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THE BEGINNING by Joel Fishbane

It was Adam who came up with the idea, right after Eve was trampled by the unicorns. The unicorns were always rampaging back then. We tried to tame them the way we did the dogs, but they would not be broken, and after many months, Eve told us to let them be. She was a great believer in animal rights, our lady Eve. The first in a long line of vegetarians, although for some reason she didn’t have any aversion to eating snakes.

We found her one morning lying in the field, her body bent like the blade of a scythe. At Adam’s insistence, we put her to bed, but she never recovered. We didn’t know what to do. Her body began to wilt and no one dared touch her, not even when the maggots came and the flies settled in her eyes. It was Adam who finally threw her in the sea. He didn’t know what else to do: the smell was making him ill.

The general consensus was to divide up her property on a first-come, first-served basis. Eve had owned a great deal of land, along with several cows and an enviable collection of pottery. Several dozen of us descended on the remains and there followed such a shameful display of greed that, when the dust settled, the pottery was in shards and the cows had fled for the hills.

Adam declared that something had to be done to ensure such things would never happen again. Again. The word chilled us. It was the first indication we had that what happened to Eve could happen to anyone.

“You will all be put into pairs,” Adam declared. “And in the event that one of you goes the way of Eve, the other will inherit everything.”

“What if we both go the way of Eve at the same time?” asked someone.

“Then it goes to your spawn,” said Adam proudly.

“What if we have no spawn?” asked someone else.

“Then your property goes to the spawn closest to you in age.”

“What if they’re gone too?” asked a third person.

“Then it goes to the person they’re paired with.”

“What if they’re both gone?”

Adam paused. Clearly, he hadn’t thought of everything.

He adjourned the meeting and returned the next day with a chart that very neatly outlined the hierarchy of entitlement. He wrote the whole thing in sheep’s blood on a smooth slab of stone, which he placed in one of the caves to keep it safe from the rain. I remember studying it carefully. Since I was the eldest and poor Seth was the youngest, it would take an extinction of our entire race for him to ever inherit the few things I owned.

As for the unicorns, they were promptly exiled and no one ever saw them again.

* * *

Abel was against it from the start. He believed that Pairing, as it became known, would divide us far worse than cows and pottery. “It’s going to lead to problems,” he predicted.

“You said the same thing about chimneys,” remarked Cain.

Abel glowered. The chimney debacle was still a source of some embarrassment.

“Well I think it’s sweet,” remarked Lilian. “It has some sort of poetry.” She played with the word, articulating each syllable. We used to do that a lot, especially with new words, which there were a lot of in the those days. Some were invented, but most words mysteriously appeared in our heads, long and lovely things like voluptuous, diminutive and chrysanthemum.

“It’s not sweet,” Abel continued. “Property holders will just marry other property holders until the world is divided between those who own property and those who don’t.”

“Adam’s already thought of that,” said Cain. “That’s why there’s going to be a lottery. Everything’s going to be completely fair.”

“Lottery!” Abel huffed. “Why doesn’t he just use a lottery to decide who gets our things after we go the way of Eve? It’d be a lot easier.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t be giving things away at all,” I suggested. “I mean, maybe when we go the way of Eve, it’s not forever.”

“Don’t be a bird,” snapped Cain. “Wherever Eve is, she isn’t coming back.”

Abel would not stop worrying. He believed that each paired couple would become its own entity, driven by personal interest and not the common good. “This is not a time to be dividing ourselves into factions,” he muttered.

“Exactly,” said Cain. “So stop upsetting the water. Adam wants this, most of us don’t care either way, so why don’t you just keep quiet and go with the current.”

Both Cain and Lilian continued to disregard him, but I could not ignore Abel, no matter how gloomy his predictions. He had good reason to be concerned for the common good. There were many things to be afraid of, dangers far worse than rampaging unicorns: disease, famine, lightning, madness, those terrifying months when our breath turned to ice, and, of course, the complete and total absence of God. But I’d have believed Abel even if the world was a paradise. I had been in love with him far too long to not believe everything he said.

