The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson

  The doctor came over and touched Morgen’s arm reassuringly. “I don’t think,” he said, “that you need feel quite so desolate. Bess, after all, does not represent your niece in a state of health, and what she says is motivated largely by malice; surely your own heart will acquit—”

  “Morgen!” Bess said, and Morgen and the doctor turned, startled at what had seemed almost a cry for help. Bess was standing, looking at them fearfully; her hands were clasped in front of her, and as they watched, her right hand got free.

  “Hold Betsy!” the doctor shouted, and Morgen, thinking, now I have lost my mind, ran to Bess and caught her right arm and held it, pulling and straining against its strength. The doctor had thrown his arms around Bess, holding her still and away from Morgen, who clung desperately onto Bess’ right arm; how could she be so strong, Morgen wondered, how is it I can hardly hold her? “We’re going to rip her in half,” Morgen said, gasping, and the doctor answered grimly, “I wish we could.”

  Then the strength pulling against Morgen slackened, and she looked up to see that Betsy lay, relaxed and grinning, in the doctor’s arms; “Don’t pull so, Morgen,” Betsy said with amusement, “you’ll have us all on the floor.” She stayed so quiet for a minute that involuntarily they loosened their hold on her and then suddenly, without warning, she was scratching at her eyes and Morgen sobbed and strained to get her hands down; “I don’t want to hurt you, Morgen,” Betsy said, “so let go.”

  “No,” said Morgen doggedly.

  “Please, Morgen.” Betsy’s voice rose entreatingly. “I never did anything to you, Morgen, and I don’t think I’ll get any more chances . . . Morgen, please let go.”

  “No,” said Morgen. She looked beyond Betsy to the doctor, who had his arms tight around Betsy, imprisoning her other arm, and he shook his head violently.

  “Morgen,” Betsy said quietly, “I’ll get rid of her for you. She’ll be gone, and never come back. Because I don’t think I’m coming back any more, either.”

  “Goodbye,” said Morgen, setting her teeth.

  “Morgen,” said Betsy despairingly, and fled.

  Morgen looked up again, thinking that they were again holding Bess, but it was Elizabeth, white-faced and helpless, lying back against the doctor; it seemed suddenly laughable to be clinging madly to Elizabeth’s limp arm, and Morgen stood back, letting the arm drop to Elizabeth’s side. The doctor relaxed his hold and stood free, but cautiously close.

  “Elizabeth,” said Morgen weakly, “how do you feel?”

  “Fine.” Elizabeth looked uncertainly from Morgen to the doctor and back to Morgen again. “I’m sorry,” she said.

  “My dear child,” said the doctor, breathing hard, “you have little to be sorry for.”

  Morgen put her hands behind her because they were shaking, and Elizabeth said, “They all went together to find a bird’s nest. Aunt Morgen,” she went on seriously, “you were always very kind to me.”

  “Thank you,” said Morgen, past surprise.

  “And Doctor Wrong,” said Elizabeth, “thank you, too.”

  Her face seemed to waver; she half-grinned, and swayed. “The money,” she said. “No one likes me.”

  “Not Bess,” said the doctor, “I pray that it may not be Bess; Morgen, can you influence her?”

  “Elizabeth,” said Morgen, “Elizabeth, come back.”

  “I’m back,” Elizabeth said. “I never went away, auntie dear, I never never did.” She looked at the doctor and said clearly and without faltering, “I did it. I’m the real one, Doctor Wrong, I am the one who gets the money and who never did anything, and I jumped into a bramble bush and I am going to close my eyes now and you will never see me again.”

  “God almighty,” said Morgen. She turned and moved to the other side of the hall and leaned her head despairingly against the shoulder of the black wooden figure, who had seen and heard everything. I was wrong, she thought, I did harm; I coveted.

  “You will never see me again any more,” said her niece.

  Quickly, Morgen came back to put her arm around her niece and hold her tight. “Baby darling,” she said, “Morgen’s here.”

