McSweeney’s Quarterly is a finalist for the 2020 National Magazine Award for Fiction. The honor recognizes three stories we’ve published this year, by Mimi Lok, Lisa Taddeo, and Ope Adedeji. In celebration, we’ve made them available online.
Art by Anuj Shrestha
AFTER THE BIRDS
by Ope Adedeji
Tthe smell of air and taste of water make my skin crawl this morning. I know what’s happened: I swallowed my key last night. I feel something move in my belly and I try several times to throw it up. While kneading my belly, bent over a bowl in the sink, a bird attempts to break in through my kitchen window. I look up as it dances around the mosquito net. It gives up, perches on the sill, and winks. I catch a glimpse of the trimmings of its blue contour feathers and the rings of orange in its eyes before it bobs its head and flies away. The quiet morning sun grows around it until it disappears.
I saw a bird just like this one following my Uber last night when I left Isaac’s house. It was odd to see a bird’s color blend with midnight’s blue. It made a white mess on the windshield and danced around the side mirror until the driver did a sharp right swerve onto the expressway. At the time, there was no queasiness, and I know why: we do not always know in the moment that it’s one in which everything changes—we did not use a condom last night and I am not on the pill. The bird continued to fly over us in the evening darkness until a police officer stopped the car to ask if we had anything or any person in the boot. My mind left Isaac’s body and the sticky sweetness he pressed into me to focus on the possibilities of opening the Uber driver’s trunk to find a body, curled, tied in chains, dead. A few years ago, during the bar exams, my roommate, a pregnant mother, was studying outside when she saw a bird drop dead and get caught in the clothesline. She ran into the house panting. The child in her womb heaved as she prayed for God to rebuke the evil sent from her husband’s family to make her fail the exam or lose the new baby.
I wonder what the birds I see are saying to me.
During lunch at work, I break pieces of onion crackers into a white mug of creamy coffee because I can’t eat anything else. This is how I know something is happening to my body, that my body is stringing things together like when a bird creates its nest—it creates a hole that can be filled only by certain kinds of food. The knowledge is impossible, too early, but I know. Gloria is by my side, in front of the coffee maker in the kitchen. She is going on about the metaphysical and juju. I wonder if she can tell I’m thinking of her brother, Isaac. Her face twitches when she talks about humans who identify as fairies, she says these things are real to them.
“Same way human birds or cat witches are real things to religious people,” she says. Gloria’s twitching distracts me from contributing. I wonder if she feels the twitching; I run the tip of my index finger over the coarse skin around her eyes to make it stop. It feels like I’m touching a bird’s skin.
I cover my mouth and run to the toilet to throw up.
It’s my Nikkah this weekend. I’m getting married to Hakeem, to his quiet eyes and to the tiny lump of flesh by his index finger that I like to lick. It’s not that I don’t love him. I do. But I love Isaac more.
I saw Isaac yesterday. I’ll see him today and he’ll come inside me like he did yesterday—our last gifts to each other, yes and amen. He’s too wild to stay away from, but too cool on the tongue to be with forever. I met him at the nail shop on Admiralty Road, years ago. He’d come to get his nails done with Gloria; I looked up to see a square face with honey-brown eyes and textbook-asymmetrical features. They had an unsettling sameness to be just siblings.
I’d known Gloria for a few years before I met him. I’d first seen her face in a sultry Twitter display picture under the “Who to follow” list: lips black and slightly parted, face ashen, red ’fro, and eyes in a squint. Next, we swapped orange boots at National Youth Service Corps camp and took chilly 4 a.m. baths out in the open. We eventually became best friends over African and European fiction classics discussed in quiet conference rooms before staff meetings.
After we’d gotten new fingers, black for Gloria and Isaac, stiletto bright yellow with one finger bedazzled with gems for me, I invited them to hang out. I was housesitting for Hakeem, who was only an off-and-on boyfriend back then, so I said in a poetic voice, “Come and blend shadows with me under a bonfire in the yard.” They stared at each other but he was the one who got lost in broken laughter. When they arrived at Hakeem’s quiet house, we ate flowers and danced to frog croaks even though we were not high. The tall moringa tree with the empty nest watched us, and reported to Hakeem. It is the only explanation for the way Hakeem called, knowing I had guests.
“I’m glad you’re having fun,” he said. Oh, the sweet man.
The tree dropped tiny yellow leaves on us, mad. Isaac thought it wasn’t safe and left the house. Gloria stayed close and kissed my back as I slept on wet grass.
