The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson


  “My mother,” she went on, half-remembering, and Elizabeth moaned, and pressed her hands together, and dreamed. “My mother was angry with her Betsy and now I am alone, I am on a bus going to New York; I am old enough to travel alone and my name is Betsy Richmond, Elizabeth Jones before I was married. ‘Betsy is my darling,’ my mother used to say, and I used to say ‘Elizabeth is my darling,’ and I used to say, ‘Elizabeth likes Robin best.’ ”

  Betsy sat up straight in the bus, so suddenly that Elizabeth half-awakened and opened her eyes and said “Doctor?” “No, no,” Betsy said, and then, shivering, looked around to see if she had made any loud noise, if she had forgotten to be careful while everyone else was sleeping. It’s Robin, she thought, Robin nearly woke up Lizzie. She waited a minute, trying to see through the darkness of the bus; the driver ahead seemed calm enough, and then someone far down on one side moved, and sighed deeply, and Betsy sat back in relief; it’s all right, she thought, other people move and make sounds; no one cares. She sat back and looked out the window; I don’t even know where Robin is, anymore, she thought, and he wouldn’t remember me any more than anyone else, even if he saw me Robin would think I was someone he didn’t know at all, and if my mother knew about him he’d be sorry. My mother loves me best, anyway, Betsy told herself forlornly, my mother was only teasing about not loving me best, my mother pulled my hair and laughed and said “Elizabeth loves Robin best,” and my mother loves me better than anyone. My name is Betsy Richmond and my mother’s name is Elizabeth Richmond and she calls me Betsy. Robin did everything bad.

  She wanted to get up and move around, but dared not; it was important for Elizabeth to sleep, and even if she did go up—say—to the driver and ask him how fast they were going, or when they would reach New York, or whether his name was Robin, people would notice her and look at her, because for all she knew it might be extremely unusual for people to wonder how fast the bus was going. Thinking of Robin always made her very nervous, however, and it was important not to be nervous or afraid, and she twisted her hands together and rubbed her eyes and bit at her lip; what must I do, she wondered, if I see Robin somewhere in New York?

  The bus went widely around a curve, and Betsy fell against the side of the seat and giggled; it’s fun, she thought. Then, suddenly very happy because she was running away, after all, and no one could find her—so how would she find Robin, then?—she sat back and folded her hands and spoke to herself very sternly.

  If I’m going to keep it all straight and make a real person by myself, she told herself silently, Robin has to be in it like anyone else; he can’t get out of it as easily as that. And besides, everyone who remembers at all has bad things to remember along with good things; it would seem very funny to people if all I had for a life I remembered was good things. There have to be some bad things or it looks funny. So keep Robin in, because he was bad and nasty. We went on a picnic, Robin and my mother and me. No, she thought then, shaking her head, if it’s going to be in, it’s all got to be in, right from the beginning, the way things ought to be remembered, so start the remembering right from the beginning of that day, right from the top, and remember it all. No one ever remembers just a bad thing, they remember all around it, all that happened before it and after it, and of course, she told herself consolingly, one bad thing is probably enough, and when they ask you what do you remember that’s bad and nasty you can say Robin, and that will satisfy them. So, she went on silently, I woke up in the morning that day and the sun was shining and the blanket on my bed was blue. There was a green dress hanging on the bottom of my bed and I thought it would look funny with the blue blanket but it didn’t. I heard my mother downstairs and she was saying “A wonderful day for a picnic with my Betsy, a wonderful wonderful day,” and I knew she was saying it to me and saying it on the way upstairs over and over so I would wake up hearing her say it. And then she came in and she was smiling and the sun was shining brightly on her face, and I can’t remember how she looked that morning because of the sun shining on her face. “A wonderful day for my Betsy,” she said, “a wonderful wonderful day for a picnic, let’s go to the bay.” And she came and tickled me and I rolled out of bed and she hit me with the pillow and I was laughing. Then she said “Peanut butter” and ran out of the room, and I said “Jelly,” calling it after her and I put on the green dress and went downstairs and I had oranges and toast for breakfast that morning because it was hot. My mother made peanut butter sandwiches and jelly sandwiches and all the time I was eating my orange she would look at me and say “Peanut butter” and I would look back at her and say “Jelly,” and it was funny because she wanted peanut butter and I wanted jelly and it was funny that two people who loved each other and had the same name liked two different things like that. She made hard-boiled eggs and packed everything in a basket with cookies and a thermos bottle full of lemonade and then my mother said “Let’s take your poor old Robin along with us, Betsy, my girl. Because poor old Robin is lonesome and he is Elizabeth’s darling,” and I said “Jelly,” and she made a face at me and said “Peanut butter, but let’s take him anyway.”

