The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson


  She sat down on the couch, tired and miserable and afraid. I can’t back out now, she was thinking, and she moved defensively as Bess took a step forward.

  “I don’t believe you,” Bess said flatly. “You won’t in all your life be as good or as nice as one-quarter of my mother. It’s true,” she insisted defiantly, as Morgen raised her head in fury, “and you know it too. And everyone else knows it, and I’d even rather go to . . . go to a place like you said, than stay here with you. Even Betsy,” she cried wildly, crossing her arms and holding her shoulders, as though keeping herself compact, and solid, “she wants to run away again, doesn’t she? Away from you? She hates it here, doesn’t she? She wants to get away and find her mother again, doesn’t she? What do you suppose she wants from you—love?”

  “What mother?” Morgen said softly, looking up. “Whose mother?”

  “Betsy’s mother, in New York. That’s what she was looking for, and she’s going back as soon as she can, and when she finds her mother she won’t ever come back here because her mother wouldn’t let her near you.”

  “Her mother?” Aunt Morgen’s voice was enormous. “Her mother? That foul thing that married her father? She wants that?”

  “Give me a pencil, and ask her.”

  “Bring Betsy here.” Aunt Morgen was commanding, imperial. “Bring that girl to me at once.”

  “But you said—”

  “Bring me Betsy.”

  “Well?” Betsy smiled provokingly.

  Morgen leaned back and breathed heavily. With Betsy, at least, she need not be so on guard; Betsy represented no danger and brought no hatred. “Why did you go to New York?” Morgen asked quietly.

  “None of your business,” said Betsy.

  “Betsy, I want to know.”

  “None of your business.”

  “Were you listening while I talked to Bess?”

  “Couldn’t. Tried, but couldn’t, I heard you yelling, though.” Betsy giggled. “Even that far down I couldn’t miss your yelling.”

  “Tell me this, then, Betsy, honestly. Are you going to try and run away again?”

  Betsy tossed her head. “In came the doctor, in came the nurse, in came the lady with the big fat purse.”

  “Betsy, I command you—”

  “Try and make me.”

  “Doctor Wright is coming,” said Morgen, who found herself wanting almost irresistibly to laugh. “He’ll keep you in line, young lady.”

  “I won’t stay,” Betsy said. “How’s he going to make me?”

  Elizabeth, coming to the surface, found herself chanting, “. . . Maw told Paw; Johnnie got a licking, hee haw haw.” She turned red, looking at her aunt. “I’m sorry,” she said.

  Aunt Morgen suddenly found it safe to laugh. “You silly baby,” she said, laughing and full of relief.

  “You’re not mad at me?”

  “Not at you, I’m not. How do you feel?”

  “Fine,” said Elizabeth, pleased. “I really do feel fine. Except,” she added, after a minute and with reluctance, “I guess I do have a headache.”

  “Well, take something for it,” Morgen said. “There’s going to be a lot of noise around here for a while.”

  “Have I done something?”

  “Nope.” Morgen sighed, and looked at the clock. “Your doctor’s on his way.”

  “To see you, Aunt? I never thought—”

  “Kiddo.” Aunt Morgen sighed again, and then said, “Another ten minutes, and I’d pass for a patient. They could give us a room together, maybe.”

  “I don’t understand,” said Elizabeth, falteringly.

  “I didn’t know when I was well off, is all,” Morgen said. “I had to send you to a doctor, we were doing all right till then.”

  “I won’t go any more if you don’t want me to. I only went to please you, anyway. I always . . .” Elizabeth came forward timidly and touched her aunt on the arm. “I always tried to do what you wanted me to.”

  “Why, kiddo?” Morgen looked at her clearly for a minute. “I never did anything you wanted me to; why would you want to be nice to me?”

  Elizabeth smiled shyly. “Just because my black hen laid eggs for gentlemen; I always thought you lashed him and you slashed him and you laid him through the mire—”

  “Will you please shut up?” Morgen said. “I don’t really think I can stand—”

  “I’m sorry.” Elizabeth’s eyes filled with tears. “I only wanted to—”

  “Oh, lord.” Morgen patted her on the head. “I wasn’t talking to you, kiddo, I was talking to—”

  “Me, dear?”

