After Eden

After Eden

In Short Story by Matthew Windham

I ran from Adam many years ago, after our first sons were grown and one of them was slain. I needed to break forever with the terrible past, and the man who would always belong to it and it alone.

Yahweh did nothing to prevent me from leaving, for I had stopped giving him power over me when he allowed Abel to be killed and he banished Cain. I’d told Cain to seek no forgiveness from Yahweh, nor to heed his angry words, but to find a way to remake himself as a better person, from new clay, and to love himself in spite of his abominable sin; just as I, his mother, loved him still, and would strive to forgive him, though his crime had done me the greatest injury I could imagine.

Adam beat Cain ferociously and damned him. He called upon Yahweh to damn him too for all his days. And Cain was seduced by the power he identified in their anger, even while it was directed against him. Like Adam, he was always infatuated with strength. He relished excessive punishments for others, as well as for himself, because he was in awe of the Law. It was a grand monument in his mind, and it barely troubled him to feel its long shadow cast over him. Yahweh banished Cain for murdering Abel. In turn, Cain took Yahweh with him for the comfort of the dread that Yahweh put into his chest. Then Adam praised his god for his justice.

I left Adam the next day, passing by the gates of the garden in the mid-morning cool and feeling a great relief that I’d never again see the impassive and yet somehow cruel faces of those cherubim who guarded them. And thinking that, now that Yahweh no longer wielded any power in my heart, it seemed a lackluster flaming sword that he had set between his angels, while the garden itself looked a no more enticing a place to spend an afternoon than did that dusty road to the horizon.

I followed the river Pishon southeast from Eden into the country of Havilah, and there I met many men both good and bad, but none that I could despise as I despised Adam, nor any who could ever have been said to command my obedience the way that Adam once did. I had called my obedience love for many years, and love was what I called our mutual destinies too. But I was then a very different woman from the one I became after the hardships of Eden, whose soul was devastated by the joint destruction of her children and the hardness of her husband, who learned to survive and thrive in a friendless land when all I wanted for awhile was to be entirely severed from the person I was, with so much to regret behind me.

Now I am doubtless too old to endure anything like what I survived back then. Yet I would rather attempt it at this age than make that journey again bearing the fragile burden I carried with me unawares; a burden that was responsible for both the worst of my early troubles in Havilah and for much of my determination to keep myself alive. I suppose I’d probably never have escaped Eden if I’d known that I was carrying Adam’s son in my belly, newly conceived, when I set out upon the road. I’ve always considered it a very cruel trick of Yahweh’s to have allowed me to become pregnant and not announced it the way he did when Adam planted Cain and then Abel in me. It would hardly surprise me to learn that Yahweh was directly responsible for Abel’s death, Cain’s fratricide, and Seth’s conception, all to spite me because he could detect that I had already lost all my devotion to him and no longer knew how to love his first man. But I didn’t wish then, nor do I desire now, to allow much room for that possibility, because I could never bear thinking that all my sons were punished for things I couldn’t help feeling. I prefer to believe that I was too strong in myself to be so completely Yahweh’s victim.

I laughed while my home in Havilah was burning to the ground because a neighbor whose own house wouldn’t be safe much longer told me that I must have displeased the gods. The displeasure of the gods is all I’ve known, I told her, but they’ve never broken me. I’ve lived beyond far worse experiences than the loss of all my property in smoke and flames, and the best moments of my existence have resulted from my steadfast refusal to break under the castigations of the gods.

In truth, it was surpassingly difficult to find myself bereft of both home and possessions when I had worked so hard for the comforts those meager belongings and that small roof afforded me. But the gods would not gain my allegiance by terrorizing me. They wouldn’t even have the pleasure of seeing my weakness. I sat constant watch over the house while it burned and smoldered, with never a tear in my eye, and once the embers had cooled I recovered the few coins I had hidden under the floor. They bought me a couple months’ lodging while I took sewing and cleaning work from some of my deceased husband Asaroth’s friends. Though it must have been more than 30 years since my creation as a fully formed woman, my looks were still excellent enough that several of the soldiers and politicians and merchants who entered those households displayed considerable interest in me. Soon enough, one of them arranged for me to be the nurse for his two sons, and to show him some special kindnesses whenever his wife was not nearby. If the gods wanted to force me into repentant supplication and dependence upon their good will, they would have done well to have taken away my beauty ages ago.

