A gray bird was blown off course when a storm churned the basin between high mountain peaks. Here, the bones of the earth were so shallow they often pushed out of the surface, and the bird rested in a crag. When she went on her way, she evacuated a dropping which contained a seed from the fecund lowlands. It had the fortune to land in mud.
The plant grew dusky pearls of green leaves and a sturdy base, and when the people of the mountain came upon it, they saw its difference from the other plants and built a high stone wall around it, so it could be unknown to their goats. It grew on the smallest streams of sunlight. Buds emerged from the leaves, and from the buds, deep red blossoms. From the blossoms a fruit that was wonderful: A large husk and pod seeds which, when broken, would spurt juice a dark color which reminded the people of thick blood, and so they decided it was only to be eaten by the dying. The sweet taste would be the one with which each one of them would leave the world.
The story of Eve is known to us because of the two boys, Peter and Isak. The three had grown together at the legs of their mothers and could name the origin of every mark on the others' bodies. At the time when Eve plucked the fruit, their limbs were lengthening into the lean muscle of men and women who lived on steep hillside.
They spent a night together at the bathing pool, eyelashes dripping dark water. Their bodies tangled there in ways they did not otherwise. Eve's chin grazed Isak's ribs. The inside of Peter's forearm found the bottom of Eve's foot. Peter and Isak compared the thickness of the hair underneath their arms and on their chests for how well they held water. In moments of silence between splashes, fingertips ticking drips of water on to the surface of the pool, they wondered how it was possible to miss a place where you are. Each felt that kind of sweetness burning warmth into the cool night.
The three young people rose from the water when the sky was graying in the east. Their bare legs were blue against the earth. The goats began their daily din in the plateau below, but from the small circle of huts were only the grunts of dreams and snores whistling from their sleeping families. The families slept, but lightly, used to listening for when the rocks rolled or when their children sighed sickness. That morning, near the breaking of dawn, some had dreams about Eve, the long, lithe young girl with the tail of dark hair that divided over each shoulder. They sighed and turned over on their pallets of rush grasses, saving only the soft memory of what it was to be young and unafraid in the night.
I'm going to taste it, Eve said. They had passed by the enclosure with the fruit on their way back from the water. Or perhaps she said, Do you dare me to taste it? Before Peter or Isak could give a word of protest, the girl had lodged her hand between two rocks, and hauled herself up to the top. She moved aside the woven twine that kept the birds out. Peter and Isak climbed the wall on either side of her, shivering from the cold of the morning air on their watered bodies. Eve's skin, which had been so close to theirs in the water, was now so separate. The muscles of her back knotted under her dark hair as her fingers slipped down into the thick leaves to pluck the fruit.
The smells of the strange shade plant wafted into the first breath of the morning. It was like the scent of cool water running over slate, and something of greater depth - akin to goat pelts drying in the sun. Humid nectar dripped down from the fruit to the thick stems, so unlike the rush grasses and stout shrubs that grew between rock outcroppings. The girl split the flesh of the fruit in her strong hands, and took a small taste on her tongue. She leaned closer and opened her teeth to take in a seed. Then two. She held it to Peter and Isak. They each took seeds into their mouths and ate, pressing the sweet fruit against their molars, curling it into their tongues. A small goat walked up the path and nuzzled the ground beneath their feet. The other goats grazed and took sidelong glances. Tell no one, Eve said. The boys nodded.
They had eaten the fruit of the dead. The same fruit they had watched their mothers push through the lips of the weak babies who died yellow. They had watched their fathers run to take the fruit to shepherds who had fallen in the rocks and lay with blood spilling from their ears around a crushed skull. They had watched as, when the dead were placed in the fire, the purple stains by their lips were the last to sizzle and ash. And now they had taken the fruit inside of themselves. The girl stepped back from the two boys, turning her head to the first warmth of sun. She was more beautiful to Peter and Isak than she had ever been.
Eve's mother died soon after. She had been doing poorly for weeks. I am stabbed from the inside, she said. Eve stood clutching her younger brothers and sisters as her mother's body was pushed into the fire, and Peter and Isak did not quite look at Eve, and they did not quite stop looking.
