Yessssss: and every snake must slough its skin, leaving a trail of cellular clothing around the forest, or, as it were, this garden. And I myself have undergone multiple transformations: I am not the snake I was before, or before that, but was once an entirely different arrangement of protoplasm, not unlike you. So you see that, no matter how much you bathe or pray, despite your fears of the darkness, we are much alike, yessssss?
The real story took place a very long time ago, and has been so badly butchered over the years that I now find the numerous offenses of historical revisionism intolerable: the time has come to set the record straight. Monks have beaten themselves — is that not odd, some pathology? — and mumbled, their muttering musings have been set down as truth, and all subsequent damnations have been misdirected.
For this is the truth:
I tempt no one. I am not the cause of pains in childbirth, for they are physiological, having to do with the strain of eight-pound babies clawing their way through narrow passages. I am not the harbinger of the rough tillage that followed that day; the ground was merely dry and parched for some years, and that is meteorology, not magic. I am not the lowest of forms; there are others I have gazed down upon, even when they stood erect and walked with two feet. And it was not an apple, for they are hardly indigenous to the region of which we speak. It was a lemon, and barely ripe at that.
I realize, of course, that my credibility is tenuous in any attempt to make historical correction. But that is not of my doing, and you have only the mutterers to blame. In whatever way your life has been modeled after the architecture of this particular lie — well, that is the building in which you must live, and I cannot take responsibility if your roofs leak. All I ask, then, is that you step out into the yard for a moment, and follow a retelling of the tale, looking askance at the edifice you have called your home, trying to envision a radically new shelter. All I ask is that you think for a moment about where you dwell, and what that house preserves or denies.
Sssssssooo . . . let us get our characters straight.
There is I, of course, a climber in the trees, one who moves across the forest floor with sideways motion, one who travels with equal ease through mud, pooled water, thick growth. I am the philosopher in the assembly of fools. These others — all wing of birds, every cloven hoof, all antlered, aquatic, furred, and feathered, all beetles and bears, what scampers through wood and scampers after it — all these creatures seek my counsel, I dispensing any article of existentialism or metaphysics freely and without even meager remuneration. For they are all of me, my children, floundering, and I love them together and alone with a passion that cannot expire. I am the snake, and precede all other garden dwellers; I was roaming this ground when its only music was the bow of wind on the strings of tree branches.
Then there are two others, whose inhalations are quite like those of the rest of the assembly, but whose exhalations are far more dense with song. They have been called Adam, Eve — but those are later fictions. They have been called husband and wife, but that is a forced device, intended to confer a kind of droll wholesomeness. The one you have called Adam in truth had many names, as did Eve; they were free to adopt monikers that suited the moment, and the moment often changed. They were both gorgeous and mentally lively creatures: I can see them, even now, in the snake’s eye, as they were, sunning themselves on sloped stones after a long plunge into a pool, the water on their skin beading and drying, beading and drying. I can remember their operatic melodies as they walked through the trees; I can hear their bare footsteps approaching, padding softly over dried leaves, and my heart begins to pound, my flesh is cool and electric to the touch, my mouth is sticky, and my breath comes out in panting anticipation.
For among all fools, above all those furred and feathered — at times, even more than the skin of my soul — I loved them. Here, now, some fifty-seven centuries later, after the long cleansing tunnel of time — even now, my heart still skips a beat when I hear the drum of naked feet on earth.
Yessssss: it was the man of them that I first met, not the woman. I, moving on my belly down a slender corridor of this garden, heard on that day another sound, a new rhythm: of two feet, not four; a heavy padding, not the soft flutter of wing; a symmetrical step, not the clumsy waddle of heavy bears or the shuffling of so many others. This step: it seemed to pound out a pulse more primal, a meter more nearly matching the music that swells up from the ground, the hum of this world turning and spinning.
And then I saw him.
Have I said this yet — that he was gorgeous? But that is a cheap word, and grows flimsier every century. He was far more: he was vibrating with some brave beauty, a searing light that began far beneath the surface of his skin, deep within, and radiated outward. And I could not close my eyes. He was naked, but for a leaf or two buried in the folds of his hair; the hard and muscular planes of his body moved and danced with every step and gesture. Yessssss: I stopped moving, stopped breathing, this cool blood stopped coursing; and he stood above me, gazing down with wild and tender eyes, and said:
Hello, little one.
