The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson

  “Well?” said Aunt Morgen when she stopped.

  “That’s what I was thinking today in the museum.”

  “Were you now?” said Aunt Morgen, rising heavily. “Well, if you don’t mind,” she said, taking up the coffee cups, “I’ll save it. Think about it some other time, when I’m not so worried about my own affairs. My own tawdry affairs,” she said, and slammed the new cups into the sink with a crash.

  • • •

  “She has still a great deal to learn,” said the doctor soothingly, and quite as though he and Aunt Morgen were walking all alone; “she has a long path to retrace. We must not make too many demands upon her.”

  “Goddamn unfeeling heartless icicle,” said Aunt Morgen roundly. “I mean you,” she said over her shoulder to her niece.

  “I have the constant impression,” the doctor went on, “that she is . . . how shall I say it? . . . as a vessel emptied, if she can forgive me such a graceless comparison. Although she seems to be, my dear Morgen, in undisputed possession of the citadel, too many of its defenses are down, too much has been lost in victory.” He stopped, and for a minute they walked on, unperceiving, and then realized, and turned to him as he gestured at them eloquently with his rolled umbrella. “Such a pleasant evening for a walk,” he said, “you must not stomp along, Morgen. Let us put it this way, then. Much of what was emotion has been lost; the facts are there, the memory clear, but the feeling for these things is suspended. Take, for instance, some person toward whom she has displayed, in these troubled times, mixed reactions.” He thought, started to speak, stopped, and thought again. “Doctor Ryan,” he said at last, with satisfaction. “At different times, she has felt differently toward Doctor Ryan; under one influence she very likely hated him violently, and under another influence she may even have valued him enormously. Now, suppose her to remember perfectly the circumstances under which she at one time admired, and at another time detested, Doctor Ryan; the circumstances recalled, which emotion, presuming them equally strong, which emotion might be expected to remain with her?”

  “Who cares about Ryan?” Morgen demanded. “For twenty-odd years I’ve been—”

  “If you please,” said the doctor, holding up his umbrella, but falling into step again with Aunt Morgen, “allow me to continue. You will recall that there was—I believe I may say this with entire safety from contradiction, even from you, Morgen—no area so far explored in which there was not dissension. Almost, if I may be permitted the term, open warfare. Absolute diametric opposition,” said the doctor, walking rhythmically, “on every point. Thus,” he continued, holding up his umbrella again at Aunt Morgen, who had raised her arm to gesture, “emotion has been, so to speak, cancelled out. No resolution has taken place, no compromise has been reached, no workable truce declared in that warfare. And our responsibility, Morgen,” he went on, raising his voice slightly, “our responsibility is, clearly, to people this vacant landscape—fill this empty vessel, I think I said before—and, with our own deep emotional reserves, enable the child to rebuild. We have a sobering duty. She will owe to us her opinions, her discriminations, her reflections; we are able, as few others have ever been, to re-create, entire, a human being, in the most proper and reasonable mold, to select what is finest and most elevating from our own experience and bestow!”

  Morgen said disagreeably, “You can be her mommy, and I’ll be her daddy, and what I am going to bestow on her is a good swift—”

  “We always quarrel,” the doctor said ruefully. “We strongly resemble an old married pair, I think. The wicked enchanter marries the dragon, after all, and they live happily ever after.”

  Aunt Morgen laughed. “You and your empty vessels,” she said, suddenly good-humored again. “Hollering down a rain barrel, I call it. Well, come on,” she said to her niece, catching her niece’s hand and holding it, “we’ll start all over again like friends. You like the hair?” she asked the doctor across her niece.

  “Unwomanly,” said the doctor, “but not unbecoming, I think.”

  “I suppose I’ll get used to it,” said Morgen. She turned, taking precedence going up the narrow walk to the front door, and said, stopping and turning, “Now, remember, for heaven’s sake, don’t ask Vergil to sing.”

  “Morgen!” said Mrs. Arrow with delight, as she opened the front door for them, “and it’s Doctor Wright, too, isn’t it? So dark, with no moon, but of course I did know you were coming, didn’t I? So how could it be anyone else? And how are you, my dear?”

