The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson


  She would spend this first morning in her hotel room, partly because here in private she might relax her vigilance over Elizabeth for a while, and partly because she thought it would look odd if she went out again so soon after coming in; they would think downstairs that she had not unpacked her suitcase or even washed her face. This reminded her that it would not do at all, surely, to continue in Elizabeth’s drab clothes, since if Aunt Morgen and Doctor Wrong were really looking for her, they would have a description: Elizabeth Richmond, twenty-four years old, height five foot six, weight a hundred and twenty pounds, hair brown, eyes blue, wearing a dark blue suit, white blouse, low-heeled black shoes, plain black hat, last seen carrying a tan suitcase. Thought to have been kidnapped by a young woman known as Betsy Richmond, about sixteen years old, height five foot six, weight a hundred and twenty pounds, hair brown, eyes blue, wearing a dark blue suit . . . no, new clothes were essential. Betsy thought wryly that if anything could impel Elizabeth to reassert her authority it would surely be the sudden spectacle of herself in scarlet shoes and sequined gown, so she reluctantly decided upon a compromise, perhaps only a red hat and some inexpensive jewelry.

  She unpacked the suitcase, putting Elizabeth’s neat underwear and extra stockings into the dresser drawer, hanging up Elizabeth’s plain coat and clean blouse in the closet. She undressed and bathed, and then, coming out of the tub, met herself unexpectedly in the full length mirror in the bedroom and for a minute almost lost herself in surprise. Where, she wondered, is Elizabeth? Where in the tightness of the skin over her arms and her legs, in the narrow bones of her back and the planned structure of her ribs, in the tiny toes and fingers and the vital plan of her neck and head . . . where, in all this, was there room for anyone else? Could Lizzie be seen moving furtively behind the clarity of the eyes, edging in caution to peer out at herself; was she gone far within, waiting behind the heart or the throat, to seize with both hands and take control with a murderous attack? Was she under the hair, had she found refuge in a knee? Where was Lizzie?

  For a moment, staring, Betsy wanted frantically to rip herself apart, and give half to Lizzie and never be troubled again, saying take this, and take this and take this, and you can have this, and now get out of my sight, get away from my body, get away and leave me alone. Lizzie could have the useless parts, the breasts and the thighs and the parts she took such pleasure in letting give her pain; Lizzie could have the back so she would always have a backache, and the stomach so she would always be able to have cramps; give Elizabeth all the country of the inside, and let her go away, and leave Betsy in possession of her own.

  “Lizzie,” Betsy said cruelly, “Lizzie, come out,” and Elizabeth, looking for a moment out of her own eyes, saw herself standing naked in a strange room before a long mirror, and, turning to cower fearfully against the mirror, she began to cry, and clutched at herself, and looked with horror into the room.

  “Where?” she said, whispering, “who?” and searched with her eyes, hoping perhaps to catch sight of her attacker, of the villain who, enfolding her all unperceiving in a crowd, had brought her here evilly to satisfy his white-slave passions; “Hello?” she said finally, weakly, and Betsy laughed and pushed her down, “You poor thing,” Betsy said, looking again in the mirror at the body which had so frightened Elizabeth, “you poor silly thing.”

  And then, with Elizabeth’s tears still on her cheeks, she thought, “I wish I had a real sister.”

  • • •

  She heard, as clearly as though it had been spoken in the room with her, her mother’s voice saying, “No, I want the child with me. I won’t give up my Betsy.”

  That was my mother, she thought, turning, my mother was talking, she wants me to come with her. But she didn’t say that now, Betsy thought, when did she say it? When was I listening and heard my mother say that? “No, I want the child with me . . .”

  “Get rid of the little pest. Leave her with Morgen. What good is she to us?” And that, Betsy thought, was Robin’s voice. “I hate that child,” he said, some time long ago, some time to Betsy’s mother, “I hate that child.” And had her mother said “But she’s my Betsy; I love her”; —had her mother said that? Had she?

