When We Were Birds | Ayanna Lloyd Banwo | Granta

When We Were Birds

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo

Some days Darwin can’t work out how long he in the city. The calendar say nearly two months, but Fidelis have a different kind of time – the hours longer, the days deeper, and digging graves and lowering coffins in the ground is like watching whole lives fast-forward beginning to end. Fidelis make him adopt its rhythm instead of his own. And is not just Fidelis. Port Angeles crackle and spit like oil on a fireside and he start to like how he could disappear into it, just another one of the many somebodies that come here for whatever it is they come for.

He learning that even death in Fidelis does work in sync with the city. Payday? That mean hospital, courthouse and graveyard. Heavy rain? That mean road accident for so and they too busy to even laugh and old talk. Then it have other times when something start to ripple through the city – the wrong man get kill, the blocks get hot and is only sirens blaring out through the night. Them times they digging grave three, four a day and have to send for temporary workers so they could do more than one funeral same time.

But now as it get closer to November, around All Souls’ Day, is like the dead and the living come to a kind of a truce. All the graves quiet and sometimes he don’t see the other gravediggers at all for a couple days. He know they does work other jobs and get little contracts when things light in Fidelis, but nobody let Darwin in on the cut. True, he could use the money, but he don’t mind. The days when it was just him, even the weight of the keys in his pocket make him feel good. And when the street lamps come on, the outer edges of Fidelis gild in borrowed light, he stand at the crossroads right at the centre of the cemetery in near-darkness and feel his whole body relax, like how a man must feel when he finally reach in his own home after a long day and smell food cooking. Not that he ever know that feeling but he figure it must feel a little bit like this, like Fidelis at twilight.

Maybe everything does just get easier the longer you do it. True, some nights he still dream the heavy scissors in his hand, his head getting lighter with each cut, his locks spreading out amongst the zaboca leaves in the dirt yard. But each time he shave his head over the sink, he get more used to his reflection in the mirror. He make sure to gather every last strand and put them into a small clay bowl, say a prayer, strike a match and set it on fire. The bitter scent of burning hair somehow make him feel restful and safe. He was a man without law, without vow, but he was still his mother’s son.

But no matter how much he feel like he getting used to it, his life always half in shadow. Errol still giving him a little extra after each burial and he still taking it, although each time he feel a bit more uncomfortable. He tell himself, the same way somebody have to clean the streets, and somebody have to collect the garbage, and somebody have to pave the road, somebody have to bury the dead. He say it over and over till he believe it, and think of the envelope for his mother in his dresser drawer, getting fatter through the weeks and then slimmer each time he deposit some in her account, praying her pride don’t stop her from withdrawing it. He put his uncomfortable feelings in the envelope with the hundred-dollar bills and try not to look at either of them too hard.

Fidelis half in shadow too. Parts of it he could see plain, like how to dig a grave – how deep, how wide; how to deal with the grave paper; how to keep enough distance from the grieving so he there but not there; how to leave the stray dogs to sleep in an old crypt when he see them but run the lovers who looking for a little action; how to recognize the young boys who want to vandalize or stay in the cemetery at night on a dare.

But other things about it he not so sure, not sure at all. Like one day he clearing up on 4th Street and he notice a grave looking fresh, earth piled high. The rain fall for the last two days straight, and everything else flatted down and waterlogged, but this one look like they now finish fill it. And it wasn’t the first time either. He ask McIntosh about it and the man look him dead in his face and don’t answer, just move on to talking about something else like Darwin never ask him anything at all.

A next time he notice a concrete angel fall off the pedestal and smash on the roadway. Grey stone splinters scatter along the path, the face of the angel bash in. He look around and it don’t seem like anything missing. Just the statue tip over. It don’t make sense. He remember Errol talking about people breaking in an trying to steal things but nothing looking like it gone. The grave was old; he don’t think anyone bury in there for a while. He sure it eh dig while he was there so what knock over the angel?

He find himself looking over his shoulder, peering around at the graves, searching for anything out of place. He know it not possible to remember everything exactly the way it was, but he get into the habit of marking them, trying to memorize details, his eyes combing over the plots to figure out what was real and what was not. Maybe if he just look sharp enough he will catch the answer lurking just out of the corner of his eyes.

