The Birds Will Tell Youby
Fiction by Té V. Smith
Heaven looks a lot lower after the world has blown up. Leaders scramble to direct fault. Religions that once boasted true and living gods are deadly silent. No one received a prophecy of warning. Well-made companies are failing. Governments are crumbling, and a young woman wrestles with a newness of life adorned in death.
March 7, 2020. The World Health Organization has made a preliminary determination of a novel disease identified in a hospitalized person “with a pneumonia of unknown cause” in Denver, Colorado. President Michael Nwankwo, during a press conference, calls the disease a hoax. The American president tweets “We have it totally under control. It’s two people in Denver, in the mountains. The numbers won’t rise.”
Grace Akanbi had begun to count down the days leading to her birthday. This morning is silent. No sad music from the lonely older woman who lived below her. No chirping outside her window. Grace smiles into a stretch—stretches out of bed, wipes away yesterday’s number and writes the 12, in red lipstick, on her bathroom mirror.
“Such a bold color, Ada, is for girls who have not yet realized that they have become a woman,” her mother said a week ago as they drove across the Ibadan Expressway after a Sunday service in Ogere. “Proper women wear more appropriate tones.” She placed a tube of peach nude Fenty lipstick on the armrest. For the rest of the trip, her mother shared all of the proper things young women Grace’s age were doing.
“You must build a nest of your own. Tell me, Ada! Can your job love you back?”
Her mother’s words chime in her head. Grace examines her face in the mirror one last time, imagining that face wearied from aborting her career, fuller from having children, distressed from enduring a husband and settling into an insipid life. Grace walks into the kitchen, pours herself a glass of water and prepares breakfast, alone.
March 15, 2020. The WHO releases a statement announcing that more comprehensive information will be needed to understand the current status and epidemiology of the disease and the clinical picture. CNN reports that America has reached 100,000 cases.
On a nightclub floor in Victoria Island, women dance and men pretend as they examine how close they can get to seduction before being rejected, Grace, with her friends Akanni and Chinyere, sit at a small corner table where the blue and gold lights pouring from the ceiling cascade over them.
They laugh and sip on moderately expensive drinks purchased by eager men.
“You will be old soon, sha” Akanni says with a drifting sneer.
“Ode! Kiss my ass!” Grace replies, mid laughter.
The DJ shifts the music and the trio stream to the dance floor. They crouch low to the ground. So low that you could think that they are at the “all fall down” part of the Ring-a-Around-the-Rosie song. Each comically toppling over the other. Twenty minutes later they stagger back to their table. Chinyere pulls them together for a self-portrait.
“What shall we caption this night?” Asks Akanni.
“#TWENTYSIX!” Chinyere and Grace shout together.
March 18, 2020. During a press conference at the Élysée Palace, French president Louis Marion says “The world needs to be on alert. The whole world needs to take action and be ready.” The WHO raises the global risk of the disease from “high” to “very high.” America is now considered the epicenter. France has reached nearly 50,000 cases.
The sky is a dull near-empty thing, glaring at the world. Grace is on her way to work. Long lines of people wait to be allowed into the markets. “What is happening? She asks a man with polite eyes.
“Everyone is buying food so they can have one last good meal before they die.” He replies.
The city is in a state of unrest. Some people are convinced that they have the disease. Some, out of shame, sneak into testing centers with covered faces, and most are too afraid to find out. By the evening the grocery store shelves are bare with only a few boxes of fufu mix and cans of sardines. All of the toilet paper is gone, and the gallons of water are knocked off the shelf as people prepare for what they are certain is an approaching apocalypse.
March 19, 2020. The first case of the disease reaches Omagwa. President Nkwakwo, at a WHO brief, urges world leaders to give priority to containing the disease. “A virus is much more powerful in creating political, economic, and social upheaval than any terrorist attack. If the world does not want to wake up and understand that we are at war with a disease that threatens to tear us apart, I don’t think we will learn our direst lesson.”
The disease has been characterized as a global pandemic. Lagos is on a government-mandated lockdown.
The birds will tell you, if you are attentive, when the space where you live and eat is no longer safe. Before the quarantine, Grace had heard stories about American cities being overtaken by the disease. She watched videos and cringed as French officials withheld testing and ventilators. Nigeria was safe, she thought. They had, in fact, survived Ebola from Wuhan and the Bird Flu from Glasgow. The disease had touched Nigeria and sent panic throughout the country. There could be no more pretending.
March 28, 2020. Grace receives a call that her mother has succumbed to the disease. She steps away from the broken phone at her feet. An instant mourning settles in her stomach—the kind of grief that paralyzes your breath and seizes your thoughts, unraveling and tangling them into each other.
Her mother’s job was considered essential. “‘Sacrificial’ would have been too honest.”
It was the last laugh they shared.
Té V. Smith is a New Orleans-based, Nigerian American writer and educator. He has written two books; A collection of poetry & prose, Here We Are, Reflections of A God Gone Mad (2019 R.H. Austin Publishing) and a Young Adult novel, Exit Ticket (2020 Field Order Press). Té was a 2014 POWER Democracy Literary Fellow and a 2017 Writer-in-Residence for the Rhode Island Writers Colony. His short stories have appeared in or are forthcoming in Tin House, Kingdoms in The Wild, Black Girl in Ohm, Blackbird, Blavity and more. Té is somewhere finishing a novel and probably eating grapefruit.