The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson

  “I never found it so,” she said. “Indeed, when I think back on my own youth—”

  “But to Miss R.,” I said. “I look forward to seeing her, at any rate, gay, and happy, and free of worries and pain; it is within our power, my dear Miss Jones, to set her free.”

  “Work together, and bring a new being into the world?” asked Miss Jones, without inflection.

  “Ah . . . precisely,” I said. “In a manner of speaking.”

  “I would be pleased,” said the girl’s aunt, “if she could just get around the house without falling over the furniture. First I couldn’t talk to her because she used to sit there with her mouth open and her hands hanging down like paws, and then she goes wild, laughing and yelling and all cheerful and fine, and then she runs away and when I bring her back . . .” She shivered dramatically. “Look,” she said finally (and I sitting speechless) “try to understand my position, if you can.” She smiled at me winningly. “You know that I have no knowledge about these things, and I am afraid very little sympathy; I have always been very sound, I think, and have the ordinary person’s feeling that being cr—mentally ill is a disgrace.” She held up her hand as I was about to interrupt. “No,” she said. “I realize perfectly how foolish I sound. But kindly do not forget that all the time Elizabeth was growing up, and having the devil’s own time with adolescence and getting into all this mess without anyone even noticing—and you can thank me for that, I guess; I’m the one who cared for her, really; anyway, during all this time, I was not only trying to keep a decent home here for the child, and something she could be proud of, but I was also taking care of a brutal, unprincipled, drunken, vice-ridden beast. Her mother.”

  Miss Jones stopped abruptly, overcome by emotion, and for a moment I only sat helpless, avoiding looking at her as she sat with her hand over her eyes; at last she sighed deeply, and lifted her head. “Sorry,” she said. “I guess confessions like this are the usual thing for you, doctor, but it hurts me to have to speak so of my own sister. Brandy, I think.”

  For a few minutes we sat in silence, sipping our brandy and I, for one, brooding upon the mournful revelation of the character of Miss R.’s parent; at last poor Miss Jones sighed again, and then laughed a little. “Well,” she said, “I’ve told you our secret, and I think I feel better. I suppose I’ve spent so long trying to forget what my sister was like, and trying to believe it couldn’t touch Elizabeth . . .” She let her voice trail off, and I could only nod sympathetically.

  Finally I shook myself together, and set down my glass with a sigh of my own. “I appreciate your distress,” I said. “Why did you lock Elizabeth in her room while her mother was dying?”

  “Well, goddam,” she said. “You have been getting it out of the girl.” She laughed, as though I had made some huge joke, and then finally she began, not, perhaps, so solemnly as before, “All right, then, but I warn you it was better the other way. I didn’t want Elizabeth around when I saw her mother that morning, because I was honestly scared of the effect her mother’s dangerous state—dangerous, I mean, because she was dying; not her moral state that time—might have on a girl of Elizabeth’s delicacy. She had been through a severe nervous strain during early adolescence, and I thought . . .” She looked up and saw my smile, and shrugged. “Well,” she said defensively, “she did have a hell of a time when she was about fifteen.”

  “I am sure you did your best for her,” I said obscurely.

  “I’m sure I did better than that,” she said. “And I find I am beginning to like you, doctor, so I have decided that I will be doing my best still if I tell you the truth, which I suppose is what you want.”

  “If you can bring yourself to it,” I said, and she grinned, reminding me of Betsy again.

