The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson


  “And you say they’ll be looking for Lizzie?”

  “Maybe the little square one,” Betsy said. “Just to start. I choose the little square one,” she said to the waiter. “Because then later I can try another kind and if any of them are very very good I can come back and have them again, after I’ve tried them all. Because I live right upstairs,” she said parenthetically to the waiter, “so I can keep coming back and coming back. So I choose—”

  She broke off as the headwaiter came to their table. “Telephone for you, Doctor,” he said.

  “Doctor?” said Betsy, rising. “Doctor?” She snatched at her pocketbook, and said in anger, “You’re just Doctor Wrong in another face and you tried to fool me—”

  “Wait a minute, please,” he said, putting out a hand to stop her, but she brushed past him, her lips trembling and her hands shaking with anger. “It was mean of you,” she said, “and I’ll tell my mother you pretended to be friends, and now I can’t have the little square one.” She started off, and then remembered. “Thank you so much for paying,” she said, bowing her head graciously, and then, almost running, left the restaurant and went through the hotel lobby into the street. A bus, she was thinking, always take a bus to get away, and she turned to her right and hurried down the street. She could see a bus coming to the corner to stop, and she ran and got onto it and sat down with relief, next to a woman in green silk, who looked at her briefly.

  When she caught her breath, she leaned forward to look out of the window past the woman and said, “I wonder where this bus goes.”

  “Downtown, of course,” the woman said stiffly, as though Betsy had somehow impugned the honor of the bus, or, worse, the discrimination of the woman in green silk; “this bus goes downtown.”

  “Thank you,” Betsy said. “I hope I can find the place I’m looking for. It’s not very likely, just starting out like this, but I can try, anyway.”

  “Some people,” said the woman, consideringly, “think it’s harder to find places downtown. Myself, I always have a good deal more trouble uptown. Are you going far?”

  “Well, of course I can’t be sure,” Betsy said. “I’m just looking. Lots of stairs. And pink walls,” she went on, remembering, “and there’s a view of the river from the window.”

  “That would be the west side, then,” the woman said. “They’ve all got stairs, there.” She sighed. “I live east, myself,” she said, “but of course we’re moving in the fall.”

  “West of what?”

  “West of the bus, of course,” the woman said. “To your right as you get off.”

  “Then I turn right, and just anywhere might do?”

  “Just anywhere?” said the woman, with a delicate inflection, and she turned emphatically and looked out of the window.

  People keep getting so mixed up, Betsy thought helplessly, and she said, “It’s because I’m looking for my mother, and I don’t know exactly where she lives because I haven’t been there in so long.”

  “Really?” said the woman, looking out of the window.

  Oh, dear, Betsy thought, and she put her hand timidly on the woman’s arm. “Please,” she said, “if you don’t mind, can I just ask you?”

  The woman turned, hesitating as though half-convinced Betsy might have in mind an improper question—whether she had always lived east, perhaps, or did her building have an elevator?—and then nodded briefly. “Naturally,” the woman said, “I can’t answer everything.”

  “I need only a kind of direction,” Betsy said. “A clue. I know where I’m going, of course, and I’m positive I’ll recognize it at once, but I’m just not quite sure of which house. The window looks out over the river, and the walls are painted pink—”

  “Pink?”

  “And,” Betsy said triumphantly, “I remember there was one good picture on the wall.” (And heard, distantly, her mother’s voice, “And, really, if you have just one good picture you don’t need. . .” Need what? Flowers, was it? Beds? Betsy?)

  The woman next to her was thinking gravely. “You remember the street?” she asked hopefully at last.

  “Downtown, I’m sure. Because of the stairs.”

  “Well,” the woman said. “I do know,” she went on at last, “that some people we knew once—not friends, of course, not anyone I knew, not the sort of people—”

  She gestured with a small dismissal, and Betsy said eagerly, “I know lots of people like that, yes.”

  “They had, these people, a place over on . . . let me see; it was Tenth because when we came out we went directly . . . no, no, I’m a liar. Sixteenth, I’m positive. Middle of the block.”

  “Middle of the block,” said Betsy. “Could you see the river?”

