copyright 2014 by Gary Pullman
“The Boarded Window,” a thirteen-paragraph story, is both terrifying and horrific, its brevity notwithstanding, which is quite an accomplishment, even for a writer as gifted as Ambrose Bierce.
In the first paragraph, Bierce establishes the story's setting (the 1830 frontier) and introduces his protagonist, a pioneer who lives alone, as a hermit, in a small log cabin surrounded by a forest, subsisting upon supplies that he obtains by his bartering of animal skins in exchange for his “simple wants.”
The second paragraph identifies a peculiar feature of the cabin: the “boarded window,” opposite the domicile's “single door.” In introducing this feature of the isolated cabin, Bierce connects the window with a mysterious “secret”: “I fancy there are few persons living today who ever knew the secret of that window,” the narrator proclaims, creating suspense by adding the assurance, “but I am one of them, as you shall see.” (The mystery of the “boarded window” is the story's first suggestion that the pioneer's experience may contain extraordinary incidents.)
The third paragraph presents more information about the main character. His name is Murlock, and something other than mere years seems to have prematurely aged him. (This is the story's second hint that the pioneer's experience may contain extraordinary incidents.) The narrator distances himself from Murlock by explaining that he “never saw him,” but learned of him from his grandfather. Murlock, it seems, is as anonymous and mysterious a figure to the presumably young narrator as he is to virtually everyone else, despite the narrator's own secondhand knowledge of the protagonist.
Murlock, the narrator says, was found dead in his cabin, having presumably “died from natural cause,” and he was “buried near the cabin, alongside the grave of his wife, who had preceded him” years earlier. This straightforward recitation of these mundane facts seems to imply that the late wife was buried before the incidents of the story that the narrator relates concerning Murlock himself. However, as the reader will learn, to his or her shock, this is not the case. Murlock's story, the narrator insists, is a “true story,” the local legends of the deceased frontiersman's residence notwithstanding. The suggestion that the cabin may be haunted not only maintains suspense, but it also keeps open the possibility that this narrative will turn out to be genuinely marvelous, rather than merely uncanny. (A story of the fantastic, such as a horror story, Todorov believes, remains fantastic only until it is resolved as having either a supernatural or a natural cause; in the former case, the story is then shown to be marvelous, whereas, in the latter case, it is revealed to be uncanny.)
The protagonist built his house himself, and he and his wife, whose name remains lost, lived spartan, but happy, lives there, from all reports.
Returning from a hunt, Murlock found his wife “prostrate with fever.” Denied access to medical assistance due to the isolation of his habitat, Murlock must attempt himself to restore his wife to health, Unfortunately, despite his attempts to care for her, she remains unconscious until she dies, three days later. Her death marks the story's turning point, as the reader wonders what will ensue from this incident.
In preparing her for burial, the shocked protagonist “blundered now and again” and repeated some acts several times, surprising himself that “he did not weep.” Bierce's description suggests that Murlock's mistakes in preparing her for burial and apparent indifference to his wife's death may cause some sort of terrible consequence to occur, possibly because he has offended some occult powers, for his preparations are described in language that suggests ritual rather than mere routine.
The narrator describes Murlock's preparation for his wife's burial as “soulless care,” attributing his behavior to the numbing and stupefying effects of Murlock's grief, an emotion that he has never entertained before. Unable to weep, he consoles himself with the mad thought that his late wife will return to him and that “everything” will be “explained” to him. As he sleeps, weary from his work, he hears a “long wailing sound like the cry of a lost child” come through the boarded window. Although the sound may be nothing more than the cry of a “beast” or a sound heard in his dream, it may also be a supernatural phenomenon: will his wife prove to be a revenant? Certainly, Bierce's foreshadowing has suggested such a possibility.
In the dark cabin, Murlock seems aware of an invisible presence, a presence which seems to have awakened him.
The table at which he sits and leans upon shakes, and he seems to her “sounds” of “bare feet upon the floor!” If he has been visited by a revenant, the creature that has returned from the grave certainly seems to be more tangible than a ghost!
Although Murlock, who is “terrified,” senses a presence in the cabin—and one powerful enough to shove the table into him and to fall upon the floor, where a “scuffling” ensues—he is unable to see or feel anyone, just as he is unable to call out his wife's name. Has she come back from the dead, a zombie, perhaps, to haunt him?
Half-mad with terror, Murlock acts, seizing his rifle from the wall and firing it aimlessly; in the light of the muzzle flash, he sees the cause of the sounds he has heard and the force he has felt: a panther has seized his wife and is dragging her through the cabin's window. He loses consciousness, awakening only “when the sun was high.”
In the final paragraph of this 1,800-word short story, Bierce delivers the tale's true horror: having led the reader to\ expect that the dead wife has returned and has been seized by a panther, the narrator suggests that, instead, she was never dead. Lacking medical knowledge and skill, Murlock, in shock, supposing her to have died, has had to prepare his sick, but live, wife for burial, but he fell asleep, from weariness, before he had been able to inter her body. The panther had stolen in through the window to seize the helpless woman, and she, awakening from unconsciousness, had fought for her life, breaking the “ribbon with which he had bound the wrists” and attacking the predatory beast with her teeth, in which Murlock finds “a fragment of the animal's ear.” The proof that she is alive when the panther attacks her is the fresh blood that has poured from her “lacerated” throat. There is no doubt that the blood is fresh, for it has not, even after the night has ended and “the sun was high,” in the morning sky, “yet entirely coagulated,” and dead bodies do not bleed. To protect himself from the predatory beasts that roam the frontier, Murlock has, ever since the fatal night that his wife was killed by the panther, kept his cabin's window boarded.