* * *

Up until then, the four of us had been inseparable. In the beginning we were bullies, the ripest of all the fruit and thus swollen with pride. Our brothers would break their backs to bring us an ear of corn; our sisters would return from the trees with skirts full of nuts. During the icy time, we demanded first pick of the hides to keep us warm. Oh, those were heady days. We were champions without merit.

One afternoon, we got it into our heads to torment Adam’s dogs. They were his great joy, those dogs, but they were horrible things, wild and unyielding. No one quite trusted them, not even Eve. It was Cain’s idea to tie vines around their necks and drag them through the river. An experiment, he said. Swimming was a precarious pastime, and Cain thought that if Adam’s dumb dogs could do it, there was no reason any of us should be afraid. The experiment worked a little too well. The vines snapped and the dogs were left to fight against the current. With miserable snorts, they paddled to shore, and when they emerged, they introduced the world to the smell of wet dog: foul and pungent.

Eve saw the whole thing and that was the end of us. Until then, our clan had drawn lots to see who would do the necessities—hunting, fishing, washing, digging latrines. Our lady Eve abolished this in a single night. Cain was sent to the fields to work the land. Abel was given a great flock of sheep. Lilian was made to join the hunters, while I was handed over to the youngest spawn and told to educate them as best I could. In each case we were told to thrive, on pain of exile. Exile was Adam’s answer to everything. It was an effective threat. To the west lay only the sea, beyond which was the edge of the world, but the east only sprawled on endlessly, and for all we knew it went on forever.

In an instant, our dominance came to an end. We were the snakes of society and the others revisited our torments upon us. Cain would wake to find great stones placed on his chest. The hunters abandoned Lilian as often as they could, leaving her to stumble through the trees in the dead of night. My students were encouraged to be unruly and full of mischief. Poor Abel had it the worst. Malachai started a rumor that good fortune would come to us only through animal sacrifice. Eve prohibited the whole thing, but that didn’t stop anyone, and soon Abel’s sheep were found splayed across altars, throats slit and blood drained away.

Saving those sheep became his mission, and I took to sitting with him at night as he stood watch. We were a lot alike, Abel and me. Both the older halves of a double birth, each of us unmoved or uninterested in the prestige that came with appearing first. Neither of us felt very connected to our twin. Abel could not comprehend Cain, and I couldn’t abide Lilian, who looked so much like me that I could never decide which was the girl and which her reflection. I thought Abel to be quiet and handsome. He liked nothing better than a nap in the moonlight or the long solitude that comes from guarding a herd. I enjoy a good stretch of silence myself, and my favorite nights were the ones we’d spend together, saying nothing as the sheep bleated and snored.

* * *

While the others prepared for the lottery, Abel and I began burying our things. Both of us had treasures to protect, ordinary things made glorious by the fact that we had discovered them first. My prizes included a peach pit, a wishbone, the shell of a lobster claw, and most valued of all, a single white tooth that had come from Abel’s mouth. I’ve been devoted to him a long time. If I could have traded freckles for moles, I’d have buried them along with everything else. We stuffed everything into a pair of ram’s horns, plugging the ends with brush and joining them with sheep gut. Then we dug a deep hole and hid them in the earth.

In honor of Eve, Adam declared that the women would be the ones who would choose their mates. He and Eve had produced ninety-eight children by the night she was trampled—forty-nine girls and forty-nine boys. Some suggested this was not coincidence but the hand of God, to which Abel remarked that if this was the case, then the hand was the most we had seen of God in years. No one thought it was very funny. We had all heard of God, but no one had ever seen him. Something terrible had happened between him and Adam and Eve before we were born. It was known only as the Incident, and ever since, God had been something of a world traveler. It was not something Adam and Eve liked to discuss, and the legends about Him had become wild, distorted things that made Him out to be either a terror or a saint. But almost all of us believed He was something that demanded respect.

