Eden: The True Story
William John Watkins
Undoubtedly you heard about it, but the gossip comes about as close to the truth as one of those sleazy supermarket newspapers nobody'll admit to reading. To begin with, it was the off-season in Paradise and none of the customers had arrived yet. Everything was so new, the animals were still wet, and nothing had a name. Not that it mattered, there was nobody else there then. The real customers weren't scheduled to arrive for about a half billion years, and when you have only two people, there's not much use for names. They just called each other whatever came to mind, although after they'd been there for a while, he got in the habit of calling her, "luv" and she called him "hon" more often than not.
Officially, they were getting everything rent free for helping set things up, but they weren't required to actually do anything -- just be there, and give some idea of how the eventual clients were going to react. In fact, their instructions were pretty simple, "live here, have a good time, the Management will take care of everything else." The usual story says there was a catch, but there wasn't; nothing about a forbidden tree, no snakes, nothing about Knowledge, just "wander around, play with the animals, enjoy yourselves."
There was a war going on, of course, a cosmic war; that much of the gossip is right, but they didn't know anything about it. Even the idea of it would have been beyond them, so there was no sense telling them about it. It's doubtful anything could have been done to prevent what happened anyway. You didn't have to be omniscient to see what a creature with a mind like his would do, but there was no sense warning her, she never could see him as he was. Everything around them glowed with perfection, so it was natural for her to assume that he was perfect too.
But he wasn't.
And he knew he wasn't. He had figured that much out early on, and it was as hard to fault his reasoning as it was to get him to stop reasoning. He was one of those people that have to take a watch apart to see why it works, even though they know they're never going to understand it well enough to put it back together again.
His mind was as alien to her as the minds of the unicorns or the bears or the wombats. His need to explain everything was incomprehensible. For her, things simply were, and what they were was beautiful. Beauty was all the reason she needed. It gave her the answers to everything without even knowing there were questions.
It drove him crazy from the start. He had one of those minds that automatically turns everything into a question and then won't be satisfied until it has an answer, even if it's a wrong answer. The question it had fastened onto first was why they were so different.
In the end, all he had was a conclusion, and the conclusion hurt him even more than the question.
Even the reasoning was full of thorns. Only its simplicity satisfied him. There were two of them. They were different, fundamentally different. Therefore, one of them, like the animals, was a step further from the Perfection that had created them. Every time he looked at her, he knew which one of then it was.
He'd seen a lot of wonders for somebody who'd never been anywhere, and he knew there was nothing in the whole of creation that could come even remotely close to her. She was so gorgeous, it made him want to cry every time he looked at her. He took that as evidence too. For a while, he was distracted with the question of which of them came first, but he concluded that it didn't matter. If it was her, then he was just an afterthought, a little joke to amuse her like the platypus. And if he had been first, then it was clear that he was just a rough draft.
He never told her about his conclusion. There was no point. She'd only look at him with that amused smile as if what he was saying was so obvious that he must be saying it as a joke, or she'd give him that look of delighted incomprehension that seemed to say he didn't make any more sense to her than the elephants, but she was glad that he was exactly what he was. Whatever she did, it made him happy just to be in the same place she was, even if he was second rate, and for a while his questions and his conclusions would leave him alone.
But sooner or later, she'd stay in the ocean playing after he got tired and came out, or she'd get so busy watching the ants, or the birds, or the roses, she'd forget he was there, and the questions would sneak up on him again with the conclusions right behind them. It didn't matter what question he started with, he always ended up in the same place,-- of all the things made, she was the best. And he wasn't.
What was worse, he seemed to be the only thing that didn't exult in her perfection. The birds flew better when she watched them, the flowers billowed perfume at her touch, rocks were more solid, water clearer, the sky bluer the moment her attention focused on them. The grass was never ashamed that its green wasn't the perfect green of her eyes. The bear, the mink, the oak weren't envious that the best brown had gone into her hair. Everything performed prodigies in the spotlight of her awareness as if the example of her perfection was an inspiration to them.
Everything except him.
The why of it haunted him. He came to the inevitable conclusion. He was not the second best of all things, he was the least.
It was the beginning of the end. He didn't know it then, but he was a casualty of the war. Not one idea from the beginning was his own. Every one was lobbed into his mind like mortar rounds by an enemy beyond his conception, by the great Envy that wars continually against Perfection, by the sense of inferiority that hates beauty everywhere. And because he had no idea that it existed, he took its thoughts to be his own.
