Long Story: “The Birds” By Daphne du Maurier.

The inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name, “The Birds” is a novelette by British writer Daphne du Maurier.
It was first published in du Maurier’s 1952 collection, “The Apple Tree”.

The Apple Tree

I have reproduced du Maurier’s original short story up on here for your pleasure with zero permission and here shall it remain until such time when I am sued for copyright infringement.

The Birds.
Daphne du Maurier.


On December the third, the wind changed overnight, and it was winter. Until then the autumn had been mellow, soft. The leaves had lingered on the trees, golden-red, and the hedgerows were still green. The earth was rich where the plow had turned it.

Nat Hocken, because of a wartime disability, had a pension and did not work full time at the farm. He worked three days a week, and they gave him the lighter jobs: hedging, thatching, repairs to the farm buildings.

Although he was married, with children, his was a solitary disposition; he liked best to work alone. It pleased him when he was given a bank to build up or a gate to mend at the far end of the peninsula, where the sea surrounded the farmland on either side. Then, at midday, he would pause and eat the pasty that his wife had baked for him and, sitting on the cliff’s edge, would watch the birds. Autumn was best for this, better than spring. In spring the birds flew inland, purposeful, intent; they knew where they were bound; the rhythm and ritual of their life brooked no delay. In autumn those that had not migrated overseas but remained to pass the winter were caught up in the same driving urge, but because migration was denied them, followed a pattern of their own. Great flocks of them came to the peninsula, restless, uneasy, spending themselves in motion; now wheeling, circling in the sky, now settling to feed on the rich, new-turned soil; but even when they fed, it was as though they did so without hunger, without desire. Restlessness drove them to the skies again.

Black and white, jackdaw and gull, mingled in strange partnership, seeking some sort of liberation, never satisfied, never still. Flocks of starlings, rustling like silk, flew to fresh pasture, driven by the same necessity of movement, and the smaller birds, the finches and the larks, scattered from tree to hedge as if compelled.

Nat watched them, and he watched the sea birds too. Down in the bay they waited for the tide. They had more patience. Oystercatchers, redshank, sanderling, and curlew watched by the water’s edge; as the slow sea sucked at the shore and then withdrew, leaving the strip of seaweed bare and the shingle churned, the sea birds raced and ran upon the beaches. Then that same impulse to flight seized upon them too. Crying, whistling, calling, they skimmed the placid sea and left the shore. Make haste, make speed, hurry and begone; yet where, and to what purpose? The restless urge of autumn, unsatisfying, sad, had put a spell upon them, and they must flock, and wheel, and cry; they must spill themselves of motion before winter came.

“Perhaps,” thought Nat, munching his pasty by the cliff’s edge, “a message comes to the birds in autumn, like a warning. Winter is coming. Many of them perish. And like people who, apprehensive of death before their time, drive themselves to work or folly, the birds do likewise.”

The birds had been more restless than ever this fall of the year, the agitation more marked because the days were still. As the tractor traced its path up and down the western hills, the figure of the farmer silhouetted on the driving seat, the whole machine and the man upon it, would be lost momentarily in the great cloud of wheeling, crying birds. There were many more than usual; Nat was sure of this. Always, in autumn, they followed the plow, but not in great flocks like these, nor with such clamor.

Nat remarked upon it when hedging was finished for the day. “Yes,” said the farmer, “there are more birds about than usual; I’ve noticed it too. And daring, some of them, taking no notice of the tractor. One or two gulls came so close to my head this afternoon I thought they’d knock my cap off! As it was, I could scarcely see what I was doing when they were overhead and I had the sun in my eyes. I have a notion the weather will change. It will be a hard winter. That’s why the birds are restless.”

Nat, tramping home across the fields and down the lane to his cottage, saw the birds still flocking over the western hills, in the last glow of the sun. No wind, and the gray sea calm and full. Campion in bloom yet in the hedges, and the air mild. The farmer was right, though, and it was that night the weather turned. Nat’s bedroom faced east. He woke just after two and heard the wind in the chimney. Not the storm and bluster of a sou’westerly gale, bringing the rain, but east wind, cold and dry. It sounded hollow in the chimney, and a loose slate rattled on the roof. Nat listened, and he could hear the sea roaring in the bay. Even the air in the small bedroom had turned chill: A draft came under the skirting of the door, blowing upon the bed. Nat drew the blanket round him, leaned closer to the back of his sleeping wife, and stayed wakeful, watchful, aware of misgiving without cause.

Then he heard the tapping on the window. There was no creeper on the cottage walls to break loose and scratch upon the pane. He listened, and the tapping continued until, irritated by the sound, Nat got out of bed and went to the window. He opened it, and as he did so something brushed his hand, jabbing at his knuckles, grazing the skin. Then he saw the flutter of the wings and it was gone, over the roof, behind the cottage.

It was a bird; what kind of bird he could not tell. The wind must have driven it to shelter on the sill.

He shut the window and went back to bed but, feeling his knuckles wet, put his mouth to the scratch. The bird had drawn blood. Frightened, he supposed, and bewildered, the bird, seeking shelter, had stabbed at him in the darkness. Once more he settled himself to sleep.

Presently the tapping came again, this time more forceful, more insistent, and now his wife woke at the sound and, turning in the bed, said to him, “See to the window, Nat, it’s rattling.”

“I’ve already seen to it,” he told her; “there’s some bird there trying to get in. Can’t you hear the wind? It’s blowing from the east, driving the birds to shelter.”

“Send them away,” she said, “I can’t sleep with that noise.”

He went to the window for the second time, and now when he opened it, there was not one bird upon the sill but half a dozen; they flew straight into his face, attacking him.

He shouted, striking out at them with his arms, scattering them; like the first one, they flew over the roof and disappeared. Quickly he let the window fall and latched it.

“Did you hear that?” he said. “They went for me. Tried to peck my eyes.” He stood by the window, peering into the darkness, and could see nothing. His wife, heavy with sleep, murmured from the bed.

“I’m not making it up,” he said, angry at her suggestion. “I tell you the birds were on the sill, trying to get into the room.”

Suddenly a frightened cry came from the room across the passage where the children slept.

“It’s Jill,” said his wife, roused at the sound, sitting up in bed. “Go to her, see what’s the matter.”

Nat lit the candle, but when he opened the bedroom door to cross the passage the draft blew out the flame.

There came a second cry of terror, this time from both children, and stumbling into their room, he felt the beating of wings about him in the darkness. The window was wide open. Through it came the birds, hitting first the ceiling and the walls, then swerving in midflight, turning to the children in their beds.

“It’s all right, I’m here,” shouted Nat, and the children flung themselves, screaming, upon him, while in the darkness the birds rose and dived and came for him again.

“What is it, Nat, what’s happened?” his wife called from the further bedroom, and swiftly he pushed the children through the door to the passage and shut it upon them, so that he was alone now in their bedroom with the birds.


He seized a blanket from the nearest bed and, using it as a weapon, flung it to right and left about him in the air. He felt the thud of bodies, heard the fluttering of wings, but they were not yet defeated, for again and again they returned to the assault, jabbing his hands, his head, the little stabbing beaks sharp as pointed forks. The blanket became a weapon of defense; he wound it about his head, and then in greater darkness beat at the birds with his bare hands. He dared not stumble to the door and open it, lest in doing so the birds should follow him.

How long he fought with them in the darkness he could not tell, but at last the beating of the wings about him lessened and then withdrew, and through the density of the blanket he was aware of light. He waited, listened; there was no sound except the fretful crying of one of the children from the bedroom beyond. The fluttering, the whirring of the wings had ceased.

He took the blanket from his head and stared about him. The cold gray morning light exposed the room. Dawn and the open window had called the living birds; the dead lay on the floor. Nat gazed at the little corpses, shocked and horrified. They were all small birds, none of any size; there must have been fifty of them lying there upon the floor. There were robins, finches, sparrows, blue tits, larks, and bramblings, birds that by nature’s law kept to their own flock and their own territory, and now, joining one with another in their urge for battle, had destroyed themselves against the bedroom walls or in the strife had been destroyed by him. Some had lost feathers in the fight; others had blood, his blood, upon their beaks.

Sickened, Nat went to the window and stared out across his patch of garden to the fields.

It was bitter cold, and the ground had all the hard, black look of frost. Not white frost, to shine in the morning sun, but the black frost that the east wind brings. The sea, fiercer now with the turning tide, white-capped and steep, broke harshly in the bay. Of the birds there was no sign. Not a sparrow chattered in the hedge beyond the garden gate, no early missel thrush or blackbird pecked on the grass for worms. There was no sound at all but the east wind and the sea.

Nat shut the window and the door of the small bedroom and went back across the passage to his own. His wife sat up in bed, one child asleep beside her, the smaller in her arms, his face bandaged. The curtains were tightly drawn across the window, the candles lit. Her face looked garish in the yellow light. She shook her head for silence.

“He’s sleeping now,” she whispered, “but only just. Something must have cut him, there was blood at the corner of his eyes. Jill said it was the birds. She said she woke up, and the birds were in the room.”

His wife looked up at Nat, searching his face for confirmation. She looked terrified, bewildered, and he did not want her to know that he was also shaken, dazed almost, by the events of the past few hours.

“There are birds in there,” he said, “dead birds, nearly fifty of them. Robins, wrens, all the little birds from hereabouts. It’s as though a madness seized them, with the east wind.” He sat down on the bed beside his wife and held her hand. “It’s the weather,” he said; “it must be that, it’s the hard weather. They aren’t the birds, maybe, from here around. They’ve been driven down from upcountry.”

“But, Nat,” whispered his wife, “it’s only this night that the weather turned. There’s been no snow to drive them. And they can’t be hungry yet. There’s food for them out there in the fields.”

“It’s the weather,” repeated Nat. “I tell you, it’s the weather.”

His face, too, was drawn and tired, like hers. They stared at one another for a while without speaking.

“I’ll go downstairs and make a cup of tea,” he said.

The sight of the kitchen reassured him. The cups and saucers, neatly stacked upon the dresser, the table and chairs, his wife’s roll of knitting on her basket chair, the children’s toys in a corner cupboard.

He knelt down, raked out the old embers, and relit the fire. The glowing sticks brought normality; the steaming kettle and the brown teapot, comfort and security. He drank his tea, carried a cup up to his wife. Then he washed in the scullery3 and, putting on his boots, opened the back door.

The sky was hard and leaden, and the brown hills that had gleamed in the sun the day before looked dark and bare. The east wind, like a razor, stripped the trees, and the leaves, crackling and dry, shivered and scattered with the wind’s blast. Nat stubbed the earth with his boot. It was frozen hard. He had never known a change so swift and sudden. Black winter had descended in a single night.

The children were awake now. Jill was chattering upstairs and young Johnny crying once again. Nat heard his wife’s voice, soothing, comforting. Presently they came down. He had breakfast ready for them, and the routine of the day began.

