My earliest memory of Grandma Elias was a Sunday morning at her house. The eggs were firm and golden and the hash browns were burned, just like they were supposed to be. Everything at Grandma’s house was exactly right, all the way from the Christmas lights which never came down to her little corgi Muffins who followed her like a shadow. It was time for church, but I didn’t want to leave.
“How come Grandma doesn’t have to go to church?” I asked.
“She already knows all that stuff,” my mother said, forcing me into a jacket like meat through a grinder. “You still have to learn though.”
Grandma stuck out her tongue and waggled it about behind mom’s back. I wasn’t amused. It wasn’t fair.
“Don’t you want to visit God?” I asked Grandma.
“God doesn’t live in a church, silly,” Grandma Elias said. “He lives in that crab apple tree in my backyard. Would you like to meet him?”
“Yes! Can we mom? Instead of church?”
I recognized mom’s expression from the time she accidentally drank sour milk. “Absolutely not. Please don’t joke about that kind of stuff, Elias. You know how impressionable they can be.”
Grandma shrugged and winked. “I was counting on it. Another time then.”
She didn’t mention it again though, and I forgot all about the God in her apple tree. The subject didn’t come up again until years later when I was in the 10th grade. Mom was in the hospital to remove some ovarian cyst, and I’d been left at Grandma’s for a few days while she recovered. Every morning I’d wake up to find Grandma kneeling beside her apple tree, digging around its roots. I assumed she was just pulling weeds or something until I caught her burying a row of sealed Tupperware filled with leftovers.
“Is that for God?” I asked, suddenly remembering what she’d said when I was young.
“Yes. I wanted to thank him for looking after your mother.”
“So it’s like a prayer?”
She shook her head. “Is that what they teach you in that dusty old Sunday school? No, you must never ask God and for anything. You must only thank him for what he has already done.”
I watched as she carefully patted the soil into place.
“Is he going to eat it?” I asked.
“What are you asking me for?” She moved to put her hand on the tree and invited me to do the same. I did so without thinking but jerked away immediately. The bark was warm and pliable like rough skin. My fingers were still tingling, almost vibrating as though a whisper, too deep to decipher, still echoed through my body.
Grandma Elias just laughed and turned to go inside. Somehow I didn’t feel like staying there alone.
Mom was released from the hospital shortly after, but a few days later she started getting sharp pains and had to go back in. No-one told me what was going on, but that alone made me know it wasn’t good. I made a point of setting my alarm for the crack of dawn so I could watch Grandma digging around the roots of her tree. I waited until she left to investigate and see if there were any treats I could steal.
The first thing I uncovered was the Tupperware. They were all empty. Absolutely clean, like they’d gone through the dishwasher. I figure she must have traded them out for her latest donation, so I kept digging into the newly disturbed earth. The soil was damp here, but I kept going until I uncovered a patch of golden fur. Muffin was buried under the tree.
I was trembling from head to foot while I slowly covered up the little body again. It wasn’t just the horror of what I found either; I could feel the vibrations emanating from the tree. The bark was so hot to the touch that it almost scalded me, but I forced my hand to remain to feel the hum of the presence. Not quite a sound, not quite a thought, but something suspended between flooded my senses.
I wasn’t myself in that instant. I was looking through Grandma’s eyes as she sat on her bed, hands clasped and shaking. I was in a hospital room watching a daytime soap opera on the television in the corner of the room. I was a hundred people doing a hundred things, thinking a hundred thoughts, dreading a hundred futures, and then it was gone. It was just me standing before the tree, panting for breath, staring at my swollen red fingertips that still stung from where they’d touched the rough skin.
I was scared and confused, but I didn’t speak of it to anyone. Grandma didn’t say a word about why Muffin wasn’t in the yard anymore, and I didn’t ask. She seemed to be in a better mood afterward though, singing or whistling to herself wherever she went. Then a few hours later we got a call from the hospital — that it had been a false alarm and that mom was already on her way to pick me up. For the first time, I was only too happy to leave Grandma’s house.
A couple years later and I’d left my hometown to go to college. I got swept up in the daily dramas of life and didn’t look back. Not until I visited again Junior year to help Grandma Elias start to pack up her home. She’d grown too old to look after the place herself, and she’d decided to move into a home. All the conversations had been light and optimistic as though this would make her life so much easier, so I wasn’t prepared for the shock of seeing her again.
The electric wheelchair was the first surprise. My family isn’t exactly open about their problems, and nobody had told me that her arthritis was so bad that she couldn’t even walk or open doors anymore. Her face was dried and loose, and her eyes were deep and sunken. I looked up the place she was moving into, only to discover it wasn’t a retirement home at all: it was a hospice. My mom still kept talking about all the friends Grandma would make there, and Grandma said she was looking forward to the activities and the company. They were living in stubborn denial, and I couldn’t take it.
