Seeking a Garden of Eden, We Look Elsewhere
Part I Adam
He for God only, she for God in him
And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him. And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;
And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. (Genesis 2:20-23)
He was cold clay, soft, and unshaped in many ways. His pasty complexion reminded one of a man deprived of sunlight and activity (though he had plenty of both) and his attitude was, frankly, unappealing. He was uninspired, without passion, and still so naïve. He was mildly arrogant too, because although naming animals came naturally to him, in certain circles it was a revered skill and his being adept at it made him something of a celebrity. But he was not yet wise and didn’t see that the adoration lacked respect. He possessed minimal self-awareness. Sometimes, annoyingly, he acted as if he were the only man alive.
Yet for all his flaws Adam was hard to dislike. He couldn’t be blamed for his plight: a neglected soul surrounded by bounty. He walked along gold rivers and sat beneath knowing trees, and lived among the birds in the trees and the fish in the rivers, and the herds and swarms and packs and colonies of creatures, and always there was a cat rubbing against his leg or a praying mantis on his shoulder or a seagull perched on his head. It was paradise, but his ingratitude was understandable. Paradise is not trees and birds; paradise is one’s perception.
Adam named the animals, but what was that? He sat on his rock like a bored prince divvies out the fate of his people. With a flick of his wrist, he baptized them this and that. The names came effortlessly, but what he could not do was articulate the constant singing that plagued his heart: the uneasiness, the boredom, and the ache. What was the name for the heavy dark sky that loomed in his throat? What word could express the endless August afternoon by the river watching two cleaved dragonflies suspended in flight above the river’s watery rocks? How do you articulate the sadness that prospers in beauty and infinite time, or the repugnance of being born into paradise without expectations to meet? And finally, he wondered, how could he possibly explain loneliness when there was still no love?
God let there be firmament in the midst of the waters, and divided the waters and called the firmament heaven. He brought forth grass, and herb and trees yielding fruit whose seed was in itself. He set light in the firmament of the heavens. He let there be light—for signs for seasons and for days and years—he gave light upon the earth. He let the waters bring forth moving creatures, and fowl that may fly in the firmament of heaven, and great whales and every living creature that moveth—Be fruitful and multiply! He commanded. Fill the seas and the earth!
And it was beautiful.
Adam’s moment, on the other hand, was a little less orchestral. It did not inspire the poets. In fact, it was perhaps the most un-romantic, nauseating and disgusting one-night stand in the history of creation. There was no seduction, no swooning, no passion. No longing for more. This was an efficient clinical surgery: an incision, a bone snap, and a skin graft.
Adam didn’t care. He slept like the dead that night dreaming of lobster claws tangled in his hair and horseshoe crabs scurrying out from under him. Creatures who had died weeks before drifted through his dreams. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?” he asked them. He looked at the clock, saw that there were hours before the funeral, pointed to a creature and said: Gazelle; and to another: Pigeon. Before long there was a parade of creatures passing by. They were swarming and coupling and he was sinking. The light was dwindling; he knew he was dying alive. He yearned to stab himself in the neck to distract from the pain in his chest—ribs breaking like twigs he confused with the pain he had no words for, the pain that had dwelled in his heart for so long.
And then, in the midst of this nocturnal despair, a tenderness arrived—a most gentle stroke touched him. The darkness faded away, and the pain and the dying did too. This won’t hurt, she promised and he trusted her and succumbed to her and the relief was profound. The relief was magnificent. In the deepest source of this peace within, he felt a garden unfurling, growing up to reach his ribs; vines growing up from his groins and around his bones; stomach flowers—orchids and lotus and hydrangea—blossoming open like dove wings filling him, filling the emptiness in his body and his heart, filling his flesh and bones.
