The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson


  “Come on, silly,” she whispered. “A penny for your thoughts.”

  The pencil stayed unmoving in her relaxed hand, and Bess, looking at it, fell to wondering about rings, when she had her money. She did not care for diamonds, she thought, and most rings she had seen in the jewelry stores had such small stones it was hard to see them, much less know whether they were real or not; something like a ruby was more to her taste, but a big one. She fell back then before Betsy, who thoughtfully took up the pencil and drew heavy black lines through all of Bess’ figures, tasted her coffee, and then dosed it richly with sugar and cream. For a few minutes Betsy amused herself with the pencil and paper, drawing circle heads with eyes and noses and mouths, which she labeled “Doctor Wrong” and “Aunt Morgen” and “Bess.” After a few minutes Betsy wearied of the pencil and paper, yawned, and disappeared before Elizabeth, who touched the back of her neck daintily, looked with nausea on the coffee, and got up to take the cup and saucer to the sink, where she rinsed it out thoroughly, and then moved back to the table to gather up the coffeepot and Aunt Morgen’s breakfast dishes. When she had washed and dried the dishes, and while she was on her way to the refrigerator for a glass of milk, Bess reestablished herself and took herself into the hall where she listened carefully for a minute to hear if Aunt Morgen was stirring, then put on her coat and hat and left the house softly.

  • • •

  When Morgen came downstairs again, early in the afternoon, it was with the deep sense of well-being which comes with the general over-all effect of many aspirin judiciously administered, and the consequent rosy and painless impression of walking in a cloud; her headache was gone, as was her humiliating consciousness of the night before, and so, as a matter of fact, was her ordinary conviction that her feet were touching the floor as she walked. Her hand, as she opened the refrigerator door, was independent and intelligent, and the smile upon her face was beatific. I shall have a little something to eat, Morgen was thinking; soft-boiled eggs? I am an invalid, barely convalescent, and something buttery and soft . . .

  The refrigerator was full of mud. Morgen stood for a minute staring at it, not at all comprehending the ugly slimy mess where she had expected to find white and shining shelves, with eggs and butter and cheeses neatly arranged; the inside of the door was smeared and the ice trays were oozing, and somewhere within, where the cold meats were kept, a worm stirred, almost frozen and yet still moving, turning blindly toward the light. Morgen stepped back, her stomach turning, and then without closing the door fled. She could not dress, could not wash; when she looked at her hands she thought there were worms on her fingers, working their way in and out and between and over, wet and cold, and she put her hands under her pillow and closed her eyes and held her mouth tight shut to keep the worms out, and screamed silently in her bed. I am all alone and I am an old woman and I will die without love, she thought, with her face hidden in the pillow, and at last slept again.

  When she awakened she was well, without the intercession of aspirin, and she rose firmly, straightened her clothes and her hair, looked at her hands carefully, and told herself she was an old fool, and ten times an old fool. She went downstairs into her spotless kitchen, where the refrigerator stood clean and immaculate, regarding her askance, and the breakfast dishes were neatly back on the shelves, and the coffeepot scrubbed and put away. After a minute Morgen (I am an old fool, she thought) touched the handle of the refrigerator and pressed it and swung open the door, and inside the white eggs and clean yellow butter box shone on her, although she knew without question that she did not care for food. A drink, she thought, not daring to put her hand or even a finger to the ice trays; a glass of brandy to insure that I am well now, and she took down the brandy bottle from the shelf and poured steadily into a glass. Your health, she thought, raising her glass to herself.

  Morgen Jones, of the Owenstown Joneses, was not by any means to be described as a fool. Her life was circumspect, rigid, and extremely private, because she found very little in the world outside to tempt her into mingling with its people. A woman well-educated when a good education was still thought of among her mother’s friends as somehow the best possible occupation for an unmarried girl—better, surely than going out as a governess, or taking up the painting of china—she had been bred to reason and comprehend and read whatever she pleased, and in the very particular workings of her mind now, there was much humor, some tolerance, a great deal of unexpressed affection, and no space whatever for the appreciation of the remarkable. Morgen had been, for a very long time, the most remarkable object in her own landscape, and anything stranger than herself was, to her mind, either an obvious sham, or non-existent.

  She was, therefore, unprepared to accept in her niece any more startling manifestation than an entirely ladylike “nervous breakdown,” and in all that she had seen of Elizabeth, and in all that she had been told by Doctor Wright, she found nothing to worry her. She had watched, and nodded, and her mind had been actively dismembering, analyzing, separating, and scrutinizing, grinding up all information into a palatable mixture of nervous illness in her niece and fanciful phraseology in the doctor; she was confident, finally, of her stern ability to bring a sensible matter-of-fact eye to bear upon the situation, and in short order reduce the niece and the doctor to separate embarrassed creatures, wholly well, and slinking away to bury their romances realistically in everyday life. If Morgen’s practical eye could be said to perceive a cure where she did not acknowledge a disease, it might be phrased as “Don’t appear to notice,” or “They’re only doing it to get attention,” or even—in extreme cases—“Humor them.”