  Between them they carried her into Morgen’s living room and set her on the couch. She opened her eyes once and smiled at them together, and then slept.

  “What do we do now?” Morgen asked, whispering, and the doctor laughed.

  “When she awakens,” he said dryly, “we can ask her. Meanwhile, we, you and I, can wait.”

  “We’ll make coffee,” Morgen said. “Maybe she’ll want some when she wakes up.” Turning to follow the doctor out of the room, she stumbled and was made aware of her old robe and battered slippers; it was probable, she thought, that the doctor had not noticed, but when she came into the hall she said to him with some awkwardness, “I’ll dress, if you’ll excuse me.”

  “Morgen?” said the doctor; he was standing looking with dislike into the face of the black Nigerian figure.


  “I want you to get rid of this fellow,” the doctor said. Then he turned and smiled. “I beg your pardon,” he said. “I should put that more tactfully; I am not myself. But he offends me, this creature; he does nothing but watch and listen and wait hopefully to snatch at people.”

  “All right,” said Morgen lifelessly.

  “A good many of our sins may go with him,” the doctor said, and he reached out brazenly, and patted her on the shoulder.




  Three months later, when the warm weather had really come to stay, and rain and cold and dismal dark days seemed set aside forever, Doctor Wright’s patient, who had been his patient for a little more than two years, Aunt Morgen’s niece, who had been her niece for a little more than twenty-five years, found unexpectedly that she wanted to run down the sidewalk, instead of pursuing the sedate crisp walk she had heretofore found so fitting. She wanted to pick flowers and feel grass under her feet, and she stopped not half a block from Doctor Wright’s office and turned slowly and wonderingly around in a full circle, approving even the geraniums staunchly blooming in the doctor’s windowbox; it was the first time she had looked at anything with her own true eyes; I am—and it was her first privately phrased thought—all alone; it was clear and sparkling as cold water, and she said it again to herself: I am all alone.

  She had come up and down this street many times, and the geraniums were not strangers to her. Gropingly, holding firmly to Doctor Wright’s hand, keeping her eyes upon Aunt Morgen, wandering and bewildered and faltering, she had been brought slowly to remembrance; much of what she recalled now was sharply distinct, present in her mind as it would have been if it had really happened to her; she could remember the outlines of emotions, and the looks of places, and the gestures of yearning, and the patterns of movements. She could lift her head, still, and hear sweetly the far faint sound of music (I was in a hotel, she would notify herself, that was when I was in a hotel) and see far away the diminishing figure of the doctor (of course; I was in a bus, and thought I saw him) and sometimes, superimposed over other pictures, tennis rackets and boxing gloves and saddle soap (in the window of the sporting goods store, naturally; I looked often into that window); she could remember in perfect detail the room at the hospital, and the Nigerian ancestor figure that Doctor Wright had made Aunt Morgen put away in the attic, and she could, moreover, answer freely all their questions: “Who put the mud in the refrigerator?” Aunt Morgen asked her, and she answered, with simple truth, “I did.”

  The act of recollection, at first halting and uncertain, had soon become compulsive; now, when she looked at the doorway to the doctor’s office, she saw reflected against it the countless entrances she had made; Aunt Morgen’s eyes were layers of doubt and surprise and love and anger, Aunt Morgen’s voice echoed in infinite turned phrases, from as far back as time stretched;
the doctor’s office was crowded and shifting, kaleidescopic with her own visits there, and during the past week or so, when she sat down in the doctor’s office she wondered always if she was sitting down this time or just remembering sitting down the last time, if she had come at all, or if she had perhaps made only one compressed actual visit, to be expanded infinitely in her memories of it. She was clouded with memory, bemused with the need for discovering reason and coherence in a patternless time; she was lost in an endless reflecting world, where only Aunt Morgen and Doctor Wright followed her, as she pursued them. When she turned to Aunt Morgen, crying her name, Aunt Morgen might answer from fifteen years ago, her voice clear but her arms never reaching far enough to provide a refuge; when she clung to Doctor Wright his hands might hold her steady, but his voice came to her from some pinnacle of mockery, rounding a splendid period of nonsense.

