The Birds
by Daphne du Maurier

Amid the scratching and tearing at the window boards came the sudden homely striking of the kitchen clock. Three A.M. A little more than four hours yet to go. He could not be sure of the exact time of high water. He reckoned it would not turn much before half past seven, twenty to eight.

“Light up the Primus,” he said to his wife. “Make us some tea, and the kids some cocoa. No use sitting around doing nothing.”

That was the line. Keep her busy, and the children too. Move about, eat, drink; always best to be on the go.

He waited by the range. The flames were dying. But no more blackened bodies fell from the chimney.

He thrust his poker up as far as it could go and found nothing. It was clear. The chimney was clear. He wiped the sweat from his forehead.

“Come on now, Jill,” he said, “bring me some more sticks. We’ll have a good fire going directly.” She wouldn’t come near him, though. She was staring at the heaped singed bodies of the birds.

 

“Never mind them,” he said. “We’ll put those in the passage when I’ve got the fire steady.”

The danger of the chimney was over. It could not happen again, not if the fire was kept burning day and night.

“I’ll have to get more fuel from the farm tomorrow,” he thought. “This will never last. I’ll manage, though. I can do all that with the ebb tide. It can be worked, fetching what we need, when the tide’s turned. We’ve just got to adapt ourselves, that’s all.”

They drank tea and cocoa and ate slices of bread and Bovril. Only half a loaf left, Nat noticed. Never mind, though, they’d get by.

“Stop it,” said young Johnny, pointing to the windows with his spoon, “stop it, you old birds.”

“That’s right,” said Nat, smiling, “we don’t want the old beggars, do we? Had enough of ’em.”

They began to cheer when they heard the thud of the suicide birds.

“There’s another, Dad,” cried Jill. “He’s done for.”

“He’s had it,” said Nat. “There he goes, the blighter.”

This was the way to face up to it. This was the spirit. If they could keep this up, hang on like this until seven, when the first news bulletin came through, they would not have done too badly.

“Give us a cigarette,” he said to his wife. “A bit of a smoke will clear away the smell of the scorched feathers.”

“There’s only two left in the packet,” she said. “I was going to buy you some from the co-op.”

“I’ll have one,” he said, “t’other will keep for a rainy day.”

No sense trying to make the children rest. There was no rest to be got while the tapping and the scratching went on at the windows. He sat with one arm round his wife and the other round Jill, with Johnny on his mother’s lap and the blankets heaped about them on the mattress.

“You can’t help admiring the beggars,” he said; “they’ve got persistence. You’d think they’d tire of the game, but not a bit of it.”

Admiration was hard to sustain. The tapping went on and on and a new rasping note struck Nat’s ear, as though a sharper beak than any hitherto had come to take over from its fellows. He tried to remember the names of birds; he tried to think which species would go for this particular job. It was not the tap of the woodpecker. That would be light and frequent. This was more serious because if it continued long the wood would splinter, as the glass had done. Then he remembered the hawks. Could the hawks have taken over from the gulls? Were there buzzards now upon the sills, using talons as well as beaks? Hawks, buzzards, kestrels, falcons—he had forgotten the birds of prey. He had forgotten the gripping power of the birds of prey. Three hours to go, and while they waited, the sound of the splintering wood, the talons tearing at the wood.

Nat looked about him, seeing what furniture he could destroy to fortify the door. The windows were safe because of the dresser. He was not certain of the door. He went upstairs, but when he reached the landing he paused and listened. There was a soft patter on the floor of the children’s bedroom. The birds had broken through. . . . He put his ear to the door. No mistake. He could hear the rustle of wings and the light patter as they searched the floor. The other bedroom was still clear. He went into it and began bringing out the furniture, to pile at the head of the stairs should the door of the children’s bedroom go. It was a preparation. It might never be needed. He could not stack the furniture against the door, because it opened inward. The only possible thing was to have it at the top of the stairs.

“Come down, Nat, what are you doing?” called his wife.

“I won’t be long,” he shouted. “Just making everything shipshape up here.”