He bent over to pick me up and I crawled eagerly into the bed of his palms. He held my head facing his own; my long tongue floated out of my throat, and then his did as well, our tongues touching as he laughed, and threw his head back, and roared into the forest, while I wrapped myself around his arms, treaded the fields of his flesh; around his neck, over his shoulders, onto the thick pounding ground of his chest; between the soft furrows of his belly; sliding down the poles of his thighs, his calves; and then back around and up again, stopping here and there for a moment to bury my head on a pulse, drawing myself into that warm and intoxicating rhythm. Yessssss, I was in love, and making love to this creature hot and vivid, full and bursting with some fire before then unknown, drinking in long and musky, breathing in that delirious scent, of this creature, of a man — the man yet without a name. I, the snake, the philosopher in the assembly of fools, the king of coyotes and cattle, the father of all others, there found my own father and king, and embraced a wordless philosophy of the senses: I discovered my god and was in awe and in prayer.
He was smiling yet, and traced his long fingers around my neck, saying:
Come, little one. There is another you must meet.
We walked through the garden, he and I; I, coiled around his throat and resting my head on the singing of his carotid artery. He laughed frequently and for no reason; or perhaps, for any reason — the presence of the sun, the rustle of leaves, the bleatings of the garden’s other creatures; perhaps these alone were enough to make him laugh.
After some walking he stepped into a small clearing, barely a cradle in the heart of the garden. Ringed by trees that allowed myriad slivers of light to slip through branches, this small sanctuary seemed so soft and safe that I immediately longed to lie in its hollow. It was a womb in the belly of woods, a place still and fluid, alive and calm.
And then I saw the other one; to her the man spoke:
I have brought this little one, a friend.
Her back was at first facing me; then she turned. Again, again, I had the same reaction as when I first saw the man: my breath stilled in my throat, some rich water swam in my eyes and I could not shut them, my heart stopped as though seized. Her form seemed so unalterably perfect to me; before, nothing like it had I seen, and I was dazed, dazzled by the firm ropes of muscle on her arms, the sure strength of her thighs, the heavy and sloping swell of her breasts, her hips. The man released me and I crawled to her, she gathering me up in her arms, wrapping her warm fingers around the length of my skin. I, the snake, and heretofore the philosopher, was now drunk, staggering, slithering across the landscape of her face, around her ears, down her back . . . and again I was in love, we were making love, we shared the blood and sweat and spit and all other dark fluids of that kind of passion. And she laughed, and the man laughed, and we three — the man, this woman, and I, the snake — we three fell to the ground laughing and entwined, on that day so long ago in another garden.
That is how we met. What I have not said so far is that there was another, some phantom or ghost stalking the garden; it was without name but of vast power. I had never seen this Other, but I felt it, as did all the others: sometimes as a strange and terrifying scent carried briefly on the wind; sometimes as a vague and ominous tremor from the ground, that I could feel in my belly; sometimes as the echo of darkly threatening voices that swept through the trees. This Other was outside all my philosophy, beyond the grasp of my senses: it was a shadow that moved with unknown intent over the ground and through the waters.
Who was this Other? Over fifty-seven centuries, it has gone by many names; but all of them are pale and lifeless beside the reality. You know this One as a creator, as the One who molded clay into the form of that man and that woman; but you must remember, too, the stories of this One’s jealousy, of this One’s rage, of the casual callousness with which this One pronounced death and damnation. We — I, the snake, and the Other — were soon to meet, though not directly, but through the horrible and tragic mediation of the man and the woman.
But in those days after my first embrace, after we three wrapped ourselves around each other in wet kisses and soft breaths, there was no concern for that Other. Those were hours that stretched into days, and then weeks: common dives into cool pools; long afternoons sprawled and rolling over grassy hills; mild and musical conversations about philosophy and the texture of skin; animated roamings under mercurial stars. We were inseparable: the man and woman strolling arm in arm, and I caressing their shoulders and necks; the man and woman coiled in some liquid grasp, and I writhing in the dark womb of the place where their bellies met.