The journey to Havilah was a painful one, from the hunger and thirst and the exhaustion I experienced without mitigation, and my exposure to the increasingly cold autumn weather. I’ve always been amazed that Seth did not die when I was traveling those roads, my body as tattered as the skins I wore, the approach of starvation readily apparent in my cheeks and ribs and pallor. It might have been because he was still so unimaginably small inside me, but I think that Seth lived because I needed him, and because the world needed another source of delight.

I remember the sleepless night that I suffered after five days of practically no food at all–though I chewed almost any living leaf I could find left in that hostile season, and couldn’t get enough of the few insects I discovered–when I first discerned the shape of all my ribs through my clothes. I ran my hands all over the contours of my body, trying to discover myself still inside of it. There had been a time, in the garden, when I was a soft and voluptuous woman, the ideal of femininity as I had intuited and would soon find confirmed when I saw more women and the way men responded to their different bodies. I very carefully examined my ribs, recalling how so often in the beginning I had run my fingers along those wonderfully curved bones in Adam’s chest, always ending with the scar at the top of his stomach. I knew I was supposed to have been formed from a rib Yahweh removed through that seam, and while I couldn’t see the sense in Yahweh’s method, except to make his woman literally a part of his man, and while I was no longer even sure that this story was completely true, I liked to think that I was made of such tough material, or of something even stronger. But I was full of fear at finding my arms and legs and hips and even my breasts becoming emaciated, losing their former shapeliness. I felt dizzy and delirious from the hunger and worry. I lay awake on the ground for hours, fighting to keep away the worst of the desperation, until at long last I was delivered across the night’s benevolent threshold. When I awoke the next morning, I knew I had conquered my mind somehow in the interval of sleep, and whether I perished or endured I knew I would not be a servant to my fears. I knew I would know inner peace. But most important, I was sure I’d never allow myself to ask Yahweh for succor or declare any remorse for the decision I had made to quit the lands under his despotic rule.

In the years following our expulsion from the garden, Adam had found it no easy task to keep me from questioning the goodness of Yahweh or impugning his patronage. Yahweh had taught us to call him Father, but I detested the authority he claimed over us, which consisted mostly of inventing unexplained prohibitions and ordering exaggerated punishments. True, in the garden he had provided for our every need and kept us safe from all harm, and we never knew pain; not of heat or cold, hunger or want, nor of any injury. The garden was a gentle place above all, tame to Yahweh’s hand. And for a long time Adam and I were tame too. We knew so little then. We were his trained beasts who did his every bidding, always blithely gratifying his vanity. And while we were mild and perfectly behaved, he was mild and generous. When we disobeyed him, however, the penalty far exceeded the trespass.

I was incensed immediately when Yahweh’s angels expelled us from our home, the only place we’d ever known. I thought that the afflictions he pronounced on our lives thereafter, for me in childbirth and for us both in the cultivation of the rough, barren land beyond the garden, were little warranted by the mere eating of a few forbidden fruit–and that was before I began to comprehend what pain actually was. I supposed it must be like the feeling I had when I looked with anticipation at a piece of food that I was on the verge of eating, or like the tiredness that night always brought to us, only slightly intensified.

Indeed, I had no basis of conception then for the brutal torment that the birth of Cain just nine months later would wreak upon my body; and all the times I burned myself with our fire, or dashed my foot against a stone in the fields, or collapsed in tears and sweat after a harsh day’s work during those months of my pregnancy, could never have prepared me for that awful day when my first child broke violently from my womb. In that night, shortly before Cain at last emerged into life, I cried through my teeth to Yahweh for help while Adam stood uselessly aside, his eyes so big and his face so stupid that I wanted nothing more than to hurl something heavy at him. I pleaded with Yahweh to relieve some of the pain. I begged for his forgiveness and leniency. He did nothing. That was only the first of three such assaults performed by my body upon itself, and I’m pleased to say that I didn’t ask for mercy again from my implacable supposed creator. I later learned, of course, that childbirth invariably involves the same kind of pain for every woman, and so perhaps it was never within Yahweh’s domain to offer me relief.