  “The reason I remember it, now you mention it,” the woman said, “because of course I never went back, not really knowing the people and it was just a party, and all, was because they had a picture they thought a lot of. Painter, he was.”

  “Oh,” said Betsy. “No, she’s not a painter, my mother.”

  “Oh, not professional,” said the woman. “Not bohemian. I’m sure I wouldn’t send you any place you shouldn’t go. After all,” and she folded her arms and turned her face firmly to the window.

  “I didn’t mean that at all, I’m sorry,” Betsy said. “I just meant it didn’t sound like the right place.”

  “Well, you did say a picture,” the woman said.

  “You see, it’s my mother,” Betsy explained again. “She’s waiting for me to come after a long time.”

  “You get off here,” said the woman, with finality.

  “Thank you,” said Betsy, rising. “And thank you for telling me where to go.”

  “No need to mention me when you get there,” said the woman. “They probably don’t even remember my name.”

  • • •

  The street was not one to be joyfully remembered; she looked eagerly at things which would, unmolested, tend to be permanent—the view down to the end, down to the narrow spot where it disappeared, presumably into the river, but the long sight of it was not prettier than the nearer view, and the sidewalk beneath her feet was not inscribed in the cement ELIZABETH LOVES BETSY and the dirty fence on her left bore no recognizable carving and even the arrow in chalk and the scrawl “go this way” indicated only a low gate with “clubhowse” uncertainly inscribed over it. Not my club, Betsy thought, my mother’s not there, anyway, and that’s at least one place ruled out. Middle of the block, she said, middle of the block, view of the river, and not a place marked ROOMS, Dressmaker, Canaries for Sale, Medium. Across the street was a white stone apartment house, crowding defensively against its neighbors advertising ROOMS, and Betsy crossed the street to get to it; it announced its number and the sizes of its apartments in bold emphatic placards, but said nothing about whether or not there were stairs, and Betsy, wondering at which point now the sudden recollection might begin, went hurriedly down the path of the canopy and up the one shallow step—perhaps only ostentation, since directly inside there was another step going down the same distance—and into the small foyer, where there was a mural of orange fish against a black sea. However live the fish may have been when the mural was painted, they were long dead now, floating miserably upon the painted surface of their water, fins dragging; perhaps at one point they might have been saved, when, gasping for breath, they first came to the surface and turned their agonized suffocating eyes upon the casual guest entering the foyer of the apartment house; a little fresh water, a kindly look, might have revived the painted fish and made the visitor welcome in the dim light. The fish had died, however, and there was a stout woman in a plaid cotton dress sitting at a table, searching eagerly for gentility; “You want a room, I guess?” the woman said, leaning forward against the table and resting herself heavily upon her magazine, and the reassuring weight of her bosom upon the table recollected her, because she sat back an
d said, “May I ask whom you are looking for?”

  “My mother,” Betsy said.

  “She’s here?” Again the woman recollected herself, and sat back. “Name, please?”

  “My name is Betsy, but I’m looking for my mother. Is she here?”

  “I couldn’t say, dear. What apartment you want?”

  “I’m not sure. But it has pink walls and a view of the river, and one good picture, because if you have one good picture you don’t need . . .” Betsy stopped, but the woman could not help; she was staring absently at an advertisement in her magazine which promised to teach her engineering in six weeks. “Pink walls?” the woman said when Betsy stopped.

  “And a view of the river.”

  The woman glanced up, then sideways, then down. “Makes you think you got a mother here?” she asked. “Anybody’s mother’s here, I certainly don’t know it.”

  “But she said—”

  “Pink walls,” said the woman irritably, in some obscure impatience with a world where there could be pink walls, and she spent her days seeing orange fish on a black sea; “one of those decorators,” she added, in ultimate condemnation.

  “Then my mother’s not here?” asked Betsy despondently.

  “No,” said the woman, “she’s not. Poor kid. Lost your mommy, have you?” She turned the pages of her magazine quickly as though looking up a reference, and said, “You run along, now, you hear me?”

  Betsy turned obediently and went past the dead fish again, and as she came to the step up which would correspond to the step down outside, she heard the woman saying with disgust, “Always want something you haven’t got. Pink walls!”

