The Rose of Paradise: fiction by Asher Abrams
and your desire shall be for your husband
With the first shafts of light piercing the land and the sky, even before she can make out the shape of the land, already there is a silent rushing, and a feel of something taking flight. And as the morning breeze begins to rustle its feathers in the treetops, she thinks that, for a moment, she can still see the Void, endless and pure, hiding behind the dome of the still-dark sky in the west. And now she can see the shadow of its wings, vanishing into the land beyond the sky. And the day comes.
From the hilltop, looking into the abyss above, she can see with her inner sight, and she can see past the veil that shrouds the world. In the form of a flower, she sees the rhythm of things: creation, emergence, communion, culmination, and rebirth. She sees all of the land, and the living things on it. She can see beyond the land to the great ocean far away, and she can see all the creatures in its depths: the fish, the whales, and the Great Serpent, Tahmatu, who has made her home in the sea-bed since the beginning of time. Looking at the moon, she sees its form reflected in the round shape of an apple hanging from a branch, and in an instant grasps the mystery that holds the apple and the moon in their places. She sees how the stars came to their places in the sky, and the secret codes they spell out in the night. As the lights in the sky travel in their courses, she counts their cycles, and their patterns grow into a glowing tree in her mind; and sometimes she can hear the tree singing to her. And beyond it all, outside and inside, wrapped in layer on layer of mystery, she sees the gateway to the Void and to the only feeling of peace she knows.
This is the story of how it all happened -- the woman and the man and the garden they left behind. And though you may have heard this story before, there are still some parts that need to be told. For storytelling is only the memory of creation: the different arts by which storytelling is practiced are changes, not from the unknown to the known, but from the unremembered to the remembered. And so it was with Eve in these early days: for there was no one to tell her stories, and all she knew was what she saw around her, and what she dreamed. And there was that which she remembered, drawn from her fading memory as from a dream, brought forth from the Wells of Silence the way a bird draws a fish from the still waters of a lake. And so, with the morning sun and the waning of the night’s mystic trance, she remembers dimly how things were at the beginning: the chaos of elements, space and time, matter and energy. This chaos gathered into a great and hollow sphere, a vessel awaiting its moment of bursting. And then the light came, and then the light became the world. And the world would always rejoice in the coming of light.
But the darkness was already there.
The land is called Ediin. You pronounce the word with a catch in your throat, as if you are choking on dust. It’s a land of sand and mud, mountains and rocks. Stand here and you will remember that the earth is your origin, the Gate of Mercy through which you came to exist. Stand here, and you will remember that the earth is also your Gate of Mystery, that aperture through which you will pass and be seen no more.
The garden isn’t like any place you’ve ever been. Set in the wilderness of Ediin, it’s a place that speaks its own language. Outside, the land stretches into sparse grass, shrub, and ultimately desert in one direction; and in another, trees become a forbidding forest. Inside, there is comfort and fertility; the garden is a part of Ediin, but it is also apart from it. It is its own world. There is a presence that envelops the garden and gives it life, an invisible mist that spreads from the center of the garden the way the scent of a rose spreads from the blossom. The garden itself has a kind of design, even an intelligence to it. It is not a geometric plot, like the gardens you might see in a city today; it has the complexity of an organism, and it seems even to have its own mind. Its own soul.
From the far wastelands of Ediin there comes a river, and it spreads from the garden to the four corners of the world. These will trickle into streams and lakes and wetlands far away. The garden is a crossroads, a place of meetings and a link between this world and the other. To live there is to live suspended between worlds.
Eve has discovered something in the garden. It is not beautiful: it has an ungainly size and shape, and a certain unfinished feel about it. But it is human, like herself: its face seems to say I can dream, and its hands say I can do. Because it is part of what is human, she calls it Man. The man wakens, and begins to speak. I am like you, he says, and from then on his name is Adam. She is not sure, but she thinks she has dreamed the man. She wonders if she will ever wake up.
