The Birds
by Daphne du Maurier

His wife dressed his wounds. They were not deep. The backs of his hands had suffered most, and his wrists. Had he not worn a cap they would have reached his head. As to the gannet . . . the gannet could have split his skull.

The children were crying, of course. They had seen the blood on their father’s hands.

“It’s all right now,” he told them. “I’m not hurt. Just a few scratches. You play with Johnny, Jill. Mammy will wash these cuts.”

He half shut the door to the scullery so that they could not see. His wife was ashen. She began running water from the sink.

“I saw them overhead,” she whispered. “They began collecting just as Jill ran in with Mr. Trigg. I shut the door fast, and it jammed. That’s why I couldn’t open it at once when you came.”

“Thank God they waited for me,” he said. “Jill would have fallen at once. One bird alone would have done it.”

Furtively, so as not to alarm the children, they whispered together as she bandaged his hands and the back of his neck.

“They’re flying inland,” he said, “thousands of them. Rooks, crows, all the bigger birds. I saw them from the bus stop. They’re making for the towns.”

“But what can they do, Nat?”

“They’ll attack. Go for everyone out in the streets. Then they’ll try the windows, the chimneys.”

“Why don’t the authorities do something? Why don’t they get the Army, get machine guns, anything?"

“There’s been no time. Nobody’s prepared. We’ll hear what they have to say on the six o’clock news.”

Nat went back into the kitchen, followed by his wife. Johnny was playing quietly on the floor. Only Jill looked anxious.

“I can hear the birds,” she said. “Listen, Dad.”

Nat listened. Muffled sounds came from the windows, from the door. Wings brushing the surface, sliding, scraping, seeking a way of entry. The sound of many bodies, pressed together, shuffling on the sills. Now and again came a thud, a crash, as some bird dived and fell. “Some of them will kill themselves that way,” he thought, “but not enough. Never enough.”

“All right,” he said aloud. “I’ve got boards over the windows, Jill. The birds can’t get in.”

He went and examined all the windows. His work had been thorough. Every gap was closed. He would make extra certain, however. He found wedges, pieces of old tin, strips of wood and metal, and fastened them at the sides to reinforce the boards. His hammering helped to deafen the sound of the birds, the shuffling, the tapping, and more ominous—he did not want his wife or the children to hear it—the splinter of cracked glass.

“Turn on the wireless,” he said. “Let’s have the wireless.”

This would drown the sound also. He went upstairs to the bedrooms and reinforced the windows there. Now he could hear the birds on the roof, the scraping of claws, a sliding, jostling sound.

He decided they must sleep in the kitchen, keep up the fire, bring down the mattresses, and lay them out on the floor. He was afraid of the bedroom chimneys. The boards he had placed at the chimney bases might give way. In the kitchen they would be safe because of the fire. He would have to make a joke of it. Pretend to the children they were playing at camp. If the worst happened, and the birds forced an entry down the bedroom chimneys, it would be hours, days perhaps, before they could break down the doors. The birds would be imprisoned in the bedrooms. They could do no harm there. Crowded together, they would stifle and die.

He began to bring the mattresses downstairs. At the sight of them his wife’s eyes widened in apprehension. She thought the birds had already broken in upstairs.

“All right,” he said cheerfully, “we’ll all sleep together in the kitchen tonight. More cozy here by the fire. Then we shan’t be worried by those silly old birds tapping at the windows.”

He made the children help him rearrange the furniture, and he took the precaution of moving the dresser, with his wife’s help, across the window. It fitted well. It was an added safeguard. The mattresses could now be laid, one beside the other, against the wall where the dresser had stood.

“We’re safe enough now,” he thought. “We’re snug and tight, like an air-raid shelter. We can hold out. It’s just the food that worries me. Food, and coal for the fire. We’ve enough for two or three days, not more. By that time . . .”

No use thinking ahead as far as that. And they’d be giving directions on the wireless. People would be told what to do. And now, in the midst of many problems, he realized that it was dance music only, coming over the air. Not Children’s Hour, as it should have been. He glanced at the dial. Yes, they were on the Home Service all right. Dance records. He switched to the Light program. He knew the reason. The usual programs had been abandoned. This only happened at exceptional times. Elections and such. He tried to remember if it had happened in the war, during the heavy raids on London. But of course. The BBC10 was not stationed in London during the war. The programs were broadcast from other, temporary quarters. “We’re better off here,” he thought; “we’re better off here in the kitchen, with the windows and the doors boarded, than they are up in the towns. Thank God we’re not in the towns.”

At six o’clock the records ceased. The time signal was given. No matter if it scared the children, he must hear the news. There was a pause after the pips.11 Then the announcer spoke. His voice was solemn, grave. Quite different from midday.

