The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson

  “What’s wrong, Morgen dear? Has something upset you?”

  “Get out of here,” Morgen said wildly, “get out of here before I throw something at you, you dirty filthy bitch.”

  “Really,” said Bess, “I should think you’d make an effort to behave yourself; throwing food around and making horrible noises; it sounds perfectly—”

  “Will you get out of here?” Morgen demanded, rising and lifting her hand, “you lying monster—”

  Elizabeth began to cry. “You’re always picking on me,” she said. “I didn’t do anything.”

  Morgen caught her breath and was silent; perhaps she was saying “morning-Morgen, morning-Morgen” over and over to herself, because after a few minutes she spoke gently. “Sorry,” she said. “I was upset. I don’t mean to frighten you, kiddo. Come on, I’m going to see you safely in bed before I do another thing.” She rose, and Elizabeth followed her almost cheerfully. “I’ll be glad to go to bed,” Elizabeth said, coming after her aunt to the stairs, “I’m tired and I haven’t been sleeping well again. Maybe I could take a hot bath.”

  “Good idea.” Morgen was remorseful, and brought a quality of unfamiliar enthusiasm to the prospect of a hot bath. “Just what you need to make you sleep, a hot bath and I’ll give you a little blue pill.”

  “All right.” Elizabeth went toward the door of her room, and Morgen, saying “I’ll start your water,” went into the bathroom. She started the water in the tub and then, because she was truly sorry to have made Elizabeth cry, she got a jar of pine bath salts from her own dressing table; it had not yet been opened and Morgen had been promising it to herself as a particular luxury tonight, bath salts being a fanciness for which she ordinarily did not have time; now, however, it was no more than what was due to Elizabeth, and she poured a generous helping of pine bath salts into the tub. When Elizabeth came into the bathroom the air was already warm and rich with an odor only faintly reminiscent of outdoors and trees and growing things; Elizabeth bent over the tub to turn the water off and smiled gratefully.

  “Wonderful,” she said. “Just what I needed.” She hesitated, standing beside the tub in her robe and slippers, and from the timid smile she turned on her aunt it seemed that she was almost going to speak with tenderness; at last, with an effort, she said, “Won’t you . . . Aunt Morgen, won’t you stay in here and talk to me while I bathe?”

  Morgen, perceiving without effort Elizabeth’s attempt at affection, and moved by it, said, touching her niece on the shoulder, “Sure, kiddo. I used to give you a bath all the time, you know.”

  She sat uncomfortably on the bathroom stool and caught Elizabeth’s robe from the floor and held it. “Warm enough?” she asked as Elizabeth got into the tub, and Elizabeth nodded and said “Fine, thanks.”

  “You feeling any better?”

  “I think so, Morgen,” and she stopped, soap in hand. “Did the doctor tell you about . . . about the others?” she asked.

  “How do you know the doctor was here?” Morgen said.

  Elizabeth stared. “I guess I heard you say so.”

  “He made me mad. But yes, he told me.”

  “Did he say I was going to be . . . well?”

  “Depends on what you mean by well,” Morgen said cautiously.

  “Like I was before.”

  “Well,” said Morgen, “you weren’t so well then.” She was wondering, now, what to say; she had a clear idea that in a spot like this the most reasonable, the most sensible, the most reassuring statements were invariably the most dangerous, and she very much did not want to frighten Elizabeth again; it came to her with an acute, almost physical pain, that the reason Elizabeth spoke so much more fluently and freely tonight might be that it was the first time in many months she had found tenderness in her aunt. “I want you really well,” she said awkwardly, and then found Elizabeth looking at her with eyes full of tears. “What’d I say now?” Morgen demanded.

  “It’s because. . .” Elizabeth faltered, and patted the water with her hand. “He said, the doctor, that when I was cured it would be that all of us, Betsy and Beth and all, were all back together. He said I was one of them. Not myself, just one more of them. He said he was going to put us all back together into one person.”

  “So?” Should Elizabeth be speaking of this, concerning herself over it? Even haltingly, clumsily as she spoke, should she be allowed to continue? “Why not wait and see what happens?” Morgen suggested, inspired.