Eve withdrew from them. She did not sit next to them on the logs near the common fire, and she no longer stole away to bathe with them at night. She sat with her hollow eyes and never let her young siblings from her sight, her hands caressing their heads as she worked. She stayed at home and cooked large pots of soup for her family, with plenty left over for old uncles who might come after dinner to sit with her father. Isak and Peter knew that they had lost her and why. Each held Eve's secret close to himself as if it were a second skin. The villagers began to notice that the two boys walked with the same gait, like brothers. Both carried the same weight inside. They watched the sky together and let the wind brush their cheeks at the top of the mountain pass. Eve would not come to either of them. She would not build a home with either of them, and become round at the middle and sagging at the breasts after bearing children for either of them.
The elders in the village teased Peter and Isak, Neither of you is good enough for her? And the villagers among themselves guessed that the beautiful, motherless girl could simply not choose between two boys she had loved all her life. They thought that time would settle it. Peter and Isak tried not to feel the sharp bites of the teasing. They watched Eve, when they perched at the rocks to tend the goats, or when they dangled their feet along the edge of a stream after a long rain. There were a few other girls of their age in the village, but these girls did not brighten in moonlight, as Eve did. They did not leap with the goats or turn in the grass. They were not Eve.
The love Peter and Isak felt for Eve grew every day that she would not look upon them with her former fondness. A heart sickness had claimed both of them. They could only take so much of this kind of pain. As young men can do, Peter and Isak set out from the village and away from their tall mountain to make their lives elsewhere. They could not be tortured by desire for a girl who would no longer lie down with them in laughter.
With a goat and a pack of food and clothing on each of their backs, they walked down the path from the village. They did not look at the sun shining its last morning on the familiar thatched roofs, or at the goats resting in the shadows of large rocks. Away they walked, from Eve, willing the love to wane with every step, noting the boulders that seemed to have rolled down from the clouds themselves. They stepped lightly along the path, and soon there was no path, but simply a great forest to walk through with tall trees that seemed to grow as comrades, each the same height and thickness. The dust and flies made the air thick, and the boys picked their way through the decay. The forest went on for days, and with it a close humid heat from long-rotting leaves, the worms that ate them, and the trees that were hollowing to prepare to fall. Peter and Isak, accustomed to the ambush of wind and open air where the bleats of goats rode for miles, felt darker than the forest shadows. They slept head to head fending off the spiders, and feeling the itch of damp dirt in the crevices of their skin.
During the days, naturally they began to talk of Eve, for there was little else that circled their minds.
"I loved her best, I think," Peter said. He put his hand on Isak's shoulder. Peter had always tried to play the part of leader, since he had been born in the growing time, while Isak had been born in the time of yellowing grasses.
Isak brushed Peter's arm aside and shifted the young goat he carried on his back. "No. I loved her best. I should have taken the fruit from her hands before she ate it," he said.
"It matters little now," Peter said. His dark hair hung over his face. It had grown down to his eyebrows. They walked through the forest and the sadness came near again. Hot tears rose to the surface of each of their eyes and spilled into the sweat of their faces. They felt the gnawing hunger of pain in their chests.
"You, know, regardless, I think it was you she loved best," Isak said later. His voice broke. It sounded like a noble gesture, but he wanted only to make himself feel better. To think that he would not have won her anyway. Peter thought about this remark for some time. The night grew darker, a red bird sat in their path, picking at seeds of the low plants. They stopped.
"I think you are right," Peter said. "But I can promise you that if we had built a home together, Eve and I, there would always have been room for you at our fire." He wept and wiped his face with his arm as they walked again. Isak tasted bile in his throat. He could not stand to hear the footsteps of his friend. Every movement in front of him made him angry, as Peter's large feet crushed the leaves and shuffled an uneven path. When Peter swept gnats aside with his hand, they veered only to assail Isak from both sides. As the day grew closer to night, Isak felt fatigued bodily, but more the fatigue of his own restless mind. Peter felt the same, as if he were being haunted by his own shadow.
