The day of the birth, brambles burst through the hospital car park. It was only April, but already England was sweltering under a heatwave. Rory stared out of the window at the mess of tarmac and thorns as I held our baby in my arms.
“What is it?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Just more growth.”
I frowned. I was sick of hearing about the latest area of “recovery” to have invaded the city. On the news, they’d said the growth would roll back climate change, allowing us all to live longer, healthier, greener lives. The reality was dandelions forcing their way through the patio we’d spent so many summers trying to keep nice. No matter how much glyphosate we put down, bindweed curled its tiny fingers around the trellis, mocking us with its pretty white flowers.
Rory stroked the baby’s cheek. “She’s got big ears, hasn’t she?”
“She’s fine,” I snapped.
“Oh, she’s wonderful. Strong.”
We named her April, after the month of her birth, but to me she quickly became Bushbaby. She had long fingers, which even on that first day she twined into my hair. Her feet were like little hands, with big toes curling in opposition to the other digits. I wrapped them in the blanket and gazed into her round, dark eyes.
We took her home in a cycle rickshaw, asking the driver to ride carefully. Bushbaby didn’t mind the many bumps in the road, which had erupted with weeds, but I missed our car. I wanted to sink into a heated seat, select my favourite song from the entertainment system, and sing along as Rory drove.
Instead, I listened to him shouting instructions to the driver, who pointed at the street Rory wanted him to take and shouted, “Blocked! Apples!” Peering down the street, I saw a group of children gathered around a tree that wasn’t there last week, hitting it with sticks to make the ripe fruit fall.
“Apples?” I asked Rory. “In April?”
“I don’t know,” he murmured. “I just don’t know any more.”
At least our house was still standing, although the front was covered in vines. Every day on the news, there were more people sobbing over their lost homes. Experts insisted the alternative was worse.
The rolling black outs started that summer. We sweltered inside the house, almost grateful for the thick, waxy leaves now shading the windows. When our supply was cut off, we collected water from streams. It tasted as fresh as spring rain. We prayed it wouldn’t make us sick.
We soon adjusted to going to bed at sunset and rising with the dawn. But during every brief restoration of power, I still hurried to plug in my phone. No matter how long I went without, my fingers longed to tap and swipe.
Bushbaby never grew much, but she seemed advanced for her age. She sucked greedily, guiding the nipple to her mouth with her long fingers and sometimes with her feet. After a week, she was sitting up in her crib and looking around. By one month, she was crawling.
There was a baby group still running in a local church. When I arrived, three parents were hacking at brambles to clear a path to the door. Their babies were strapped to their chests in slings, so I couldn’t get a good look at them.
Inside, I held Bushbaby close to me, trying to sneak glances at the other children. Next to me sat a woman on her own. I was wondering where her baby was when she raised her gaze to the ceiling, where a skinny, hairy creature clung to a rafter.
“Roo-roo, come down from there!”
The child dropped into the woman’s lap and stared at me with big, unblinking eyes.
The mother smiled. “This is River. And I’m Sai.”
I pulled the blanket away from Bushbaby’s face. “This is April.”
No one had ever said that before. During her one visit before the system shut down, our midwife had failed to keep the disgust off her face.
“The babies…” I said. “Are they all…?”
“Every one born since the growth.”
My heart thumped in my chest. There were rumours, but experts on the radio had insisted that’s all they were.
“Why?” I asked.
“No one knows. I think they’re perfect, though.”
“Perfectly suited. To this.”
She waved a hand at the windows, which were dark with branches. Twigs scraped against the glass, as if trying to break in.
Sai reached into her tote bag. “Would you like an apple? Our new tree produces hundreds. Or a damson? We’re drowning in them.”
“No, thank you.”
She took a bite and wiped her mouth. “They’re good. You’d think, being so big, they’d be tasteless, but they’re super sweet.”
I crinkled my nose. “We don’t eat the new fruit.”
“There might be something wrong with it.”
She bit off a piece of the apple, took it from her mouth, and placed it in River’s reaching hand. “Why would there be anything wrong with it?”
“Well. It’s new.”
“Tastes good to me.” She gave River another piece. “To her, too.”
The child chewed the apple, her big eyes darting around the room.
Sai stroked her wispy hair. “She’s good at finding food. There are these fungi in our back yard. I would have never spotted them. But she sniffed them out, ate them, offered them to us. They’re good. Saved us a few hungry nights.”
I shuddered. “Is that safe?”
Sai shrugged. “Is anything?”
Sai was right. All the babies were odd. A few parents let them crawl and climb all over the hall. Most confined the squirming bundles to their laps, asking “But why aren’t they normal?” Like any of us had the answer.
The group leader said it was best not to dwell on labels. I clutched Bushbaby to my chest, thinking that was easy for her to say. Her twins, playing in the corner with normal human toys, had been born before all this began.
When we left, it was dark outside. An owl was hooting and things were rustling in the bushes all around. I hurried through the streets, hardly recognising some of them. Twice I found myself reaching for my phone, a useless brick since the networks went down.
Bushbaby’s ears twitched with every sound. As we turned into our street, she started to make a high-pitched screeching noise.
