The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson


  “Our?” she said in absolute astonishment. “My dear man, you do not suppose that I am coming here again?”

  “Indeed?”

  She laughed, with a return to her former arrogance. “There are so many people who speak so well of you,” she said, “that you hardly need to beg for patients to come to your office. I told you I had seen Doctor Ryan; he is my doctor, and I am telling you plainly, once and for all, that I do not want or intend to be any patient of yours. There is nothing personal in it, and I have told you already that I am sorry for being rude before, but just because I apologized to you, you needn’t expect to send me a bill and get paid for this short conversation. I may be rich, but I am not going to be taken in by every . . .”

  I showed her the door at last.

  • • •

  Without enthusiasm, I added R4 to my notes, and hoped she was the last; each of Miss R.’s varying selves, I thought, proved more disagreeable than the last—always, of course, excepting Beth, who, although weak and almost helpless, was at least possessed of a kind of winsomeness, and engaging in her very helplessness. I found myself, lying awake that night in bed—one finds, I think, that even with a clear conscience there comes an age when sleep forsakes the weary mind; I am not elderly, but I frequently, now, court sleep in vain—that I was telling over and over, as though they were figures in a charade, my four girls: Elizabeth the numb, the stupid, the inarticulate, but somehow enduring, since she had remained behind to carry on when the rest of them went under; Beth, the sweet and susceptible; Betsy, the wanton and wild; and Bess, the arrogant and cheap. I perceived that no one of these could possibly be permitted to assume the role of the true, complete (by very definition none of them could be complete!) Miss R., and, equally, none of them could be judged “imposters”; Miss R. would be at last a combination in some manner of all four, although I must admit that the contemplation of a personality combining Elizabeth’s stupidity with Beth’s weakness, Betsy’s viciousness with Bess’s arrogance, left me with an urge to throw the blankets over my face and hide myself!

  I saw myself, if the analogy be not too extreme, much like a Frankenstein with all the materials for a monster ready at hand, and when I slept, it was with dreams of myself patching and tacking together, trying most hideously to chip away the evil from Betsy and leave what little was good, while the other three stood by mockingly, waiting their turns.

  As I sat the next morning at my desk, putting my notes in order, I heard Miss Hartley’s surprised voice in the outer office, and then the door to my private office slammed open, and Betsy ripped in, raging like a fury, shaking and white; “What is this, you old fool,” she shouted, without even closing the door, “what is this I hear, that you have chosen this proud cold beastly bitch* to manage all of us now? Do you think I’m going to let you get away with anything like that? Do you suppose—”

  “Close the door, please,” I said quietly, “and moderate your language. Even if you are not a lady, you are addressing a gentleman.”

  She laughed, uncaring for the harm she did her own cause by angering me, and I swear that I thought for a moment she might strike me; she came up to the desk and leaned over (and I most heartily grateful to be securely behind such a solid piece of furniture) and shouted into my very face, “Madman! What are you doing to all of us?”

  “My dear Betsy,” I said imploringly, “do compose yourself, I beg of you; I cannot possibly discuss the matter with you so long as you are in this overwrought state.”

  She quieted somewhat, and stood with her hands shaking and her eyes, flashing, pressed close against the other side of the desk. Still more than half afraid that she might suddenly spring at me, I held myself tense, back against the wall, and with an effort kept my voice quiet and steady as I asked her to sit down. “For,” I added, “we cannot talk quietly, you and I, until we sit together like human beings, and do not hold one another at bay like animals.”

  Apparently seeing that I was not afraid of her, she gave a resigned shrug and threw herself into her usual chair, where she sat with her face turned from me and her hands still clenched into fists. I took the first real breath I had drawn since she entered my office, and passed warily around her to close the door. “Now, my dear,” I said, returning to my own chair behind the desk, “tell me what has upset you so.”

  “Well,” said Betsy, as one diagramming an enormous injustice, “Lizzie and Beth and I are all your old friends, and even though you don’t like me, it’s not fair to pick a stranger to take charge of us.”

