The Song of the Stork
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Antonin Zakharov never feared anything. What's the point of being afraid of animals that are smaller than you? What's the point of being afraid of the night? In his childhood, the presence at home of his father, who had been in the Red Army, was enough to make him feel safe. But now that he was a man, Baba Yaga and the bogeymen were nothing for him but stories told to calm down turbulent children. The other fears? Zakharov always succeeded in rationalizing them, he kept his calm even when facing situations that would have made the bravest KGB agent shiver. This was why he was there, how he got to his position as an inspector and liaison officer between the ordinary law enforcement agencies of the Soviet Union and the GRU-P. This was what brought him to the Lubyanka, to the KGB headquarters.

The officer in front of him looked scared and tired. He was pale. A disgrace for an institution as crucial as the secret police in maintaining order and ideology, even more so when there, at the Baltic Republics, troublemakers plagued the minds of locals with dangerous ideas. A watch bearing an inscription in the Latin alphabet was lying on the desk. Zakharov had been told that the KGB might have something that could interest the GRU-P.

Lately, this watch, made by a Swiss company, had been involved in two strange deaths: the one of an officer decorated for his military service in Afghanistan a few years earlier and the one of a scientist rewarded for his work. The first one had been found at his home, stabbed in the heart by something that looked like a long ice pick, while the body was covered with numerous wounds. The second had hanged himself in his office at the Moscow University. Both of them had received the watch as a gift from the Party.

For Zakharov, all of this seemed like a coincidence. It was easy to point to the abnormal as soon as clues were missing. However, the agent in front of him seemingly wanted to get rid of the watch at all costs for reasons he couldn't really explain. He was nervously looking around him every ten seconds. Zakharov saw him flinch when a bird chirped outside the window of the office. What a coward… The agent of the GRU-P looked carefully through the files. Sure, this could just be a series of unrelated events, but he had learned to always be scrupulous. The circumstances behind the presumed murder of the soldier were strange. Although the blow in the chest had proved to be lethal, the analyses were unable to determine the cause of the wounds covering the victim's body. Regarding the second case, it wasn't unusual for researchers to break down under KGB pressure, and censorship had pushed many of them to do the unthinkable. However, this one was a model citizen and his research never was a problem for the regime. Besides, there was the behavior of his interlocutor… He had already seen people in this kind of state, but usually it was those whom the KGB pursued who showed signs of paranoia, not the agents of the secret police.

Zakharov took the watch and was able to catch a glimpse of a nervous yet relieved smile from the agent who opened the door for him to leave. It is just at this moment that the latter let out a strange sentence:

— I hope they'll stop singing now.

The watch wasn't a priority for Zakharov, he had quite a lot of files to handle. Bureaucracy within the Soviet institutions was still a heavy burden, and the GRU-P was no exception to it.

He had placed the watch on his desk after having quickly examined it. It worked properly, and within the silence of Zakharov's Muscovite apartment, you could hear the ticking of the seconds hand on the dial.

Completely absorbed by his files, Zakharov ceased to pay attention to it, even finding it slightly relaxing. But after a few hours, it became inexplicably unbearable. The Russian tried to shut the mechanism off, but when he looked up from the watch, he realized that the disturbing noise wasn't coming from the object in his hands, but rather from his window. A pigeon was casually walking on the iron ledge, its legs ending in tiny claws that were scratching the metal plate. Zakharov opened the window and tried to scare the importunate bird away. He could feel its wings flapping in his face, which made him step back and fall on his back. Grumbling at the filthy beast, he stood up and spotted in the distance a dark mass standing over the church of his neighborhood. Not something you often see in Moscow. A black stork was standing on the bell tower. Its silhouette ripping through the cloudy sky of the Russian capital. Zakharov found it unusually large, maybe because of the way it stood on top of the tower, looming over the neighborhood, which made it so imposing. Although he was quite far from the animal, Zakharov could see its long, blood-red beak topped by two blood-red eyes turned right towards him. He had the unpleasant feeling that the bird was looking directly into his eyes, threatening him. Its presence felt surreal, the more so at this time of the year, when the roof of the building was covered in a thin layer of snow. After an exchange of glances that seemed to last an eternity, the stork unfolded its wings, like an evil angel above the bell tower, and flew towards the window where Zakharov was now leaning, hypnotized by this apparition. The bird flew over the building and disappeared.

