"What do you do after work?" Robin asked me one day after the office closed. She was the only available woman on my floor. Her hair was always done up so tight, I'd love to have seen it in a sweaty ruinous mess, but that day I was more interested in what I was doing after work.
"Bird watching," I replied in a rush out the door.
I had discovered the trick. No one was replacing the birds. It wasn't magic either. It was some bizarre natural compulsion in the avian race. I searched meticulously for any reference to it. Scoured books and academic journals. Even called a professor I’m on good terms with at the local university and... hinted at what I had seen, for fear of being taken for schizophrenic. But there was nothing familiar anywhere in my research. I couldn't figure it out, and quickly found myself duty-bound and devoted to observing the mystery.
The reason I didn't hear anything open the gate that day was that the thing didn't need to open the gate. It was a bird. A bigger, prettier, more vicious-looking bird than the one on the grave. It ate. It died. I missed it while my nose was buried in a book waiting for the sound of someone walking by.
It almost seemed natural. Maybe the dead bird was poisoned, and so the living bird ate the dead bird, ingested the poison, and then died.
It's like when we killed rats with poison in my old neighbourhood, and cats were dying left and right from eating the toxic corpses.
But not all of the birds were carnivores. I checked a bird watching guide—my trusty companion through my observations. Most were omnivores, and some herbivores. I wondered if the corpse truly was being eaten, as I had been too far away to see the feast itself. So one day I set myself up with a pair of binoculars and a clear view of the stage. It wasn't long before the feathery star gracefully settled on the stone beside its fallen brother.
Before the horrifying performance began, the newcomer stared at the deceased. It stood so perfectly still that I could hardly tell which was dead. A minute later, a full minute of this still silence, something seemed to… burrow out of the living creature's chest, parting feathers as it did. The bird stooped low over the corpse, pulled toward the body by whatever was tearing it open. A crack of dark red split the bird's chest in two, and from the crack there hung sinewy tendrils of red flesh, bits of rib bone at the end of each, that grasped hungrily at the sacrifice like a mouthful of loose teeth swinging on their roots. Slowly, too slowly to bear, the split bird enveloped the smaller bird's body in the opening until it was pressing its gaping breast flat on the stone, completely hiding its meal from sight.
Then it stood up, having been returned to perfect health, and hopped about once or twice before making to fly off. But it didn't fly off. It froze, wings spread, and stared silently at the sky for another full, torturous minute of still silence. Then it folded its wings in tired defeat and rolled over onto the stone, replacing its recently devoured predecessor.
I did not share this observation with anyone else at the time, nor did I ever watch again when a bird lighted on the stone to feed. I'd be called mad to speak of it. I could. But what struck me as far more horrifying was the possibility that, despite my research, I could somehow be assured it was natural.