The Morning After
He woke with a hangover beyond anything he had ever experienced in his life. Valium, Xanax, Ambien, and Seconal—he hadn’t remembered taking anything to sleep or for pain, but apparently it had all been administered. He staggered in an anesthesia-dusk of Hyoscyamine and Propofol. He smelled of ether. He was nauseous and disoriented and when he vomited he suffered an excruciating pierce in his rib cage. He didn’t feel better. He rolled over, the sheets sticking to him, and squinted in the light pouring in from the window. The cramp in his left side gave him difficulty sitting up. He cringed, fell back into bed, reached for the urn of water and tipped it into his mouth. It overflowed down his chest and onto the bed and everywhere. His thirst was great. He lifted the urn again and poured the remaining water over his head. The water was cold and his flesh tingled. For all his discomfort, his flesh felt weirdly alive. He looked down at himself. His body was different. Something had changed in the night.
As he put down the urn he sensed a presence in the room. He turned his gaze to the door and saw a silhouette standing there, leaning against the doorframe. The presence was willowy and her skin was gold in the yellow light.
Complicated emotions arose in him.
“Silverfish,” he said, awkward and nervous and not quite getting it right. “Scarlet Ibis? Grey fox.”
Eve stood there, waiting. “Woman.” He sat up, suddenly overcome with energy and purpose. He looked at Eve and, like a negotiator asserting a final unflinching offer, he called out: “Woman!”
Over the many, many, many—many—years that followed, Adam would occasionally tell his sons and grandsons about the morning when his body hurt so much that he felt like he had been hit by an 18-wheeler, and the way his mind had floated around in an etherized balloon. “There she was,” he reminisced. “Your mother, the most compassionate animal of them all. She was transcendent in the morning light, quite lovely but also intimidating, a little freaky but stunning. There she was," he said, "rather impatiently waiting to be named.
“It was a birth,” he continued. “And an abortion. I was severed, and at the same time I was made complete.”
Sometimes I feel God’s presence in prayer, or while driving on a highway, once on a porch in a small African country, and often in church with the choir singing Hallelujah, and when this happens I am bewildered and grateful, but then keep living my life. I still have to pick up the children at school and make dinner; I still worry about money and getting old. But I am also, secretly, transformed. God’s love interrupts my thoughts and for a fleeting moment the dark sky lifts and I perceive life more fully. Walking with my children, buying a coffee, or washing the dishes, there is meaning in my life, and it is paradise. And so, for Adam. A garden opened within him, the sky lifted, and that morning the swarms and colonies and packs and herds of creatures welcomed a man transformed by God.
However, life does go on.
As momentous as Eve’s arrival was for Adam---as profound as God’s presence was that night---being cleaved to Eve certainly had its advantages, but it was still not love.
Part II Eve
As one who loves, and some unkindness meets
Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception;
in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children. (Genesis 3:16)
And Adam called his wife's name Eve; because she was the mother of all living. (Genesis 3:20)
You walked through the garden in the cool of the day with that drink in your hand, surveying the damage around you like a second-generation English expat in an eternal African garden. I watched you, barely able to contain my excitement. Hiding and giggling in the bushes, I was a child playing a game with her parent---the titillating thrill and fear---half wanting to be discovered, half wanting to deceive. But when you turned and I met your expression, you startled me out of my delight. Your expression was still and unflinching. I’ve seen that distant gaze in fathers since, even with Adam at times. Fathers in pain because of their own children: humbled, sorrowful, blaming themselves for their child’s crime (however slight); blaming themselves for being too removed as a father, or too overbearing, or too loving, or not loving enough.
On the horizon giraffes floated by gracefully, seemingly infinite in their gait, until (and I saw this) in a swift kill, they were brought down in mid-flight by a lion’s attack. Spanish moss clung and strangled the frangipani and flame trees, ivy tenaciously took hold and devoured. A flock of sparrows swarmed and rose together like pillars of smoke. The peacocks vainly opened their feathers accompanied by bloody cries. Listen to the orca’s lusty wail, the spider’s throaty motor-call. A praying mantis in coitus crunched her mate’s head while he foolishly proceeded. A fox wailed in the back of the woods like a woman in distress. There were figures down by the river, twisted and torn, longing and moaning. The sky that day was as cool as Louis Armstrong’s kitchen. There had been a crime committed; life was birthing agony.
