Nancy Kress is a multiple Hugo winner and a six-time Nebula winner. We’re thrilled to have her back in the pages of Galaxy’s Edge again.
This is not the way you heard the story.
In the beginning, the tree was young. White blossoms scenting the air for a quarter mile. Shiny succulent fruit, bending the same boughs that held blossoms. Leaves of that delicate yellow-green that cannot, will not, last. Yet it did. He always did have gaudy taste. No restraint. Just look at the Himalayas. Or blowfish. I mean, really!
The woman was young too. Pink curling toes, breasts as barely budded as the apple blossoms. And the man! My dear, those long, firm flanks alone could make you ache inside for hours. He could run five miles and not even be winded. He could make love to the woman five times a day. And did.
The flowers were young. The animals, tumbling and cavorting on the grass, were young. The fucking beach sand was young, clean, evenly-shaped grains that only yesterday had been igneous rock. There was virgin rain.
Only I was old.
But it wasn’t that. That was the first thing that came to your mind, wasn’t it? Jealousy of glorious youth, revenge by the dried-up and jaded. Oh, you don’t know, you sitting there so many centuries ahead. It wasn’t that at all. I mean, I loved them both.
Looking at them, how could one not?
“Go away,” Eve says. “I’m not going to eat one.”
She sits cross-legged, braiding flowers into a crown. The flowers are about what you’d expect from Him, garish scarlet petals and a vulva-shaped pistil like a bad joke. Braiding them, her fingers are deft and competent. Some lion cubs tumble tiresomely on the grass.
“I want to give you a reason why you should eat one,” I say, not gently.
“I’ve heard all your reasons.”
“Not this one, Eve. This is a new reason.”
She isn’t interested. She knots the crown of flowers, puts it on her head, giggles, tosses it at the lions. It settles lopsided over one cub’s left ear. The cub looks up with comic surprise, and Eve explodes into laughter.
Really, sometimes I wonder why I bother. She’s so stupid compared to the man.
I bother because she’s so stupid compared to the man.
“Listen, Eve. He withholds knowledge from you two because He’s selfish. What else would you call it to keep knowledge to yourself when you could just as well share it?”
“I don’t need knowledge,” Eve says airily. “What do I need knowledge for? And anyway, that’s not a new reason. You’ve said that before.”
“A tree, Eve. A fucking tree. To invest knowledge in. Doesn’t that strike you as just a teeny bit warped? Mathematics in xylem, morality in fruit pulp? Astronomy rotting on the ground every time an apple falls. Don’t you wonder what kind of a mind would do that?”
She only stares at me blankly. Oh, she’s dumb. I mean!
I shout, in the temper of perfect despair, “Without knowledge, nothing will change!”
“Are you here again?” Adam says. I hadn’t heard him climb over the rock behind us. He has a very quiet footstep for someone whose toenails have never ever been cut. Also a quiet, penetrating voice. Eve jumps up as if she’s been shot.
“I thought I told you not to talk to this…thing ever again,” Adam says. “Didn’t I tell you that?”
Eve hangs her pretty head. “Yes, Adam. You did. I forgot.”
He looks at her and his face softens. That blooming skin, those sweet lips. Her hair falls forward, lustrous as night. I don’t think my despair can go any deeper, but it does. She is so pretty. He will always forgive her. And she will always forget everything he says two minutes after he says it.
“Be gone! You don’t belong here!” Adam shouts, and throws a rock at me. It hits just behind my head. It hurts like hell. One of the lion cubs happily fetches it back, wagging a golden tail. The other one is still wearing the lopsided crown of flowers.
As I slither away, half blind with pain, Eve calls after me. “I don’t want anything to change! I really don’t!”
The hell with her.
“Just listen,” I say. “Just put your entire tiny mind on one thing for once and listen to me.”
Eve sits sewing leaves into a blanket. Not cross-legged anymore: She is six months pregnant. The leaves are wide and soft, with a sort of furry nap on their underside. They appeared in the garden right after she got pregnant, along with tough spider webs that make splendid thread. Why not a bush that grows little caps? Or tiny diapers with plastic fastening tabs? Really, He has such a banal imagination.
Eve hums as she sews. Beside her is the cradle Adam made. It’s carved with moons and numbers and stars and other cabalistic signs: a lovely piece of work. Adam has imagination.
“You have to listen, Eve. Not just hear—listen. Stop that humming. I know the future—how could I know the future unless I am exactly what I say I am? I know everything that’s going to happen. I told you when you’d conceive, didn’t I? That alone should have convinced you. And now I’m telling you that your baby will be a boy, and you’ll call him Cain, and he—”
“No, I’m going to call him Silas,” Eve says. She knots the end of her spider-thread and bites it off. “I love the name Silas.”