The day before the lottery, Adam gathered forty-nine stones and marked each with his chisel. Each mark represented one of his sons. One slash meant his first born, two slashes meant his second. There must have been other symbols too, but I don’t really remember them now. The slashes were the things which concerned me. One slash for his first born. That was the one I wanted. The next day, at the lottery, most of the men weren’t even there. They didn’t think the ceremony was important enough to attend. For them, this was simply the origins of bureaucracy, something to keep doddering old Adam busy now that Eve had gone.

Adam dropped the forty-nine stones into a shallow pool and turned their faces towards the bottom. Being the eldest, I was the first to draw. I rummaged through the rocks, hoping to feel that single slash, but I couldn’t dwell. Adam was standing over me, arms folded across his chest. I swallowed, drew a stone, and did not look at it. I walked away from the others, turning the jagged thing over and over in my hands. One slash for his first born. I waited until I was alone and then turned the stone to the light.

* * *

Our entire world was a great stretch of land that sat to the west of a great stone wall. It was taller than anything we could ever build and for good reason: we hadn’t built it. After the Incident, it had grown like ivy to surround a great and beautiful garden which was said to sprawl across the very centre of the world. It was said that within the walls there was no disease. It was also said that animals could talk and that dreams were so vivid it was like you were living another life.

Adam and Eve had a whole collection of treasures from their time in the Garden, but their most curious token was a smattering of apple seeds. Eve wore some around her neck and was still wearing them when she was thrown into the sea; the rest sat in a clay bowl in Adam’s house. Like God, they invited nothing but rumor and legend. When we were children we decided the seeds possessed some sort of magic. Lilian and I believed that Adam knew the precise number and would notice if even one was missing, and we were stunned when Cain and Abel appeared and revealed they had each stolen a seed while Adam and Eve were out. They clung to them for many days and I waited for Adam to come thundering across the field, the cross figure of judgment, his white hair whipping in the breeze. But it soon became clear that Adam hadn’t noticed a thing, or if he had, that he didn’t suspect his eldest sons.

Safe at last, Cain and Abel took to swallowing the seeds together. They became delirious. In a trance, they saw the way they would leave the world: quickly and by force. “I’ll be taken by hunter,” Cain said in a fevered voice, but Abel would only mutter that in his vision he had not seen his kidnapper’s face. Lilian pronounced them both delusional, but the boys didn’t believe her. For the rest of their days, they both remained certain they would be snatched from the world.

Abel let it be known that the apple seeds were poison. He wanted to dissuade others from making his mistake. “No one should ever know how they’ll leave the world,” he told me. “It’s a terrible burden.” After Eve left, we wondered if she had always seen it coming, if she had known the unicorns would trample her even as she fought for their right to run free.

Abel had been obsessed with the Garden long before he swallowed the apple seed, but now it seemed to increase its pull. He began taking his flock to graze by the wall, not because it had the best pasture, but because it gave him opportunity to think up the best way of getting inside. He tried digging at several spots, only to find the wall seemed to go as far into the earth as it did to the sky. Then he decided on a great project: he would build a ladder tall enough to reach the top. But this was after we had nearly drowned Adam’s dogs, and he had trouble conscripting others to help. Not even Lilian or Cain would help, and the two of us had no choice but to work on it in secret. We built five rungs and then leaned it against the wall. After that, all we had to do was climb to the top and add another step. We worked on it for seven months and I was certain the ladder was longer than the longest river. From the top rung, Abel said the crest of the wall could just be barely be seen.

One morning we arrived at the wall to find Adam barring the way. Cain had learned of the project and told him everything.

“You don’t want to go in there,” said Adam.

“Is it so terrible?” asked Abel.

Adam shook his head. “It’s the most beautiful place on Earth,” he said. Then he told us what he had not told anyone else: that before the Incident, he and Eve had lived together in the Garden. After the Incident, Adam said, God had given them a choice. They could stay in the Garden, but only if they agreed never to see each other again. Adam’s reply was immediate and without thought. According to him, the immediacy of this reply was the invention of love. “If I had given the matter any thought,” he said, “she’d have walked away and never spoken to me again.”

“But just as we can never go back,” he went on, “anyone who goes inside can never come out. That’s why I asked for the wall: so none of you will ever be lost.”