  “Poor baby’s cold,” Betsy said, and went into the bed and rolled herself in blankets, and she could lie and think; Lizzie was restless as she grew warmer and Betsy sang, “Baby, baby, have you heard, Mother’s going to get you a mocking bird; if that mocking bird won’t sing, Mother’s going to get you a diamond ring. . .” I wish I had a diamond ring, she thought, as Lizzie quieted; if I had a diamond ring I could tell them I was engaged to be married. If I was engaged to be married they couldn’t take me back because my husband wouldn’t let them. If I had a husband then my mother could marry him and we could all hide together and be happy. My name is Betsy Richmond. My mother’s name is Elizabeth Richmond, Elizabeth Jones before I was married. Call me Lisbeth like you do my mother, because Betsy is my darling Robin. . . .

  (“You’re a silly baby,” her mother said.

  “But I want Robin to call me Lisbeth too. Because whatever he calls you he’s got to call me.”

  “Betsy,” said Robin, laughing, “Betsy, Betsy Betsy.”)

  While Elizabeth dreamed of flight and falling, Betsy planned to get herself some new clothes, perhaps today if she could find Abigail’s shop right away. Perhaps at Abigail’s she could find a way to locate her mother at once; perhaps—and the thought made her laugh secretly and wriggle in the bed—perhaps she might, opening the door of the shop, find her mother there already, looking at herself in the glass, wondering over the sequined dress, the jewels; “Betsy, Betsy,” her mother would say, holding out her arms, “Where have you been? I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for you.”

  • • •

  Some time later, when she had wondered over her clothes and spent more time at the window (although the man on the ledge did not come back again) and dressed herself and Lizzie had slept, she thought of food, and was suddenly hungry. I didn’t have any breakfast, she thought; with Aunt Morgen by now I’d be having lunch, soup or waffles or macaroni or sandwiches with lettuce and mayonnaise and milk and hot cocoa and little cupcakes and cookies and puddings and dishes of pineapple and pickles; she hesitated in the doorway of her room, looking back. Everything was safely put away and there was no sign of her having been there, so if they should, by some chance, come here looking for her, there would be nothing to show where she was or where she was going. She locked the door carefully and put the key into Elizabeth’s pocketbook, which she was carrying for lack of any other. In it was Elizabeth’s pencil and a lipstick which Elizabeth used to put a faint color on her lips, and the clean handkerchief which Elizabeth always made sure to carry, and a pencil and a small notebook and a little tin of aspirin; Betsy grinned as she closed the pocketbook, wondering how the key to an unknown hotel room would ever explain itself inside the pocketbook to Elizabeth’s chaste white handkerchief, and she went down the hall to the elevator thinking here I am at last.

  The most important thing she had learned so far—and it was something to know, after only twelve hours—was that she need not pretend, always, to be competent or at home in a strange atmosphere. Other people, she had learned, were frequently uneasy and uncertain, lost their way or their money, were nervous at being approached by strangers or wary of officials; this made it considerably easier for Betsy to manage, since she could go up to the clerk at the hotel desk and ask her way to the dining room without seeming odd or unwell, and she relied strongly upon getting through a meal upon the same principle; so long as she did not try to order anything with a French name, and observed carefully to see what other people did by way of sitting down, and moving plates, and summoning service, she thought that she would do nicely. She was not awed by the size or the whiteness of the dining room, after having seen the satin bedspreads upstairs, and all tables not Aunt Morgen’s were equally strange to her. S
he sat down, thinking with humor that if she stepped on the waiter’s foot, or dropped her pocketbook, or perhaps missed the chair altogether, sitting down, she could always slip off and leave Lizzie to cope. She unfolded her napkin and looked around, and sat back in the soft chair with satisfaction. Each thing, she thought pleasurably, is nicer than the last; everything gets better and better.

  With an enormous feeling of delighted wickedness she ordered an Aunt-Morgen-ish glass of sherry, and did not notice the waiter’s hesitation over whether she was as old as she looked, and entitled to be served, or as old as she acted, and must necessarily be refused; the waiter, however, was in the last analysis philosophical, and concluded that a woman was more likely to look her age than to act it, so that Betsy was served with sherry and she sipped it gracefully, quite as professionally as Aunt Morgen might. Because it was not possible, in this most charming of worlds, for anything to be either mistaken or out of sorts, when Betsy desired company she looked up at the first person passing her table and said “Hello.”