“Did you drive away the birds?” asked Jill, restored to calm because of the kitchen fire, because of day, because of breakfast.

“Yes, they’ve all gone now,” said Nat. “It was the east wind brought them in. They were frightened and lost; they wanted shelter.”

“They tried to peck us,” said Jill. “They went for Johnny’s eyes.”

“Fright made them do that,” said Nat. “They didn’t know where they were in the dark bedroom.”

“I hope they won’t come again,” said Jill. “Perhaps if we put bread for them outside the window they will eat that and fly away.”

She finished her breakfast and then went for her coat and hood, her schoolbooks, and her satchel. Nat said nothing, but his wife looked at him across the table. A silent message passed between them.

“I’ll walk with her to the bus,” he said. “I don’t go to the farm today.”

And while the child was washing in the scullery he said to his wife, “Keep all the windows closed, and the doors too. Just to be on the safe side. I’ll go to the farm. Find out if they heard anything in the night.” Then he walked with his small daughter up the lane. She seemed to have forgotten her experience of the night before. She danced ahead of him, chasing the leaves, her face whipped with the cold and rosy under the pixie hood.

“Is it going to snow, Dad?” she said. “It’s cold enough.”

He glanced up at the bleak sky, felt the wind tear at his shoulders.

“No,” he said, “it’s not going to snow. This is a black winter, not a white one.”

All the while he searched the hedgerows for the birds, glanced over the top of them to the fields beyond, looked to the small wood above the farm where the rooks and jackdaws gathered. He saw none.

The other children waited by the bus stop, muffled, hooded like Jill, the faces white and pinched with cold.

Jill ran to them, waving. “My dad says it won’t snow,” she called, “it’s going to be a black winter.”

She said nothing of the birds. She began to push and struggle with another little girl. The bus came ambling up the hill. Nat saw her onto it, then turned and walked back toward the farm. It was not his day for work, but he wanted to satisfy himself that all was well. Jim, the cowman, was clattering in the yard.

“Boss around?” asked Nat.

“Gone to market,” said Jim. “It’s Tuesday, isn’t it?”

He clumped off round the corner of a shed. He had no time for Nat. Nat was said to be superior. Read books and the like. Nat had forgotten it was Tuesday. This showed how the events of the preceding night had shaken him. He went to the back door of the farmhouse and heard Mrs. Trigg singing in the kitchen, the wireless making a background to her song.

“Are you there, missus?” called out Nat.

She came to the door, beaming, broad, a good-tempered woman.

“Hullo, Mr. Hocken,” she said. “Can you tell me where this cold is coming from? Is it Russia? I’ve never seen such a change. And it’s going on, the wireless says. Something to do with the Arctic Circle.”

“We didn’t turn on the wireless this morning,” said Nat. “Fact is, we had trouble in the night.”


“Kiddies poorly?”

“No . . .” He hardly knew how to explain it. Now, in daylight, the battle of the birds would sound absurd.

He tried to tell Mrs. Trigg what had happened, but he could see from her eyes that she thought his story was the result of a nightmare.

“Sure they were real birds,” she said, smiling, “with proper feathers and all? Not the funny-shaped kind that the men see after closing hours on a Saturday night?”

“Mrs. Trigg,” he said, “there are fifty dead birds, robins, wrens, and such, lying low on the floor of the children’s bedroom. They went for me; they tried to go for young Johnny’s eyes.”

Mrs. Trigg stared at him doubtfully.

“Well there, now,” she answered, “I suppose the weather brought them. Once in the bedroom, they wouldn’t know where they were to. Foreign birds maybe, from that Arctic Circle.”

“No,” said Nat, “they were the birds you see about here every day.

“Funny thing,” said Mrs. Trigg, “no explaining it, really. You ought to write up and ask the Guardian. They’d have some answer for it. Well, I must be getting on.”

She nodded, smiled, and went back into the kitchen.

Nat, dissatisfied, turned to the farm gate. Had it not been for those corpses on the bedroom floor, which he must now collect and bury somewhere, he would have considered the tale exaggeration too.

Jim was standing by the gate.

“Had any trouble with the birds?” asked Nat.

“Birds? What birds?”

“We got them up our place last night. Scores of them, came in the children’s bedroom. Quite savage they were.”

“Oh?” It took time for anything to penetrate Jim’s head. “Never heard of birds acting savage,” he said at length. “They get tame, like, sometimes. I’ve seen them come to the windows for crumbs.”

“These birds last night weren’t tame.”

“No? Cold, maybe. Hungry. You put out some crumbs.”

Jim was no more interested than Mrs. Trigg had been. It was, Nat thought, like air raids in the war. No one down this end of the country knew what the Plymouth folk had seen and suffered. You had to endure something yourself before it touched you. He walked back along the lane and crossed the stile5 to his cottage. He found his wife in the kitchen with young Johnny.

“See anyone?” she asked.

“Mrs. Trigg and Jim,” he answered. “I don’t think they believed me. Anyway, nothing wrong up there.”

“You might take the birds away,” she said. “I daren’t go into the room to make the beds until you do. I’m scared.”

“Nothing to scare you now,” said Nat. “They’re dead, aren’t they?”

He went up with a sack and dropped the stiff bodies into it, one by one. Yes, there were fifty of them, all told. Just the ordinary, common birds of the hedgerow, nothing as large even as a thrush. It must have been fright that made them act the way they did. Blue tits, wrens—it was incredible to think of the power of their small beaks jabbing at his face and hands the night before. He took the sack out into the garden and was faced now with a fresh problem. The ground was too hard to dig. It was frozen solid, yet no snow had fallen, nothing had happened in the past hours but the coming of the east wind. It was unnatural, queer. The weather prophets must be right. The change was something connected with the Arctic Circle.

The wind seemed to cut him to the bone as he stood there uncertainly, holding the sack. He could see the white-capped seas breaking down under in the bay. He decided to take the birds to the shore and bury them.

When he reached the beach below the headland he could scarcely stand, the force of the east wind was so strong. It hurt to draw breath, and his bare hands were blue. Never had he known such cold, not in all the bad winters he could remember. It was low tide. He crunched his way over the shingle to the softer sand and then, his back to the wind, ground a pit in the sand with his heel. He meant to drop the birds into it, but as he opened up the sack the force of the wind carried them, lifted them, as though in flight again, and they were blown away from him along the beach, tossed like feathers, spread and scattered, the bodies of the fifty frozen birds. There was something ugly in the sight. He did not like it. The dead birds were swept away from him by the wind.

“The tide will take them when it turns,” he said to himself.

He looked out to sea and watched the crested breakers, combing green. They rose stiffly, curled, and broke again, and because it was ebb tide the roar was distant, more remote, lacking the sound and thunder of the flood.

Then he saw them. The gulls. Out there, riding the seas.

What he had thought at first to be the white caps of the waves were gulls. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands . . . They rose and fell in the trough of the seas, heads to the wind, like a mighty fleet at anchor, waiting on the tide. To eastward and to the west, the gulls were there. They stretched as far as his eye could reach, in close formation, line upon line. Had the sea been still, they would have covered the bay like a white cloud, head to head, body packed to body. Only the east wind, whipping the sea to breakers, hid them from the shore.

Nat turned and, leaving the beach, climbed the steep path home. Someone should know of this. Someone should be told. Something was happening, because of the east wind and the weather, that he did not understand. He wondered if he should go to the call box by the bus stop and ring up the police. Yet what could they do? What could anyone do? Tens of thousands of gulls riding the sea there in the bay because of storm, because of hunger. The police would think him mad, or drunk, or take the statement from him with great calm. “Thank you. Yes, the matter has already been reported. The hard weather is driving the birds inland in great numbers.” Nat looked about him. Still no sign of any other bird. Perhaps the cold had sent them all from upcountry? As he drew near to the cottage his wife came to meet him at the door. She called to him, excited. “Nat,” she said, “it’s on the wireless. They’ve just read out a special news bulletin. I’ve written it down.”

“What’s on the wireless?” he said.


“About the birds,” she said. “It’s not only here; it’s everywhere. In London, all over the country. Something has happened to the birds.”

Together they went into the kitchen. He read the piece of paper lying on the table.

“Statement from the Home Office at 11 A.M. today. Reports from all over the country are coming in hourly about the vast quantity of birds flocking above towns, villages, and outlying districts, causing obstruction and damage and even attacking individuals. It is thought that the Arctic airstream, at present covering the British Isles, is causing birds to migrate south in immense numbers and that intense hunger may drive these birds to attack human beings. Householders are warned to see to their windows, doors, and chimneys, and to take reasonable precautions for the safety of their children. A further statement will be issued later.”

A kind of excitement seized Nat; he looked at his wife in triumph.

“There you are,” he said. “Let’s hope they’ll hear that at the farm. Mrs. Trigg will know it wasn’t any story. It’s true. All over the country. I’ve been telling myself all morning there’s something wrong. And just now, down on the beach, I looked out to sea and there are gulls, thousands of them, tens of thousands—you couldn’t put a pin between their heads—and they’re all out there, riding on the sea, waiting.”

“What are they waiting for, Nat?” she asked.

He stared at her, then looked down again at the piece of paper.

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “It says here the birds are hungry.”

He went over to the drawer where he kept his hammer and tools.

“What are you going to do, Nat?”

“See to the windows and the chimneys too, like they tell you.”

“You think they would break in, with the windows shut? Those sparrows and robins and such? Why, how could they?”

He did not answer. He was not thinking of the robins and the sparrows. He was thinking of the gulls. . . .

He went upstairs and worked there the rest of the morning, boarding the windows of the bedrooms, filling up the chimney bases. Good that it was his free day and he was not working at the farm. It reminded him of the old days, at the beginning of the war. He was not married then, and he had made all the blackout boards for his mother’s house in Plymouth. Made the shelter too. Not that it had been of any use when the moment came. He wondered if they would take these precautions up at the farm. He doubted it. Too easygoing, Harry Trigg and his missus. Maybe they’d laugh at the whole thing. Go off to a dance or a whist drive.

“Dinner’s ready.” She called him, from the kitchen.

“All right. Coming down.”

He was pleased with his handiwork. The frames fitted nicely over the little panes and at the bases of the chimneys.

When dinner was over and his wife was washing up, Nat switched on the one o’clock news. The same announcement was repeated, the one which she had taken down during the morning, but the news bulletin enlarged upon it. “The flocks of birds have caused dislocation in all areas,” read the announcer, “and in London the sky was so dense at ten o’clock this morning that it seemed as if the city was covered by a vast black cloud.

“The birds settled on rooftops, on window ledges, and on chimneys. The species included blackbird, thrush, the common house sparrow, and, as might be expected in the metropolis, a vast quantity of pigeons and starlings and that frequenter of the London river, the black-headed gull. The sight has been so unusual that traffic came to a standstill in many thoroughfares, work was abandoned in shops and offices, and the streets and pavements were crowded with people standing about to watch the birds.”

