When We Were Birds

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo

March 17, 2022 
The following is excerpted from Ayana Lloyd's debut novel, When We Were Birds. BANWO is a writer from Trinidad and Tobago. Her work has been published in The Caribbean Writer, Moko Magazine, Small Axe, POUi, Pree, Callaloo, and Anomaly. She is a graduate of the M.A. in Creative Writing program from the University of East Anglia and is now a postgraduate researcher in Creative-Critical Writing at UEA.

The line of people outside the fast-food place at the city gates long like judgement. It start at the counter and stretches all outside on the pavement. The place smell like piss and old cooking oil but people still stand up waiting for fried chicken like if they don’t know morning was time for tea and bake, time to settle yourself with something good that smell like home before you have to face all the people who come out in the day with wickedness.

Darwin try to get his bearings and figure out which way would take him into the old city. A set of cars park up on the taxi stand with drivers fighting for passengers so they could leave first with a full trip. A bright red car, drop low, zoom past, skip everybody else and pick up two women on the go instead of parking and waiting their turn. They speed off in the direction of the harbor and the other drivers cuss them as they pass. The newspapers say that whole area, where the cruise ships come in and businessmen and politicians sip drinks while looking out toward the sea, going to be the new and improved Port Angeles. He sure nobody bother to ask old Port Angeles how it feel about that.

Darwin ignore the taxi stand and keep walking. They wasn’t getting his hard-earned dollars so early in the morning. It wasn’t far and, if he was lucky, he could eat the bake before work start in the yard.

Town wasn’t nothing like he imagine. Big city suppose to have plenty tall buildings and shiny stores and restaurants with fancy-looking people sitting outside. Maybe that is the Port Angeles in the harbor, but here the city flat and hunch close, everybody living one on top the other.

He pass fruit vendors selling yellow bananas, Julie mangoes, juicy papaw and red watermelon split in half right up against fish vendors weighing carite, snapper and kingfish on shiny scales; corner shops block up with wrought-iron burglar-proofing and customers calling out for what they want, sticking their hands in through the bars to collect goods from the shopkeeper; street preachers dress up in long white robes waving Bibles and crying hell and damnation on all city dwellers; boys hustling loose cigarettes, dinner mints and chewing gum from old glass Crix jars with vagrants sprawl out next to them, hoping somebody give them a little change before they go; two men selling pirate cds on opposite sides of the road—“To God Be the Glory” on one side and a heavy dance-hall bass booming out on the next—square off like a sound clash; women in high heels and skirt suits rushing to work while young fellas try to get their attention as they pass; schoolchildren walking slow like if they planning to miss the school bus or break buisse so they never reach at all; couples walking and holding hands, man whispering in he woman ear, woman giggling; and everything cover down in a blanket of blaring car horns from the nearly standstill traffic crawling down the road.

A Bobo Shanti bredrin pass pushing a green cart, Ites Green and Gold flags blowing in the breeze, sweet smell of honey-roasted nuts following him. Darwin hail him but the Ras barely see him at all. He keep moving, slow and solemn, and his eyes pass over Darwin like he was just another stranger.

As he follow the street signs the crowds thin and the city quiet down. He turn a corner and, just so, the road open out into gold: a big park with tall poui trees spread wide, yellow-gold flowers scatter over the grass, an old fountain with green mermaids covered in birdshit, dancing around in midair and fish spouting nothing where water used to be. Governor Square. Crumbling like everything else in the city that have anything to do with Queen, King or Governor.

In the middle of the square he pass an empty pedestal with nothing but half of one leg, broken off at the thigh. Rusty metal sign at the base but the name fade away. One of them statue from the old days that people tear down when the Doctor used to preach to the people, talking about revolution. Now, was only blackbirds sitting on the pedestal, the steps, and the Governor one foot. He remember hearing about the Doctor in school when he was small. His face was on the back of all the copybooks. Darwin used to think that he woulda like to be around in them days when the people was on fire and planning how to make Port Angeles a different place, how to make the whole country a different place.

The trees make him feel good, though, spread like big golden umbrellas. He figure some of them must be older than the whole city. He like the idea that something was still standing from before the rotting benches, the crowded pavements, the quarrelling taxi drivers, the governors and revolutionaries, the very road he trod. It good to know that some things does still live long and stay beautiful no matter what going on around them.

He turn one more corner and see the street sign for St. Brigitte Avenue and the tall stone walls of what must be Fidelis Cemetery. The soft cool that come with the early morning gone and the first beads of sweat start to run down his temples. He take out a kerchief from his pocket and wipe his forehead, startled for a second not to feel the thickness of his dread, just short tufts of hair, ragged from the blunt scissors.

The wall so long he can’t see the end of it. He stick to the pavement on the opposite side of the cemetery and over the wall he see what look like pitched roofs, stone arches, bushy palms and the green spread of samaan trees.

He never went in a dead yard before, never see inside. It make sense to have people to do this kinda thing— people working in hospital, morgue, cemetery—but he never thought he would be one of them. Even in his village, when them children used to cut through the little cemetery on their way to the shop, he would cross the road and make sure to stay away. He wasn’t frighten. Is not like he believe in dem ting—ghosts and demons. He know a dead man can’t jump up out a grave and do him nothing, but even he know the dead is for the dead and the living is for the living.

He reach the intersection where St. Brigitte Avenue split into two, check the street signs again: right was Queen Isabella Street, St. Brigitte continue left. He turn left and, the longer he walk, the stone wall smooth out a little bit, like if somebody fill in the jagged places with new cement. Further along he see rusted plaques, white wax from burn-out candles on the pavement, and empty rum bottles in the drain.

A tall, black, wrought-iron gate yawn open in front of him, the bars thick and straight except for where they curve to form the date 1806 at the top. That was it. Like if the gate, the wall and the date was enough and if you can’t tell where you is from that, then you have no business there. Darwin look around the street. After the crowds, the square, the traffic, St. Brigitte was quiet.

Now he not sure what to do. Maybe if he just stand outside and wait for a while one of the workers would bend the corner and they could walk in same time. To walk in just so feel like going in somebody house when they didn’t invite you.

He peek inside. The gate open into a long driveway leading to a concrete building. Two men lean up on the side and three more sit down on the front steps, comfortable like they born there. An old man with a neat, grey beard and bowlegs lean up on the wall smoking a cigarette, and a next one, tall and wiry but slouch down till he was the same height as the greybeard, stand up next to him drinking from a Styrofoam cup.

One by one they turn to look at him. He feel like a little boy who get catch peeking at something he wasn’t supposed to. One last look around at the quiet street, the high walls, the arch above his head, and he walk through the wrought-iron gate into Fidelis Cemetery.


Excerpted from When We Were Birds. © 2022 Ayana Lloyd Banwo. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Doubleday Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved.

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