  “I am not going to put anyone in charge, as you call it. This Bess is merely another self, just like yourself and Beth and Elizabeth.”

  “She’s not like me,” Betsy said. “She’s awful.”

  I smiled at the pot calling the kettle black, and continued, “My intention is not to choose among you, but to coax you all back together into a whole person again. Why should you suppose that I am discriminating against the rest of you in favor of Bess?”

  “She says so,” Betsy said sullenly.

  I was growing excited; somewhere in here it was going to be possible to define the precise area of consciousness of each of these characters, and, when I could break down the barriers of silence between them, my cure was more than half accomplished; “How?” I asked, and then, when Betsy looked up in surprise, I said more evenly, “How do you and Bess communicate?”

  “So there are things the old man doesn’t know?” said Betsy with sudden amusement. “Well,” she said, lying back in her chair, “why should I tell you? Suppose I just don’t tell you anything so long as she’s around? How do you like that?” She got to her feet, and looked down at me from across the desk. “You can’t be friends with her and me,” she said flatly, and turned toward the door.

  “Betsy,” I said urgently, but when she turned her face to me again it was politely disdainful and my heart sank—I confess it—to see that I had for the moment lost Betsy, with our quarrel still unsolved, and was entertaining Bess. “Why don’t you leave me alone?” Bess asked, surveying me without anger, but surely without cordiality.

  “I regret,” I told her coldly, “that you were brought here without my desiring it. My patient—”

  “Your patients do not concern me,” she said. “I was a little excited a few minutes ago, and I hope you are going to forget what I said. About people being put in charge of other people.”

  “You are aware of everything that has been said in this room since you entered?”

  “Of course.” She was surprised. “I am sometimes very nervous, and say wild things. My mother’s death—”

  “I know,” I said hastily. “Will you come back and sit down? I badly need your assistance.”

  She hesitated. “If you need any assistance,” she said, “I will stay for a minute, but since I am not consulting you as a patient—”

  “No bill will be sent you for my time,” I told her, with absolute conviction, and, reassured, she came back and sat down again. As soon as she was seated, “Tell me, then,” I said, “why you deny the actuality of any other personality in yourself?”

  She wet her lips, and glanced nervously about her, as though afraid of retaliation from Betsy, perhaps, for what she was about to say. Finally she said haltingly, “I was so sick when my mother died, and I am only beginning to get well again. If I get to thinking that there is some other person making me do things, they will all believe that I’m really crazy, and maybe lock me up somewhere, and Aunt Morgen will take all the money.”

  “I see,” I said. “And if I tell you that I do not believe that you are ‘crazy,’ as you call it, and that together we may overcome this illness of yours, will you then agree to help me?”

  “If there really is someone else,” she said slowly, “then I was stronger than she was, when we were in New York, because I drove her down. So why should I go to the expense of hiring you to drive her away, if I can do
it myself?”

  I felt as though I were going mad along with her. “Miss R.,” I said, “out of the kindness of my heart and friendship for Doctor Ryan I undertook your case. Since I first began, with nothing but the purest scientific integrity, nothing but your own good health my objective, no cause to serve and no glory to gain beyond the sight of Miss Elizabeth R. well and happy and prepared to assume a normal place in the world—since I began, I say, I have met with nothing but insolence and obstruction from you and from your sisters; only Beth has in any way tried to help me and she is too weak to remain consistently loyal. If I had my way—” and I am afraid that, in my turn, I raised my voice—“if I had my way, Miss, you would be soundly whipped and taught to mind your manners. As it is, you leave me no choice but to give up your case; as of this moment, Miss R., my association with you is ended.”

  “Oh, Doctor Wright,” she said in tears, and it was Beth, “what have I done to anger you so?”

  I was a man bedeviled. Wordlessly I rose and stamped out of my office, leaving the field to my enemies, whose wild triumphant laughter echoed behind me.