Various incidents were recounted, the suspected reason of cold and hunger stated again, and warnings to householders repeated. The announcer’s voice was smooth and suave. Nat had the impression that this man, in particular, treated the whole business as he would an elaborate joke. There would be others like him, hundreds of them, who did not know what it was to struggle in darkness with a flock of birds. There would be parties tonight in London, like the ones they gave on election nights. People standing about, shouting and laughing, getting drunk. “Come and watch the birds!”

Nat switched off the wireless. He got up and started work on the kitchen windows. His wife watched him, young Johnny at her heels.

“What, boards for down here too?” she said. “Why, I’ll have to light up before three o’clock. I see no call for boards down here.”

“Better be sure than sorry,” answered Nat. “I’m not going to take any chances.”

“What they ought to do,” she said, “is to call the Army out and shoot the birds. That would soon scare them off.”

“Let them try,” said Nat. “How’d they set about it?”

“They have the Army to the docks,” she answered, “when the dockers strike. The soldiers go down and unload the ships.”

“Yes,” said Nat, “and the population of London is eight million or more. Think of all the buildings, all the flats and houses. Do you think they’ve enough soldiers to go around shooting birds from every roof?”

“I don’t know. But something should be done. They ought to do something.”

Nat thought to himself that “they” were no doubt considering the problem at that very moment, but whatever “they” decided to do in London and the big cities would not help the people here, three hundred miles away. Each householder must look after his own.

“How are we off for food?” he said.

“Now, Nat, whatever next?”

“Never mind. What have you got in the larder?”

“It’s shopping day tomorrow, you know that. I don’t keep uncooked food hanging about; it goes off. Butcher doesn’t call till the day after. But I can bring back something when I go in tomorrow.”

Nat did not want to scare her. He thought it possible that she might not go to town tomorrow. He looked in the larder for himself and in the cupboard where she kept her tins. They would do for a couple of days. Bread was low.

“What about the baker?”

“He comes tomorrow too.”

He saw she had flour. If the baker did not call she had enough to bake one loaf.

“We’d be better off in the old days,” he said, “when the women baked twice a week, and had pilchards7 salted, and there was food for a family to last a siege, if need be.”

“I’ve tried the children with tinned fish; they don’t like it,” she said.

Nat went on hammering the boards across the kitchen windows. Candles. They were low in candles too. That must be another thing she meant to buy tomorrow. Well, it could not be helped. They must go early to bed tonight. That was, if . . .

He got up and went out of the back door and stood in the garden, looking down toward the sea. There had been no sun all day, and now, at barely three o’clock, a kind of darkness had already come, the sky sullen, heavy, colorless like salt. He could hear the vicious sea drumming on the rocks. He walked down the path, halfway to the beach. And then he stopped. He could see the tide had turned. The rock that had shown in midmorning was now covered, but it was not the sea that held his eyes. The gulls had risen. They were circling, hundreds of them, thousands of them, lifting their wings against the wind. It was the gulls that made the darkening of the sky. And they were silent. They made not a sound. They just went on soaring and circling, rising, falling, trying their strength against the wind.


Nat turned. He ran up the path, back to the cottage.

“I’m going for Jill,” he said. “I’ll wait for her at the bus stop.”

“What’s the matter?” asked his wife. “You’ve gone quite white.”

“Keep Johnny inside,” he said. “Keep the door shut. Light up now, and draw the curtains.”

“It’s only just gone three,” she said.

“Never mind. Do what I tell you.”

He looked inside the toolshed outside the back door. Nothing there of much use. A spade was too heavy, and a fork no good. He took the hoe. It was the only possible tool, and light enough to carry.

He started walking up the lane to the bus stop and now and again glanced back over his shoulder.

The gulls had risen higher now; their circles were broader, wider; they were spreading out in huge formation across the sky.

He hurried on; although he knew the bus would not come to the top of the hill before four o’clock, he had to hurry. He passed no one on the way. He was glad of this. No time to stop and chatter.

At the top of the hill he waited. He was much too soon. There was half an hour still to go. The east wind came whipping across the fields from the higher ground. He stamped his feet and blew upon his hands. In the distance he could see the clay hills, white and clean, against the heavy pallor of the sky. Something black rose from behind them, like a smudge at first, then widening, becoming deeper, and the smudge became a cloud, and the cloud divided again into five other clouds, spreading north, east, south, and west, and they were not clouds at all; they were birds. He watched them travel across the sky, and as one section passed overhead, within two or three hundred feet of him, he knew, from their speed, they were bound inland, upcountry; they had no business with the people here on the peninsula. They were rooks, crows, jackdaws, magpies, jays, all birds that usually preyed upon the smaller species; but this afternoon they were bound on some other mission.

“They’ve been given the towns,” thought Nat; “they know what they have to do. We don’t matter so much here. The gulls will serve for us. The others go to the towns.”

He went to the call box, stepped inside, and lifted the receiver. The exchange would do. They would pass the message on.

“I’m speaking from the highway,” he said, “by the bus stop. I want to report large formations of birds traveling upcountry. The gulls are also forming in the bay.”

“All right,” answered the voice, laconic, weary.

“You’ll be sure and pass this message on to the proper quarter?”

“Yes . . . yes . . .” Impatient now, fed up. The buzzing note resumed.

“She’s another,” thought Nat, “she doesn’t care. Maybe she’s had to answer calls all day. She hopes to go to the pictures tonight. She’ll squeeze some fellow’s hand and point up at the sky and say ‘Look at all them birds!’ She doesn’t care.”

The bus came lumbering up the hill. Jill climbed out, and three or four other children. The bus went on toward the town.

“What’s the hoe for, Dad?”

They crowded around him, laughing, pointing.

“I just brought it along,” he said. “Come on now, let’s get home. It’s cold, no hanging about. Here, you. I’ll watch you across the fields, see how fast you can run.”

He was speaking to Jill’s companions, who came from different families, living in the council houses. A shortcut would take them to the cottages.

“We want to play a bit in the lane,” said one of them.

“No, you don’t. You go off home or I’ll tell your mammy.”

They whispered to one another, round-eyed, then scuttled off across the fields. Jill stared at her father, her mouth sullen.

“We always play in the lane,” she said.

“Not tonight, you don’t,” he said. “Come on now, no dawdling.”

He could see the gulls now, circling the fields, coming in toward the land. Still silent. Still no sound.

“Look, Dad, look over there, look at all the gulls.”

“Yes. Hurry, now.”

“Where are they flying to? Where are they going?”

“Upcountry, I dare say. Where it’s warmer.”

He seized her hand and dragged her after him along the lane.

“Don’t go so fast. I can’t keep up.”

The gulls were copying the rooks and crows. They were spreading out in formation across the sky. They headed, in bands of thousands, to the four compass points.

“Dad, what is it? What are the gulls doing?”

They were not intent upon their flight, as the crows, as the jackdaws had been. They still circled overhead. Nor did they fly so high. It was as though they waited upon some signal. As though some decision had yet to be given. The order was not clear.

“Do you want me to carry you, Jill? Here, come pick-a-back.”

This way he might put on speed; but he was wrong. Jill was heavy. She kept slipping. And she was crying too. His sense of urgency, of fear, had communicated itself to the child.

“I wish the gulls would go away. I don’t like them. They’re coming closer to the lane.”

He put her down again. He started running, swinging Jill after him. As they went past the farm turning, he saw the farmer backing his car out of the garage. Nat called to him.

“Can you give us a lift?” he said.

“What’s that?”

Mr. Trigg turned in the driving seat and stared at them. Then a smile came to his cheerful, rubicund face.

“It looks as though we’re in for some fun,” he said. “Have you seen the gulls? Jim and I are going to take a crack at them. Everyone’s gone bird crazy, talking of nothing else. I hear you were troubled in the night. Want a gun?”

Nat shook his head.

The small car was packed. There was just room for Jill, if she crouched on top of petrol tins on the back seat.

“I don’t want a gun,” said Nat, “but I’d be obliged if you’d run Jill home. She’s scared of the birds.”


He spoke briefly. He did not want to talk in front of Jill.

“OK,” said the farmer, “I’ll take her home. Why don’t you stop behind and join the shooting match? We’ll make the feathers fly.”

Jill climbed in, and turning the car, the driver sped up the lane. Nat followed after. Trigg must be crazy. What use was a gun against a sky of birds?

Now Nat was not responsible for Jill, he had time to look about him. The birds were circling still above the fields. Mostly herring gull, but the black-backed gull amongst them. Usually they kept apart. Now they were united. Some bond had brought them together. It was the black-backed gull that attacked the smaller birds, and even newborn lambs, so he’d heard. He’d never seen it done. He remembered this now, though, looking above him in the sky. They were coming in toward the farm. They were circling lower in the sky, and the black-backed gulls were to the front, the black-backed gulls were leading. The farm, then, was their target. They were making for the farm.

Nat increased his pace toward his own cottage. He saw the farmer’s car turn and come back along the lane. It drew up beside him with a jerk.

“The kid has run inside,” said the farmer. “Your wife was watching for her. Well, what do you make of it? They’re saying in town the Russians have done it. The Russians have poisoned the birds.”

“How could they do that?” asked Nat.

“Don’t ask me. You know how stories get around. Will you join my shooting match?”

“No, I’ll get along home. The wife will be worried else.”

“My missus says if you could eat gull there’d be some sense in it,” said Trigg. “We’d have roast gull, baked gull, and pickle ’em into the bargain. You wait until I let off a few barrels into the brutes. That’ll scare ’em.”

“Have you boarded your windows?” asked Nat.

“No. Lot of nonsense. They like to scare you on the wireless. I’ve had more to do today than to go round boarding up my windows.”

“I’d board them now, if I were you.”

“Garn. You’re windy. Like to come to our place to sleep?”

“No, thanks all the same.”

“All right. See you in the morning. Give you a gull breakfast.”

The farmer grinned and turned his car to the farm entrance.

Nat hurried on. Past the little wood, past the old barn, and then across the stile to the remaining field.

As he jumped the stile he heard the whir of wings. A black-backed gull dived down at him from the sky, missed, swerved in flight, and rose to dive again. In a moment it was joined by others, six, seven, a dozen, black-backed and herring mixed. Nat dropped his hoe. The hoe was useless. Covering his head with his arms, he ran toward the cottage. They kept coming at him from the air, silent save for the beating wings. The terrible, fluttering wings. He could feel the blood on his hands, his wrists, his neck. Each stab of a swooping beak tore his flesh. If only he could keep them from his eyes. Nothing else mattered. He must keep them from his eyes. They had not learned yet how to cling to a shoulder, how to rip clothing, how to dive in mass upon the head, upon the body. But with each dive, with each attack, they became bolder. And they had no thought for themselves. When they dived low and missed, they crashed, bruised and broken, on the ground. As Nat ran he stumbled, kicking their spent bodies in front of him.

He found the door; he hammered upon it with his bleeding hands. Because of the boarded windows no light shone. Everything was dark.