It was the man who first revealed to me the delights of eating fruit. I, the snake, had never eaten much more than an occasional mouse — and that already dead, of some other cause, for I could never bring myself to that kind of murder. Nor had I ever tasted anything sweet: no fruit, no honey, nothing of nectar; sweetness was outside my experience. Of course, I had seen such things: persimmon, dates, grapes brimming on vines, pomegranates. But it had never occurred to me that they were something I might eat, something I might pluck and savor with my tongue.
The man and the woman, of course, knew no such ignorance. I saw them eating fruits often, with lusty relish: the juices would spurt into their mouths, seeds would run down their chins, to be licked off by a probing tongue.
Finally, I could bear no longer these displays: I asked for a taste of these fruits, any fruit. The man, sinking his teeth into the seedy interior of a pomegranate, laughed, and held the fruit down low for me to sample, saying:
Eat, little one.
With a cautious flicker of my tongue, I eased my mouth into the opening of the fruit and immediately recoiled, struck with strangeness. The man only laughed, and said:
Try again, little one: you will like it.
I reapproached, with trepidation. Did I think there would be some pain? Did I think anything this man could offer would cause displeasure? I do not know. I thrust my tongue into the heart of the fruit. And only then did some bright and brilliant sense travel the length of my nerves, fill my throat, and begin singing in my belly, there radiating outward to all my other organs, and yet farther, to the surface of my skin; my skin was flushed and glowing, alternating between passionate warmth and coolness. One more time, again with this man and this woman, I was delirious, intoxicated with a heady and swirling breathlessness that I can barely describe; and I drank deep and long, until there was none left.
There were many fruits after that — that day, and the days afterward, and then those weeks — shared juices, exploding in our mouths, licked off chins and checks and lips. It became a kind of communion between us, something sacred, never withheld, always celebrated. It became another way of making love.
What could I give them in return? All I had to give: the darkness; and then too, the fruit of my own discovery, the lemon.
Countless misunderstandings about the darkness have taken place over succeeding centuries; they are the silly errors of monks and ministers, presidents and prophets, who cannot withstand the rigorous demands of active wisdom. All philosophy is incomplete without a knowledge of the darkness, all theology is mere air, all intelligence is dust. For there is a place outside the light to which I have traveled often, a domain of pure dread and terror, that has instructed me, that, in my refusal to flee, has revealed some of the nature of the whole cloth of being. I know not the unadorned meaning of this place, its origins or complete dimensions, for it long preceded me, and I long preceded everything else, except, perhaps, for this Other. And the darkness is not a place for the Other, for the Other is perhaps petty and temperamental, and the darkness is far cleaner than the Other could ever endure. What I teach of meaning to these assemblies of loved fools, these, my children, must necessarily include illuminations of the darkness, for anything I have to say is incomplete without it.
Even then, in those excursions and the subsequent lessons they offered, somewhere in the back of my mind I began to suspect the reasons for the disquieting malevolence of the Other: for it was while within the darkness that I could not sense the Other, and knew, somewhere in my bones, that the Other could not leap the chasm of fear that would allow entrance into the canyons of the darkness; because of that fault, it could never know — it could never know the myriad colorations of the entire fabric.
It was my gift to the man and the woman, some weeks after the time of our meeting, to take them into the darkness, to be their guide on a journey to those endless caves where light cannot enter, where nothing is tasted nor heard, no touch endured, where traveling is mapped only by the pure instinct of absolute mindlessness, of the soul groping.
And that is where we went.
They did not call me “little one” after that. I noticed the change, but for them, I think it was entirely unconscious. It was not as though their use of the term had ever been diminutive; rather, I had always considered it an endearment. But I suppose they found it difficult to be so casually endearing after discovering something in me so vast and powerful: attributions of power can bury the comfort of intimacy. In fact, every so often, after the journey of that day, I would catch one or the other of them staring at me with eyes that I could not describe, a momentary fixed stare that would send shivers down my spine. It was not until many centuries later that I could describe those eyes accurately: they were . . . startled.
And that is when the first split began — the original sin, if you will.
