We do not mourn the dead. The dead go with the trees. They burrow into the whorls and climb up the vein-vines, and they live on where the roots go deep.

For centuries, we held our vigils at the base of the woods where the trees congregate against the border, against the water, against our bodies. Then came hallowed earth and the masons and the long, long memory of stone, and with it went the rawness and the tales and the short, short devotion to the human in nature.

Distance grew between the forest and the concrete, and the forest lost its realness and people started to mourn without really knowing what it was they mourned for.

But this is not us. Here, at the edge of the world, we cannot forget the trees if we tried.

My family takes the dead to the trees and feeds the trees and feeds the hungry souls stuck to the slick insides of bones. They feed each other, in the end, and they barely need us at all.

I do not know if we are human or not. It never occurred to me to ask for proof. The town asked. I did not. My family did not. We do not. We live on the border of the trees and the town, human enough. Close enough, our skin course and grained, like the neck of a tree. We eat and we sleep and we breed, and when the sun goes down at the end of the year, we die like the rest.

So who cares what I am. I do not care. My name is Maren. My name did not come from the forest, but came on the lips of a hurricane. It might mean the sea and it might mean war. Since it is not ours, we can never say for sure. It bothered me once, on the night the river dried, but I do not let it bother me now.

What matters is that I am Maren and my hands go to bodies and the bodies go to trees who ask me nicely what unused voices and empty skins and pretty colored orb-eyes I bring them today. There are no tears and there is no sadness and when the young woman hugs the old tree, she feels her grandfather’s arms in the branches nudging her elbow. He talks to her and in wood-groans and chemical signals, he tells her to be a good girl and love her mother better and never ever stop knowing that there is a hunger that lives in trees that lives in us, too.

The grey wolf, small for his size, comes and sits at my feet. “You are far away today.”

I pat his thick-furred head and listen to the salivation warming up his teeth, but I keep petting, because we have an agreement. “There are many bodies and less trees, and yet my trees are starving. I feel sadness in the clouds that the trees picked up from the ground and showed around to the sky, and I cannot stop wondering what to do. There is no clear, good thing to do.”

A mighty pine leans her knees in close to us, her cloud hatted head tilting so her eyes might see us a little better.

“A hunter comes our way,” she says. “A tall boy on tall legs.”

I squat down and put my nose to the wolf’s nose. “What would you do, wolf?”

He cocks his head and flicks one ear. “I would eat.”

Except when the trees start to starve, there is no short path to eating. Their hunger grows deep and continues to grow deep. It will gnaw at the foundation of the planet and chew up the core and toss heat into the air in an eagerness to satiate that grinding hunger.

Then there is me at the bottom of generations. From grandmothers to mothers to daughters, my family has fed the trees. Now I am alone and small. And my hands, with their strong joints and talon nails for gripping skin and thin and brittle bones, return to the trees continuously empty.

I stretch out my hands across my ropy thighs and I listen to the moans of the trees in my vicinity. The mushroom caps puff up their lips and exhale and I feel their frustration with the long life of trees and the short life of rot.

A slender strand of drool crawls down the wolf’s jowls. “I will eat and the trees can eat me.”

I click my tongue and shake my head. “You eat the people and the people will beat you. They will beat you and your den and the trees that shelter you. You know the agreement. We do not break the agreement.”

An oak drops a branch on the wolf’s head and berates him with a stern rustling of leaves.

“We do not break the agreement,” the wolf concedes, shaking spittle free. He watches me and I watch the hunter.

My stomach grumbles and I sink my hips into the mossy peat beneath me. I want to cross my arms and pout, to jut out my lip and let tears slip like raindrops down my neck. To act and feel like a child does when hunger pulls at the pink membranes of the stomach and difficulties patter from the sky faster than one can catch them. But I am grown up and that is no way for a grown up to act.

The hunter steps deeper into the forest and the wolf tenses at my side. The trees arch their backs and crane their heads.

I leap to my feet and the wolf leaps up with me. A snarl escapes his mouth. “I would eat,” the wolf says again. I feel his hunger rubbing against my bones. Surrounding me, the hunger inside the trees does the same.