  “Well,” she said, looking deep into her glass, “maybe you’d better know what kind of a person my sister was.” She looked up at me curiously. “You know the kind of person who walks all over other people without really meaning to, and then goes back to pick them up and apologize and steps on their heads again? She was like that, a really pretty girl, and delicate and fragile—not like me.” She stopped for a minute, until I thought that she had forgotten the train of her narrative. Then, when she went on, her tone was colder, almost dispassionate. “She just seemed to do everything the wrong way. When she wanted a new dress, it always turned out to be just the only dress that would have looked nice on someone else, if she hadn’t gotten it first. She contaminated everything, even when she didn’t know she was doing it. Whenever she decided to go to a dance or a party or a picnic, it always turned out that her going would mean inconvenience or trouble for someone else—maybe someone had to stay home because there wasn’t room for everyone on the hay wagon, or the only fellow left to take her was just getting ready to ask someone else . . . I remember once,” she added with an odd smile, “there just weren’t enough sandwiches to go round. Anyway, no matter what she did, even when she picked out a man to marry, she always managed to do it at the worst possible time, in the worst possible style. I didn’t really hate her, you see,” she said, raising her eyes to mine. “No one could.”

  “Was she older than you?”

  “Yes.” She was surprised. “But only a year or so.” Silently she rose and poured more brandy into my glass, and filled her own. “When—when her husband died, she left the place where they had been living in New York and came back here to live with me, and she brought Elizabeth with her. Elizabeth was only two then, named after her mother, naturally. Who would ever think of naming a baby Morgen?” Again she was silent, thinking, and then after a minute she went on. “It was the only time in her life she couldn’t get her own way, with Ernest’s money. Even Ernest,” she continued slowly, “wasn’t completely taken in by her, and he figured just the way everyone else always did—when you have trouble with Morgen’s pretty sister, get Morgen to take care of it for you. Anyway, if you had a lot of money and wanted to be reasonably sure your baby daughter would get some of it when she grew up and needed it, Elizabeth Jones would be the last person you’d think of giving it to. I think,” she said, “that he tried to tell me then how much he had always cared for me, but the lawyers made him take it out.”

  “Then your niece is actually an heiress?”

  “In about two months, when she’s twenty-five. And,” said her aunt darkly, “when she gets it she won’t find a penny of it wasted unless you count what was spent on educating her a waste of money. In spite of what she says.”

  Miss Jones scowled fearsomely, and I said in haste, “Miss R. has mentioned her inheritance to me. I believe, however, that when she is herself again you will find her more just with regard to your management.”

  “If Ernest ever thought I wanted the money,” Miss Jones said plaintively, “he would have given it directly to me.”

  “It certainly is a pity,” I agreed, “that the question of this money has entered into Miss R.’s case; we were quite confused enough without it, and it can certainly have no bearing upon her cure, except insofar as a feeling of personal security can help to tranquilize her mind.”

  “She had the gall to tell me that she was going to spend whatever she liked anyway, and buy all the clothes and things she wanted no matter who paid. As if I hadn’t always let her do what she pleased, for no thanks either, and given up all the dresses and picnics all the time, because Morgen was so good-humored and didn’t care whether she stayed home or not; at least,” said Miss Jones with satisfaction, “I outlived her.”

  “But how did she die?” I asked at last, softly.

  “Badly. As I knew she would—whining and saying it wasn’t her fault and she was sorry and if she didn’t die everything was going to be different.” Miss Jones looked up at me grinning, although I think she had largely forgotten who she was talking to, and even, indeed, if she was addressing anyone at all; “She was mud clear up to the neck,” Miss Jones said. “I told her I was sorry she wa
s dying, too, and I cried for her. It was the best I could do. And of course I insisted upon Elizabeth’s grieving for her too.”

  “Quite natural.”

  “Certainly. I don’t know what people would have thought. Anyway, Elizabeth was sick again for a while, the way she was before, what everyone kept saying was growing pains. A kind of nervous fever, I called it, and it was good enough for my mother.”

  Not caring to unravel this dubious piece of medical effrontery, I said, “I suppose the actual death of her mother was most trying for your niece.”

  “Most trying,” she agreed solemnly. “As a matter of fact, I cannot remember a time when my niece behaved better.”

  “It happened . . . when? In the morning, I believe you said?”