“This is London,” he said. “A national emergency was proclaimed at four o’clock this afternoon. Measures are being taken to safeguard the lives and property of the population, but it must be understood that these are not easy to effect immediately, owing to the unforeseen and unparalleled nature of the present crisis. Every householder must take precautions to his own building, and where several people live together, as in flats and apartments, they must unite to do the utmost they can to prevent entry. It is absolutely imperative that every individual stay indoors tonight and that no one at all remain on the streets or roads or anywhere outdoors. The birds, in vast numbers, are attacking anyone on sight and have already begun an assault upon buildings; but these, with due care, should be impenetrable. The population is asked to remain calm and not to panic. Owing to the exceptional nature of the emergency, there will be no further transmission from any broadcasting station until 7 A.M. tomorrow.”

They played the national anthem. Nothing more happened. Nat switched off the set. He looked at his wife. She stared back at him

“What’s it mean?” said Jill. “What did the news say?”

“There won’t be any more programs tonight,” said Nat. “There’s been a breakdown at the BBC.”

“Is it the birds?” asked Jill. “Have the birds done it?”

“No,” said Nat, “it’s just that everyone’s very busy, and then of course they have to get rid of the birds, messing everything up, in the towns. Well, we can manage without the wireless for one evening.”

“I wish we had a gramophone,” said Jill; “that would be better than nothing.”

She had her face turned to the dresser backed against the windows. Try as they did to ignore it, they were all aware of the shuffling, the stabbing, the persistent beating and sweeping of wings.

“We’ll have supper early,” suggested Nat, “something for a treat. Ask Mammy. Toasted cheese, eh? Something we all like?”

He winked and nodded at his wife. He wanted the look of dread, of apprehension, to go from Jill’s face.

He helped with the supper, whistling, singing, making as much clatter as he could, and it seemed to him that the shuffling and the tapping were not so intense as they had been at first. Presently he went up to the bedrooms and listened, and he no longer heard the jostling for place upon the roof.

“They’ve got reasoning powers,” he thought; “they know it’s hard to break in here. They’ll try elsewhere. They won’t waste their time with us.”

Supper passed without incident, and then, when they were clearing away, they heard a new sound, droning, familiar, a sound they all knew and understood.

His wife looked up at him, her face alight. “It’s planes,” she said; “they’re sending out planes after the birds. That’s what I said they ought to do all along. That will get them. Isn’t that gunfire? Can’t you hear guns?”

It might be gunfire out at sea. Nat could not tell. Big naval guns might have an effect upon the gulls out at sea, but the gulls were inland now. The guns couldn’t shell the shore because of the population.

“It’s good, isn’t it,” said his wife, “to hear the planes?” And Jill, catching her enthusiasm, jumped up and down with Johnny. “The planes will get the birds. The planes will shoot them.”

Just then they heard a crash about two miles distant, followed by a second, then a third. The droning became more distant, passed away out to sea.

“What was that?” asked his wife. “Were they dropping bombs on the birds?”

“I don’t know,” answered Nat. “I don’t think so.”

He did not want to tell her that the sound they had heard was the crashing of aircraft. It was, he had no doubt, a venture on the part of the authorities to send out reconnaissance forces, but they might have known the venture was suicidal. What could aircraft do against birds that flung themselves to death against propeller and fuselage but hurtle to the ground themselves? This was being tried now, he supposed, over the whole country. And at a cost. Someone high up had lost his head.

“Where have the planes gone, Dad?” asked Jill.

“Back to base,” he said. “Come on, now, time to tuck down for bed.”

It kept his wife occupied, undressing the children before the fire, seeing to the bedding, one thing and another, while he went round the cottage again, making sure that nothing had worked loose. There was no further drone of aircraft, and the naval guns had ceased. “Waste of life and effort,” Nat said to himself. “We can’t destroy enough of them that way. Cost too heavy. There’s always gas. Maybe they’ll try spraying with gas, mustard gas. We’ll be warned first, of course, if they do. There’s one thing, the best brains of the country will be onto it tonight.”

Somehow the thought reassured him. He had a picture of scientists, naturalists, technicians, and all those chaps they called the back-room boys, summoned to a council; they’d be working on the problem now. This was not a job for the government, for the chiefs of staff—they would merely carry out the orders of the scientists.

“They’ll have to be ruthless,” he thought. “Where the trouble’s worst they’ll have to risk more lives if they use gas. All the livestock, too, and the soil—all contaminated. As long as everyone doesn’t panic. That’s the trouble. People panicking, losing their heads. The BBC was right to warn us of that.”

Upstairs in the bedrooms all was quiet. No further scraping and stabbing at the windows. A lull in battle. Forces regrouping. Wasn’t that what they called it in the old wartime bulletins? The wind hadn’t dropped, though. He could still hear it roaring in the chimneys. And the sea breaking down on the shore. Then he remembered the tide. The tide would be on the turn. Maybe the lull in battle was because of the tide. There was some law the birds obeyed, and it was all to do with the east wind and the tide.

He glanced at his watch. Nearly eight o’clock. It must have gone high water an hour ago. That explained the lull: The birds attacked with the flood tide. It might not work that way inland, upcountry, but it seemed as if it was so this way on the coast. He reckoned the time limit in his head. They had six hours to go without attack. When the tide turned again, around one-twenty in the morning, the birds would come back. . . .