“The hunter has a right of passage,” I remind them. So long as he, too, follows the agreement. I wonder what would happen if he does not. Arboreal hunger presses into my sides and the wolf sniffs at the taste of my skin. I question if the clear, good thing to do is right in front of me, walking my way. I know well, though, that if I break my agreement, the wolf will break his. One stone will fall into the next.

The wolf goes his way and the mighty pine straightens her boughs. I am left on my own. I feel the hunter’s footsteps as he creeps across the ground, each vibration rubbing the soles of my feet. My skin shudders as he exhales and my bones rumble as he jumps down a ravine, booted feet striking the bottom.

It is not simple, this temptation to feed my trees, but there is no denying its clarity.

This hunter wanders here, into my part of the woods. How does he not feel the starvation in the trees, how they lean and lick at the thin strip of skin between his collar and his neck? His soul echoes inside his lungs and the forest roars with hunger.

I cannot blame them for what they want and what they need. There are so many trees and so few bodies to bring and only me left to do what many more did before, together.

I stalk through the underbrush, feet padding, quiet and familiar and steady. The hunter stumbles over a root and I hear a young aspen snicker.

“Knock his head, he might. Fall into my mouth, he might,” the aspen sing-songs.

I toss the aspen a glare and the groans and clacks fall silent and still. But I feel what they need and what they want and, once again, I cannot blame them.

Clouds skate low and brush the heads of elders. A squirrel burrows into the peat, two hops south of an elm, three strides east of an alder and the nut is gobbled into an open mouth and the gut goes quiet.

I am now in the path of the hunter. He studies the ground with long, lithe fingers and his neck bows like a leather strap as he observes what he sees. I linger between two twin trees, linked at the hip, a shadow there and not.

It was not long ago that people stayed at the borders and waited their turn, waited till their hearts stopped and the forest welcomed them in.

Back then, people did not cry over the dead. They looked at the forest and they saw where time ceased to move. They watched the sun chase the moon in the sky and the stars trip into the earth and the earth gobble them up, and in these motions, the people felt where they fell in a bigger rotation.

All things rotate, around each other, around routine, around bodies, heavenly and full of flesh. It is not the ticking passage of the clock, but the natural movement of a snake sinking teeth into her own tail.

It was back then, not long ago, that we agreed to coexist, the forest keeping spirits and the people keeping the forest. How long, I wonder, does it take to forget?

The memory of food is short, fullness fleeting as rabbits. We cup our memories like soft caterpillars in the night, but they rarely keep still. As sleep takes us, the memories crawl back down our ears and slide down our necks and drop with spiny feet onto the hardwood floor. They run away. They find their path into the forest.

The earth keeps moving and when the bodies do not make it to the trees, we feel ancestors trapped inside our chests. Watching this hunter thud and stomp his way across our bark-bones, it makes my heart earthquake. I become dense and heavy and full of sadness, because already he does not remember who came before and where they went or why any of this matters.

He slices the tender flesh of his hand on a thorn and a unanimous wail erupts from the starving trees.

There are times when I wake up and feel the universe spinning inside my chest. It is so real, I might peel back my ribcage, one curved bone at a time, and watch the stars and nebulas and galaxies tumble out, the moons to follow. Souls that are not eaten by the trees, I imagine them in my chest with the moons.

The hunter jabs his foot into a sapling, into brush. He tears himself a path and he cuts into the softness of the woods until it allows him to pass. He forces his intent and we have no strength but to yield.

“For now,” I whisper to my own ear as around me the trees cry and their stomachs groan in the earth and the mushrooms pout.

I feel loneliness come upon me like splinters and the lonely weight of an impossible feat.

From between my twin trees, I slip free and, putting hand before hand and foot before foot, I crawl down the hillside. Silence folds around my shoulders and the little living things in the mud pull the sounds I make into the earth where they swallow them up. The mushrooms snicker as I pass and the snaking vines follow me with waxy, curious eyes.

They witness our agreement written on our cells and they witness me and the disintegrating boundaries that exist between the thing that should be done and the thing that needs to be done. Flakes of resolve flit like amber dust through my pores and fall onto tree-tongues.

They do not have to ask why I move closer to the hunter. They do not ask why I might break and why I might shatter and why I might destroy myself. They do not ask, because they are hungry. Because we’ve been shrinking from the world and losing our power and increasingly we’ve been forgotten, overwritten by what appears shiny and new and full of better worth.