  She had not materially altered herself in more years than she chose to remember. Her manner of dress, of speech, of doing her hair, of spending her time, had not changed since it first became apparent to a far younger Morgen that in all her life to come no one was, in all probability, going to care in the slightest how she looked, or what she did, and the minor wrench of leaving humanity behind was more than compensated for by her complacent freedom from a thousand small irritations. At first she had found it necessary to remind herself often of the clamors and demands other people made upon one another, the attentions expected, the answers awaited, the gifts and visits and good wishes to be returned, the affections to be reciprocated, but with the securing of her niece she found at last that there was nothing other people had which she needed to regard, any more, with a longing eye. Elizabeth immediately assumed the position of most importance in the little group of mortal folk with whom Morgen still held converse of one kind or another, and it was assumed by all of them that Elizabeth felt as much deep affection for her aunt as Morgen felt for her niece.

  Although Morgen had not changed in so many years that she had fallen to regarding the world outside her windows as in a state of constant fevered activity, she was fond of her own whims—changes in the decorations of the house, for instance, which, although in a world of styles and ages, never strayed from the basic pattern of the architecture: one of extreme and loving ugliness—and did not take kindly to having them disputed. One of Morgen’s notions had set up the Nigerian ancestor figure in her front hall, and she disliked having her niece’s doctor jostle it when he left in anger. She was deeply pleased with the sound of her own voice, and did not care to be interrupted; she had been prepared to frown upon Doctor Wright because she felt that in some obscure fashion he was responsible for the change in her life which came with the change in her niece. She discovered herself, in all honesty, to be further annoyed with Doctor Wright because he seemed to regard her without proper attention to her uniqueness—surely ungallant in a man so prepared to find realms in her niece—and had, finally, showed himself as almost entirely devoid of meekness and sweetness of temper, qualities which Morgen admired to excess in people with whom she came into intimate contact.

  When she learned that Doctor Wright and her niece were conspiring between themselves over the romantic idea that Morgen
had a niece Elizabeth, a niece Beth, a niece Betsy, and a niece Bess, she was first of all startled, and then enchanted with the novelty of a chameleon personality, reflecting that this was a highly-colored version of an idea she had sometimes used to deck herself. She thought with humorous self-deprecation of the times she had seen in herself a Jekyll-and-brandy personality, of the wise Morgen at midday who at evening turned into a cynical Morgen and at morning became a snarler over breakfast, and when she had identified this in herself, she was prepared to countenance it in Elizabeth. When she found herself angry at Elizabeth, she thought, she need only remind herself of the morning Morgen to speak more gently, and when Elizabeth whined or spoke rudely or smirked, it must be recalled that the girl had spent many years with the many Morgens and so, perhaps, deserved a turn of her own. Then, having reasoned to this point, pleased with her own perception and more pleased than not with her niece’s unexpected variety of imagination, Morgen came downstairs with the drag end of a bad hangover and found her refrigerator full of mud.

  Swift-change artists she could countenance, mad doctors and fiendish scientists she might accept, burbling nieces with notions of stolen inheritances she could regard with composure, but she could not and would not endure any tampering with her refrigerator, which was where she kept the greater part of her food. Moreover, her mind was where she lived the greater part of her life, and the cleaning of the refrigerator before she came back a second time was a deliberate attempt to clog up the workings of her mind. Although she would sooner have given up thinking than eating, she resented being pushed into depriving herself of either; she had no difficulty whatsoever in reassuring herself that she was sane, hangover-Morgen or not, and she was thus the victim of a wicked trick, performed in a cruel and vicious manner which would automatically set a distinction between the reasonable, regular alterings of a sensible person—Morgen—and the unreasonable, erratic alterings of a non-sensible person—Elizabeth.

  Morgen’s first sensible thought—to slap Elizabeth’s head right off her shoulders—was quickly abandoned in favor of saying nothing and waiting; Morgen was a splendid person at getting even with people, and if she accused her niece of filling the refrigerator with mud and Elizabeth denied it, revenge would be far less satisfactory, and would probably have to be taken in a more subtle form than if the subject were never mentioned or dealt with until an opportunity turned up. Musing thus, drinking her brandy, Morgen sat at ease in her own living room, among her own possessions, which she felt for the first time she was called upon, vitally, to defend.

  When a key turned in the door and she heard her niece’s step in the hall, Morgen was quiet for a minute, listening; her niece closed the door gently, and set her pocketbook down on the hall table. Then, from the sounds, she opened the door of the hall closet to hang up her coat and hat; such neatness and order established that either Elizabeth, who was neat from bewilderment, or Bess, who was neat because of a profound respect for her own property, had come in; the quietness and ease with which the actions were performed argued with certainty that it was not Elizabeth.

  “Bess?” said Morgen, raising her voice.

  “Yes?”

  “Will you come in here for a minute, please?”

  Bess came to the living room doorway, narrowing her eyes to see in the darkened room. “What’s the matter with you?” she asked, without rudeness, but without solicitude.

  “A slight malaise,” said Morgen comfortably, “the weakness of the living and the sight of death, the abandonment of worldly care in the face of holiness; I decided that you were going to make dinner tonight.”