  I pretended to throw a hard-boiled egg at my mother but she went anyway and telephoned Robin and told him to come right away and we took our bathing suits. Robin and my mother and Betsy went on the streetcar out to the bay and my mother and Betsy put on their bathing suits and Robin put on his bathing suit and the water was warm and whenever Betsy splashed at my mother Robin splashed at Betsy and he said “Betsy is a mean mean girl” and the sun was bright and there was no one anywhere around. Robin and my mother and Betsy ate the hard-boiled eggs and the peanut butter sandwiches and when Betsy said “Jelly” my mother said “Betsy, must you tease all the time?” and everyone lay down on the beach in the sun. Then my mother said, “Betsy, my nuisance, go down along the beach and collect seventy-three shells all the prettiest you can find, and we will be sirens and make them into a crown for our Robin.” Betsy went down the beach and gathered shells, and she was all alone, not even strangers near her, and the water on one side and the beach on the other side and the rocks beyond, and she was singing, “I love coffee, I love tea, I love Betsy and Betsy loves me,” and matching shells because she was the sea-king’s daughter and she was gathering the eyes of drowned sailors to ransom her love from the sea-king’s prison in the rocks. There was an empty popcorn box, and it was a coral chest where she put her jewels, and the two rocks were her throne, and when she sang the waves came running up to her feet, and she was shipwrecked, and living alone on an island, and the empty popcorn box was washed up on the shore, and inside it she found corn to plant, and a hammer to build a house. She made plates and pots out of sand, and baked them in the sun, and overhead she had a roof of seaweed and it kept out the sun. The rocks were her signal tower, to light a fire for passing ships. Pirates came by, and captured her, and the rocks were the cabin of the pirate ship where they kept the gold, and they sank a merchant ship and made all the shells walk the plank, and the popcorn box was full of emeralds and pearls. Then Betsy stood up suddenly, feeling cold, and the shells fell out of her lap and the rocks were rocks again and the sand was only scuffed and piled instead of plates and growing corn and there were no drowned sailors in the bay. “I stayed away too long,” Betsy thought, and she gathered up her shells in the popcorn box and walked fast, because she was cold, and she heard Robin saying, “Leave the damn kid with Morgen next time.”

  “No,” said Betsy, loudly enough so that people in the bus heard her, and someone turned around to look; I was having a nightmare, she thought violently, having a nightmare, is all. She waited, tense, and then people turned and moved and fell asleep again, and no one knew that Betsy was even awake, or had been awake at all.

  “My name is Betsy Richmond,” she began again at last, whispering, “and my mother’s name is Elizabeth Richmond, Elizabeth Jones before she was married. . . .”

  When the bus stopped at last and people stirred and opened their e
yes and a man down the aisle stood up and began to put on his coat, Betsy was relieved at having no longer to watch the same inside of the bus, and the windows which, whatever they framed, made it look all the same; she was among the first people standing, and she made her way hastily down the aisle, edging past the man putting on his coat, to where her suitcase was, just as the woman in the black gloves stood up and lifted Betsy’s suitcase down. “Good morning,” the woman said, smiling at Betsy. “Did you sleep? I’ll take the bag, dear.”

  “I want my suitcase,” Betsy said. It was not usual, she knew, to struggle over a suitcase in a bus, and she must not be angry, so she took hold of the woman’s arm and said again, “I want my suitcase, please.”

