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shoes hit the forest floor. Feet slap

mud. 17 children are running

inside of me. The first stabs his toes

into Earth. He grins and shoves

an earthworm into the second’s face:

2 isn’t squeamish. They paint

their fingernails with clay thread

the worm through tree branches

three inches from-- the third

screams into the hollow

oak’s eye. Timeout. 4 asks me

what a body is. a body is a tree,

I answer. 5 tells me that a tree cannot

be a body because bodies are perfect

and trees have too many arms

to carry her. Too few legs to run

away. 6 picks the grass

from 7’s hair. 7 is crying.

He is squeamish and saw the earth

worm halve. 6 tells me

the eighth did it. The eighth denies

that the worm ever lived whole

in the first place. 9 asks 10

what a skeleton is, and why it is hanging

from a tree. 10 says the body

forgot its bones, left them clinging

to dry air.

The forest goes up in flames.

The eleventh embraces

the worm’s lower half. I tell her run

but she roots her feet, promises

me she will not burn. I lie

and say we will be back.

The twelfth throws bamboo

into the fire. They scream

13 is missing. Be quiet, wipe

the carbon from your eyes, search

for a way out. The fire bleeds

ash, and 14 tells it to shut up.

Mud smothers her mouth. She coughs

up oak seeds. By now, the fire curls

up to sleep, and the fifteenth tells me

forest fires are natural, they balance

the natural order. 16 spits

on the charcoal, asks 15

what he knows: he’s just a kid.

15 says he learned it

in honors biology. We all gaze

at the seeds arching

from the soil. 16 asks 15

to explain the growth with his science

class. 15 says that combustion creates

both carbon and water. The oak

rises. The seventeenth asks me

what a soul is, this time,

the forest answers.


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