Zindan Central Cemetery - Part 6
The man who drove the cart wore an old karporal’s jacket from which the epaulets had been cut off, gravediggers’ pants, and black brakesman’s boots. His enormous hat appeared to be fashioned from a womans’ parasol. Claws of birds-of-prey hung around the perimeter of his umbrella-like headwear like decorations hanging from a lampshade. A dirty canvas tarp was draped over the frame of the cart, obscuring the nature of his cargo.
He spoke when I approached as if he was expecting me. “The Great Khozem will be here in a matter of hours. I saw him a short time ago, at the train station in Relchnik.”
Relchnik was four hours away by rail. The Great Khozem was scheduled to lie in state there for three hours this evening, before progressing west towards Zindan.
“There are no trains from Relchnik today,” I said, “save the one that will carry the Great Khozem here overnight. You could not possibly have seen him there, and then traveled here.”
He ignored my statement of the impossibility of his travels and continued speaking. “His funery cart is painted a beautiful deep green - the color of his regimental banner, I believe. It is drawn by perfectly black horses. Both the cart and the horses will be speckled with white birdshit within seconds of entering Zindan.”
“You are telling me things that I already know. I personally designed the Great Khozem’s interment processional.”
“Then you must also know that his casket is open. By the time you finally lower him into the ground, The Great Khozem Vladisher, hero of the nation, will also be covered in birdshit.”
“Who are you?”
“I am a man who knows quite a bit about birds. I can rid the sky above Zindan of starlings. I can even have it done before the Khozem arrives.”
“Then please do so.”
“I have lived in your country for a long time. Long enough to know that the first matter of any business conducted is for a tender to be issued.”
“A tender? There is no time for issuance -”
“There is no need to be formal about it,” he interrupted. “Simply state what you need done, and I will respond with a proposed cost.”
I looked up. A small circle of the darkening evening sky was still visible through the writhing murmuration. I had not been able to create even a glimpse of the sky with my cannons and theremins and fireworks. Something in this man’s cart created a panic in the birds that flew overhead.
“Sir,” I said. “I require the removal of all birds from the sky over the Zindan Central Cemetery. The sky must be clear of birds by an hour after sunrise, to give us time to prepare for the Khozem’s arrival.”
“I can satisfy the requirements of your tender,” he said. “For a very modest cost. I shall clear the birds from the sky immediately after dawn tomorrow morning. Then I will leave Zindan. I will return in three days for my payment.”
“What will you require for payment?”
“I only require access to the grave of the Great Khozem. For one night.”
I took a step back from the strange man on his cart. My desperation to solve the problem of the starlings had filled my mind with a confused murmuration of thoughts. I had failed to see the danger that this man posed. His outrageous and sickening request cleared my mind, like his cart cleared the sky of birds directly above.
“You want to rob the grave of the Great Khozem?”
“Of course not!” The raptor claws hanging from the rim of his parasol-hat swung about like little pendulums as he shouted. “What an insulting proposition. I simply want to speak to his corpse.”
“It will be a small visit into the Great Khozem’s tomb. The Great Khozem himself would have wanted it.”
“How dare you come to Zindan! To the cemetery itself, and speak of desecrating graves.”
He stared at me for a minute. A white circle of birdshit landed on my shoulder. Another struck my wrist.
“Very well,” he said. He shouted at the donkeys and the cart slowly rolled forward. He whispered another command and the pair of animals turned the cart in an arc, returning to the east gate. “I wish you luck for tomorrow.”
I watched his cart roll back through the tall and narrow gap in Zindan’s wall. The wet impacts of birdshit landing on the road and the trees and the grass grew more frequent as he departed. A white blob splattered on my shoe. I ran after him.
I caught up with him as he passed through the far side of the gate. “Is there some other way to pay you to rid the sky of birds? Some other price you would accept?”
He halted the donkeys and turned to face me. The raptor claws dangling from his headpiece swung back and forth in front of his eyes.
“There is one other thing - only one other thing - that I value as much as the Great Khozem’s body. Your daughter.”
“She is already married.”
“Marriage is not my interest,” he said. “She has spent nearly her entire life in the walls of Zindan. As have her parents. She would make an exceptional object of study.”
“Who are you?”
“A traveler. A student. A poet. And a master of nature. I am the only person who can solve Zindan’s problems before the body of Vladisher arrives.”
“Very well,” I said. “If the birds are cleared from the sky one hour after dawn tomorrow, then I will grant you access to the body of the Great Khozem for a single night.”
He reached down from the cart and grasped my hand. “We have an agreement. I will return at dawn tomorrow. I promise you, the sky over Zindan will be clear.”
I merely thought that I had made an extremely unsavory pact with a darkly twisted individual. I did not know that I had just initiated the next dark chapter in the story of Zindan.