The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson

  Bess smiled. “Morgen, dear,” she said, “I am paying for them. You just give the man the money.”

  “I won’t do it,” Morgen said flatly, and then rage caught her again and she slammed her hand down onto the table and opened her mouth to shout, and then was quiet at Bess’ smile. “If I get sore,” Morgen said, “you’ll run away. And if I can’t get sore, what can I do?”

  “Try to behave like a lady, dear,” said Bess. “Try to behave like me.”

  “Tell you what I’ll do,” Morgen said, controlling herself and thinking: how soon she will be gone, “We’ll compromise. Some of the things you ordered—” (the ones you can take with you, she was thinking) “—you can keep, and the others we’ll send back. That way, each of us is giving in to the other, and we can both be satisfied.”

  Bess thought. “All right,” she said at last, “but I do the deciding.”

  “We’ll make a list of everything,” Morgen said. She left the table and went to her desk in the living room to get a pencil and paper; when she came back Elizabeth was heating herself some milk at the stove and Morgen’s coffee was suspiciously thick and dark; without tasting it Morgen made a mouth of disgust and set the cup in the sink. “How’d you get here?” she asked Elizabeth.

  “Good morning, Aunt Morgen,” Elizabeth said. “I had a wonderful sleep last night.”

  “Fine,” Morgen said, “fine.” She hesitated, not knowing how to say it, and then began carefully, “Elizabeth, I hope you’ll try to understand when you know what I’m doing. If I didn’t think that it was the only possible way—”

  Elizabeth poured her hot milk into a cup and sat down at the table, and said, looking wistfully at her milk, “I wish just once they’d let me stay long enough to eat something I like.”

  “Why not try?” Morgen asked with interest. “I mean—when they push at you, push back.”

  “I guess so,” Elizabeth said vaguely; “I wish you wouldn’t keep meddling,” she said. “I’m perfectly all right.”

  “I’m waiting for you to tell me what you ordered,” Morgen said. “We’ll have to send back anything too expensive, because we simply can’t afford it.”

  “Don’t be silly,” Bess said. “I can afford anything I want.”

  “Yeah,” Morgen said.

  “Well, a little radio,” Bess said. “It’s coming from that big store. I had lunch there,” she said, “and there’s a fountain in the restaurant, and goldfish.”

  “Arnold’s,” said Morgen, writing. “Radio. I thought you had a radio?”

  “This was smaller than mine,” Bess said. “And I ordered a coat, dark green with a fur collar, leopard, and a little hat to match.”

  “Green’s not a good color on you, anyway,” Morgen said.

  “And some stockings and underwear and gloves . . . I don’t know. I went around picking out things and the girl was going to put them all in a package together and send them.”

  “And I’ll keep them all in a package together and send them back,” Morgen said.

  “And some costume jewelry. I even ordered a necklace for you, Morgen. Little shells.”

  “Great,” Morgen said. “So I could hear the sound of the sea?”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “Never mind. Is that everything?”

  “Yes,” said Bess, looking away.

  Morgen put the pencil down and sat back, looking at the list. “Not too bad,” she said. “You don’t need the radio and you can’t have the coat. I don’t want the jewelry, and you have more underwear and stockings and gloves now than you can wear. We’ll send it all back.”

  “If you expect any favors from me,” Bess said, “you’d better be careful now.”

  “What favors?” Morgen laughed rudely.

  “I was going to let you go on living here,” Bess said. “Last night, when you promised to treat me better, I half-decided to give you an allowance.”

  “Generous of you,” Morgen said. “That’s more than I’d do for you.”

  Bess took up Morgen’s pencil and pointed it dangerously across the table. “Someday,” she said, “you are going to come crying to me, and then—”

  “All right,” Morgen said agreeably. “When I come crying to you for a dark green coat with a leopard collar and a little hat to match, you may take great pleasure in denying it me. As,” she said, “I am doing to you.”

  “Morgen,” Bess said, “if you won’t let me get what I want today, then tomorrow I’ll go again and order the same things sent all over again, and if I can’t get them from the same store I’ll get them somewhere else, because I plan to have what is due me, and I’m just going to go on and on buying whatever I please with my money.”