If I had thought Yahweh a little too harsh after our original fall from his grace, the obstinacy he showed in penalizing us to the end–he who called himself our protector–both perplexed and infuriated me. I tried to hold my tongue, and I reprimanded myself and inwardly repented whenever I began to find my mind filled with disparagements against our god. The thing that most kept me quiet and made me continue to apply myself, or resign myself, to loving and pleasing him was that I was kept entirely ignorant of the existence of other people or other gods in the world. According to both Adam and Yahweh, we two were the first beings of our kind. We would be the parents of the whole human race, responsible for all the good and ill that their lives would contain, beloved of them in happy times and maligned whensoever they found themselves wretched or forsaken. However, without us they would never come into being, to know the enjoyment that life could often bring, nor would they have the opportunity to live eternally in the final paradise that Yahweh promised.

If the agony and strife of our life outside the garden had not somewhat abated after a time, when our home was made proof against the north winds and our crops at last began to yield a favorable harvest; if my baby had been made to suffer the way Adam and I had suffered, I would soon have lost all confidence, not only in dreams of ultimate peace and rapture among the heavenly realms, but also very likely in the prospective good of earthly existence, though I’d been assured that such doubt would prove deadly.  It was Cain and then his brother Abel, born a year later, who together showed me the joy that might be intermixed into the most difficult of human lives. And I believed that their lives would be far, far better than ours had been.

For all I know, and in my deepest hopes, Cain is still alive today: my gentle baby who grew up under the grievous influences of those who would make him the killer of his own brother, his best companion; my once delightful son who smiled freely and lived affectionately, who in the moment of his manhood broke every human bond he’d known with one fell mistake and then capitulated to darkness.

I remember the way he looked at me when he said goodbye. His face bore numerous bruises, and he was missing a couple of teeth, but I searched past those evidences of Adam’s wrath for the boy Cain had been, or the warm, charming man I had for awhile discerned him becoming. My heart was broken again–almost as much as by the slaughter of Abel–when I felt I discovered in Cain’s stony countenance a damning portent of his blighted future, that that lovely face would never be seen to smile again. Perhaps it is so, he has never thrown off the mantle of guilt and self-derision that Yahweh and Adam both cursed him to wear. Perhaps he still blackly berates himself and prays to Yahweh to do the same. The sensitivity and breadth of feeling that the excellent boy always showed have trapped the helpless man. He injured his heart too profoundly when he murdered his brother. It’s hard to imagine how someone of Cain’s temperament could ever finish loathing himself for what he did.

A mother’s hope for her son is never so entirely overcome that she cannot in some small way still envisage his redemption, and what unfortunately seems the most likely current of his life is certainly not the only one I allow for. If Cain has discovered, in time, that he has more strength of his own than he formerly could find, he may have extricated himself from Yahweh’s dominion. Perhaps other gods in other lands, by some length of exposure, diluted his awe for the god of his father–possibly because a woman he wished to marry made sacrifices to a particular deity–and maybe he destroyed the mark he made on himself, or covered it over, rejecting Yahweh’s proprietorship.

But if he has not been saved from a lifetime of pain, Adam is entirely to blame, for Cain’s ideas of Yahweh belonged to Adam first, or rather, they were the reflection of Adam’s beliefs but with Adam himself superimposed upon them. Cain regarded Yahweh as the identical of his father, writ large; and Adam, for his part, was always pleased to present himself as the image of Yahweh cast in human clay. When Cain departed Eden bearing a fresh wound he’d made on his forearm which he described as the brand of his maker, it was Adam he carried with him in that wound, and it was Adam’s face, too, that he saw behind the condemning voice from the awful skies. How would he know better? He was too captivated with his fear to ever look up and see that Yahweh was not the same being as Adam. I’ve earnestly prayed countless times, to whatever worthy spirit or natural force would accept my prayer, that Cain would someday raise his eyes to discover that the sky had room enough for other gods, and the earth ample room for other kinds of men.

When I had traversed the desert lands along the river Pishon and arrived at last in Havilah, I was the most pitiful outcast imaginable. I couldn’t speak the language, I knew nothing of the ways of cities, nor indeed of anyone whose experiences had not been exactly concurrent with my own. I’d passed few other travelers along the road, and I’d been too afraid to attempt to speak with any of them, alone and defenseless as I was. I’d avoided any settlements except to steal food and clothing under the cover of night. At least I was attired in something more than ragged animal skins when I came within the bounds of the city, and at least I had fared better in finding myself food during the last several weeks of my journey. But I always picture myself much as the sole survivor of a terrible shipwreck, washed ashore in an unfriendly land. Who would help me? Who would be merciful to me? Everyone that found me, I felt, would slay me.

