GOWANUS Spring 2001
By Nora Brandon
first thing I want to say is that I take full responsibility for the part
I played. I acted deliberately, though obviously not fully aware of the
consequences. All I ever wanted—all we ever wanted—was to be left alone.
What my husband thinks is hard to tell. He spends his days tending his patch of yams. When he comes home just before the sun dips abruptly below the horizon, he has nothing but supper and sleep on his mind. A far cry from the days when nighttime and lovemaking were synonymous, when we took for granted that the cool breezes wafting in from the sea after sunset were sent just to cool our ravenous flesh, not merely to make sleep possible so we can face another day of toil. We lived off mangoes and wild banana and the milk of friendly goats that wandered by, as curious and fearless of us as we were of them.
Wouldn't you want something like that to go on forever? To wake up every day without a care in your mind, without ever doubting that the day ahead would be just as wonderful as the one before it? A life entirely without fear? That's what our love was like, though my husband seemed inclined to wonder why we had been granted so much bliss. He never said so outright, but sometimes he would sigh and lie back on our bed of hibiscus leaves and muse, “Isn't it splendid, that this will go on forever. Aren't we blessed.”
In retrospect his words seem ominous. A woman learns to pick up on any sign of restlessness in her man. It's built into us. But it was only later I came to see that he actually was half-hoping our paradise would end. “Boredom” I would call it now, though back then the word hadn't been invented (by him, of course).
For me, what we had was much too precious to lose to carelessness. I somehow knew that if we lost our Garden it would mean other catastrophes as well. The great irony is that by trying to ensure our bliss I made certain that it came to an end.
But how could I know that at the time? I was made for bliss, was a creature of Bliss Itself. It—He—assured us that so long as we refrained from eating the fruit of that one tree, an insignificant and, as it turned out, tasteless variety we now feed only to our animals, we had nothing to worry about.
What was the point to that prohibition? A “test,” my husband assures me (He still talks to my husband, though He's refused to utter a single word to myself since that day). But a test of what? Is it not perverse to grant two creatures a love like that on condition that they not try to do anything to ensure that it never end? If I had a fear that something somehow might come into our Garden to take our bliss away, am I to be forever blamed for trying to avert it? “Faith,” my husband says. I lacked faith. I let the Evil One whisper disobedience in my ear. But no “Evil One” ever whispered anything to me. I was simply following my instincts.
My husband certainly never would have gone against the word of his Creator on his own, not just because he's of a more obedient nature than I am but because our love meant less to him. He was always contented with less, fell into a sated sleep when I was still eager for more. He loved me as far as it was within his capacity but, for him, love was not the all-consuming thing it was for me. He had other pleasures—long walks, cataloging various plants and animals, talking with Him. It's no wonder He still has a soft spot for my husband, while both of them refer to me as the Mother of All Iniquity, a Cesspool of Wickedness...and worse. Between them they've even concocted a story that I was created from one of my husband's ribs. As if I were nothing but a bit of bone and cartilage! And the first thing He did when He showed us the exit to our Garden was to curse me with an issue of blood, which in their eyes marks me as something unclean.
Why did I assume that by eating the forbidden fruit our bliss would be secured forever? My reasoning seems a bit weak now, I admit. It's almost as though I were two women, one before and another after. The mentality of that earlier Eve is as different from who I am today as this slack, weathered flesh is from the lithe, beautiful girl I used to be. When all of creation is conspiring toward your happiness, animals we must now hunt and kill as if they were our natural enemies freely offering their milk and eggs, fruit of every kind literally dropping into our laps, streams so clear and sweet that we felt a kind of intoxication from drinking their waters, when all that is happening you don't imagine any of it can actually end. We knew He was the author of our bliss, but we only knew it because He said so. He didn't hurl lightning bolts from the sky the way He does now or make the earth shake beneath our feet until we cry out for mercy. He walked between us, smiling and answering our questions just as I now try to answer my children's. Who could imagine His taking so seriously that edict against the fruit of a particular tree?