There were two things he could do. The first to rest, with his wife and the children, and all of them snatch what sleep they could, until the small hours. The second to go out, see how they were faring at the farm, see if the telephone was still working there, so that they might get news from the exchange.

He called softly to his wife, who had just settled the children. She came halfway up the stairs and he whispered to her.

“You’re not to go,” she said at once, “you’re not to go and leave me alone with the children. I can’t stand it.”

Her voice rose hysterically. He hushed her, calmed her.

“All right,” he said, “all right. I’ll wait till morning. And we’ll get the wireless bulletin then too, at seven. But in the morning, when the tide ebbs again, I’ll try for the farm, and they may let us have bread and potatoes, and milk too.”

His mind was busy again, planning against emergency. They would not have milked, of course, this evening. The cows would be standing by the gate, waiting in the yard, with the household inside, battened behind boards, as they were here at the cottage. That is, if they had time to take precautions. He thought of the farmer, Trigg, smiling at him from the car. There would have been no shooting party, not tonight.

The children were asleep. His wife, still clothed, was sitting on her mattress. She watched him, her eyes nervous.

“What are you going to do?” she whispered.

He shook his head for silence. Softly, stealthily, he opened the back door and looked outside.

It was pitch dark. The wind was blowing harder than ever, coming in steady gusts, icy, from the sea. He kicked at the step outside the door. It was heaped with birds. There were dead birds everywhere. Under the windows, against the walls. These were the suicides, the divers, the ones with broken necks. Wherever he looked he saw dead birds. No trace of the living. The living had flown seaward with the turn of the tide. The gulls would be riding the seas now, as they had done in the forenoon.

In the far distance, on the hill where the tractor had been two days before, something was burning. One of the aircraft that had crashed; the fire, fanned by the wind, had set light to a stack.

He looked at the bodies of the birds, and he had a notion that if he heaped them, one upon the other, on the windowsills they would make added protection for the next attack. Not much, perhaps, but something. The bodies would have to be clawed at, pecked, and dragged aside before the living birds could gain purchase on the sills and attack the panes. He set to work in the darkness. It was queer; he hated touching them. The bodies were still warm and bloody. The blood matted their feathers. He felt his stomach turn, but he went on with his work. He noticed grimly that every windowpane was shattered. Only the boards had kept the birds from breaking in. He stuffed the cracked panes with the bleeding bodies of the birds.

When he had finished he went back into the cottage. He barricaded the kitchen door, made it doubly secure. He took off his bandages, sticky with the birds’ blood, not with his own cuts, and put on fresh plaster.

His wife had made him cocoa and he drank it thirstily. He was very tired.

“All right,” he said, smiling, “don’t worry. We’ll get through.”

He lay down on his mattress and closed his eyes. He slept at once. He dreamt uneasily, because through his dreams there ran a thread of something forgotten. Some piece of work, neglected, that he should have done. Some precaution that he had known well but had not taken, and he could not put a name to it in his dreams. It was connected in some way with the burning aircraft and the stack upon the hill. He went on sleeping, though; he did not awake. It was his wife shaking his shoulder that awoke him finally.

“They’ve begun,” she sobbed. “They’ve started this last hour. I can’t listen to it any longer alone. There’s something smelling bad too, something burning.”

Then he remembered. He had forgotten to make up the fire. It was smoldering, nearly out. He got up swiftly and lit the lamp. The hammering had started at the windows and the doors, but it was not that he minded now. It was the smell of singed feathers. The smell filled the kitchen. He knew at once what it was. The birds were coming down the chimney, squeezing their way down to the kitchen range.

He got sticks and paper and put them on the embers, then reached for the can of paraffin.

“Stand back,” he shouted to his wife. “We’ve got to risk this.”

He threw the paraffin onto the fire. The flame roared up the pipe, and down upon the fire fell the scorched, blackened bodies of the birds.

The children woke, crying. “What is it?” said Jill. “What’s happened?”

Nat had no time to answer. He was raking the bodies from the chimney, clawing them out onto the floor. The flames still roared, and the danger of the chimney catching fire was one he had to take. The flames would send away the living birds from the chimney top. The lower joint was the difficulty, though. This was choked with the smoldering, helpless bodies of the birds caught by fire. He scarcely heeded the attack on the windows and the door: Let them beat their wings, break their beaks, lose their lives in the attempt to force an entry into his home. They would not break in. He thanked God he had one of the old cottages, with small windows, stout walls. Not like the new council houses. Heaven help them up the lane in the new council houses.

“Stop crying,” he called to the children. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, stop crying.”

He went on raking at the burning, smoldering bodies as they fell into the fire.

“This’ll fetch them,” he said to himself, “the draft and the flames together. We’re all right, as long as the chimney doesn’t catch. I ought to be shot for this. It’s all my fault. Last thing, I should have made up the fire. I knew there was something.”