  “A lovely night, lovely,” said Mr. Arrow, with his back to the door, and standing with both arms out ready to receive the coats his wife took away from their guests and handed to him; he held his arms wide and even their three light coats seemed heavy for him, with Doctor Wright’s hat and umbrella neatly on top; he seemed wondering, suddenly, where to put all of this, and he turned vaguely around and around until Mrs. Arrow led him to the closet, and took everything away from him, lifting carefully from the bottom, and then Mr. Arrow stood the doctor’s umbrella in the umbrella stand and hung the doctor’s hat on a peg and then carefully put the coats one by one onto hangers.

  While Mr. and Mrs. Arrow were giving the coats back and forth, and making small anxious gestures at one another, in extreme concern lest the tail of Doctor Wright’s coat should touch the floor or Aunt Morgen’s scarf mingle commonly among the Arrow mufflers, Aunt Morgen, as senior guest, who had known Ruth and Vergil Arrow since they were all children together and had been free with their house for long years, led the way into the Arrows’ living room, followed by her niece and the doctor. “Well,” said Aunt Morgen, touched with a faint embarrassment because these people were her friends and Doctor Wright had not been here before, “here we are.” She sat down without looking, as one who knows absolutely that in a room belonging to the Arrows the furniture does not permit itself to be moved from one place to another; “sit here, kiddo, beside me,” she said, and bit her lip. “In case you should feel called upon to repeat your remarks on Vergil’s singing,” she said, and grinned at her niece.

  “Perhaps she would be more comfortable over here,” said the doctor; he was poised uncertainly between the sofa, which showed by a deep indentation in one corner that it was dedicated to an Arrow, and a chair whose trim lines bespoke, at first glance, a background not in keeping with the rest of the furniture, until a second, and more critical, observation showed its unmistakable ripeness, the line too long, the curve too full, which had surely brought it favor in Mrs. Arrow’s eye; “would you sit by me?” the doctor asked.

  “Leave her here,” said Aunt Morgen. “She’s all right.”

  “Near me, if you please,” said the doctor.

  They looked at one another, in a kind of quick wonder, and then Mrs. Arrow came between them, gay, and almost clapping her hands. “I’m so glad you came at last,” she said. “Morgen, it’s been years! And the doctor, too, of course.” She turned, admiring everyone. “And I do believe you’ve cut your hair,” she said.

  “This afternoon.”

  “So nice. And it looks nice, too; Vergil?”

  “Very pretty indeed. Sit down, doctor, sit down.”

  Pressed, the doctor made his decision and reconciled himself to the ill-made chair. He adjusted his well-proportioned limbs with difficulty to the inaccurate composition of the chair, wriggled uncontrollably once and then, never utterly inarticulate, turned politely to Mrs. Arrow. “A charming home,” he said. “So conveniently located.”

  Mrs. Arrow, who was about to regret their long walk coming, was caught unprepared, and could only say, “So nice that you came. And Morgen, too.”

  “Kiddo,” Morgen said, turning to look over her shoulder, “won’t you light somewhere? Makes me nervous, you wandering like that.”

  “It’s such a lovely night; I’m looking out at the garden.”

  Mr. and Mrs. Arrow, who had confidently supposed that all their win
dows were securely blockaded with the backs of chairs, and small tables holding potted ferns, rose immediately and approached from opposite sides of the room, Mr. Arrow intending to move a chair a little sideways to clear a passage to a window, Mrs. Arrow offering to loop back the curtain; “The roses are not as rich as usual this year,” Mrs. Arrow said apologetically, and Mr. Arrow pointed out that the lilac had not done as expected, “but the hedge,” he said, “the hedge is coming marvelously well. That back privet,” he said, turning, to Morgen, “would amaze you; you wouldn’t believe it.”

  “Edmund is there,” Mrs. Arrow said softly, “in the back, under the roses.”

  “Could I go out for a while? It looks so quiet.”

  “That’s kind of you.” Mrs. Arrow was touched. “Come along, dear; I’ll take you through the back.” She nodded reassuringly at Morgen. “It’s perfectly all right,” she said, “we’ve got that high fence,” and then, turning red, said, “I mean, no one can get in or anything,” and went hastily out of the room.