Zakharov started to feel strange, uncomfortable. For the very first time, in his inner self, he felt threatened.

During the following days, several small and unusual incidents disrupted Zakharov's routine, ordinarily set up like music paper, which made the investigator quite irritable.

First, there was that bird that saw fit to relieve itself on his gray wool coat while he was doing his daily walk through the park next to the Moscow headquarters of the GRU-P. Then, some sparrows surrounded him while he was quietly having lunch on a bench and took his food a few days later.

One day, when he had opened the window in order to get rid of the damn pigeon that seemed to have taken Zakharov's apartment as its new home, a new bird, a thrush, managed to get in. The claws of the animal had scratched his face, just a few centimeters away from his eye. Initially, Zakharov tried to get the thrush out using brooms and insults that he knew were useless. The bird simply stared at him with an evil eye and continuously changed its place.

As the bird landed on his desk, near the watch that the KGB had handed to him, Zakharov waved his arms towards the nearest window. The result was the opposite of what he hoped: the thrush flew up and attacked him with its wings and beak. And as if that wasn't enough, two other birds took advantage of the open windows to rush into the apartment as well. That was too much! With a big swing of the hand, he kicked back the thrush that went crashing against the wall. He seized his service weapon and shot right at the intruders in a cloud of feathers and blood. He saw himself in a mirror hanging in front of him, a red mark on his cheek, just above the cut made by the thrush. The mirror was facing a window and he could see a large, threatening shadow on its ledge. Another feathery nuisance? He turned around, his pistol ready for his next target, but the window frame was empty, only showing the large place at the foot of Zakharov's building and his church. On one of the fences in front of said church once again stood a black stork, its scarlet beak tucked in the dark feathers of its neck. Its red eyes seemed to be exploring Zakharov's mind. The cold Moscow wind waving the dark coat of the animal.

Zakharov then knew that he had made a huge mistake and that he was going to pay the price, one way or another. For the very first time of his life, he was feeling apprehensive.

He nervously turned away to escape the stork's inquisitive gaze, but when he looked back at the place, it had disappeared.

Weeks came one after the other and Zakharov noticed that there were more and more birds in Moscow this winter, especially within his daily life. Each morning, he heard singing at his window. On the way to his office, he would pass through troops of pigeons clustered together, flying away in a storm of feathers as he passed by, not failing to give him a few strokes of the wings and claws, and it was the same on his way back home. On the windows of his apartment, always were three or four birds of various species. He gave up on hunting them in order not to repeat the episode with the thrush. At nightfall, the sound of their feet on the guardrail and, sometimes, of their beaks hitting the glass, blended with the ticking of the watch, which he nearly forgot, too busy complaining about those damn birds, always more numerous, always more oppressive. In his sleep, there was one recurring pattern: black feathers. And when he woke up, the birdsong and the circle started all over again.

Zakharov felt like he was going crazy. Even the slightest cooing, the simplest chirping was enough to make him lose his temper. He had tried several times to fend off the assaults of pigeons, sparrows and all the other species of birds present in the Muscovite streets. But whenever he managed to hit one of his attackers, he could see the threatening shadow of the black stork getting closer and closer with each appearance. Even at night, he could see at the corner of an alley, at the top of a building, the two small flaming rubies staring at him in the dark.

They were even chasing him in his dreams, where the stork would show up, stalking him from a tree, a window, or on a wall. Zakharov began to lose sleep. Not only was the disturbing presence of the bird with the dark plumage in his dreams making it difficult for him to rest, but the incessant cooing, the increasing number of birds in front of his windows, the screeching of the claws on the iron, the sound of the wings and the feeling that he was no longer seeing birds but a shapeless, feathery, and noisy mass made it difficult for him to fall asleep.