We don’t go to a bar, because Isaac doesn’t drink anymore. It was his New Year’s health-and-fitness resolution and he has stuck to it. He drinks only water and oranges, squeezed out without the pulp. We decide to ride one of the rickety boats behind his office, just so the water listens to our quiet.
Yesterday, we’d met up at Cactus, eating expensive fries and ice cream.
“I’m afraid of the jetty; it’s steep and there are rocks under my feet,” I say to him.
“You’re being dramatic,” he says. “It’s your imagination.”
He helps me put on my life jacket before we enter the boat.
“I met a bird,” he tells me when we’ve both sat and the engine has started.
His face is softer than usual. His tongue is subdued; he doesn’t look me in the eyes when he speaks. I conclude that he’s sad I’m leaving him, getting married after several years of seeing him on the side.
“Hmm?” I respond, distracted.
“Yup. She told me some, um, interesting stuff about you, and, um, me.”
I widen my cheek into a suggestive smile.
“I’m not lying,” he says and turns to the water. His black skin burns under a stubborn sun but he doesn’t sweat.
“Said we will never get married.”
“That’s why you’re my side bitch.”
He rolls his eyes. I wonder if that hurt him.
“Do you feel some way doing this with me while you’re about to be married to him?” he asks.
“I’ve known Hakeem all my life,” I say, then pause, contemplating the water.
“I don’t know how he’ll feel if he finds out you and I slept together a few days before our wedding.” I sigh before I continue, “I feel bad, a little. But we’ll stay away from each other after the wedding, right? Besides, Hakeem and I are saving ourselves for marriage.” I chuckle. “He should understand that I have needs.”
Isaac doesn’t reply. We are silent the rest of the time in the boat.
Two hours later, we are in the new building he runs his tech company from. His office is minimalist. My nude painting sits awkwardly on the wall behind a wooden desk. He painted it last month while I sat still, curled on the beach. My breasts seem bigger, my eyes too round, my tribal marks too small. The office smells of wood and of Isaac, who smells of Cantu. I’m going through the lease agreement of his building. He sits opposite me, fiddles with a bobblehead Obama, and nods to Niniola’s “Dola.” It’s a terrible playlist. Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water” plays next.
“You know what I think?” he asks, turning down the volume of the music.
I take off my glasses, rub my eyes, clasp my fingers, stare at him—a concentration technique.
“I think we should do it again tonight.”
I laugh. “Of course. Why do you think I’m here?”
“A last time before I die.”
“What? What do you mean? Don’t be like that just because I’m getting married, please.”
“Um, it’s not that. She said I’ll die. Soon.” His voice is raised now, but only slightly. He rubs his thumbs together. He looks exasperated.
“The bird.” He looks down at his fingers, my eyes follow his eyes; his nails are painted pink.
“I tried to follow her, ran down the road, then saw her hide behind an almond tree.” He turns to the ceiling.
“And? Talk now.”
“When I turned to the back of the tree, there was a woman dressed in a white garment, um, like cherubim and seraphim church clothing. She was holding a tambourine, singing. I couldn’t possibly accost her, accuse her of being a bird.”
“And nothing. The bird was gone. Can we just fuck again? Forget about this bird and everything I’ve said. Yesterday was great. Didn’t it feel good?”
I smile, then frown. “Tell me again where you first saw the bird?”
He points to the window.
The twins fought every day before they came out with round heads and sleepy eyes: Hassan and Hussain, Taiwo and Kehinde, Esau and Jacob. There was no question that they were the sons of their father, they had his complete hard-boiled egg head, but I saw Isaac in their eyes and asymmetrical features and wondered if it was a doubt I’d always live with.
The birds start to visit almost immediately. Hakeem starts a small garden, with pots of lilies, ixora, and aloe vera, and a wall of hibiscus, during the short paternity leave the bank gives him. His mother visits. She takes the twins and sits under the makeshift shade by the garden at midday, shaking her left leg. She tells me she is waiting. I don’t know what she’s waiting for, perhaps for the plants or the kids to grow. She’s the one who notices the birds, how they flock around the shade and peer at the boys.
“It’s nothing.” I shrug. “Birds like flowers.”
She’s a superstitious woman who carries a bottle of holy water and sprinkles it around the house. She blesses the food the twins eat, calling up several gods to be their protectors even though it’s mostly my breast milk.
She shakes her small head. “It’s not nothing, my dear.” It is something.