  “About eleven, I think. I remember I was having a hell of a time with Elizabeth about where her mother was that morning; there was some foolishness about a party, or something—as a matter of fact, it may have been my sister’s birthday, although I’m not sure—they had so many little things together—anyway, I couldn’t give the girl any new story about where her mother had been all morning and all night and all the day before. I knew she was out somewhere, that’s all, but it’s a hell of a thing to have to explain to her own daughter, when she’s seen enough of it already to begin to wonder a lot. And then the door opens very softly, like she hoped to get in before we noticed, and she was standing there . . .”

  “Smiling,” I said softly.

  “Smiling, kind of fearful, and wondering, hoping she’d gotten away with it one more time. She had to hold onto the door to keep from falling. And I’d just been saying to Elizabeth . . .” She stopped, and shook her head, and took up her glass.


  “Well,” said Miss Jones, “Elizabeth was very upset, naturally, when we realized that there was something wrong—really wrong, that is, this time—and I took her right upstairs and told her to lie down and I’d take care of things, and naturally I called Harold Ryan and he came over. He can tell you more about it than I can, naturally. When Elizabeth was told, it was, naturally, a great shock to her. Another nervous fever, as a matter of fact.”

  “Unfortunate,” I said prudently. “And terribly hard on you.”

  “I enjoyed every minute of it,” said Miss Jones. “I felt kind of sorry for Elizabeth, of course, losing her mother so suddenly, but we were both better off afterward. You can’t bring up a child in an environment like that, not that I condemn my sister for her way of life, but she should have given the child to me outright. He wanted me to have her. It was like my own child.”

  I was suddenly seriously alarmed for fear she might begin to cry, and was hardly reassured when she chose, instead, to refill my glass and her own, moving with a steadiness which I found, even then, impressive. When she had settled down again and taken up her glass she looked at me dreamily for a moment and then, fetching a deep breath, smiled and said. “Let’s not talk about it any more. It makes Morgen very unhappy. So tell me about your wife.”

  “My wife, madam?”

  She smiled still. “Yes,” she said, “tell me about your wife.”

  “She is dead, madam.”

  “I know.” She looked up at me with surprise. “But what did she use to be like?”

  “She was a fine woman,” I said, and then, because I thought that I had perhaps shown a shade more curtness than was my wont when discussing my unfortunate wife, I went on more gently, “she was a woman of intelligence, of spirit, and of kindness. A truly great helpmeet, and a sincere loss to those she left behind.”

  “Ah,” Miss Jones said happily. “And who did she leave behind?”

  “Myself,” I said. “She was a great loss to me.”

  “Ah,” said Miss Jones. “Irremediable, I suppose?”

  “Precisely, madam.”

  “I wonder sometimes what it would be like to suffer from the loss of a loved one. Does one tend to become reconciled?”

  “Indeed, madam, I cannot tell. For my own part . . . in any case, your sister, madam. Surely. A woman among thousands . . .”

  “And who gave you the idea she was among thousands?” Miss Jones laughed rudely. “I knew some of them,” she said, “the thousands she was among.” She laughed again. “I wouldn’t be caught dead with any of them,” she said.

  She lost herself again in her obscure musings, and I, sitting back in my chair, touched briefly by the aerial creature at my elbow, pipeless and overfull of bad brandy, endeavored to clarify my mind and decide whether I might with politeness take my departure. It did not seem that Miss Jones had any further information she was prepared to give me, but from what I already knew I was able, I thought, to define my next attack upon Miss R. Carefully, my eye fixed almost unseeing upon a painting which may have been black polka dots on a red background, or a red field filled with black holes—and my eyes, without my mind’s attention, focusing in and out, from holes to polka dots and back again—I set up my little mental figures: Elizabeth, relaxing into stupor, situated between a foul-living mother and a foul-tongued aunt; Bess, grieving for a mother only three weeks dead; Betsy, not grieving for a mother she had never believed she had; could I bring these three, together, face to face with their mother, let them see her clear, if I dared?

