I was never an innocent.
How could I be, created, as I was, from another’s pure, unadulterated loneliness? I was a piece of another, making up a whole. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, I was given neither the credit of perfecting the almost-finished world, nor independent place and personhood.
This knowledge came after. Before, things were uncomplicated. We had everything. But we were given the niggling curiosity of our kind and felt in our juice-sloshing guts that there was more to be had, to be experienced, than what was in front of our tender new eyes. Perfection without a counterbalance is empty, pointless, without rhyme or reason. This was my world: a garden barren of meaning.
Before the fall, we had suffered stagnation without the realization that perfection was the deepest form of boredom. In the tales, it is that creature who brings about my downfall. Agency removed even in the oldest of stories, perpetuating my untruth, as gossip is wont to do. The truth? It was my curiosity, that half-feral, half-conscious quality, sparked by a voice in our heads.
It was when that voice told us not to eat from the two most beautiful trees, the ones that were hardest to reach—that was the real moment of temptation. Before, those trees had been like all the others. But after we were told to stay away, they became special, beckoning, tempting. The power of negation was born not by my innocence, but by the naiveté of the one who created us.
I had never before, and have never since, wanted something as badly as I wanted to climb up into the limbs of those trees, feel the bark scratching my bare legs and the luscious, heavy fruit in my hands as I picked them off the branches.
I could resist, though, and did. The branches were high up, and my lazy existence hadn’t required me to work for anything before. I wandered past, sometimes, and looked at the hanging shapes, ripe and glistening with morning dew, and wondered what it would feel like to sink my teeth into them, feel their splashing wetness on the tender insides of my cheeks. I'd go away and pick a mango instead, or some grapes, and suck on the juice dribbling down my lips, savoring the taste on my still newborn tongue.
It may have been eons or days. Time was different before. But eventually, my lethargy ebbed away. I began climbing trees. Others. For the sport of it, for the sensation. Feeling my muscles come alive, burning with effort, relaxing and coming unknotted when I dangled on a branch like a panther. This was new, exhilarating. Pain, voluntary and for a purpose, was unthinkable. There was no word for it yet. I tried to convince my companion to make the endeavors with me, that it was enjoyable, worth it in the end, but he refused, preferring to wander along the avenues he’d worn down in the grasses with his feet. His muscles were profoundly larger than mine, without effort. Mine, I watched develop, slowly. The changing shape of myself made me beloved in my own eyes.
The trees, the ones we were forbidden to eat from, had names. Names were exotic, rare. They held a resonance. Life and Knowledge. Those names hooked around something in my mind and wound up tight, lodging themselves there for good.
I was glad I'd waited. It allowed me a more informed choice. I could feel something new brewing within me—anticipation, adventure—but I could not call the mix of emotions by their proper tags yet. I walked between the two trees, assessing them. In the end, the choice was easy. I wanted knowledge. Life, I already had. I had a mouth that chewed leaves plucked off bushes I ambled by; a tongue that tasted salty sweat, licked off the skin of the one that was with me; a nose that smelled the tang of blood when I accidentally grasped the back of a beast with spikes and eyes that saw the redness that emerged from three points in my palm, pooling out in uneven beats that more or less matched up with the roar in my ears, ears which heard the knocking of a pulse from what I later learned was my heart; I had feet that walked the stony paths and luscious grass; legs that ran along the timid sand that blew away with every gentle stroke of the wind; and hands that touched everything, everything, and that assisted my other senses by thumping or shaking things for their sound and popping them in my mouth and holding them close or far from my eyes. Even deprived of several of these, I would have life. I didn't know yet that there were other ways to remove life that had nothing to do with one’s body. But knowledge; I had little of that. I could do with more.
I couldn't tell which tree was which. Here, here is where the snake enters my narrative. He was a friend, as all animals were in those days. Not yet legless and slithering, he was nimble on his short and quick legs. He said he would taste the fruit of both trees for me and bring me fruit from the one I’d chosen. He was kind, an intelligent and trustworthy creature, and I was grateful. But I wouldn’t let him bring me knowledge. If he pointed me in the right direction, I would seek it on my own.
The climb up was all I had hoped it would be; strenuous, yet doable. Finding handholds, my feet calloused and tough, I scrambled up, laughing when I reached the second lowest branch. I sat there swinging my legs, and picked a piece of fruit that hung right beside my head, as if waiting for me. I bit into it.
It wasn't sweet, as I’d expected. It was bitter. It tasted of truth, piercing and painful. I chewed, my face screwing up with the new sensation. I swallowed my mouthful with difficulty. As it pushed itself down into my stomach, I craved more. I took another bite, prepared now. The bite on my tongue was desirable, the tang unpleasantly delicious. It was the most complicated flavor I had ever enjoyed. Comparing it to things I have discovered since, it is like the first taste of coffee to a teenager, the discovery of a good smoky whiskey to a woman waiting for death, or the strange and snuck flavor of inhaled tobacco to a pregnant mother.
I finished the entire thing quickly. I wanted to share it. I picked another, and clambered down. Back on the ground, I greeted the snake. His eyes told me he understood. I kissed him on the head and ran a finger along his back. He shuddered, and now, I knew why.
I brought the second fruit to the man from whom I was created. He was reticent, obstinate even, but when he saw the look on my face when I bit into the thing, he took it and ate it, eagerly, barely chewing, fixing his gaze on me with a hunger I’d not seen before. I knew then that he couldn't have been an innocent either, no matter what the one who made us believed. No one innocent could have appreciated my expression the way he had. I still think of what we could have shared in those early days if only we’d each known the other was questioning.
When we coupled under the stars that night, aware for the first time of our actions and eager to please, we knew it would be the last night in this imperfectly perfect world. We were equally desperate. Finished, satisfied, we clung to one another. His breathing soon slowed, and he fell asleep peacefully. He lived with his knowledge well; it hadn't aged him. As for me, I could feel my skin beginning to both shrink and expand, and I knew that there were hard times to come. I bore my burden, aware now that I had never been without it. I fell asleep towards dawn, knowing that in my heart of hearts, I chosen to bear this much and more, and that I would choose again, again, and again. I would not be ignorant. I would not choose the easy way. I knew too that choice emboldened the other with me, that he would begin to choose now too, and that our loving closeness was coming to an end. He would never again be my utter ally, and he didn’t know it yet. But I knew. And I would always know, in my heart of hearts, that this was the true moment when we were split in twain, and that the voice that no longer lived in our heads had planned it so from the beginning.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, McSweeney's, Hobart, The Toast, The Butter, Broadly, Dame, Joyland Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, One Throne Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Monkeybicycle, and more. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, a podcast aiming to provide a platform for new, emerging, and struggling fiction writers.