She thinks she has dreamed the man, and he thinks he has dreamed her. They call their world Paradise, which means orchard or sacred space. They listen to its voice, which does not speak in words and perhaps comes through the garden from some place far beyond. They understand that the garden is theirs, to tend and to protect. But to protect from what?
Now you should know that there were other people in the world then, too, but they were not really there, which is to say, they were not alive inside the way Eve and Adam were. So while Adam and Eve were not the only people, they were alone.
They walk for miles. They walk for days at a time, sometimes together and sometimes each alone, around the fertile land that is bounded by plains, forests, and rivers. They find a great river, too big to cross. Eve looks across it, wondering what is on the other side. Adam looks down it, wondering where it flows. She turns away, he lingers. He has seen something: a footprint, as large and as heavy as his own. Then he goes.
No one, from that time until today, has ever been so full of wonder and joy as they were in their world. Adam loves the distances, he wanders far beyond the garden into the wasteland, dreams of the day when he can scale those mountains. Eve studies the colors of the garden: red, rooted and earthy, and the blue that speaks of the sky; the warm passion of yellow and the bliss of violet. And all around, the green heartbeat of the garden, and the faint azure glow that surrounds it like an intangible membrane, visible only at the edges of sight.
Far down the river, Adam has discovered other people. He has seen them, heard them, walked among them in one of their villages. He has seen women, men, and children. He has seen people dying and giving birth. Yet they have not seen him. He has walked unnoticed, like a specter. He has spoken, shouted and cursed, stolen from them, all to no effect. So he accepts his life as a spy and learns what there is to know about them.
He learns that they are simple people: their way of seeing the world and moving in it is not like his own. They move like water, leaving no trace or disturbance, seemingly impelled by some subtle force. The animals do not fear them. For a moment, he wonders how he himself can frighten animals while remaining invisible to the villagers. Then he understands that they do not see him because they choose not to.
They live in dwellings of dried grass, with roofs of leaves and branches so insubstantial that you can see the sky through them. He can understand their speech, but it is a crude dialect of the language he speaks with Eve. They have no numbers, they can only say “one” and “many.” They know little of building, cooking, or tending plants. They do not venture beyond the boundaries of their settlements, and though they live in the wasteland, they show no inclination to explore the orchards of the land he shares with Eve. (Except, he thinks, that one who left his footprint in the mud so near our home.) They lack ambition. There is a childlike innocence about them, and they fear the dark as children do. Their presence troubles him, and he says nothing of them to Eve. Eventually he loses interest in the villagers. They have nothing to teach him.
The Spirit Throne rests in a sacred chamber in the highest heaven. It is shaped like a cube with thirty-two sides, six feet wide on the outside and six billion light-years wide on the inside. Its radiance cascades down from the most recondite reaches of Mystery into the worlds below. All of the powers and energies of the universe, and all the human souls and all the angels, emanate from it.
Before time began, there was a certain emanation from the Spirit Throne. This emanation would not seek the higher places as the other angels did; it sought the lower reaches, which all the others despised. It sought, it circled, it flew in a spiral around the sphere of the universe from one pole to the other. Like an angled serpent, a twisting serpent, it went in search of the lower worlds. And when time began and the womb of the universe burst with being, this angel was expelled through the Gate of Mercy and descended into flesh. Long before Eve walked the earth, even before the sleepwalking villagers, this angel took form as a woman. The first woman: the angel of the night, and her name was Lilith.
Night comes, spreading its net over all the living. It shields the world from the brightness of the sun and subdues the light of the numberless stars. If you have ever been in a desert on a clear and moonless night, you know how the light of the stars can frost the surface of the land with a shadowless, silver crust, how it can take you out of your senses and make you forget who you are. And as the moon walks its course, forever falling back towards the sun from night to night, you can reach out to it and feel it pull you away from the world. Eve can feel the pulse of the moon as surely as Adam feels the sun’s heat, and she has named every one of the six thousand stars her eyes can see. By the black light of the unseen maiden moon, she bathes in the water of the longest river, the one that flows from the barren heights of Ediin, and branches out and nourishes the world.