But O! there were so many, and such a variety, of people! How could I have imagined anything like what I found in Havilah? If Yahweh had never banished Cain, and when he did so implied that there were other people already living on the earth, might I never have come to see another soul that was not of my relation? Let alone such throngs of humanity as were everywhere in Havilah. Such temples and palaces, too! A place of life and commerce and religion and art erected by unnumbered gods and men; the world and its history and its races distilled in one location. I couldn’t believe that such a vast array of things could be, but here they were whether I found it easy to believe in them or not.

The first several nights I was in the city I spent in the shadows of its great edifices, hiding myself from as many eyes as I could, in alleys under refuse. If Yahweh had done one good thing for me after we left the garden, it was to make me wary of everyone. Once I had learned to distrust my god and to abhor my husband, once I had seen Cain betray his love for his brother Abel, I would not easily anticipate anything less than duplicity, depravity and brutality from anyone who came into my path. And my caution was undoubtedly my salvation then, as it often would be later, for the sounds I heard in the late hours from the places I concealed myself–sounds sometimes very near at hand–confirmed every suspicion I had of the dangers that might fill those streets. I heard pitched arguments and brawls, young men soldiers hunting for mischief, robberies at knifepoint, and more than one rape. It was a shocking world of violence and mercenary opportunism, and anyone forgetting for an instant the law of self-preservation first might at any minute end up food for dogs. In hindsight I’m surprised that I was not a little more ingenuous, but maybe it was the intense instinct to protect my unborn child that made me sharp, and maybe the utter foreignness of the environment made me constantly prepared for any sleight of hand, any curtain to be drawn suddenly aside.

During the journey from Eden I had initially assumed that the lack of food and the bodily travail were responsible for my sudden brief sicknesses, and the interruption in my menstruation, but by the time I arrived in Havilah I had come to suspect the truth: that I was once more freighted with Adam’s growing seed. I knew the time was limited before I would begin to show, and so I quickly sought the best means of long sustaining our deeply intertwined lives, and not every method I found of earning money was one I would be proud of. But I kept us both fed.

Through those hardest first years I creatively shaped our tightly bound fortunes, relying on my brains and beauty in almost equal measure. Seth shared my many homes, and even a few dismal nights back out under open city skies, but he shared little of the hardship withal, and I can be proud of that indeed.

Life proceeded then with unprecedented swiftness. I lived with several men who were as much my husband as Adam ever was and finally married Asaroth under the laws of Havilah when Seth was seven years old.

That boy was as different from the brothers he’d never know as Havilah was from Eden. Cain had been a pensive, serene child who easily went unnoticed much of the time, though he’d possessed a truly beautiful spirit and the most ingratiating eyes and softness of tongue imaginable. Abel had been more like his father, blustery but scrupulous, intelligent but rarely thoughtful, superior in his own mind to everyone. Seth, however, was a precocious, consummate riot, unable to fix his attention on fewer than a dozen things at once, unable to stop. I thought of him as containing the lives lost by Abel and Cain on top of his own lifeforce, except that young Seth could barely contain anything. He was exceptionally clever and incomparably attractive, dangerous to the hearts of everyone he met, but loyal to the fortunate few he truly loved. I always wanted to warn the girls, boys, and women of every age who fell in love with him that the more they were in his company, the more they would love him indefinitely, whether he noticed them or not. But how could I, who was wholly enamored with him myself, discourage anyone else from taking their chances with him? His presence was so delicious, his tiniest affection so enlivening. Before Seth, the only experience I had known of pure bliss was when I ate some of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, when I had vibrated with the earth in perfect synchrony and I was overwhelmed by color and tickled by the air, and the hairs on my arms stood up to absorb the sun, and I had the utmost sense of well-being–before the lamentable slide into teeth-clenching panic and a crushing feeling of worthlessness and abandonment. My other children, it’s true, had both given me their share of moments of happiness too intense for my heart, that spilled over in laughter and tears, but Seth’s charms were a magnifier. I remember being unable to fall asleep some nights because I couldn’t stop laughing at something he’d said or done, and then worrying the next day that he would paralyze me if he made me laugh again, my muscles were so sore.