He did not want her to come; he did not want her to hear the pattering of the feet in the children’s bedroom, the brushing of those wings against the door.

At five-thirty he suggested breakfast, bacon and fried bread, if only to stop the growing look of panic in his wife’s eyes and to calm the fretful children. She did not know about the birds upstairs. The bedroom, luckily, was not over the kitchen. Had it been so, she could not have failed to hear the sound of them up there, tapping the boards. And the silly, senseless thud of the suicide birds, the death and glory boys, who flew into the bedroom, smashing their heads against the walls. He knew them of old, the herring gulls. They had no brains. The black-backs were different; they knew what they were doing. So did the buzzards, the hawks. . . .

He found himself watching the clock, gazing at the hands that went so slowly round the dial. If his theory was not correct, if the attack did not cease with the turn of the tide, he knew they were beaten. They could not continue through the long day without air, without rest, without more fuel, without . . . His mind raced. He knew there were so many things they needed to withstand siege. They were not fully prepared. They were not ready. It might be that it would be safer in the towns, after all. If he could get a message through on the farm telephone to his cousin, only a short journey by train upcountry, they might be able to hire a car. That would be quicker—hire a car between tides . . .

His wife’s voice, calling his name, drove away the sudden, desperate desire for sleep.

“What is it? What now?” he said sharply.

“The wireless,” said his wife. “I’ve been watching the clock. It’s nearly seven.”

“Don’t twist the knob,” he said, impatient for the first time. “It’s on the Home where it is. They’ll speak from the Home.”

They waited. The kitchen clock struck seven. There was no sound. No chimes, no music. They waited until a quarter past, switching to the Light. The result was the same. No news bulletin came through.

“We’ve heard wrong,” he said. “They won’t be broadcasting until eight o’clock.”

They left it switched on, and Nat thought of the battery, wondered how much power was left in it. It was generally recharged when his wife went shopping in the town. If the battery failed, they would not hear the instructions.

“It’s getting light,” whispered his wife. “I can’t see it, but I can feel it. And the birds aren’t hammering so loud.”

She was right. The rasping, tearing sound grew fainter every moment. So did the shuffling, the jostling for place upon the step, upon the sills. The tide was on the turn. By eight there was no sound at all. Only the wind. The children, lulled at last by the stillness, fell asleep. At half past eight Nat switched the wireless off.

“What are you doing? We’ll miss the news,” said his wife.

“There isn’t going to be any news,” said Nat. “We’ve got to depend upon ourselves.”

He went to the door and slowly pulled away the barricades. He drew the bolts and, kicking the bodies from the step outside the door, breathed the cold air. He had six working hours before him, and he knew he must reserve his strength for the right things, not waste it in any way. Food and light and fuel; these were the necessary things. If he could get them in sufficiency, they could endure another night.

He stepped into the garden, and as he did so he saw the living birds. The gulls had gone to ride the sea, as they had done before; they sought sea food and the buoyancy of the tide, before they returned to the attack. Not so the land birds. They waited and watched. Nat saw them, on the hedgerows, on the soil, crowded in the trees, outside in the field, line upon line of birds, all still, doing nothing.

He went to the end of his small garden. The birds did not move. They went on watching him.

“I’ve got to get food,” said Nat to himself. “I’ve got to go to the farm to find food.”

He went back to the cottage. He saw to the windows and the doors. He went upstairs and opened the children’s bedroom. It was empty, except for the dead birds on the floor. The living were out there, in the garden, in the fields. He went downstairs.

“I’m going to the farm,” he said.

His wife clung to him. She had seen the living birds from the open door.

“Take us with you,” she begged. “We can’t stay here alone. I’d rather die than stay here alone.”

He considered the matter. He nodded.

“Come on, then,” he said. “Bring baskets, and Johnny’s pram. We can load up the pram.”

They dressed against the biting wind, wore gloves and scarves. His wife put Johnny in the pram. Nat took Jill’s hand.

“The birds,” she whimpered, “they’re all out there in the fields.”

“They won’t hurt us,” he said, “not in the light.”