“You’re going to call him Cain, and he—”
“Do you think it would be prettier to embroider roses on this blanket, or daisies?”
“Eve, listen, if I can foretell the future then isn’t it logical, isn’t it reasonable for you to think—”
“I don’t have to think,” Eve says. “Adam does that for both of us, plus all the forest-dressing and fruit-tending. He works so hard, poor dear.”
“Roses, I think. In blue.”
I can’t stand it anymore. I go out into the constant, perpetual, monotonous sunshine, which smells like roses, like wisteria, like gardenia, like wood smoke, like new-mown hay. Like heaven.
Eve has the baby at nine months, thirty-two seconds. She laughs as the small head slides out, which takes two painless minutes. The child is perfect.
“We’ll call him Cain,” Adam says.
“I thought we might call him Silas. I love the na—”
“Cain,” Adam says firmly.
“All right, Adam.”
He will never know she was disappointed.
“Eve,” I say. “Listen.”
She is bathing the two boys in the river, in the shallows just before the river splits into four parts and leaves the garden. Cain is diligently scrubbing his small penis, but Abel has caught at some seaweed and is examining how it hangs over his chubby fists. He turns it this way and that, bending his head close. He is much more intelligent than his brother.
“Eve, Adam will be back soon. If you’d just listen…
“Daddy,” Abel says, raising his head. He has a level gaze, friendly but evaluative, even at his age. He spends a lot of time with his father. “Daddy gone.”
“Oh, yes, Daddy’s gone to pick breadfruit in the west!” Eve cries, in a perfect ecstasy of maternal pride. “He’ll be back tonight, my little poppets. He’ll be home with his precious little boys!”
Cain looks up. He has succeeded in giving his penis the most innocent of erections. He smiles beatifically at Abel, at his mother, who does not see him because she is scrubbing Abel’s back, careful not to drip soapstone onto his seaweed.
“Daddy pick breadfruit,” Abel repeats. “Mommy not.”
“Mommy doesn’t want to go pick breadfruit,” Eve says. “Mommy is happy right here with her little poppets.”
“Mommy not,” Abel repeats, thoughtfully.
“Eve,” I say, “only with knowledge can you make choices. Only with truth can you be free. Four thousand years from now—”
“I am free,” Eve says, momentarily startled. She looks at me. Her eyes are as fresh, as innocent, as when she was created. They open very wide. “How could anyone not think I’m perfectly free?”
“If you’d just listen—”
“Daddy gone,” Abel says a third time. “Mommy not.”
“Even thirty seconds of careful listening—”
“Mommy never gone.”
“Tell that brat to shut up while I’m trying to talk to you!”
Wrong, wrong. Fury leaps into Eve’s eyes. She scoops up both children as if I were trying to stone them, the silly bitch. She hugs them tight to her chest, breathing something from those perfect lips that might have been “Well!” or “Ugly!” or even “Help!” Then she staggers off with both boys in her arms, dripping water, Abel dripping seaweed.
“Put Abel down,” Abel says dramatically. “Abel walk.”
She does. The child looks at her. “Mommy, do what Abel say!”
I go eat worms.
The third child is a girl, whom they name Sheitha.
Cain and Abel are almost grown. They help Adam with the garden dressing, the animal naming, whatever comes up. I don’t know. I’m getting pretty sick of the whole lot of them. The tree still has both blossoms and fruit on the same branch. The river still flows into four exactly equal branches just beyond the garden: Pison, Gihon, Hiddekel, Euphrates. Exactly the same number of water molecules in each. I stop thinking He’s theatrical and decide instead that He’s compulsive. I mean—really. Fish lay the exact same number of eggs in each river.
Eve hasn’t seen Him in decades. Adam, of course, walks with Him in the cool of every evening. Now the two boys go too. Heaven knows what they talk about; I stay away. Often it’s my one chance at Eve, who spends every day sewing and changing diapers and sweeping bowers and slicing breadfruit. Her toes are still pink curling delicacies.
Sheitha giggles at a bluebird perched on her dimpled knee.
“Adam makes all the decisions, decides all the rules, thinks up all the names, does all the thinking—”
“So?” Eve says. “Sheitha—you precious little angel!” She catches the baby in her arms and covers her with kisses. Sheitha crows in delight.
“Eve, listen—” Miraculously, she does. She sets the baby on the grass and says seriously, “Adam says you aren’t capable of telling the truth.”
“Not his truth,” I say. “Or His.” But, of course, this subtlety of pronoun goes right over her head.
“Look, snake, I don’t want to be rude. You’ve been very kind to me, keeping me company while I do my housework, and I appreciate—”
“I’m not being kind,” I say desperately. Kind! Oh, my Eve… “I’m too old and tired for kindness. I’m just trying to show you, to get you to listen—”
“Adam’s back,” Eve says quickly. I hear him then, with the two boys. There is just time enough to slither under a bush. I lie there very still. Lately Adam has turned murderous toward me; I think he must have a special dispensation for it. He must have told Adam violence toward me doesn’t count, because I have stepped out of my place. Which, of course, I have.