He had asked his colleagues if they also had noticed the sudden abundance of birds this winter, as well as the aggressiveness of the said birds. The answer was that he must have been drinking too much. The bags under his eyes and lack of sleep were the source of many rumors in the halls of the GRU-P headquarters, which all pointed in that direction. The great Antonin Zakharov, model agent, was said to have fallen into alcoholism and had become a mere shadow of his former self. However, the troubles in the Baltic Republics and the recovery of the abnormal objects that the Soviet Union had discovered or was keeping there monopolized everyone's time, and Zakharov's concerns were nothing more than a laughing stock in this tense atmosphere, which did not help the investigator to keep control of his nerves. For the heads of the GRU-P it was out of the question to let anything fall into the grip of the Foundation or any other similar group. Those damn singers! It had to be the moment when they show their true nature of devious traitors! When Zakharov needed some peace and quiet…

And those goddamn birds that continued to swarm at his window! Who were watching him like a caged animal! Who were harassing him day and night without interruption! That was enough for him! Enough!

As his patience was wearing thin, his nerves finally snapped. He grabbed a big book from his desk and threw it at the window of his office on the second floor of the GRU-P building, near the Red Square. The glass shattered and the birds flew away. All but two of them, which fell to the ground. Zakharov, who had lost control, ran towards the broken window screaming. And he saw them, lying on the place near his projectile, their wings spread, punctured by shards of glass, like angels fallen from the sky.

Then he heard a series of small, and disturbing clacks - of a beak, he thought - in the room, close to Zakharov's ear. It was here… He had never heard a stork's song, yet he knew it, he was sure of it. The threatening song was getting closer. This hellish creature seemed to choose its moments to come and torture its victim. Zakharov could picture the bird coming up behind him, clapping, ready to rip his heart out with its long beak, to slit his throat with its claws, or to push him through the broken window with a flap of its wings. He turned suddenly, but there was nothing. He once again looked out the window and saw the stork staring at him at the foot of the building. It waved its wings as a warning. No one seemed to notice the animal, which shouldn't have been there.

Zakharov's superior had sent him back home, claiming that in the current situation, an agent unable to keep his temper was no good, but that he was willing to do his subordinate a favor, because of the quality of his past work, by not reporting the incident which had alarmed the whole floor, on the condition that he would remain at home for the next few days. Zakharov spent the rest of the day at the window of his apartment, looking for another appearance of the black stork. Of course, the view was still and always obstructed by the presence of the swarming birds in front of his window, now covered with guano, but he knew, that it was there, somewhere, ready to strike at him at the first opportunity.

The next day, after a way too unrestful sleep, he turned his attention to the watch. Everything started when he got his hands on it. He remembered the state in which the KGB agent was when he gave it to him. The latter had retrieved the object some time before entrusting it to Zakharov. What if, with time, he would end up like this frightened rag? He had to figure out what was going on. For the first time since he had left the Lubyanka, he examined the files and got a glimpse of what would happen if he were to stay put. Probably mentally exhausted, the scientist had broken down, and the military man must have been the victim of a much more violent attack than what Zakharov had experienced in the last few weeks. What previously seemed like an ice pick blow could only be a sharp beak in the eyes of Zakharov, now obsessed with the stork and the wounds, the fruit of repeated attacks of the small acolytes of this demon, because they all seemed to be linked to this one, reporting the smallest actions of their target, whispering dark schemes to themselves, weakening his mind, breaking him mentally.

What was going on with this watch? Was it an abnormal object designed to harm the Soviet government? In Russia, several abnormal groups existed, but they were monitored to some extent by the GRU-P. Moreover, this watch was made in Switzerland. Surely, it was a trick of the Westerners.

Then he got an idea. He grabbed with both hands the bust of Lenin that was on his desk and slammed it down on the watch. He could hear the glass of the dial shatter, feel the object bend and crumble from the impact. He caught his breath - the chest had a certain weight to it - and put his improvised weapon back in its usual place. He admired the source of his problems, now reduced to useless scraps.

During the night, while he was in bed, Zakharov could once again distinguish the clacking sounds he had heard in the morning. They were accompanied by slow footsteps on the wooden floor. This confirmed what Zakharov thought, that this creature was bigger and stronger than a simple stork. He pictured the long red legs ending in claws as sharp as knives landing on the floor. He could already feel them tearing his eyes to pieces. The footsteps were coming from his living room, where he had moved the desk on which the remains of the watch were lying. The clacking seemed to be like a rhythm, a melody, one of those songs that those damned Estonians sang on the videos that the GRU-P had shown to its employees as a justification for the repatriation of anomalous objects from the Baltic area to Moscow.