They started walking across the field toward the stile, and the birds did not move. They waited, their heads turned to the wind.

When they reached the turning to the farm, Nat stopped and told his wife to wait in the shelter of the hedge with the two children.

“But I want to see Mrs. Trigg,” she protested. “There are lots of things we can borrow if they went to market yesterday; not only bread, and . . .”

“Wait here,” Nat interrupted. “I’ll be back in a moment.”

The cows were lowing, moving restlessly in the yard, and he could see a gap in the fence where the sheep had knocked their way through, to roam unchecked in the front garden before the farmhouse. No smoke came from the chimneys. He was filled with misgiving. He did not want his wife or the children to go down to the farm.

“Don’t gib now,” said Nat, harshly. “Do what I say.”

She withdrew with the pram into the hedge, screening herself and the children from the wind.

He went down alone to the farm. He pushed his way through the herd of bellowing cows, which turned this way and that, distressed, their udders full. He saw the car standing by the gate, not put away in the garage. The windows of the farmhouse were smashed. There were many dead gulls lying in the yard and around the house. The living birds perched on the group of trees behind the farm and on the roof of the house. They were quite still. They watched him.

Jim’s body lay in the yard . . . what was left of it. When the birds had finished, the cows had trampled him. His gun was beside him. The door of the house was shut and bolted, but, as the windows were smashed, it was easy to lift them and climb through. Trigg’s body was close to the telephone. He must have been trying to get through to the exchange when the birds came for him. The receiver was hanging loose, the instrument torn from the wall. No sign of Mrs. Trigg. She would be upstairs. Was it any use going up? Sickened, Nat knew what he would find.

“Thank God,” he said to himself, “there were no children.”

He forced himself to climb the stairs, but halfway he turned and descended again. He could see her legs protruding from the open bedroom door. Beside her were the bodies of the black-backed gulls and an umbrella, broken.

“It’s no use,” thought Nat, “doing anything. I’ve only got five hours, less than that. The Triggs would understand. I must load up with what I can find.”

He tramped back to his wife and children.

“I’m going to fill up the car with stuff,” he said. “I’ll put coal in it, and paraffin for the Primus. We’ll take it home and return for a fresh load.”

“What about the Triggs?” asked his wife.

“They must have gone to friends,” he said.

“Shall I come and help you, then?”

“No; there’s a mess down there. Cows and sheep all over the place. Wait, I’ll get the car. You can sit in it.”

Clumsily he backed the car out of the yard and into the lane. His wife and the children could not see Jim’s body from there.

“Stay here,” he said, “never mind the pram. The pram can be fetched later. I’m going to load the car.”

Her eyes watched his all the time. He believed she understood; otherwise she would have suggested helping him to find the bread and groceries.

They made three journeys altogether, backward and forward between their cottage and the farm, before he was satisfied they had everything they needed. It was surprising, once he started thinking, how many things were necessary. Almost the most important of all was planking for the windows. He had to go round searching for timber. He wanted to renew the boards on all the windows at the cottage. Candles, paraffin, nails, tinned stuff; the list was endless. Besides all that, he milked three of the cows. The rest, poor brutes, would have to go on bellowing.

On the final journey he drove the car to the bus stop, got out, and went to the telephone box. He waited a few minutes, jangling the receiver. No good though. The line was dead. He climbed onto a bank and looked over the countryside, but there was no sign of life at all, nothing in the fields but the waiting, watching birds. Some of them slept—he could see the beaks tucked into the feathers.

“You’d think they’d be feeding,” he said to himself, “not just standing in that way.”

Then he remembered. They were gorged with food. They had eaten their fill during the night. That was why they did not move this morning. . . .

No smoke came from the chimneys of the council houses. He thought of the children who had run across the fields the night before.

“I should have known,” he thought; “I ought to have taken them home with me.”

He lifted his face to the sky. It was colorless and gray. The bare trees on the landscape looked bent and blackened by the east wind. The cold did not affect the living birds waiting out there in the fields.