I found my thoughts occupied less and less with my Eden days with every year that passed. Now and then, in those rarest instances when Seth was calm, almost melancholy, he strongly resembled Cain; and when he became stern or when he performed any song that was not comic, he recalled Abel to me. I’m glad to say that his similarities to Adam were mostly physical. And rather than reminding me of his father, his features mostly replaced my memories of Adam’s corresponding features.

But I’ve noticed with a lot of people, as they approach the ends of their lives, that the memories which become most prominent are very often those from their youth. In the middle of my life I lived mainly in the present, as I had done since my creation. But now I find myself reflecting more than I ever expected to on that early period which, for worse or for better, in many ways defined me. Asaroth’s death and the fire in my home a short time later while Seth was off fighting and carousing in the army took me to a place of loneliness and insecurity that I hadn’t known since younger days, but the necessity for sharpness and defensiveness prevented me from focusing anywhere but in front of me. Even Seth’s mystifying, disconcerting decision a couple years past to go and seek his father’s country and see if he could still find Adam alive did not set me to reminiscing too much, probably because I knew I had to force myself not to think about Adam or Yahweh if I didn’t want to be angry with Seth. It was not a choice I would have made for my son, but I believed I could understand the impulse to know the man who had begotten him. I wondered if Yahweh had ever told Adam about Seth, or if Adam had pursued me at all in my flight, but those were things I could speculate about only so long, and then I went back to living.

Even now it raises my ire, though somewhat against my volition, to think about Seth venturing off into the wilderness to find a man of so little actual consequence to him whom he can incidentally call his father, especially as he has still not returned from that errand while the last of my days draws near. Until a very short time ago I was still an energetic woman with a body that easily acceded to most of my daily demands upon it. Then I became ill with something that struck me hard and kept me abed for several weeks, even though it might have been no more than a simple short fever in my primer years. Not a few friends my age, or yet younger, have already gone to their deaths. Mine cannot be very far away.

I remember that Yahweh always wanted me to believe that my destiny was inextricably linked to Adam’s, and that Yahweh and Adam together would choose what my destiny would be. He could hardly have been more wrong. It may have been a miscalculation for him to have created me out of bone, for I’ve known many women who were softer and more pliable than I have been. Meanwhile, I don’t believe I ever witnessed any choices in Adam’s life, unless one can call it choice when all one does is obey. Even when he tasted the fruit, Adam was only obeying, though if he ever obeyed me about anything else I can’t remember what it might have been. That was the moment when I respected him most, because I thought I sensed curiosity and boldness from him then. But O! it didn’t last. Adam daily chose the Will of Yahweh over anything that resembled inquisitiveness or a keenness for discovery. He had precisely the most limited existence I can imagine. And I even think that he was probably responsible for the negativity that unexpectedly overcame us after we had both started out by enjoying the fruit so much, because he let the fear of Yahweh cloud the lovely concentration of clear pleasure in which we were suspended. I don’t think I was aware of it at the time, when I was suddenly overwhelmed by despair, but I firmly believe that the euphoria could have persisted in me for much longer. If I regret anything, it was asking Adam to participate in something I ought to have known he would be too uncomplex and unimaginative to appreciate. Or maybe I shouldn’t have known, because I barely knew myself then, let alone the man with whom I still continued to believe I’d spend all my living days.

Yahweh’s designs and Adam’s obedience notwithstanding, I’ve reached a pinnacle of experience in my old age that I never could have achieved in the garden, and I call myself better for it. I wonder what Yahweh truly predicted he would get from someone like me. I almost charged Seth to raise some of my unanswered questions to the god of his father, but instead I told him that the skies over Eden were the province of his own thoughts alone, and that if he started hearing a voice somewhere close above him, he should just cast his thoughts a little higher.

About the Author

Matthew Windham

Website

I am a multidisciplinary theatre artist currently on-tour with the Missoula Children’s Theatre. I am the founding Director of the annual Shakespeare Festival at the Utah Children’s Theatre. I have written or co-written ten stage-plays that were commissioned and produced by the Utah Children’s Theatre, and I received the 2014 Utah Best of State Award for playwriting for a show I co-developed titled ‘Breakfast with Shakespeare’. My short story ‘The Deluge’ is appearing in the 2017 print edition of Bluestem literary magazine