Translated by ALICE GUTHRIE
As broken as a venial sin,
and as weary as the last to be created (or the first),
he looked to the sky, now become his ground.
Once he’d learned about naming and questioning, and saw what he saw of the blue corridors of space, he asked himself:
I wonder what the Throne is?
Did the Throne of the Almighty exist before water, or arise after water? And what is water, anyway?
Despairing, he smacked the trunk of the tree he was sitting under.
He contemplated its stature:
What is a tree?
And why must I not touch this particular tree, and not eat of her fruit?
The Throne commanded me thus.
If water gives rise to the tree, and the Throne towers infinitely over water in might, majesty, and eloquence, why can’t I touch her? Do the Throne’s waters pulse within her? Or does she carry the immortality of the root?
He gave up and flung his arms around the trunk.
He sensed how soft her skin would be, and his eyes leapt to the treetops. Then he was off, scaling his way up, careful to dislodge none of her fruit.
He climbed through her boughs, sat in their highest reaches.
He was tired…
And also delighted with this little victory of his. He punched the air uninhibited, in rapturous celebration, as the first of the doves swooped toward him from the distant horizon to land on a branch at his side.
He scratched his head, astonished at this covey of guests arriving to visit him unannounced and unapologetic. As well as teaching me the names, the One who created me instructed me in the logic of birds. A bird is a spy. It cannot be relied upon. This dove appears to be nothing but a hollow white glove, moving around but containing no hand. The wind carries her along wherever she pleases. And yet the dove speaks in the voice of the Throne.
—Hey, dove (said he, addressing his guests).
—At your service, Father.
—Father! Father of what? I haven’t sired anyone yet, not even Cain. (The name came back to him in a flash.) You can call me Adam.
—Adam! Your eldest son will be Abel.
—No, it’s Cain.
—Cain is a killer.
—But aren’t killers exactly who I’ll need when I’m sent to Earth? How else will I rule over her if not with killers? The Earth won’t be populated with innocents.
He felt movement beneath the tree and shooed the dove away with his hand; the flock of visitors moved off, smirking, sinking away toward the deepest horizon.
She circled the tree with the delight of a dreaming child.
She contemplated the fruit hanging off the boughs and touched her breast. It was full.
She ran her eyes up to where the trunk branched off into fruit-bearing limbs, then stared at her own body: a trunk, a waist, a neck, and apples bursting with life on the tree’s body. She whispered to her soul, unconsciously repeating what Adam had taught her: The tree is female. And what femininity endures if it is not touched?—she heard his voice, which he said channeled the Throne—What’s the meaning of all those details of hers, her trunk and her limbs and her fruits, if she’s not explored? If she’s kept far from any hand, or mouth, or heart, or soul, left to be booty for only the winds?
She reached out her hands to touch the tree trunk. She thought, Is this how I am supposed to be?
Then he had stuttered, confused: It’s forbidden for us to eat the fruit or touch the tree… but why, if the tree is female?
Startled by a flock of doves swooping down from on high to attack her, she snatched her hands back from the tree and shielded her chest with her arms, her hands tucked under her armpits as the guests landed around her.
As she contemplated the glow of the birds, she felt both rapture and shame; the doves were both gorgeous and corrupt. How bloodstained was the future that awaited her!
—You’re beautiful when you embrace the fruits of your body (said the dove).
—The whole sky is my body, and I love it. I am everything (she answered with a knowing smile).
—And the Earth.
—Ah… the Earth? What’s that?
—She’s unknown to you, and hidden from your eyes.
—Is she more beautiful than the sky?
—She’s another life.
—Another life? So what we’re in now is the first life?
—And when you’re done here, you’ll travel to there.
—And leave everything? The fruits and the trees, the wine and the river, everything?
—You’ll be sent where there is wealth, and children, and the vanities of that other life, and wonderful deeds that endure.
—Children? What are children?
—The fruit of your body, and the result of your union with Adam.
She shielded her breasts in alarm.
—Like this tree and its fruit?
—And you’ll be the mother of Cain.
She was even more startled when she heard this name. She had heard it before. Steadying herself against the tree trunk, she protested:
—Cain? He’s a killer! No, I’m not the mother of a killer.
—But you will be. That’s what Adam wanted. He’s Cain’s father, and you’re Adam’s wife; therefore you’re Cain’s mother.