  “So long as it keeps you happy,” Morgen said, watching Bess’ hand and the pencil and paper. While Bess was talking her hand had added, not neatly but clearly, “wristwatch,” “cigarette case,” “pocketbook” to the list of items Bess had bought, and Morgen began to laugh. Bess looked down and saw her hand writing, and scowled.

  “Stop,” she said in a whisper, and tried to unclench her fingers from the pencil; while Morgen, sitting back, watched without expression, Bess tried with her left hand to twist the fingers of her right hand away from the pencil, tried to lift her arm from the table, whispering, “Stop, stop, I won’t let you.”

  “hahaha,” Bess’ right hand wrote, the letters scrawling across the page as Bess tried to drag her hand away.

  “Morgen,” Bess said in appeal.

  “I won’t help you,” Morgen said, and grinned. “After you changed your mind about my allowance?”

  Bess abandoned her struggle with her hand to look long and angrily at Morgen. “I suppose you think this is going to work out fine for you,” she said, and her hand wrote freely; Morgen looked away from Bess’ hand, sickened at seeing the thing released and capering off in pursuit of its own mad ends; “I can’t make it stop,” Bess said, looking at her hand.

  Morgen rose and came around the table to lean over Bess’ shoulder and read what Bess’ hand was writing. “It’s beastly,” Bess said.

  “It’s loathsome,” Morgen said. The hand had written: “poor cinderella bess poor cinderbess no pumpkin coat no ball”

  “It never writes anything but nonsense,” Bess said.

  “cinderbess sitting in ashes and mud up to neck.”

  “Mud up to the neck,” Morgen said. “That’s funny.” She smiled down at the back of Bess’ head. “I say that,” she said.

  “cruel sisters,” said the hand, and made a kind of final heavy line, as though a telling point had been made.

  “Someone,” said Bess, very carelessly, “keeps a suitcase all packed in my room. I don’t know who it belongs to, but it looks like someone is planning to sneak away some night. Again,” she finished.

  “no morgen no morgen no morgen poor betsy ask bess mud.”

  “This is silly,” Bess said, trying again to lift her hand.

  Morgen laughed. “You girls keep telling on each other,” she said, “first thing you know, no one’s going to have any secrets left.”

  “poor lizzie,” the hand wrote, “poor lizzie poor morgen poor betsy not paris never now”

  “Are you Betsy?” Morgen asked, leaning forward.

  “betsy over ocean betsy over sea”

  “Betsy broke a teacup, and blamed it all on me,” Bess said. She tried to lift her hand again, “I cant stand those things,” she said.

  “What things?” Morgen was puzzled.

  “Nursery rhymes,” Bess said. “She does it—” She stopped abruptly.

  “hahaha,” Bess’ hand wrote.

  “I remember your mother teasing you with that rhyme,” Morgen said, looking from Bess to Bess’ hand and back again. “When you were a baby.”

  “Kindly do not recall my grief,” Bess said gr

  “Rubbish,” Morgen said, and then, “She’s gone.” The pencil lay idly in Bess’ hand. “Well,” Morgen said at last, “I’ve got to make a phone call. And I don’t want you listening.”

  “I? Aunt Morgen!”

  Morgen closed the kitchen door with a slam, leaving Beth in tears at the table, and went into the hall to the phone. When she took up the receiver it slipped and turned in her hands and she let it drop and sat for a minute, choking back nausea and whispering to herself. Then, valiantly, she found her handkerchief and used it to hold the phone, almost amused at herself for dialing the doctor’s number without having to look it up. When his nurse answered, Morgen said, keeping her voice low, “Doctor Wright, please. This is Morgen Jones.”

  And, after a minute, the doctor’s sharp voice said, “Good morning, Miss Jones. Doctor Wright here.”

  “I’m sorry to disturb you, doctor, but I badly need your help.”

  There was a silence, and then he said, “I am extremely sorry, Miss Jones, but I could not be of any possible assistance to you. Perhaps Doctor Ryan?”

  “No,” she said. “I have . . .” she thought, searching for a noncommittal phrase, aware with certainty of Bess pressing her head against the kitchen door to listen. “I have decided,” Morgen said, “to follow your example.” An idea came to her. “Birnam wood has come to Dunsinane,” she said.