  “Look.” Elizabeth turned and looked at her. “I’m just one of them, one part. I think and I feel and I talk and I walk and I look at things and I hear things and I eat and I take baths—”

  “All right,” Morgen said. “Conceded that you do it all, what’s wrong with it? I do too.”

  “But I do it all with my mind.” Elizabeth spoke very slowly, feeling her way. “What he’s going to have when he’s through is a new Elizabeth Richmond, with her mind. She will think and eat and hear and walk and take baths. Not me. I’ll maybe be a part of her, but I won’t know it—she will.”

  “I don’t get it,” said Morgen.

  “Well,” said Elizabeth, “when she does all the thinking and knowing, won’t I be . . . dead?”

  “Oh, now, look,” said Morgen, and then sat helplessly, facing the definition of annihilation. Finally she shook herself, and said with great briskness, “Now, look, kiddo, I don’t know anything about these things, and neither do you. You just figure that everything’s going to turn out for the best, that’s all.”

  “I guess so.” Laboriously, Elizabeth rose and stepped out of the tub and took the towel Morgen handed her. She turned the handle which let the water out of the tub, and began to dry herself. When she finally had her robe and slippers on again she spoke. “Anyway,” she said, “when you’ve got her you won’t have someone sick all the time.”

  “I won’t think about it, and neither will you,” Morgen said, but she was speaking to Bess.

  “What are you doing in here?” Bess demanded. “Watching me every minute?”

  “I came in,” Morgen said, “to draw your bath for you.”

  “Well, do it,” Bess said. “I don’t mind.”

  “Look,” Morgen said, “what makes you think I wouldn’t drown you?”

  “You couldn’t get the money that way,” Bess said. She turned around and bent down to start the water in the tub, and said, “Mind if I use your bath salts?”

  “Not at all,” Morgen said. “Help yourself.” She watched, speechless, while Bess put bath salts in the tub, and got in herself, handing Morgen her robe to hold. Bess scrubbed herself diligently and thoroughly, chattering all the time. “This is nice of you, Morgen,” she said. “There isn’t really any reason why we can’t be friends, you and me, you know, even if I do get the money. Maybe I sometimes say things I don’t mean, but so do you, you know, and if I’m willing to make allowances for you, I guess you ought to do the same for me. Besides, I’m going to be wealthy, and the way I see it I’ll have a position of great responsibility—the responsibility of wealth, you know—and I can’t afford to hold grudges and hate people, even you. A person in my position has to keep the same distance from everyone—no enemies, and no friends, because of course if they pretend to be friends it’s really only the money they’re after. Because—”

  “Indeed yes,” said Morgen earnestly. “And no one in your position can ever be too careful.”

  “Of course not,” Bess agreed. “Morgen, I’ve been thinking that I’d like to get you something, pay you back, sort of, for taking care of me all these years. A nice pair of gloves, maybe, or some handkerchiefs. What would you like?”

  “Well,” said Morgen thoughtfully, “I have been needing a new nail file. But whatever you say.”

  Bess rose and stepped out of the tub. She waited for a minute until Morgen reached over and found her a dry towel, and then she began to dry he
rself. “Something to remember me by,” she said. “Because of course we won’t be seeing much of each other when I get my money. I’ll be too busy with charitable pursuits and shopping, and things.”

  Morgen rose, taking a deep breath. “I’ve decided that I will drown you, after all,” she said. “Better than a new pair of gloves, even.”

  As she had expected, Bess fled when Morgen approached, and Beth, untying the cord of the bathrobe which Bess had just tied, said happily, “Did you come to see me have my bath? How nice, Aunt Morgen dear.”

  “Just came to start the water for you,” Morgen said straight-faced. “I thought you’d sleep better for a hot bath.”

  “You darling.” Morgen successfully dodged as Beth tried to kiss her, and leaned past Beth to turn on the hot water tap. “Do not,” Morgen said, “forget your bath salts.”

  “These for me? Morgen, how lovely.”