The footsteps were getting closer to Zakharov's bedroom, who reached for his service weapon. The clacking became louder and louder… The door was closed, an ordinary bird couldn't open it. But it was now obvious to him that this animal had nothing normal about it. It was a demon, an ill-omened messenger coming to torment him, and its mournful song, accompanied by the choirs of birds at his window, just confirmed it.

Although he was worried, he was prepared: he had destroyed the watch and therefore, there was nothing left to summon this stork of misfortune if he managed to get rid of it. Then suddenly, as they seemed to be right in front of the door, the clacking and the footsteps ceased…

The silence was now only disturbed by the birds at the bedroom's window. The little beaks hitting the glass, the flapping of wings, the cooing, the chirping that seemed to carry on the melody of the now silent clacking. Zakharov felt a cold liquid flowing on his tempers, his stomach was knotted, his heart was beating wildly, all his senses were in alert.

For the very first time of his life, Antonin Zakharov was scared.

Still this silence only broken by the avian choir hiding behind the curtains. Zakharov could see a shadow in a corner of the room. He felt as if his chest was caught in a tight grip. He aimed his gun towards that direction and with his free hand turned the light switch on.

It was only his coat, hanging on the wall. He sighed out of relief. Then Zakharov turned his head. A few centimeters away from his face was the long beak of the stork that stood beside his bed, resuming its threatening song. It was staring at him with its blood-red eyes, pointing its bloody beak straight at Zakharov's throat. Despite being armed, he was paralyzed by fear, unable to make the smallest move. The red beak, which was less than two centimeters from his neck, was still threatening him. He backed away, but the monstrous bird climbed onto the bed and revealed itself in all its glory. It must have been the size of an adult man. Its gaze, while flamboyant, gave off an icy aura, colder than the Siberian wind that could fall on Moscow. The stork opened its dark wings, making it bigger, more disturbing. Zakharov felt his courage slipping out of every pore of his skin. He went pale, still paralyzed by fear. The animal took its momentum and stabbed its beak into the throat of its victim.

Drenched in sweat, Zakharov woke up screaming. It was just a nightmare! He got out of his bed and rushed to the sink in his room to wash his face. Is it how fear feels?

There was a flapping of wings outside. Zakharov flinched. He had heard it as if the bird were inside his room. What if he had condemned himself by destroying the watch? In any case, he would be the last victim of the curse it contained, he reassured himself. Nervous and unable to sleep, he went to his living room. The scream he gave must have woken up the neighbors because he heard them banging against the walls in protest.

The watch was still there, intact… with black feathers were scattered here and there in the room. The ticking of the second hand increasingly reminded him of the clacking of that black stork's beak. It had become the source of his fear, seemingly summoning all these birds. So, in order not to have to hear it any longer, he placed the watch in a cigar box, which he hid in a locker.

He had to get rid of this watch, even if it meant turning to the Devil himself. Those cursed birds would become a thorn in the side of the person or group whom he would give it to.

It took him two solid weeks, two weeks of sleepless nights and avian harassment, to establish contact with the Foundation. He was risking his life, but he would rather die having done the Soviet Union a favor than suffer the same fate as the two previous victims of the watch. It was now three months since he had first seen the stork, spring had given place to winter, as 1990 had given place to 1991. The meeting was to take place in Poland, in Poznan, a more or less neutral ground. It seemed strange to him that it was not taking place in Russia. These demons had agents everywhere, including on Soviet territory. He had received permission from his superior to leave the country. According to him, Zakharov needed some vacation, even if it was further west. The travel was done by train - travelling by air was out of the question, for obvious reasons. At the train station, the Russian saw the man who was to be his correspondent for the Foundation.

It was a tall man in a black suit. He was wearing sunglasses set on a long and angular nose. Zakharov immediately noticed a detail: a blue, black and white ribbon placed on the front pocket of his jacket. An Estonian… One of those sneaky liars, one of those ungrateful traitors, one of those singing peasants… If he could experience all that Zakharov had endured, it would be a most pleasant compensation. But that didn't change the fact that the Russian wished to be done with it as soon as possible, the idea to be near this man for more than fifteen minutes was disgusting for him. Moreover, after this meeting, he had planned to go to Ukraine at a seaside resort on the Black Sea.

— Antonin Zakharov, GRU-P, he said.