They parted ways the next morning at a large boulder that had rolled alone into the depths of the forest, before there was a forest. Peter and Isak understood then that if they walked for a hundred days and a hundred nights together, arguing, they would not come to an agreement, and they could not have Eve. Pain does not divide itself in company, it only multiplies. Each took the other into his arms, for they knew that they were seeing the last familiar person that they would ever see in their lives. Even if they had wanted to, they would not have been able to find their way back home now. The goats across their shoulders bleated their last farewell. In a final embrace, Peter and Isak felt the soft clothes made by the other's mother, and let go.
Despite the seclusion of the village by the mountain, it became evident that there were other peoples of the world, and Peter and Isak each happily reached a collection of these. Peter found himself on a sandy river bank, where a few families gathered together in the damp gray silt. In order to make his lodging with them for a night, he was charged with telling a story. He sat, goat in his lap, on the gray stones with the people by the river. They crouched close in a circle, listening to the fire crackle.
"Have I a story for you," he said. He ducked his head and nodded, eyes glancing up to see if their interest was caught. He told the story of Eve and the fruit. The promise breached, the story flooded through. That same night, Isak told the same story. It may not be a coincidence that neither Peter nor Isak figured heavily as a character in the other's story.
Isak found a people who lived on a plateau of a new mountain, where the grass was almost blue in the moonlight. There was a beautiful girl there who caught his eye, and her hair was almost blue in the moonlight as well, for it was as pale as egg-white. His eyes went dark at the sight of her. She was Eve's opposite in every way, demure where Eve had been brazen. Slender where Eve was round. Her laugh was quiet and low. Isak told the story of Eve as if from a distance, because he felt for the first time that this was a story of his boyhood, which he had left. The villagers nodded off during his telling, and no one remembered the whys or wherefores.
In the morning, Isak rose with all of the men and made himself useful in the things that they did, which was to dig long furrows into the earth, spread grain through them, and wait for the sun to rise up crops from the ground. He worked and laughed with these people. He gave his goat to them. Isak brought water down from the stream for the old women to drink, and he worked every day until he was too tired to think of Eve or of Peter. He slept with the people of the new mountain, and began to dream their dreams instead of his own, his dark head near their fair ones, resting on soft grass.
Isak soon loved the girl he had met the first night, and she loved him too. He cherished even the short ugly toes on her feet, and rejoiced when her stomach grew with his child. He never told the story of Eve again, and when thoughts of her rose to the surface of his mind while he tended goats, he suppressed them too quickly for them to root.
But Peter did not find love elsewhere so easily. He dreamed of Eve at night, and thought he felt her wrist on his in the mornings when he washed himself of sleep in the river shallows. So his tale of Eve persisted. Perhaps it was the constant rush of water that always made Peter feel her presence, since they had shared that closeness in the night at the pool before they tasted the fruit. It was not that he had ever loved Eve more than Isak had, but there was no distraction for him here. Only one girl of a suitable age to his own lived in this village by the river. She walked with her eyes cast down upon the ground and her arms often drew up to her neck when she was nervous, pulling at scabs of insect bites. Sometimes she talked to herself when she thought no one else was listening. And like everyone else by the river, the sour smell of fish seemed not only to rest on her flesh, but to emanate from inside of her.
In the day, Peter stood with the people of the river by the shore's edge and found bright bugs and stones to tie to the end of thin vines, which they cast into the water to snare fish. He began to smell, as the others did, of the fish, and to like the way the white meat fell from feathery bones into his mouth, unlike the more aggressive experience of eating brown goats. He grew lean and his arms strong, muscles rippling when he cast his line out into the water.
At night before fires, Peter elaborated on the story of the fruit and Eve, and told it many times until it suited his liking, and in order to make it flow properly in front of a tired people. He began to tell the story without mention of Eve's mother. He told of a girl who ate the fruit, and lived to regret it in a vague way. Indigestion, an embarrassing kind that had her squatting behind a bush for days. The story became more about shame, for having eaten a fruit used only for celebrations. For having the village see her exposed bottom as she crouched there trying to lessen the pains in her stomach. He was cruel to Eve. He was still sad that he would never have her as his own, that her dark hair would never slip over his shoulder in the night. When he felt the anguish of Eve, his sighs were covered by the sighs of the water licking rocks. And so he sighed often.
