His skin could have been a deep bronze, but the shifting glow hid most of the color as flowed over and through his body with a light that rivaled the sun above.
As a light breeze whispered through the branches overhead and tousled his rich black hair and beard, the shifting green shadows added to the shimmer.
He raised his eyes, focusing on the One who had called him into existence a moment before. It was the only thing he knew, and the bright figure filled his mind. Power – power to cast and sustain everything into existence – rippled from the figure. It was like sunlight to flowers. It was only thing he would need for every moment of all eternity.
He didn’t want to do anything but stare, letting the light flow into him – through him – over him until he felt his soul would burst from drinking it in.
Then the One laughed, and the earth seemed to shake. It echoed to the sun and the stars, setting them dancing. Then he held out a hand.
“Man. Walk with me.”
He reached up tentatively with his own hand, discovering his fingers for the first time. When the two hands met, more of the One’s power rushed into Man. It felt like liquid light. This time he joined the One’s laugh with his own small voice. It was like a flower echoing the sun.
“Please, what may I call you?”
“I Am Who I Am.”
The words blew past him like a powerful wind, and it seemed as if all the trees in all the world went still as he spoke the name.
The warm, strong hand of his maker held Man upright.
I Am started to skip as they walked along the soft path, and Man copied. His muscles responded, singing with joy as they bounced and stretched.
Creatures flew through the sky, swam in the water, and emerged from the bushes to nuzzle their creator or Man.
Water was everywhere. It flowed through wide, glassy places, it rushed down piles of rocks, it splashed through narrows. Trees, great and small, reached into the sky and sank their roots deep into the ground.
Wide meadows stretched between the streams and rivers, filled with soft grass and flowers of every color and shape.
I Am spoke again, and each word danced through Man’s mind.
“I have placed you here in this garden of delight so that you may care for it – teach the trees to grow straight and tall. Keep the paths clear, and the bushes back, so the flowers may find the sun.”
He pointed with his other hand at a patch of flowers like little suns growing up.
“You must care for the creatures and name them.”
As they walked along, I Am pointed out every tree that grew fruit, and Man gave it a name.
The path ended at another meadow, but in the center grew two great trees. One bore the round, red fruit Man had called pomegranate. But these were a darker, richer red than he’d seen before. The other held a fruit he’d never seen before. It caught the light and gleamed like white metal in stone.
They walked to the first. I Am reached up and took one. The branch released the fruit into his hand.
“This is the tree of life. The life I have given you is in this tree.” He broke the skin, revealing a mass of liquid gems. “The life is in the seeds. You must break the fruit open to eat them.”
“What of the other?”
I Am’s face was solemn.
“You may eat from any tree in the garden, but that one.” A look filled his eyes that made Man feel strange. I Am glanced down at the fruit in his hand. “The day you eat of that tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – you will die.”
A chill seemed to sweep over Man.
What did it mean – to die? He wanted to ask, but this first morning, it was enough that his creator had forbidden it.
It passed like a cloud leaving the sun.
“You must have a helper for your task in this garden.”
I Am led him to a patch of soil by a river. Kneeing down, he dug his fingers deep into the dark ground and lifted out a lump of clay. His hands worked rapidly, forming a creature. Then I Am lifted the complete figure to his lips, and blew.
A green leaping thing bounced from his hands on the ground between them. It puffed out its chest.
“What will you name it?”
One by one, I Am formed each creature, and Man named it. But not one would make a suitable helper.
Finally, I Am turned to him, eyes dancing.
“I will make you a helper from your own flesh.” Then, he held out a hand and placed it on Man’s forehead. “Lie down.”
Man obeyed, but the ground suddenly felt very far away. And soft. And dark.
His eyes were heavy when he opened them again. I Am had done something. He felt different. He sat up, and the thin pink line across his chest caught his attention.
It followed his ribs. He raised a hand and traced the seam. It looked like soil over a tree root, but unlike the root, when he pushed on it, there was no bone to push back.
