The Thorn Birds
The Thorn Birds
Genre: novel, Fiction, History, Love, Romance
Author: Colleen McCullough
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The Thorn Birds is a 1977 best-selling novel by the Australian author Colleen McCullough. Set primarily on Drogheda—a fictional sheep station in the Australian Outback named after Drogheda, Ireland—the story focuses on the Cleary family and spans the years 1915 to 1969.
The novel is the best selling book in Australian history, and has sold over 33 million copies worldwide.
In 1983, the novel was adapted into a television series also called The Thorn Birds that, during its run 27–30 March, became the United States’ second-highest-rated miniseries of all time behind Roots.
Free Reading Highlights:
On December 8th, 1915, Meggie Cleary had her fourth birthday. After the breakfast dishes were put away her mother silently thrust a brown paper parcel into her arms and ordered her outside. So Meggie squatted down behind the gorse bush next to the front gate and tugged impatiently. Her fingers were clumsy, the wrapping heavy; it smelled faintly of the Wahine general store, which told her that whatever lay inside the parcel had miraculously been bought, not homemade or donated.
Something fine and mistily gold began to poke through a corner; she attacked the paper faster, peeling it away in long, ragged strips.
“Agnes! Oh, Agnes!” she said lovingly, blinking at the doll lying there in a tattered nest.
A miracle indeed. Only once in her life had Meggie been into Wahine; all the way back in May, because she had been a very good girl. So perched in the buggy beside her mother, on her best behavior, she had been too excited to see or remember much. Except for Agnes, the beautiful doll sitting on the store counter, dressed in a crinoline of pink satin with cream lace frills all over it.
Right then and there in her mind she had christened it Agnes, the only name she knew elegant enough for such a peerless creature. Yet over the ensuing months her yearning after Agnes contained nothing of hope; Meggie didn’t own a doll and had no idea little girls and dolls belonged together. She played happily with the whistles and slingshots and battered soldiers her brothers discarded, got her hands dirty and her boots muddy.
It never occurred to her that Agnes was to play with. Stroking the bright pink folds of the dress, grander than any she had ever seen on a human woman, she picked Agnes up tenderly. The doll had jointed arms and legs which could be moved anywhere; even her neck and tiny, shapely waist were jointed. Her golden hair was exquisitely dressed in a high pompadour studded with pearls, her pale bosom peeped out of a foaming fichu of cream lace fastened with a pearl pin.
The finely painted bone china face was beautiful, left unglazed to give the delicately tinted skin a natural matte texture. Astonishingly lifelike blue eyes shone between lashes of real hair, their irises streaked and circled with a darker blue; fascinated, Meggie discovered that when Agnes lay back far enough, her eyes closed. High on one faintly flushed cheek she had a black beauty mark, and her dusky mouth was parted slightly to show tiny white teeth. Meggie put the doll gently on her lap, crossed her feet under her comfortably, and sat just looking.
She was still sitting behind the gorse bush when Jack and Hughie came rustling through the grass where it was too close to the fence to feel a scythe. Her hair was the typical Cleary beacon, all the Cleary children save Frank being martyred by a thatch some shade of red; Jack nudged his brother and pointed gleefully. They separated, grinning at each other, and pretended they were troopers after a Maori renegade. Meggie would not have heard them anyway, so engrossed was she in Agnes, humming softly to herself.
“What’s that you’ve got, Meggie?” Jack shouted, pouncing. “Show us!”
“Yes, show us!” Hughie giggled, outflanking her.
She clasped the doll against her chest and shook her head. “No, she’s mine! I got her for my birthday!”
“Show us, go on! We just want to have a look.”
Pride and joy won out. She held the doll so her brothers could see. “Look, isn’t she beautiful? Her name is Agnes.”
“Agnes? Agnes?” Jack gagged realistically. “What a soppy name! Why don’t you call her Margaret or Betty?”
“Because she’s Agnes!”
Hughie noticed the joint in the doll’s wrist, and whistled. “Hey, Jack, look! It can move its hand!”
“Where? Let’s see.”
“No!” Meggie hugged the doll close again, tears forming. “No, you’ll break her! Oh, Jack, don’t take her away—you’ll break her!”
“Pooh!” His dirty brown hands locked about her wrists, closing tightly. “Want a Chinese burn? And don’t be such a crybaby, or I’ll tell Bob.” He squeezed her skin in opposite directions until it stretched whitely, as Hughie got hold of the doll’s skirts and pulled. “Gimme, or I’ll do it really hard!”
“No! Don’t, Jack, please don’t! You’ll break her, I know you will! Oh, please leave her alone! Don’t take her, please!” In spite of the cruel grip on her wrists she clung to the doll, sobbing and kicking.
“Got it” Hughie whooped, as the doll slid under Meggie’s crossed forearms.
Jack and Hughie found her just as fascinating as Meggie had; off came the dress, the petticoats and long, frilly drawers. Agnes lay naked while the boys pushed and pulled at her, forcing one foot round the back of her head, making her look down her spine, every possible contortion they could think of. They took no notice of Meggie as she stood crying; it did not occur to her to seek help, for in the Cleary family those who could not fight their own battles got scant aid or sympathy, and that went for girls, too.