  “Go to a restaurant,” said her niece. “I’ve already had dinner.”

  “Who with?”

  “None of your business.”

  “Someone must have paid,” said Morgen. She sat up. “Have you been into my pocketbook again?”

  “Certainly not,” said Bess, and then, after a minute, added reluctantly, “I found an old penny bank, if you must know.”

  Morgen began to laugh, and swung around to turn on the lamp on the table next to her. “You poor baby,” she said. “You can have dinner anywhere you like. Tell me next time and I’ll give you a couple of dollars.”

  “You don’t know how I’m going to get even with you someday,” Bess said. She spoke slowly, and she looked at her aunt with hatred. “You don’t know all the things I’ve been thinking of to do to you. When I have all my money, and I don’t have to live with you anymore, I’m going to spend half my time doing nasty things to you.”

  “All right.” Morgen was unconcerned. “Seems to me, though, my pretty wealthy darling, that you’ve started out fairly well, on that refrigerator.”

  “What refrigerator?” said Bess innocently.

  “Know what I ought to do with you?” Morgen said, lying back to look up at her, “I ought to take you and rub your nose in it, and maybe I will. Or maybe I’ll just turn you over my knee and spank the hell out of you.”

  “You wouldn’t dare,” said Bess, backing away.

  “Indeed I would,” said Morgen, genuinely surprised; she had in all her life found few things she did not dare to do, although there had been a number of things, which, fortunately, had not occurred to her. “I’ll do just as I please, as a matter of fact,” said Morgen, “with you or anyone else.”

  “I don’t care what you do to anyone else,” Bess said. “But when I get a lawyer—”

  Aunt Morgen laughed again, with such honest and uncontrollable hilarity that tears came into her eyes and she had to sip at her brandy to keep from choking. “You’ll have a sweet time with a lawyer,” she said helplessly, “when you can’t even find out what year it is. My problem, sir,” she went on in a mincing voice parodying Bess, “is that I’m going to come into all this money when I’m twenty-five years old, and I’m going to be twenty-five in a few months, but I think I’m still nineteen, and no one can tell me any different . . . Oh, lord.” And Aunt Morgen sighed weakly, while Bess sat tense and angry and looked at her. “Anyway,” Morgen said at last, more firmly, “you let me know when you get your lawyer, kiddo, and I’ll pay his bill for you.”

  “I wish my mother was alive to see how you treat me,” Bess said, and her aunt looked up angrily.

  “Maybe you’ve forgotten how your mother treated you,” she said. “When you talk like that you make me mad enough to—”

  She sighed; Bess had turned abruptly into Elizabeth, who was sitting watching her aunt with numb fear.

  “Who you staring at?” Morgen demanded, annoyed at herself for having, as always, said more than she intended to.

  “Nothing. I mean, I guess I don’t feel very well.”

  “Well, go to bed, for God’s sake,” Morgen said, turning impatiently away.

  “May I make myself something to eat?”

  “I thought you had dinner.”

  Elizabeth shook her head miserably. “If you’ll let me, I’ll have a sandwich or something.”

  “Go ahead,” said Morgen. “Make me something, too.”

  Elizabeth got up with eagerness. “I’ll make you something nice,” she said. “I think I’d feel better if I ate something.”

  Wearily Morgen took up the magazine she had been reading last night when the doctor came. “Don’t knock yourself out,” she said, and then, with some remorse, “If you need any help, yell.”

  “I’ll be all right.” Elizabeth went busily away, and Morgen hesitated, and then refused herself more brandy. For a few minutes she half-listened, wondering if Elizabeth would be able to manage, and then she shrugged and told herself that Elizabeth had been capable of feeding herself for a long time now, and she gave only a fragment of her attention to the faint sounds from the kitchen, alert for a fall or a scream. After a while, when she heard returning footsteps, she set her magazine aside with pleasure, and turned to the doorway to watch her niece entering with a tray. “
What you got?” Morgen inquired.

  Betsy giggled, tilting the tray dangerously. “That Elizabeth,” she said. “You could starve to death before she got around the kitchen; I finally had to come and do it myself. Cheese sandwiches and milk.”

  “Mustard?” said Morgen.

  “She did most of it, though, really,” Betsy said. “It isn’t fair to say she didn’t. I poured the milk, anyway.”

  She set the tray down on the coffee table which Morgen cleared for her, and drew up a chair on the other side. “You know,” Morgen said, taking a napkin, “this is the first food I’ve had since . . . oh, Jesus.” She sat, staring for a minute, and then began frantically brushing the bite of sandwich from her mouth, choking and making frightful sounds of disgust.

  “What is it?” Betsy half-rose, backing away. “Robin?”

  Morgen threw the sandwich across the room and emptied her mouth into the paper napkin. “Bitch,” she said, “bitch, nasty bitch.”

  Betsy looked at her own sandwich. “What?” she said.

  “Mud,” said Morgen, “sandwich full of mud.” She twisted her face and looked away. “I’m sick,” she said.

  “Mine’s all right,” Betsy said. “Eat it.” She held her sandwich out but Morgen pushed her hand away. “I’m sick,” she said, “go away.”

 
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