I Am had taken a rib.
The feeling of wholeness washed over him, and he looked up,
His creator stood over him like last time, but now, he held a creature Man had never seen by the hand.
Like himself, the brightness of I Am shown through and off her body. A body made from his rib. She was his flesh.
Her deep auburn hair flowed across her shoulders, down her back, and curled around her neck. He scrambled to his feet, and I Am placed her hand – so slim and wonderful – in his own.
Man’s eyes met those of his maker, and he knew the words were not his, yet I Am was allowing him to say them anyway.
“This is now bone of my bones,
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man.”
He drew Woman to his chest, amazed at how well they fit together. I Am had made a creature for him. But this one surpassed all others as I Am surpassed the sun.
I Am placed a hand on each of their shoulders.
“As I have commanded the flowers, the fish, and the four-legged creatures, so I command you: bear fruit and multiply.”
As the garden around him narrowed to Woman in his arms and the exciting new sensations bursting through his body, a strange shadow caught his eye. But it was forgotten in the next moment, lost in this new wonder I Am had created.
❧ ❧ ❧
Ribbons of green slithered through the heart of the shadow, just inside the trees, as it watched the two creatures entwine and join their souls in ways their useless eyes could not see.
They were such weak things his Enemy had created – little spirits he’d bound to clay and water. One had seen him just now, but it hadn’t know him. It didn’t know anything.
Could the Enemy really have been so foolish as to leave these little treasures of his defenseless?
His manifestation turned inky black with suppressed glee. Was it a trap? Or was the Enemy so arrogant that he thought his deposed Light-Bearer would slink away to some far corner and wait patiently for the promised punishment?
The colors sliding through his manifestation shifted to a deep red.
Perhaps so. And perhaps he’d taught the Enemy a lesson, and he dared not create a being that would ever be able to challenge him. A creature that would obey his commands with the same obsequiousness as the creeping things. Perhaps, He was afraid.
A deep purple glow formed at his center.
❧ ❧ ❧
Man’s eyes drifted open. The ferns had formed a nest though the night as Woman and he slept. Last night, he’d touched and commanded them to grow thick and soft as the sun was sliding down behind the distant hills from its sixth day.
He propped himself up on one elbow to stare down at Woman’s beautiful face. She still slept, with her long black lashes resting on her cheeks.
He’d thought I Am had shown him all the wonders of his world yesterday. And then he’d created Woman. With her, he’d discovered a thrill that echoed and resonated with the presence of the I Am.
He bent down and kissed her awake. Her eyes, like little bits of the sky, fluttered open.
He sprang up, relishing the way his muscles sang with the motion.
She caught him from behind, wrapping her arms around his chest and he laughed as the thrill of I Am’s joy swept over him.
“Follow you where?”
He slid around to face her, grinning.
“To see the garden and the creatures, of course.”
He led her down the paths, stopping once to kneel down over a bush that had strayed into the path. With his hands gently working, he commanded and guided the branches to straighten and turn back to the sun.
They flopped down in a patch of grass by a thundering waterfall where the spray could reach their bodies.
Woman rolled over until she lay next to him.
“Why did you call those things fish?”
He followed her gaze into the water. Small flashes of silver caught the sun.
“Because they do not jump like leapers.”
He leaned over to kiss her, but she rolled away from him, giggling.
“But just there, a silver fish leapt from the water.”
He rested his chin on his hands.
“Well, only some fish leap – all leapers leap.”
She sat up by the edge of the pool, laughing.
“Then tell me what this creature’s name is.”
He joined her.
She shoved him, and he toppled back into the cool water. She dashed off down the path, yelling over her shoulder and gasping with laughter.
“A creature who looks like Man but swims like a fish.”
He flopped back onto the bank and gave chase.
He flew through the garden, his lungs swelling with air, then shooting it back out.