  “I beg your pardon? Is this Miss Jones?”

  “Don’t be an idiot,” she said. “I’m trying to tell you something.”

  “I assure you that if you are in this manner endeavoring to revive my interest in your niece—”

  “Look,” said Morgen dangerously, “I am most goddamn certainly in this manner endeavoring to whatever you call it. The fact that I can forget my own dignity long enough to listen to you chattering ought to convince you that you’re just as much tangled up in this as any of us, and I want you over here fast.”

  “You do not mean to be impolite, I am convinced,” the doctor said coldly. “And if you stop to think for a minute you must certainly agree that my objections to seeing your niece again are legitimate; I can be of no conceivable help to either her or you.”

  “To me, you can,” Morgen said. “As a matter of fact, now I think of it, I don’t believe you can get things into a muddle like this and then quit on me. So I think if you don’t get over here as fast as you can travel I’ll call Harold Ryan and get you unfrocked.”

  “Disbarred from practice,” said Doctor Wright with some amusement. “I can hardly come if you threaten me.”

  “I take it back,” Morgen said. “It’s almost impossible for me to talk clearly.”

  “There has been trouble?”

  “Yes. I am—” She glanced back over her shoulder at the kitchen door “—very much disturbed.”

  “I can appreciate that,” said the doctor. “I can be there within an hour.”

  “Right,” said Morgen.

  “I hope you realize,” the doctor said, “what violence I am doing to my own pride in resuming the care of your niece, Miss Jones. Only my conscience—”

  “If you’re worried about violence,” said Morgen evilly, “you’d better keep quiet to me about your conscience.” And she hung up, pleased to think that she had had the last word, but that he would be coming anyway.

  The kitchen door was shut tight, and Morgen turned her back on it and went into the living room, where she sat tiredly on the couch and wondered what was best to do. She had a fear of putting into motion, through Doctor Wright, legal forces overwhelming and uncombatable; it was one thing to take your niece, nervous and failing in health, to a highly recommended physician, but another thing entirely to turn her over to a faceless, mechanical operation of papers and committments and, perhaps, publicity; I’ll tell everyone she’s gone off to have an illegitimate child, Morgen told herself consolingly; it’s better than admitting I had her locked up. She looked up, then, and said, “What do you want now? Or are you just following me?”

  “There’s a man here,” Elizabeth said. “He has a package to be paid for.”

  “And she sent you to tell me, did she? Well.” Morgen got up heavily and went into the front hall, where a delivery man stood with a package which might have held a radio or a green coat with a fur collar or even a cigarette case. “The order,” Morgen told him moderately, “has been cancelled. I’m sorry.”

  “Sure.” He took up his package and put his hand on the door. “You don’t want it now?” he said, looking back over his shoulder.

  “We don’t want it now,” Morgen said firmly.

  “You’re the boss.” He opened the door and was turning to shut it behind him when Bess pushed Morgen aside and called out, “Wait—wait a minute!”

  “Yeah?” said the delivery man, pausing.

  “We do want it; bring it back.”

  “Okay,” said the delivery man, turning.

  “We don’t want it,” Morgen said. “Take it away.”

  The delivery man hesitated, holding the package without affection. “Look,” he began reproachfully. He gave a little shove with the package, as though to toss it out through the door. “I don’t want the package,” he said to Bess, “she don’t want it,” and he gestured with his head at Morgen, “you say wait, wait, you do want it. All right. There’s thirty-seven dollars and eighty-five cents on this package. Tell me now, I either go out the door with the package or I leave the package here and I go out the door with thirty-seven dollars and eighty-five cents. Well?” He stopped, holding the package out ingratiatingly.

  Morgen cocked her head at Bess. “Well?”

  Bess stood undecided, her face flushed and angry. She was unused to easy communication, and she did not think quickly. She looked from the man to Morgen, both watching her with interest, and then turned abruptly into Beth, who was first aware of Morgen’s regard, and then perceived the delivery man and the package.

  “Ooh,” said Beth, “is it something for me? Morgen, did you get me a present?”

  “No,” Morgen said. “The man is going to take it away.”