  Outside, she started off again down the street. There did not seem to be any other possible place to look, and Betsy gave up almost immediately the idea of trying from door to door, and then, when she saw someone coming down the street toward her, indistinct in the shadows of the buildings, she thought it would surely do no harm to ask, and when they took word back to her mother they could report that Betsy was really trying hard.

  “Excuse me,” she said, reaching out to touch the man on the arm, “but have you seen my mother? Mrs. Richmond?”

  “Hello,” he said.

  “Robin?” said Betsy, and then, again, “Robin?” and then turned and ran, and heard him laughing behind her, as one whose hunting is leisurely, his quarry sure; then she came to lights and safety.

  • • •

  “Give me Doctor Wright, please. I must speak to the doctor, hurry, please.”

  “Who?”

  “Please, I’m on a public telephone and I’ve got to hurry. Please, Doctor Wright. Tell him it’s Beth.”

  “Who you want?”

  “Please, the doctor. Doctor Wright.”

  “You got the wrong number, lady.”

  “Sure I got the wrong number, you silly fool. You think I’m crazy?”

  • • •

  Safely back in the hotel, she was still both frightened and angry, and yet did not dare indulge herself in either fear or anger, since both used up vital stores of control. She was angry at Beth for getting slyly to a phone and nearly ruining them all; she was afraid of the man who said he was Robin and yet let her run away. Mostly, in the hotel, she was angry and afraid of that doctor who stayed around watching for people in trouble, so he might offer to buy them lunches, and then betray them; it was not going to be safe, Betsy reminded herself bitterly, to trust anyone at all. She sat down heavily in the chair by the desk, the door of her room soundly locked and the key back in her pocketbook, and tried hard to think. Things were not going well, not at all as well as they had gone at first. She had done something wrong, obviously, and she was fairly sure that it had been her talking to the doctor at lunch (had he not promised to be a friend during the brief moment when Lizzie got out; did he not mean, therefore to be a friend to Lizzie?); fortunately, Robin’s presence had warned her in time against the neighborhood she had visited tonight; her mother was not there. Therefore, although she had surely grieved her mother, she was not abandoned altogether; she must only be more careful with the next clue and not risk running directly into Robin’s arms. (“Darling Robin,” she said aloud, “call me Lisbeth.”) Then, when she turned cold and suddenly trembling, she saw clearly that everything was not all right; something had happened.

  She thought immediately that she had been caught, and then realized that she was alone still, with the first light of morning coming over the buildings across the street. Suddenly, wildly she ran at the door, pulling at it frantically to make sure it was locked, and almost cried with relief when she found it secure; she didn’t get away, then, Betsy thought, and then wondered, Who?

  It was still almost too dark to see in the room; when Betsy turned on the light next to the door, her hands still trembling so that it was difficult for her to touch the little switch, she saw first of all Lizzie’s suitcase lying open in the middle of the floor. “So she found the suitcase,” Betsy said aloud, and then, cold and still, said into the continuing silence of the room, “Lizzie! Where are you?” But there was no answer.

  There were tears on her cheeks, Lizzie’s tears again, and Betsy brushed them away irritably, thinking, the messy messy sloppy thing, can’t she leave my stuff alone? The suitcase was half-packed, clothes thrown in wildly, and, as though Lizzie had given up despairingly in the middle of packing, other clothes were strewn around the room, torn and scattered. Lizzie’s own best white blouse lay over the end of the bed, collar ripped off and buttons hanging by threads, and Betsy, looking slowly around the room, saw with fear the sheets pulled from the bed and cut with the nail scissors, the pillow slashed open, the paper from the desk tossed wildly in a scattered heap, as though swept off altogether by an arm wild with fury; the curtains were pulled down and lay on the floor, the shades pulled askew, and even one corner of the rug had been tugged aside and turned back on itself; “Don’t be afraid,” Betsy whispered, “Betsy is my darling, my darling.” She pressed hard against the wall, feeling still the weakness of panic, and knowing that if she yielded only the smallest particle of her strength she was gone again; she could not afford anger or fear or despair; she could not waste a moment to look behind her. “I am Betsy Richmond,” she whispered, “my mother’s name is Elizabeth Richmond . . .”

