Set back from the lane behind an apron of lawn, the cottage is ringed by a low wall of mottled stone. Two hornbeams shroud the near corners of the garden, their black branches like the fingers of clasped, elderly hands. In the spring the trees froth with blossom, the petals like a snow drift on the grass and in the lane. The rooms of the cottage are quiet and dark, cluttered with Victorian furniture; Welsh dressers, washstands with porcelain bowls stained a shade of mantis green, the horsehair sofas in the sitting room draped with lace antimacassars. On the walls there are paintings of old ships in fuming seas, the rod of a steam train penetrating a darkened tunnel.
She sits in the middle of this calm little house with no other sound to bother her but the pedantic tut of the pendulum clock in the hall. A refuge, a sanctuary for as long as sanctuary feels like something she desperately needs. She has paid six months’ rent; six months more can be found. She lies at night under the rib-cage rafters of her room, feeling herself swallowed, overwhelmed.
A girl from the village, Ruth, daughter of the family that owns the cottage, walks the mile up the curving country road every morning to bring her what she's ordered from the shop. A bottle of milk, soup, a half-loaf of bread. She'll scatter what she doesn't eat over the back wall into the field, crumbs for the birds, stale slices for the fox that lopes across the ploughed land at dusk, its coat igniting in the setting sun.
She finds herself waiting for Ruth like a signal that her day can begin; first the rustle of the stones out on the path, the soft crunch of her footsteps, then her light voice raised in greeting. Ruth knocks on the door - two sharp raps. She gets up quickly to answer. There's no reticence to this girl, very bright and open of face. There must, she thinks as she steels herself to open the door, be some people left in the world who you can trust.
One morning Ruth knocks, and as usual she’s sitting in the kitchen with her hands folded on the table in front of her. The house is a silent cell, the tick of the mahogany clock too clearly attuned to the labour of a heart at rest. The knock at the door is a relief.
Have you seen them? Ruth asks at once.
She can hear it, whatever it is, the moment the door is opened; a wintry, buffeting sound that crackles over the field from the other side of the lane. The girl points, the bread and milk hanging down in the net bag from her reddened wrist.
She steps into the back garden. In the pale blue bowl of the sky a hundred flecks of black are falling, smuts and ashes, tattered scraps that flutter down and just as suddenly hare up. The rooks are mobbing something in the field.
What are they doing?
My mum says they pass judgement, Ruth tells her. Punishing one of their own.
What on earth for?
Mum says fathom the laws of animals and you’ll make your fortune … Maybe though, she adds with gravity, they’re just mating.
Ruth leaves the shopping on the kitchen counter and folds the bag into her pocket. With a cheerful farewell she crunches back down the path.
Now that it's been brought to her attention, it’s impossible to dismiss; soon the sound is right here in the house with her. The cottage throbs with it, those hectoring, full-throated cries that make the room seem small and cold around her. It sets a tangle in her nerves. She can imagine the victim, that animal resignation in the face of the assault.
She watches from the kitchen window, seeing them spiral up and drop down beside a copse of oak trees in the distance, dark and deep rooted. She wants to stay inside and not stride out across that bird-stricken field, but what she needs more than anything else is silence and solitude, the sense of a land out there where nothing is suffering. There is no chance of peace with this.
The air outside is damp, the chill slipping under her coat. There’s a glister on the hornbeam, the stone wall as dark and wet as flesh. A faint mist has gathered in the lane, unfolding between the long grasses like spiderweb. She strides down the path towards the field gate, a stout stick in her hand. Over the wall she can see the flocking birds, the shaggier fall and tumble of the rooks, and, by the dart and glide of their flight, what must be a few jackdaws and magpies. She climbs the gate and drops into the rucked mud and water on the other side, walking with heavy feet across the sharp, stubbled grass. The cries of the birds sound hollow over this space, flattened and without presence. As she gets closer, she can see the shape of these cries as little coughs of steam, the seated rooks dipping their heads and flicking the calls out, the feathers at their throats like Elizabethan ruffs. Ebony spills across them, a sheen, a glint and flow that makes her think of fish hugging the spotted hide of a chalk-stream, lost in shadow.