“Let me in,” he shouted, “it’s Nat. Let me in.”

He shouted loud to make himself heard above the whir of the gulls’ wings.

Then he saw the gannet, poised for the dive, above him in the sky. The gulls circled, retired, soared, one after another, against the wind. Only the gannet remained. One single gannet above him in the sky. The wings folded suddenly to its body. It dropped like a stone. Nat screamed, and the door opened. He stumbled across the threshold, and his wife threw her weight against the door.

They heard the thud of the gannet as it fell.

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.”

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.

PAGE 10:

“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.”

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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.

You May Also Be Interested In…
* “The Fly” By George Langelaan
* A Mortician With Time To Kill

“The Scottish Hippo” By Alasdair Gray.

Seemingly inspired by “The Hippopotamus” by T.S. Elliot, here is Alasdair Gray‘s poem, “The Scottish Hippo”, and it’s beautiful accompanying illustrations…








The Scottish Hippo by Alasdair Gray

The muckle hippopotamus
spelders in glaur apo’ his kite.
A solid fact he seems tae some.
They arena right.

The hippo’s coorse digestive tract
erodes through frequent emptying.
The KIRK’s the only solid fact
that winna ding.

In gaitherin o’ warldly gear
the hippo often gangs agley.
The KIRK can hunker on her rear
and draw her pay.

The apples hippo gapes tae pree
are oot the reach o’ sic a brute.
The KIRK’s refreshed frae yont the sea
wi’ juicy fruit.

A hippo, fashed by fleshy thorn,
ejaculates in congress grubby.
The KIRK bel-cantos nicht and morn,
GOD is her hubby.

When cloud o’ mirk obscures creation
the hippo wakes tae hunt its meat.
The KIRK’s suspendit animation
can sleep and eat.

Behold the hippopotamus arise,
clap his broad wings and, soaring,
claim the skies!
Angles sing him in,
saints bring him in
to paradise!

In pure flood
of lamb’s blood
he’s laundered neat.
To gold harp
in f-sharp
he warbles sweet.

Clean o’ stain
amang his ain
each martyred virgin is his jo.
The auld KIRK
in the auld mirk
foozles below.

You May Also Be Interested In…
* Al Cook’s “Necropolis”
* The Glasgow Alphabet By Rosemary Cunningham
* John R. Neill Artwork: “The Sea Fairies” (PART I) & (PART II)

“The Fly” By George Langelann.

Filmed as “The Fly”, I have been trying and failing to track down George Langelann‘s original short story for some time now. I finally managed to find it yesterday and I’m happy to report that it is as wonderful and unsettling as I always imagined.

“The Fly” was published in the June, 1957 issue of Playboy magazine. It was first filmed in 1958, and then again in 1986. An opera of the “The Fly” by Howard Shore premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, in 2008.

I have reproduced Langelann’s original short story up on here  for your pleasure with zero permission and here shall it remain until such time when I am sued for copyright infringement.

“The Fly”.
By George Langelann.


TELEPHONES AND telephone bells have always made me uneasy. Years ago, when they were mostly wall fixtures, I disliked them, but nowadays, when they are planted in every nook and corner, they are a downright intrusion. We have a saying in France that a coalman is master in his own house; with the telephone that is no
longer true, and I suspect that even the Englishman is no longer king in his own castle.

At the office, the sudden ringing of the telephone annoys me. It means that, no matter what I am doing, in spite of the switchboard operator, in spite of my secretary, in spite of doors and walls, some unknown person is coming into the room and onto my desk to talk right into my very ear, confidentially – whether I like it or not. At home, the feeling is still more disagreeable, but the worst is when the telephone rings in the dead of night. If anyone could see me turn on the light and get up blinking to answer it, I suppose I would look like any other sleepy man annoyed at being disturbed. The truth in such a case, however, is that I am struggling against panic, fighting down a feeling that a stranger has broken into the house and is in my bedroom. By the time I manage to grab the receiver and say:”Ici Monsieur Delarnbre. Je vous ecoute,” Iam outwardly calm, but I only get back to a more normal state when I recognize the voice at the other end and when I know what is wanted of me.

This effort at dominating a purely animal reaction and fear had become so effective that when my sister-in-law called me at two in the morning, asking me to come over, but first to warn the police that she had just killed my brother, I quietly asked her how and why she had killed Andre.

“But, Francois! I can’t explain all that over the telephone. Please call the police and come quickly.”

“Maybe I had better see you first, Helene?”

“No, you’d better call the police first; otherwise they will start asking you all sorts of awkward questions. They’ll have enough trouble as it is to believe that I did it alone… And, by the way, I suppose you ought to tell them that Andre … Andre’s body, is down at the factory. They may want to go there first.”

“Did you say that Andre is at the factory?”

“Yes … under the steam-hammer.”

“Under the what!”

“The steam-hammer! But don’t ask so many questions. Please come quickly
Francois! Please understand that I’m afraid … that my nerves won’t stand it much longer!”

Have you ever tried to explain to a sleepy police officer that your sister-in-law has just phoned to say that she has killed your brother with a steam-hammer? I repeated my explanation, but he would not let me.

“Oui, monsieur, oui,I bear … but who are you? What is your name? Where do you live? I said, where do you live!”

It was then that Commissaire Charas took over the line and the whole business. He at least seemed to understand everything. Would I wait for him? Yes, he would pick me up and take me over to my brother’s house. When? In five or ten minutes.

I had just managed to pull on my trousers, wriggle into a sweater and grab a hat and coat, when a black Citroen, headlights blazing, pulled up at the door.

“I assume you have a night watchman at your factory, Monsieur Delarnbre. Has he called you?” asked Commissaire Charas, letting in the clutch as I sat down beside him and slammed the door of the car.

“No, he hasn’t. Though of course my brother could have entered the factory through his laboratory where he often works late at night … all night sometimes.”

“Is Professor Delambre’s work connected with your business?”

“No, my brother is, or was, doing research work for the Ministere de l’Air. As hewanted to be away from Paris and yet within reach of where skilled workmen could fix up or make gadgets big and small for his experiments, I offered him one of the old workshops of the factory and he came to live in the first house built by our grandfather on the top of the hill at the back of the factory.”

“Yes, I see. Did he talk about his work? What sort of research work?”

“He rarely talked about it, you know; I suppose the Air Ministry could tell you. I only know that be was about to carry out a number of experiments he had been preparing for some months, something to do with the disintegration of matter, he told me.”

Barely slowing down, the Commissaire swung the car off the road, slid it through the open factory gate and pulled up sharp by a policeman apparently expecting him.

I did not need to hear the policeman’s confirmation. I knew now that my brother was dead, it seemed that I had been told years ago. Shaking like a leaf, I scrambled out after the Commissaire.

Another policeman stepped out of a doorway and led us towards one of the shops where all the lights had been turned on. More policemen were standing by the hammer, watching two men setting up a camera. It was tilted downwards, and I made an effort to look.

It was far less horrid than I had expected. Though I had never seen my brother drunk, he looked just as if he were sleeping off a terrific binge, flat on his stomach across the narrow line on which the white-hot slabs of metal were rolled up to the hammer. I saw at a glance that his head and arm could only be a flattened mess, but that seemed quite impossible; it looked as if he had somehow pushed his head and arms right into the metallic mass of the hammer.

Having talked to his colleagues, the Commissaire turned towards me:

“How can we raise the hammer, Monsieur Delambre?”

“I’ll raise it for you.”

“Would you like us to get one of your men over?”

“No, I’ll be all right. Look, here is the switchboard. It was originally a steam-hammer,but everything is worked electrically here now. Look, Commissaire, the hammer has been set at fifty tons and its impact at zero.”

“At zero…?”

“Yes, level with the ground if you prefer. It is also set for single strokes, which means that it has to be raised after each blow. I don’t know what Helene, my sister-in-law, will have to say about all this, but one thing I am sure of: she certainly did not know how to set and operate the hammer.”

“Perhaps it was set that way last night when work stopped?”

“Certainly not. The drop is never set at zero, Monsieur le Commissaire.”

“I see. Can it be raised gently?”

“No. The speed of the upstroke cannot be regulated. But in any case it is not very fast when the hammer is set for single strokes.”

“Right. Will you show me what to do? It won’t be very nice to watch, you know.”

“No, no, Monsieur le Commissaire. I’ll be all right.”

“All set?” asked the Commissaire of the others. “All right then, Monsieur Delambre. Whenever you like.”

Watching my brother’s back, I slowly but firmly pushed the upstroke button.

The unusual silence of the factory was broken by the sigh of compressed air rushing into the cylinders, a sigh that always makes me think of a giant taking a deep breath before solemnly socking another giant, and the steel mass of the hammer shuddered and then rose swiftly. I also heard the sucking sound as it left the metal base and thought I was going to panic when I saw Andre’s body heave forward as a sickly
gush of blood poured all over the ghastly mess bared by the hammer.

“No danger of it coming down again, Monsieur Delambre?”

“No, none whatever,” I mumbled as I threw the safety switch and, turning around, I was violently sick in front of a young green-faced policeman.


For weeks after, Commissaire Charas worked on the case, listening, questioning, running all over the place, making out reports, telegraphing and telephoning right and left. Later, we became quite friendly and he owned that he had for a long time considered me as suspect number one, but had finally given up that idea because,
not only was there no clue of any sort, but not even a motive.

Helene, my sister-in-law, was so calm throughout the whole business that the doctors finally confirmed what I had long considered the only possible solution: that she was mad. That being the case, there was of course no trial.

My brother’s wife never tried to defend herself in any way and even got quite annoyed when she realized that people thought her mad, and this of course was considered proof that she was indeed mad. She owned up to the murder of her husband and proved easily that she knew how to handle the hammer; but she would never say why, exactly how, or under what circumstances she had killed my brother. The great mystery was how and why had my brother so obligingly stuck his head under the hammer, the only possible explanation for his part in the drama.

The night watchman had heard the hammer all right; he had even heard it twice, he claimed. This was very strange, and the stroke-counter which was always set back to naught after a job, seemed to prove him right, since it marked the figure two. Also, the foreman in charge of the hammer confirmed that after cleaning up the day before the murder, he had as usual turned the stroke-counter back to naught. In spite of
this, Helene maintained that she had only used the hammer once, and this seemed just another proof of her insanity.

Commissaire Charas, who had been put in charge of the case, at first wondered if the victim were really my brother. But of that there was no possible doubt, if only because of the great scar running from his knee to his thigh, the result of a shell that had landed within a few feet of him during the retreat in 1940; and there were also the fingerprints of his left hand which corresponded to those found all over his laboratory and his personal belongings up at the house.

A guard had been put on his laboratory and the next day half-a-dozen officials came down from the Air Ministry. They went through all his papers and took away some of his instruments, but before leaving, they told the Commissaire that the most interesting documents and instruments had been destroyed.