This is the part Eve never tells Adam, the part she will spend the rest of her life trying to forget.
She has seen another woman in the garden at night. The woman is an angel, tall and strong, with long dark hair and powerful shoulders and wings. She is naked, like Eve, but around her waist she wears a sword, something Eve has never seen before, and on her body she wears gleaming golden jewelry and gemstones.
At first, Eve only sees her once or twice in a moon, and by accident. But something begins to grip Eve by the heart, pulls her out of her pallet late at night, drives her deep into the forest. Now she’s looking. She can find Lilith by her scent, wild and raunchy like a herd of animals. Some nights Eve stumbles blindly through the brush, being careful not to fall because how would she explain the bruises? Eve is as nimble as a deer and more helpless. Sometimes she has tears in her eyes when she finds her. But she always finds her.
When Lilith doesn’t appear, Eve dreams of her, prays for her to fly down from the chamber of the Spirit Throne, to come and stand beside her like a comrade. Lilith belongs to another world, and Eve tries to imagine it. It is a world on the other side of the veil, a world of peace amid the chaos like a rose among thorns.
Dimly, Eve knows that Lilith could find her if she chose, but that she prefers to make Eve come to her. Eve doesn’t care. They meet each other’s eyes, look away. And is it Eve who reaches out for the first time? Eve who touches Lilith on the arm, and then pulls back? Yes, and it is Eve who touches Lilith again, again on the arm just below the elbow, and then Lilith returns the gesture, and they stand like that for a moment, arms locked, eyes locked, scarcely breathing.
They begin to talk, slowly at first, then quickly and easily. Eve learns that Lilith is an angel, and asks her about her home in the heavens. Lilith teaches Eve many things about the earth. She knows how to melt rock into metal, the stuff jewelry and tools and weapons can be made from. “If you do it right,” she says, “you can make something that will last a thousand years.” She tries to teach this to Eve, but it is difficult. She teaches her the uses of plants and rocks, how to flake stone into tools: these things Eve remembers. The night becomes many nights.
Once Eve asks Lilith to tell her about her sword. Lilith draws its shining blade from the sheath. The blade seems to turn within itself, the way a kaleidoscope turns inside out before your eyes. “Don’t touch,” she warns.
Eve reaches out and puts her fingers on the blade. She stifles a howl, as the pain sears her fingertips burns her arm.
“This sword will not kill you. This is the blade that comes to you in sleep, to stop you from going too deep, so that you won’t be drawn into the void. Without it, you would be sucked into the land beyond.”
Eve wonders about the land beyond. Is it better than this one? She looks at Lilith, but says nothing.
How does Eve look to Lilith?
Slender and soft, like a fertile field before the rain has touched it. Her hair is fine and delicate, like the fabric the angels weave. She smells like moss and flowers and growing things. Her eyes are the eyes of a child who will never see its mother again and must find comfort in the arms of a stranger. Her lips tremble as if praying, as if asking a question, as if crying. This creature is not ready, Lilith thinks, but even the angels can lust ... yes, she must have her.
And how does Lilith look to Eve?
Beautiful and mighty, with strong arms and legs. Rich and full as a ripe fruit -- strange that one never meant to bear children should have such wide hips and full breasts. Lilith is tall, with long, thick hair -- strange, too, that a creature of heaven should have so much of earth about her. The smell of her sweat and her sex. The musty, musky odor of her wings as she moves them slowly, like the boughs of a tree in a gentle breeze. Her strong, soft fingers. Her face like an ever-changing plain and her eyes like the deeps of space. Her voice like the ocean, her touch like the wind.