They’re much further across the field than she had thought. There’s a dip in the ground ahead, a hollow that falls to the drainage ditch, and as the birds unpeel from earth to float above her, she can see a dark, slumped shape by the edge of it. Closer, and then the shape raises its head to look at her, the birds’ calls dropping from the feathered branches of the oaks. They hang there, black cankers on the beam.
She has found a man in this field. He raises up a weary arm, says, Help.
Eyes dilated by the shock, he fumbles for the glass she places by his elbow and sends it shattering to the floor. The sound has her hands up darting to her chest, in claws. She kneels with a tea-towel to mop up the spilled water, picking up the broken glass and gathering it in her palms, thinking as she does so of picking seashells from a shore. She should have done that instead, sought out the sea, not these wide-open plains, these flatlands. She thinks of the peace of oceans.
The man clears his throat. He sits slumped forward, hands tucked into the pockets of his jacket. His eyes dart up to her and away, seeking out the window’s white square of light.
His face is striped with cuts and scratches. In places where the tanned skin shines through the birds have scraped away a layering of dirt. His clothes are stiff with sweat, and a smell comes off him like stagnant water. She breathes through her mouth. When she’s tidied up the glass, she pours more water into a plastic cup and hands it to him. There’s dried blood under his ear.
Without him asking, with no more words from him that that first uneasy ‘Help,’ she brings over a bowl of hot water and a facecloth and begins to dab at the dried blood. She feels more comfortable now the more she understands how tired he is, how drained and ragged. There’s many a mile under his boots, four seasons in his skin. The water in the bowl is rust and black.
They eat shit, he says suddenly. The voice is dry and tight, like he hasn’t spoken for a month.
Crows. Rooks. Carrion-eaters, but they’ll take shit if nothing else. I’ve seen them. Choking down a dog turd in the road.
… That’s disgusting.
But they have to eat. So, he says … Have you got ointment? Antiseptic? I don’t want the shit from their beaks in my blood.
She comes back from the bathroom with a tube of cream, finds him looking out of the window at the far field. She stands by the back door and realises that the bird calls have stopped, the rumpled sheet of sound no longer falling across the ploughed land from the trees.
You’ve walked far? she says.
And why did they - I mean, I’ve never seen anything like that before, for them to attack a man.
They’ll take what’s weak. Crows, jackdaws, rooks - all of them.
I’ve heard … I’ve heard it said they’ll kill their own sometimes, in judgement.
He grunts at this, but whether it’s a dismissal or assent she doesn’t know.
I can call a doctor, perhaps, or down at the village they’ll -
I don’t need a doctor.
But they’ve hurt you, you’re very badly hurt, and these birds -
She sees him crouched under the storm, hands raised to fend off that black hail. Or was he lying there prone, at their mercy, lying with his face pressed to the ground while he waited for it to be over, his mind parcelling itself away into less vulnerable shapes and burying the assault into some distant chamber where the door need never be opened? Her lips part as she imagines it, and she has to steady herself as the feeling of shame comes across her, defenceless shame. He had offended them somehow or courted the disaster. Perhaps stealing eggs, perhaps goading them and calling the storm down onto his head in return. What could he have done to deserve this?
He’s flicking his gaze back and forth up the lane outside, glancing through the window to take the measure of the sky. A fleet of clouds are falling into line above the horizon, grey pillowed things that threaten rain.
The farmer, she says, although she can’t complete the sentence. She’s no idea who the farmer is, or how she would find out. She holds an image of him in her head, the landowner, the man who tends these fields and their fallow ground, some reified presence; ‘Farmer,’ grim of face, and with leathery hands attending to the shotgun’s stock and chamber. If he knew, he could take his gun to those flocks and blow them out of the sky, turn a hundred birds into feather dusters. Shall I tell him? she asks, then drags her nails against the back of her hand in hatred of her asking. What's it to him? Why doesn’t he seem to care? But they must be stopped, it could be herself next, or Ruth. Coming up the lane with the shopping bag in her hand, that soft young girl, such innocence, and the tattered black things descending to foul her skin.
She can hear one of them now, a crow or jackdaw, rook or raven, she has absolutely no idea which, calling nearby, caw-caw-caw, that flat tock that sounds like wood striking wood or the smack of a ball against a cricket bat. The man stretches up on his toes to witness it through the window.
I’ll go now, he says. Rain’s on, nearly, and they won’t bother me in the rain.
