The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson

  “A punishment?” she asked. “Just because I laughed?”

  “Have a care, my dear young lady. You have interrupted me again, and you speak pertly. I am attempting to describe a great concern for your future welfare. We shall study your past in order to discover—”

  “My future? But suppose I—”

  “There,” he said. “You have interrupted me once again. Three times in ten minutes. I think it is easily time you went back to your aunt. I hope that by the time we meet this evening you will have somewhat recovered your usual good manners.”

  “I may be worse,” she said, still possessed of an irresistible tendency to giggle. “I’ve run away from a little old woman and a little old man.”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “I’m the gingerbread man,” she said.

  He shook his head, and rose to show her to the door. “It is gratifying, I must confess, to see you cheerful,” he said. “Although I am not fond of good humor at my own expense. Until this evening, then.”

  “When we’re with Aunt Morgen I can interrupt you all I want to.”

  “On the contrary,” he said. “When we’re with Aunt Morgen, it is Aunt who interrupts. A splendid woman,” he said, “but overly fond of talk.”

  She came out of the doctor’s office laughing, feeling her head cool and aware for the first time of this day as separate from all other days; she walked lingeringly toward the corner where she would catch her bus, thinking, I am all alone and I have no name; I have cut my hair, I’m the gingerbread man, and wanting to prolong this little time of perfect freedom, although she thought that she would never lose it completely now; without more concrete thought than, it’s Thursday, closing’s not till seven, she crossed the street to wait for a bus that would take her to the museum.

  She could remember, of course, that she had gone to the museum every day, and she could remember whole paragraphs and pages of letters and lists she had written; she knew perfectly the look of the desk where she had worked, and she knew, too, that she had gone, afterwards, to the museum one afternoon, but had not gone above the first floor; had wandered without purpose or interest through the most available rooms. If she had known that day what she was looking for, she could have remembered it now, but all that that grey afternoon brought back was an intense loneliness, untouched by the people who walked through the rooms with her; she had sat on a bench and watched others go by, stepping firmly through a world to them almost secure. I wonder why I went that day, she thought, leaning forward in the bus to see where she was; she remembered all the other buses, and all the running away. She was simultaneously awake and asleep; she was talking with a lady in green silk; she was holding tight to her suitcase.

  The bus stopped directly in front of the museum, and she came down from the high bus step and turned to look at the austere white stone of the building. It looks well, she thought, it hasn’t changed since I left; how pleasant, she thought, to come calling on the scenes of one’s past, and find the past of all the ages there too; how can I tell that the girl who used to come here and call herself me was not just a remnant of a stone age culture—no, a glacial deposit?

  Just outside the museum entrance was the white stone statue of General Zaccheus Owen, in whose questionable honor the museum had been erected; General Owen sat as he always had, not having even recrossed his legs in all this time (although, of course, he could have crossed and recrossed them any number of times, so long as he finished with them the same way he began), and he still rested his head on his hand and his elbows on a white stone table, and he studied still in his white stone book, weary and bored and hopeless, although he might very well have turned over a page or two in all this time. He was not a proper general, she thought, to sit reading while the battle surely raged; he had been thought to represent the conquest of brute force by intellect, and his sword, unwieldy with its great ribbons of white stone, lay idle at his feet.

  “Good afternoon, general,” she said at last. “If you belonged to Aunt Morgen, Doctor Wright would put you in the attic.” There was no one around at the moment—or else, naturally, she would not have spoken aloud—but the general apparently did not dare risk turning over another page; he bent his eyes down doggedly, and perhaps only glanced at her for one swift second. “I probably won’t be seeing you again, general,” she said, “so goodbye.”

  The general did not speak as she went on inside, suddenly aware that she had not come to see the general, but to visit a particular painting on the second floor. The painting had never attracted her before with any personal communication, and she did not know why she wanted to see it now, but, coming through the museum entrance, she suddenly wanted to go and look at it, and she remembered where it was and how to turn to reach it, how to go up the main wide staircase with her hand on the wide stone balustrade, and she remembered, with a kind of sadness, that she had never before come to look at this picture, although she had passed by it many times. Here at last, she thought, is a choice entirely my own.

  When she stood before the picture she thought only, at first: I would like to have that; then she looked at it more carefully, wondering why she had longed for it so, and telling herself at the same time that for a long time to come she must study every thought carefully, and test its reality, and examine it for flaws and for traces of weakness or sentiment, for invitations to turn back. The picture was bright and lovely against a background of black silk, a thing of small jeweled greens and blues and scarlets and yellows; an Indian prince sat in contemplative happiness against a clean colored pattern of eight-petaled flowers, with his feet close together on a tiny mosaic floor and his small hand open before him. He was touched with gold, on the belt of his robe, at the corners of his eyes, and beyond him lay a green meadow ending in a row of even little trees topped by precise little mountains, and at his feet lay a basket of oranges. She stood and looked at him, deeply satisfied with the clarity of the tiny jewels glowing against the black silk, and when she turned away her eyes, blinded by the colored flowers, there was a reflected light in the white stone ceiling of the museum, and a glitter along the floor.