“This is the time they ought to get them,” said Nat; “they’re a sitting target now. They must be doing this all over the country. Why don’t our aircraft take off now and spray them with mustard gas? What are all our chaps doing? They must know; they must see for themselves.”

He went back to the car and got into the driver’s seat.

“Go quickly past that second gate,” whispered his wife. “The postman’s lying there. I don’t want Jill to see.”

He accelerated. The little Morris bumped and rattled along the lane. The children shrieked with laughter.

“Up-a-down, up-a-down,” shouted young Johnny.

It was a quarter to one by the time they reached the cottage. Only an hour to go.

“Better have cold dinner,” said Nat. “Hot up something for yourself and the children, some of that soup.

I’ve no time to eat now. I’ve got to unload all this stuff.”

He got everything inside the cottage. It could be sorted later. Give them all something to do during the long hours ahead. First he must see to the windows and the doors.

He went round the cottage methodically, testing every window, every door. He climbed onto the roof also, and fixed boards across every chimney except the kitchen. The cold was so intense he could hardly bear it, but the job had to be done. Now and again he would look up, searching the sky for aircraft. None came. As he worked he cursed the inefficiency of the authorities.

“It’s always the same,” he muttered. “They always let us down. Muddle, muddle, from the start. No plan, no real organization. And we don’t matter down here. That’s what it is. The people upcountry have priority. They’re using gas up there, no doubt, and all the aircraft. We’ve got to wait and take what comes.”

He paused, his work on the bedroom chimney finished, and looked out to sea. Something was moving out there. Something gray and white amongst the breakers.

“Good old Navy,” he said, “they never let us down. They’re coming down-channel; they’re turning in the bay.”

He waited, straining his eyes, watering in the wind, toward the sea. He was wrong, though. It was not ships. The Navy was not there. The gulls were rising from the sea. The massed flocks in the fields, with ruffled feathers, rose in formation from the ground and, wing to wing, soared upward to the sky.

The tide had turned again.

Nat climbed down the ladder and went inside the kitchen. The family were at dinner. It was a little after two. He bolted the door, put up the barricade, and lit the lamp.

“It’s nighttime,” said young Johnny.

His wife had switched on the wireless once again, but no sound came from it.

“I’ve been all round the dial,” she said, “foreign stations, and that lot. I can’t get anything.”

“Maybe they have the same trouble,” he said, “maybe it’s the same right through Europe.”

She poured out a plateful of the Triggs’ soup, cut him a large slice of the Triggs’ bread, and spread their dripping upon it.

They ate in silence. A piece of the dripping ran down young Johnny’s chin and fell onto the table.

“Manners, Johnny,” said Jill, “you should learn to wipe your mouth.”

The tapping began at the windows, at the door. The rustling, the jostling, the pushing for position on the sills. The first thud of the suicide gulls upon the step.

“Won’t America do something?” said his wife. “They’ve always been our allies, haven’t they? Surely America will do something?”

Nat did not answer. The boards were strong against the windows and on the chimneys too. The cottage was filled with stores, with fuel, with all they needed for the next few days. When he had finished dinner he would put the stuff away, stack it neatly, get everything shipshape, handy like. His wife could help him, and the children too. They’d tire themselves out, between now and a quarter to nine, when the tide would ebb; then he’d tuck them down on their mattresses, see that they slept good and sound until three in the morning.

He had a new scheme for the windows, which was to fix barbed wire in front of the boards. He had brought a great roll of it from the farm. The nuisance was, he’d have to work at this in the dark, when the lull came between nine and three. Pity he had not thought of it before. Still, as long as the wife slept, and the kids, that was the main thing.

The smaller birds were at the window now. He recognized the light tap-tapping of their beaks and the soft brush of their wings. The hawks ignored the windows. They concentrated their attack upon the door. Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood and wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.

“I’ll smoke that last cigarette,” he said to his wife. “Stupid of me—it was the one thing I forgot to bring back from the farm.”

He reached for it, switched on the silent wireless. He threw the empty packet on the fire and watched it burn.

 

 

-=End=-