Zindan Central Cemetery - Final Part
I sprinted from the gate to the office. Twice I stumbled in the drifts of bird bodies and fell face-first into piles of dead and dying starlings. I burst into the office and woke the film crew and construction team. “The sky is clear,” I shouted. “The Khozem is coming!”
The film crew set up their equipment in a frenzy. The construction workers hastily hung the banners and flags from the scaffold and stage where the ceremony would take place. For three hours I screamed and cajoled the workers to make progress. Many were so horrified by the sight and, increasingly, the smell of the field of dead birds, that they were unable to function.
The workers were still completing their tasks when the Khozem’s funery train squealed to a halt at Zindan station. I urged them to make ready as best they could and headed to the gate to meet the procession.
The Khozem’s funery cart and horses were quickly and efficiently unloaded from the train. The funeral procession of soldiers and government officials formed up and began the short and solemn march to the east gate. The film crew began filming.
For a moment, I thought that all would somehow sort itself out. Perhaps, despite the ocean of dead birds, the ceremony would proceed acceptably. I managed to cling to this foolish daydream until the horses leading the procession stopped short in the east gate, apparently too frightened or disgusted by the scene inside the wall. Their handlers pulled their reins and slapped their flanks, but the horses refused to enter the cemetery.
I ran to the maintenance shed and retrieved a theremin truck. I drove to the gate, crushing birds and splashing the fenders and sides of the truck with their blood. I enlisted the help of the Khozem’s honor guard and even several of the officials to move the casket from the cart to the bed of the truck. I drove the rusty, blood-speckled truck through the gate, leading the procession to the funeral stage.
I drove past one of the motion picture cameras as the photographer captured the gruesome spectacle of the truck rolling over the bird-strewn roads, leaving a stream of blood and feathers behind it. The honor guard struggled and failed to remain dignified as they moved the Khozem’s casket off the truck bed, through a drift of bird bodies, and onto the stage. Several members of the honor guard slipped and fell, rising with uniforms caked with bird innards.
The high officials who accompanied the Khozem’s body gave speeches that were intended to provide a dignified celebration of the Khozem’s life and his impact on our nation. Because of the sight and smell of the piles of dead birds, they gagged and, in one case, vomited, during their remarks. In one of the film reels, workers can be seen hastily shoveling bird corpses out of the Khozem’s grave before his casket was sealed and lowered into it.
I awoke early the next morning and walked to the cemetery. The film crews and workers and officials from the capital had gone home. The truck I used to transport the Khozem’s casket sat next to the scaffolding and funeral stage. The scaffolding and stage had been stripped of the elegant flags and banners that hung during the ceremony and now could be seen as what they were - hastily constructed wooden structures.
Normally, the cemetery is quiet during these precious pre-dawn minutes. But today I could hear a faint buzz of flies busily preparing the ocean of festering starling carcasses to nurture a massive new generation of maggots. I wondered if another cycle of geometric growth had begun, this time insect-based instead of bird-based.
The headlight of a motorcycle appeared at the east gate. The driver stopped just inside the wall, apparently unsure how to drive through the wasteland of corpses. I walked to meet him, trudging carefully across the lawn, breathing through my mouth to minimize the impact of the strong and growing smell.
The motorcyclist was dressed in an Information Bureau messenger uniform, indicating that he was a courier. The message he carried was for me. Written only a few hours earlier by the Central Internment Bureau minister himself. The letter struck an unusually hostile tone for something written by a minister, and informed me that my family’s internment concession had been revoked. We were no longer considered servants of the Bureau. Even worse, the next five generations of my descendants were forbidden from doing business with Zindan Central Cemetery.
We were ruined. Banned from the profession we had dedicated our lives to.
I broke the news to my family over lunch. My sons railed against the unfairness of the situation. “We told them about the problem with the birds,” my oldest shouted. “They ignored it and are now blaming us!”
I had come to see matters differently, though. “The cemetery was created to solve the ludicrous problem of lofty internments,” I said. “It was a foolish response to a foolish problem. Perhaps we have profited enough from Zindan Central Cemetery. Perhaps we would be better off in a profession not founded on mass hysteria.”
