thick.
Lizzie looked up at him and she couldn’t tell if he was joking with her or not. He had a queer expression on his face, as if he didn’t know if he was joking or not. She nodded, then settled her head against him to hear his vibrations some more.
“That’s good, Lizzie,” he said. “That’s very, very good.”
Lizzie wanted to look at her worm again, but as she brought the stick up, something grabbed it from down below and began to pull on it.
“Papa!” She came wide awake in an instant, holding onto the stick with both hands. “Papa!”
“He laughed. “It’s a fish, Lizzie! You caught a fish! Hold on tight and bring him up. Have you got him? Do you need help?”
Lizzie put her bottom lip between her teeth and held onto that stick as tight as she could. She dug her heels into the soft mossy grass at the edge of the bank and pulled up on the stick that was wiggling with life on the end of the line. Something silver flashed in the water below her.
Then her father’s hands were on her waist and he helped her to stand up. “Okay now,” he said. “Easy. Just bring your stick up and swing the fish right over here onto the bank.”
When she was steady, he let her go and stepped back.
She swung the fish—a big one!—onto the bank and began to giggle as it flipped and flopped, its pink-striped speckled sides flashing and throwing off raindrops in the sun.
My fish. My beautiful fish.
“Look at my fish, Papa. I caught a fish, Papa. Emma, come look!” she said, but Emma was already standing there, tall and gangly, staring down at the fish.
“You certainly did, Lizzie. A beauty, too.” Andrew Borden picked up a rock and slammed it down on the fish’s head.
“Papa, no!” She grabbed onto his arm, but he shook her off and so she watched in horror as the bleeding fish flopped a few last times.
“It doesn’t hurt, Lizzie. It’s just a fish. We have to kill it.”
Again, he smashed the rock onto the fish’s head. Again. And again. He just kept doing it, over and over again, and when he finally stopped, beads of sweat stood out on his forehead and where the fish’s head had been was a red, pulpy mass.
“There.” He stood up and threw the rock into the stream. “Good catch, Lizzie. Let’s take this home and have Mother fry it up for supper.”
The fish had lost its shine, the day had lost its magic, and even Lizzie’s new shoes weren’t so nice any more, she noticed as they walked back to the farmhouse. Her father carried the fish by the tail because she wouldn’t touch it; it had been so beautiful and full of life just a moment before. He could have just let it die, it could have just died, or it could have flopped back into the water, that would have been all right, too. Anything, anything but smashing its head in with a sharp rock.
And Emma smiled.
Lizzie came to the dinner table that night, but she wouldn’t sit next to her father and she wouldn’t look at the fish. She kept her little fishing stick, though, and vowed to remember this day just like her papa had told her to.