They do not ask, because trees do not have mouths. They have roots and porous under-earth and they breathe and they speak in chemicals that touch the skin and touch the soul and sink in deep where the unconscious can hear the words they spill.

The hunter cannot hear how silent the trees have fallen. No chatter, no gossip, no stories. They are watching me and they are watching him and they are watching the distance shrink between us.

I once believed, when I was a small girl, that if I could peel back my ribs, one by one, and watch the moons trip out of my body, I might know that stardust lingers in our skin. I might hear stars the way I hear trees and I might fall away into the sky when I have no body left to hold me.

I wondered if I would see my ancestors tumble out with my blood and all that star-matter. They would tell me secrets and tell me how they kept the trees fed and tell me where the bodies go after the trees are sated. They would tell me how I did not fail them after all.

Like the river that crushed its banks, my ancestors would flow between their death rage and their history and their connection to me and we would understand each other. I would not be shamed and I would be free.

My ribs, though, would not peel. I was never allowed to see what sparkled inside my veins, what burned infinitely and far away and right up close where all things are when we miss them most. No family tapped me on the shoulder with a hand like my own and tilted my chin up to a face with more angles than mine and said those words I needed to hear.

That I am forgiven and that I did not eat the river in vain.

I crouch on my heels as the hunter comes to the base of the hill. He is lean and tan across the back of the neck. The corners of his brown eyes crinkle into butterfly wings and I wonder if any children followed him today.

In the town, there are people with his forehead and a nose gone lumpy with age. Bright eyes with a splash of blue with frames just the same and lashes that sweep up, dramatic and dark. When they lay the table, five matching hands in a spectrum of old to young set their palms against the grains of wood.

In the town, they say this matters and that we should care that people are big. People are traceable above ground and in their blood and on the insides of bones. They possess surnames and faces and hands that are distinctly human, but they still map their lineages in terms of trees and we are not meant to notice that.

My feet and hands go still. The voice of my grandmother ripples over my eardrums and up the ragged bark of the oldest trees that ate her. We feed the forest. We feed ourselves through their need of us. There is no higher purpose for people such as us. One bite at a time, we will bring green into this world again.

Bring green, she said. Bring the world back to life. In the forest, everything rotates. Life turns to death turns to food turns to compost turns to seeds turns to life. Turn for turn, we all return to the beginning of the loop.

The ground settles beneath my toes and I spot the flourish of mushrooms with their soft caps and my gaze turns up to the big oak beside me. Her branches sag towards the dirt and they are bare. Only a few wispy leaves cling to the top of her bowing head. She is tired and old and ancient. Ancient as the sun and the mountains and the first stars that struck a lonely rock in a lonely vast darkness.

My grandmother’s skin ripples between the deep grooves of bark and when I settle my finger between the thick tracts, her chest rises and falls and rises and falls. Her heartbeat shudders through dense rings and travels up my bones and I feel her, feel her inside my skin and inside my ribs and inside the twisting, curving path of my gut.

My family, they were so angry when they died. Rage ran endless, and then there was only me. Across the shallow valley, the wolf watches me. His face is hollow and his knife-teeth beam.

We are all hungry.

The hunter gets closer. He thinks he doesn’t make a sound, but we all know he’s here. We know the distance between his limbs and every tree in the forest. We know the distance between him and me.

He is hunting the wolf and I am hunting him and out of habit, the wolf is hunting me.

The trees click their tongues at me and the elders utter low ho-hums as they watch my hands and they watch my feet grip and release the ground. They murmur my name across the peaks and the valleys and the thin, serpentine waters that cut the forest in two and across the one river husk with its dried out mud and dried out bones.

There is an order that exists inside and above the ground. It starts down low, in close to the granules and the crawling, inching things below the dirt. Slow spirals define it, arcs passing close enough nearly to touch. Only by turning the spiral on its side and climbing in close enough for the nose to hover can we see that space exists between the turns.

In slow spirals, this order reaches from the rocks and into the sky. It might go beyond and through the moon, but we’ve only learned to see it this far, to the edge of the atmosphere where air becomes an egg shell against the mothering dark.

It is forest order. Nature order. Balance and symbiosis, mutual progression and mutual regression. If the trees thrive, we thrive. If the trees starve, we starve.

