An extract from When We Were Birds, the debut novel by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, published by Hamish Hamilton in February 2022
Is three days Yejide curl up on her bed under the mosquito net, listening to the storm outside. Three days since the wind set up and the first few fat raindrops pound the roof. Three days since her mother Petronella lie down in her bed to die.
Soon as the storm start, Yejide feel her belly begin to rise and swell with a weight that feel like a hole. She have no other way to describe it – a hollowing, a dread, slow emptying out. She hear about mothers who lose their children to early, unexpected death. They washing dishes, cleaning the house or at work in town, and the minute the child gone they feel a hole in that keening place, feel it pull taut, like the womb know the second the child leave the world. Yejide womb empty, and she have no dead children to mourn, but that is how it feel, like something in her anticipating absence. It pin her to the bed. The storm outside, the mosquito net and the half-light of dawn press down against the air above her.
She tell herself is not grief. Grief is a thing that come from love and love simple like breath. But what she feel for her mother was never simple. She don’t know if she have enough room for a big, solid word like grief along with everything else that exist in her heart for Petronella.
She toss and turn in the bed, in her room at the end of the corridor, sheets wrap around her body like a shroud, and listen for a knock on the door. She think she hear footsteps on the landing, whispers on the stairs, someone stopping outside her bedroom, listening and then moving on again. Every creak of the floorboards, every shudder of the windowpane ask the same question: why her mother don’t call for her? Petronella can’t go before she call, but what stopping her, even now, from calling for her only daughter? Every time Yejide open the door to look, hoping that they send for her, she find the long corridor dim, yawning and empty.
It hard to know if she asleep or awake, what real and what is only dream. First day of the storm, she see her mother’s twin sister, Geraldine, dead more than a year now, walk into her room wearing Petronella clothes – a long green dress with lace at the collar – a cup of tea in her hand. Yejide could almost smell the earthy turmeric root and feel the heat of the steam rising from the cup. Geraldine put the tea on the bed- side table, walk to the window and step out through the glass pane into the night air.
Second day, she thought she wake up in a bamboo patch in the middle of the forest, no storm, no vigil, just cool breeze blowing sweet and the smell of green on the wind.
Now, in the soft early-morning light of the third day, she remember the great storm, many years ago, that take Granny Catherine away. Yejide was only nine then but she remember like it was yesterday.
The rain had start after church on Sunday. The baubles around her plaits too tight and she hate the stiff, white ribbons wrap around their ends, but the first few drops of rain mean freedom. She look around for her best friend Seema so they could walk home together but Seema had already head off with her own mother, Laurence. Yejide feel a stirring of excitement. She pull off the shiny patent-leather shoes, drag the knee-high socks off and start to run up the hill for home, feeling the wet earth squish under her bare feet.
Mud splatter her white dress and she don’t even know where she leave her socks. If her mother see, she would be vex with her for running barefoot in her good church clothes and losing yet another pair. Granny Catherine would pretend to make a fuss too, for Petronella’s sake, but Yejide know she wouldn’t really mind. Once Petronella back turned, she and Granny would giggle together and snuggle in the big wooden rocking chair in the front room.
She run up the drive out of the rain and tiptoe through the side door of the kitchen. In a house as sprawling and bustling as theirs, with everyone coming and going, with big people always doing big-people things – some who live there and some who just passing through – and Petronella and Geraldine lock away in their secret world that no one else could enter, Yejide know she could slip in unnoticed. But that day was different. She didn’t even need to sneak in; the house was in uproar. A woman she don’t know rush past her from the laundry room, through the kitchen into the drawing room with a pile of fresh sheets in her hand. Peter, who always pull her plaits and say, ‘How the princess going today?’, walk past her and head upstairs with his arms full of black sage bush like if she invisible. Laurence was there too with a whole set of people that Yejide never see before. Even Seema creep past her up the stairs, trying to balance a cup of tea, her eyes full of confusion. The kettle screech in the kitchen; no one care enough to take it off the heat. She could not find Granny Catherine anywhere.
The storm reach its height and daytime turn to night before Peter find her, still wearing her damp church dress, sitting in Granny Catherine chair. His eyes flick from her to the living-room door, down at his feet and back to her face.
‘How the princess going today?’
But the words sound wrong. Like they hiding things. Peter love Petronella for as long as Yejide could remember; he was not her father but was as good as. She never see him look nervous before.
‘What happen, Peter? Where Granny?’
Peter shift from one foot to the other. Keep looking around to see if anyone else there, like he not sure if it is his place to say anything to her.
‘The storm come for your granny. She going.’
‘Where she must.’
She should have known better, but she ask anyway. ‘Where Mummy?’
Peter look down at her with a half-smile that she recognize even then.
‘Your mother doing what she must too. She waiting for her mother to call for her.’
‘Granny Catherine going to call for me too? I want to see her.’
Peter shake his head. ‘Only person Catherine calling is her daughter.’