  • • •

  I do not suppose that even my least cynical reader will expect that my association with Miss R. ended here, on such a strong note of my own; I was prepared without further question to give up Miss R.’s case, upon what I thought full and sufficient provocation, but I could not persuade Miss R.’s case to relinquish me; I might as well have shouted my tirade to an empty office as to Beth, who was as little able to understand me as if I had been babbling Greek, and my heroics went for nothing. Elizabeth presented herself at my office promptly the next day, sat in the chair across the desk, and told me she had a headache.

  • • •

  Betsy about this time became addicted to a kind of spiteful practical joke, practiced largely against Bess, her particular enemy (it was amusing, incidentally, to see how Betsy’s loathing of Elizabeth and Beth had modified itself when Bess appeared on the scene) but sometimes Betsy was not above entertaining herself with dull Elizabeth or guileless Beth; one afternoon Miss R. was extremely late, and I had almost decided to await her no longer, when Beth telephoned; she could not get out of the house, because her aunt had gone out after locking the back door, and someone (and I knew who, although Beth, of course, did not) had pushed a heavy desk before the front door, so that Beth could not get out; she was too weak to move the desk and too self-conscious to be seen climbing from a window, and so home she stayed, until her aunt returned to unlock the back door and help her move the desk. When I scolded Betsy for this prank she explained innocently that she had intended it for Bess, who had planned to go shopping that afternoon, and had thought that if Bess could not move the desk she would remain at home and so permit the other personalities to pay their usual visit to my office.

  Again, Betsy was not above a kind of petty dishonesty; several times Elizabeth exhausted her small supply of strength walking to my office because Betsy had stolen all her money and hidden it. Poor Elizabeth would rather walk to my office than not come at all; I think it was one of the few spots where the unfortunate creature was allowed any freedom, with the more powerful personalities lording it over her at home.

  Bess was most particularly sensitive about her money, and strongly disliked spending it upon anything but herself; she grudged every penny her aunt spent for household items, but lavished large sums upon clothes and jewelry of her own. One of Betsy’s favorite tricks, and one which never failed of driving Bess to a frenzy, was to assume control of the personality and then, as Miss R., distribute Bess’ possessions generously among everyone she saw; she gave an expensive coat to the old woman who cleaned house for Miss R. and her aunt, and sums of money to beggars on the street (I think, myself, that Betsy was more able to take control of the personality when someone approached who needed money; Bess was very apt to become nervous and excitable when she thought she might be asked to give away her precious pennies, and easier of access to Betsy; this, however, may be pure malicious reasoning on my part); each time, wickedly, bringing Bess back in time to hear the fulsome thanks of the recipient of Betsy’s charity. Bess spent long hours shopping, and many times (since, we discovered, she had still only the most partial access to Betsy’s actions), believed she had been shopping when the rest of them were with me at my office; we were something of a clandestine crew, with Betsy on guard. For several months after my last scene with Bess, Betsy took it upon herself to protect the rest of us, and, gleefully, stood watch while I talked with Elizabeth or Beth; at the first sign of Bess’ coming Betsy would hastily shepherd Miss R. out of the office and into the street and when Bess arrived she would find herself standing gazing into a shop window safely outside. Betsy’s favorite spot, by the way, was the window of a shop across the street from my office, which sold sporting goods, and Betsy reported with mirth that Bess was not able to understand the peculiar fascination the window of the sporting-goods shop held for her; she knew only that several times she had strayed unconsciously toward it, and had found herself gazing raptly at a display of tennis rackets, fishing rods, and golf clubs.

  Careful questioning uncovered the reassuring fact that, although Betsy felt perfectly free to play her tricks on her fellows, and to tell me about them, she was enough in awe of her aunt to stay relatively circumspect when there was a chance of her aunt’s discovering her. The girls all seemed to behave fairly well around Aunt Morgen, and I am sure that Aunt—although she could hardly have avoided perceiving that her niece was odd—had no notion of the real state of the case.