Admit it, you saw the whole thing coming. You knew the whole story all along. Just as tonight, while I sit here alone and terrified, you are present and knowing at the story of my sons.
I have cleaned this house for three days straight waiting for Cain and Abel to return. Up before dawn and scrubbing well into the night. The towels are bleached and pressed, the sideboards and floors are immaculate, the glass windows are so clear that a bird flew into an upstairs pane this morning. I pulled the mattresses out and beat out every cloud of dust with ferocity. Each fork, spoon and knife is meticulously polished; the walls scrubbed white. I took all the clothes out, soaked them in goat’s milk, peppermint and sea salt. They hang like stiff apparitions in the boys’ closet. My hands, already course from years of domestic labor, bleed; bleach burns the cracks in my bare feet. My shirt is drenched in cow sweat. But I push myself until I crumple with exhaustion. It’s important that I get ahead of the work now so when they return I will be ready for them. I will welcome them to a clean and beautiful home, the candlelight dim and the smell of lamb stew. Each night, dazed with exhaustion, I sit waiting for them. I jump when I think I hear the door latch, but it’s only a moth against the pane.
Tonight I watch the beetles knock and click against the lurid light of the lantern. The night is insanely still. In the silence of this sterilized living room, I admit that I am desperate. What has distracted my children? Who has interfered? The night is too long. I smoke a cigarette through waves of terror. I long for the smell of leather and dirt, my cool birds. I have nothing without them. Nothing.
I remember when I was born. In Eden I was so perfect. My skin was smooth and unblemished, my legs were long and came together as softly as a sandstone Buddha. Blue veins mapped my life. I rose effortlessly from sleep like a child, and moved with the grace of a gazelle. I knew no pain, no stiffness. Free of labor, my hands were supple, not calloused. We ate couscous, lemons and mangoes and drank the purest wine and rich black coffee. On long afternoons I lay by the river and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, but no would have described me as a smoker. I was pure, and lived forever then.
I saw things no animal had ever seen before: the swell of a flea with the suck of my blood and Adam’s blood. When I sat very still, Luna moths landed on my lips to dry their wings. This is how I spoke with trees, tended to an elephant’s hair-lip, and fed daylilies to the tigers. I tattooed my skin with the flower’s orange powder. I bathed in the first light in the firmament. I bathed in the light upon the earth.
Oh I was so elegant then, so reserved! Witty in the company of hyenas and parakeets, aristocratic among the giraffes. I lived in the ether acre; I dwelled in possibility. I was infinite! But one thing, you see, I was not complete. Adam and I were cleaved together as husband and wife, but it was not love. And I was not complete.
It amused me how Adam never once questioned the contract: cleaved; one flesh; naked; unashamed. All trees but one.
I used to tease him.
“Why make life complicated?” he would say. “Why tempt the unknown? Why socialize with the un-named?” Adam so loved to name things! In naming them he knew them. It was his way of grasping what was elusive and enigmatic in life, and it was effective. He was definite and exact. I envied him that. He never varied his commute; his life had parameters. He played it safe.
But he hadn’t named me and perhaps that’s where we first stumbled. “She shall be called woman,” he declared when I materialized into his life, but he did not name me ‘Eve’ until we prepared to leave the garden. Why? For eternity I lingered dangerously in the liminal, caught in ambiguity. Because he could not distinguish me, Adam perceived me not as a whole human-being but as planes of light and pockets of shadow, space and negative space, color and texture. The shape of the space between my jaw and shoulder, the line of my collarbone, the beautiful, elliptical length of space that my legs created between them. He glanced at the subtle cast of purple along the skin of my breasts. I yearned to be whole. I wanted to love.