  After a minute the delivery man shifted the package, sighed, and opened the door again, waiting for a minute on the threshold as though expecting to be called back again. “You never get me anything,” Beth said. Two large tears started down her cheeks. “Everyone gets presents but me, and I guess no one likes me, because no one ever gives me presents.”

  The door closed gently. Through the glass of the door Morgen could see the delivery man going down the steps to his truck. He stopped once, and looked back at the house for a minute, and then shrugged and tossed the package into the truck.

  “Someday I’ll get even with you, Morgen.”

  “Oh, stop talking like that.” Morgen stamped back into the living room and felt that Bess was following her without sound; Morgen turned, with a faint cold chill going up her back and said, over-heartily, “Come on, Bess, be reasonable; I told you the stuff was going back.”

  “You said I could keep half of it.”

  “You said you had given me the whole list.”

  “Who’d tell the truth to you?” Bess said scornfully. “You never heard of the truth in your life—you tell lies and you make up lies and you try to hurt people with lies, and you won’t let anyone come around you unless they tell you ties. You’re a bad bad bad—”

  “Now look,” Morgen said. The quick apprehension she had felt at Bess’ approach stayed with her; she was a little bit unsure, and she raised her voice. “Now look,” she said, standing with defiance in the middle of her own living-room carpet, chosen and put down under her supervision, surrounded by walls whose color she had dictated, and windows whose view met with her approval, standing firm and not to be shaken by any alien fear, “now look,” she said, “this is all I am going to take from you.” She swept her arm largely around, as one who calls forces to
her support, and said in a less emphatic tone than she intended, “You’ve driven me out of patience, the way your mother did before you. You blame me the way she did, and call me names, and when I look at you all I can see is her whining face. And do not—” she said, gesturing, “try to give me any phony tears or stories about your grief; I know what you thought of your mother.”

  Bess wavered, on the edge of tears, or perhaps on the edge of Elizabeth; she brought up her handkerchief and looked from side to side, but Morgen said, “If you send Elizabeth and run away, now, you’d better not come back. Because if you ever do come back, I’m going to be waiting right here for you, like a cat on a mousehole, and the minute I see you looking out at me, I’m going to be after you; so, if you want to go, go, but remember I tell you not to come back once you’re gone.”

  “I’m not going,” Bess said, taking down the handkerchief. “I,” she said, smiling at Morgen, “am not ever going. You can just plan, Morgen, on having me from now on, thinking of anything I can do to make you miserable, lying awake nights hating you, and wishing you were dead. You won’t,” she finished, with loving slowness, “you won’t ever be rid of me.”

  “You sound like your mother,” Morgen said. “You sound exactly precisely not to be mistakenly like your goddamn whining mother and if I were you I would stop it right there because, believe me, Miss Elizabeth Beth Betsy Bess, your mother is the last person I want to hear talking right now—you hear? I spent one rotten lifetime with her and I was just as glad to see the last of her as I’m going to be to see the last of you.” Shouting, Morgen turned and swept wildly up and down the room, but never came close to her niece. “We’re going to put you in a place,” Morgen said, speaking quietly again, her voice shaking, “into an institution, a madhouse, a head-whorehouse, where you can take yourself apart and put yourself together again like a goddamn jigsaw puzzle and all the pretty doctors will stand around and clap their hands when you subdivide like a building lot and all the nice nurses will pat your head when you split four ways from Sunday and then they’ll all giggle and drag you off and lock you up and I’ll be rid of you and the world will be rid of you, and your precious doctor will be rid of you and the world will be a better place with you going to pieces in private. And, now I think of it, just to make you happy I’ll take your piles and piles of money and I’ll buy up a couple of acres of swampland and I’ll dig it up and go and pour it on your late lamented mother’s grave, so the world will know what I think of what she did to you and me. And if they ever let you out again—which they won’t, I tell you—and you come all whining and old to me and begging for me to take care of you—which I can tell you I won’t—and your mouthing doctor to come and put the pieces back together—which I will just bet he won’t—we can shove the mud off your mother’s last resting place and dig up enough of it to put you in, and your poor old Auntie will buy a marble bench to come and sit on and snicker over the two of you dead. And to think,” Morgen said at last, and wearily, “that I thought your father was the finest man who ever lived.”

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