  “Yes, you, goddamn it. Oh, lord.” Stamping, Morgen made for the kitchen and came back with the brandy bottle. “Eleven o’clock in the morning or not eleven o’clock in the morning, Morgen is going to have a big full intoxicating glass of brandy and I defy the pack of you to stop me.”

  “Sot,” said Elizabeth, but when Morgen swung on her she was standing, unaware, smiling fearfully through her tears.

  “Oh god oh god,” said Morgen, sitting down on the couch. “Elizabeth, do Auntie a favor, will you?”

  “Yes?” said Elizabeth, coming forward eagerly.

  “Just don’t talk to me anymore, not for a while, not till the doc gets here, will you?”

  “Jumped into a bramble bush and scratched out both his eyes. Of course not,” said Elizabeth. “I mean, if you want me to be quiet, I’ll keep perfectly—”

  “Thanks,” said Morgen.

  “There was an old woman lived under the hill,” said Elizabeth. “If she’s not moved away—”

  “Brandy, brandy,” said Morgen. “Food for the mad.”

  “—got a licking, hee haw haw.”

  “Elizabeth, sister Elizabeth,” Morgen said, “is that the doctor coming?”

  Elizabeth went to the window and looked out carefully, as she had been taught, between the curtains. “I think so,” she said doubtfully. “I’ve never seen him with a hat on before.”

  “He can keep his hat on if he wants,” Morgen said. She rose and Elizabeth turned from the window and came over to her and put her hands firmly on Morgen’s shoulders and pushed her down again onto the couch. “What the devil?” said Morgen, struggling, stunned because for a few minutes she had forgotten to be afraid. “What the devil are you doing?”

  Bess laughed, one knee on Morgen’s chest. “You’re old,” she said, in pleased surprise. “I’m stronger than you.”

  “Get out of my way, you misbegotten jellyfish,” Morgen said fiercely, “I’ll step on you.”

  “I don’t think so,” Bess said, and laughed again. “Poor Morgen,” she said. “He’ll ring the doorbell and ring the doorbell and ring the doorbell, and he’ll decide that it’s another of Betsy’s tricks and he’ll go away again. And then when he’s gone I’ll let you get up again. Maybe.”

  Morgen was helplessly caught, as much by the indignity as by the weight of her niece pressing her down; she looked up into the flushed, wicked face of her niece, and closed her eyes in distaste, trying to gather her strength, to move, without even breath to shout.

  “Now you know how I feel,” Bess said, “when you’re talking to Betsy.”

  “Betsy,” Morgen said. “Betsy.”

  Betsy gasped, and moved aside, scraping her shoes against Morgen’s legs, digging in her elbows trying to scramble off; “You’re lucky she was frightened,” Betsy said. “I almost couldn’t get out.”

  “She was frightened!” said Morgen fervently.

  Betsy looked around at her nervously, and shivered. “I can’t stay,” she said. “I almost couldn’t get here at all. Everything’s mixed up.” The doorbell rang, and Morgen, who had put her arm affectionately around Betsy’s shoulders, found that she was embracing Bess, and drew back violently. “Don’t think I’ll forget this,” Mo
rgen said quietly to Bess, standing off. “Laying hands on me.” She started carefully around Bess, out of reach, to get to the door, but Bess moved quickly, and darted past her, screaming, “I’ll kill her, I won’t let her do it anymore—I’ll make her stop it,” and Morgen could not catch her before she ran down the hall and threw open the front door and then fell back before Doctor Wright.

  “Good morning,” said Doctor Wright civilly, and then, to Morgen, “Good morning, Miss Jones.”

  “Good morning, Doctor Wright,” said Morgen, blowing slightly, “nice of you to drop in.”