  She knew the hidden stairway that led to the third floor of the museum, and went up its iron steps without hesitation, although she had not been up here for a very long time. It, too, had not changed, and she turned with assurance down the hallway and to the door of the big office room where she had at one time come every day, and, entering, looked at once to the last desk on the left, where she suddenly half-expected to find her work set out as she had left it, her letters demolished by crude messages, her back still aching. The office was empty, because it was late, and the desks were neat and bare; she did not want at first to leave the shelter of the doorway and then perceived that it was because she badly wanted to turn to her right and hang her hat and coat on the rack ready there for them. Not ever again, she thought, and moved resolutely forward toward her own desk.

  “Were you looking for someone?” She turned, and smiled. There was a girl standing in the doorway, looking severe because of course visitors were not allowed on the third floor, and yet tentative, because her jurisdiction extended only so far as the third floor went, and visitors to the museum were a special order of trespasser, and a girl who might freely order strangers away from the third floor must herself leave the museum by the iron stairway which, hidden, went all the way down through the museum to the employees’ entrance in the back basement; she was carrying a flower in her hand, far too small for the buttonhole of General Owen and overblown for the garden of the jeweled prince. She held the flower with care, because it was made of metal and had been carved and fashioned and created with the hands and so was very likely worth money; the stem had been sharply broken off and as the girl stood, staring but patient, she caressed the hard petals, running the tip of one finger around them.

  “I’m sorry to walk in like this. I used to work here, and I just wanted to look around again.

  “Yes?” said the girl, undecided. (There was another way to get off the third floor, then?)

  “That was my desk, the last one on the left.”

  “That’s Emmy’s desk,” said the girl defensively, holding the flower close to her.

  “Really?” There was nothing more to say; she had seen her desk, and the flower was broken off, and Emmy had gone home for the day; there was nothing new to be found up here. She nodded her head at the desk, remembering, and said, “Once there was a big hole in that wall. It went right down through the whole building.”

  “A hole?” said the girl. “In the wall?”

  • • •

  Aunt Morgen was in the doorway, peering out, tapping her fingers, biting her lip, frowning. “God almighty,” Aunt Morgen said, “am I going to spend all my life—what in sweet heaven’s name have you done to your head?”

  “I’ve been to the doctor’s. I cut my hair.”

  “I called the doctor. You left there an hour ago. He said you were—” Aunt Morgen broke off, and made a small ceremony of closing the door behind her niece. “Have you and the doc been squabbling?” she asked, once the door was safely closed behind her, and dropping her voice a little, as though the very air might carry her irreverent words to the doctor’s ear; “he said you were light-headed.”

  “And so I am. Look at me.”

  “It doesn’t suit you,” Aunt Morgen said, after a minute. “You’ll have to let it grow again.”

  “I can’t; I’m the gingerbread man.”


  “I’ve run away from a little old woman and a little old man.”

  “I sometimes think,” Aunt Morgen said amiably, following her into the kitchen, “that a nice home for old ladies is what I really need. The kind of a place where they play croquet. And wear brooches made out of the hair of all their dead friends.”

  “And Doctor Wright would come every Sunday evening to call on you,” said her niece, settling happily into her place at the kitchen table.

  “For our weekly hymn sing,” said Aunt Morgen. “I made cabbage and sour cream, merely because you used to like it, although I must say that with your majesty’s tastes shifting the way they do, I hardly dare—”

  “You suppose they’ll let you cook in the old ladies’ home? You’re one of the best cooks in the world.”

  The table looked pretty and warm in the soft light of the kitchen corner. Aunt Morgen was using new dishes, yellow on a brown cloth, and when she touched the round edge of her yellow cup she wondered that she had not noticed it sooner; Aunt Morgen had changed a number of small things, relinquishing, it seemed, the harsh defiant colors, the sharp, out-flung angles, the obtrusive patterns; “Morgen,” she said, “you’re getting mellow.”


  “Your new dishes. And the tablecloth. The front hall.”

  Sitting, Morgen said, “—lives to thy service,” and passed the rolls to her niece. “I didn’t know you noticed,” she said, and sighed, looking without enthusiasm at her butter plate. “I don’t suppose you want to talk about it,” she went on finally. “I’ve been waiting until you said something, or the doc, and I figured I’d spent so long never catching up with what was going on that I could afford to hang on a while longer. But.” She put her fork down with sudden determination, and looked sternly at her niece. “All these jokes about old ladies’ homes,” she said. “I keep feeling as though the house was empty now, everyone gone for the summer, place closed up, windows boarded, everyone off in the country. Like I was left all alone, sitting here wondering where in hell everyone’s got to. Did you know I went and bought you that green coat you wanted and it’s been hanging in your closet for three weeks?”

  “I didn’t even see it,” said her niece blankly.

  “That’s what I mean,” Aunt Morgen said. “I thought you really wanted that coat. I’ve been waiting for you to mention it. And now you’ve gone and cut your hair,” she finished helplessly, and pushed her plate away.

  “You thought I really wanted that awful coat?”

  “You either really wanted the coat, or else you were trying to buy it to show me who was boss or to make me miserable or maybe just to make up to yourself for all the things you figured I should have done for you and gotten you and never did. So I talked myself into thinking you really wanted a new coat.”