The force that hates all things more beautiful than itself turned him away from what he loved. The bliss he had felt just watching her move, just listening to her laugh, just being near her, curdled and soured. Her effortless comprehension seemed to ridicule his agonizing struggle to understand. Her absolute grace began to seem an accusation of his own awkwardness; her natural joy, a mockery of his unhappiness; her beauty, a parody of his fundamental ugliness. The joy that he had always felt at the sight of her turned to pain, and he began to take long walks to avoid her.
Eventually, his walks took him at evening up the little mountain where they used to watch the sun rise. He sat looking out over the garden. He could tell exactly where she was. Everything seemed brighter there; the trees seemed taller, and flocks of doves settled continuously into the branches. The sky directly above her seemed to glow with a special luminosity. He felt a deep longing to be with her, and he almost rose and went down the path again.
But the shadow of his despair darkened over him and he turned and looked out over- Eternity. When he looked back, the other woman was there.
She was not beautiful to him, but her worthlessness was irresistible, and when she moved, she moved in waves of shadow deeper than despair. No glow surrounded her, no perfection smoothed the rawness of her nakedness. Her hair was the white that is the absence of color, and her eyes were the color of ice. When she spoke, she said, "I am Lilith ", because. suddenly there were three and it made a need for names. "I am death," she said, "take me and have nothing."
What the gossip says about the rest is true. She taught him to writhe, taught him the quickness of the snake's tongue, the wetness of the lie that smoothes the snake's passage, taught him the undulating rhythms of evasion, and the swift, piercing thrust of betrayal. What drew him in was the question, the mystery of how there could be still another so different from himself, so absolutely opposite of what he had always loved while he still loved himself, but what held him fast, what bound him inescapably, was that, in her presence, he was no longer least.
Generations of men ever since have lied about where to place the blame, made up preposterous tales of snakes and apples, winged cops with fiery swords, eternal banishment for woman's curiosity, gullibility, and deceit. On only one thing were they right, knowledge ruined Eden. Lilith, the Great Lie, went down and murdered Eden with the truth. Met Eve under the trees, sitting with her back against an oak, feeding scarlet parrots caraway seeds out of her white hand, smiling like sunshine. Everywhere Lilith walked, the grass shriveled and the trees shrank back. The birds went up in a great cloud like lost souls, and Eve looked up.
Lilith looked like a man to her, and Eve smiled as if she was thinking, "What an amazing place this is!" Lilith let her have it stiff as a fist as she was trying to stand up. The ground shook like an earthquake.
Even Adam felt it. He looked down on the garden, at the birds flitting above the trees like startled bats, and he knew everything that was being said. He watched the glow shrivel down below the level of the trees and go out. Nothing he'd ever felt before had hurt so much. Until he heard Eve's wail come rattling up through the trees. That was the worst thing anybody ever heard before or since. It made the lions bloody the lambs. It made the sea fill up with blood and the first storm churn out of the atmosphere.
Adam went running down the path. His eyes stung so bad he couldn't see, and something in his chest seemed to have broken. He passed Lilith at the edge of the grove. She looked like a man at first, and she gave him the finger as he ran by. He wanted to stop and grab her by the throat, but it was no good. He didn't have the strength. He felt like the worst thing ever made, and he thought he'd never feel worse.
But he was wrong.
Eve was leaning against the tree, with her forehead resting on her arm. The leaves were turning black. It was starting to snow. He ran up to her and tried to explain, but there was nothing to say. All he could think of was the way she looked when she had stood there the First Day, and the time she named the hippopotamus. There were rose worms crawling up the stem of every flower, and tent caterpillars were spinning cocoons in every tree. He looked into her eyes. The ocean was filling up with sharks, the beach was covered with tar and dead sea birds. There were tics and mosquitoes everywhere, and the first cancer cells were hatching in his brain.
"I always thought..." she said. Her voice was fractured with pain. It had all the sorrow the world would need until the sun went out again.
"I always thought," she said, "you were the best of all the creatures."
William John Watkins has published more than 500 poems. His sonnet "Wife of My Youth, Look Back, Look Back" won the 1994 Hellas Award. His short story "Beggar in the Living Room" was a Nebula Award finalist. His poem "We Die as Angels and Come Back as Men" won the 2002 Rhysling Award. His hobby is racing motorcycles off road with his son, Chad, and he is working on a book on those experiences entitled Hell on Wheels. "Eden" was written in 1984.
Published by permission of the author.