The Lyons police laboratory, one of the most famous in the world, reported that Andre’s head had been wrapped up in a piece of velvet when it was crushed by the hammer, and one day Commissaire Charas showed me a tattered drapery which I immediately recognized as the brown velvet cloth I had seen on a table in my brother’s laboratory, the one on which his meals were served when he could not
leave his work.

After only a very few days in prison, Helene had been transferred to a nearby asylum, one of the three in France where insane criminals are taken care of. My nephew Henri, a boy of six, the very image of his father, was entrusted to me, and eventually all legal arrangements were made for me to become his guardian and tutor.

Helene, one of the quietest patients of the asylum, was allowed visitors and I went to see her on Sundays. Once or twice the Commissaire had accompanied me and, later, I learned that he had also visited Helene alone. But we were never able to obtain any
information from my sister-in-law, who seemed to have become utterly indifferent. She rarely answered my questions and hardly ever those of the Commissaire. She spent a lot of her time sewing, but her favorite pastime seemed to be catching flies, which she invariably released unharmed after having examined them carefully.

Helene only had one fit of raving – more like a nervous breakdown than a fit, said the doctor who had administered morphia to quieten her – the day she saw a nurse swatting flies.

The day after Helene’s one and only fit, Commissaire Charas came to see me.

“I have a strange feeling that there lies the key to the whole business, Monsieur Delambre,” he said.

I did not ask him how it was that he already knew all about Helene’s fit.

“I do not follow you, Commissaire. Poor Madame Delambre could have shown an exceptional interest for anything else, really. Don’t you think that flies just happen to be the border-subject of her tendency to raving?”

“Do you believe she is really mad?” be asked.

“My dear Commissaire, I don’t see how there can be any doubt. Do you doubt it?”

“I don’t know. In spite of all the doctors say, I have the impression that Madame Delambre has a very clear brain … even when catching flies.”

“Supposing you were right, how would you explain her attitude with regard to her little boy? She never seems to consider him as her own child.”

“You know, Monsieur Delambre, I have thought about that also. She may be trying to protect him. Perhaps she fears the boy or, for all we know, hates him?”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand, my dear Commissaire.”

“Have you noticed, for instance, that she never catches flies when the boy is there?”

“No. But come to think of it, you are quite right. Yes, that is strange… Still, I fail to understand.”

“So do I, Monsieur Delambre. And I’m very much afraid that we shall never understand, unless perhaps your sister-in-law should get better.”

“The doctors seem to think that there is no hope of any sort you know.”

“Yes. Do you know if your brother ever experimented with flies?”

“I really don’t know, but I shouldn’t think so. Have you asked the Air Ministry people? They knew all about the work.”

“Yes, and they laughed at me.”

“I can understand that.”

“You are very fortunate to understand anything, Monsieur Delambre. I do not … but I hope to some day.”


“Tell me, Uncle, do flies live a long time?”

We were just finishing our lunch and, following an established tradition between us, I was just pouring some wine into Henri’s glass for him to dip a biscuit in.

Had Henri not been staring at his glass gradually being filled to the brim, something in my look might have frightened him.

This was the first time that he had ever mentioned flies, and I shuddered at the thought that Commissaire Charas might quite easily have been present. I could imagine the glint in his eye as he would have answered my nephew’s question with another question. I could almost hear him saying:

“I don’t know, Henri. Why do you ask?”

“Because I have again seen the fly that Maman was looking for.”

And it was only after drinking off Henri’s own glass of wine that I realized that he had answered my spoken thought.

“I did not know that your mother was looking for a fly.”

“Yes, she was. It has grown quite a lot, but I recognized it all right.”

“Where did you see this fly, Henri, and … how did you recognize it?”

“This morning on your desk, Uncle Francois. Its head is white instead of black, and it has a funny sort of leg.”

Feeling more and more like Commissaire Charas, but trying to look unconcerned, I went on:

“And when did you see this fly for the first time?”

“The day that Papa went away. I had caught it, but Maman made me let it go. And then after, she wanted me to find it again. She’d changed her mind,” and shrugging his shoulders just as my brother used to, he added, “You know what women are.”

“I think that fly must have died long ago, and you must be mistaken, Henri,” I said, getting up and walking to the door.

But as soon as I was out of the dining room, I ran up the stairs to my study. There was no fly anywhere to be seen.

I was bothered, far more than I cared to even think about. Henri had just proved that Charas was really closer to a clue than it had seemed when he told me about his thoughts concerning Helene’s pastime.

For the first time I wondered if Charas did not really know much more than he let on. For the first time also, I wondered about Helene. Was she really insane? A strange, horrid feeling was growing on me, and the more I thought about it, the more I felt that, somehow, Charas was right: Helene was getting away with it!

What could possibly have been the reason for such a monstrous crime? What had led up to it? Just what had happened?

I thought of all the hundreds of questions that Charas had put to Helene, sometimes gently like a nurse trying to soothe, sometimes stern and cold, sometimes barking them furiously. Helene had answered very few, always in a calm quiet voice and never seeming to pay any attention to the way in which the question had been put. Though dazed, she had seemed perfectly sane then.

Refined, well-bred and well-read, Charas was more than just an intelligent police official. He was a keen psychologist and had an amazing way of smelling out a fib or an erroneous statement even before it was uttered. I knew that he had accepted as true the few answers she had given him. But then there had been all those questions which she had never answered: the most direct and important ones. From the very
beginning, Helene had adopted a very simple system. “I cannot answer that question,” she would say in her low quiet voice. And that was that! The repetition of the same question never seemed to annoy her. In all the hours of questioning that she underwent, Helene did not once point out to the Commissaire that he had already asked her this or that. She would simply say, “I cannot answer that question,” as though it was the very first time that that particular question had been asked and the very first time she had made that answer.

This cliché had become the formidable barrier beyond which Commissaire Charas could not even get a glimpse, an idea of what Helene might be thinking. She had very willingly answered all questions about her life with my brother – which seemed a happy and uneventful one – up to the time of his end. About his death, however, all that she would say was that she had killed him with the steam-hammer, but she refused to say why, what had led up to the drama and how she got my brother to put
his head under it. She never actually refused outright; she would just go blank and, with no apparent emotion, would switch over to, “I cannot answer that question for you.”

Helene, as I have said, had shown the Commissaire that she knew how to set and operate the steam-hammer.

Charas could only find one single fact which did not coincide with Helene’s declarations, the fact that the hammer had been used twice. Charas was no longer willing to attribute this to insanity. That evident flaw in Helene’s stonewall defense seemed a crack which the Commissaire might possibly enlarge. But my sister-in-law finally cemented it by acknowledging:

“All right, I lied to you. I did use the hammer twice. But do not ask me why, because I cannot tell you.”

“Is that your only … misstatement, Madame Delambre?” had asked the Commissaire, trying to follow up what looked at last like an advantage.

“It is … and you know it, Monsieur le Commissaire.”

And, annoyed, Charas had seen that Helene could read him like an open book.

I had thought of calling on the Commissaire, but the knowledge that he would inevitably start questioning Henri made me hesitate. Another reason also made me hesitate, a vague sort of fear that he would look for and find the fly Henri had talked of. And that annoyed me a good deal because I could find no satisfactory explanation for that particular fear.

Andre was definitely not the absent-minded sort of professor who walks about in pouring rain with a rolled umbrella under his arm. He was human, had a keen sense of humor, loved children and animals and could not bear to see anyone suffer. I had often seen him drop his work to watch a parade of the local fire brigade, or see the Tour de France cyclists go by, or even follow a circus parade all around the village.
He liked games of logic and precision, such as billiards and tennis, bridge and chess.

How was it then possible to explain his death? What could have made him put his head under that hammer? It could hardly have been the result of some stupid bet or a test of his courage. He hated betting and had no patience with those who indulged in it. Whenever he heard a bet proposed, he would invariably remind all present that, after all, a bet was but a contract between a fool and a swindler, even if it turned out
to be a toss-up as to which was which.

It seemed there were only two possible explanations to Andre’s death. Either he had gone mad, or else he had a reason for letting his wife kill him in such a strange and terrible way. And just what could have been his wife’s role in all this? They surely could not have been both insane?

Having finally decided not to tell Charas about my nephew’s innocent revelations, I thought I myself would try to question Helene.

She seemed to have been expecting my visit for she came into the parlor almost as soon as I had made myself known to the matron and been allowed inside.

“I wanted to show you my garden,” explained Helene as I looked at the coat slung over her shoulders.

As one of the “reasonable” inmates, she was allowed to go into the garden during certain hours of the day. She had asked for and obtained the right to a little patch of ground where she could grow flowers, and I had sent her seeds and some rosebushes out of my garden.

She took me straight to a rustic wooden bench which had been in the men’s workshop and only just set up under a tree close to her little patch of ground.

Searching for the right way to broach the subject of Andre’s death, I sat for a while tracing vague designs on the ground with the end of my umbrella.

“Francois, I want to ask you something,” said Helene after a while.

“Anything I can do for you, Helene?”

“No, just something I want to know. Do flies live very long?”

Staring at her, I was about to say that her boy had asked the very same question a few hours earlier when I suddenly realized that here was the opening I had been searching for and perhaps even the possibility of striking a great blow, a blow perhaps powerful enough to shatter her stonewall defense, be it sane or insane.

Watching her carefully, I replied:

“I don’t really know, Helene; but the fly you were looking for was in my study this morning.”

No doubt about it I had struck a shattering blow. She swung her head round with such force that I heard the bones crack in her neck. She opened her mouth, but said not a word; only her eyes seemed to be screaming with fear.

Yes, it was evident that I had crashed through something, but what? Undoubtedly, the Commissaire would have known what to do with such an advantage; I did not. All I knew was that he would never have given her time to think, to recuperate, but all I could do, and even that was a strain, was to maintain my best poker-face, hoping against hope that Helene’s defenses would go on crumbling.

She must have been quite a while without breathing, because she suddenly gasped and put both her hands over her still open mouth.

“Francois … did you kill it?” she whispered, her eyes no longer fixed, but searching every inch of my face.


“You have it then. You have it on you! Give it to me!” she almost shouted, touching me with both her hands, and I knew that had she felt strong enough, she would have
tried to search me.

“No, Helene, I haven’t got it.”

“But you know now. You have guessed, haven’t you?”

“No, Helene. I only know one thing, and that is that you are not insane. But I mean to know all, Helene, and, somehow, I am going to find out. You can choose: either you tell me everything and I’ll see what is to be done, or…”

“Or what? Say it!”

“I was going to say it, Helene … or I assure you that your friend the Commissaire will have that fly first thing tomorrow morning.”

She remained quite still, looking down at the palms of her hands on her lap and, although it was getting chilly, her forehead and hands were moist.

Without even brushing aside a wisp of long brown hair blown across her mouth by the breeze, she murmured:

“If I tell you … will you promise to destroy that fly before doing anything else?”