  “I’ll carry it for you,” the woman said, smiling brightly at the other people in the bus. “Dear,” she added, bringing her smile around again to Betsy.

  This was wrong and very unfortunate. “I want my suitcase,” Betsy said once more, not knowing what else to say, and not sure just how far she might trust herself to show anger; here, in a situation like this, was where her unpreparedness showed most clearly—how angry, really, might a person be when her suitcase was taken forcibly away from her? How reprehensible was this false smiling woman, with her unreal sprightliness and her tawdry dull shoddy air; might Betsy strike her? Push her back? Call for help?

  She turned, wanting advice, and met the eye of the bus driver; “I want my suitcase,” Betsy said to him down the length of the bus, and, because most of the people had left by now, he came out of his seat and toward Betsy.

  “Something wrong, lady?” he asked the woman who still had a clinging grasp on Betsy’s suitcase, and who gave him her free black-gloved hand on his arm, with a sigh of relief; “I wish this child would behave,” she said, with a gesture at Betsy that endeavored to exclude Betsy from the circle of maturity in which the woman and the bus driver were naturally included. “Alone in the big city,” the woman said vividly.

  The wickednesses of the city were not lost upon the bus driver; he nodded and regarded Betsy with sadness. “If people want to help you,” he began, “seems like you ought to treat them nicer.”

  Any needless waste of emotion in Betsy’s position would be an almost criminal extravagance; “Old suitcase-stealer,” she said to the woman, “Just because I told you all my money was in the suitcase.”

  “Well, surely . . .” said the woman, lifting her head high. “I wanted to help the child,” she said to the bus driver. “Her money . . .” and she indicated that of all counterfeit gratification in which she dealt, money was the least regarded and the most unreliable; “alone in a strange city,” she said, “someone offers to help you, and right away you start accusing them of stealing.” She took away her black gloves, and gave Betsy and the bus driver each a long and unhappy look of compassion. “I can always tell your kind of person,” she said flatly to Betsy.

  “Lady,” said the bus driver sadly, “if the kid don’t want your help, you can’t make her. Maybe,” he added without humor, “maybe she just likes to carry her own money.”

  “Naturally,” the woman said, and turned her back on them both; she took up her own suitcase and pocketbook and went out of the bus, walking with the proud step of one who does not steal. “You want to watch out about getting into some kind of real trouble,” the bus driver said to Betsy. “Can’t trust anybody, almost.”

  “I know it,” Betsy said. “I plan to be careful.”

  “You got any people here or anything?” the bus driver asked, looking for the first time at Betsy instead of at her suitcase. “I mean, you got anywhere to go?”

  “Certainly,” said Betsy, perceiving clearly for the first time where she had come. “I’m going to meet my mother.”

  The Drewe Hotel was a sign on an awning, a gold script on caps and vest pockets and matchbook folders; Betsy had never before walked on a carpet where her feet made no sound, and even in the museum she had not seen so high a polish on brass fittings. She was impressed by the thoughtfulness of the management on her account; someone had arranged where the bed was to go and had counted the hangers in the closet, and no disguise of satin or watercolor or walnut veneer could conceal the fact that someone had contrived a closed room where Betsy was to perform all the most private acts of her life for a space of time depending upon herself, in whatever order she chose, at her own expense, carefully and securely hidden away. When the door was safely closed and locked (Aunt Morgen and Doctor Wrong would surely not think to look for her in a room with blue satin bedspreads, but she had promised the bus driver to take good care of her suitcase, so locking the door seemed a faithful precaution) she went at once to the window and leaned out. Her room was high, and not far away, between buildings, she could see the river; leaning against the windowsill, it seemed to her that she could feel a gentle touch, as of the river moving against its banks and jarring the land in little waves, so that even the Drewe Hotel was caressed, distantly; somewhere she heard the indefinable stir of music.

