The Garden Before
Read by Allison B. Young
There is a particular moment in the rupture of identity that I could only write as a body horror, garden obsessed, gay-for-snakes Bible fanfic. I don’t usually listen to music when writing, but I Iistened to Fran’s “Desert Wanderer” nearly nonstop during the first drafts.
Adam’s mind was a hard chunk of mussel shell, an unyielding layered rock with space for a thumb in the dip where mussel meat would rest. His life was simple: The thumb pressed, the dip filled with a command. Moments later the thumb released, the curved hollow left empty. He obeyed the command. Then he waited for the next, spending his time tending the Garden. The most primeval birds, fish, mammals, plants, oceans, mountains, atmosphere, deserts, caves—all of it was hideous and docile. Adam, too, was hideous and docile.
New things appeared in the Garden and by nightfall became so thoroughly absorbed into Adam’s consciousness that knowing was almost a kind of forgetting: he forgot each day what the Garden was like days before. Images of his awakening, when there were only tufts of sage and rippling sand, were gone; so too the memories of the first briny sting against his lips when the oceans filled—dim and soft like overworked clay. And he had no vision of what the Garden would be like the next day. As he tended all of early creation, he felt each thing had always existed; that God had made them visible rather than fabricated them. He felt surrounded, cradled, by everything unseen and waiting its turn to appear.
There wasn’t much to do between commands. He could converse with animals and plants, but their experiences of the simplest thing—like the feel of a gust of wind—were so different from his own that Adam preferred to move through the Garden in silence. Days passed where all he did was watch the routine of everything. Still, someone had to rake the leaves and trim the climbing rose. He had purpose while he waited for the thumb to press.
After days of craggy emptiness, the dip finally filled on the morning of the vernal equinox. The command was simple: Seek a scripture tied to a scent that made him feel dusty and scoured at the same time. Adam climbed a eucalyptus trunk as high as he could to pluck a leaf. It was cleverly folded and took a long time to open without tearing. He translated what he could of the instructions printed in sunspot burns and blurred rings of orange fungus. They were not clear.
A bone? His bone? Surely not. What could possibly grow from him? And which bone?
It wasn’t a bad idea to start with a metatarsal. Adam soaked his foot in a cold spring, used tall blades of grass to bind above the joint. He hardly felt the cut of rock into skin. He buried his left big toe in a small hole capped with a damp swell of loam. While he waited, he rubbed clay over the bloody stump. It didn’t hurt at all. He understood the numbness was a gift from God, a welcome tool for his mission. He felt hopeful as he watched the dirt. But an hour later only something small and hard popped out of the ground, its Name unearthed with it: an acorn, smooth and shiny. He got the idea that size of bone mattered. Or maybe usefulness?
Next: femur, clavicle, kneecap, ulna. Cactus, scallop, iguana, another species of slug. He tried reading the instructions again, dried out and cracked, and was able to sound out the Name: woman. He couldn’t translate what woman was supposed to be. The dip in his mind was empty, though he had faith the thumb would press again.
He sustained several plantings a day before he ran out of easily accessible bones. By then he couldn’t move much, and a profusion of future animals, plants, and the occasional mineral were littered around him. The dip remained bare and Adam couldn’t help but question if absence was a signal, a reprimand. He knew none of his creatures could stay; the only things allowed in the Garden were God’s directives. God had not told him to make an acorn or an agate. Apprehension gathered in him like sticky pollen. Adam would have known if he transgressed. Surely faith went both ways. He dug his fingers into the dirt, grasped for understanding. God must have known this would happen. God must have trusted Adam would take care of it. How long until he had to get rid of them? Could he wait a little longer, until he had healed, until woman was made?
As he lay exhausted and bloody, he surveyed his own creations. He liked how the scallop perched on the cactus when it rained, its hundred milky blue eyes blinking its shell closed when shadows passed over. The iguana often chased the acorn, both of them the green of an unripe banana. Even the hunk of rough agate radiated a mineral life at sunrise and sunset—an arm’s length away and a steady focal point as he rested between plantings.