The trees tell stories of forests that are only knee high and forests that are under water. Some, they say, are too small for the eye to see. But the order is there in all of them.

The hunter has a right to pass through the forest, just as a vine has a right to choke an alder and a sapling may break concrete. The hunter may crush small plants beneath his boots and take the flesh of trees. He may take what he finds and tear it away from the sinew it belongs to. He may clutch his booty to his breast and feel victory for his violence. He may return home and share that which leaves the forest bleeding.

I know this. I know it as deeply as I know the contours of my own hands, the taste of my mouth upon waking up, and today I lose the sense of it. Where is our retaliation? When is the taken replaced, the damage healed? I hear the answer the way my grandmother taught it to me, her fingers tracing soft circles against my scalp.

She told me that we are not defined by the brutality of men. We are the women who keep the forest fed on the bodies of the dead. The dead live on in the trees and the trees live on around us and the living do not mourn the dead.

This is the reason, I realized as I got older, that I could not peel back my ribs and see the universe spill out over my fingers. What is consumed is already changed. It is part of the order of things, part of the rotation, part of the cycle where the snake bites her tail.

The wolf crouches low, his yellow eyes blinking in my direction, like we are two ends of a scale. I do not need eyes to tell me the closeness of the hunter. In every direction for a mile, the forest is lit up with micro-movements and sounds, with the rain of small atoms leaving and entering through pores.

I am right in the hunter’s path and still he does not see me.

I do not know if I am human or not. I do not know if that matters or not. All I feel is hunger. The trees, the wolf, my own. Today, I feel threads shredding.

A long time ago, I was a fool who pulled a storm in from the sea and flooded the river. Mothers and grandmothers and daughters, I washed my family away, and I cannot reach them. I drank the river dry and still I cannot reach them.

We abide by the agreement, by the slow spiral of nature. We feed the dead to the trees and inside our bodies, the universe burns, and around us the trees go hungry and the wolves go hungry and the mushrooms go hungry and the town goes hungry. We are all hungry.

We are all here, in the path of the hunter. We are where no one sees us.

I do not know if I am waiting or watching. I do not know if I am readying or staying still. Across the shallow valley, the wolf sits down on his haunches. He cocks his head at me and again I hear him say, “I would eat.”

I would eat, too, if it were even possible to feed my hunger, this hollowness left behind by a hurricane.

The earth rises towards my fingertips. Tension hums in the trees. We do not want to break. We do not want to shatter. My family would never have considered it, but my family is not here. My family is not me and they are not faced with a forest without bodies to eat. What was handed between grandmothers and mothers and daughters and me broke before I even got here.

With this one hunter, a river would flow. Those with hands and noses like his would follow, searching and shouting and wondering. We would eat them, too. More would come, first to find answers, and then in vengeance. We would eat them, too.

We starve, because the world has forgotten the trees, but here—here we cannot forget the trees if we tried. The trees consume us and the trees become us and we hear our family names darting through their pores. We come here, again and again, to find the familiar faces and angles and voices that we lost.

We do not mourn, because we know they are here. We only need to lean in close enough, near enough to bark, to hear them and feel them, to hold them and have them hold us in return.

In the end, we ask whose agreement it was and what hold did it have over the sanctity of our lives. In the end, we wonder what might have changed, if we’d been free from the start. If a tree could be a tree and the wolf, a wolf. If I could be from the sea and the women before me could be lupins and birds and shimmering insects. If we could be as we were meant to be. If we could be where things grow and there was no hunger.

I claw at my ribcage and I squeeze my eyes shut. Even if I cannot make it open, I can imagine it opens, my ribs, with a small latch at the center of the breastbone. No moons or suns or congregation of planets tumble out. Instead, I imagine them nestled in the soft flesh of my lungs and my heart. They orbit, undisturbed by my interruption, through the many openings my organs provide.

Here, we do not mourn the dead. The dead go with the trees. They burrow into the whorls and climb up the vein-vines, and they live on where the roots go deep and where the leaves watch the stars shine.

I close my ribcage and I put my nose to the wolf’s, who now stands at the end of my toes. We breathe in and out and in and out, the two sides of a scale.

The hunter does not even see me.