“Hush,” I said. “No need to cry.”
A figure stepped onto the street, blocking our path. I froze.
“Shut that thing up,” he said.
Once I would have been comforted to hear it was only our grumpy neighbour. Now, I didn’t trust him any more than a stranger.
“You want to turn it loose,” he said. “Or put it down.”
“She’s my daughter,” I whispered.
“It’s an animal.”
I pushed past him and ran into the house.
Rory paced back and forth, smacking his fist into the opposite palm. “I’ll kill him. He had no right…”
“Calm down,” I pleaded. “It won’t do any good.”
Nothing I said helped. He continued to rant and rave until Bushbaby climbed the bookshelves and dropped a hardback down on his head.
For days afterwards, Rory glowered at Bushbaby, who scampered around in her crib. Every time I tried to pick her up, she bared her teeth.
“He’s got a point,” Rory said at last.
“What do you mean?”
“She’s not a normal child.”
Outside, the air was thick with smoke. Unable to keep back the growth with secateurs and saws, people had resorted to starting fires. Vegetation smouldered while the arsonists hid inside brick and concrete buildings, coughing and cursing.
We placed a heavy board across the top of Bushbaby’s crib, weighed down with books, to stop her climbing out. There were so many things in the house that could hurt her – the knives in the block, the cleaning chemicals under the sink, the bathroom cabinet full of medicines. She was so curious these days. We had to keep her safe.
The neighbour’s words came back to me. Turn it loose.
Bushbaby gnawed the bars of her crib. Rory had gone on a trek to a supermarket on the other side of the city, hoping to find canned beans, or flour, or anything, really. Get chocolate, I’d told him, unable to keep the craving in check. I knew there wouldn’t be any.
The scrape of Bushbaby’s teeth was driving me crazy. I’d known raising a child in this age wouldn’t be easy. Even before we started trying, things were changing. Land was being seized for reforesting. The carbon debt drove prices sky-high. There were protests against the new policies. Rory had even been on one, although he’d come back shaking his head, muttering that the protestors were all a bunch of “climate-denying loonies.”
“Stop that!” I snapped, as Bushbaby’s teeth scraped again at the wood.
She looked up at me with big, blank eyes.
I’d known my child wouldn’t see the world exactly like I did. But I hadn’t expected her to be so different. Was she even human?
Quietly, I fetched a carrier we’d used for our old cat, before she’d left us for a family who could feed her better. Getting Bushbaby into it left scratches up both my arms.
I walked as far out of the city as I could. I didn’t want her somewhere people might jeer at her, or worse. I stopped by what used to be a plantation. Now, it looked more like a rainforest. Vines connected the trees.
My stomach growled. I’d walked miles and hadn’t eaten since yesterday.
I pushed my way into the forest, trampling plants under my boots, until I reached a small clearing. There, I set the carrier on the floor and opened the latch.
I expected Bushbaby to dash out right away, but she was hesitant. She crawled out, sniffing the air. Her long fingers and toes padded delicately over twigs and leaves, her pink heels in the air.
“Go on,” I said, wiping my eyes. “You’re free.”
Bushbaby approached the nearest tree. I was sure that would be the moment she scampered up the trunk and disappeared. Instead, she paused and scratched at the base. I peered past her downy, rounded shoulders. She was eating something.
I had to hold myself back from taking it from her and scolding, “Don’t eat that, it’s dirty.” She wasn’t like me.
Hearing me sniffle, she turned. She crawled back to my feet, holding something dark in one hand. She sat up and offered it to me.
It was a mushroom, slimy and cold. Bushbaby ran back to the tree and returned with another piece. My stomach turned as she bit into it.
“You can’t…I can’t…”
Those big eyes stared at me. Was this the closest we’d ever been to communicating?
Holding my breath, I placed the piece of mushroom in my mouth. It was too big to swallow, so reluctantly, I bit.
Flavour flooded my tastebuds. It was richer than the risottos Rory used to slave over for hours. I swallowed and it slid, satisfyingly, into my stomach.
I took her home. When Rory returned, I was lying on the weedy lawn and Bushbaby was picking something from my hair. I tried not to think too hard about what she found there. How long had it been since I showered? Her fingers scritching at my scalp felt good.
“What are you doing?” Rory asked.
“She’s…grooming me,” I said.
He raised an eyebrow. “Slim pickings today. Just some canned beans.”
“We can have them with the mushrooms.”
“She found them. They’re good. Try.”
I thought he was going to fight me. But he looked so tired. “Alright. What do I have to lose?”
Everything, I wanted to say. And everything to gain. I broke off a chunk of mushroom and gave it to him.
He sniffed it suspiciously and took the tiniest bite. “It’s….good.”
Bushbaby put her hand on his knee. I waited for him to pull away, but he didn’t.
“I think,” I said, “she has a lot to teach us.”
Han Whiteoak (they/them) is a speculative fiction writer living in Sheffield, UK. They have a degree in physics, a passion for the Peak District, and an incurable habit of borrowing more library books than it is possible to read during the loan period. Their short fiction has appeared in publications including Flash Fiction Online, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, and Metaphorosis. Their website is www.hanwhiteoak.com.