“No, Helene. I can make no such promise before knowing.”

“But, Francois, you must understand. I promised Andre that fly would be destroyed. That promise must be kept and I can say nothing until it is.”

I could sense the deadlock ahead. I was not yet losing ground, but I was losing the initiative. I tried a shot in the dark:

“Helene, of course you understand that as soon as the police examine that fly, they will know that you are not insane, and then…”

“Francois, no! For Henri’s sake! Don’t you see? I was expecting that fly; I was hoping it would find me here but it couldn’t know what had become of me. What else could it do but go to others it loves, to Henri, to you … you who might know and understand what was to be done!”

Was she really mad, or was she simulating again? But mad or not, she was cornered. Wondering how to follow up and how to land the knockout blow without running the risk of seeing her slip away out of reach, I said very quietly:

“Tell me all, Helene. I can then protect your boy.”

“Protect my boy from what? Don’t you understand that if I am here, it is merely so that Henri won’t be the son of a woman who was guillotined for having murdered his father? Don’t you understand that I would by far prefer the guillotine to the living death of this lunatic asylum?”

“I understand, Helene, and I’ll do my best for the boy whether you tell me or not. If you refuse to tell me, I’ll still do the best I can to protect Henri, but you must understand that the game will be out of my hands, because Commissaire Charas will have the fly.”

“But why must you know?” said, rather than asked, my sister-in-law, struggling to control her temper.

“Because I must and will know how and why my brother died, Helene.”

“All right. Take me back to the … house. I’ll give you what your Commissaire would call my ‘Confession.'”

“Do you mean to say that you have written it!”

“Yes. It was not really meant for you, but more likely for your friend, the Commissaire. I had foreseen that, sooner or later, he would get too close to the truth.”

“You then have no objection to his reading it?”

“You will act as you think fit, Francois. Wait for me a minute.”

Leaving me at the door of the parlor, Helene ran upstairs to her room. In less than a minute she was back with a large brown envelope.

“Listen, Francois; you are not nearly as bright as was your poor brother, but you are not unintelligent. All I ask is that you read this alone. After that, you may do as you wish.”

“That I promise you, Helene,” I said, taking the precious envelope. “I’ll read it tonight and although tomorrow is not a visiting day, I’ll come down to see you.”

“Just as you like,” said my sister-in-law without even saying good-bye as she went back upstairs.


It was only on reaching home, as I walked from the garage to the house, that I read the inscription on the envelope:


(Probably Commissaire Charas)

Having told the servants that I would have only a light supper to be served immediately in my study and that I was not to be disturbed after, I ran upstairs, threw Helene’s envelope on my desk and made another careful search of the room before closing the shutters and drawing the curtains. All I could find was a long since dead mosquito stuck to the wall near the ceiling.

Having motioned to the servant to put her tray down on a table by the fireplace, I poured myself a glass of wine and locked the door behind her. I then disconnected the telephone – I always did this now at night – and turned out all the lights but the lamp on my desk.

Slitting open Helene’s fat envelope, I extracted a thick wad of closely written pages. I read the following lines neatly centered in the middle of the top page:

This is not a confession because, although I killed my husband, I am not a murderess. I simply and very faithfully carried out his last wish by crushing his head and right arm under the steam-hammer of his brother’s factory.

Without even touching the glass of wine by my elbow, I turned the page and started reading.

For very nearly a year before his death(the manuscript began), my husband had told me of some of his experiments. He knew full well that his colleagues of the Air Ministry would have forbidden some of them as too dangerous, but he was keen on obtaining positive results before reporting his discovery.

Whereas only sound and pictures had been, so far, transmitted through space by radio and television, Andre claimed to have discovered a way of transmitting matter. Matter, any solid object, placed in his “transmitter” was instantly disintegrated and reintegrated in a special receiving set.

Andre considered his discovery as perhaps the most important since that of the wheel sawn off the end of a tree trunk. He reckoned that the transmission of matter by instantaneous “disintegration-reintegration” would completely change life as we had known it so far. It would mean the end of all means of transport, not only of goods including food, but also of human beings. Andre, the practical scientist who never allowed theories or daydreams to get the better of him, already foresaw the time when there would no longer be any airplanes, ships, trains or cars and, therefore, no longer any roads or railway lines, ports, airports or stations. All that would be replaced by matter-transmitting and receiving stations throughout the world. Travelers and goods would be placed in special cabins and, at a given signal, would simply disappear and reappear almost immediately at the chosen receiving station.

Andre’s receiving set was only a few feet away from his transmitter, in an adjoining room of his laboratory, and he at first ran into all sorts of snags. His first successful experiment was carried out with an ash tray taken from his desk, a souvenir we had brought back from a trip to London.

That was the first time he told me about his experiments and I had no idea of what he was talking about the day he came dashing into the house and threw the ash tray in my lap.

“Helene, look! For a fraction of a second, a bare ten-millionth of a second, that ash tray had been completely disintegrated. For one little moment it no longer existed! Gone! Nothing left, absolutely nothing! Only atoms traveling through space at the speed of light! And the moment after, the atoms were once more gathered together in the shape of an ash tray!”

“Andre, please … please! What on earth are you raving about?”

He started sketching all over a letter I had been writing. He laughed at my wry face, swept all my letters off the table and said:

“You don’t understand? Right. Let’s start all over again. Helene, do you remember I once read you an article about the mysterious flying stones that seem to come from nowhere in particular, and which are said to occasionally fall in certain houses in India? They come flying in as though thrown from outside and that, in spite of closed doors and windows.”

“Yes, I remember. I also remember that Professor Augier, your friend of the College de France, who had come down for a few days, remarked that if there was no trickery about it, the only possible explanation was that the stones had been disintegrated after having been thrown from outside, come through the walls, and then been reintegrated before hitting the floor or the opposite walls.”

“That’s right. And I added that there was, of course, one other possibility, namely the momentary and partial disintegration of the walls as the stone or stones came through.”

“Yes, Andre. I remember all that, and I suppose you also remember that I failed to understand, and that you got quite annoyed. Well, I still do not understand why and how, even disintegrated, stones should be able to come through a wall or a closed door.”

“But it is possible, Helene, because the atoms that go to make up matter are not close together like the bricks of a wall. They are separated by relative immensities of space.”

“Do you mean to say that you have disintegrated that ash tray, and then put it together again after pushing it through something?”

“Precisely, Helene. I projected it through the wall that separates my transmitter from my receiving set.”

“And would it be foolish to ask how humanity is to benefit from ash trays that can go through walls?”

Andre seemed quite offended, but he soon saw that I was only teasing, and again waxing enthusiastic, he told me of some of the possibilities of his discovery.

“Isn’t it wonderful, Helene?” he finally gasped, out of breath.

“Yes, Andre. But I hope you won’t ever transmit me; I’d be too much afraid of coming out at the other end like your ash tray.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you remember what was written under that ash tray?”

“Yes, of course: MADE IN JAPAN. That was the great joke of our typically British souvenir.”

“The words are still there, Andre; but … look!”

He took the ash tray out of my hands, frowned, and walked over to the window. Then he went quite pale, and I knew that he had seen what had proved to me that he had indeed carried out a strange experiment.

The three words were still there, but reversed and reading:


Without a word, having completely forgotten me, Andre rushed off to his laboratory. I only saw him the next morning, tired and unshaven after a whole night’s work.

A few days later, Andre had a new reverse which put him out of sorts and made him fussy and grumpy for several weeks. I stood it patiently enough for a while, but being myself bad tempered one evening, we had a silly row over some futile thing, and I reproached him for his moroseness.

“I’m sorry,cherie. I’ve been working my way through a maze of problems and have given you all a very rough time. You see, my very first experiment with a live animal proved a complete fiasco.”

“Andre! You tried that experiment with Dandelo, didn’t you?”

“Yes. How did you know?” he answered sheepishly. “He disintegrated perfectly, but he never reappeared in the receiving set.”

“Oh, Andre! What became of him then?”

“Nothing … there is just no more Dandelo; only the dispersed atoms of a cat wandering, God knows where, in the universe.”

Dandelo was a small white cat the cook had found one morning in the garden and which we had promptly adopted. Now I knew how it had disappeared and was quite angry about the whole thing, but my husband was so miserable over it all that I said nothing.

I saw little of my husband during the next few weeks. He had most of his meals sent down to the laboratory. I would often wake up in the morning and find his bed unslept in. Sometimes, if he had come in very late, I would find that storm-swept appearance which only a man can give a bedroom by getting up very early and fumbling around in the dark.

One evening he came home to dinner all smiles, and I knew that his troubles were over. His face dropped, however, when he saw I was dressed for going out.

“Oh. Were you going out, Helene?”

“Yes, the Drillons invited me for a game of bridge, but I can easily phone them and put it off.”

“No, it’s all right.”

“It isn’t all right. Out with it, dear!”

“Well, I’ve at last got everything perfect and wanted you to be the first to see the miracle.”

Magnifique, Andre! Of course I’ll be delighted.”

Having telephoned our neighbors to say how sorry I was and so forth, I ran down to the kitchen and told the cook that she had exactly ten minutes in which to prepare a “celebration dinner.”

“An excellent idea, Helene,” said my husband when the maid appeared with the champagne after our candlelight dinner. “We’ll celebrate with reintegrated champagne!” and taking the tray from the maid’s hands, he led the way down to the laboratory.

“Do you think it will be as good as before its disintegration?” I asked, holding the tray while he opened the door and switched on the lights.

“Have no fear. You’ll see! Just bring it here, will you,” he said, opening the door of a telephone call-box he had bought and which had been transformed into what he called a transmitter. “Put it down on that now,” he added, putting a stool inside the box.

Having carefully closed the door, he took me to the other end of the room and handed me a pair of very dark sun glasses. He put on another pair and walked back to a switchboard by the transmitter.

“Ready, Helene?” said my husband, turning out all the lights. “Don’t remove your glasses till I give the word.”

“I won’t budge, Andre, go on,” I told him, my eyes fixed on the tray which I could just see in a greenish shimmering light through the glass-paneled door of the telephone booth.

“Right,” said Andre, throwing a switch.

The whole room was brilliantly illuminated by an orange flash. Inside the cabin I had seen a crackling ball of fire and felt its heat on my face, neck and hands. The whole thing lasted but the fraction of a second, and I found myself blinking at green-edged black holes like those one sees after having stared at the sun.

Et voila! You can take off your glasses, Helene.”

A little theatrically perhaps, my husband opened the door of the cabin. Though Andre had told me what to expect, I was astonished to find that the champagne, glasses, tray and stool were no longer there.

Andre ceremoniously led me by the hand into the next room, in a corner of which stood a second telephone booth. Opening the door wide, he triumphantly lifted the champagne tray off the stool.

Feeling somewhat like the good-natured kind-member-of-the-audience that has been dragged onto the music hall stage by the magician, I repressed from saying, “All done with mirrors,” which I knew would have annoyed my husband.

