Alison died exactly the way she wanted to die.
She was killed and eaten by a mother bear and also by the mother’s cubs.
Alison hadn’t been meaning to be killed and eaten that day, but once as a young woman she had hoped that when she was old, her life well spent, she would be walking in the forest and a bear would eat her. Her body would become sustenance for wildlife. A large, hungry, wild, life.
So then, old Alison had been alone, stepping through a forest where human paths or roads no longer remained. Her life had been filled with wandering forests like this one, gently and respectfully taking samples and measurements from the land back to labs to make reports. The reports were given to the people who made policies about property lines, land rights, air quality, fences, tractors, factories, chemicals, cars, houses. Such things that have so little to do with forests and bears, and so much. Now her long work was done, and she entered the forest often for the sheer delight in the cubic greenness surrounding her.
She could hear her knees pop when she stepped over logs. Her stiff joints loosened with movement, then become sore again with the distance she covered. A mother bear, with her three cubs in tow, saw her through the underbrush before Alison saw the bear.
Alison didn’t care for the being killed part; that part was frightful. But the bear and her too many cubs were sustained from Alison, which is what Alison had hoped for.
Bears typically don’t have three cubs in one year. But this bear was the third cub of a bear that had been a third cub. For human myths, the seventh son of a seventh son was supposed to live a magical life. Meet a witch, fall in love with a swan, typical magical forest such and such. In reality, being a seventh son of a man who’s been a seventh son just meant that they inherited nothing, twice.
For this mother bear that ate Alison, her cubs would inherit a forest plentiful with berries, nuts, grasses, flowers, and game. They would sleep under a night sky unlit and unpoisoned by far off cities. Her cubs would feast and grow shining fur off the fat of the woods. Their mother would see to that.
One of the cubs, the little male (who also ate of Alison) would go on to sire several litters of three cubs, and many more of ones and twos. His sister would grow and have only one cub at a time, but for years.
The other female in their little den would someday accidentally mate with a mystified, wandering Polar bear and have two cubs. She would have other cubs with bears of her own species, but always know that something was a bit familiar about all those paler bears in her forest.
Alison’s death was not a turning point for any of these bears, but simply another meal. Because of Alison’s life’s work as a biologist of sorts, the bears had been eating well these past few generations, which in turn meant that larger dens could prosper into adulthood. The mother bear and her three cubs hadn’t known starvation unless they were just waking from hibernation for spring, all four tummies growling.
And spring it had been, when Alison died the way she had hoped.
Alison’s clothing and hair scattered with time and sun and rain, and with the birds that used her materials for nests. Bits of Alison’s shirt and shoestrings and silver hair could be found cradling little spotted eggs throughout the forest. The air would be cacophonous with their songs.
The bugs rejoiced in the bits of Alison that the bears had left and scattered. No pesticides had been used in miles and miles of this forest for years when Alison had been killed. So, the bugs danced their all-hours dance upon the remains of her frame.
The air had already been thick with their vibrationous wingbeats, then the flap of larger wings when the songbirds and bats swooped and twirled to eat the bugs in midair. Not in many, many lifetimes had the air been so loud with tiny, and tinier, and tiniest lives.
The bugs did their work and in time, the dirt responded richly. Upward wove a new life, spinning a song tale that was shared both above ground to the very sky, and below, where the roots of the great tree touched and felt and tangled with the other trees of the forest.
The tree was not Alison, but it grew from the enriched earth where Alison had once been. The roots grew through two of her ribs and carried them down into the moist ground. They float there, folded in among the hardest bits of blind soil. The smoothness of her bones tell the stones there what daylight felt like.
The tree grew and with it, the mice and squirrels and chipmunks playing out their dramas among the branches. The tree is heavy with sentient mammalian life.
The snakes are drawn. They, like the bears, are having more babies in a season than they should. And they will continue on this pattern as long as the forest provides them with ample food. The bounty of this tree has meaning for them and their many little snakelings, and they are grateful. When a new batch of mice burst forth from their hollows, the snakes writhe with happiness.
There is one snake, a shining black female with eyes like pools of oil, who has never lost a single egg in any of her clutch. She was born from the sixth egg of a sixth egg, and perhaps she was destined for greatness. She does not care for greatness outside of always having enough mice (her favorite, far superior in taste and texture to other furred animals, even when she grows large enough to eat full sized rabbits) to fill her slender stomach.
Above the tree, a hawk glides for miles without a single flap of his wings, cruising on updrafts alone. This forest is vast, and growing wider and wider, thanks in part to the legacy of Alison. The hawk does not care about the politics of a land reclaimed by the wild, and has never read about property law, about leaving more and more land to the winged, furred, and scaled. He only cares about this updraft right now. He cares about conserving energy that can be used to dive at snakes. He halfway hopes there will be a fight with a snake, and that he’ll eat part of this snake in the air. Perhaps a female will see. Maybe she’ll be impressed.
He lands on the tree’s uppermost branches. He picks at an errant feather, preening. He looks around. What if there was a female watching right now, he wonders.
His eyesight is made for distance, but mostly movement. There’s a river out within view where he’s caught fish before, once tumbling headfirst into icy water while a herd of deer, some seventy strong, and a lone female hawk watched. He didn’t return to that part of the river for some time.
The tree sways. Limbs snap to be regrown later. New patterns, new pollinations.
More saplings come from this tree. Those saplings scatter and grow up under the weight of migrations of birds and butterflies and cicadas that darken the sky above for days. Billions of animals at once, on their way to do what their parents had done, again and again. There are no nets to catch these migrations, no guns to knock them out of the sky one by one, no chemicals to slow them and kill off anything that eats the husks. So the migrations swarm, clouding the air with pheromones that reach other countries.
In one of these mass migrations, an invasive specie of grass was wiped out by a hungry winged insect. Without the foreign grass to choke the native plants back, the native plants flourished. The forest, which had already been healthy beyond measure, felt like it could breathe again.
This was much better than Alison could have hoped for in her lifetime. Some of her work involved removing invasive plants and animals, but they were so firmly ingrained in the land that it was just as effective to stare and frown. Which is to say, not at all. She would have been delighted to know that the imposter grasses were gone, so long after her.
The tree survived the migrations that weighed down its branches with crawling and pecking life. It did not survive the wildfire.
If there had been anything left of Alison’s body at this time, the wildfire would have consumed it. Fires swept through the forest every few decades, clearing out the underbrush that had piled up and created mountains of kindling in dry years, or mountains of luxurious compost in wet years.
The tree had survived dozens of these blazes, but this year it had just enough dead branches that it was too similar to the brush underneath for the fire to tell the difference. The tree blackened, the snakes and hawks and songbirds and mice and squirrels and bears and deer and wolves fled, and the tree fell. With nothing left to eat, the fire withered and slept.
Alison’s bones were dust and ash. Exactly, so perfectly, the way she wanted.
But ashes are excellent fertilizer. The rains came, the growth returned, the animals followed and spread the pollens and nectars and seeds. The air was noisy again with varied wings.
A living tree returned from the blackened log that was once the tree that grew from where Alison had lay. Its branches spread and yawned, tickled the neighboring branches of other new trees. The leaves gave a bear generous shade. A strangely pale-furred bear. She was killed and eaten by bears.