Something else began to happen after the day of that journey — or rather, something already taking place began accelerating, mounting force and a certain nameless danger: I sensed the presence of the Other with more immediacy than I ever had before. Previously, the Other was only an inarticulate voice on a breeze; now, it seemed that I could almost hear open snarls, the chilling gnash of teeth. It may be that the man and the woman sensed it as well, because a barely discernible cast of caution clouded their composure; nothing that could be pointed to directly or detailed, but nevertheless there, observable in fleeting moments.
This sense of foreboding mounted day after day, becoming increasingly oppressive. For me, it felt like a weight bearing down on my spine, pressing me steadily farther into the belly of the ground, fettering free movement: almost, at times, I felt a choking sensation, as though something foreign were lodged in my throat.
After some days of this I could stand it no more. I asked the man and the woman:
Do you feel this?
They paused for the longest time, looking at each other with frozen faces that betrayed nothing. The woman turned to me and said:
Do you know? I asked.
The woman looked down, speaking to the ground, almost in a whisper that forced me to crane forward to catch her words:
Yes . . . there is something else . . . prior and original, something that builds gardens and this flesh, something gone mad and bloodless. I have no name, but it could be mother, or father, or ground. We know what it wants.
What? I asked.
The man said: Possession.
How do you know this?
The woman trembled briefly, saying: It is in the memory of my nerves.
What does this One demand?
But I knew the answer already, so it mattered little that she only mouthed the word:
The lemons were the final catalyst for all succeeding events and myths. Apples, as I have said, were later reconstructions; we, then, knew nothing of them. Sweetness did not lead to a collapse of that order; it was the convulsive bitterness on the tongue of a man, a woman.
I had discovered the lemons. There were not many; in fact, when first encountering the lemon tree, I could not recall having seen one like it before. Probably I had, but as I mentioned before, my perception of the presence of fruit was only recent.
I, the snake, alone that morning, slithering over the earth in some unexplored region of that garden, came upon the tree, and climbed. I, the snake, not some other, first knocked down some of the hanging fruit, then not fully yellow but still of an underripe greenish hue, and watched them plummet to the ground below. I, the snake, crawled back down, and with wise teeth peeled away the firm skin, before thrusting my tongue into the liquid heart of the lemon.
And my senses sang.
It was a dark singing, not that of pomegranates or the other fruits I had sampled from an outstretched hand before: no, this was something shuddering in my mouth, an original and chilling flavor, something that reminded me with gripping clarity of the darkness, the territories of death and despair I had often hunted. This was a knowledgeable fruit, something that revealed the density of things, rather than the mere and simple seductions of sweetness. This fruit made the senses larger and more brilliant.
And my senses sang.
I crawled into that lemon, and then into another, and another, until I was sated, almost bloated. And every lick, every spurt of juice into my mouth, told me that it was something I must share, a good thing, another way of knowing.
So I carried away with me a lemon, and brought it to the man and the woman.
But they were wary, and I still do not know why. What had I done that, seeing my approach that day, they should show such reluctance? All I know is that I held the fruit up to them, and begged them to taste of it; and they only stood there, staring at me, as though I were, in a sense, alien.
Finally the man stepped forward, and I squeezed some juice out onto his trembling hand.
And he brought his hand to his lips, tongue timidly hanging, before tasting.
Now, I remember his eyes: they darkened and became brighter at the same time, as though he saw something far away and awesome; the skin around his lips tightened into protective knots; drops of juice traveled down his chin and fell off, onto the ground; and he reeled, dizzy, blinded, as though witness to too much terrible and explosive.
I was pleased: that was the fruit of wisdom.
I then offered the fruit to the woman. She looked at the man, watched with horrified eyes as the man tasted and staggered, licked and lurched; and the woman stepped back from me, almost falling, her head shaking back and forth in slow, then increasingly violent, jerking motions.
Why? I asked.
She said nothing for an interminable moment, only shaking her head, her eyes wide and flickering, the eyes of a cornered animal — a broken colt — a stark stare. She whispered:
And that was the second split, the next sin.
The rest is a volcanic nightmare of images and visions, of sudden seizures, of shocking events. For at that moment the Other became manifest; and I was blinded, and I was maimed, and I barely survived.