  “No trouble at all, I assure you. Although I ordinarily see patients only in my office, in this case, naturally I was willing to make an—Bess? Is something wrong?”

  “Where did you put her?” Bess demanded, staring from one to the other of them.

  “Odd,” said the doctor. “Where would I put her? Since I assume you mean your aunt?”

  “I thought she was coming again,” said Bess, breathless, and staring wide-eyed.

  “The chances are remote. Since I assume you mean your mother,” said the doctor. “May I put my own coat on the bannister rail, Miss Jones?”

  “By all means,” said Morgen. “My niece and I were just talking of you.”

  “Complimentary, I hope.” The doctor beamed genially at both of them. “Now, then,” he said. “Bess upset?”

  “Overexertion,” said Morgen evilly. “Shadow-boxing.”

  “Pity,” said the doctor. “Come in and sit down, Miss Bess. If you will forgive,” he said over his shoulder, “my presumption in making free with your house.”

  “Certainly,” said Morgen. “Not at all.”

  “Now, then,” Doctor Wright said, and gestured Bess to go ahead of him, but she pushed him aside and turned wildly to the door. “I can’t talk to you,” she said, “don’t you see that she’s got to be stopped? She’ll ruin us all . . . it’s her birthday,” she told the doctor tearfully. “No one remembered.”

  “It was, too,” said Morgen. “I had a present for her and afterwards I took it out and threw it in the trash.”

  “My mother’s coming home,” said Bess, and turned unexpectedly, saying it, into Betsy, who made a face at Morgen. “I got back after all,” she said, pleased.

  “Good morning, Betsy,” said Doctor Wright.

  “You here at last? Good morning, wondrous-wise.”

  “Betsy,” said the doctor urgently, “tell us what Bess was trying to do—do you know?”

  “She wanted,” said Betsy hesitantly, “to . . . to walk a crooked mile and find a crooked sixpence.”

  They were still standing, the three of them, in Morgen Jones’ front hall; behind the doctor the Nigerian ancestor figure grinned and waited and held out its hand, and Betsy sat down on the low bench near the door and looked up at Morgen. “I can’t tell you,” she said finally.

  “Why not, Betsy?” asked the doctor, but Morgen came forward and said angrily, “I don’t see why you won’t, Betsy, my girl—she told on you.”

  “Told what?” Betsy, sitting on the bench between them, shrank back and seemed to cower. “Told what?” she asked, but her fear seemed to be of Morgen. “I was just going to go away,” she said. “I wasn’t going to do anything bad, I was just lonesome. You’d go away if you weren’t happy.”

  Morgen smiled sadly. “I would if I could,” she said. “But you can’t go anywhere, Betsy, because there’s one thing you don’t know. When Bess went running to the door, ready to hurt someone, she was . . . looking for your mother.”

  Betsy shook her head wisely. “Not my mother,” she said with confidence. “My mother is safe.”

  “No longer.” The doctor stepped aside as Aunt Morgen kneeled beside Betsy. “Your mother is gone, Betsy. Elizabeth Jones, my sister, the prettiest girl in town, Elizabeth Richmond. She’s gone.”

  “Elizabeth Richmond? There were four of them in the telephone book.”

  “I was with her when she died,” Morgen said helplessly.

  “Not my mother,” Betsy said.

  “She stood right there in the doorway,” Morgen said insistently, “you remember it as well as I do, smiling and kind of frightened, because she knew she’d done something terrible, with your birthday celebration waiting here for her, and no one even knowing where she was for two days—not worse than she’d done before, in a dozen different ways, but this time you were waiting and waiting and waiting for her, and I kept telling you kiddo, be patient, she’ll come; don’t you remember—I said we’d pretend it was my birthday, instead? And you sat there and looked out the window and waited and waited and then we heard her coming?”

  “I remember,” Betsy said, moving uneasily. “It was her mother who came.”