How he loved to run – and to chase the one he loved. Her laughter filtered back to him.
Taking a deep breath, he pushed his legs until they moved faster than ever, and as he turned the corner, she was right in front of him.
He reached out and caught her around the waist, letting their speed pull her into him. They tumbled to the soft grass in the middle of the clearing and lay still, gasping with laughter.
Suddenly, Woman sat up.
“What is that?”
He pushed up. She was quizzically studying a shining one a few paces away. True to its name, the creature’s lithe body flashed in the sun as it stood propped on its back legs and long tail. But this one’s eyes shifted between colors like light through shaking leaves. And it had no pupils.
“It’s like a shining one – but not quite.”
A strange feeling slid from it into his heart. He felt as if he’d seen it before – somewhere.
“Greetings, my master and mistress.”
Woman gasped, then giggled.
“You can talk.”
Its tongue slid from its long mouth with a hiss.
“I have been given that gift.” Its eyes darkened to a deep red. “By the same one who has given you everything.”
Man glanced upward at the silver fruit sparkling over his head.
“Oh, not everything.”
“We must not eat from this tree. He forbids it.”
The shining one cocked its head, and its eyes glittered purple now.
“Did he. Well, he must have his reasons. Just as you chose to name –” It glanced toward Woman, its tongue sliding out again. “Just as Man had a purpose for naming – fish and leapers?”
She laughed and shook her head, her hair rippling.
“Oh, he has no reason – he just – named them.”
Man shrugged. This talk made him feel queer.
He pushed to his feet and caught Woman’s hand.
“Come see the woolly ones.”
She slid her hand from his.
“Oh, I think I can find them myself.”
He grinned and the chase began again.
Behind, the shining one’s tongue slid in and out. Its eyes glowed yellow. What foolish arrogance of his Enemy to place the means of their destruction within the creatures’ own grasp. If – when – they took it, he would have to either destroy them, or himself. The thought lingered as the yellow deepened into gold.
❧ ❧ ❧
The morning was cool as Man walked with I Am.
The garden was still, and the joy he felt today made him quiet as he listened to his creator’s words. I Am was explaining things about the universe.
Why he’d made plants to grow up, and why he commanded fruit to always fall down. They talked about the mysteries I Am had given numbers – how they always come out the same. I Am explained him how he’d made bird feathers to fly, and fish to swim.
Man listened, hungry to understand, but the more he discovered, the greater the mysteries became.
I Am laughed.
“I have made your mind to reach for answers – and I have given it the tools to find them.”
They stood by a tangle of scarlet roses, and I Am glanced down at them.
This time, Man ventured to ask about the unfamiliar look that passed across his creator’s face.
“One day, my friend, you will understand.”
Man followed his gaze, then gasped, a pain striking his chest. One of the flowers had lost most of its petals.
“What’s happening? It’s falling to pieces.”
“It’s fading to produce seeds. You see, the plant must wither to bring new life – and to nourish the birds, the creeping things, and you.”
“How does it work?”
“Within each seed is a tiny root, which will grow, break from its shell, and live.” He held the fading flower between his fingers, letting the remaining scarlet petals fall across his hand. “From this flower will come a hundred more.”
Man wrinkled his forehead. Something whispered that there was more to all of this, but he could not grasp it, and the feeling faded.
That evening, Woman was pensive.
“Do you think I Am really has a reason?”
Man laughed and pulled her to him.
“Are you still puzzling over what the shining one said?”
“I saw it again. It noticed how much fun I had running away from you, and you catching me. It wondered if maybe I Am has made us like him, and he wants us to run from him, just as you want me to run from you, so that he may have the joy of chasing and catching us.”
Man sat back, wrinkles forming on his brow. The feeling of pursuit had been a new, wonderful one. He’d been sure it was another bit of I Am.
“Is the bright one suggesting we run from him next time?”
She lay down, pulling him with her.
“It wondered if eating the fruit would be like running away.”