Are you sure? There must be something I can do?
Can you hear it? he asks. That sound they make?
I can hear it.
He stops, head tilted, and in the silence of the cottage the flat crack from the crow’s mouth falls hard through the open door.
That’s a sound many thousands of years old. He turns from the sink to face her, the arms folded, professorially, behind his back. Crows flock on open land, he says, and they followed the clearing of the old forests, the first forests. Think of that. Across from the continent, following the line of the old trees as they fell. That sound’s the sound of a Neolithic axe striking a tree trunk. Hear it, he says, can you hear it?
I can hear it …
Like the past recorded, wouldn’t you say? They kept it in their mouths, the far past, dim and distant, wreathed in mist.
He creeps back over to the table and drinks up the water in the cup. She still sits on the other side, her hands clutched together as if each holds each from the edge of a precipice.
I’ll tell you what else, he says. There’s cruelty in them. I’ve worked farms, seen them pluck the eyes from a sheep’s head as it screams to shake them off, beak dipping to the eyes again and again until it’s crying blood. I’ve seen lambs swaying their heads in agony - agony - until a shotgun’s the only way to cure them. And the crows perched on the field edge, watching, waiting for their turn on the carcass. Cruel things, he says. Cruel.
He leaves by the back door, turning his jacket collar up against the rain that spots from a darkened sky, leaving her with the image in her mind of the sheep blindly swaying its head and screaming, violated and lost, utterly lost in darkness and pain, the lazy passion of the birds roosting in the oak tree’s overhang at the edge of the field. Her mother, Ruth's, said they pass judgement. They punish those who transgress. What could ever be a rook's transgression?
He left, but he didn't really go. Some tether in the lanes, a link forged to that empty field where he’d been brought so low, kept him near the cottage in the days that followed. He couldn't bring himself to leave, it seemed, and she saw him often in the distance, each time imagining the pattern of scratches on his face, the claw marks and the bloody bruises. That crust of blood against his ear that she had wiped so carefully away. When she meets Ruth in the lane, standing out there in the cool mornings to watch her come up from the village, she sees him as a loping silhouette against the skyline, a scarecrow on the edge of the field where he had been savaged. She looks down the lane in the afternoon and sees him sitting on the water butt at the edge of the village, or sometimes stalking with a heron’s patience by the banks of the river, hazed in a prospect of rain.
Had he not had enough? She sits in the cottage, always at the kitchen table, the wide length of polished oak like a rampart, the solid stone walls behind her, trying to fathom him. Tempting fate, or seeking revenge? But revenge against what? You may as well seek vengeance from the wind. She remembers the glass shattering from the edge of the table, and when in her mind she replays the sound of that breaking glass she jumps, feels the blood surge up in her veins.
Since moving here, she has steeled herself once a week to take a walk by the woods, skirting the treeline until she comes to a high barrow on the other side of the village, from which she can see the mellow gables of her cottage, the smoulder of the low fire she has left in the grate revealing itself above the trees as a narrow twist of smoke. When she next comes to leave the house though, she pauses first and looks attentively to the field. The birds are quiet. The black clumps in those branches are where they have gathered to roost, or perhaps are just the scruffy shapes of their nests. She almost goes back inside but with the blunt walking stick in her hand she finds a firmer purchase on her nerves and sets off down the lane, away from the village, the field on her left and her eyes never leaving it.
She catches the first scent of autumn, a thin, cold flavour in the air, a feeling of sharpness or tension in the earth. Great-tits huskily chatter in the bushes as she goes by, and from the gates and stiles rear back the black-faced ewes, daintily trotting up the slopes. She sees the purposeful flap and glide of a sparrowhawk as it takes wing from a dead tree, the three silent branches crisp and pointed like a trident. A quarter of a mile down the lane the road branches off to the left, and on the right there’s a stile, and a field that opens onto woodland, one path heading through the trees and another curving around to encompass it. She climbs the stile, lowers herself into the corrugated mud.
As she walks around the edge of the woods, she can hear the songs of the finches and the mistle thrush, catching now and then a rustle in the undergrowth beyond the treeline, the black movement of something scurrying out of sight. It's only when she’s halfway along that she realises this rustling is keeping pace with her.