  I know myself, surely, and not at any time with more accuracy than at that moment; I am a man easily weakened, and by nothing more surely than the temptation to yield. I could not afford the picture of Miss R.’s stalwart knight, the road behind him strewn with dragonish corpses, bringing his princess safely home and then, full within the citadel, turning her over once more to the wicked enchanter who had first put her into jeopardy; if I had time, I thought, it might almost be safer to bring Bess cautiously along the narrow path of days and years into the present. But there was not time—

  “And then, by the great god, I told her so,” remarked Miss Jones, turning violently at me, and seeming to think that she had been speaking aloud all this time, “and I will not hear any voice that says I did wrong.”

  “My dear madam, I—”

  “I have never admitted to doing wrong, not in my whole rotten misbegotten sodden flodden ambergodden life, not wrong, not evil, not trespass against, no, nor adultery neither.”

  “Surely you do not accuse me of—”

  “And now I will be heard.” And with a great shout Miss Jones arose, towering in that great room, and lifting a voice almost great enough to shatter her fragile ornaments, some of them so dangerously close to my person, “and when I choose to be heard, the lowest legions of hell may turn in vain to silence me and when I choose to speak not all the winds of earth can drown my voice for I speak truly and well and raise not your hand to me, sirrah, for I might strike you down as a reptile or a craven bellyful wanderer upon my green earth if you so much as whimper; I charge you, sirrah, look not on me.”

  “Indeed, madam. . . .” I was dismayed, and hoped, somehow, for some auspicious catastrophe; one of her feet to smash through the floor, perhaps, or a flailing arm to crash down a wall; “Indeed . . .”

  “Now listen, rascal, and be alarmed, for I shall not be tampered with nor restrained; when I speak, you will tremble and be afraid.”

  Good heavens, I thought, trembling in verity; might I with any optimism anticipate an apoplexy? After the quantities of brandy she had taken, if she continued thus . . .

  “And now I tell you that having let your devils loose upon me you look to see me fall, and your horrid revenge accomplished, and filthy and crawling you hope to spit and gulp at my blood and snarl over my flesh and scratch and claw at one another to catch your teeth in my bones and I will not have it, for I alone and in myself will defy you and your legions, and defy me if you will! For I challenge you and I dare you here on this spot and I challenge you—do you dare to touch me? Will you defile me in the manner of my death? Am I to be done by children and by changelings,
by yappings and by mutterings, by blood-drinkers and by bone-suckers, am I to die underfoot? Indeed, am I your little creature, to suffer whimpering under your hands and submit with tears to your hardness and take joy in my lowness? Surely when you question me you mistake; surely there are those who bow lovingly to your words and your sharp looks and your little touchings and will talk and talk and talk and I charge you here, sir, look well before you come to me! For I have done it, and I say I have, and I tell you here in my own voice that I have—”

  “Goodnight, Miss Jones,” I said, offended at last—as who would not be, since she had in so many words announced that she despised my questions?—and making ready to leave her.

  “You are not half a man, clown, and not worth my presence!”

  “Madam,” I told her civilly enough, “if you were half a woman you would have had your sister’s husband.” I thought this a final shot, and would have fled hard upon it, but she shouted after me, “I had her child—will you deny it? I stole my sister’s child—”

  “Morgen dear.” It was a voice cool, and dispassionate, and I turned, thinking to find a stranger (and in confession I will say here that I, too, had touched too heavily upon the Jones brandy, for I could not at once determine who stood in the doorway, fresh from outdoors, and icy).

  “Doctor Wright will have a very bad opinion of our family,” she said, coming forward into the silence which was, after that peroration, overwhelming.

  “Not at all,” I said, caught off balance.

  “I hope you weren’t listening to Aunt Morgen, doctor. She is worried about me, and I think she has been losing sleep, listening at my door all night.”

  “Go away,” said Miss Jones flatly.

  “Doctor Wright came to see me, you know; he is my physician. I think he would be relieved if you went to bed.”

  “Of course,” I said, with almost unseemly haste. “But I greatly fear that I also—”

  “I shall stay, until I have told what I have to tell, and I defy the legions of . . .” But it was weaker.

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