My husband says there was never any doubt in his own mind that He meant what He said. “Why, then,” I ask, “did you eat it too?” But he just hangs his head and gets that shamefaced, angry look his first-born assumes when he's done something he ought not have. The truth is, neither of us had any inkling of the savage temper lurking beneath the placid facade of our Creator. He seemed so much the gentle old man—you should have seen him handle a new-born kitten or talk to the spar-rows in their own language—neither I nor my husband could imagine what a wrath lurked beneath that benevolent surface. I see the same temper now in my husband and our older son. When he's had too much palm wine and is taking a switch to me over some supposed infraction of his will, an overboiled egg or under-laundered loincloth, he claims to be acting with divine authority. He makes the same claim when he's slapping the boys around.
“You'll kill them,” I say, “or turn them into beasts.”
“Stay out of it!” he warns, his face flushed with holy rage. If I persist he turns his anger toward me, which is my purpose of course, especially when he's beating Abel who can't take it the way his older brother can. Cain just stands there, chin thrust forward, refusing to cry, matching wills with his father. I believe they actually get some kind of perverse pleasure out of this violence, though no matter how many times he's beaten, the boy still adores that man.
It's the same with my husband and his God. The more pestilence He sends, the longer the drought or more calamitous the mudslide, the greater are the sacrifices my husband offers in response. You could say he offers them in order to appease His anger, but I've noticed something besides fear on his face, a kind of rapture as the smoke from the slaughtered calf—whose meat we can ill afford to lose—rises to the heavens. It's a look of enthrallment I used to see in the Garden when I thought, yes, he does love me after all. When the sacrifice is over and we finally get to eat what's left of the charred flesh, I foolishly expect him to turn toward me with that same look and it will be as it was before. But the mere sight of me reminds him what he's lost, makes his face cloud over with rage and disgust, though he rarely strikes me until later, after he's had a bellyful of wine.
It's not myself, though, it's the children I feel sorry for. They've never known anything but this wretched struggle for existence, have never seen their parents as anything but two people with a desperate grievance against each other. I tell them about the Garden when I've had a bit too much to drink myself. But I can see they no longer believe me. To them it's just a bedtime story, something I make up to help them sleep when the hyenas are screaming too close by, just as I make up little songs in imitation of the birds and draw pictures of animals. Their father says I'm filling their heads with “woman's talk,” and in a way he's right because they can't be wasting their days pining for their parents’ lost paradise. Life is a cruel business best left to those who accept it as it is, not as it might have been.
Only, when I see little Abel petting his favorite lamb and I recall how not so long ago we would no more think of harming such a creature than we would do violence to each other, I feel so wretched that I think, God help me, of ending it and leaving the three of them to get on with this brutish existence on their own. I've seen many creatures die. Whatever misery they felt in their last agonies, every one of them seemed at peace when the end came. The best thing would be never to have been created at all, to have remained in the oblivion to which we're all headed anyway.
When I voice these thoughts to my husband he tells me I'm speaking blasphemy and that I must sacrifice some small animal in expiation for my sin. If I say, “Why should a lamb or dove have to pay for my words?” he tells me if I don't do as he says I'll cause some great calamity to be visited on us. But what greater curse could we attract than that which we already live under?
I'm grateful the boys at least have each other. Despite his temper I know Cain loves his brother, and Abel absolutely dotes on Cain. If we haven't managed to gather enough berries for both of them, Abel insists Cain share some of his. When Cain is smarting from his father's whippings, it's only Abel who can soothe his anger and rub healing herbs on his wounds. Cain won't let his mother near him at such times and even calls me names he's heard his father call me. I wonder if you can imagine how that makes a mother feel?
I don't wish to sound ungrateful. We had a love such that future generations, should there be any, will find it hard to believe. My husband is documenting his own version of what happened, insisting that our children commit it to memory. My great hope is that Abel, whom I have taken into my confidence, will pass on to his own descendants his mother's account of how the world ended up in such a wretched state.
And, despite everything, my life is not totally without compensations and even occasional joy. The sunsets are still magisterial, and the birds—especially one yellow bird that likes to hang about when I'm doing wash down at the river—sing almost as sweetly as they did in our Garden. Even my dour and self-absorbed husband sometimes shows signs of the tenderness I once took for granted. And of course I have the children, whom I love every bit as I once loved their father. It's what I live for, my ability to love. To let it die would be to succumb to a kind of living death. We were, after all, made for love, and I will not let anything or Anyone deprive me entirely of my birthright.
(Nora Brandon is a physiotherapist and freelance journalist presently living in Canda. This is her first published story.)