The Return

by Tom Byam Shaw

There’s a mating pair of bullfinches outside your window. Someone’s set up a birdfeeder. The male has a red chest, full and gleaming like velvet. The female is more muted, brown. You watch them eat together, dart their shivering beaks into the feeding trough and dig them out; sprinkling seeds onto the grass below. It’s just like you’ve read online, just like you knew in your heart. Nature is returning. 

The pandemic has driven us all indoors. We have sequestered us in our homes to bake bread and write stories and drink to excess. Every day waxes endlessly, time grows fat and hazy. Days blur, hours bleed. The sickly amber of summer evenings last years. Outside, in the crack between tarmac and curb; around the wrought iron of the park fence; around the borders of well-kept gardens, things stir.

At night you hunch against your headboard. Your nails bitten. One tab on Facebook. One tab on Discord. One tab on porn. One tab on Twitter. You alternate. When you scroll Facebook it’s full of charming videos that autoplay as you pass over them. Goats at suburban intersections. A deer in a public park, chewing on a floral display. Something with long legs moving through cornfields. The comments throng with middle aged women in sunglasses, young men in tight suits, or anonymous Deborahs from Ohio wearing characters from Trolls: World Tour as their avatar. Each of them in Selectively capitalised Words or else TOTAL CAPSLOCK proclaims Nature’s Return.

One day a video finds its way onto your feed. The gleaming teal waters of a canal, Venice perhaps. A shaking camera focused unsteadily on the slow, regal, procession of a pack of swans. The view zooms out to empty streets, glittering sun dazzling white marble. And something beneath the swans in the water. Long and dark, rippling like a cloud. The swans begin to disperse, swimming off to the side. They bend their glassy necks, getting lower in the water; speeding up. One breaks off ahead, starting to flap its wings. The cloud’s shape coalesces, grows. It’s coming up. The rest of the swans double back, swimming past the shape. Something in the leader’s confidence seems to fail. Its head turns and that’s it. A top jaw like a gar or a crocodile breaks the water and then breaks the swan. You can see it splinter, each honeycomb bone shattering under the predator’s teeth. The scene lingers for a moment: the swan’s head trails in the water, jerking; its wings manage one last spasming flap. The thing slips under with its prize. 

The footage rolls for two more seconds before cutting off. You don’t recognize the person who shared the video. Their caption: Nature is Returning! 🙂

Nature returns to your house one day when you wake to find a stag gnawing at the branches that have started to sprout from your bedposts. When you scream and pull your covers up, it turns to regard you with silent and empty eyes. The thing smells wet, its breath heavy in the air; its body stinking in your room. It blinks once, feminine lashes dipping over the blank caverns of its pupils. It looks at you like an animal that’s already been shot, decapitated, and mounted on a wall; glass pressed into its sockets. It turns, placing each foot as steadily as anything: walking down the hallway and out the door you haven’t unlocked for two weeks. You rush in your dressing gown to close it, but no human artifice can stop Nature’s Return. 

From there it’s a simple matter of escalation. Your floorboards, long dead; long varnished, creak and groan beneath your feet. Your floor warps as each board, each cut from a different tree, jostle by inches: expanding and sprouting. You leave your room once a day to go to the toilet, and each time you do you mash the saplings under your feet. In the middle of the night or the middle of the day you turn the light on to find your bath a writhing, clicking mass of crabs. Hours, sleeps, later you think they’ve vanished but they turn up for days afterwards; scuttling across your kitchen counter or standing testily on your toilet tank: claws pinching and opening with an alien bravado.

So you ignore recent developments and continue to exist as a nodular centre: a scrap of skin stretched thin, frying, on a motherboard. You place an order for glasses to dim the light of your screen, your eyes are starting to hurt, your temple throbs. The order will arrive in two weeks’ time. Nature’s return has disrupted supply chains. People cannot tell, it’s said, when biological goods will start to reanimate; reform. A lorry might become full of whispering branches, the oil in its tank might start to scream with antediluvian ghosts.

Sometimes you tell yourself that that’s enough of that. You shut your laptop, leaving your tabs open, and find your phone in your unwashed duvet. In the flat, shattered mirror of the screen before you turn it on you see that the mushroom extending out of your shoulder has grown another two inches. You quickly button in to Instagram. Scrolling once, scrolling twice, you see apartment walls; alive with vines. You see loaves of sourdough and shit children’s art. You see someone who’s growing scales and someone else who’s growing feathers. Couples bloom in pear and apple blossom together, their flowers extending outwards to join even before their mouths meet. You see intimate, stylish little photoshoots and you’re driven to hot, angry tears.

And you sit by yourself, in yourself. Your body in fruit. Another head of fungus has sprouted out of your neck. You wish you could sleep for longer, take more hours out of the day or the night that your body will allow you to. Dream in plants growing out of you, describing the shape of your shattering mind fractally. Sleep so deeply that you might return to nature, as nature returns to you. Polypores dance up your wasted calves and thighs, breaking out of your skin in half-moons. Sleep so deeply that the wild dance all around you becomes a distant rustle, somewhere in a canopy far above.