  She was awakened from her enchantment at a quarter to four on an afternoon in July, brought back from a weary contemplation of the composition of her own mind. Her first clear thought was that she was all alone; it had been preceded by a rebellious, not-clear feeling that she had succeeded in remembering absolutely all her mind would hold; the second thought she ever phrased clearly she phrased almost aloud: I haven’t any name, she told herself, here I am, all alone and without any name.

  Everything was astonishingly bright and rich; all about her were the commonplaces of the present, the one-at-a-time actions which had no echoes in the past, the thoughts which were new, and the streets not habitually followed. She perceived this with genuine pleasure, and walked past the doctor’s office. The sidewalk on the untraveled section beyond the doctor’s office was a little more carefully put down: one block of cement met the next block of cement without more than the slightest line to trouble the eye with uneasiness; although she knew that she had come along here before she realized without question that it was not necessary, any more, to make an effort to remember the precise time and occasion; I am through with remembering, she thought. Turning the corner onto a busier street she went more slowly, and stopped at last because she had come to a shop where she might have her hair cut. She had not before felt any intention of cutting her hair, but, once conceived, the idea would not die, and she went into the shop, and smiled at the pretty young woman dressed in blue, who came forward through the fragrant dimness to speak to her.

  “I would like to have my hair cut, please.”

  “Surely,” said the young woman, as though people had their hair cut every day, and they both laughed, because everything was working out so nicely, and so agreeably.

  She sat in a chair with a blue bib around her, and the cold scissors against her neck made her shiver suddenly; “I’ve never cut my hair in my life,” she said, and the young woman murmured, “In this heat . . . so refreshing.” She watched herself from out of the mirror, watching the young woman in blue move the flashing scissors, and cut off the hair she had worn when she was a small baby and her mother touched it gently with a soft brush, the hair which had curled around her face when she came down the stairs and down the stairs and down the stairs, and cut off the hair which had been growing when she gathered seashells on the beach and the hair which had been long and gathered back with a ribbon when Aunt Morgen said not to cry over spilled milk and which had been braided and folded over itself but still growing when Doctor Wright asked her if she was afraid, and growing still and not well combed when she met the strange man at lunch in the hotel, and brushed by the nurses in the hospital and pulled and tangled and washed and wound around her head for all the twenty-five years of her life, and the pleasant young woman in blue pushed it aside on the floor with her foot, and held up a mirror behind and said, “Well, how do we like ourselves now?”

  “So that’s what I’m going to look like,” she said.

  “You’ll find it makes a difference, getting rid of that weight of hair.” The young woman shook her head approvingly. “You are a different girl,” she said.

  She was entertained, walking back down the street, to find that now she had to think constantly of holding her head high, because she had no weight of hair to pull back against her, and she felt an inch or so taller without any hair, the top of her head closer to the stars. Best of all, when she turned and started up the steps to the doctor’s office, she knew that now, of all times, she was coming in actuality, since in all her pictures and reflections of herself coming to the doctor, and sitting with him inside, there was no time when she had come with her hair short and her head high.

  Doctor Wright was cross. He rose briefly when she entered, nodded at her, and sat, unsmiling and wordless, at his desk. He noticed that her hair was cut, she knew, because he was accustomed to noticing everything about her, and when at last she said, “Well, good afternoon, Doctor Wright,” he glanced up, his eyes touching the top of her head, and then looked down again.

  “It is five and twenty after four,” he said at last. “I am able to recollect, much as you may doubt it, that youth feels little sense of time, with all the future at its beck and call; regrettably, we who have had the pressure of years forced upon us—”

  “I had to have my hair cut,” she said.

  “Had to have your hair cut? Did you gain your aunt’s permission? Because, to my knowledge, you had not mine.”

