I arrived at Zindan Central Cemetery’s east gate an hour before dawn and waited for the man who promised to clear the sky of birds. Above me, the dark murmuration twisted and thrashed. Shortly before sunrise, I saw a dim, dancing light approaching on the East Gate road. The light moved closer - it was a lantern mounted on a donkey-driven cart.
The cart lumbered forward slowly. I wanted to run out to meet him, and to urge him to hasten to the cemetery. The future fortunes of my family now depended on this strange man and his promise to somehow rid the sky of birds. In an hour, the workmen would need to start assembling the scaffolds and banners for them to be ready for the Great Khozem’s internment. The film crew would need time to set up their cameras for the filming. Why wouldn’t he drive the cart faster?
The cart eventually rolled through the gate, and I met the man with a wave. “Shall we get started immediately? Please.”
He climbed off the cart without answering me. He removed his strange hat and put it on the head of one of the donkeys. He smiled at me and pulled the canvas off the cart with a flourish. The cart was full of bird cages - fifteen in total - each with a single hawk perched inside.
At that moment, the starlings in the sky directly above us panicked. The normal rhythm of the murmuration changed. The starlings began flying in an expanding spiral, as if each bird was leading the next on a path to put distance between the flock and the cart.
The man opened one cage. The hawk inside dutifully hopped onto his wrist. He carefully extracted the raptor from the cage and whispered to it. The bird regarded him and cocked its head as if it understood what it was told.
“Yah!” He shouted and thrust his arm in the air, launching the hawk into the sky. Then he turned to the next bird cage and did the same thing.
The change in the murmuration was immediate. The hawk flew upwards in a tight spiral, and the birds above fell into a frenzy to get away. The hawk accelerated and the starlings fled from its path.
“Yah!” The man launched the next hawk into the sky, and the chaos in the starlings spread further.
The pair of hawks coordinated their efforts to strike fear into the starlings. They managed to separate a mass of birds from the bulk of the flock, and chased them downwards. The isolated group of terrified starlings accelerated towards the ground and the hawks followed. The diving raptors spread their wings an instant before they would have hit the ground and reversed their dive, using all their speed to climb back into the sky. The starlings, however, seemed to make no attempt at all to perform such a maneuver. The mass of a thousand black birds smacked into the grass and gravestones a hundred meters from the east gate. Even from where I stood at the gate, I could hear the cracks of their tiny necks snapping when they hit the ground.
Most of the starlings remained motionless after hitting the ground - killed instantly by the impact. A few of the birds pathetically flapped and flopped about on the ground but were too damaged to return to the air.
“Yah!” Another hawk launched. The third bird caught up with the first two, and the trio performed the same trick again - isolating a portion of the murmuration and chasing it into the ground. The bodies of another thousand starlings lay scattered on the ground.
He launched his hawks into the air again and again and the vicious chase of the starlings became even more deadly. Soon all the hawks were flying and the cemetery became even more chaotic. The terrorized birds flew into the ground like sheets of storm-driven rain.
Everywhere I looked, the suicidal starlings plunged from the sky and broke themselves on the Earth. I had to duck and shield my head when a wave of hundreds of birds crashed around me. A dozen slammed into my arms and back, pocking my skin with tiny beak-shaped divots. I crawled under the donkey cart and watched the dead and dying birds pile around the wheels.
The storm of birds intensified. Their corpses accumulated around the cart like drifting snow, and soon I could not see anything beyond the cart save the still-growing pile of carcasses.
I don’t know how long I stayed under the cart. It may have only been ten minutes, but it felt like hours. Occasionally the man laughed loudly and shouted in a language I had never heard before. I was bleeding from the dozen small wounds I sustained from only a few seconds exposure to the avian calamity before I sought shelter under the cart. I don’t know how he managed to remain unaffected by the storm of birds.
The man stopped laughing and shouting. The roar of the starlings breaking themselves on the ground slowed, and eventually stopped. The dead birds piled around the cart blocked the light, and the space underneath was dark as night.
There were new sounds from above - faint fumblings from the bed of the cart. Then a shout and the sound of the man slapping a donkey’s flank. The cart rolled away, lurching over the piles of dead and dying birds that had spilled under the wheels. Above me, the underside of the cart was replaced with a perfectly clear blue sky.
I stood and looked from the sky to the ground. The elegantly manicured grounds of Zindan Central Cemetery were buried under dead starlings. The bird corpses were piled in drifts like wind-driven snow. Waist-high heaps lay at the foot of Zindan’s oak trees. The road from the east gate, and the pathways through the burial grounds were invisible under an ankle-deep blanket of feathers, feet, beaks, and blood.
“The sky is clear!” The man shouted to me. He removed his hat from the donkey’s head and put it on his own.
“The cemetery is ruined! The Great Khozem will be here in a few hours. He will be buried in a sea of dead birds.”
“Yes, bury him,” the man continued as if I had said nothing. “I will return in three days.”
He climbed on the cart, and rode towards the gate, crushing the bodies of countless birds as he left the cemetery.