The doll’s golden hair tumbled down, the pearls flew winking into the long grass and disappeared. A dusty boot came down thoughtlessly on the abandoned dress, smearing grease from the smithy across its satin. Meggie dropped to her knees, scrabbling frantically to collect the miniature clothes before more damage was done them, then she began picking among the grass blades where she thought the pearls might have fallen. Her tears were blinding her, the grief in her heart new, for until now she had never owned anything worth grieving for.
Frank threw the shoe hissing into cold water and straightened his back; it didn’t ache these days, so perhaps he was used to smithying. Not before time, his father would have said, after six months at it. But Frank knew very well how long it was since his introduction to the forge and anvil; he had measured the time in hatred and resentment. Throwing the hammer into its box, he pushed the lank black hair off his brow with a trembling hand and dragged the old leather apron from around his neck. His shirt lay on a heap of straw in the corner; he plodded across to it and stood for a moment staring at the splintering barn wall as if it did not exist, his black eyes wide and fixed.
He was very small, not above five feet three inches, and thin still as striplings are, but the bare shoulders and arms had muscles already knotted from working with the hammer, and the pale, flawless skin gleamed with sweat. The darkn
ess of his hair and eyes had a foreign tang, his full-lipped mouth and wide-bridged nose not the usual family shape, but there was Maori blood on his mother’s side and in him it showed. He was nearly sixteen years old, where Bob was barely eleven, Jack ten, Hughie nine, Stuart five and little Meggie three. Then he remembered that today Meggie was four; it was December 8th. He put on his shirt and left the barn.
The house lay on top of a small hill about one hundred feet higher than the barn and stables.
Like all New Zealand houses, it was wooden, rambling over many squares and of one story only, on the theory that if an earthquake struck, some of it might be left standing. Around it gorse grew everywhere, at the moment smothered in rich yellow flowers; the grass was green and luxuriant, like all New Zealand grass. Not even in the middle of winter, when the frost sometimes lay unmelted all day in the shade, did the grass turn brown, and the long, mild summer only tinted it an even richer green.
The rains fell gently without bruising the tender sweetness of all growing things, there was no snow, and the sun had just enough strength to cherish, never enough to sap. New Zealand’s scourges thundered up out of the bowels of the earth rather than descended from the skies.
There was always a suffocated sense of waiting, an intangible shuddering and thumping that actually transmitted itself through the feet. For beneath the ground lay awesome power, power of such magnitude that thirty years before a whole towering mountain had disappeared; steam gushed howling out of cracks in the sides of innocent hills, volcanoes spumed smoke into the sky and the alpine streams ran warm. Huge lakes of mud boiled oilily, the seas lapped uncertainly at cliffs which might not be there to greet the next incoming tide, and in places the earth’s crust was only nine hundred feet thick.
Yet it was a gentle, gracious land. Beyond the house stretched an undulating plain as green as the emerald in Fiona Cleary’s engagement ring, dotted with thousands of creamy bundles close proximity revealed as sheep. Where the curving hills scalloped the edge of the light-blue sky Mount Egmont soared ten thousand feet, sloping into the clouds, its sides still white with snow, its symmetry so perfect that even those like Frank who saw it every day of their lives never ceased to marvel.
It was quite a pull from the barn to the house, but Frank hurried because he knew he ought not to be going; his father’s orders were explicit. Then as he rounded the corner of the house he saw the little group by the gorse bush.
Frank had driven his mother into Wahine to buy Meggie’s doll, and he was still wondering what had prompted her to do it. She wasn’t given to impractical birthday presents, there wasn’t the money for them, and she had never given a toy to anyone before. They all got clothes; birthdays and Christmases replenished sparse wardrobes. But apparently Meggie had seen the doll on her one and only trip into town, and Fiona had not forgotten. When Frank questioned her, she muttered something about a girl needing a doll, and quickly changed the subject.
Jack and Hughie had the doll between them on the front path, manipulating its joints callously. All Frank could see of Meggie was her back, as she stood watching her brothers desecrate Agnes. Her neat white socks had slipped in crinkled folds around her little black boots, and the pink of her legs was visible for three or four inches below the hem of her brown velvet Sunday dress. Down her back cascaded a mane of carefully curled hair, sparkling in the sun; not red and not gold, but somewhere in between. The white taffeta bow which held the front curls back from her face hung draggled and limp; dust smeared her dress. She held the doll’s clothes tightly in one hand, the other pushing vainly at Hughie.
“You bloody little bastards!”
Jack and Hughie scrambled to their feet and ran, the doll forgotten; when Frank swore it was politic to run.
“If I catch you flaming little twerps touching that doll again I’ll brand your shitty little arses!” Frank yelled after them.
He bent down and took Meggie’s shoulders between his hands, shaking her gently.
“Here, here there’s no need to cry! Come on now, they’ve gone and they’ll never touch your dolly again, I promise. Give me a smile for your birthday, eh?”