On a Tuesday a few days before Christmas, when the babies are six months and still boring—except that they can smile to show dimples like Isaac’s—Hakeem’s mother takes them out. She puts gloves on their hands and ties a cashmere scarf around her neck even though the heat slices the midday air. She doesn’t tell me where they’re headed. She smiles white lines and I itch to tell her to use a lip balm.
“You need a break, Arin,” she says.
She tells me they’ll be gone for three hours. “Rest,” she says.
It’s my first time alone since they were born. I’ve had a hunger inside since before they came that’s made me restless and broody. It’s not that the sex with Hakeem is bad, Isaac and I just have more sexual history; he knows my body better.
When the sound of Hakeem’s old car has left the yard, I shave my vagina and apply red lipstick. I’m still in my housedress, the blue playsuit I bought bend-down-select from Yaba market that I wear in the kitchen when I’m not tying a wrapper. I don’t think it matters. I’m not even wearing a bra. Before I start the car, I notice a hawk’s beak protruding from the roof of the building. I bend to get a closer look. Its talons are curled on a rod at the edge of the orange roof. It looks down on me, or my car, not smiling or frowning, just looking, perhaps even curious. After I start the ignition, I look up to find that it’s gone.
When I get to Isaac’s office, it is locked. A heavy padlock is on the black gate. There’s an inscription written in chalk on it: “This House Is Not for Sale, Beware of 419.” Below the words are torn campaign posters of the new APC candidate for governorship. And below them is a pile of junk—Lucozade, canned beer, pure water nylons. It’s very unlike Isaac to allow his building to crumble to this state. There’s no one anywhere on the quiet street to ask. I wanted my visit to be a surprise, so I hadn’t called before coming. I try to call now and his phone is switched off.
Except for a brief peck at the naming ceremony a few months ago, I haven’t seen or spoken to him since the day at his office. He did not show up for my Nikkah and did not send apologies. Gloria often keeps me up to speed, but since she moved away to Canada, it’s been quiet. Social media helped too. I used to stalk his activities on Instagram, my eyes lingering on his imperfectly shaped face for a while, until I got bored with social media, its deliberate pretentiousness, and decided to invest more time in reading fiction.
I head home a little worried and twice as stressed. Driving in Lagos is a nightmare. The heat makes me dream of food. I stop by a grocery store to buy foodstuff for dinner. I want to make yam porridge, the kind that is peppery and has chunks of fish and vegetables. When I get home, the gate man tells me there’s someone waiting to see me by the garden. I wonder who.
I burst into laughter when I see him. His face is bright, sawed to smoothness, a deep contrast to the white agbada he wears. He tells me he’s coming from a wedding, and has to make a quick stop at a funeral after he leaves me. I don’t ask who died. My mouth is too watery for questions. Isaac, my friend and possibly the father of my children, is here. I hug him tight.
He tells me I smell of crayfish and that my hair is a mess.
“The bloody thing,” I say running my fingers through tufts of hair. “I’m going to cut it soon sha.”
“Motherhood has really bent you.”
I poke him. I don’t want to think about it, how I have stopped working even though Hakeem didn’t say I should, and how I no longer care about my looks. We sit on a bench in the garden, staring at the flowerpots next to us.
He takes my fingers in his hands and draws circles around the lines on my flattened palm. We are quiet, listening to the berserk birds above us and the intermittent sound of bangers exploding around us. Christmas songs from the flat above float down to us but we don’t hear them. He still has that subdued look on his face, but now he wears it with wise eyes, a full Afro, and a beard. He brings his face close to mine, brushes his lips against my cheek. I close my eyes, thinking of the time his skin touched mine in his office, how his tongue danced down my body and made my toes curl into complete circles.
We stay like that for a while, listening to each other’s breathing.
“I’m sorry I was not there,” he says into my ears.
He stops short of saying for you, because he knows it could be the plural “you,” you and my kids. I shrug. He’s here now, isn’t he?
“I really missed you,” I say.
“I missed you too. I didn’t mean to stay away.”
I don’t want him to talk about his pain. I clasp his fingers.
“Did you change your number? I tried to call you. I have just been to your office.”
I don’t think it is strange that we made to see each other on the same day after months of quiet. I believe in things like this—love of my life, soul mates, love at first sight, love that transcends.
“I changed it,” he says. There’s a maturity in his mannerisms that had not been there when I saw him before my wedding or even when he came for the naming ceremony in jeans and a hoodie. There are so many words to say and yet so few come.
“I’m afraid to die,” he says.
“Stop it,” I say, drawing away from him.
“You won’t even ask why?”
I roll my eyes. “Why?”
“It’s just that ever since that bird told me I would die, I’ve just felt like I would.”
