Review of Ope Adedeji’s After the Birds by Carl Terver

A certain premonition is cast over Ope Adedeji’s short story “After the Birds.” This is because a superstition surrounding birds overwhelms the story: “While kneading my belly, bent over a bowl in the sink, a bird attempts to break in through my kitchen window.” “I saw a bird just like this one following my Uber last night when I left Isaac’s house.” “A few years ago . . . a bird dropped dead and get caught in the clothesline.” In the first two paragraphs, we encounter birds so much that the imagery sticks. The third paragraph is one sentence: “I wonder what the birds I see are saying to me . . .” says the unnamed narrator (whom I shall call “bird lady” from here). It is this question—what the birds are saying—that we continue to read the story, to answer.

Bird Lady is about to get married to Hakeem, but has another lover, Isaac, who fills the hunger inside her because he knows her body better, because of the sexual history between them. She meets to have sex with Isaac one last time before her wedding. Months pass, she marries and has twins, but her longing for Isaac never goes away.

To be certain that “After the Birds” is about any particular theme is to miss its fluidity, such that it is better perceived in the style Adedeji presents it: the poetry of the prose, great plot arrangement and an elusiveness that piques our interest.

“The smell of air and taste of water make my skin crawl this morning. I know what’s happened: I swallowed my key last night.” These opening sentences, and the remainder of the paragraph, registers a prominence of figurative inflection in her sentences, which the story continues in narration and style—a foregrounding technique. In the second sentence, for example, no key has been swallowed, it is figuratively meant: Bird Lady is pregnant. It is this “swallowed key” that makes “something move” in her belly, which she tries “several times to throw it up.”

Such foregrounding exposes much early, the story’s character of premonition, evoking a presence in the story which is not yet visible. As Bird Lady invites Isaac and his sister Gloria to her house one evening, while Hakeem isn’t home, “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.”

This continues in other places: “There was something flat on her tongue when she hugged me goodbye.” “My chest is clogged, there are tears sitting at the bottom of my throat.” It ensures we don’t forget the story quickly after reading it. This seduction works as the elusiveness keeps us keen on what next. This keenness holds us firmly by the superstitious part played by birds. “I met a bird,” Isaac tells Bird Lady. This bird brings prophecy to Isaac that he and Bird Lady won’t get married. But this bird in the short story, as Isaac continues, is “a woman dressed in white garment . . . like cherubim and seraphim church clothing” with a tambourine, standing behind a tree, behaving weird and reticent. “And?” Bird Lady asks. “And nothing. The bird was gone,” Isaac answers. Only that, while they have their last sex, Isaac’s words hang densely in the air.

Months later, Isaac dies, but Bird Lady doesn’t know. He visits her at home and almost has sex with her, so she cannot reconcile the news of his death when his sister calls on the phone to inform her and her husband. “But he was here . . . He came by . . . I saw him,” she says. After this, she leaves the house to stay in a hotel, away from everything. We sense taboo that she forsakes her marriage, leaving behind suckling infant twins. That she is not in contrition for her unfaithfulness, but makes special time to mourn Isaac. Even the most liberal Nigerian parent might ask: Is she okay? But the reader sees Adedeji’s lens focused on the lady’s pain, rather. These contemplations notwithstanding, the messed-up life of Bird Lady at this point, and how it disrupts the lives of others connected to her, pokes the burden of decency, showing us how disregardful human desire is.

“After the Birds” lends itself open to interpretation. We have emotional dilemma—if we can trust Bird Lady—tethered on one side to adventurous romance, and to the other by domestic conditioning. But we also wonder: what possibility is her sexual longing for Isaac an addiction or toxic attachment, and not the desire to sexual liberty? How do the birds, that create a strangeness about this relationship, contribute in pushing Adedeji’s story? How do they make the relationship pass as tied to fate or the spiritual? Even by these, no fancy term—addiction, attachment, sexual liberty or the spiritual—redeems her from what society sees: adultery.

Yet Adedeji—if we consider sexual liberty or the pursuit of happiness by Bird Lady, who thinks of “the sticky sweetness he [Isaac] pressed into me”—makes it clear that her narrator neither seeks nor need forgiveness from us. After the phone call from Isaac’s sister, Bird Lady cannot withhold the pain of Isaac’s death and confesses to her husband that their twins are not his but Isaac’s. This confession reveals to us the devotion of her heart, which is not to Hakeem. Is this a twisted love story or a story of heartbreak? We feel the latter most. To this, Adedeji has managed to conscript us into pathos for her protagonist rather than criticism—because, at large, we see a reflection of ourselves in her■

Ope Adedeji’s “After the Birds” was published in McSweeney’s and has been announced recently among The 2019 Brittle Paper Awards, under the fiction category.

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