Man stared passed her into the growing night. The silver fruit seemed to glow in the darkness.
A hiss made them both turn.
The shining one sat there watching them both. Its reptilian mouth seemed to smile.
“Your mind is quick –” it drew the words out with a soft hiss, allowing them to hang in the air. “Deep. Inquiring. And yet – you have not asked the question that crowns and illumines all others.”
“What is good and what is evil? What is death – and is it to be feared?”
Man glanced at the fruit. A queer feeling began to grow at the edge of his mind. An intense inquisitiveness – a thirst – to understand the riddle of the tree.
“What do you know of this?”
The tongue slid in and out, and the creature’s eye’s glowed deep gold in the soft darkness.
“I have tasted the fruit. I have died.”
The words hung in the air as a long hiss. Man’s eyes grew large, and his heart began to race.
“You – a creature?”
Its eyes shifted to deep purple.
“I am far more. This is only one of my forms. This death you fear – it is an end. An end of childhood and the beginning of life. It is the full flower after the bud. To achieve it, you must understand good and evil, and become like him.”
Woman shifted uncomfortably beside him, her voice betraying how her own mind wavered.
“But I Am has forbidden it – he said we must not touch the fruit.”
“But he also made buds to open in the light of day.” Its voice purred.
“Then –” Woman faltered. “Why would he forbid it?”
It answered Woman, but fixed its eyes on Man where he sat, chin in hands.
“You’ve hit upon it. To open, you must chose to do it. If he ordered it, you would have no choice, but he has forbidden it, so that you will have to choose. Did he not tell you the mind he gave you was sufficient to plumb the depths of every mystery?”
Man nodded, his mind spinning. A feeble part still clung to the friendship he thought he shared with I Am. Was there something he was missing? He dropped his face into his hands.
Woman pushed to her feet, drawn inexplicably to the silver fruit, now gleaming in the rising moon. A faint breeze shook the leaves and a sweet smell washed over her. She glanced over her shoulder.
He grunted, but didn’t look up. Her eyes met the glowing eyes, shifting between yellow and purple.
To spread her petals and bloom. To understand the great mystery of the world and the depths of the I Am.
She lifted a hand, and the branch obediently lowered a round, soft fruit into her hand. She flinched, but she felt nothing but the weight as the tree released it into her palm.
Then her hand started to tingle. There was power here.
Man had lifted his eyes and was watching her. Waiting. The shining one hissed long and low.
She raised it to her lips. Its beckoning sweet smell broke her hesitation, and she sank her teeth into the skin. It gave way, and the sweet juice hit her mouth. It was heavy, and from it flowed more of the power. It slid through her, and the world seemed to spin.
Lost in her crazy, spinning perception, she barely remembered handing the half eaten fruit to Man who’d risen to stand beside her.
He bit deep into the fruit, and a spinning jumble of emotions blasted through him, but as soon as they began, they drained away like a wave washing past and leaving only cold. I Am’s power that had echoed through his soul drained away with it.
The remnant of the fruit he despised dropped from his nerveless fingers.
The light had gone from his heart and his body. He stood naked and alone in the cold night. His connection to I Am had been ripped away. He felt the pain in every cell of his body.
He dropped to his knees, groaning. Then he gasped as his stomach clenched like a fist, driving the contents out onto the ground. He’d been turned inside out. He bent over, and his stomach heaved again and again. Each more foul and painful than the last, until nothing more came.
He was shaking and vaguely aware that he was sobbing “No” over and over.
Slowly, he realized he was not alone. There was an Other who could see his naked body, and naked soul.
Fear flooded through him, giving him the strength to push to his feet. For one moment, his eyes met the haunted eyes of the Other. Then he turned and ran.
The Other would see his soul. See the weakness and pain.
The hiss of the shining one was in his ears as he ran, tripping, falling, staggering, through the night. Branches pulled at his body, leaving reddening marks.