She stops and the noise stops too. There’s darkness a few feet into the trees, the sunlight broken and dispersed by the prism of the branches, the sense of shadow blending into deeper shadow. She can't see anything.
She hurries on, gripping the stick, trying not to look over her shoulder into the trees. It’s a deer, of course it is. She’s heard the New Forest has its sounders of boars, and who’s to say they aren't here too? The mud haggles at her feet. She doesn’t want to run or risk a climb through barbed wire. She sees herself entangled, speared on the barbs and struggling to get free, trapped, held there while the rooks circle and descend, or while the shadow bursts from the trees - him, it must be him, always skulking and watching, tracking her down, waiting for his moment again, never satisfied with what he has done ...
At last, at the other edge of the woods, she comes to the end of the path and the gate that will take her back out onto the lane. The ridge curls around to the barrow from which the foxes descend at dusk, their dens amongst the bones of Celtic dead. She reels around at the gate with the stick held up like a bar across her chest, but the rustling is fading away, blending into the deeper silences of the wood.
A deer, surely. A dog that’s slipped its collar. But none have dogs round here. A nerve is hiking in her cheek. The bloody thump of her heart makes her breath tremble.
She’s about to head back when she catches sight of the vermin board. It holds her, a rectangle of wood fixed in landscape to a post at the edge of the forest, displaying its wares - a half-flensed stoat, a weasel baring yellow teeth from a rusty muzzle. In the middle, wings outstretched, a lifeless rook; head dipped down aside its wing as if in sorrow for the man who had murdered it.
The stoat and the weasel are wind-dried and have obviously been here for some time, but the rook is fresh. A bead of blood hangs like a brooch on its chest. She approaches the board, wary in case the bird’s infinite cunning can stretch to feigning death. She takes the tip of the grey beak between forefinger and thumb, the cankered, mask-like patches on either side of the blade. A purple tongue spikes from its mouth, and the eyes are two still-gleaming crescents. She can see the nails hammered there to keep it crucifix, but it’s a moment’s work to prise them free. She looks to the trees, to the rough carpet of grass over the barrow on the other side of the track, down each length of the lane. The bird falls into her hands, warm, heavier than she would have thought, the scaly feet clenched like knuckles and the head and neck flopping back over her clasped hands. She folds it carefully into her coat pocket. When she gets home, with rapture, and with a sense of exaltation that opens her mouth, she takes hammer and nail and skewers it to the doorpost.
The dusk comes down, full of assassin’s colours; red and purple in a sky speckled with the black rags of the rooks as they cluster to the oak trees. The crackle of their song falls across the field towards her. She stands with her hand against the door, ready on a moment to slam it shut and bolt the lock, scanning the fields; watching, waiting.
She can’t sleep that night. The touch of autumn she felt on her walk has faded, and the summer evening keeps the air close. A thick, watery breeze parts the curtains from the open window. She lies on top of the blankets and feels the sweat prickle up on her skin, a thick, greasy sweat. Something’s calling out there, a fox, an owl, some creature locked inside its creaturely life, unfathomable. As she lies there on the bed, twisting her hands together, she dwells again on the memory of the man in the field, this image that's never more than a hair’s breadth away. She sees again the way he raised his arm when she came near, the way the birds cast themselves into the air like torn paper. The sharp, disruptive sound of the glass breaking, the sight of the blood drying under his ear. The long millennia, the tock of axe-heads breaking the old wooded ground, the birds that flocked to new clearings with another word in their vocabulary.
Like a vision then she sees with shocking and immediate clarity the sheep in the field he had told her about, its eyes plucked free, sees it so clearly, it's as if she had been there to witness it herself. The image has her gasping from the bed. It's like it has happened to her, that the birds have been at her eyes, and her consciousness has wheeled clean out of her mind only to turn back and see the assault as it unfolds before her. She ranges around the room for somewhere to fasten her empathy, hands clawing at each other, her bare feet pecking at the floorboards. The curtain buckles, the horrible slithering breeze reaches in to caress her skin with the rotting scent of the land out there, everything feverishly growing and dying, the breeze running its moist hands over her body and the hacking call of the fox, hacking like a heavy smoker as it slips down from the line of the barrow, another marker of the dead like the splayed creatures on the vermin board.
