In the wastelands east of Eden, a single man walks the unfilled world, restlessly reliving a tortured childhood under the thumb of history’s most famous sinner.
He withered like a scorched root on the stony ground. The cold shook him while the endless prodding of his busy mind tugged at each finger and joint. The lips moved soundlessly and the eyelids danced with invisible specters. One cheek was swollen and sore from the icy rock he had used as a pillow.
Out of the shivering stillness he convulsed and moaned, rubbing his mess of a beard, the bristled wires caked with mud and dry, crispy blood. The sharp glow of morning crept into his eyelids and pried them open. The man wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He drew a deep breath, gagged, coughed, and pushed himself up to sit like a gorilla and shielded his eyes as he peered into the enormous orb of glowing fire. The flowers of pink dawn were sliding over the rocks and scolding the cold toward the endless statues of writhing stone. A thin membrane of orange stretched over the East like a petal.
He mumbled under his breath, peering into the fading darkness behind himself, acknowledging the slice of moon that had guided him this far during the dimming twilight.
How many days of this? he thought to himself, noting the scorching of his throat.
How long without water?
It did not matter.
He rose and took his first halting steps. He glanced into the horizon. Far ahead, immeasurable in paces or time, were the staccato teeth of a mountain range. He sniffed, as if to send them warning of his approach, and stared at the baked surface beneath him as he walked. The charred plateau hissed about him with whipping winds over the bayou of red stone, flecked with dried emerald mosses dotting the infinite cracks and undersides of lonely boulders. Little moved or stirred except the humming surf of sand tumbling to the East to wall up an ocean somewhere. Though the dawn brought color that chased away twilight, all remained cold in the cloudless desert, all things encased in a layer of invisible pinching frost that hardened with the passing wind.
The man crossed his arms around his chest and rubbed and coughed. He stumbled past ponderous stones, rolled to their haphazard resting places by ancient Titans. The first human hands to touch these ancient boulders came away filthy, calloused, and black. His fingers lingered about them, reading the chiseled language of old, a weary tongue, whispering stories of centuries spent waiting, waiting, then sleeping. The poetry of eons. Calligraphy of the wind. A song of the comings and goings of a billion schools of slippery gray fish that once busied the plateau. Now, loneliness complete. Nothing was a creation anymore. Everything he saw sagged or split or rotted. The art of such slow, aching, thoughtless time.
The walking dreams of the man were of such things, for that was all there was to dream of. That, and the scattered fig trees that sagged with the midday heat, shrunk in the chill of twilight, before finally giving way to the common darkness of thirst.
The exile’s road wound through the cracking desert into the curtain of the blooming morning. He brought up a heavy arm to shield his eyes and look into the distance, like a fish of old, squinting into the lonely gloom of a lifeless dead ocean. With sustenance so far behind, he had nothing to say, even to the ghosts in his mind that begged him to join them. The ghosts called him one name, and he flinched at the sound of their echoing voices.
With head permanently bowed, he pushed east in one long nod.
I remember the first time I saw it….
The coarse wind was ripping through his long hair. Aba’s calloused palm took his shoulder and turned it. His bare foot found the rugged edge of a stone – hot blood leaked over little toes as he whimpered – but Aba pressed him onward to the crest of a swaying bluff where untamed grasses flapped shoulder-high in the fingers of blustering winds. The boy limped, dragging the weak foot, but kept pace to the top where he could see that the world below was both miniature and enormous, painted in every color.
Do you see it, Aba said, squeezing the shoulder.
The little one gaped at his father, his face taught with uncertainty, a fleshly question mark, so the father took the back of his head in the same rigid palm and aimed it into the West. Past the sloping elbows of meadow and hill, seemingly forever below and away from their eyes, he beheld a solid wall of vegetation.
Do you see it, Aba repeated, and the boy nodded.
The blossoming distances were blanketed by brush-strokes of floral arrays, unspoiled by his or any other hand. Thousands of vines wove an enormous canopy that rose high into the air, disappearing into a low hanging haze that permeated the scattered branches and tree trunks thrusting to the sky. Before this brilliant carpet was the unmistakable white glare of fire. The boy could see it was a lone flame, its dance barely visible through the distance. It suddenly swirled, a tornado of orange-red majesty, as if it sensed the presence of the two men.
It was not as Aba had described before. Not at all as he had imagined it.
The boy’s mouth was open, and the father saw it. He slapped the underside of the chin and the teeth clicked together.
Now you have seen it, he said under the song of the wind.
The boy looked to his father with curious eyes, and asked if they could go closer, to see it better. Not to go in, just to get closer. Just to see.