Once, when the moon is dark, Lilith touches Eve’s face. “Be mine,” she says. “Come with me to a place I know. No mortal may go there, but you will be safe with me.”
At this, Eve trembles but says nothing. Something is twisting inside her, like Tahmatu beneath the waves, not breaking the surface.
And Lilith says, “Even in the darkness, you are beautiful. Come with me and be my beloved.”
And Eve still says nothing, but she feels something impossible is happening, as though the earth is swallowing her up and giving birth to her again. She looks up to the sky for answers, but the vault of the night is only a silent wall.
Now Lilith raises her hand and the garden around her seems to fade, and Eve is standing someplace else, someplace she’s never seen before, but a place that looks somehow familiar. There is a grove of apple trees with their luscious red fruit and juicy fragrance. The whole place is shadowed with roses, and a living spring bubbles from deep within the earth.
Here the evening breeze blows warm as Lilith comes into view, bearing two golden goblets, one in each hand. She kneels down and fills these from the spring. Eve feels her fingers cup around the smooth bowl of the vessel as she accepts it, trembling, from Lilith.
“Drink this and come with me,” Lilith is saying in the vision. And Eve holds the cup before her for a moment and looks into it, scrying the crystal water. The cup is full of stars.
Eve raises the cup to her lips, still gazing into it. But at that moment the vision fades. Now she is gazing into Lilith’s eyes. “Come with me,” she is saying.
“Yes,” she murmurs, barely audible, and Lilith says, her voice now low and commanding, “I can’t hear you!” and the trembling figure says again, louder, “Yes!”
But when Lilith takes one step closer, Eve runs.
The next morning she is covered with scratches, tired, and very quiet.
Just as he is turning away from the village for what he is certain will be the last time, Adam sees a pair of eyes looking at him. There is a man standing in the bushes by the river. The man motions to Adam to join him on the riverbank. He seems to be kin to the villagers, but he shows no interest in them; perhaps he is an exile. They look at each other and Adam thinks: He is like them, but he is different too. He is like me, but he is not like me. Following the silent stranger, Adam notices his agility, and the softness of his hair. They meet each other in the afternoon, in the hot part of the day. Deep in the woods, the man shows Adam things that he has missed somehow, plants too small to see and trees too large to see. Adam, following him, can see and touch the animals that used to flee from his presence. They speak as men do, without words.
Although the man is an outsider, Adam raises no protest to his presence within the garden. Yet after a time Adam becomes uneasy: after all, it is his garden. He keeps meaning to say something, but somehow, around the man with no name, Adam forgets how to speak. And then one day he comes upon the stranger picking a plant from the garden, and this violation incenses him. With a shout, Adam rushes at him and grapples with him, arm to arm. By the side of the river they struggle. As the sun lowers and the earth becomes ruddy, the stranger sinks to his knees -- not defeated, simply surrendering. Adam stares down uncomprehending as the other man extends his right hand. He stands for a moment, then turns his back and limps away.
That night, sleeping fitfully while Eve is away on one of her lengthy walks, Adam becomes aware of something moving near him, but though he strains his eyes looking, he sees nothing. In the morning, he goes back to the river bank. There on the ground he sees something, and he understands what his silent friend was doing in the garden the day before. It is a bouquet of flowers, exquisitely arranged in a rainbow of colors and tied with a length of vine. He picks up the gift and takes it to Eve, who has been very moody lately; she is delighted. The next day he tells her he doesn’t feel like going out exploring, he’s going to stay in the camp with her. And the day after that, he goes back to the river, he’s not sure whether he’s looking for his friend or avoiding him, but it doesn’t matter. Adam never sees him again.
The garden has begun to change. Or maybe it is they who are changing. The wild places within the garden no longer call to Adam; instead, he turns his attention to the making of stone tools: hammers, axes, knives. He learns how to make a blade sharper. Eve spends more time learning how to cultivate crops: she likes things that grow where she can watch them. She begins going to bed early, but she cannot sleep. Their conversation with one another is short and functional, as it has always been, but now there is an impatience to it. They are restless, as if their thoughts are elsewhere. As if they are now visitors in this place, as if it is no longer their home.
