Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In addition to ironic stories of war, Ambrose Bierce also excelled in ironic stories of horror. In “The Boarded Window,” he draws from the same well as his mentor Edgar Allan Poe. “The Boarded Window” tells the tale of an elderly, taciturn man who lived in a desolate cabin in Ohio, back in the days when Ohio formed a part of America’s western frontier. Old man Murlock—stoic, humorless, and prematurely aged—made his living through trapping and selling animal skins, and although his income was low, his wants were few. His house, indeed, reflected that: it was so spare that it featured only one door and one window. And at that, the window was useless, for it had been boarded up for as long as most neighbors could remember.
The unnamed narrator never actually met Murlock or even saw him, for the old man died before the narrator was born. The details of the story are actually gleaned from the narrator’s grandfather, who was one of few living people to know the secret of the boarded window. It seems that Murlock, in his young manhood, had a lovely young wife. However, relatively early in their marriage she sickened and finally ceased to move or breathe. Having no physician or coroner at hand, the young husband had no idea what to do; he reasoned that he would have to build her a coffin in the morning, but in the meantime he laid her out gently on the full length of their table and prepared her for burial as best he could. One of the few things he seemed to remember was that it was customary to tie the hands of the corpse together, but otherwise his mortuary skills were limited; Bierce says that he “did certain things incorrectly, and others which he did correctly were done over and over.” When he was done with his ministrations, Murlock sat down next to his wife’s body, rested his bent arms on the table next to her, and in this position fell asleep.
He was awakened in the middle of the moonless night by a strange and fearsome noise. Next he felt the table shake beneath his weight, and heard something which seemed very much like the patter of feet. He sat up, too terrified to move. He could see nothing, but suddenly the table was thrust up against his chest as if something inhumanly large had shoved it. Something heavy thudded onto the floor; there was a prolonged series of scuffling noises as well as “a confusion of sounds impossible to describe.” By this time, in sheer terror, Murlock had jumped to his feet and grabbed the table. There was nothing on it.
His hand found his rifle, and he fired “aimlessly.” The flash lit up the room, and he saw to his horror that an enormous panther was dragging the body of his wife toward the open window. Murlock fainted. When he came to, it was morning, and he found his wife’s body splayed on the floor in front of the window where the panther had abandoned it at the sound of the rifle. But most horrifying at all was the fact that “the ribbon with which he had bound [his wife’s] wrists was broken; the hands were tightly clenched. Between [her] teeth was a fragment of the animal’s ear.” Apparently Murlock had performed his wife’s funeral rites a little too soon.
You’ll find this story in the collection In the Midst of Life.
It is available as a paperback from Amazon here.
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