The man took the chin in his fingers and crouched, the dust and rocks beneath him crunching as he brought himself level with his son’s eye.
We will never come here again, he said. Neither will you. Do not disobey me.
The father stood and took the boy’s shoulder once more.
Come, he ordered, and began turning away to descend the cliff and leave this place of memory and nightmare.
But the boy resisted, only for a moment, to gaze again at the distant spectacle, so unworthy of the cloud of warning and myth brewed for him. It magnetized him, and he could not pull away. There was infinite green, unimaginable life to tend, worlds to be created and mastered and loved.
The pinch of two hands lifting him jarred his thoughts. With a cry he struck the earth face-first, spat blood and dirt, and climbed to his feet.
Enough! Aba commanded, taking him roughly by the neck. The older, stronger hands collared him, preventing him from looking back, and the images of the green garden throbbed and faded against the boy’s mind, like the memory of lightning.
They walked for some time, ascending from the valley over the splitting stones of the earth’s exposed bones. The boy thought about the fire. He had never seen fire move like that, unless the winds were acting very strangely. He opened his mouth to ask, but Aba was ahead of him some distance, swatting at a nebula of mosquitoes and mumbling some fallen words to himself. The boy followed in silence.
They returned after many sunsets in the dark of a moonless night, their bellies screaming for food. Ima cried and held him, rocking and singing. But like the vines that eternally encircle the mighty kapok tree, the boy’s dreams had firmly wrapped themselves around the mystique of his father’s lost garden and the strangely desolate wasteland beyond.
Aba gathered the animals, calling them by name.
They protested loudly and some even tried to dart away, but he called them back one at a time and herded them toward the keep near the river below.
The boy clambered over the crest of the hill, tripping over his spinning legs, calling out. The father turned, saw his son, and waved for him to come after and join the effort. The boy sprang upwards faster at this sign and finally crashed into the greater man’s legs, hugging them and begging to be brought along.
With claps and shouts, they herded each animal into the lowlands near the river where each would enjoy water, shade, delicious grass, and some protection from predators. The banks were rocky, shielding the more vulnerable creatures, and the hills above afforded little cover for those who might stalk their way down. The boy had helped his father dig a series of trenches that would keep the herds in and the night-stalkers out.
As Aba shouted and gave the slower creatures a firm motivational strike, the boy told tale after tale of his time in the forests. His day had been filled with digging and climbing and chasing and hiding, all the things he could think to do with the time his parents allowed him to enjoy.
Grunting, the father ruffled his son’s hair with a leathery palm. As they carried logs to fence the animals in, the boy sang of his favorite adventure. He had balanced on rocks in the rushing river, searching the rippling cold waters for one of its slippery inhabitants. Thousands of them had swum around him, their gray and brown backs slick and slimy. He had tried and tried to catch one of them, but each had slithered and surged from between his fingers, spraying him with cool mist that would make him squeal and giggle.
Next time, he promised, he’d catch one and show it to his father.
With the animals safely encamped, the father took his son by the hand and walked him back up the hill to the higher places, amid the short rows of turned earth. Above, the home was black on the moor and the faint sound of Ima’s singing caressed the men and their aching bodies. To the west, the blades of mountains cut into the orange and purple sky, hiding the setting sun.
Kneel, the father said. Watch.
Bent in worship before the earth, he took a smooth, triangular stone and cut into the ground, turning it with each slice. The boy watched, his eyes glowing. The father stabbed and turned, grunting and sweating with the work, until a cavity lay between them.
Now, we sow.
He took the boy’s hand and opened it. Dried seeds trickled down the father’s palm and landed silently in the boy’s grasp. He smiled, excited and dreaming.
Are these going to turn into trees?
Aba nodded. Slowly, he turned the boy’s hand upside-down until the seeds tumbled, one-by-one, into their grave. Aba smoothed the black dirt over them. At his feet, he kept a small animal hide with some fresh droppings. Those, too, he poured them onto the ground and covered them.
Food, he said, for the fruit. Taking the boy’s chin gently in his hand, Aba instructed, Repeat after me.
The boy nodded.
Dig. Plant. Food. Water. Wait.
Dig. Plant. Food. Water. Wait.
The boy repeated it, but still looked unsure. He asked, How long do we wait?
That is up to the One.
The boy nodded, counting and naming the steps. He frowned, and Aba saw it.
What is the matter?
What if the One doesn’t let it grow?
The father looked down and exhaled slowly. He licked his dry lips.
Then we sow another.
