If you listen hard enough, you can feel the earth settle and sigh. Curve of a bone, mirrors the gently curving sky.
The trees next to our house grow upside down, with roots stretching thin and bare into the sky and fat, wriggling babies growing on underground branches like glistening fruits. The sky is close, there, and sometimes when the wind blows I can hear the ends of the branches rattling against the curve of the sky. They scrape and scrabble against the blue, and if I climbed high enough I’m sure I could reach the sun or a whole new world, just beyond the edge of the sky.
But I don’t, because I’m guarding the earth-children. I listen to their breath and sometimes, very faintly, in the middle of the night, if I lie flat on the grass and listen hard with my whole body, I can feel them shifting as they dream of the world beyond their earthen cradle.
I don’t often talk about the upside-down trees and their burgeoning fruits, because people never listen. They say that graveyard are places of death, where corpses are buried, but they’re only half-right and also completely wrong. We just plant the bones and wait for the soul to grow again.
We planted my mum when I was quite young, and every other weekend we’d go and see her. Daddy talked to her but I preferred to listen. She never answered him back even once, but with my ear pressed into the ground and the smell of fresh soil in my nose, I could hear her pulse beating slow and steady as she grew.
“Stop digging up the turf with your fingers like that,” said dad, so I stopped leaving brown trails gouged into the grass where my fingers curled into the earth to be closer to her heartbeat and instead I wrapped myself around her headstone. It was cold, like ice, but the quiet thunder of her pulse washed over me like warm waves in a bathtub. I could stay there for hours.
It had always seemed to me that the tombstones grew, too. It was a garden of stone and hidden life, but until my mum I hadn’t understood what purpose the stones might serve. Rocky outgrowths, cool to the touch, starting off smooth and shiny and growing intricate and worn with age. Some of the oldest even looked like statues.
Mum taught me that they were like conch shells, letting you hear the ocean no matter how distant you were from the roiling, salty wash of the waves. You pressed your ear against the stone, always to the back, not the scarred front carved with words and images, and you could hear the life buried in the ground beneath it. At first I only listened to my mum’s gentle breathing, but over time I realised that, of course, she wasn’t the only plant growing in this garden of stone and upside-down trees.
I would spend hours wandering among the tombstones, listening to the echoes of people’s bones brushing up against the shores of life.
I think it worried my dad, though.
“Stop spending so much time there. Make some more friends.” His face always creased up when I tried to explain, in that faltering stop-start way young children have when they know the answer but not the words to express it their satisfaction, that I was looking after the budding bones. “Mum isn’t coming back,” he’d say, and I nodded. I knew that. She was gone, but something new was taking her place in the world anyway. I think he was worried that I might try to plant myself, but he needn’t have. Then I wouldn’t be able to listen to mum as she slept.
Even though he didn’t like me spending time there, dad respected that place. Dad yelled at me for planting chicken bones on the edges, and said it was only for humans. It was a revelation for me. Of course! Other creatures must have graveyards too, where they planted themselves and waited for the earth to grow them anew. Even our dog understood about planting bones.
We’d give her a bone and off she’d run. Very secretive - I tried to follow her but she always lost me in the bracken. After many slobbery kisses sorry, I realised that maybe it was rude to pry on this moment - maybe it was private, not something shared, not somewhere I could come with. But sometimes I’d see her come back to the yard with dirt hanging in clumps from her legs and her muzzle and I knew she had dug up glistening new pork-flesh springing from hidden bones and feasted. She was a smart dog.
One day she vanished, climbing the upside-down trees and slipping into the sky. She didn’t have a stone like the humans, and I don’t know where she ended up, but I think maybe dog bones grow big trees with thick glossy green leaves. The forest always whispered hello to me after she left, wagging leaves back and forth, so I think she told them about me. Besides, she could never be a big, slow old stone. Trees don’t move much but they’re full of life, like she was.
I understand, now, that everyone goes around and around, in and out of the earth whether we see it or not. There are upside-down trees everywhere, their fruit carefully tucked away in the cracks in the soil and cradled in the space between dreaming and waking. Waiting.
My dad was planted next to mum, eventually. When his old bones creaked and cracked, begging to burst forth with new life but trapped in an old husk. I helped bury him, as I tended the stone garden - even when I was older, the place spoke to me, and I listened to it. Mum welcomed him into her embrace, and between digging graves I listen to them whisper to each other just on the edge of hearing. Some days it seems like the sky is only a breath away, pale and blue and close enough to touch. Usually in winter, and when spring comes some of the older stones are silent. The fruit has fallen, and somewhere the soul has settled into a new home. The other grave-keepers sometimes ask me why I smile when I touch some of the stones, but they never listen to the answer. Even when I try to teach them, they never really get it, but not everyone can sense the world like I can.
I hear them whisper that I look older than anyone they’ve ever known. My eyes, they say. My eyes. Like I’m seeing something they’re not, when I watch the tree roots scrape the clouds. One day, someone else will see with my eyes, I’m sure. They’ll be young when I am old, and my bones will whisper secrets to them as I grow glistening and fat beneath the curving sky and the warm earth. But until then, I stay, tucked in the folds between the earth and the sky, and listen to the pulse of the world.