The experts who long-ago voiced their nebulous and caveat-encrusted concerns about the implications of Zindan's wall were finally proven right. Construction of a wall that so thoroughly isolated such a large section of the verdant Zindan valley from the surrounding ecosystem eventually had unexpected and startling consequences.
Without the goats and farming activity on the land, downthistle, an ordinary weed, flourished. Downthistle's seeds are a favorite of the starlings, which settled in the cemetery in great numbers. The starlings ate the thistle and spread its seeds over the vast grounds. The thistle grew prolifically and nourished new generations of starlings.
The growth in the starling population was geometric. Five years ago, when the Great Khozem survived his health incident, flocks of starlings could occasionally be found flying over the graves of Zindan. Viewed at a distance, these murmurations of black birds looked like twisting and shifting drops of ink splashed into the sky. They were fascinating to watch, but caused no serious problems to the operation of the cemetery.
The next year the mumurations were much larger - a constant and vaguely sinister presence in the sky above Zindan. There are no superstitions about starlings in our culture. Nevertheless, the sight of a black, undulating cloud in the sky over the million graves of Zindan has great potential to harm the fragile spiritual reputation of the cemetery.
We experimented with methods to disperse the flocks during funerals, to avoid any negative associations between the murmurations and Zindan: blanks shot from cannons, mobile theremins mounted on trucks with high-volume speakers. We even launched fireworks directly into the flocks.
These methods worked for a time. We were able to disperse the flocks, or convince them to temporarily move to areas of the cemetery away from funeral activity. But any battle against geometric growth is doomed, sooner or later.
By the time the Great Khozem ultimately did leave the world of the living, there was no part of the cemetery free from the starlings. All of Zindan's graves lay under a continuously contorting black cloud of birds. The murmurations blotted out the sun and instilled an extreme sense of unease, or even dred, in nearly all visitors to the cemetery.
In addition to the disturbing aesthetic qualities the billions of birds lend to the cemetery, they also produce a practical problem - a constant rain of droppings. Anyone not protected by an umbrella while outdoors will soon find themselves speckled with droppings. The funeral wagons must run their windshield wipers continuously when they lead processions to the grave sites. Tents are required to shelter funeral guests, even on days with no rain.
On the day the Great Khozem Vladisher died, the murmurations were worse than ever. The flock’s cycle of geometric growth had taken another turn, adding more birds to the sky in a single day than had existed in the cemetery a month before. The murmurations blocked the sun, and, inside the wall, the normally glorious Zindan sunrise instead was an unearthly twilight emanating from the twisting and thrashing sky.
I had spent that morning in the cemetery personally operating a mobile theremin in an effort to open the sky over the east gate, and therefore I had not heard the announcement over the radio that the Great Khozem had died. Instead, I learned the profound news when the second deputy minister of the Central Internment Bureau himself raced into the cemetery to personally oversee preparations for the funeral.
The second deputy minister managed to make the trip from the capital to the cemetery in three hours by way of motorcycle brigade. When I saw the second deputy and his escorts scream through the east gate, I knew, without being told, that the Great Khozem had died.
There can be no doubt that the Central Internment Bureau was aware of the problem of the murmurations. But what does it mean to say that an organization of ten thousand workers has awareness of an inconvenient fact?
Letters complaining of the murmurations and describing the modest success of our efforts to disperse them were written. These letters found their way to the desks of eleventh and twelfth deputies. The tenth deputy received a summary of our series of letters. The ninth deputy was told in passing of the problem. The eighth deputy learned of “some kind of problem with birds” while eating lunch with the ninth. The seventh deputy preferred to focus on the fact that efforts to solve the problem were in use, without delving into the fact that those efforts had limited and dwindling effect. Information of the murmurations never rose above the bureau’s mid-level officers.
I met the second deputy as he came through the east gate. He was truly shocked by the undulating black mass that floated over the cemetery. He stood next to his motorcycle for a full minute, staring into the sky, before finally shouting:
“What in the latrine of hell is all of this?”
He meant to say something else, but at that moment, a white glob, ejected from one of the billions of starlings flying above, landed directly on his face.