  “No,” said Morgen, “it wasn’t. We heard her key and the front door slammed open and you went running down the hall and there she was standing there smiling and frightened, and that was when I knew you were angry, because she could see your face, and I couldn’t, and she was frightened—and she said—”

  “She said,” said Betsy levelly, “she said, ‘Hello, am I late for the birthday party?’”

  “No, she didn’t,” Morgen said. “She said, ‘Hello, Betsy my darling, am I late for the—’”

  “She didn’t,” said Betsy, rising and catching at the doctor’s hand, “she didn’t because my mother loved her Betsy and I was her darling and when she was there I was inside laughing because I wasn’t her darling, she didn’t say Betsy darling . . .” She turned in frantic urgency to the doctor, and he shook his head, watching Morgen.

  “You were her darling, you were her baby darling,” said Morgen tonelessly. “It was all I ever liked in her. She used to sing to you and dance with you and you wouldn’t let anyone else near you. Even when she was out somewhere, you wouldn’t let me sing to you.”

  “Who shook her and shook her and shook her?” Betsy demanded, pulling at the doctor’s hand, “who ran at her and hurt her?”

  “Bess.” Aunt Morgen made a gesture of helplessness and spoke to the doctor. “I took her up and locked her in her room,” she said. “And please don’t think that I believe for a minute that my niece . . .” she took a breath “. . . killed my sister,” she said. “My sister was a strong woman, and the shaking she got from her daughter was nothing, really. When I talked to Harold Ryan afterward he said it was bound to happen anyway, it was no one’s fault, not to worry, and not to trouble the child with guilt she couldn’t understand. He said it wasn’t anyone’s fault.”

  She might have gone on talking endlessly, saying these things which of all things had not been spoken of in years, but the doctor touched her on the shoulder, and she followed his glance down to Betsy, who was sitting crying broken-heartedly, as a baby cried. “She believes you now,” said the doctor.

  And when Betsy raised her eyes, tear-stained, she was Bess, looking at Morgen with eyes wide and blank and clear. “You told her,” Bess said to Morgen, “you told her, and you blamed me.”

  “It was you,” Morgen said.

  “No, it wasn’t,” Bess said. “Because I waited and I looked out the window, and I knew she was coming soon, and you told me, ‘She’s off with some man; you think she ever cares for you when there’s a man hanging around?’ And you said she never loved me, only because of the money, because she couldn’t ever get the money unless she stayed with me, and you said if it wasn’t for the money she’d go and never come back. You said not even when my father was alive—”

  “Don’t you talk about your father, you foul bitch,” said Morgen.

  “Poor Morgen,” said Bess to Doctor Wright, “she wanted my father and she wanted me and all she’s going to get is the money; I wish I had the money,” she said wistfully.

  Morgen stood up suddenly and walked across the hall; she stood with her back towards both of them, looking up into the black wooden face,
her hand almost resting in the outstretched wooden hand, and said quietly, “I cannot believe, somehow, that I have managed all this very well, Doctor Wright. I have never tried to make any secret of the way I felt about my sister, or the way I felt about her husband. I always loved my niece, too, and all those times when I used to wish that we were alone together, Elizabeth and I, I pictured our life, I am afraid, as pleasant and peaceful. Not the way it is now. I thought that once my sister was gone, all her badness would go with her; I was afraid of what was happening to my niece because she loved her mother. I suppose,” she said, without turning, “you’ve heard about this fellow Robin, Doctor Wright. That was entirely her mother’s fault, keeping a child around the two of them all the time, letting her see and hear things she shouldn’t, until she got herself in real trouble.”

  “Robin,” said Bess, and laughed.

  “Well,” said Morgen, turning to smile tiredly at her niece, “I suppose you’re right. That kind of thing looks worse to someone outside it, like me. But,” she went on, raising her voice a little, “it was me Robin called to come and get you that night, and it was me took care of you when your mother died, and ever since, and before you were old enough to know the difference, it was me, plenty of times, who dressed you and put you to bed and saw you got fed. And it’s me,” she said, “who’s going to help Doctor Wright lock you up forever. That’s what I want to do,” she said to the doctor.

 
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