Her face was swollen, her eyes running; she stared at Frank out of grey eyes so large and full of tragedy that he felt his throat tighten. Pulling a dirty rag from his breeches pocket, he rubbed it clumsily over her face, then pinched her nose between its folds.
She did as she was told, hiccuping noisily as her tears dried. “Oh, Fruh-Fruh-Frank, they too-too-took Agnes away from me!” She sniffled. “Her huh-huh-hair all falled down and she loh-loh-lost all the pretty widdle puh-puh-pearls in it! They all falled in the gruh-gruh-grass and I can’t find them!”
The tears welled up again, splashing on Frank’s hand; he stared at his wet skin for a moment, then licked the drops off.
“Well, we’ll have to find them, won’t we? But you can’t find anything while you’re crying, you know, and what’s all this baby talk? I haven’t heard you say ‘widdle’ instead of ‘little’ for six months! Here, blow your nose again and then pick up poor…Agnes? If you don’t put her clothes on, she’ll get sunburned.”
He made her sit on the edge of the path and gave her the doll gently, then he crawled about searching the grass until he gave a triumphant whoop and held up a pearl.
“There! First one! We’ll find them all, you wait and see.”
Meggie watched her oldest brother adoringly while he picked among the grass blades, holding up each pearl as he found it; then she remembered how delicate Agnes’s skin must be, how easily it must burn, and bent her attention on clothing the doll. There did not seem any real injury. Her hair was tangled and loose, her arms and legs dirty where the boys had pushed and pulled at them, but everything still worked. A tortoise-shell comb nestled above each of Meggie’s ears; she tugged at one until it came free, and began to comb Agnes’s hair, which was genuine human hair, skillfully knotted onto a base of glue and gauze, and bleached until it was the color of gilded straw.
She was yanking inexpertly at a large knot when the dreadful thing happened. Off came the hair, all of it, dangling in a tousled clump from the teeth of the comb. Above Agnes’s smooth broad brow there was nothing; no head, no bald skull. Just an awful, yawning hole. Shivering in terror, Meggie leaned forward to peer inside the doll’s cranium. The inverted contours of cheeks and chin showed dimly, light glittered between the parted lips with their teeth a black, animal silhouette, and above all this were Agnes’s eyes, two horrible clicking balls speared by a wire rod that cruelly pierced her head.
Meggie’s scream was high and thin, unchildlike; she flung Agnes away and went on screaming, hands covering her face, shaking and shuddering. Then she felt Frank pull at her fingers and take her into his arms, pushing her face into the side of his neck. Wrapping her arms about him, she took comfort from him until his nearness calmed her enough to become aware of how nice he smelled, all horses and sweat and iron.
When she quietened, Frank made her tell him what was the matter; he picked up the doll and stared into its empty head in wonder, trying to remember if his infant universe had been so beset by strange terrors. But his unpleasant phantoms were of people and whispers and cold glances. Of his mother’s face pinched and shrinking, her hand trembling as it held his, the set of her shoulders.
What had Meggie seen, to make her take on so? He fancied she would not have been nearly so upset if poor Agnes had only bled when she lost her hair. Bleeding was a fact; someone in the Cleary family bled copiously at least once a week.
“Her eyes, her eyes!” Meggie whispered, refusing to look at the doll.
“She’s a bloody marvel, Meggie,” he murmured, his face nuzzling into her hair. How fine it was, how rich and full of color!
It took him half an hour of cajoling to make her look at Agnes, and half an hour more elapsed before he could persuade her to peer into the scalped hole. He showed her how the eyes worked, how very carefully they had been aligned to fit snugly yet swing easily opened or closed.
“Come on now, it’s time you went inside,” he told her, swinging her up into his arms and tucking the doll between his chest and hers. “We’ll get Mum to fix her up, eh? We’ll wash and iron her clothes, and glue on her hair again. I’ll make you some proper hairpins out of those pearls, too, so they can’t fall out and you can do her hair in all sorts of ways.”
Fiona Cleary was in the kitchen, peeling potatoes. She was a very handsome, very fair woman a little under medium height, but rather hard-faced and stern; she had an excellent figure with a tiny waist which had not thickened, in spite of the six babies she had carried beneath it. Her dress was grey calico, its skirts brushing the spotless floor, its front protected by an enormous starched white apron that looped around her neck and tied in the small of her spine with a crisp, perfect bow. From waking to sleeping she lived in the kitchen and back garden, her stout black boots beating a circular path from stove to laundry to vegetable patch to clotheslines and thence to the stove again.
She put her knife on the table and stared at Frank and Meggie, the corners of her beautiful mouth turning down.
“Meggie, I let you put on your Sunday-best dress this morning on one condition, that you didn’t get it dirty. And look at you! What a little grub you are!”
“Mum, it wasn’t her fault,” Frank protested. “Jack and Hughie took her doll away to try and find out how the arms and legs worked. I promised we’d fix it up as good as new. We can, can’t we?”
“Let me see.” Fee held out her hand for the doll.