  “Not at all,” Morgen said, going back to her stool. She watched in a kind of stupor as Beth filled the tub, got in, and deliberately soaped and scrubbed the same neck and feet and legs and arms and ears that Elizabeth and Bess had been scrubbing for the past forty minutes. “Bath feels good,” Beth said, flicking a bubble with her finger. “I’m glad I thought of it.”

  “It’s very relaxing at bedtime, a hot bath,” Morgen said.

  “It’s nice to have you sit here while I take my bath, the way you used to.”

  “Oh,” said Morgen, “I’ve watched you take a lot of baths.”

  “I don’t get much chance to talk to you anymore,” Beth said, turning her wide, innocent eyes to her aunt. “I wish I did, Aunt Morgen. I wish we were more intimate, because I do think just the world of you, and I wish we could be . . . well . . . pals.”

  “Pals,” said Aunt Morgen.

  “I could take such good care of you, if you’d only let me. We could have real fun together.”

  “Yes,” said Aunt Morgen. “Well, we must try to see a lot more of each other from now on.”

  Beth turned to her, eyes tearful among the soap bubbles. “You don’t really like me,” she said. “No one ever does. I don’t have a single friend in all this whole wide world, because no one loves me, not even my own aunt.”

  “I gave you my bath salts,” Aunt Morgen pointed out.

  Beth sniffled, and then wiped the soap off her face with the back of her hand and stood up in the tub. “Don’t want any bath,” she said. “I’m just too miserable to take a bath.”

  “You weren’t very dirty anyway,” Aunt Morgen said heartlessly.

  By the time the water had gone out of the tub and Beth was dressed in her robe again she had recovered her usual silly self, and she was just saying, “But Auntie, we’ve got to get you some clothes,” when she vanished and Betsy, clean and scrubbed, turned and bowed ironically to her aunt.

  “Well,” said Betsy, “everyone wash behind their ears?”

  Morgen began, at last, to laugh. “Betsy, my girl,” she said, “come on downstairs and have a spot of brandy with Auntie.”

  “Can’t,” said Betsy. “Got to have my bath.”

  “Heaven save me,” said Morgen, “I will go mad if I watch you scrub your feet again. Couldn’t you give up your bath just this one night?”

  “No, oh, no,” said Betsy, “what would the rest of them think?”

  “I thought,” Morgen said with curiosity, pausing on her way to the bathroom door, “I thought Bess always knew all that the rest of you were doing?”

  Betsy shook her head, her look of ironic amusement fading before a kind of puzzlement. “She used to, most of the time,” Betsy said. “The last few days, though, she hasn’t been any better than the rest of us. That’s why she’s so scared, too,” and Betsy capered on the wet floor.

  “Betsy,” Morgen said slowly, “what did you have to do with all that mud?”

  “Mud?” said Betsy, “what mud?” She looked complacently down at her naked body. “No mud on me,” she said.

  “Yeah,” said Morgen. “I’ll be downstairs, kiddo. Get nice and clean.”

  As she went down the stairs toward the living room the bathroom door behind her opened and Betsy shouted, “Say, Morg—you mind if I use the rest of your bath salts? There’s only a little left.”

  • • •

  Morgen awakened the next morning out of sorts and worn with a weakness which she finally identified as hunger; for a minute she lay in bed, thinking that she had not eaten anything at all the day before, that someone had once told her that brandy contained all the necessary minerals and vitamins to sustain life for an indefinite length of time, that she might, had she been born somehow differently, been at this moment awakening into the boudoir of Madame de Pompadour, a jeweled page kneeling beside her bed proffering chocolate. She rose, fancying herself among turquoise satin hangings, and asked herself, whistling, whether milady would wear the ruby tiara or the pearl stomacher. Dressed at last, in the corduroy housecoat she always wore in the mornings, her hair combed and her feet in splendidly comfortable old sheepskin slippers, she went, still whistling, down the hall to the bathroom, amused at the thought that her niece might be still in the tub, and washed her face and hands and took up her toothbrush, which she held under the running water to wash the mud out of it. Then she dropped it, and moved back and held her hands, trembling, against the lock of the door and wanted to cry and heard herself whimpering, “I’m an old woman.”