“Sure it’s not dangerous to drink?” I asked as the cork popped.

“Absolutely sure, Helene,” he said, handing me a glass. “But that was nothing. Drink this off and I’ll show you something much more astounding.”

We went back into the other room.

“Oh, Andre! Remember poor Dandelo!”

“This is only a guinea pig, Helene. But I’m positive it will go through all right.”

He set the furry little beast down on the green enameled floor of the booth and quickly closed the door. I again put on my dark glasses and saw and felt the vivid crackling flash.

Without waiting for Andre to open the door, I rushed into the next room where the lights were still on and looked into the receiving booth.

“Oh, Andre! Cheri! He’s there all right!” I shouted excitedly, watching the little animal trotting round and round. “It’s wonderful, Andre. It works! You’ve succeeded!”

“I hope so, but I must be patient. I’ll know for sure in a few weeks’ time.”

“What do you mean? Look! He’s as full of life as when you put him in the other cabin.”

“Yes, so he seems. But we’ll have to see if all his organs are intact, and that will take some time. If that little beast is still full of life in a month’s time, we then consider the experiment a success.”

I begged Andre to let me take care of the guinea pig.

“All right, but don’t kill it by over-feeding,” he agreed with a grin for my enthusiasm.

Though not allowed to take Hop-la – the name I had given the guinea pig – out of its box in the laboratory, I had tied a pink ribbon round its neck and was allowed to feed it twice a day.

Hop-la soon got used to its pink ribbon and became quite a tame little pet, but that month of waiting seemed a year.

And then one day, Andre put Miquette, our cocker spaniel, into his “transmitter.” He had not told me beforehand, knowing full well that I would never have agreed to such an experiment with our dog. But when he did tell me, Miquette had been successfully transmitted half-a-dozen times and seemed to be enjoying the operation thoroughly; no sooner was she let out of the “reintegrator” than she dashed madly into the next room, scratching at the “transmitter” door to have “another go,” as Andre called it.

I now expected that my husband would invite some of his colleagues and Air Ministry specialists to come down. He usually did this when he had finished a research job and, before handing them long detailed reports which he always typed himself, he would carry out an experiment or two before them. But this time, he just went on working. One morning I finally asked him when he intended throwing his usual “surprise party,” as we called it.

“No, Helene; not for a long while yet. This discovery is much too important. I have an awful lot of work to do on it still. Do you realize that there are some parts of the transmission proper which I do not yet myself fully understand? It works all right, but you see, I can’t just say to all these eminent professors that I do this and that
and, poof, it works! I must be able to explain how and why it works. And what is even more important, I must be ready and able to refute every destructive argument they will not fail to trot out, as they usually do when faced with anything really good.”

I was occasionally invited down to the laboratory to witness some new experiment, but I never went unless Andre invited me, and only talked about his work if he broached the subject first. Of course it never occurred to me that he would, at that stage at least, have tried an experiment with a human being; though, had I thought about it – knowing Andre – it would have been obvious that he would never have allowed anyone into the “transmitter” before he had been through to test it first. It was only after the accident that I discovered he had duplicated all his switches inside the disintegration booth, so that he could try it out by himself.

The morning Andre tried this terrible experiment, he did not show up for lunch. I sent the maid down with a tray, but she brought it back with a note she had found pinned outside the laboratory door: “Do not disturb me, I am working.”

He did occasionally pin such notes on his door and, though I noticed it, I paid no particular attention to the unusually large handwriting of his note.

It was just after that, as I was drinking my coffee, that Henri came bouncing into the room to say that he had caught a funny fly, and would I like to see it. Refusing even to look at his closed fist, I ordered him to release it immediately.

“But, Maman, it has such a funny white head!”

Marching the boy over to the open window, I told him to release the fly immediately, which he did. I knew that Henri had caught the fly merely because he thought it looked curious or different from other flies, but I also knew that his father would never stand for any form of cruelty to animals, and that there would be a fuss should he discover that our son had put a fly in a box or a bottle.

At dinnertime that evening, Andre had still not shown up and, a little worried, I ran down to the laboratory and knocked at the door.

He did not answer my knock, but I heard him moving around and a moment later he slipped a note under the door. It was typewritten:


Frightened, I knocked and called, but Andre did not seem to pay any attention and, vaguely reassured by the familiar noise of his typewriter, I went back to the house.

Having put Henri to bed, I returned to the laboratory, where I found another note slipped under the door. My hand shook as I picked it up because I knew by then that something must be radically wrong. I read:


Shaking with fear, not knowing what to think and repressing a furious desire to call Andre and bang away until he opened, I knocked three times as requested and ran all the way home to fetch what he wanted.

In less than five minutes I was back. Another note had been slipped under the door:




I had to wait a while to pull myself together, and then I knocked slowly three times.

I heard Andre shuffling behind the door, then his hand fumbling with the lock, and the door opened.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that he was standing behind the door, but without looking round, I carried the bowl of milk to his desk. He was evidently watching me and I must at all costs appear calm and collected.

Cheri,you can count on me,” I said gently, and putting the bowl down under his desk lamp, the only one alight, I walked into the next room where all the lights were blazing.

My first impression was that some sort of hurricane must have blown out of the receiving booth. Papers were scattered in every direction, a whole row of test tubes lay smashed in a corner, chairs and stools were upset and one of the window curtains hung half torn from its bent rod, In a large enamel basin on the floor a heap of burned documents was still smoldering.

I knew that I would not find the fly Andre wanted me to look for. Women know things that men only suppose by reasoning and deduction; it is a form of knowledge very rarely accessible to them and which they disparagingly call intuition. I already knew that the fly Andre wanted was the one which Henri had caught and which I had made him release.

I heard Andre shuffling around in the next room, and then a strange gurgling and sucking as though he had trouble in drinking his milk.

“Andre, there is no fly here. Can you give me any sort of indication that might help? If you can’t speak, rap or something, you know: once for yes, twice for no.”

I had tried to control my voice and speak as though perfectly calm, but I had to choke down a sob of desperation when he rapped twice for “no.”

“May I come to you, Andre I don’t know what can have happened, but whatever it is, I’ll be courageous, dear.”

After a moment of silent hesitation, he tapped once on his desk.

At the door I stopped aghast at the sight of Andre standing with his head and shoulders covered by the brown velvet cloth he had taken from a table by his desk, the table on which he usually ate when he did not want to leave his work. Suppressing a laugh that might easily have turned to sobbing, I said:

“Andre, we’ll search thoroughly tomorrow, by daylight. Why don’t you go to bed? I’ll lead you to the guest room if you like, and won’t let anyone else see you.”

His left hand tapped the desk twice.

“Do you need a doctor, Andre?”

“No,” he rapped.

“Would you like me to call up Professor Angier? He might be of more help.”

Twice he rapped “no” sharply. I did not know what to do or say. And then I told him:

“Henri caught a fly this morning which he wanted to show me, but I made him release it. Could it have been the one you are looking for? I didn’t see it, but the boy said its head was white.”

Andre emitted a strange metallic sigh, and I just had time to bite my fingers fiercely in order not to scream. He had let his right arm drop, and instead of his long-fingered muscular hand, a gray stick with little buds on it like the branch of a tree, hung out of his sleeve almost down to his knee.

“Andre,mon Cheri, tell me what happened. I might be of more help to you if I knew. Andre … oh, it’s terrible!” I sobbed, unable to control myself.

Having rapped once for yes, he pointed to the door with his left hand.

I stepped out and sank down crying as he locked the door behind me. He was typing again and I waited. At last he shuffled to the door and slid a sheet of paper under it.


“Do you want anything for the night, Andre?” I shouted through the door.

He knocked twice for no, and a little later I heard the typewriter again.

The sun full on my face woke me up with a start. I had set the alarm-clock for five but had not heard it, probably because of the sleeping tablets. I had indeed slept like a log, without a dream. Now I was back in my living nightmare and crying like a child I sprang out of bed. It was just on seven!

Rushing into the kitchen, without a word for the startled servants, I rapidly prepared a tray load of coffee, bread and butter with which I ran down to the laboratory.

Andre opened the door as soon as I knocked and closed it again as I carried the tray to his desk. His head was still covered, but I saw from his crumpled suit and his open camp-bed that he must have at least tried to rest.

On his desk lay a typewritten sheet for me which I picked up. Andre opened the other door, and taking this to mean that he wanted to be left alone, I walked into the next room. He pushed the door to and I heard him pouring out the coffee as I read:


If only Andre had been more explicit! I shuddered at the thought that he must be terribly disfigured and then cried softly as I imagined his face inside-out, or perhaps his eyes in place of his ears, or his mouth at the back of his neck, or worse!

Andre must be saved! For that, the fly must be found!

Pulling myself together, I said:

“Andre, may I come in?”

He opened the door.

“Andre, don’t despair; I am going to find that fly. It is no longer in the laboratory, but it cannot be very far. I suppose you’re disfigured, perhaps terribly so, but there can be no question of putting an end to all this, as you say in your note; that I will never stand for. If necessary, if you do not wish to be seen, I’ll make you a mask or a cowl so that you can go on with your work until you get well again. If you cannot work, I’ll call Professor Augier, and he and all your other friends will save you, Andre.”

Again I heard that curious metallic sigh as he rapped violently on his desk.

“Andre, don’t be annoyed; please be calm. I won’t do anything without first consulting you, but you must rely on me, have faith in me and let me help you as best I can. Are you terribly disfigured, dear? Can’t you let me see your face? I won’t be afraid, I am your wife, you know.”

But my husband again rapped a decisive “no” and pointed to the door.

“All right. I am going to search for the fly now, but promise me you won’t do anything foolish; promise you won’t do anything rash or dangerous without first letting me know all about it!”

He extended his left hand, and I knew I had his promise.

I will never forget that ceaseless day-long hunt for a fly. Back home, I turned the house inside-out and made all the servants join in the search. I told them that a fly had escaped from the Professor’s laboratory and that it must be captured alive, but it was evident they already thought me crazy. They said so to the police later, and that day’s hunt for a fly most probably saved me from the guillotine later.

I questioned Henri and as he failed to understand right away what I was talking about, I shook him and slapped him, and made him cry in front of the round-eyed maids. Realizing that I must not let myself go, I kissed and petted the poor boy and at last made him understand what I wanted of him. Yes, he remembered, he had found the fly just by the kitchen window; yes, he had released it immediately as told to.

Even in summer time we had very few flies because our house is on the top of a hill and the slightest breeze coming across the valley blows round it. In spite of that, I managed to catch dozens of flies that day. On all the window sills and all over the garden I had put saucers of milk, sugar, jam, meat – all the things likely to attract flies. Of all those we caught, and many others which we failed to catch but which I saw, none resembled the one Henri had caught the day before. One by one, with a magnifying glass, I examined every unusual fly, but none had anything like a white head.

At lunch time, I ran down to Andre with some milk and mashed potatoes. I also took some of the flies we had caught, but he gave me to understand that they could be of no possible use to him.