“What a foolish bird. Those things are manipulative. It’s been what? Fifteen months? Yet you’re not dead. You’re healthy, aren’t you?” I am wearing the thick tongue I’ve been preparing for when my children are older and I need to scold them.
I ask if he wants something to drink. He asks for water, smiling. He follows me into the house, sidestepping lizards and inhaling the thick harmattan smell. He plucks a hibiscus and sticks it into my hair. In the kitchen, while I pour him a glass of water, he stands behind me. He drinks up the water in no time. We stand in that position, his hand on my hip, my hair in his face, his crotch against my ass, breathing each other’s fragrances. He smells of plants and of sunshine—natural yet so unnatural. He cups my breast and kisses my neck. I moan. I’m so in tune with his body that I don’t hear the crying, the bang of the screen door, and the footsteps that make their way into the kitchen. He does, and dismantles his body from mine.
Mama walks in, flustered. Her cashmere scarf is now askew on her head and her white buba has several wet stains. She almost doesn’t notice him.
“Your children are so stressful, ah,” she says, pouring herself some water from the dispenser.
“Your grandchildren, Ma.” I hide my voice inside my chuckling.
She looks up at him through round horn-rimmed glasses. “And who do we have here?”
“Mama, this is Isaac, you know my friend Gloria? This is her younger brother. He was one of my clients.”
“Ah, ah. Omo mi, Gloria. Welcome, omo mi. How are you? How is work? How are your parents?”
Isaac, whose hands are folded behind his back, bends slightly in response to her greetings.
“Have you met the kids? Those naughty little things?”
He smiles, showing off his dimples. I notice Mama’s brief frown, then nothing.
“No, Ma. I was here very briefly during the naming ceremony but I’ve been traveling ever since. Just got back to the country so I said, Let me just quickly stop by.”
“Ah. Very good of you, my son. Thank you.”
She looks around.
“And have you had anything to eat?” she asks.
He stares at me. I look away. “Oh no, Ma. I’m not hungry. I just ate. I’m coming from a wedding.”
“Rara o. Nothing like that. Arin will quickly make jollof rice for you.”
I bite my tongue.
“Come to the parlor, come and look at them.”
He looks back at me as they leave. His eyes brim with tears I don’t understand. He is smiling, though, and that’s all that matters. My chest feels clogged, too, sad about something I cannot explain. I feel like I’m outside my body, watching this happen to someone else. As I work, smells come too sharply: of curry, and of chicken soaked in water, of my breast milk staining my dress, of him. The sounds are the same. His laughter is broken cackles, stored in the walls. Hers is soft and colorful. She tells him the twins are responsive and warm toward him because they can tell he is related to Gloria. If only she knew.
I occasionally walk into the parlor to see him kiss their faces or throw them up into the air. He can tell them apart. Their resemblance grows in front of me. Before it was just the dimples; now it’s the nose, flat and fat at the nostrils, the birthmark in the bridge between their eyes above the nose, the elf ears. My chest is clogged, there are tears sitting at the bottom of my throat.
When he starts to leave, the babies cry. I tell him they’re only being dramatic, like me. He slips a crumpled paper into my hand. I read it late at night when Hakeem is spooned against me, his eyes closed.
Thank you for bringing them into the world for me. Eternally indebted to you.
The news comes on a dry Friday night. It is Christmas Eve. Hakeem is cooking dinner while Hussain sucks from my breast. Hassan is in his cot in the nursery. The room smells of palm oil sizzling in a pot. I take Hassan outside to the veranda until it dies down. When we return, the fluorescent bulbs are on and the table is set. I rock Hassan to sleep, singing, “My Hassan, my sugar, let me love you forever, oh yeah” into his ears until his giggles trail off.
The tiles are white and dusty, and I imagine myself crawling on their coolness and inscribing Isaac’s name in cursive into the grime. It’s been three days since he was here. Mama has returned home to Ilorin, where she’ll spend the holiday with Baba and some of her other grandchildren. Hakeem drove her to the park this morning. There was something flat on her tongue when she hugged me goodbye. I saw it in her eyes when she pulled me back and told me to call her anytime I needed her.
My phone rings from the kitchen.
“Sugar,” Hakeem calls out for me, “Gloria is calling.”
I taste the beans before I walk into the kitchen. They burn my tongue. He’s just picked up the call and is asking how she is.
“She’s here,” he says and hands me the phone.
“Glory, hallelujah!” I say.
She laughs a little.
She asks me to put the phone on speaker. Hakeem turns on the faucet and washes his hands.