  Gradually she became quieter. The light in the room grew, coming stronger over the tops of the buildings, and she thought of the man on the ledge and was heartened. At last she stood away from the wall, sighing deeply like a child who has finished crying, and walked around the room slowly, thinking, wouldn’t you think she’d have more respect for other people’s things? She picked up a stocking, hacked with the scissors and tied into knots, and then laughed suddenly. Why, Betsy thought, she’s learning from me; this is my kind of thing, not hers, and she’s even with me now for spoiling that letter of hers. And she’s got more life than she ever had before, Betsy thought, laughing still, as she took up the soft white blouse ripped apart; the picture of Elizabeth’s tired hands pulling wildly at the weak seams of the blouse caught Betsy suddenly as irresistibly funny, and she fell back onto the bed and rolled in helpless laughter. Poor baby, she thought, working so hard to spoil my things, poor frantic baby. Her face and hair were full of feathers from the torn pillow, and as her laughter eased, she found that she could blow a feather into the air again and again, catching it each time as it fell; then, luckily, the sunlight touched her face, luckily because of course she still had a great deal of work to do about finding her mother, and could not afford to lie on a bed playing games with feathers. She rose, and looked at herself in the mirror with distaste. Her clothes had certainly suffered during the night; they were covered with feathers and disarranged, and for a minute she wondered that they too had not been cut and torn, before she realized that of course Lizzie had been planning to escape, and in these clothes. She wondered idly if Lizzie had attacked the room de
sperately because she had tried to escape and could not find the doorkey, or if she had destroyed the room first, vengefully, planning to escape afterward, and been caught by exhaustion; “Poor silly baby,” Betsy said again, and, whistling, began a hunt for any piece of her comb so that she might smooth her hair. Then, suddenly, one hand on the suitcase, she turned as cold and sick and frightened as she had ever been. The big dictionary she had brought with her, so that she might check spelling and various usable words, was lying just inside the suitcase, its binding torn off, its pages pulled out and crumpled, its millions of good, practical, helpful words hopelessly destroyed.

  “Lizzie,” Betsy said aloud, backing off, “but Lizzie wouldn’t ever have done anything to her own book, not to her own good book—”

  Suddenly, madly, she took up the book, and rising and turning, threw it as hard as she could at the mirror. “There,” she said out loud, through the crash, “that’ll show you I’m still worse than you are, whoever you are!”

  • • •

  Sometime later, back on the bed playing her game with the feather, she was quieter again. This only meant, she reasoned, that she had less time than she had thought. She must quite simply get to her mother just as quickly as possible.

  It was by then nearly noon, and she could not remember whether or how she had had dinner the evening before. She turned her back resolutely on the icy little reminders that there seemed to be a good deal of time unaccounted for, all around; why, for instance, had it been afternoon when she left the lunch table, and night when she returned after meeting Robin? She thought she had probably not had dinner, because she was now so extremely hungry, and she dwelt with gratitude upon her hunger, which was surely a healthy and a normal feeling, and not at all dangerous, except that it entailed going out of her hotel room. At last she reasoned shrewdly that if the doctor was still watching for her downstairs he had to stop sometime to eat, too, and if he stopped to eat his lunch or his dinner he would put someone else to watching her, and whoever he got to watch her would have to have dinner or lunch, too, so she would be, to all effects, invisible, if she was only having dinner or lunch, and might come and go as she pleased. Thinking of the little cakes, she moved hastily to the shattered mirror and arranged her hair and then, taking her pocketbook—thankful that because she had Aunt-Morgen-ishly hidden it on the closet shelf, it had escaped the ruin of the room—she unlocked the door of the room and locked it again, leaving the chaos inside, and dropped the libertine key into Elizabeth’s chaste pocketbook and went down the hall to the elevator. When she came into the dining room she walked proudly, and even stopped for a minute inside the door to consider and choose a particular table; she sat down with perfect ease, and ordered herself a glass of sherry.

 
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