The man lifted his pointy nose from his newspaper and smiled. It wasn't a comforting smile, but rather a taunting smirk. Zakharov could even swear that he heard a chuckle, similar to those he used to hear from some of his feathered tormentors.

— My name doesn't really matter to you, said the man in a tone as dry as the clacking sound that had haunted the Russian for months. We don't want to drag out this meeting, especially since, from the look you give to the colors I carry, you don't seem to think much of me. Rest assured, I don't plan on becoming your friend. You said you had a watch that could be of interest to us. Let me see…

Zakharov handed the watch. Before taking it, the Estonian took a picture from his pocket and matched it with the object presented to him. He asked the Russian to show him the back of the dial.

— You can do it yourself, spitted Zakharov.

— Just to end up like you, Tibla? No, thanks. Please do as I say and if I do find what I'm looking for, I'll take the watch and we'll be done.

Reluctantly, especially after being insulted, the Muscovite showed what he wanted to the Foundation's agent. After a few seconds spent deciphering what was written on the tag at the back of the dial, the Baltic man grabbed the watch and casually slipped it in his pocket along with the photo. Even when Zakharov had already described - without going into too much detail, so as to give the Foundation a few surprises if it didn't know something about it - the abnormal effects of the object. This guy was either an amateur or serving as cannon fodder… However, the Foundation had promised him a compensation, and not the least.

As the Estonian was about to turn around and leave, Zakharov grabbed him by the arm. The man in suit looked at the Russian's hand with disgust.

— They promised me explanations, an exchange of information, what you knew about the watch in exchange for it.

The Baltic man spoke with disdain:

— Take your filthy hands off my arm…

— Not before you tell me what I want to hear. Just what was attracting those birds?

The Estonian gave him an evil smile. He stepped back and tapped his sleeve as if he were cleaning it of an invisible layer of dust. He re-adjusted his jacket and looked coldly at Zakharov.

— In your opinion, why was it an Estonian who came to meet you? Why did I pick up the watch without flinching as soon as I saw that it was the one I was thinking of? And above all, why don't I take note of your little omissions concerning the effects of the watch, especially regarding the stork?

The Muscovite remained speechless. His interlocutor resumed:

— It is very simple. Since the last two minutes, this object is no longer abnormal. It has been returned to its rightful owner. For the record, this watch was confiscated from my grandfather when he was sent to Siberia. Upon his return in Estonia, he asked to get it back and was told that it had been lost. This story came to the ears of his brother, a member of the resistance, one of the Forest Brothers. My people always had a strong connection with nature and some Estonians still practice some form of animism. My great-uncle made sure that the watch was safeguarded and protected from thieves until it was returned to its rightful owners. That's it.

— So you're not from the Foundation? You're just an activist?

The Estonian looked down and said with a hint of sadness:

— No, Zakharov, I'm a Foundation agent. But this was a very important case for me. I never lived in my own country. My grandmother fled Estonia with my father when he was still a child. I regret it, but hopefully my unborn son will have more luck than I did. Like birds, we sing, we will spread our wings and we will be free before the end of the year.

He had ended his sentence with an optimistic smile. But Zakharov wasn't satisfied. He still had the unpleasant feeling of being tracked and watched by the birds flying through the station, and worse, he could hear clacking sounds reminiscent of the stork. Getting rid of the watch was of no use. A pigeon flew over him and nearly attacked him. At this point, even the presence of a bird within a radius of five meters was enough to make him have a panic attack. He simply couldn't go on living like this. He didn't wish to end up terrified, cloistered at home, fearing the slightest cooing, out of fear that this one would call the black stork, out of fear that even the smallest sparrow could tear out his eye. He begged in a pleading voice:

— How can I get rid of these birds?

The man of the Foundation shook his head:

— Which birds? The ones that follow you even into your dreams? The ones that scare you? Come on, Zakharov, if some small peasants in the Baltic could live with the KGB for years, how would a few birds scare you…

He turned around and left Zakharov alone, in the middle of the crowd. As he walked away, the Estonian could be heard singing:

Usk edasi viib, taevane kiir

Saatmas on meid

Nii - on võiduni jäänud veel üks samm

Lühike samm, samm

Maa, isademaa, on püha see maa,

Mis vabaks nüüd saab

Laul, me võidulaul, kõlama see jääb

Peagi vaba eestit näed1

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