❧ ❧ ❧
The first rays of light burned into her swollen eyes, and she blinked. Its brilliance hurt. She cowered in the shadow of a bush, hiding her naked bronze skin from the fiery eye’s searching gaze.
The leaves hid her well, but they were small – smaller than those growing on the fig tree above.
She raised a hand, and a branch lowered itself. She striped it bare. With a vine from the ground, she wove them into a mat she could wrap around herself. She crouched down, pulling it around.
Now she was safe. No one could see her. Not I Am, and not the Other. Now her soul could bleed and weep in safety.
❧ ❧ ❧
Man worked quickly, fashioning a wrap out of the great fig tree leaves. It rose to hide his face. Cracks allowed him to see out, but would prevent searing, searching eyes to see him.
He heard I Am’s voice before he felt him. Of course – that part of him that always felt him was gone.
Now the voice shot through him, igniting a raging thirst in his soul to drink from his depths, yet was a hot fire he dared not approach.
He hunkered down, until I Am called his name again. He could not refuse. He shuffled from the bushes, crouching behind his flimsy leaves, yet still open and naked before this one.
The blinding brilliance of the creator was terrible.
Across the path, the Other emerged, looking small and pathetic wrapped in leaves and hiding behind her hair.
She was pathetic.
But when I Am spoke, thought of her fled.
“Why do you hide?”
The words ran though his soul like echoes through wood. His stomach clenched once more.
His voice shook, baring his soul. He wanted to crawl away.
“Who told you so?” I Am’s voice dropped. “Did you eat of the forbidden tree?”
Why did the I Am bother to ask? Was he so cruel that he would demand Man bare his soul before himself – before the creation – before the Other? Why was she not his focus?
“The Woman you gave me – she gave it to me. She ate first.”
I Am turned his dreadful gaze on the Other. Man smiled sardonically. Let him strip her soul bare – she deserved it. But she took her cue from him, and blamed the shining one.
I Am’s voice broke into his thoughts as he addressed the creature who appeared at his voice. It’s eyes glittering purple, it hissed defiantly at I Am. But at a word from the creator, its legs disappeared and it flopped, writhing, to the dust. Its kind was cursed to slide forever on its belly.
Then I Am spoke again.
“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
Between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel.”
It hissed once more, then it shifted, and the shining one’s shape disappeared into a pulsating shadow with flickers of red, green, and purple, then melted away.
I Am turned back to the Other, his voice still stern, and she quailed under his words.
“I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth,
In pain you will bring forth children;
Yet your desire will be for your husband,
And he will rule over you.”
Man’s lip curled imperiously, but it was short lived, for I Am turned his scorching attention back around.
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’;
Cursed is the ground because of you;
In toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you;
And you will eat the plants of the field;
By the sweat of your face you will eat bread,
Till you return to the ground,
Because from it you were taken;
For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return.”
He dropped to his knees, unable to look on his creator. Despair flooded his body.
I Am spoke again.
Against his will, Man raised his head.
I Am held a pure white woolly one with one hand. Something metal glittered in his other.
Dread washed over Man. There was something more terrible than I Am’s anger and brilliance coming.
The thing glittered against the creature’s neck. It cried out and shuddered once.
A cascade of thick scarlet gushed from its neck. It soaked the soft wool and covered the I Am’s hands. It smelled of metal. It smelled like the shining fruit had tasted. He trembled, horrified.
What had I Am done?
His stomach clenched again, but there was nothing left to heave. Now the creature fell motionless to the ground. Its soft eyes turned to stone. Something had left the creature.
The I Am had taken its life away.
He quailed at meeting the face of the I Am, yet something called him to look up. For the first time, he understood that strange expression.
Grief. The I Am was sad.
His hands worked quickly over the horrific thing, cutting it apart until it didn’t look like a woolly one – only a pile of horror.
He raised two mats. On one side was the wool. The other side was soft and red. It was the backside of the creature’s skin. The inside part.
