Juliana Gray

Miss Emma Borden Visits Her Sister in Jail

Double rows of six silver eyelets, 

strung with black laces, on each of my shoes.

One window with one ugly lock.

Twelve roses linking vines around

my teacup’s rim, ten and an orphaned petal

on the saucer, which was chipped and dirty. 

When Lizzie, sulking, refused to speak to me,

I counted up the prison matron’s room:

two Bibles, one tempting deck of cards,

one table, one threadbare woolen rug, one door.

Twenty days since our parents’ murders.


That morning, when I came to sit with her,

Lizzie threw herself upon the couch

and sobbed that I had given her away. 

“No, never!” I cried.  “And how could I,

when you are innocent?”  In the next room,

the matron, whose room Lizzie occupied,

was listening.  Anyone could hear.

Lizzie, sniffling, turned her back to me;

I drew near the single wooden chair

and stroked her arm, her skin burning hot

beneath the black mourning rags.  Poor girl,

she’d been the one to find our father killed,

chopped to bits like a block of party ice.

I wonder that she didn’t swoon; I’m sure

I would have, had I been at home that day.

Our stepmother lying dead upstairs,

Father below, the stifling August heat–

the house still reeked of blood when I came home.

Lizzie had closed all the windows and curtains

against the gawkers and sat in the parlor with friends,

discussing undertakers, eating cake.


And yet today, her strength seemed to fail.

Mrs. Reagan bustled about, pretending

to tidy up the room, chatting with Lizzie.

I was counting fringes on the rug

when her voice turned sly.  “There’s one simple thing,

Miss Borden, I wager you cannot do.”

“Indeed?  And what is that?”  Lizzie chirped.

“Break an egg.” 

                        Lizzie looked insulted.

“Mrs. Reagan, I can break an egg.”

“Not the way I’d have you do it.”  The crone

licked her dry lips.  “Will you bet

a dollar?” 

            “A quarter.” 

                                The matron hurried off

to fetch the egg.  When her footsteps faded, I hissed,

“Lizzie, what are you doing?  You cannot gamble

when you are in prison, soon to be on trial

for your life!”

                        She smoothed her dress.  “It’s just a game,

Emma, to pass the time.  You worry too much.”


Mrs. Reagan was back in a blink– she must

have had the wager planned– carrying

a speckled egg.  She had Lizzie stand

away from me, in case she “broke it wrong”

and egg would stain my dress.  “Hold it thus,

in your right hand, and squeeze as hard as you can.”

Lizzie took the egg, smirked at me,

and folded her long fingers over it.

Her knuckles whitened, the cords of her wrist popped up,

but the egg remained whole.  Lizzie stood

straight, drew a manly breath, and squeezed

as if to crush the life that never was

from the innocent egg.  Then she opened her hand

and almost threw the pale, uncracked thing

at Mrs. Reagan.  The woman caught it, barely.

I knew Lizzie was angry, but she sounded cheerful

when she said, “That is the first thing

I undertook to do that I never could.”

I paid the matron; both coin and egg vanished

in her pockets.  She’d boil it for her supper,

probably.  I hoped she’d choke on it.

My sister calmly smiled, fixed her eyes

on a vacant spot just above our heads,

and gently folded her unblemished hands.



“Miss Emma Borden Visits Her Sister in Jail” is from Honeymoon Palsy (Measure Press, 2017).