Darkness presses against the windows tonight, bougainvillea and grapevines reach in as if to grasp and strangle. This morning when I went out to hang the sheets, the jacarandas and the palms and even the eucalyptus trees were entirely still until a slight breeze encouraged a small sway of a branch or the indifferent flutter of a few leaves. The rabbits encroached to watch me. They think they’re invisible in the grass, like children who hide their eyes with their fingers and believe they can’t be seen. Their bodies are still but their little facial ticks and winks give them away. I admit that they have brought me moments of delight over these excruciating days. They have brought reprieve and tenderness with their silly innocence. “I do see you,” I say to them. Twitch, goes a whisker. Blink, blink goes an eye. When I return to the house, I still feel their presence the way I used to feel the boys’ presence as children playing in the fields when I did chores. Out of my sight but knowing by instinct their general direction -- overseeing their lives without interference -- whether they were silent in concentration or silent in conspiracy, knowing the difference between cries of play and cries of terror.
When life is as usual, when the men return from the fields and flocks, they fill the doorways and the little rooms brushing off the dirt, the smell of their sweat and dirt, sweat streaking the dirt down the back of their necks, mud caked in their shoes, clots left in the entryway, on the stairs, dirt in the sheets, dirt and blood staining the sink from cracked bruised hands. Dust coats everything---it’s like they were made of the earth. The house swells with male energy. Cain grunts some reply as he slumps up the stairs to wash for dinner. Abel with blisters on his feet and burned by the sun. It used to bother me, their brute energy. I remember how they taunted each other jokingly at the table and the moment I stepped out of the room they were fighting over something petty, then laughing, then devouring their food, then sleeping.
As little boys, Cain fell asleep immediately while Abel sang made-up songs to ease himself to sleep. He sang quietly about things, his brother’s antics and the sky. Every night I sat between his and Cain’s beds, listening to Abel and reflecting on the day. Sometimes he would stop suddenly, mid-verse, and ask into the darkness, “Mummy?” In the slant of light from the moonlit window, I could see his face’s profile looking off into nothingness.
“Yes,” I’d reply.
“Are you still there?”
“Ok,” he would say peacefully, and he’d pick up his song again.
The men were good to me, kind and respectful. I confess that with all the work and patience required, at times I wished them away. I was not perfect. There were times I dreaded their return to the house in the evening. But never dead, never harmed. My God I never wished them harm.
In sorrow you shall bring forth children, God admonished me in the garden. Only now I know what he meant: the bittersweet pain of love, this torture, this agony of love.
I smell the fires burning from where I sit tonight. There is an unsteadiness in the world. My Lord, I am scared. Be with me.
Without responsibilities in Eden, I had all day to dream. But I also had no fear, and I was drawn to the shadows. I was addicted to the unknown. I adored mystery -- the pressure before a rainstorm, the way the bats flew out from the caves at dusk. I adored being seduced by mysterious and magic rituals like watching a spider wrapping its prey, the mating dance of a bird of paradise, the mysterious ways of a priest at an altar.
One day when Adam and I lounged by the onyx river, racing water-striders across the water’s surface, I gathered all my courage and said, “I don’t want to be eternal.”
“I don’t want you to be a turtle,” he replied. He opened his palm and three water-striders leapt from his hold.
“No, I don’t want to be eternal.”
“You don’t have to be a turtle,” he said.
I ached for him to know me. My body ticked when he drew near, I stumbled in his presence, rivers flowed through me when he looked at me that way, when our eyes met. When he walked in front of me I stared at the back of his neck, my eyes followed his hairline and along his shoulders. I dreamed to touch him there. I loved his smell, the curve of his back when he stood still. The scar on his side was still delicate and wet. During that infinite time in the garden, I lived with a hunger to cup his face in my hands, to sleep against his chest. My God would it have been such a sin? At times I had the look of an animal, and climbed high to the top of an elm to dream of holding him on grey evenings, to caress each other like the raccoons caressed in the branches high above. It was a sort of hell. It was silent, in me, my perception, but it was hell.