He shuddered, but I Am finally spoke.
“These are to cover you. Put them on.”
He loathed the thought of touching the vile things. Why did the woolly one suffer?
I Am answered his unspoken question.
“Fig leaves cover your body, but not your soul.”
Man hesitated a moment more, staring at the dripping abomination in his creator’s hand.
He’d done this. A creature’s life had been taken, because he’d done the forbidden. He started to weep as he he reached out a hand and took the thing.
❧ ❧ ❧
The other foot.
A stone dug into the soft part of his foot, and he winced.
For the first time, he knew the ache of weariness, yet to stop and rest would be to face Woman and what he’d done.
After covering them, I Am had sent them from the garden and placed one of his warriors to guard the way back. The tree that gave life was lost. And so were they.
The sun sank toward the distant hills. Its light was turning the sky red – the world mourned the life taken this day.
His ankles throbbed and bled in several places where he’d discovered thorns. The grief and horror of the morning had bled away, leaving a gnawing ache – like the pain in his empty stomach, but deeper. It echoed from his mind and heart. Once fed by the light and power of I Am, his soul demanded a sustenance he could never find.
A stick cracked where Woman was following him from a distance – not willing to lose him, but avoiding him with the same determination he’d pulled away from her. He glanced back. Her face was smudged with dirt and silent tears.
This time, his attention was caught by the curves that showed above and bellow the skin she wore. Before, they had filled him with wonder – now they grabbed onto the emptiness of his soul with a violence that frightened and excited him.
A sensation like a thirst after a run overwhelmed him. He was tired. And he wanted her. And yet, he feared her – she would know him. She would see him.
The conflicting battle of shame and desire pulled him to a halt, and he realized he’d been staring at Woman when she stopped too, pulling back.
With an effort, he dropped his eyes to the ground, noticing and a flash of color. A scarlet rose. For a moment, he almost remembered what it was like before. He saw I Am staring sadly down at the blossom as he talked about seeds falling to the ground and new life.
Man reached for it, but jumped back as pricks sunk deep into his fingers. I Am had even cursed the rose. The dark color brought a newer memory. Liquid scarlet spread away from the dead woolly one and dripped off the I Am’s hands.
He pulled away and sat back against the tree trunk, holding the skin close. He closed his eyes, but even sleep fled from his empty heart.
He sat up, and reached into the bush. It no longer obeyed his commands, so he tore off a branch. Slowly, he pushed to his feet and staggered back. Her presence made his head buzz, yet filled his heart with terror.
But the isolation hurt so much.
He knelt, and held out the blossom.
“Its grown thorns.”
She lifted her eyes, dull with tears and stared at the blossom.
Her voice was hollow, and she pulled the skin closer around her shaking shoulders.
He placed the rose by her feet, then sat an arms length away.
“But it also bears seeds.”
As the forest darkened around them, he kept his eyes on the distant horizon.
Blood and beauty. A seed. A curse. What did it all mean?
Her hand brushed his own where he clutched the skin. He turned, and was captured by her eyes. He saw his own fear mirrored in them, wanting and fearing to be known.
He let the skin drop a bit as he released it to take her hand. She shuddered, but didn’t pull away. Finally, she leaned toward him.
❧ ❧ ❧
The shadow watched the two figures as they opened their souls to the other’s touch. The other’s knowing.
Threads of green and red light flickered at his core, but dissolved into purple.
His Enemy hadn’t lost this first battle, but neither had he won it. He’d simply postponed the inevitable conclusion, with a gesture of power by cursing the shinning one and taking away the beast’s legs.
He’d covered them with the death of another senseless beast. Their spirits, now reflections of his own, could not be changed from such a useless act. Even now their bodies of clay and water were decaying. Soon, they would wither, and fall from their souls.
Golden light spread through the shadow.
But the point of red at the feet of Woman still held his attention. It whispered about the new seed formed that night in Woman.