The father stood, gazing into the blackening horizon as though something might suddenly appear in it. The last drip of sunlight disappeared, leaving only a memory of the day behind it. Wordlessly the father took the boy’s hand once more, the dirt and sweat melding between them, and he led the boy up the hill to the home as the chorus of night began to sing.
He parted the fronds and peered into the dark.
The home leaned against an enormous boulder that stuck out of the earth like a blistered thumb. Small stones had been arranged and piled to form walls, caked together with mud that had dried to a rigid crust. Bundles of valley weeds, tightly bunched and wound into greater braids, spanned the roof while a squat dark doorway faced west.
He gazed into it and listened. The startling cry of his baby brother jolted him, but he found his breath and held it calmly. He turned back into the bush and focused his ear, envisioning in his mind’s eye the hiss and thud of Aba’s furious steps, tracking his own. But all was silent in the black world behind him.
He broke from the foliage and ran soundlessly up the pale down. Slowing his steps as he approached the door, he listened again. Ima sang softly. The baby brother was fussing, still awake despite the late hour. He stood tall, only a hand or two shorter than his father now, and strode confidently into the murky interior having to duck his sprouting head.
She called him by his father’s name. The air halted in his throat at the sound of it, teasing him with the thought of having become a man, yet crushing him with the reality that he was living in deceit, even of his beloved mother.
No, Ima, he said gently. It is I.
Where have you been? she scolded, her voice dropping.
The baby in her arms wailed suddenly, a terrifying screech in the black glow of the hut.
On my own, he said.
Did you go there again?
He had practiced this answer on his way there, and on the way back. He had rehearsed pronouncing his guilt with bravado, with humility, with indifference. Even the sworded Guardian had asked him how he would answer –
Yes, he answered, with a flat and vacant sigh.
Shame had triumphed. If he had been answering his father, like he imagined, it would certainly have been different.
He heard a curious sound in the dark as his brother whimpered. Laughter, ever so soft, was coming from his mother.
Your father is looking for you, she said at last.
Why you keep disobeying him?
He wanted to retort, but it wasn’t with Ima that his anger burned. The baby howled again and he saw the shadowed form of his mother shift the infant over to her other breast. He winced at the wailing until the little mouth was busied with milk.
I am a man now, Ima, he grunted. I can do more than Aba thinks.
Yes, you are growing strong, she said with her syrup voice.
I should be able to go where I want.
Not there, my son.
His question brought a haunting, familiar silence from his mother. The infant cooed in approval of his meal.
He repeated, Why not?
It is forbidden.
Because we broke the law of the One.
He had heard that answer before.
A sacred law, my son.
Ima’s voice was fraying, its strength splitting like cord stretched to its breaking point. But he did not want to stop, and his fury poured out.
What did you do?
We disobeyed Him.
Silence again. The baby squeaked and she adjusted its head.
The details of the room grew clearer to him as his eyes adjusted to the blinding screen of night in the home. But he had begun to make out her features, none more so than her eyes. They searched him and pleaded him, blue moons in the dark that he found beautiful but hatefully foreign.
I’m going to find out, you know.
You have to trust us, son.
Please, listen to your father and I.
The shout leapt from his throat before he could stop it:
He lowered his throbbing head and sprinted through the opening into the swaying grasses of the hillside. The moon bathed the Earth in an ashy glow. He ran until he nearly broke the tree line, but stopped at the sound of clapping leaves and snapping branches rising before him. He bent his knees and squatted low to the ground, ready for any attacker.
Aba burst from the screen of forest. His eyes were white in the moonlight, their searching pupils invisible. The boy pressed into the dirt with his toes, feeling a sudden rush of hatred streak down his legs like lightning, and he pounced.
The older man must have seen him. Aba’s powerful hands found the boy’s tunic and thrust him away. He felt weightless for a moment until his back slammed into the Earth and it kicked the wind out of him.
You foolish boy! Aba shouted.
He wanted to spit back with a biting insult, but all he could do was cough and hold his belly. He rolled to his side and Aba’s feet stomped beside him and he felt his long hair yanked skyward.
Let go of me!
He pawed at his father’s hand, swatting to make him let go. Aba’s fist was stubborn as a boulder.
I am not a child!
Do not disrespect me!
Aba’s red lips were dangerously hot and close, spitting into his eyes.
I am not a boy!
You went to the garden! Again! Why are you such an evil, evil son?
I am not the one who break His law!
He felt his own weight on his feet again, and his hair fell about him once more. Hulking above him, his father backpedaled a step or two.
Why do you keep going there when I tell you not to?
I want to see it for myself! the boy exclaimed. I can handle it!
No, you cannot.
Why not let me try? I spoke to the Guardian.