The way is readie and not long, the serpent whispered and sent a rush of excitement through me. I felt a spider scurrying the orb of dark surrounding Eden, looking for a crack into paradise. They say that women are indecisive and prone to emotion, but I was unwavering in my course. Later I harbored no regret.
I still don’t.
Now of course I know that the serpent lied. The serpent lied to me. He had a ruby throat and then he flew away. Time moved on.
To this day rumors persist that we were expelled from Eden, they gossip that we were banished. Ha! No. The Lord sent us forth from the Garden of Eden. God clothed us; we had sons. I was bathed in God’s forgiveness and I prayed every day in gratitude. We were not exiles; we were not wandering. The night we left Eden, I was close to ecstatic. I forged ahead with magical confidence. I’ve since heard about the angels closing the gate behind us -- their glistening wet light, slippery and flaming, gesturing like a dancer’s fingers -- but at the time I didn’t look back. I was gushing with exuberance. I told anyone who listened, and some who did not, how it had all worked out so well. How I had never really flourished in Eden anyway and that I was happier now.
Adam named me. He named me Eve because I was the mother of all the living.
I was full. I was complete.
We were not afraid. We took the passage over the river. We traveled through lands and villages and mountains and lanes. I sailed through life like a boat surging powerfully along, the wind filling the sail, slicing through water with speed and grace. I sailed effortless like this for months and years. My dresses were white and translucent in the evening light, my silhouette came through. We ate grilled rabbit, and swam in clear seas with the creatures that filled the waters thrashing and slithering about. There was bread and milk for breakfast, and dahlias and peonies along the way. I was beautiful, and invincible.
We were wearing God’s clothes when we succumbed to our desire. While pterodactyls darkened the sky, we made love in the trees as I had only dreamed. We made love outdoors, without a roof, by the golden river with the crocodiles asleep on the rocks. We made love in a desert, and by the ocean when a tide pulled up and ran over us like children playing. At dawn… in the northwest… and once in a little village outside of Marseille with the hot breeze coming in through the open shutters, it was so beautiful facing the sea all afternoon with Matisse paintings on the wall, eating oranges and growing old together. We were growing old together, don’t you see? This was paradise. This was life.
I couldn’t see the devastation around us, how could I? My confidence and happiness blinded me from the world’s new poverty, suffering, and misery. I was not harmed by the stillborns or the adulteries. Men eviscerated in battle, children buried alive under rubble, a girl molested by her brother… I was too distracted by my own life. Once I stood under the make-shift tarp of our camp watching a thunderstorm come in and breathing in the smell of lavender and lilac, while on a hill just beyond the darkness mudslides buried entire families in their sleep. No one told me this, how could I know? But of course I knew. When I took walks in the evening, children carried buckets of water from the stream up steep thorny hills. They had thick necks from their labor, and distended stomachs from hunger. I gave money to begging men who turned and used it for women who were captive as whores. I knew, at some level, of course I knew everything.
I no longer jump when I think I hear the door click. My sons will not return. I’ve known this too, the way I know the weight of the air with an approaching storm. I have no words for my longing now. Adam would be amused with me: I can’t name this feeling. But I am a mother and I can still feel my sons’ presence. And they are beautiful still, even in their absence.
God is my light now. He holds my life like a scallop shell holds the sea. He knows my map like he knows the imprint of a turtle’s underbelly. We move forward, God knows. We all must move forward. Because now, even now, on this horrible evening when the air is cool and grass is wet with dew, the rabbits whisper to me, “Was it worth it, Eve? Was it worth all of the world’s sin and death, betrayal and pain?”
For my boys? I reply. For love?
It was worth it.
Yes, it was.
Emilie Øyen is a writer currently working on a series of pieces inspired by Biblical scripture for The Stone Boat, a blog on the website of St. James’ Church in New York City.