The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson

  “—to breed Edmund,” Mrs. Arrow was saying to Aunt Morgen. “It seems like a long way to go, of course, but we felt, Vergil and I, that it was worth it.”

  “Got to take a lot of care with that kind of thing,” Mr. Arrow said.

  “I remember,” Aunt Morgen began, “when I was about sixteen—”

  “Elizabeth,” Mrs. Arrow said, “are you sure you feel all right?”

  Everyone turned again and looked at her, and Elizabeth, sipping at her sherry, said, “I feel fine now, really.”

  “I don’t like the way that girl looks,” Mrs. Arrow said to Aunt Morgen, and shook her head worriedly, “she doesn’t look well, Morgen.”

  “Peaked,” Mr. Arrow amplified.

  “She used to be strong as a horse,” Aunt Morgen said, turning to look intently at Elizabeth. “Lately she’s been getting these headaches and backaches and she hasn’t been sleeping at all well.”

  “Growing pains,” Mrs. Arrow said tentatively, as though there was still a chance that it might turn out to be something worse. “She could be working too hard, too.”

  “Young girls,” Mr. Arrow said profoundly.

  “How old is Elizabeth?” Mrs. Arrow asked. “Sometimes when a girl spends too much of her time alone. . . .” She gestured delicately, and dropped her eyes.

  “I’m all right,” Elizabeth said uneasily.

  “Fanciful,” Mr. Arrow said, with a gesture reminiscent of Mrs. Arrow’s. “Wrong ideas,” he added.

  “I’ve been wondering if she ought to see Doctor Ryan,” Aunt Morgen said. “This business of not sleeping. . . .”

  “Always just as well to go with the first symptoms,” Mrs. Arrow said firmly. “You never know what might turn up later.”

  “General check-up,” said Mr. Arrow roundly.

  “I think so,” Aunt Morgen said. She sighed and then smiled at Mr. and Mrs. Arrow. “It’s a great responsibility,” she said, “my own sister’s child, and yet it’s not as though I’ve been much of a mother.”

  “No one could have been more conscientious,” Mrs. Arrow declared, immediately and positively. “Morgen, you must not, you simply must not, blame yourself; you’ve done a splendid job. Vergil?”

  “Fine job,” said Mr. Arrow hastily. “Often thought about it.”

  “I’ve always tried to think of her as though she was my own,” Aunt Morgen said, and the sudden quick smile she sent across the room to Elizabeth made the words almost pathetic, because they were true. Elizabeth smiled back, and rubbed her neck against the chair.

  “—Edmund,” Mrs. Arrow was saying.

  “But I don’t understand,” Aunt Morgen said. “Was the mother brown?”

  “Apricot,” Mrs. Arrow said reprovingly.

  “That was why we had to go so far out of town,” Mr. Arrow explained. “We wanted to get just the right color combination. But of course,” he went on mournfully, “as it turned out, we could have saved ourselves a trip.”

  “It is a shame,” Aunt Morgen said.

  “So of course we had to take the black one,” Mrs. Arrow said, and shrugged, to show how helpless they had been.

  Mr. Arrow touched his wife on the shoulder. “All water under the bridge,” he said. “How about a little music? Elizabeth’s head all right?”

  “Fine,” said Elizabeth.

  “Well, then,” said Mr. Arrow, moving with speed toward the piano. “Ruth? Care to play along?” As his wife rose and came toward the piano, Mr. Arrow turned to Aunt Morgen. “Which shall it be? Mandalay?”

  “Lovely,” said Aunt Morgen, settling herself into her chair and reaching without formality for the sherry decanter. “Mandalay would be perfectly grand.”

  Elizabeth opened her eyes then because instead of the sound of the piano playing the introduction to “The Road to Mandalay,” there was a silence, and then Mr. Arrow said, “Well, really.” He closed the music on the piano and said to Elizabeth, “I’m sorry. I asked if your head was all right. Really,” he said to Mrs. Arrow.

  “He did, you know, Elizabeth,” Mrs. Arrow said. “I’m sure no one wants to make you listen.”

  “I beg your pardon?” Elizabeth said, perplexed. “I want to hear Mr. Arrow sing.”

  “Well, if it was a joke,” Aunt Morgen said, “it was in extremely poor taste, Elizabeth.”

  “I don’t understand,” Elizabeth said.

