The Great Return
Lying sprawled out on the Astroturf in my backyard, I succumb to the enchanting chirps and ribbits coming from surrounding bushes. It is like a singing competition on American Idol; a multitude of animals compete for a spot in my ears. Perhaps the Song Sparrow’s tune will reach my eardrums first, or maybe it will be the racing squirrels or even the distant turkeys. With too many contestants, I try to allot earspace for all the noises, and closing my eyes allows me to take in the entirety of this backyard orchestra.
At last, a hawk distinguishes itself from the other contestants with its shrill call; we have a winner. However, upon opening my eyes to catch a glimpse of the bird, I see nothing but a few sparrows darting between bushes. Without warning, a strange tingling sensation overcomes my arms and legs, and it feels as if there are thousands of ants crawling all over my body. Feathers begin to sprout from my skin pores, and serrated claws pop out of my feet. Before I get the chance to process this metamorphosis, the competition-winning hawk emerges from a clump of grass and twigs. Dive bombing toward my now feathered body, the bird grips my arms with its claws, and we shoot hundreds of meters into the sky. My captor lifts me to a point at which my screams cannot be heard, but the California breeze serves to calm me down.
“It’s your turn–your turn to see a glimpse of our past.” The hawk can talk?
Before I can comprehend the fact that I am being hoisted hundreds of meters in the air by a talking bird, mist from South African clouds floods my nostrils. We are no longer in California. The sky is robin's egg blue, and I can make out the movement of unusual figures in the streets below. But there cannot be crowds of people–we are in a pandemic.
While I have allowed no words to escape from my mouth, the hawk is able to read my thoughts.
“While the colonizers are sheltering in their homes, the indigenous can find their way back.”
Drifting toward the once traffic-choked streets of Mpumalanga, my eyes lock onto a pride of lions basking in the middle of the road. The cats seem unfazed by the “global crisis,” as this crisis only affects the apex predators of this world–humans. Without sunscreen-covered tourists and safari Jeeps patrolling the grounds, Mpumalanga has time to catch its breath and take back its freedoms. No tire tracks imprint the grounds, and no kids point to exhausted animals. Instead, the grasslands are at peace; after centuries of blood-soaked oil and blazing trees, the animals are beginning to return.
Before my eyes can feast on the entirety of the South African wildlife, a flapping of wings catapults my bird-like body into the atmosphere.
“The real global crisis is approaching its final phase. Our African Elephants will turn to tusk and bone in 20 years if no serious action is taken”, the hawk continues. Wafts of powerful incense and spices funnel through my nose during our descent; clouds move out of the way to reveal the beautiful land of India.
“Perhaps beautiful to the human eye, but an industrial prison for us” my winged captor proclaims.
In contrast to the bird’s claim, the New Delhi skies are baby blue with no sign of toxic industrial waste in sight. The megacity’s once bustling streets have given way to new residents: monkeys, dogs, rodents, and plastic shopping bags (the ubiquitous scourge of the world’s oceans).
Sensing my awe, my avian host continues: “A realization will occur, however, that will shift the world’s path–this virus brings chaos and destruction, but it will yield a new perception of the wild.”
“When the citizenry of our continents exit their homes, they will observe the indigenous sky, without sickening hues of gray. They will observe countless species of wildlife, roaming what was once theirs. They will observe–and they will understand.”
“But how? After years of protests, data analyses, extinctions, and demands, how could we change so quickly?” I interrupt.
“Because the poacher has now become the poached, and a glimpse of our non-industrial past will hit the reset button–it is now time to return.”
“But I am not done yet; I still have so much to learn!” I plead for more airtime.
With a thud, my body smacks the ground, and I sit up with sweat on my brow. My eyes dart to my body, only to find that my feathers have dissipated, and I am back in human form.
“They’re gone!” I exclaim. “My feathers are gone!” I feel light-headed.
“What’s going on?” My sister appears on the path leading to our backyard. “You’re so weird sometimes, Lucas. Don’t scare me like that!” she says, dismissing the situation.
I run inside the house. I need to write a story about this.
WINNER of Bud's 2020 Stories from Home contest during our pandemic pause.