She goes to the window and looks out onto the lane, pale under the moonlight. She feels the nail slip into the breastbone, penetrating the flesh, sees the sheep cowering under the attack from that mated pair, the birds that flutter and laugh to knife it, again and again, stabbing, that violation. The nail going right in, the flesh that can’t resist it. Lying there motionless until it is over, waiting for the shame to smother -
She looks out of the window. She keeps coming back to the window to stare into what she can see of the lane, wreathed in night, looking for darker shadows. The field across the road is like a body of water, dark and undulating, and breathing softly in the wet breeze.
Pacing the room, sometimes sitting on the edge of the bed, she listens to the sound of the fox out there, the nails-on-a-blackboard screech of the owl and its nightly murders. To be trapped in here, pinned down like this - she must get out, there must be somewhere safer she can go. It wasn’t meant to be like this. She grasps at herself. It was meant to be a refuge, a safe place, somewhere safe …
All her need rises in her throat as a barely muffled scream. Then she hears the creak of the gate outside.
Bright now, clear; the pale array of clouds wisping off towards the coast, and in the air a light flavour of meadow flowers and honeysuckle. Ruth stops to breathe it in. The sun is fading into view above the trees on the other side of the fields, a lemon-yellow light.
Cool this morning as well. All night she had lain there on her bed, the blankets flung to the side, hot flushes of warm weather moving through her body, each wave and pulse bringing with it a tingling of sweat and setting a little fire in her belly. The morning’s provisions feel heavy in her hand.
She looks out on the fields as she heads up to The Rookery, to the mad young woman who lives there; so thin and tentative, peeking and startling through the rooms of her rented home. But she must not say ‘mad’, her mum tells her. The poor girl has gone through so much.
The grass looks fresh and sap-heavy, plumped up by the humid night, bristling now in the softer air. There are no rooks around, the oaks trees bare of their black fruit. She can hear the trill of robins and sparrows in the bushes by the side of the lane, a burbling brook-like music that follows her up to the cottage’s green gate.
She raps smartly on the door, hoping the woman (she’s forgotten her name, if she ever knew it; possibly her mother had told her) won’t want to keep her any longer than politeness demands. Ruth wouldn’t go so far as to say she was afraid of her, but the woman makes her feel uncomfortable.
There’s no answer at the door. Usually, it’s already open when she’s still out on the path. She steps back to look up at the bedroom window and sees that the curtains are closed. The shutters on the kitchen window are closed too.
She could leave the shopping on the doorstep or hang it from the handle, but that would only mean coming back later to collect the bag and she wants the remainder of her day to be as cloudless as possible. She wants to take her books and her notebook down to the riverside, or to lie in the back garden and sunbathe. What she doesn’t want is to have to trudge back up this hill under an afternoon sun that she already knows will be fierce, so she tries the handle and to no great surprise finds the door open. It’s dark in the kitchen. She calls out, Hello? but there’s no answer. She empties the bag onto the kitchen table, the bread and milk and the tins of soup.
She’s about to leave when she hears it; a clattering noise somewhere up above her, like somebody briskly shaking out a sheet.
No response. She stands there in the kitchen with her head cocked, breathing as silently as she can through her mouth. There’s a soft thump on the ceiling just above her head, a thump and a skittering noise that sounds like fingers drumming against the floorboards.
Perhaps she’s hurt? She’s had a stroke or - no, but she’s too young for that. Maybe she’s fallen out of bed? She’s hit her head against the sideboard. So thin and brittle, she has finally broken.
There’s warmth running through her chest as she leaves the kitchen. Her heart beats low and steady. She heads on up the stairs, noting as if from far away the rattling, clattering sound, the scratching of those fingers. The bedroom.
Hello? It’s Ruth.
She opens the door to an empty bed, the sheets drawn back - and then, with a sharp fast flurry of black, the rook erupts from the corner of the room and flings itself against the window; calling, screaming, the wintry rattle of its song set down against the sun that falls in two thin blades through the gaps on either side of the curtains.
I am an Edinburgh-based writer, and have had short stories published in magazines like The Lonely Crowd, Interzone, New Writing Scotland, Gutter and many others. I was shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction Prize in 2015, and won a New Writer’s Award from the Scottish Book Trust in 2012. I’m also published novels and short stories with Games Workshop’s Black Library imprint, and am a regular book reviewer for various Scottish newspapers.