  “It’s all forgotten now, anyway,” Mr. Arrow said peaceably. “We’ll go ahead, then.”

  Elizabeth, waiting again, again heard only silence and opened her eyes to find them all looking at her. “Elizabeth,” Aunt Morgen was saying, chokingly and half-rising from her chair, “Elizabeth.”

  “Never mind, Morgen, really,” Mrs. Arrow said. She got up from the piano bench, her hands shaking and her mouth tight. “I’m certainly surprised,” Mrs. Arrow said.

  Mr. Arrow, not looking at Elizabeth, folded the music slowly and put it with some care onto the other music on the back of the piano. After a minute he looked around the room, smiling his faint smile. “Let’s not have our nice evening spoiled, ladies,” he said. “Sherry, Morgen?”

  “I have never been so humiliated,” Aunt Morgen said. “I can’t understand it at all. I do apologize, Vergil, I honestly do. All I can say is—”

  “Please don’t mind it,” Mrs. Arrow said. She put her hand gently on Aunt Morgen’s arm. “Let’s forget all about it.”

  “Elizabeth?” Aunt Morgen said.

  “What?” said Elizabeth.

  “—feel all right?”

  “What?” said Elizabeth.

  “She ought to lie down or something,” Mr. Arrow said.

  “I had no idea—” Mrs. Arrow said.

  “She’s taken eight glasses of sherry, by my count,” Aunt Morgen said grimly. “Where she ought to be is home in bed; I never saw her drink anything before.”

  “But just sweet sherry—”

  “—see a doctor,” said Mrs. Arrow wisely. “Can’t be too careful.”

  “Elizabeth,” Aunt Morgen said sharply, “put down your cards and get up and put on your coat. We’re going home.”

  “Must you?” Mrs. Arrow asked. “I don’t really think she needs to go home.”

  Aunt Morgen laughed. “Three rubbers of bridge is about my limit,” she said. “And Elizabeth has to get up in the morning.”

  “Well, it’s been lovely to have you,” Mrs. Arrow said.

  “Come again soon,” Mr. Arrow said.

  “We’ve enjoyed it so much,” Aunt Morgen said.

  “Thank you for a very nice time,” Elizabeth said.

  “It was nice to see you, Elizabeth. And, Morgen, do make a point of getting to that science lecture. Maybe we can all go together—”

  “Thanks again,” Aunt Morgen said.

  When the door had closed behind them and they were going down the walk in the cool night air Aunt Morgen took Elizabeth’s arm and said, “Look, kiddo, you frightened me. Are you sick?”

  “I have a headache.”

  “No wonder, after all that sherry.” Aunt Morgen stopped under the street light and took Elizabeth’s chin and turned her face to look at her. “You’re not tight on sherry,” Aunt Morgen said, wondering. “You look all right and you talk all right and you walk all right—there is something wrong. Elizabeth,” she said urgently, “what is it, kiddo?”

  “Headache,” Elizabeth said.

  “I wish you’d talk to me,” Aunt Morgen said. She put her arm through Elizabeth’s and they began to walk on. “I get so goddamned worried,” Aunt Morgen said. “All during the bridge game I—”

  “What bridge game?” Elizabeth said.

  • • •

  “Well, now, Morgen,” Doctor Ryan said. He leaned back in his chair and the chair creaked under his huge weight, as it had been doing, Elizabeth thought,
all her lifetime; she had never thought of it so clearly before, but all she remembered of Doctor Ryan after leaving his office was the way his chair creaked. “Well, now, Morgen,” Doctor Ryan said. He put his fingers together in front of him and raised his eyebrows and looked quizzically at Aunt Morgen. “Always were one to get het up about trifles,” he said.

  “Hah,” said Aunt Morgen. “I can remember a time, Harold Ryan—”

  They both laughed, similarly, greatly, looking at one another with wrinkles of laughter around their eyes. “Damn disrespectful woman,” Doctor Ryan said, and they laughed.