He felt close to them in a way that was absent from anything else in the Garden. Their minds glowed more mutely than God’s creations, though in a way he recognized. He’d seen himself reflected in water, and now he saw himself in what grew from his body. The patterns of their thoughts were familiar. He heard a satisfying tap, and he watched the iguana snap its tail to knock the acorn against a boulder again and again. Adam’s skin puffed and wrinkled with the rain, and the cactus swelled, too. He would miss them when they were gone. He drifted in and out of consciousness as he recited every seedling, every bone in his body.
Adam was little more than a sack with weak scaffolding. Things had grown not just from his bones but from the bloody iron saturation of the dirt beneath his body. The edges of his vision hemmed in, and for the first time he began to doubt what he’d done. Shadows bent at odd angles, condensed too tightly for the world’s newborn physics. Dark liquid animals that didn’t belong in the Garden—that didn’t belong anywhere—started to pace around him, their minds bright with obsidian. God had never made anything like them. Had they been here the whole time? He didn’t want to think they were part of him. Could he dispel these shadow creatures, when it was all done?
Adam kept close a new word: isolation. The cactus was dead and the iguana flicked away. He worried about the scallop, tightly closed for days. He’d lost the agate in one of the many holes he’d dug and filled. The acorn had hollowed. He’d always understood blasphemy to be a line scratched into a rock: obvious, unchanging, possible to catch a thumbnail in, but just as easy to avoid. Before, he thought it required intention and hate. Now, blasphemy was a fog bank: patchy, humid, hovering, languid. The fog was a fur, a splitting bark, a scaly layer that leaked his isolation and radiated it like heat. The sky was too open and clear. He felt unwatched. Uncared for.
He spent days between each planting, sleeping fitfully day and night. The longer he slept the more his mind wakened. His black tidal dreams dredged forth wild chimerical combinations outside of God’s command. The endless possibilities of plant, animal, and landscape were rough and terrifying. Limbs entwined with rivers, feathers and talons sprouted blood-red magma, eyes exhaled brittle glacial ice. This was new terrain, a crowded geography unmapped by instruction.
But with each dream the images smoothed, wrapped around him until he dreamt at last of simple transformation in the deep darkness of space unattenuated by atmosphere. A line curled up into a circle; blue sliding to violet sliding to black. He yearned for this space, so let himself sleep. After so much silence, so much stony absence, it was good to be cloistered. To be held by something.
Adam woke unable to empty himself of his dreams. Anticipation snuggled against the empty dip, nudged forward an impulse. He had no way to gauge if this thing was the right thing to follow. While there had been relief in blind guessing, in trusting he’d eventually bury the correct bone, he had grown desperate for direction. The more he shaped this impulse from his dreams the more it pressed on the bare dip, edging against the lip as if it might spill into it and fill that emptiness.
So he did it: he burrowed deep, left only his head free, let the dense wet earth mold around his body. It wasn’t hard. He had been lying on his back so long it was rotting into the ground anyway. His muscles softened and when he inhaled, the moisture pulled at his spine, drawing it out of his body. When he exhaled, a sharp pain slammed into his head and a subterranean echo vibrated through him.
Adam had failed.
He should not have trusted himself. The dream impulse clarified in that booming echo and he knew immediately what he had made. A snake instead of woman, a snake he could feel wriggling away; leaving him, like everything else in the Garden. This couldn’t go on much longer. Either woman would form or he—he wasn’t sure what would happen. He hadn’t bothered wondering if he could die. How did you recognize the purpose of a tool you never needed?
Out of ideas and running out of bones, Adam panted into the cool primordial morning. Should he stop? He did not want to try more bones; he did not want to follow another dream. He wanted the soaring clear dark space of sleep. Mud soaked into his skin as his blood soaked into the soil and his body glowed with agony.
“Please,” he begged.
It was pointless. This was not how one prayed. This was not how one asked for help.
There was no answer. He didn’t truly expect one. In the silence, he noticed a quiet sifting. The earth crumbled, shifted minutely beneath him. The snake squirmed below. It hadn’t left. Gently, like a worm, it carved out hollows with its body until surfacing itself and Adam entirely. The snake moved with the pressure of its scaled belly against Adam’s loose, depleted structure. It flicked a tongue twice against his side, twice above his collapsed stomach, searching. It poked its head into a spongy hole at the base of Adam’s sternum between the left and right halves of his ruined ribcage. Adam gasped with laughter when the snake nosed against his diaphragm, then hissed with pain as the snake wound back, its head emerging from his body with a suctioned pop. A thin film of Adam’s blood coated its head. Adam and the snake looked at each other with wide eyes. Adam felt he should apologize.