  “Put on a sweater, kiddo,” Morgen said.

  “Veil that naked head,” said the doctor.

  “It’s a nice night for the garden,” said Mr. Arrow. “Often spend a few minutes out there myself. Bench, and all.” He sat down again, on the end of the couch near Doctor Wright, and turned to say, with masculine concern, “You given any thought, Doctor, to this new idea about street lighting? Waste of money, I call it; when you consider—”

  Mrs. Arrow hurried back into the room and over to Morgen. “Perfectly happy,” she said. “Quite warm enough, sheltered, quiet, and I thought she was so sweet about Edmund. He was genuinely fond of her, you know.”

  “We let her do pretty much as she pleases,” Morgen said solemnly.

  “You know, she looks better,” Mrs. Arrow said confidentially. “Tell you the truth, Morgen, last time I saw her—that must have been nearly a year ago, wasn’t it? that day I met you two in the restaurant, and she was laughing so?—well, anyway, I thought then she seemed poorly, not at all herself. Has she been . . .” Mrs. Arrow paused delicately, and lifted her eyebrows at Doctor Wright inquiringly.

  “A nervous fever,” said Aunt Morgen smoothly.

  Mrs. Arrow turned and looked openly at Doctor Wright. “I would have thought,” she said, “that Doctor Ryan . . . of course, he’s a younger man.”

  “We have the greatest confidence in Doctor Wright,” said Morgen, raising her voice slightly to be heard with clarity across the room. “Complete confidence.”

  “Not unlike,” said Doctor Wright to Mr. Arrow, “the familiar practice of impaling a living man on a maypole. Disagreeable only to the victim, if, indeed, he himself is not transported with ecstasy. I would not suppose, however, that in the present day . . .”

  “Not,” said Mr. Arrow valiantly, “with the town manager system the way it’s set up most places.”

  Mrs. Arrow put her hand over Morgen’s. “I just want to say that I think you’ve been pretty brave, Morgen, just pretty brave. There aren’t many people,” she finished, and nodded emphatically. “I wonder,” said Morgen, half-rising. “I’ll just take a look at her through the kitchen window.”

  “Of course.” Mrs. Arrow smiled sympathetically. “I know she’s all right, though; you mustn’t worry so.”

  “I just want to know if she’s still there,” Morgen said.

  Mrs. Arrow smiled at Morgen’s back, shook her head with a tender little sigh, and turned to the gentlemen; “A glass of sherry?” she asked brightly.

  “Ah?” said Mr. Arrow dimly.

  “Sherry, Doctor Wright?”

  “Thank you, thank you. On the other hand, although I am at best only very slightly informed in these matters, I would suppose that the mandrake, which shrieks, you will recall, only when uprooted—”

  “You all right, kiddo?” Aunt Morgen said, looking down from the kitchen window.

  “Yes, thank you, Aunt Morgen.”

  “What you doing?”

  “Sitting on the bench. The roses are lovely.”

  “You warm enough?”

  “Yes, thank you.”

  “All right. Call me if you need anything.”

  “—And I think Morgen will bear me out in my theory that witchcraft is little more than the judicious administration of the bizarre.”

  “Yes, indeed,” said Morgen, seating herself. “She’s fine,” she told the doctor.

  “Certainly. This is overprotection, Morgen; our lamb will not leave the fold, particularly since the fence is so high. Morgen’s interest in what is called ‘modern’ art—”

  “Modern rubbish, I call it,” said Mr. Arrow, stung to vehemence. “I don’t know about your interest in music, sir, but I always say that a ten-year-old boy could do better.”

  “You’re talking to the man who wanted to burn all my paintings, Vergil,” said Morgen. “Until I offered to throw him in after them.”

  “I have very little desire,” said the doctor dryly, “to stand in as a human sacrifice to ensure the fertility of Morgen’s artistic self-expression.” He gave a pleased little wriggle in his uncomfortable chair.

  “I wouldn’t have minded,” Morgen said.

  “Each life, I think,” said the doctor, “asks the devouring of other lives for its own continuance; the radical aspect of ritual sacrifice, the performance of a group, its great step ahead, was in organization; sharing the victim was so eminently practical.”