My children did not see it my way, however. My daughter, in particular, spent the evening plotting ways of rehabilitating our reputation and recovering the concession that she believed was rightfully ours.
On the morning of the third day after the Khozem’s funeral, my daughter announced that she was traveling to the capital. Her husband, my son-in-law, was a low-level official in the Central Internment Bureau. He had other relatives that worked in various Ministries who might be willing, my daughter said, “to scheme to restore our concession.”
She finished packing her small red travel case and left for Zindan station. I watched her walk away on the east road, toward the station. She was nearly out of sight when she passed a donkey-drawn cart traveling the other direction.
The cart approached and I could soon see it was driven by a man wearing a karparl’s jacket, gravedigger’s pants, and a ludicrously wide-brimmed hat decorated with dangling raptor claws.
I marched to the road to meet him. “You ruined me! Ruined my family!”
“I did precisely what you asked - I rid the sky of starlings. Now I am here to access the Khozem’s grave. As you promised I could.”
“You destroyed my life. You destroyed the lives of the next five generations of my descendents. Our concession has been revoked.”
He continued as if I had said nothing. “I shall collect my payment now, please.”
“Did you hear me? Our concession was revoked because of your supposed solution to the murmurations. I have no powers to grant you access to anything.”
“You refuse to pay me?”
“Our concession was revoked. I no longer have any authority in the cemetery.”
The man looked at the sky. The raptor claws hanging from the brim of his massive hat swung in unison. “Very well,” he finally said. “I shall take my payment in a different form.”
He removed his hat and put on the head one of his donkeys.
“What are you going to do? Raise the murmuration from the dead?”
Ignoring me, he pulled the filthy canvas off his cart, exposing his fifteen hawks in fifteen cages. He methodically opened each cage and gently extracted the hawks. Just as he did in the cemetery, he whispered something to each bird before launching it into the sky.
“Haven’t you done enough damage? What do you think you can accomplish now?”
He ignored me and launched the last of his birds into the air. All fifteen flew in a low, lazy circle above us.
He plucked his enormous hat off the donkey’s head and put it back on his own. “For the last time,” he said. “Will you let me access the Khozem’s corpse?”
“I cannot grant you that. And even if I could, I would not.”
He looked at his circling hawks in the sky and shouted to them “Polchityaya!”
“What does that mean? What are you doing?”
He ignored me and climbed onto his cart. The birds broke from their circle and flew east, following the road.
I thought for a moment - the birds were flying away from the cemetery, not towards it. What could they be after? My daughter! I recalled the strange thing he had said about her. She would make an exceptional object of study.
I sprinted after the birds, calling for my daughter. I had to warn her. To protect her. To stop the birds from doing whatever horrible task the man had given them.
I ran towards the train station, shouting for her as I went. My eyes were focused on the road far ahead, looking for my daughter. I tripped on inconsistencies in the road surface several times because I was not looking at the ground in front of me. Each time, I fell headlong onto the pavement, bloodying my hands and tearing the knees of my trousers.
The birds had flown out of sight, and the road ahead remained empty as I flung myself forward. Finally I saw something lying on the road. I flung myself forward, ignoring the pain in my lungs from the exertion of sprinting. It wasn’t a person - it was too small for that. It was red. I was nearly upon it before I realized that it was my daughter’s red travel bag.
I screamed for her. I search the brush on both sides of the road. I scanned the sky for the hawks. There was no sign of her. It was as if she was plucked from the road at that spot, and vanished.
The hawks must have taken her. I ran back towards my home, driven forward by rage. Rage at the perverted old man and his birds. Rage at myself for having entered into dealings with him. I arrived at the point where he had launched the birds into the sky, but he was not there. I continued towards the cemetery, searching the road ahead and the adjacent landscape for him. I found nothing. He was gone.
* * *
Bury me above the rest
Higher on a hill than all others in death
So that I may look down from my grave
My height reflecting the loft my life my spirit gave
Above me only birds
Below me, all else lies
Maybe he will visit me there
And whisper secrets to my corpse, things known to no one who’s alive
He will tell me about the sky
And what the birds think of my grave
And what the sky thinks of my life
And the loft that life my spirit gave
Then he will roll away
And I will finally sleep
He will find yet another corpse
Who is worthy to his secrets keep