The Tree of Knowledge stands in the eastern part of the garden. It is easy to see from afar, harder to see from close up. It is unlike anything else in the garden. Its trunk is shiny, as if made of metal or stone, and deep bronze in color, the color of flesh. Its boughs fork into branches, each bearing leaves, and each branch bearing smaller branches as well. The smallest branches of the Tree of Knowledge are like the fibers of a spider web; in fact, the tree appears surrounded by mist. It seems to be a union of opposites: earthly and heavenly, good and evil. There is something forbidding about it: it seems to say Do not eat me, do not touch me. Yet it is beautiful, and by its five leaves they know it is good to eat. And this is where Adam is standing when he looks up and sees Eve there too. And now someone else is there, too, looking at them.
Eve is looking at the tree, thinking of something she’s lost -- she’s lost something but she can’t say exactly what, except that it had something to do with life, and something to do with wisdom. Perhaps it even had something to do with death. All she is sure of is that it is missing, and now, in the fruit and in the eye of the serpent, she sees it.
The serpent is naked, unlike all the beasts of the field: like the woman and the man, it is hairless. And it knows what none of the other animals know: that though they may be warm-blooded, yet there is something about them that is cold, cunning, and reptilian. They know how to desire, and they know how to change the world to get what they want.
Now some will tell you that the serpent spoke, but it didn’t have to: the look in its eyes was enough. Yes, the serpent is looking at that fruit, first with one eye and then with the other, while its tongue flicks in and out to taste the scent of the fruit. That round globe of delight nestled in the bushy leaves and tawny limbs of the tree, that fruit contains the universe, and the serpent knows it. And Eve knows it too.
She feels the fruit burn all the way down. It will never stop burning. The memory of the strange face in the starlight fades, and now she will only remember the undulating coils slipping through the grass. And now, and forever, this is the shape of desire.
They have both eaten, and the radiance of the Tree of Knowledge spreads from them like the glow of a new fire. Things stand out in sharp detail, and take on new meaning. They see something they have somehow overlooked all this time, right in the center of the garden. It is another tree, not like the first: it is not pleasant or desirable, and until now it would never have occurred to either of them to pay it any attention. It is a small, scrubby thing, with twisted, dark, knotty limbs and an earthy odor. Its fruits are brown and small, scarcely more than berries. But there is a potency to it, an energy that suffuses the garden like the evening mist. Unnoticed and almost unseen, it sustains the garden. Eve knows that it is the Tree of Life, and who eats of its fruit will live forever. It is the doorway to eternity, the Gate of Mercy and the Gate of Mystery. Yes, this is what she wants: to live forever in this beautiful world. She takes the fruit into her hands, and she hands it to Adam. As they touch it, they are enveloped by its fragrance -- and then they drop it to the ground as if it were a hot coal, for suddenly and too late they understand its full meaning. To live forever, yes -- but not here. To live forever, in the next world.
The fruit of the Tree of Life is death.
The fruit grows before their eyes, like a sun exploding, and its round surface becomes grooved like a pinecone. The fruit is now a great black flower, a rose whose petals reach out to devour them. They run, but the black rose keeps growing. They smell it on their bodies, they feel it behind them. Without stopping, they glance behind them and they can see its giant petals over the treetops, stretched thin and phantasmic like smoke. They run, and they know that the smell will never leave them, it will stay on them like a slow-acting poison, in their blood and in their sweat. When they look again, the Rose of Paradise is gone, and in its place, in the distance, is an angel with a sword that flashes like lightning. Eve turns, but Adam grabs her arm. They keep running.
The angel stands there watching them for a long time.
"The Rose of Paradise" copyright (c) 2004 by Asher Abrams
All rights reserved.