—No. He’s a killer. (She remembered something else.) I’m the mother of the one who dies, Abel.
—No, you’re the mother of the killer, Cain.
She shook her head.
—The killer passes away, and the slain remains. The Earth will belong to the innocent. The Earth belongs to the dead, and the sky too is theirs.
Exasperated, she shooed the dove away, and the whole flock moved off as one. Once again she began to circle the tree.
Adam: The Decision
At first he stayed close by the neck, running his hands over it. Then he moved down to explore the inner places. The bosom was a galloping horseman’s wide field! The waist more suggestive than a blank canvas! Firm were her fruits, and soft her details. He bypassed some unlit place very dense in detail; here, he did not know what to do. Overcoming the darkness, he reached the trunk, and he embraced it, clung to it, as if to merge with it; the tremor of his cells didn’t cease until his feet touched the ground under the tree where Eve stood. Eve was waiting for him, awash with fear.
He contemplated her.
The bee of lust still buzzed in his body, but now another noise played in his mind: those words that had planted the seeds of desire and instruction inside him: Cain is a killer. Abel is killed. Eve is female. The tree is female. Therefore: The Earth. Children. Blood.
Eve spoke. Her voice was harsh.
—Adam. A… dam…. A damnation.
But he paid no heed. He ignored the meaning of her words. All he heard was the cadence of his name as formed by her mouth, and his desire grew. He drew nearer to her, saw the tears hanging suspended in her eyes. Suddenly the rope holding back her tears was severed, and they streamed into the indifferent cradle of her cheeks.
—Eve… what’s making you cry? (As he spoke to her, he felt a ripple of longing shudder through him.)
—They will kill each other.
—Our children, who aren’t yet here.
—So the dove told you, too?
—Cain is a killer. Abel gets killed.
Her eyes were hard and afraid.
—The killer and the killed are our children, Adam.
They circled each other.
Trembling like leaves in the wind, they clung to each other as their tears coursed harder. They gazed around them as the sky became a prison, confining them far from their unborn children.
As Eve’s weeping grew wilder, a new pulse thrummed in his heart, and then the boil of questions burst open: Our children? Why are we here? Is it not a crime for us to be here, in total comfort, gliding around the Throne like this? Just you and me, living a life without questions? Who will protect the children, if we stay here? Who will save Abel and mend Cain?
A tear hung suspended in his eye, then swung like the gallows. Eve drew near and wiped it away, then whispered in his ear:
—The tree is a mother. The tree is female.
At least this is what he wanted to believe he heard. He nodded his head in agreement, and they turned together toward the tree, whose fruit hung low.
The sky under their feet had turned fragile as a snail’s shell but viscous as a slug.
To the right: no humanity, no descendants of Adam, and no men.
To the left: no friend, no sound of life, and no women.
In front: a uniform horizon, neither movement nor whisper, a vacuum.
And behind? Back there was a world that couldn’t be entered, a thousand stop signs.
There was nothing but the tree, the Savior of Parents, the cell’s only window, the only way to get out and reach the children before the Throne shed their blood.
—Adam, the sin will be yours if you don’t save the children. (She said this as she leaned toward him, trying to hold on and not fall).
—Eve, the sin will be your whole destiny unless you go down there with me and be with them (he held her, hiding his weakness).
Pressed against the tree, they worked up a kiss from what remained of the sky’s mercy. It was the first kiss. Eve steadied herself as the fruit touched her; Adam lit up in ecstasy.
—The tree is female! (he whispered in Eve’s ear what he had been taught and was now teaching). Then they kissed the fruit together, and bit into it.
The sky disappeared.
And the Earth began to put forth children and trees.
[Read more Arabic fiction in Issue 11: Tajdeed.]
Mufleh al-Odwan was born in 1966 in Az-Zarqa, Jordan. He is an award-winning short story writer, novelist, and playwright. His first short story collection, The Mill, won the Mahmoud Taymour short story prize in 1995, after which he published in Arabic four further collections, a number of plays, and a novel, Thresholds. Most of his literary works are inspired by ancient legends and sacred books and stories, which he reconstructs so that they engage with contemporary reality.
Alice Guthrie is a British translator, editor, event producer, and occasional journalist. Her literary, media, and academic work with writers from across the vast Arab world has appeared in a broad range of international publications and venues since 2008, and has been recognized with various grants and awards.