  “It’s such a lovely day.”

  “Hardly relevant,” he said dryly. “Such a lovely day for disposing of one’s hair? A sacrifice, might be, to ensure a temperate summer? Or perhaps, a shorn lamb, you hope to appease a wintry blast?” He sighed, and set straight the inkwell on his desk. “I am annoyed with you,” he said. “We will not spend a great deal of time today; I am annoyed, it is late, I preferred your hair the way I was used to it. What is the state of your health—aside—” his glance touched her head, briefly, again— “aside from the probability of your catching cold?”

  “Excellent. And if you insist, I shall wear a hat until the rigors of the July climate have abated.”

  “You are mocking me, young woman. You are shorn and bold.”

  She laughed, and he looked at her in surprise. “I’m happy,” she said, and then stopped and listened to the echo of her words, surprised in turn as she became aware of their meaning. “I am,” she confirmed.

  “I have no objection,” he said. “You may even laugh if you like. Has there been any difficulty with your aunt? Any quarrels? Embarrassment?”

  “No.” She was uncertain. “She seems quieter, though.”

  “Her experiences, recently, may have been somewhat unsettling for one of your aunt’s . . . ah . . . placid temperament. You treated her unkindly, I think.”

  “The mud?” She frowned, puzzling out a way to explain. “I don’t think that was against Aunt Morgen, exactly. I can remember doing it, and it seems to me that it wasn’t to hurt her or anything, but just because something had to happen, there had to be some kind of explosion, and it had to come from outside, because there wasn’t any force in me.”

  “Perhaps.” The doctor, who much preferred doing the talking himself, cut her short and went on, “A decisive gesture was necessary, certainly, to bring matters to a climax, and the struggle between personalities had reached a point where their very counter-tensions made them static. The balance between them had to be shaken, weight had to be thrown on one side or another: Aunt Morgen had to be brought into the fray, to shatter the violent equilibrium in which they were locked. A . . .” he paused, and looked up at her speculatively. “A death struggle,” he said, and then nodded, amused. “The two cats of Kilkenny,” he said. “Instead of two cats, there weren’t any.”

  Could I have behaved like that? she wondered, was that really what I did? With my own hands, wearing my own face, walking on my own feet, using my own head (and she could still feel the mud on her fingers, hear herself laughing), did I really think of things like that? She looked down at her clothes, and remembered with an odd kind of tender
ness that her own hands had torn this blouse when she was angry in New York, and ironed this skirt in a deep rush of love toward herself; she had scratched her own face. She looked at her hands with their round nails and their soft fingers, and lifted her right hand and put it gently around her throat, tightening the fingers with slow care; the doctor spoke quickly, sharply, and she shook her head (its hair cut short), and laughed. “I’m just playing,” she explained. “I can remember, but I can’t think why.”

  He was lighting his pipe, not looking at her. “Do you think they are gone?” he asked; he had not, in all this time, asked her pointblank before.

  “Yes,” she said. “Gone,” and she thought, searching down and half closing her eyes and feeling, as one moving in the dark with hands outstretched to touch a solid object; “Melting together,” she said, “like snowmen.”

  He nodded, his pipe going satisfactorily. “I suppose we could say that you had absorbed them,” he said.

  “Eaten them all,” she amended, and sighed again happily.

  “We are not out of the woods yet, by any means. You are confident, you cut your hair, you are easy with me, you call yourself ‘happy.’ But may I point out that you have just eaten your four sisters?”

  “You can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man,” she said impudently. “Doctor Wrong.”

  He frowned at her. “We are not, as I say, out of the woods yet. At the moment you may choose to amuse yourself at the expense of your doctor, but—since you at the same time assure me of your great good health—we may plan to commence, at your next visit, a severe and thorough series of treatments and hypnotic explorations; we shall scrutinize with extreme and tiresome exactitude every aspect of your illness, until we have determined the why which you say you do not know; we will not rest until—”

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