The Dying Hour

It happened at the same time every day, the same time that the school bells clanged wildly, signaling the release of the captives who fled in all directions in a blur of wildly colored coats. On a park bench outside the school I would sit each day and wait. I didn’t face the school but the empty lot across the street, the one surrounded by a crumbling wooden fence whose only method of deterrence was its own dreadful ugliness. Each day on that bench I watched the empty lot for the time when the birds would gather to pick at the bones of the man who went there to die.

And he would die each day, each afternoon the same way. He would walk out from behind the tree that stood just outside the lot (for there were no trees in the lot, only scrub grass and native weeds) and duck under one of the gaping holes in the fence. He would then make his way to the eastern corner and stand a few yards from the perimeter, facing west so the sun (if there was any that day) would touch his face. By this point his eyes, which I imagined to be green during life, had already turned gray, and deep hollows nested under his cheekbones. It was then that the silent howling would begin. He opened his mouth wide, revealing his toothlessness like a twist in the plot, and strained his muscles, but no sound came out. He tilted his head back slightly, stretched out his arms—-reaching, reaching!—-and fixed his eyes on some point in the distance. Each time I concentrated all my energy on following his gaze, but he was reaching for something I had no power to see.

Soon the silence of his wailing would be overtaken by the slow fluttering of wings, and I sat back for the final act. The birds were gathering. They would land on him, one by one, politely, until his entire body was covered with sharp little claws that clung to every inch of fabric, skin, and hair. In a grotesque but highly organized process they destroyed everything human about him, pecking, tearing, swallowing. When they had their fill, they flew away to create mandalas in the sky and left only a pile of dirt (or was it ashes?) where the man stood.

The whole thing took only about twenty minutes, not even enough time for your coffee to grow cold if forgotten on the kitchen counter. The children let out from school had seen nothing. The parents who came to pick them up had seen nothing, and neither had the teachers or the crossing guards or the passersby. But I! I could not let it happen with no one watching, with no witness to say “I saw him there. He was there once.” So I went each day, and when it was all over I would stand up, put my hands in my pockets, and walk down the sidewalk until the walls of the city turned to green hedges and the people became rose gardens, lying still in ecstatic moonlight.

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