“If that fly has not been found tonight, Andre, we’ll have to see what is to be done. And this is what I propose: I’ll sit in the next room. When you can’t answer by the yes-no method of rapping, you’ll type out whatever you want to say and then slip it under the door. Agreed?”

“Yes,” rapped Andre.

By nightfall we had still not found the fly. At dinner time, as I prepared Andre’s tray, I broke down and sobbed in the kitchen in front of the silent servants. My maid thought that I had had a row with my husband, probably about the mislaid fly, but I learned later that the cook was already quite sure that I was out of my mind.

Without a word, I picked up the tray and then put it down again as I stopped by the telephone. That this was really a matter of life and death for Andre, I had no doubt. Neither did I doubt that he fully intended committing suicide, unless I could make him change his mind, or at least put off such a drastic decision. Would I be strong
enough? He would never forgive me for not keeping a promise, but under the circumstances, did that really matter? To the devil with promises and honor! At all costs Andre must be saved! And having thus made up my mind, I looked up and dialed Professor Augier’s number.

“The Professor is away and will not be back before the end of the week,” said a polite neutral voice at the other end of the line.

That was that! I would have to fight alone and fight I would. I would save Andre come what may.

All my nervousness had disappeared as Andre let me in and, after putting the tray of food down on his desk, I went into the other room, as agreed.

“The first thing I want to know,” I said as he closed the door behind me, “is what happened exactly. Can you please tell me, Andre?”

I waited patiently while he typed an answer which he pushed under the door a little later.


For several minutes I wondered if Andre had not simply gone stark raving mad.

“Andre,” I said at last, “whatever you may have chosen or thought of, I cannot and will never accept such a cowardly solution. No matter how awful the result of your experiment or accident, you are alive, you are a man, a brain … and you have a soul. You have no right to destroy yourself! You know that!”

The answer was soon typed and pushed under the door.


“Then you must tell the other scientists about your discovery. They will help you and save you, Andre!”

I staggered back frightened as he angrily thumped the door twice.

“Andre … why? Why do you refuse the aid you know they would give you with all their hearts?”

A dozen furious knocks shook the door and made me understand that my husband would never accept such a solution. I had to find other arguments.

For hours, it seemed, I talked to him about our boy, about me, about his family, about his duty to us and to the rest of humanity. He made no reply of any sort. At last I cried:

“Andre … do you hear me?”

“Yes,” he knocked very gently.

“Well, listen then. I have another idea. You remember your first experiment with the ash tray? . . . Well, do you think that if you had put it through again a second time, it might possibly have come out with the letters turned back the right way?”

Before I had finished speaking, Andre was busily typing and a moment later I read his answer:


“Try all the same, Andre. You never know!”


–was the typewritten reply I got to that.

“Andre! Try again, please!”

The answer this time gave me a flutter of hope, because no woman has ever understood, or will ever understand, how a man about to die can possibly consider anything funny.


“Ready, Andre” I shouted without even looking for the glasses and following his instructions.

I heard him moving around and then open and close the door of his “disintegrator.” After what seemed a very long wait, but probably was not more than a minute or so, I heard a violent crackling noise and perceived a bright flash through my eyelids and fingers.

I turned around as the cabin door opened.

His head and shoulders still covered with the brown velvet carpet, Andre was gingerly stepping out of it.

“How do you feel, Andre? Any difference?” I asked touching his arm.

He tried to step away from me and caught his foot in one of the stools which I had not troubled to pick up. He made a violent effort to regain his balance, and the velvet carpet slowly slid off his shoulders and head as he fell heavily backwards.

The horror was too much for me, too unexpected. As a matter of fact, I am sure that, even had I known, the horror-impact could hardly have been less powerful. Trying to push both hands into my mouth to stifle my screams and although my fingers were bleeding, I screamed again and again. I could not take my eyes off him, I could not even close them, and yet I knew that if I looked at the horror much longer, I would go on screaming for the rest of my life.

Slowly, the monster, the thing that had been my husband, covered its head, got up and groped its way to the door and passed it. Though still screaming, I was able to close my eyes.

I who had ever been a true Catholic, who believed in God and another, better life hereafter, have today but one hope: that when I die, I really die, and that there may be no afterlife of any sort because, if there is, then I shall never forget! Day and night, awake or asleep, I see it, and I know that I am condemned to see it forever, even perhaps into oblivion!

Until I am totally extinct, nothing can, nothing will ever make me forget that dreadful white hairy head with its low flat skull and its two pointed ears. Pink and moist, the nose was also that of a cat, a huge cat. But the eyes! Or rather, where the eyes should have been were two brown bumps the size of saucers. Instead of a mouth, animal or human, was a long hairy vertical slit from which hung a black quivering
trunk that widened at the end, trumpet-like, and from which saliva kept dripping.

I must have fainted, because I found myself flat on my stomach on the cold cement floor of the laboratory, staring at the closed door behind which I could hear the noise of Andre’s typewriter.

Numb, numb and empty, I must have looked as people do immediately after a terrible accident, before they fully understand what has happened. I could only think of a man I had once seen on the platform of a railway station, quite conscious, and looking stupidly at his leg still on the line where the train had just passed.

My throat was aching terribly, and that made me wonder if my vocal chords had not perhaps been torn, and whether I would ever be able to speak again.

The noise of the typewriter suddenly stopped and I felt I was going to scream again as something touched the door and a sheet of paper slid from under it.

Shivering with fear and disgust, I crawled over to where I could read it without touching it:


Of course he was right, and it had been wrong and cruel of me to insist on a new experiment. And I knew that there was now no possible hope, that any further experiments could only bring about worse results.

Getting up dazed, I went to the door and tried to speak, but no sound came out of my throat … so I knocked once!

You can of course guess the rest. He explained his plan in short typewritten notes, and I agreed, I agreed to everything!

My head on fire, but shivering with cold, like an automaton, I followed him into the silent factory. In my hand was a full page of explanations: what I had to know about the steam-hammer.

Without stopping or looking back, he pointed to the switchboard that controlled the steam-hammer as he passed it. I went no further and watched him come to a halt before the terrible instrument.

He knelt down, carefully wrapped the carpet round his head, and then stretched out flat on the ground.

It was not difficult. I was not killing my husband. Andre, poor Andre, had gone long ago, years ago it seemed. I was merely carrying out his last wish … and mine.

Without hesitating, my eyes on the long still body, I firmly pushed the “stroke” button right in. The great metallic mass seemed to drop slowly. It was not so much the resounding clang of the hammer that made me jump as the sharp cracking which I had distinctly heard at the same time. My hus … the thing’s body shook a second and then lay still.

It was then I noticed that he had forgotten to put his right arm, his fly-leg, under the hammer. The police would never understand but the scientists would, and they must not! That had been Andre’s last wish, also!

I had to do it and quickly, too; the night watchman must have heard the hammer and would be round any moment. I pushed the other button and the hammer slowly rose. Seeing but trying not to look, I ran up, leaned down, lifted and moved forward the right arm which seemed terribly light. Back at the switchboard, again I pushed the red button, and down came the hammer a second time. Then I ran all the way home.

You know the rest and can now do whatever you think right.

So ended Helene’s manuscript.


The following day I telephoned Commissaire Charas to invite him to dinner.

“With pleasure, Monsieur Delambre. Allow me, however, to ask: is it the
Commissaire you are inviting, or just Monsieur Charas?”

“Have you any preference?”

“No, not at the present moment.”

“Well then, make it whichever you like. Will eight o’clock suit you?”

Although it was raining, the Commissaire arrived on foot that evening.

“Since you did not come tearing up to the door in your black Citroen, I take it you have opted for Monsieur Charas, off duty?”

“I left the car up a side-street,” mumbled the Commissaire with a grin as the maid staggered under the weight of his raincoat.

“Merci,”he said a minute later as I handed him a glass of Pernod into which he tipped a few drops of water, watching it turn the golden amber liquid to pale blue milk.

“You heard about my poor sister-in-law?”

“Yes, shortly after you telephoned me this morning. I am sorry, but perhaps it was all for the best. Being already in charge of your brother’s case, the inquiry automatically comes to me.”

“I suppose it was suicide.”

“Without a doubt. Cyanide, the doctors say quite rightly; I found a second tablet in the unstitched hem of her dress.”

“Monsieur est servi,”announced the maid.

“I would like to show you a very curious document afterwards, Charas.”

“Ah, yes. I heard that Madame Delambre had been writing a lot, but we could find nothing beyond the short note informing us that she was committing suicide.”

During our tête-à-tête dinner, we talked politics, books and films, and the local football club of which the Commissaire was a keen supporter.

After dinner, I took him up to my study, where a bright fire – a habit I had picked up in England during the war – was burning.

Without even asking him, I handed him his brandy and mixed myself what he called “crushed-bug juice in soda water” – his appreciation of whiskey.

“I would like you to read this, Charas; first, because it was partly intended for you and, secondly, because it will interest you. If you think Commissaire Charas has no objection, I would like to burn it after.”

Without a word, he took the wad of sheets Helene had given me the day before and settled down to read them.

“What do you think of it all?” I asked some twenty minutes later as he carefully folded Helene’s manuscript, slipped it into the brown envelope, and put it into the fire.

Charas watched the flames licking the envelope, from which wisps of gray smoke were escaping, and it was only when it burst into flames that he said, slowly raising his eyes to mine:

“I think it proves very definitely that Madame Delambre was quite insane.”

For a long while we watched the fire eating up Helene’s “confession.”

“A funny thing happened to me this morning, Charas. I went to the cemetery, where my brother is buried. It was quite empty and I was alone.”

“Not quite, Monsieur Delambre. I was there, but I did not want to disturb you.”

“Then you saw me.

“Yes. I saw you bury a matchbox.”

“Do you know what was in it?”

“A fly, I suppose.”

“Yes. I had found it early this morning, caught in a spider’s web in the garden.”

“Was it dead?”

“No, not quite. I … crushed it … between two stones. Its head was … white … all white.”


You May Also Be Interested In…
* Dead Flies
* Horror Effects Hosted By Tom Savini
* Al Cook’s “Necropolis”

Knitting For Psychos.

Do you ever use Stumbleupon?

The amazing thing about Stumbleupon is that the more you use it, the more it gets to know what kind of things you’re into. This is how I regularly manage to find a lot of stuff on the internet which is in short, Fucked. Right. Up.


If You Are A Psycho You May Also Be Interested In…
* Home Decorating: Ed Gein Style
* When Barbie Goes Psycho
* Al Cook’s “Necropolis”

Books That Are Better Than The Bible…

There is hope for all of you rubbish aspiring authors yet!























Bouncy castle

All of those classics of literature and more can be purchased from Abebooks which is HERE.

You May Also Be Interested In…
* Make Mine A Harlot
* Happy Birthday To Me?
* The Alternate Mr. Men Books

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