“You are not the one God wanted,” Adam said. It sounded more like an accusation.
“Speech is delicious,” answered the snake. It bobbed its head at Adam’s abdomen in a gesture of reference. “Thanks.”
Adam closed his eyes. His throat tightened and his face grew hot and he wanted to shout but he couldn’t. This new feeling wrung his throat raw and closed. He was not angry, and he was not sad. His failure, marked by God, bore the very creature who stayed with him. Who spoke to him. Who he could feel, watching him, waiting. Guilt. Gratitude. Despair. It was a complexity that overwhelmed. The new word on his tongue, like a pebble, like a loose tooth: betrayal. Betrayed by the too-open sky above, betrayed by his own body, betrayed by—it was all too much and then it was gone. The word lingered but the feeling was smothered. Disoriented from the sudden lack of all that had been clawing inside him, Adam wondered sluggishly if this was the help he had prayed for, or if the numb relief was somehow his own doing. Tears burred his eyelashes. His mind was bruised and sore, an overripe fruit.
“Let me,” offered the snake, side-winding its way to Adam’s left ear. The tiniest bones of his right—stirrup, hammer, and anvil—had been used to make a blacktip reef shark, which had thrashed miserably until it died a few minutes later. Its corpse rotted next to the cactus.
The snake flicked its tongue against Adam’s pinna and, in a glorious burst, the message made sense. Oh. The first two ribs he’d tried were mistakes. They had grown nothing though Adam had ample evidence the soil was fertile. He had moved on to other bones, confused but impatient. If he had only done one more rib… But it was hard to feel foolish when there was such relief in knowing.
Adam didn’t have the strength anymore to grow woman by himself. He understood the complete command now, and the three perfectly round sunspots that insisted Adam do this alone. Adam wavered. Had not the snake come from him? Was it not, then, part of him?
The snake watched him with its beady black eyes, pupils gilded in a thin iris of golden brown, its head weaving delicately to balance in the air. Adam recognized the animal willingness to please. He knew it in himself, knew it from that first bone he severed from his body. He thought of the withered cactus, the rotting shark, how much he missed the iguana scampering after the acorn. Betrayal had slipped through his mind like a fish, but he remembered that first word, isolation. He took a shallow breath.
“If you could?” asked Adam.
The snake wrapped around the third rib to crack it free. It helped roll Adam onto his side so the rib fell onto the ground. Together they planted it.
Adam worried they should have buried the rib deeper. When he closed his eyes to envision the exact instructions on the leaf, blackened circles and fuzzy orange, the snake gently circled his broken wrist and said, “I am sorry. I like you.”
“Sorry for what?” asked Adam, opening his eyes.
The snake swayed, then laid its head against the crook of his elbow. A flock of starlings whirled above, far away, as the sun set.
Adam and the snake watched the patch of ground. A light breeze kicked up and when the air thickened, congealing instead of flowing, the snake slid away.
“Wait,” Adam said, too late. The snake was gone.
He was alone, but soon there would be woman. He tried to sit up; he had to witness, but he was too fractured. He was alone, but now there had to be woman. It would all be fine. Woman could help him clean the Garden and woman could braid young yellow willow branches for new bones and woman could find the snake and perhaps it would be the one thing he preserved amongst everything he had to get rid of, just for himself, if there was a space in the Garden that God did not dust with so many eyes, if there was a place, maybe, Adam could visit it, and then. And then.
Rebecca Nakaba is a queer Japanese American writer and artist living in Chicago. Their work has appeared in Joyland Magazine, TriQuarterly, and The Center for Humans and Nature, and has been long-listed for the North American Review Kurt Vonnegut Prize. They have received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, the Japan America Society of Chicago, and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. They hold an MFA in Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. They can be found on Twitter @rebeccanakaba.