“The only thing I’ll miss is my garden and my tree,” Grandma said, looking around her old home. “It’s not like I can get down on my knees and dig anyway though, so I suppose it’s for the best.”
Luckily I knew where God lived, and I was sure he’d intervene. A small bribe or offering wasn’t going to cut it though. It had been a life for a life when my mother was sick, and I was ready to pay that price again. The more I thought about it, the more sure I was that I could follow through. This wouldn’t be a thank you gift though, and I had no intention of being subtle and simply hoping for the best. In other words, I felt that it had to be human, the most valuable thing I could think to offer.
The digging took a lot longer than expected. I came back with a shovel that night. Grandma Elias hadn’t moved out yet, but I was comfortable in the familiar darkness and didn’t make too much noise. When I finished the hole I’d go find some drunk coming home from the bar and knock him out. Push him into the hole and cover him up. No one would ever know — not even Grandma.
If Muffin was still here then he would have set off the alarm by now, but I couldn’t even find the little body anymore. I kept at it for a few hours until the hole was a little longer than I was tall. I hopped inside to test its depth and found the earthen walls rose almost to my chest. That should be plenty. I started to climb out again, grabbing one of the roots for support while I pulled myself up. The root was fire and I let go immediately, reeling backward to nurse my injured hand. I overbalanced and was about to fall, but something lashed out of the darkness to snatch me around a flailing arm.
I stared in dumb shock at the root twined around my arm for several seconds before the burning began to penetrate my long-sleeved shirt. The intensity of the heat was increasing by the second. I scrambled in the opposite direction, trying to hoist myself out of the hole without touching the tree. I barely got two steps before another blast of heat penetrating my ankle and dragged me to the ground. Back up to my knees, but an irresistible weight flattened me back to the ground. The heat of the roots withdrew, but the weight was increasing by the second.
Dirt and rocks were raining around me so hard it felt like a hail storm. The roots were sweeping all the piled earth directly on top of me. I managed to raise myself onto my elbows and knees to create a small air pocket, but I could go no farther. The last of the meager starlight quenched above me, and I was buried alive. I could still hear the muffled sound of the dirt packing in tighter above me for a little while, but it was becoming fainter and more distant by the second. Another sound was replacing it, the same vibrating whispers I’d heard all those years ago.
Part of me was still braced on my hands and knees in the darkness, but I hardly noticed anymore because I was also sitting on a hilltop and staring at the stars with a beautiful girl warm against me. I was sleeping in a bed — a hundred bodies in a hundred beds, all breathing slow and regular. And every passing second made me aware of a hundred new people, experiencing their bodies and hearing their maddening cacophony of thoughts. I was grieving, and celebrating, in ecstasy and agony, all so real that it might as well have been my own body experiencing these things.
It kept going. Faster and faster, until the part of me that was buried under the tree was so insignificant that I hardly remembered it. Within moments I must have been every man, woman, and child on the planet, all their experiences mingling into a single omnipresent hum of consciousness. I felt myself being born in ceaseless explosions of sensation, and just as often did I feel myself die, snuffing out entirely. But each coming and going didn’t matter, because I could feel the hum everywhere and in everything, eternal and immune from the fluctuations of its composition.
The feeling didn’t last. One by one, then in hundreds and thousands at a time, those minds closed to me. My awareness was shrinking again, and my shaking body buried underground and my shallow breaths were becoming more real. Soon I had but one mind, one body, one life, and one desperate urge to not let this slip away like the others. I began to wiggle back and forth, using my small opening to continue displacing dirt above my back. I managed to make enough space to get my feet underneath me, and then the additional power of my legs helped to push upward through the earth. The air was thick and heavy with my own stale breath, but the higher I got, the less densely packed the soil was. My head was growing light and I was afraid I’d pass out, but my hand broke through the surface and a clean cold gust of air filled my greedy lungs.
Inch by laborious inch, I widened the hole and crawled back onto the surface to lay panting on the ground. I thought I was alone until I heard Grandma Elias’ voice only a few feet away.
“Well? Did you get what you asked for?”
I was too weak to do anything but lift my head. She was wearing a bathrobe, sitting in her wheelchair with her wrinkled hands folded demurely in her lap. She seemed as frail and ancient as ever.
“Asking doesn’t work, does it?”
I managed to shake my head. I thought she’d be angry or disappointed, but she only smiled.
“When your mother was sick, I did something terrible. I asked God to make her better. She was going to get better anyway, but I didn’t know that. I thought that if I gave up a life, then I could protect a life. The tree doesn’t stop death though — it gives us something much more valuable than that.”
“You’re still going to die, aren’t you?” I asked, unable to help myself.
“Does that frighten you?” she asked.
I said nothing. I’d felt what it was like to die. A drop of rain in the ocean, gone in an instant but still part of the whole.
“Me neither,” she said, “and that is the true gift of the tree.”