  Elizabeth looked at Doctor Ryan’s office; she had been here before, with her mother, with Aunt Morgen; Doctor Ryan had been here in this office ever since Elizabeth could remember, and so far as Elizabeth knew he had no other home. He had been in Aunt Morgen’s house when her mother died, his arm around Aunt Morgen’s shoulders, his great voice saying small things; he had come once in the night, looming jovially at the foot of Elizabeth’s bed, speaking coolly through the feverish, inflamed phantoms crowding the pillow; “You’re making quite a fuss, my girl,” he had said then, “over nothing but a couple of measles.” The rest of the time, the rest of Elizabeth’s life, Doctor Ryan had been here in this office, leaning back in his chair and making it creak. Elizabeth did not know the names on the backs of any of the books in the glass-doored case behind Doctor Ryan’s back, but she knew peculiarly well the tear on the leather spine of the one third from the end on the second shelf, and wondered, now, if Doctor Ryan ever turned around and took down one of the books to look at. While Doctor Ryan and Aunt Morgen laughed, Elizabeth looked at the grey curtains over the window, and the books, and the glass inkwell on Doctor Ryan’s desk, and the little ship model which Doctor Ryan had made himself, long ago, when his fingers were nimbler.

  “But honestly, Harold,” Aunt Morgen said, “she did frighten me. There was poor old Vergil, just opening his mouth, and Elizabeth shouts out this obscenity—I mean, honestly—” Aunt Morgen’s lips moved, and she made a visible effort to keep from smiling. “I mean,” she said helplessly, “I’ve thought of it myself, when Vergil—” She put her hands over her face and began to rock back and forth. “If you could have seen . . .” she said. “Mandalay . . .”

  Doctor Ryan covered his eyes with his hand. “Mandalay,” he said in confirmation. “I’ve heard Vergil do Mandalay,” he added.

  “I didn’t,” Elizabeth said. “I mean, I didn’t say anything.”

  Aunt Morgen and Doctor Ryan both turned their heads to look at her, both soberly interested.

  “That’s it,” Aunt Morgen said. “I really don’t think she remembers.”

  Doctor Ryan nodded. “Physically, of course,” he said, shrugging, “all you can do is check the things you know about. I can tell you she’s overtired, or nervous, or some such nonsense, but then you can come right back at me with something you and I both know is impossible, and we’re right back where we started. Tell you what I think we ought to do,” Doctor Ryan said, suddenly determined, and reaching across his desk for a prescription pad, “there’s an old friend of mine, fellow named Wright, Victor Wright. You know, Morgen, and I know, that I’d be the last person in the world to send Elizabeth to one of these psychoanalysts, knowing her the way I do; no telling what they might say. But I do want you to run over and see Wright, Elizabeth, and have him take a look at you. He’s an odd duck,” Doctor Ryan said to Aunt Morgen, “always been kind of interested in this kind of problem. No . . .” Doctor Ryan gestured, reassuringly. “No couch or anything, Morgen, you understand.”

  “You’re a dirty old man, Harold,” Aunt Morgen said agreeably.

  Doctor Ryan looked up and grinned. “Aren’t I?” he asked, pleased.

  “Do you think if there’s anything wrong this fellow will find it?” Aunt Morgen asked.

  “There’s nothing wrong with Elizabeth,” Doctor Ryan said. “I think she’s worried about something. Boys, maybe. You ever ask her about boy friends?”

  Aunt Morgen shook her head. “I can’t get her to talk to me at all.”

  “Well,” Doctor Ryan said, rising, “if anyone can get it out of her, it’s Wright.”

  Aunt Morgen got up and turned to Elizabeth, and then yelped. “Harold Ryan,” she said, “I’ve been telling you to cut that out for twenty-five years.”

  “Still the best pinching surface in town,” Doctor Ryan said, and winked at Elizabeth.



  I believe I am an honest man. Not one of your namby-pamby modern doctors, with all kinds of names for nothing, and all kinds of cures for ailments that don’t exist, and none of them able to look a patient in the eye for shame—no, I believe I am an honest man, and there are not many of us left. The young flashy fellows just starting out, who do everything except put their names in neon lights and run bingo games in the waiting room, are my particular detestation, and that is largely why I am putting my notes on the case of Miss R. into some coherent form; perhaps some one of your young fellows may read them and be instructed, perhaps not. I can remember joking with my late wife about a patient a doctor could get his teeth into—although that, too, I suppose, will be liable to misconstruction by your head doctors with their dreams and their Freuds; boys I brought into the world, too, some of them. It is gratifying to know that the extraordinary case of Miss R. was taken and solved and lies transcribed here for all the world to read, by an honest man; gratifying, at any rate, to myself. I make no excuses or apologies for my medical views, although perhaps my literary style will leave something to be desired, and I preface this account by saying, as I have said for forty years or more, that an honest doctor is an honest man, and considers his patient’s welfare before the bills are sent in. My own practice has dwindled because most of my patients are dead—(that is another of my little jokes, and we’ll have to get used to them, reader, before you and I can go on together; I am a whimsical man and must have my smile)—naturally, because they grew old along with me, and I survived ’em, being a medical man.