Peter and the people of the river sold their fish up and down to other peoples nearby, those of the flood plain and the cliffs. He became a tall man with an easy laugh, and some sadness etched on his forehead. Soon enough the girl with the cast down eyes became a woman and was less shy with Peter. Her name was Dora. When they worked side by side stringing fish to dry in the dappled sun, he saw that her arms were strong but still thin, that her elbows were actually lovely because the oil from the fish kept the skin supple. When Dora raised her eyes to him, he saw that they were the same murky green color as the river. Her skin was damp in a way that reminded him of a comfortable mossy log to sit upon in summer shade. Peter began to see that spending his nights in Dora's warm arms would be a good way to spend the rest of his life. What matter if she talked to herself, as long as she talked to him too? He skinned his old goat to make a blanket for her to wrap around her shoulders when she was cold.
Soon, Peter and Dora came to an agreement, sitting on a river bank among the reeds. A green frog jumped on Dora's shoulder and she laughed with excitement when she agreed to build a home with Peter. Her people were happy to have him join them finally, as family.
Peter and Dora cast their lines into the water and using his boyhood expertise of weaving grass, they learned to make intricate webs of leaves and vine and branches, making nets to entrap fish. Soon all the traders of fish began to come see them first, asking for the fresh catch. They might sometimes trade for fresh greens, and sweet root vegetables. Now Dora did not raise her arms up to her neck in anxiety, for her arms were most often full with Peter's children.
And Peter often sat with the traders at night to tell stories of his youth. He was the only one they knew to come from the mountains. Out of deference to Dora and their family, Peter told the story differently. Now there was a man who was not him, and a woman, Eve, and Eve had eaten the poison fruit, a very bad thing to do, and she gave fruit to the man as well, because she was a weak, afraid to sicken only herself. She was fat, robust, he said, and always hungry past her share, which was why she craved the fruit in the first place. Here he would glance at Dora to let her know that he thought she was a very strong woman who did not eat more than her share, who would not do such a thing to a man, because only Dora knew that the man in the story used to be himself.
The snake became of a part of the story later on, when rampant water snakes made their way into their part of the river and began to strangle children who splashed in the muddy shallows. Peter threw the story of the snake in for good measure, so that his children would remember to be warned away by them. He also told his children stories about families of fish who lived together just as they did, but on the underside of the river.
As Peter grew older, his grief for Eve faded in his heart to a beat of nostalgia for the wide mornings in the mountains. He wondered where Isak was now, and if he too sometimes thought of Eve. As he sat with young traders by his fire, Peter sometimes heard his own story told back to him. The woman who plucked the fruit too soon. Sometimes she was dark and slender, and sometimes she had the flaming red hair of the northern people, and sometimes her skin was as soft as the silt of the river. Peter listened only in silence, with a melancholy smile.
At the end of her life, Eve lived alone and watched birds, for she had discovered their endless patterns of circled flight had, at their focus, only one thing: the fruit. The languid days they spent were all a ploy for the one day when the villagers might be caught off guard. She wondered if this was the purpose of the spinning stars, too. Eve also craved the fruit. She could not forget the way it felt on her tongue. But she would refuse it even at her death.
She never told anyone of her trespass, but cared for her father until he was old and could not move beyond the clearing in front of their home. She spent her days pounding grain and wiping the noses and bottoms of her younger brothers and sisters and then their children. She pulled weeds from the clearings to throw to the goats, and grew as stout as her mother. When her father died, it was Eve who placed the fruit on his tongue, letting the smell of it settle into her hands. She sat in her mother's hammock until she grew old, listening to the complaints of the other villagers and telling of her own sores and bunions.
With breath leaving old lungs slowly, Eve and Peter and Isak thought of the fruit and the people who protected it. What each came to understand in the final moments of life was that there was many a night when a villager would rise before the dawn and feel a certain kind of unquenched thirst.
They knew then, too late, that they had not been the first, nor would they be the last, to taste the fruit before their time.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Emily Taylor. All rights reserved.