  A thought of the world swept over her, of people living around her, singing, dancing, laughing; it seemed unexpectedly and joyfully that in all this great world of the city there were a thousand places where she might go and live in deep happiness, among friends who were waiting for her here in the stirring crowds of the city (oh, the dancing in the small rooms, the voices singing together, the long talks at night under the cool trees, the swaggering arm in arm, the weddings and the music and the spring!); perhaps there were some, searching face after face with eager looks, wondering when Betsy would be there. A little touch of laughter caught her, like the touch of the waves of the river, and she tightened her fingers delightedly upon the windowsill; how happy we all are, she thought, and how lucky that I came at last!

  Far below her, upon a narrow ledge between one of the buildings and the river, a man came, edging his way; she could not see his face or his objective, but she watched contentedly, knowing that he would accomplish with competence whatever he had started for. When he stumbled, he caught himself and sent what was surely a grin backwards over his shoulder, as one who says “Nearly lost me that time,” and then, idly, lifted his head as though to make sure that Betsy was watching. While she held her breath with pleasure, he took one hand from his grip on the ledge and waved, although she knew it was not to her, and, grinning and wavering precariously, shouted something to someone, and made his way on across the ledge and disappeared. She looked on still at the moving water of the river, wondering at the man who went so easily, thinking of him now safely across the ledge, laughing and going on already to some new occupation, moving among his friends now and on his way perhaps to some good place where he was welcome; he may someday be a friend of mine, she thought; I may be welcome there too.

  Now that she knew she was here to find her mother, the city had begun to take on a more coherent shape for her, because somewhere in the center was the solitary figure which was her mother, and radiating out from that figure in all directions were signals and clues which she might find and which would lead her surely to the center of the maze. Anything, she thought, looking with anticipation at the windows across the way, anything might be a clue.

  Although upon reflection she perceived that her mother must always have expected that Betsy would come someday, it was impossible for her mother to foresee exactly when Betsy would be able to escape, so she could probably expect very little in the way of assistance from her mother, until her mother learned definitely (perhaps from the man on the ledge?) that Betsy had come at last, and had begun her search. They might just possibly stumble upon one another by chance, but that seemed unreasonable, considering the numbers of people in the city. Betsy decided wisely that what she must do was recall as well as possible all that she had ever heard her mother say about New York, because all that time, long years ago, her mother had been leaving clues for Betsy to find her someday, building against a future when she and Betsy might be free together.


  First, then: Betsy and her mother had left New York when Betsy was two years old; consequently Betsy could not be expected to remember much about the city herself, although she had a suspicion that she might at any moment turn a corner and walk without foreknowledge onto a scene clearly remembered and more real than anything she had ever seen since. All that Betsy knew now about the city, beyond what she had seen from the taxi window, the Hotel Drewe, and her acquaintance on the ledge—although probably the bus driver and the woman with the black gloves were by now somewhere among the city people—was what she had heard her mother say, and that was little more than a dozen idle references in one or another conversation. Carefully, Betsy tried to evoke her mother’s clues.

  “—The one from that little dress shop I told you about, Morgen, you remember—Abigail’s.” Betsy recalled this remark most clearly, and even the faint impatient voice her mother had used always in speaking to Aunt Morgen; oddly, she could not remember the dress her mother had been talking about and could not even picture her mother and Aunt Morgen talking together about it; only the lonely sentence stayed in her mind, and that almost certainly made it a clue.

  And then . . . had her mother not spoken longingly of the place she had lived alone with Betsy? “. . . And I danced with my baby, and sang, and in the mornings we watched the sun rise; it was like Paris.” Should she perhaps consider searching for her mother in Paris? Wiser, she decided, to look here first; Paris was difficult to get to, and she already was in New York; besides, although Elizabeth knew some French, Betsy had never troubled to learn it, and she would feel extremely awkward, having to get Lizzie to translate the simplest things; no, she thought, not Paris. But we danced together, and sang, and we lived high up, because there had been many stairs (“. . . and my Betsy went down the stairs and down the stairs and down the stairs, and I sat at the bottom and waited and waited and waited . . .”). She laughed aloud, leaning on the windowsill and thinking of her mother.

 
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