  “Hello,” he said, surprised, and hesitating by the table.

  “Sit down, please,” Betsy said politely.

  He opened his eyes wide, glanced beyond her at the empty table which had been his objective, and then laughed. “All right,” he said.

  “I feel funny sitting here alone,” Betsy explained. “No one to talk to, or anything. At home there was always Aunt Morgen there and even when she didn’t talk I could have someone to look at. Someone I knew, that is,” she said.

  “Of course,” he said, sitting down. “Have you been here long?” he asked, taking up his napkin.

  “I just got here this morning, and the bus driver told me to be careful, so of course I am, but I thought you looked all right to talk to.” He seemed a very civil man, not so old as Doctor Wrong, but older than Robin, and not at all uncomfortable at talking like this to someone he had not met before. “You weren’t outside my window a little while ago?” she asked him suddenly, “climbing across a ledge?”

  He shook his head, surprised. “I’m not spry enough,” he said.

  “I could if I wanted to. Lizzie gets faint, but of course I never do.”

  “Who is Lizzie?”

  “Lizzie Richmond. I brought her with me, and she wants to get out, but she can’t.” She stopped and looked at him suspiciously. “I wasn’t going to tell anyone about Lizzie,” she said.

  “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I won’t tell.”

  “Anyway, my mother’s going to get rid of Lizzie—we’re not going to have her around all the time, after the trouble we’ve already had, getting rid of Robin and all.”

  “Are you having lunch?” He took the menu from the waiter, smiling at her, and Betsy said, “This is the first time I’ve ever been in a restaurant,” and wriggled happily. “And I’m extremely hungry,” she added.

  “Then we had better make this a special lunch,” he said. “Shall I choose for you?” He held the menu toward her, and said, “Or would you rather order something for yourself?”

  Betsy took the menu and glanced at it briefly and then handed it back. “Lizzie speaks French,” she said, “but of course I never bothered to take it up much, so you’d better choose. Only lots of things, please. Everything exciting.” She hesitated. “Nothing,” she said, “nothing like . . . macaroni, or pickles, or sandwiches, or things like that. Things Aunt Morgen makes.”

  “Well,” he said profoundly. He regarded the menu in deep thought. “No pickles,” he said, debating, “no sandwiches.” Finally, with the waiter standing by, and both of them nodding reassuringly at Betsy, he ordered smoothly and quite as though he very frequently had occasion to order lunches for young ladies who wanted everything exciting, and no pickles. While she listened to the lovely words which meant foods so exciting she did not even know the order in which they would be served, and listened to music coming distantly from some upper corner of the room, and listened to the fine harmonious sound of forks touching knives, and cups touching saucers, Betsy told herself, this is what it is going to be like all the time, now.

  “There,” he said at last, handing the menu to the waiter. “I think you’re going to like everything. Now, tell me—I don’t even know your name.”

  “I’m Betsy. Betsy Richmond. My mother’s name is Elizabeth Richmond, Elizabeth Jones before she was married. I was born in New York.”

  “How long ago?”

  “I forget,” she said vaguely. “Is that for me?” The waiter set a fruit cup before her, and she took the cherry from the top with her fingers and put it into her mouth. “My mother left me with Aunt Morgen,” she went on indistinctly, “but she didn’t go with Robin.”

  “The one you had such trouble getting rid of?”

  Betsy nodded violently, swallowed, and said, “But I don’t have to remember that part, I decided in the bus. One bad thing about Robin ought to be enough, don’t you think?”

  “I should think so,” he said. “Seeing as you got rid of him, anyway.”

  She giggled, lifting her spoon. “And I got rid of Aunt Morgen, and I got rid of Doctor Wrong, and I’m going to get rid of Lizzie, and I’m the gingerbread boy, I am.”

  “I wonder if Aunt Morgen will be worried about you,” he said carefully.