But this time Adam doesn’t see me. The boys fall into some game with thread and polished stones. Sheitha toddles toward her daddy, grinning.
“We’re just here to get something to eat,” Adam says. “Ten minutes, is all—what, Eve, isn’t there anything ready? What have you been doing all morning?”
Eve’s face doesn’t fall. But her eyes deepen in color a little, like skin that has been momentarily bruised. Of course, skin doesn’t stay bruised here. Not here.
“I’m sorry, dear! I’ll get something ready right away!”
“Please,” Adam says. “Some of us have to work for a living.”
She bustles quickly around. The slim pretty fingers are deft as ever. Adam throws himself prone into a bower. Sheitha climbs into his lap. She is as precocious as the boys were.
“Daddy go back?”
“Yes, my little sweetie. Daddy has to go cut more sugar cane. And name some new animals.”
“Animals,” Sheitha says happily. She loves animals. “Sheitha go.”
Adam smiles. “No, precious, Sheitha can’t go. Little girls can’t go.”
“No,” Adam says. He is still smiling, but he stands up and she tumbles off his lap. The food is ready. Eve turns with a coconut shell of salad just as Sheitha is picking herself up. The baby stands looking up at her father. Her small face is crumpled in disappointment, in disbelief, in anguish. Eve stops her turning motion and looks, her full attention on Sheitha’s face.
I draw a deep breath.
The moment spins itself out, tough as spider-thread.
Eve breaks it. “Adam—can’t you take her?”
He doesn’t answer. Actually, he hasn’t even heard her. He can’t, in exactly the same way Eve cannot hear Him in the cool of the evening.
You could argue that this exempts him from fault. Eve picks up the baby and stands beside the bower. Fragrance rises from the newly crushed flower petals where Adam was lying. When he and the boys have left again, I slither forward. Eve, the baby in her arms, has still not moved. Her head is bent. Sheitha is weeping, soft tears of vexation that will not, of course last very long. Not here. I don’t have much time.
“Eve,” I say. “Listen—”
I tell her how it will be for Sheitha after she marries Cain, who is not as sweet-tempered as his father. I tell her how it will be for Sheitha’s daughter’s daughter. I spare her nothing: not the expansion of the garden until the home bowers are insignificant. Not the debate over whether women have souls. Not foot-binding nor clitorectomy nor suttee nor the word “chattel.” Sheitha, I say. Sheitha and Sheitha’s daughter and Sheitha’s daughter’s daughter… I am hoarse before I’m done talking. Finally, I finish, saying for perhaps the fortieth or fiftieth time, “Knowledge is the only way to change it. Knowledge, and truth. Eve, listen—”
She goes with me to the tree. Her baby daughter in her arms, she goes with me. She chooses a bright red apple, and she chews her mouthful so completely that when she transfers it to Sheitha’s lips there is no chance the baby could choke on it. Together, they eat the whole thing.
I am tired. I don’t wait around for the rest: Adam’s return, and his outrage that she has acted without him, his fear that now she knows things he does not. His arrival. I don’t wait. I am too tired, and my gut twists as if I had swallowed something foul, or bitter. That happens sometimes, without my intending it. Sometimes I eat something with a vitamin I know I need, and it lies hard in my belly like pain.
This is not the way you heard the story.
But consider who eventually wrote that story down. Consider, too, who wiped up the ink or scrubbed the chisel or cleaned the printing office after the writing down was done. For centuries and centuries.
But not forever.
So this may not be the way you heard the story, but you, centuries about Eve’s screams on her childbed, and Sheitha’s murder at the hands of her husband, and Sheitha’s daughter’s cursing of her rebellious mother as the girl climbed willingly onto her husband’s funeral pyre, and her daughter’s harlotry, and her daughter’s forced marriage at age nine to a man who gained control of all her camels and oases. You know all that, all the things I didn’t tell poor Eve would happen anyway. But you know too—as Eve would not have, had it not been for me—that knowledge can bring change. You sit cross-legged at your holodecks or in your pilot chairs or on your councils, humming, and you finally know. Finally—it took you so fucking long to digest the fruit of knowledge and shit it out where it could fertilize anything. But you did. You are not stupid. More—you know that stupidity is only the soul asleep. The awakened sleeper may stumble a long time in the dark, but eventually the light comes. Even here.
I woke Eve up.
I, the mother.
So that may not be the way you heard the story, but it is the way it happened. And now—finally, finally—you know.
And can forgive me.
Copyright © 1995 by Nancy Kress