  Thackeray says somewhere (and I had my finger on it not two days ago, somewhere in Esmond, anyway) that a man’s vanity is stronger than any other passion in him; I’ve read that twenty times and more in as many years, and I daresay a good writer is much the same as a good doctor; honest, decent, self-respecting men, with no use for fads or foibles, going on trying to make our sensible best of the material we get, and all of it no better and no worse than human nature, and who can quarrel with that for durable cloth? And yet, along with Thackeray, I have my prides and my little passions, and perhaps fancying myself Author is not the least of them.

  With all of this, there wasn’t much joking in me the first time I met Miss R., poor girl. Ryan had made the appointment for her, and, to tell the truth, I wasn’t much inclined to her at first, thought her a sullen type, perhaps. Young women who fancy “character-reading” or “fortune-telling” might have thought her shy. Colorless was a word came to my mind when I looked at her. She had brown hair, taken smoothly to the back of her head, and fastened there with strong combs or a bit of ribbon, maybe; brown eyes, hands long and graceful and quiet when she sat down, not fussing with her gloves or her pocketbook like these nervous women; altogether, if I may be permitted a term which has got sadly out of use, I thought Miss R. a gentlewoman. Her gown was suitable for her age and position; dark, neatly made and not at all stylish, perhaps even—although I liked it, I recall—a bit prim. Her voice was low and level, and I thought her cultured. I cannot recall that she ever laughed genuinely, although when she came to know me she frequently smiled.

  Miss R.’s symptoms—dizzy spells, occasional aboulia,* periods of forgetfulness, panic, fears and weaknesses which were causing her to function poorly at her employment, listlessness, insomnia—all indications of a highly nervous condition, perhaps of an hysteric, had been faithfully reported to me by that amiable blackguard Ryan, to wh
om her family had taken her when her state became too apparent to be ignored; like most families, the members of this one—in this particular case, I believe, only a middle-aged aunt—chose to overlook the obvious symptoms of nervousness in the patient, and excuse them variously and charitably until the case was too far advanced to be dismissed; I know of one family where it was not until a lad had made off with some thousands of dollars from his father’s safe that his doting family confessed that he had been a sleepwalker since childhood! At any rate, Ryan, finding himself at a loss with regard to Miss R. when she did not respond to his usual treatments (nerve tonic, sedatives, rest in the afternoon), and knowing of my own interest in the deep problems of the mind (although, as I cannot say often enough, I am not one of your psychoanalysts, but merely an honest general practitioner who believes that the illnesses of the mind are as reasonable as the illnesses of the body, and that your analytical nastiness has no place in the thoughts of a decent and modest girl like Miss R.) he arranged with me to give her an appointment.

  Miss Hartley, my nurse, had taken down the name of the patient, her address, age, and such vital information, and the card bearing these facts was set upon my desk when Miss R. entered.*

  She smiled at me almost timidly as she sat down; my office is so constructed as to display the maximum reassurance to timid patients—something your chromium and enamel physicians seem to regard as superfluous—and its dark rows of books (from my school days, madam; I admit it before you charge me) against the walls, its heavily curtained windows (enriched, my dear miss, with cigar smoke and ashes and a terror to moths therefrom) and its deep chairs and pillowed sofa (to which, sir, I would gladly at any convenient time admit your ample bottom, for an hour or so of comfortable sitting, and a glass of good wine and one of the cigars which Miss dislikes so much)—all this seemed to bring a measure of quiet to Miss R., who looked about her almost stupidly, but showed, at least, no immediate signs of hysterical terror, a reaction, I might point out, not unheard of in patients forwarded to me by good old Ryan. Miss R. set her long hands upon her lap, as one who has been well brought up and taught that a lady seats herself quietly, and looked steadily to one side of me, and wet her lips nervously, and smiled without meaning at the corner of my desk, and opened her mouth, and closed it again. “Well,” I said heartily, to show that I knew she was there and that our interview had, so to speak, commenced itself, and my valuable time for which her aunt was paying had been placed at her entire disposal, “well, Miss R.,” I said, “what seems to be the trouble?”

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