Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 550
The story opens with an unnamed narrator recalling years past, back in 1830, when the area around Cincinnati was almost unbroken forest. A man named Murlock lived alone in a small log house. Murlock kept to himself, making his living by bartering animal skins. The most noted aspect of the house was a window, directly opposite the front door, that was boarded up. Nobody could remember a time that this window was not boarded, yet no one knew why, except for this narrator, who learned Murlock’s story from his grandfather.
At the time of his death, Murlock was about 50 but looked decades older. Murlock had come to the frontier while still a young man. He lived in his cabin with his wife. It would appear that the couple lived happily, for Murlock’s life after her death was that of a lonely, burdened man.
One day when Murlock returns home from hunting, he finds his wife sick with fever. As they have no neighbors or nearby physician, Murlock tries to nurse her back to health. His efforts are unsuccessful, however, and she falls into a state of unconsciousness and apparently dies without ever recovering awareness.
Murlock thus sets about preparing her body for burial. He conducts this task stoically, and it occurs to him that he should be more saddened at the loss of his wife. He tells himself that after he buries her, he will miss her; for the present moment, he must convince himself that things are not as bad as they seem. The narrator supposes that Murlock, who had no experience with grief, was experiencing a sort of numbing at his wife’s death.
After he finishes preparing the body, Murlock sits down feeling utterly tired. Through the open window he hears an unearthly sound, perhaps a wild animal, but perhaps it is a dream, for Murlock is already asleep. A few hours later he is suddenly awakened. He listens intently, wondering what woke him up. Then he hears, or thinks he hears, a soft step—it sounds like bare feet walking upon the floor. Terrified, Murlock neither cries nor calls out. Instead, he waits in the darkness. He tries to speak his wife’s name but finds no sound will come. Then he hears something even more dreadful—the sound of some heavy body throwing itself against the table upon which his wife lay. He hears and feels something fall on the floor so heavily the whole house shakes. Next he hears the sounds of a scuffling. Murlock places his hands on the table, but is horri- fied to discover his wife is not there.
At this point, his terror turns to madness, which drives him to action. He springs to the wall and grabs his loaded rifle. He shoots the rifle without even aiming. In the flare of the gunpowder, he sees a giant panther dragging his dead wife toward the window by the throat. Suddenly, Murlock loses consciousness.
When he awakens the next day, he sees his wife’s body near the window where the cat dropped her before fleeing. She lies in disarray. Underneath her collects a pool of wet, runny bloody from the wound on her throat. Her hands are clenched. Between her teeth is a piece of the cat’s ear.