  “I suppose it’s too late to take it back to the store.”

  There was a silence, and then Aunt Morgen said, “Yes, it’s too late to take it back. You’ll have to wear it and maybe pretend you like it. Pretend,” she went on carefully, “that it was a gift from a doting old relative in the old ladies’ home and you have to wear it to avoid giving offense. Because,” she said, “with a thing like that it is very easy indeed to give offense; you have really no idea how touchy old ladies get about their gifts.” Shutting her lips tight, Morgen held her breath for a minute, and then got up without speaking and took her plate over to the sink. “I’ll leave the dishes,” she said in a voice almost normal. “We’re a little late; the doc should be here any minute.”

  “I’ll help you with the dishes when we get back.”

  “Thank you,” said Aunt Morgen. “Thank you very much.” Silently she cleared the dishes from the table and put them in the sink. Then, impulsively, she turned and came back to the table and sat down next to her niece. “Look,” she said, and stopped, and put her elbows down on the table, and lighted a cigarette, and fussed with the ashtray, and rubbed her nose foolishly with the back of her hand. “I’m damned if I know how to say it,” she said. “I keep trying and trying—maybe the doc can get a straight answer from you; maybe he can get to you. Me, all I keep doing is wondering and worrying and praying it’s all going to come out all right, and maybe I’m wrecking everything speaking out like this—I know I’m clumsy and silly and I’ve got no head for all this fancy figuring you do with the doc, but here all of a sudden, here I never had any trouble in all my life making myself understood and my wants known, and here all of a sudden I can’t even talk to you after all these years. All I want to know is this.” She stopped, and carefully set her cigarette down in the ashtray so she could fold her hands and turn attentively to her niece. “Where do I fit in?” she asked.

  Seeing her niece regarding her with curiosity, but without comprehension, Morgen faltered, and gestured, a pathetic little turn of her hand. “You don’t understand,” she said. “I suppose I am really talking? I’m not just moving my mouth and waving my arms and not making any noise? You do hear me? Because it is beginning to look to me like you don’t care in the least whether I talk or not, or whether the doc sees you or not, or whether we go out or stay in or whether we eat or don’t eat or whether I live or don’t live or whether I’m happy or not; I keep feeling that when I work to make something special for your dinner that you used to like once and then forget to tell you what it is you don’t even know what you’re eating.”

  “Dinner was very nice, Aunt Morgen.”

  “I know it was very nice, I made it and it was very very very damned nice and if Í hadn’t told you what it was you could honest to God have sat there all through dinner moving your fork and putting it in your mouth and maybe if it’s my lucky day just happening to notice that for the past month we’ve been using new dishes. I keep telling myself it isn’t possible, not after all this time.” Morgen put out her cigarette with care, and said, “I don’t want to sound like the kind of person who says I’ve got a right to your affection just because I’ve spent a lot of time taking care of you as though you were my own child. I’d have to be pretty damn silly to think that people had rights to other people’s love; in my life I’ve earned more love and got less than anyone I know. But I could have sworn,” she said, making her tone light, and smiling a little, “I could have sworn you wouldn’t let me go off alone to an old ladies’ home.”

  She was watch
ing Aunt Morgen carefully, looking at the big earnest ugly face and the false little smile and the mouth still a little open, and she thought, people shouldn’t ever look closely at one another, they’re not like pictures. There was not any sure way to know, from the eyes of her aunt or the mouth of her aunt or the hair or the eyebrows or the lines in the face of her aunt, whether the expression stated by her aunt’s face was a faithful delineation of fear or anxiety or expectancy; it might be a kind of ecstasy, or it might be wholly false, and not at all the expression corresponding to Aunt Morgen’s thoughts. There was too much there to be defined clearly; the jeweled prince was beautiful, General Owen was tired, but Aunt Morgen’s face was a portrait too heavily shaded, with too much detail. And that is because, she thought, in a picture all the unnecessary misleading parts of the face have been eliminated, all the extra lines are gone and the painter has only left in the useful things; painting Aunt Morgen’s face and calling it Agony, she thought, one would probably have to eliminate the greater part of the nose, which detracted sensibly from the composition of the whole, and surely avoid the sense of bestial, inarticulate pain introduced by the eyebrows, which were overheavy; a general thinning of the design . . .

  “I think I’m being patient,” Aunt Morgen said, and her voice was cold.

  “Aunt Morgen,” she said slowly, “you know what I was thinking, today in the museum?”

  “No,” Aunt Morgen said, “what were you thinking, today in the museum?”

  “I was thinking what it must feel like to be a prisoner going to die; you stand there looking at the sun and the sky and the grass and the trees, and because it’s the last time you’re going to see them they’re wonderful, full of colors you never noticed before, and bright and beautiful and terribly hard to leave behind. And then, suppose you’re reprieved, and you get up the next morning and you’re not dead; could you look again at the sun and the trees and the sky and think they’re the same old sun and sky and trees, nothing special at all, just the same old things you’ve seen every day? Not changed at all, just because you don’t have to give them up?”

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