  “No more, no more, no more,” she said at last, and unlocked the door, leaving her toothbrush where it lay in the basin, and went stamping downstairs to the kitchen. She looked carefully into the coffeepot and rinsed it out thoroughly before starting the coffee, and during the time the coffee was cooking she stayed in the kitchen all the time, and did not touch anything without looking at it twice. When the coffee was done she poured herself a cupful, after washing the cup, and drew out a chair at the table and looked carefully at the seat of the chair and at the floor under the table before she sat down. Then, in a clean chair with a clean cup of coffee, she leaned her head down to let the hot clean fragrance come freshly to her, and tried to think.

  First of all, it didn’t matter, not at all, whether it was Elizabeth or Bess or Beth or Betsy fouling her, dirtying everything she touched; it wasn’t important, because the whole pack of them were leaving. For the first time Morgen isolated and looked clearly at what she now knew she intended to do; she had, in the back of her mind, a confused and terrible picture of what she called an “institution,” which had until this minute revolted her because of a medieval uneasiness about chains and barred windows and dark wormy food; now that the Richmond fortune had been brought into such prominence, it seemed an equivocal thing for an aunt to send her only niece off to be bound in chains in darkness, and continue to live alone with that niece’s money. For the moment there was no mud anywhere in sight, however, and Aunt Morgen endeavored to see the question impartially. There are places, she thought, I’ve certainly heard of places like country clubs, where they live in luxury and get the best of care and food, and places like that cost plenty, too, so she’d be getting her share of the money after all. I’d probably have to cut down here considerably, as a matter of fact, to keep her in a place like that, and no one could say . . . We could both go, Morgen thought wryly; one more mouthful of mud and I’d be ready; maybe I could leave her here and go myself, and get the best of care and food. She laughed, thinking of what people would say then: of course, Morgen got the money and all, and there she is, off in that loony-bin, living on the fat of the land, and her poor crazy niece half-starving at home. . . .

  No, Morgen thought suddenly and firmly. She’s infected me; I can’t even think about what’s best to do for her without beginning to wonder what people will say about the money; this is not intelligent of me. No one needs it, she thought, no one cares, only Bess, and then the minute she mentioned the money we all stopped being able to think a
bout good things like eating and drinking and being well, and just started squabbling; I’ll give her a big bag of silver dollars, Morgen thought; she can take it in her suitcase when she goes. I’ll tell her she’s got it all. No, no, Morgen thought, I will decide this without ever once thinking again about that money. Now. In order to take any steps at all in even locating the proper place—one near enough for visiting, where Morgen might, personally, inspect at regular intervals the quality of the food, the cleanliness of the floors, the servility of the attendants, one where the lawns were green and the tennis courts well rolled, where Bess could stroll and Betsy could romp; where, to put it most distinctly, Morgen might visit without feeling uncomfortably under restraint—in order to find such a place, it was distressingly necessary to apply to Doctor Wright; Harold Ryan would know, too, of course, but to Doctor Wright Morgen’s decision would seem fair, without justification or explanation, might even seem humorously overdue. Harold Ryan would have to have too much talking done at him, and it was important, Morgen thought, to get moving at once on a thing like this; if ’twere done, she thought, surprising herself, ’twere well it were done quickly.

  She laughed, tasting her coffee, and began aloud, declaiming “—that struts and frets his little hour upon the stage; it is a tale—”

  “Good morning, Morgen,” said Bess, from the kitchen doorway. “You praying or something?”

  “Good morning,” Morgen said, thinking, I know now that she is going soon; done quickly.

  “Did you make coffee? Fine.” Bess poured herself a cup of coffee and came to sit down at the table. “Before I forget,” she said, looking delicately at her spread fingers, “I want you to pay for some things I ordered sent home. They’ll probably be coming today.”


  “Some clothes. A few things for my room. Nothing that really need concern you.”

  “They don’t concern me at all,” Morgen said, “because I won’t pay for them.”

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