  “And such a social occasion,” Morgen murmured. “I can just see you, Victor.”

  “And you wouldn’t be the first, either,” said Mr. Arrow, coming squarely to grips with the conversation. “You take Kipling, and all the great musicians. They didn’t have anyone to help them.”

  “Kipling?” said Doctor Wright injudiciously.

  “Mandalay, I was thinking of. Maybe, if you haven’t ever heard it, I could—”

  “Lovely,” said Morgen, looking at the doctor with evil intensity. “Victor would love to hear you sing.”

  “I should be delighted,” said the doctor. “I was speaking of the custom of human sacrifice; I have been led to understand that although it is, as a practice, deplored generally today, the initiate into the secret society—”

  “What exactly was wrong with her?” Mrs. Arrow, coming up to Morgen with a tray, spoke too loudly, and there was silence in the room. Mrs. Arrow looked around, discomfited, and then said boldly, “Well, we’ve known her ever since she was so high, and I think we’ve shown enough interest to be told.”

  “Very old family friends,” Mr. Arrow confirmed.

  “A nervous fever,” Morgen said.

  The doctor spoke slowly, in a measured voice, seeming to estimate the suitability of each of his phrases for the ears of Mr. and Mrs. Arrow: “The human creature at odds with its environment,” he said, “must change either its own protective coloration, or the shape of the world in which it lives. Equipped with no magic device beyond a not overly sharp intelligence,” and the doctor hesitated, perhaps lost in wonder at his own precarious eminence, “intelligence,” he went on firmly, “the human creature finds it tempting to endeavor to control its surroundings through manipulated symbols of sorcery, arbitrarily chosen, and frequently ineffectual. Suppose a gazelle, discovering itself to be colored blue when all other gazelles—”

  “A nervous fever, you said?” Mrs. Arrow whispered to Morgen, and Morgen nodded.

  “My cousin—” Mr. Arrow began in a low voice, but Doctor Wright frowned him down.

  “—will take refuge, first, in disbelief, in a convincing refusal to perceive colors, a state of confused bewilderment—”

  “Like that fellow you mentioned, the one on the maypole,” said Mr. Arrow, hoping to atone for his previous interruption by a show of intelligent comprehension.

  “In any case,” said Morgen, overwhelmingly, “I think our pet gaze
lle had better come indoors.” She rose. “I’ll get her.”

  Doctor Wright turned alertly to Mr. Arrow, but this time Mr. Arrow was ready. “Since you were kind enough to ask me,” Mr. Arrow said, “I’ll just get out my music.”

  • • •

  Later, walking home companionably through the warm summer night, she put one hand through Morgen’s arm and one hand through the doctor’s arm and walked in step between them. “And all that faradiddle,” Morgen was saying.

  “Not faradiddle at all.” The doctor was hurt. “I thought I did it very nicely.”

  “Hah,” said Morgen. “And the way you play bridge.”

  “Bridge is a game for the undivided intellect,” said the doctor. “Like your own.” He bowed to Morgen, as well as he could, walking through the night with her niece between them.

  “You know what I was thinking, out in the garden?”

  “What?” said Aunt Morgen, and “Yes?” said the doctor.

  “I was looking at the flowers, thinking of their names, as though I were naming them, and had to see that each one had a name, and it was the right name. It’s harder than it sounds.”

  “Like what?” said Morgen.

  “And the stars—I named some of the stars, too.”

  “And yourself?” said the doctor.

  She nodded, smiling.

  “This child is without a name,” the doctor said across her to Morgen. “Did you know?”

  Morgen thought, and then laughed. “I guess she is,” she said, “but I hadn’t noticed.” She laughed again, and pressed her niece’s arm. “If you’re taking on a new name, how about Morgen this time?”

  “Victoria?” suggested the doctor.

  “Morgen Victoria,” Morgen amended generously.

  “Victoria Morgen,” said the doctor.

  She laughed, too, holding both their arms. “I’m happy,” she said, just as she had that afternoon. “I know who I am,” she said, and walked on with them, arm in arm, and laughing.

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