Photo credit: Nicholas Purcell Studio
Every now and then books choose you. This is how I met Lizzie Borden:
In 2005, I was browsing in a secondhand bookstore. After an hour, I ended up, as usual, at the "miscellaneous section" in the back, where the light is dim and ragged copies of 1950s "Good Housewife" guides sit alongside small-town USA poltergeist stories. Next to the true crime section.
Habit and instinct had me reaching for a book about women who kill. My arm bumped a shelf and a slim pamphlet fell out onto the floor. It was about Lizzie Borden. I read the pulpy account of the August 4, 1892 Borden murders cover to cover. I looked at the photo of Lizzie and I heard a voice crawl into my ear and say, "There was no more love." Lights flickered. The store was closing. I put Lizzie back on the shelf and went home.
That night I started dreaming: Lizzie sat in front of me, a smile on her face. "Let me tell you something," she said. "My father has a lot to answer for." I ignored her. The next night she came back again. This time she was wiping blood off the carpet: "Let me tell you something." I ignored her.
A week of dreams, a week of horror-filled nights. I decided the only way to get rid of her was to write down my dreams, to translate the images she showed me and hope she would eventually leave. I wrote and I wrote.
That night I started dreaming: Lizzie sat in front of me, a smile on her face. "Let me tell you something," she said. "My father has a lot to answer for." I ignored her. The next night she came back again. This time she was wiping blood off the carpet...
It’s been over 11 years and Lizzie still enjoys waking me at night. She’s also led me on an amazing creative journey. By far the most bizarre moments of my experience have happened inside the Borden house, now a lovely, if slightly creepy, B&B, where I slept in Lizzie’s bedroom for a few nights. In that house I have met amateur ghost hunters, bioscientists armed with Luminol spray ("We’re only here for the blood stains," they told me), Carrie
-obsessed college students whose hobby is having sex in haunted houses on the weekends, unwitting retired schoolteachers looking for a place to sleep, and a cast of wonderful tour guides who all have their own theories as to what happened that fateful August day.
Inside that house I also met the Bordens (or at least traces of them). One of them brushed her hand across my forehead as I drifted off to sleep. Another one pushed me in the chest while I made a cup of tea in the kitchen. I heard a woman sobbing in the guest bedroom when no one was in the house with me. At different times during the day and night, I caught the faint smell of tobacco pipe and lavender, but could never trace the origin. I saw the tall shadow of a man walk through the sitting room as I read old newspaper clippings in the dining room.
The most upsetting experience occurred while I was writing a scene between Abby Borden and a young Lizzie, who was clearly enamored of her stepmother. I had the distinct feeling that someone was standing behind my right shoulder, their breath a little wind on my neck. For some reason I had the urge to ask the room a question: "What did it feel like to realize your daughter was about to kill you and would never love you again?" As soon as I said it, I felt a hand press down on my right shoulder and a surge of profound grief. It felt like every bone was broken, that there was a wound in my heart that couldn’t stop bleeding.
I’ll tell you now that I don’t believe in ghosts. But what a story they can tell.
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After completing a Bachelor of Arts (Professional writing and editing), a Master of Arts (Creative Writing), and a Graduate Diploma of Information Management, Sarah Schmidt
currently works as a Reading & Literacy Coordinator (read: a fancy librarian) at a regional public library. She lives in Melbourne with her partner and daughter. See What I Have Done
is her first novel.