  She shook her head again. “I wrote her a postcard with a picture on it and I said I wasn’t coming back, and anyway they’ll be looking for Lizzie, not me. Can I have some more fruit?”

  “He’ll be bringing you something else in a minute.”

  “I can pay for it—I have plenty of money.” When she saw that he was smiling she thought, and then said acutely, “That was wrong, wasn’t it? That was wrong to say—why?”

  “I invited you to lunch, sort of,” he said. “That means that I am going to pay, so you mustn’t say anything about paying. You must wait, and then be very gracious about my paying.”

  “Gracious,” she said. “You mean ‘Thank you so much’? Like Aunt Morgen?”

  “Exactly like Aunt Morgen,” he said. “Where is your mother now?”

  “I don’t know just where it is. I’m still finding out. Like the man down on the ledge. They’re going to have to tell me because I’ll just keep asking and looking and looking and asking and asking and looking and looking and—” She stopped abruptly, and there was a silence. When she looked up, he was placidly finishing his fruit. “Sometimes,” she said with great caution, “I get mixed up. You’ll just have to excuse it.”

  “Of course,” he said, without surprise.

  “So you see,” Betsy said, looking with deep satisfaction into a bowl of clear soup in which, far down, small strange shapes moved, and stirred, and stared, and strode.

  “Who are you?” asked Elizabeth, blankly.

  “How do you do?” he said. “I’m a friend of yours.”

  Betsy looked up, gasping, and moved far back in her chair, and scowled at him. “Don’t you listen to her,” she said. “She tells lies.”

  “All right,” he said, and moved his spoon in his soup.

  “I don’t want any soup,” Betsy said sullenly.

  “All right,” he said. “It’s good, though, I always like soup.”

  “Aunt Morgen likes soup,” Betsy said. “All the time.”

  “And pickles?”

  Betsy giggled, in spite of her annoyance. “Old Aunt Pickle,” she said.

  “Old Doctor Pickle,” he said.

  “Old Lizzie Pickle.”

  “Elizabeth Jones that was?”

  “What?” said Betsy.

  “Elizabeth Pickle before she was married,” he said.

  “You stop that right now,” Betsy said furiously. “You just stop talking like that. I’ll tell my mother.”

  “I’m sorry,” he said. “It was a joke.”

  “My mother doesn’t like jokes. Not mean jokes, and wh
en Robin made mean jokes my mother told him to stop and when you make mean jokes you sound like Robin.”

  “And you’ll get rid of me?”

  She laughed. “That was smart, how I got rid of Robin,” she said, and then, breathlessly, “Oh!” turning to look at a tray of pastries being wheeled past her chair. “Can I have one?”

  “First eat your lunch. Your nice soup.”

  “I want cake,” said Betsy.

  “Your mother wouldn’t want you to have dessert first.”

  Betsy was quiet suddenly. “How do you know?” she said. “How do you know what my mother would want?”

  “She certainly wouldn’t want you to be sick. That would be silly.”

  “That’s right,” Betsy said joyfully, “Mother’s Betsy can’t be sick, Betsy is Mother’s baby and she mustn’t cry, and Aunt Morgen said stop spoiling the child.”

  “I think,” he said slowly, “that we don’t like Aunt Morgen, do we, you and I? I don’t think Aunt Morgen is so much.”

  “Aunt Morgen says to make the child stop fawning on Robin all the time. Aunt Morgen says the child is too old to scramble around with Robin like that. Aunt Morgen says the child knows more than is good for her.”

  “Old Aunt Pickle,” he said.

  “I want cake,” Betsy said, and he laughed, and gestured to the waiter with the dessert wagon. “Only one,” he said, “and then you eat the rest of your lunch I ordered for you. We’re not going to have you sick, remember.”

  “Not me,” said Betsy, bending lovingly over the tiny rich cakes, her eyes sparkling with the reflections of whipped cream and chocolate and strawberries; “it’s Lizzie who gets sick,” she said; one had bananas and one had chopped nuts and one had cherries; Betsy sighed.

 
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