Aba staggered at these words, as if from a glancing blow.
From a distance. I asked what was inside.
There is nothing inside!
I can learn that on my own, Aba!
Listen to me, the father said, his voice seasoned by the thin tones of begging. Yes, the garden is beautiful. Things grow there that you – that we – cannot grow here. But we cannot go back in. Ever.
The boy grit his teeth. Why?
It does not matter, the father said, all pleading gone from his voice. We are never going back. This is our home now.
The piercing cry of the infant broke their mutual glare, and both men looked up the hill. The slender shape of Ima stood before the home, the child in her arms.
Enough of this, she called. Come up for supper.
But the boy would have none. He had lived off the forest for nearly a week during his journey and felt the power of independence surging along his limbs. He backed away from Aba, down the hill toward the trees, and felt no reason to stop.
Do not walk away from me! Aba commanded.
The boy turned his back and ran.
Come back to me! Now!
He ran down the hill alongside the animal keep where sheep and goats chewed methodically in the gray glare. He peered over them to the opposite bank of the river, and saw dozens of yellow glowing jewels, watching him in hungry pairs.
He stopped, looking over his shoulder.
The silhouette of Aba’s imperious frame blotted out a small slice of the night sky. But as the sheep began to bleat, the goats screaming and the cows howling, that figure shrunk and began to run toward his livestock.
Help me, son!
The terrible cry of the victims sliced over the hillcrest in the boy’s ears. Aba shouted more as the pack of attackers followed their instincts into the makeshift paddock.
Son! Help me protect the animals!
But he would not turn back. The millions of swaying leaves took a deep breath amidst the carnage and sighed with the great gusts of wind, flapping with one voice under the wasteful bantering below. The boy closed his eyes, ducked low to the earth, and fled under the cloak of night until the sounds of his father and the helpless weeping of the slowest lamb flattened themselves against the stout wall of trunks.
At the base of the mountains, he found a gurgling creek. He drank himself sick and slept nearly two days in its gentle current. Fattened with liquid and berries from nearby bushes, he made the climb with his back firmly set against home.
The exile reached the summit and placed one foot on each side of the mountain. Behind him the voices of his ghosts echoed eternal in the barren valleys of memory and guilt. His blood dotted the grass and the rocks, spilled after his failed attempts to scale the garden’s impassable thorny walls. He hoped his persistent dreams would fall behind too, unable to scale the mountain alongside his waking body. He could use the rest.
The man beheld the new country below. The land lay green and rich, veined with blue rivers and rocky muscle. There was no telling how many gardens of his own he could plant there, and just how resplendent they would be. He would build his own paradise, larger and more beautiful than the one lost by his mother and father. Perhaps then the One would smile upon his gift.
And perhaps, in some mysterious way, Aba would know of this great work too – maybe by following him, undertaking his son’s eternal journey, moved by pity or rage or something in between, then summiting the mountain after days recovering in the same streams, belly full of the same delicious fruit that only the One could grow – and finally Aba would smile at him and say, without any guilt or shame or fear masking his face, that something the boy had done was good.
Such hope seemed only natural at the top of the mountain, the natural barrier between past and his future.
He pushed onward and began his descent into that new, memoryless life. The life of making things grow. The life of peace. Of finding answers to his questions about the One, questions his mother and father never dared answer for him. With every step, his confidence bloomed more broadly.
Maybe he wasn’t meant to wander, but to rebuild. A smile tugged on his cracking lips. His eyes sparkled as the sun peeked from behind a growing swell of clouds.
He reached the foothills and paused to rest beside a trickling creek that traced an unknown alphabet along the mighty stones. He cupped water and brought it to his lips and sighed, his belly aching with the sweetness of it.
And as he took his first emboldened steps into the land all his own, he twitched at the surprise of a brand new sensation. He wiped his nose.
He walked onward, perplexed.
He felt it again and instinctively looked up.
Had it come from the sky?
He paused to wipe his face again.
It began to fall softly, at first, wet little kisses from heaven so gentle and surprising that he giggled like a child. The drops of water then came more rapidly and he quickened his pace to a jog.
What is this, but a gift from the One to help my garden? he pondered with growing joy.
The sky waters fell over his whole body, and then the land around him, and then the entire valley was plunged into a gray dusk. He ran to the trees where the brown dirt was bubbling and writhing. He knelt and scooped it into his hands and lifted his head in praise, and the waters continued to fall.
He was laughing.
Image Credit: Tim Leete, Creative Commons
“The Exile” is a part of Soul Mountain, a collection of short fiction. Click here or on the image to read more stories. Download the Kindle version here or purchase a print copy here.