“You guys, I have bad news,” she says.
“I don’t know how to say this.”
“What the hell is going on, G? Are you sick? Is something wrong with your mum? Please talk.”
Hakeem motions for me to calm down. He runs slender fingers into my hair. I try not to look irritated.
“I’ve been putting off this call because I thought I’d be in Nigeria for Christmas.” She sighs. I can picture her eyes, the small, round honey balls in a pool of white, and the wells in her neck as she searches for words. Her voice is thin and slippery when she finally says: “Isaac is dead.”
The phone slips out of my hand. Hakeem catches it before it reaches the tiles.
“Did you say Isaac is dead?”
“What are you talking about?”
Hakeem and I are talking at the same time. I’m not sure whose words belong to whom.
“He died four weeks ago, November 24. He slept and didn’t wake up. He was buried this Tuesday.”
My lips tremble. This Tuesday? But he was here. He came by on Tuesday. I saw him.
The churches are singing and praying and I can hear them like they’re here trying to exorcise my demons, here in this room where the sky spins and the ceiling cannot hit the floor without breaking me. It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m in this hotel on the island, far from home but not too far. I’ve been in the tub for four hours now. The scented candles make me fall asleep, but only short naps at a time. I dream inside each nap. Some of the dreams are memories, most are of Isaac, some are of Hassan and Hussain. In my dreams of the twins, their faces merge into each other to become Isaac’s and they die. In my dreams of Isaac, I see him at the nail salon the day we first met. I watch as love oozes out of his skin and into mine when we shake well-manicured fingers together. In another, we have sex on that last day, when he was already dead. We are sweaty and moaning in front of Mama and the twins.
Each time the soft knock of room service comes, I tell them to go away.
My phone is dead now. Before it died, it rang almost every minute. At least I’m taking baths now. In the past few days, all I’ve done is sit at the window seat and look at the busy roads. I wondered what it would be like to jump these nine floors, crack my skull and spill my brains.
I’m never returning home. What’s the point of living, of continuing to see what I can now confirm are Isaac’s children—no paternity tests needed, because a mother knows these things—and be reminded that he no longer exists? I told Hakeem after Gloria’s call, blurted it and watched his face turn pale until it stopped and melted into softness. He didn’t care that they were not his children. He held my shoulder instead and said, “They’re my children.” What did I do to deserve a rare man like him?
The bottle of wine on the edge of the tub falls and breaks when I try to get out. I hold things to steady myself but end up stepping on glass and bleeding. I ignore the pain and plug in my phone. When it comes on, I find several texts from Mama, telling me it’s okay to mourn but that my kids need me. Oko mi, she starts all her texts. I wonder how she’s not shaken when she experienced the same thing, a dead man’s coming.
A dead man came to me. Touched my skin. I felt his erection. He was real.
I pull at my hair, confused.
There’s no one to share the physical pain of this loss with. Gloria is not here but her texts are full of light and love. Hakeem is worried. He texts, “Sugar, come home, I love you.” How does he still want me?
January skies hover and carry a mixture of hot and cool air that makes between my toes and inside my palms moist. It’s been ten days since New Year’s Eve; several suns have come and gone but it’s my first day out in one.
My skin was crawling and my scalp was burning when I called Hakeem this morning to tell him I needed to return home. He arrived in no time, and we went to the salon together to shave my head bald. Now he drives to the pharmacy; the nausea can come anytime. I know what it is, as I knew the first time. I don’t need the tenderness and vomiting to know a person as tiny as a feeling sits in me. It is confirmed when a bird flies in front of us, smiles for only a brief moment before it flies away.
I ask Eledumare to bring Isaac back. I silently pray for this baby to be Babajide, a reincarnation of the father of the twins, a reincarnation of one of my best friends, Isaac. Isaac. I stare at Hakeem, at his kind eyes and overgrown beard. I hope he’ll understand what’s coming, and understand my love for this new child. I want to hug him, to nestle his face between my breasts. I can’t, he understands. I cheated on him, yet I behave like he’s the one who needs forgiveness. His left hand is on the steering wheel; his right hand is on my thigh. He parks in front of the pharmacy and starts to get out, when I tug at his sweater.
“Hakeem,” I say. “This one is all yours.” I place my right hand over my flat belly.
“I know,” he says. “We’ll call him Babajide when he comes.” He smiles but I don’t think of the forgiveness inside his eyes. I think of that first bird that came the morning after, that bird that winked, and told me with honesty in its orange eyes everything I could not see.