One week before All Saints’ Day, he at Fidelis first thing like always. He push one side of the iron gate all the way open and then the other so cars could drive through. He fetch the name, plot number and funeral time from Shirley since yesterday. He have maybe about fifteen minutes before the boys arrive. Half an hour if he was lucky and they all late.

He unlock the admin building and enter Shirley office. Everything neater since he fix the filing cabinet and bring in another one that he scavenge from an office throwing away old furniture down the road. They could put in a request for a new one with the regional corporation but, with everything strapped and stressed, finding new things for people who does deal with the dead wasn’t a priority. He was glad to see Shirley face light up when he bring it. He even fix the broken clock above her desk and help her put the files in order so she could get them easier.

He get a mug and the nice Jamaican brew she like from the cupboard, and set up the timer on the coffee maker so it would be ready for her when she come.

From Shirley window, the hills that surround the city look clean and lush and Fidelis peaceful with nobody there but him. But no – a figure catch his eye, someone that not supposed to be there. The dreadlocks man he see before. How he reach here so early? Darwin wonder if he make a mistake closing up yesterday, miss the man sleeping among the graves and leave him here overnight.

Darwin feel kinda irritated that somebody else there to disturb his peace, but the man just walking around the graves, no scene. It early but sometimes people does come to visit their dead before they go to work or use Fidelis as a shortcut from one side of Queen Isabella Street to the next. Something about him, though. Moving in no regular pattern but fast, flowing strides like he almost running. Passing behind the mausoleums and miniature spires, in between the statues of the Virgin and the cherubs and the thick stone crosses, disappearing and then reappearing further away, each time just a little further than Darwin eyes expect. Even from high up, he could see the set of the man back, the dread, the way he walk, legs long and lean. And then he stop, turn back toward the admin building, look straight up at Darwin. He hold his eye unblinking for a long moment. And then he raise his hand.

Darwin don’t even know he decide before he running down the stairs, bursting out the admin building and taking off after him. The man stepping over each grave like it easy, not sticking to the roads at all. Darwin try to follow him, but he can’t bring himself to run on people grave. He try to get ahead of him, run two streets up on the main road then duck back in, cut him off, but he lose him for a second time. Where he going? Darwin sprint back to the main road – he must be able to see him if he look down each street – but every time he catch a glimpse he lose him again, first behind two huge mausoleums, then again behind a big samaan tree. He must cross one of the streets sometime, just a matter of waiting him out. Finally, he spot him. The man emerge onto 12th Street and stop. He standing with his back to Darwin, looking down at the first grave Darwin ever dig. The memory clear. The old man, the white lilies, the way the marigolds had blaze gold in the late-afternoon sun. Whatever remain of them long gone now. And yet even from here he could see Mrs Julius grave look fresh, the mound of dirt still high and round like if someone just finish it.

Darwin don’t dare call out. His heart beating so loud he feel the man could hear it all the way across the road. If he shout, maybe the man would turn around and he could be sure, he could be sure of what he seeing. But he never turn around and Darwin start to feel like a fool just standing there staring at a stranger. He force his heartbeat to slow. Stop being foolish. Is a good thing. Just somebody come to visit Mrs Julius grave, a family friend, somebody from their church. Must be that. He shake his head and walk away. This place making him crazy. Running behind people just minding their own business this hour of the morning. He almost reach the main road when he turn, just one more look before he head back to the office. The man gone.

Shirley meet him sitting on the steps of the admin building in a daze. ‘Morning, Darwin! Nice day, eh?’ Her voice sunny like somebody who never give a second thought to whether they going mad.


Image © bnilsen


This is an excerpt from When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, published by Hamish Hamilton on 10 February 2022 Copyright Ayanna Banwo Lloyd 2022.


Ayanna Lloyd Banwo

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo is a writer from Trinidad & Tobago. She is a graduate of the University of the West Indies and holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where she is now a Creative and Critical Writing PhD candidate. Her work has been published in Moko Magazine, Small Axe and PREE, among others, and shortlisted for Small Axe Literary Competition and the Wasafiri New Writing Prize. When We Were Birds is her first novel; she is now working on her second which will be published by Hamish Hamilton in 2025. Ayanna lives with her husband in London.

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