  During all this time Betsy’s attitude toward me was changing materially. We could never trust one another entirely, but she knew, of course, of my treatment at Bess’ hands, and felt that in any balance of power I would stand on the side of the angels, which, to Betsy’s mind, meant no one but Betsy. I was greatly appreciative of the assistance Betsy was giving me, in numberless ways, to enable me to mine information from Elizabeth and Beth; I still knew that the final personality of Miss R. could only be one which was fully cognizant of Miss R.’s life and experiences, full and entire, and my present hope was to strengthen Beth, by whatever means, and bring her slowly to a complete open realization of the whole personality. Beth already knew of the existence of herself and Elizabeth; I now told both of them about Betsy and Bess, taking a great deal of time, and explaining as slowly and patiently as I could. The minds of Betsy and Bess were still closed to them, of course, just as Bess could still shut Betsy out for spaces of time, exerting maximum control, and Betsy could do the same for Bess. I found that as the four of them became more distinct they drew farther away from one another, also, so that what once might have been mere cracks of cleavage were now gulfs between them.

  I grew quite accustomed to my little group of girls and we were frequently very merry; Elizabeth and Beth were astonished at Betsy’s knowledge of their actions, and I think she even developed a kind of fondness for them; she never really liked Beth considerably, but she became really quite protective toward Elizabeth, and several times helped Elizabeth, unasked, when Elizabeth was in trouble; being tireless, and given to fits of enthusiasm, she twice did all of Elizabeth’s personal laundry, scrubbing and ironing with great fervor and little efficiency; once, when Bess put on a blouse which Betsy had freshly ironed, Betsy irritably poured a bottle of ink on her head; her fondness for Elizabeth did not, of course, exempt Elizabeth from being the victim of various practical jokes which occurred to Betsy, but whenever Elizabeth became innocently entangled in some snare Betsy had set, we were sure of a contrite apology from Betsy, and a wide-eyed declaration that the trap had, of course, been set for Bess.

  I have among my notes numberless instances of various possessions spilled, torn, or hidden by the indefatigable Betsy, of the long walks she would take in order to leave Beth or Elizabeth stranded far away in an unfamiliar spot, with no way of getting home except to walk upon legs already wearied by Betsy’s brisk pace; she
sent Bess screaming hysterically through the house one night, a result of finding her bed full of spiders; she brought me affectionate little gifts stolen from Bess’ desk, and a red candy box full of Betsy’s own letters which she said she had taken from Elizabeth. When I showed this last to Elizabeth she was utterly taken aback, but confessed that she had received the letters before she had ever begun treatments with me, while she was still employed at the museum. Oddly enough, the discovery that these letters had been composed by Betsy only increased the fondness which they felt for one another. Betsy, unless she was sulking, rarely afflicted Elizabeth now with aches and pains, reserving all her malevolence for Bess, and when Betsy discovered that I disapproved of her pranks against Bess, even though I felt little sympathy for her victim, she stopped reporting these details to me, so that for this period of several weeks I heard little or nothing of Bess, since Betsy would not tell me about her, and Beth and Elizabeth could not.

  This period—which I may perhaps be pardoned for calling Miss R.’s golden age—came to an abrupt period one afternoon when, expecting my friends, I was both shocked and surprised when Miss Hartley, announcing Miss R., ushered in Bess. I had almost forgotten the sharp face and the snapping eyes, the unpleasant voice and manner, and it was not a joy to me to see them again; I had hoped to be far better prepared before I tried to deal with Bess. She flounced to the chair, and sat herself down, and gave me a condescending smile, and said at last that she supposed I was surprised to see her and—I admitting this without comment—that she hoped I bore her no malice. I told her that I did not, which was not true, and she explained to me that her mother’s recent death had left her very nervous. I told her dryly that I was sorry to see her still grieving and she gave me a suspicious glance and then, settling herself more firmly in her chair, went on, “That’s one reason I’m here, you see. I don’t seem to be recovering as quickly as I should, and I am a little worried about my health.”

 
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