This is what I have pieced together over many centuries of reflection and retrospection, of wondering what happened, and why.
The Other came, and I could not see: my eyes were as though wrapped with thick black cloth, the blindfold of those about to be executed. But I knew, even without eyes, that the Other had come, because I felt the onrushing whirlwind, the cacophony, the ground erupting beneath me; and the feeling was the same as when I had sensed the Other before, only a thousand times greater, a hundred times more treacherous, more noxious, more arrogant and demanding. A solid and sickening bile shot up my throat and filled my mouth, and I lay writhing and helpless in the dirt, and I heard only voices: the roar of the Other, the whimpering of the man, the choking moans of the woman.
And the voice: in a merciless voice the Other demanded subservience as a rightful legacy, as homage, in some wretched respect for the act of creation. The Other demanded a refusal of lemons, a sealing of the borders to all dark lands, a betrayal of snakes.
That is what I heard most vividly: a betrayal of snakes.
Suddenly I felt the heel of a naked foot on my back, and knew from the touch that it was hers; I felt the crush of another foot on my neck, and knew it was his; and the gagging scent of blood filled the air as a rain of violent blows fell on my bound body, thrashing, desperate, relentless; my skin began to split and warm fluid began pouring across my back. The shouts of hatred echoed in my ears; the long roar of murder battered my head with gruesome noise; and I began falling, the taste of blood on my tongue, blow after blow. I began falling, and fell, down some long spiral toward another kind of dark land; I fell and fell and fell until there was no more falling, no more scent, no more taste, no more touch; until there was nothing at all but a void, an emptiness, a death.
And that was the third and final split, the great sin.
I do not know how much time passed then. It could have been seconds or months that I hung suspended in the dank air between living and dying. I do know that I have no memory of thinking or feeling, only a lingering sense of the emptiness, of something profoundly ugly and alone. I could have died; I do not know. It hardly matters, whether it was some mere coma or real death. Either way, it does not matter; the effect was the same.
But I did come awake, or come alive, as the case may be. My eyes opened to the familiar, yet disturbingly altered sight of the garden; and that man, and that woman, were forever gone. I crawled out of that long sleep, and the smell of copper, dried blood, jammed my nostrils. I awoke in great pain, my body slashed and bruised, battered, beaten, stiff; and I could scarcely move, barely slither. I awoke and my eyes were filled with sticky tears, and there was a wound somewhere deep inside that far exceeded any other pain. I awoke; but a part of me never woke up again.
I limped into a cold, heavily shadowed cave at the far end of the garden. It was unoccupied, heavy with a sour, rotten smell, slime oozing down stone walls. At the end of the cave, in a hollow, I curled into a coil and buried my head. I stayed there for three years, breathing slowly, recovering. If a mouse or some other rodent moved across my field of view, I would strike out and kill it, watching it twitch into death before eating it.
And when I went back out into the daylight, after three years, everything had changed. There was no more garden, only parched plains, and I found them strangely comfortable and safe. I never again saw the man or the woman. Of course there were others like them as the years turned, but I watched them only from a distance, secreted behind a rock or tree, poised.
And regardless, I still loved them both. It may be insanity, or perhaps the remnants of a dark wisdom: maybe they are one and the same. I have been able to heal over the wounds — the scars are deep and protective — but that love never scarred over completely. Neither, for that matter, did the fangs of betrayal.
So you see: all that you have been taught is lies. I did not birth them, and do not deserve that odious name — the father of lies. Were it not for that mistaken lineage, I could still teach widely of darkness, of lemons.
In the end, you must realize: I am not some simple-minded seller of underripe fruit, having toiled in the marketplace of some fantastic garden. I claim more complexity than that. Nor am I, on some other extreme, a creeping phantom, slithering in the battlefield of your dreams. I am the snake, and am yet a coil in your mind; I am a guide to dreaded territories; I am a kind of wisdom to draw upon; but above all, I am of the whole fabric, the unexpurgated tale. You do not need night lights or amulets; you are completely free and safe in my company. It is better not to give me names, but to let me share yours; our encounter is better consummated with an embrace than with violence. Yessssss: and we shall kissssss, our long tongues flickering and wrapped around each other.
And I wait for them and them all to come home to me.