The ladder was left standing. I couldn’t bear to let Abel take it down. We had built it together and it had the resonance of something that had sprung from our blood. I convinced him to let it stay where it was and it sat there for years, orphaned and alone, and the moss grew over the rungs. Abel continued to stay near the wall. It was his favorite place to be. He pitched his tent nearby and practically lived there, which is how I knew where to find him the morning I drew his single slash from the shallow pool.

* * *

I saw Lilian first—who can miss their own reflection, even when it stands two or three lengths away? She was facing Abel and holding his hands. Until then I had never seen them together. If Lilian was seen with anyone, it was Cain or one of our sisters. The closer I got, the more I saw. I had seen Lilian’s tears, of course, but until then I had never known Abel to cry: not when we abandoned the ladder, not when he saw how he’d leave the world, not even after Eve was battered beneath the unicorns’ hooves.

My first thought—my first prayer, really—was that Abel believed it was me. He had simply confused the girl with her reflection. I had only to step from the bushes to reveal myself. Then he whispered Lilian’s name and she began to sob. Between gasps, she declared to Abel that she would never pair with Cain, never, never. She would rather go the way of Eve.

Later I learned that, like most of us, Lilian had not believed the Pairings were cause for great concern. She had drawn her stone as casually as she might eat a fig and was halfway to her sling of arrows when someone appeared with the rumor that Adam meant to enforce strict monogamy between all the couples.

Until then, we had given very little thought to our sleeping arrangements. For years we had slept more or less where we liked, except when the ice came and we would gather in a great cave stoked with fire and stocked with food. Naturally, several of us had already spawned, producing strange mewling things that annoyed us all. No one quite knew who had fathered them. Until now, this hadn’t seemed to matter. But Adam’s new system meant property would pass to our offspring. Preserving the bloodlines was now of supreme importance. From now on, the rumor was only legitimate pairs could produce offspring. Offenders would be stripped of their property and exiled to the east.

It was this that shook Lilian from her complacency. Instead of continuing with the hunt, she had raced towards the western wall. I should have reached him first. But I had stopped to wash my face in the river. I don’t think it would have mattered if I hadn’t. Just by looking at them, I could tell that Abel wanted the girl, not her reflection. Lilian fell into Abel with the force of something falling down a hill. I watched her bury herself in Abel’s chest.

“These pairings are heartless things,” she said and Abel said nothing—so full of grace, too kind to ever gloat over being right. Hadn’t he predicted this? Hadn’t he tried to warn us of this very thing?

I staggered away. The stone I had drawn from the shallow pool dug into my palm. The slash carved into the face now seemed to be shaped like a claw. I had been wandering a long time when I ran into Cain. I had to grab onto him for support because my knees were weak and it felt as if everything inside me was about to collapse.

“Choose a husband?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Find a wife?”

“I’ve been in the fields. I imagine she’ll find me.”

“She has.”

I wanted to hurt Abel and I knew he’d hate to see me with Cain, but I knew I should take back the words the moment I said them, especially when Cain’s face went bright and he came close to kiss me with his hairy mouth.

* * *

Lilian could only conclude that Adam must have carved the mark of Cain twice. “This must be what happens when you get old,” she said.

“Perhaps we should tell him,” I said. “We can hold another lottery.”

“Let’s not go through all that again.” said Lilian. “I just want to find Abel and tell him the good news.”

I began to avoid Abel. I never told him or Lilian or anyone what I did. The rounded stone with the single slash went the way of Eve: right into the sea.

I was sent to live with Cain in a house with clay walls and a roof thatched with leaves. It did not take him long to realize how I felt. On our first night together, I barred him from our bed of straw. I swore my belly would never swell. I wanted to grow rancid like old fruit, and for a time I did. Cain and I built furniture and worked the land. Despite his hair and teeth, he was not the loutish goat I had always taken him for. He was Abel’s twin, after all, and thought they weren’t identical, I was able to find comfort in their few, vague similarities. But his temper was a thing to be feared, and my chastity plagued whatever peace we might have shared. Night after night, he cursed my name. Thinking he might take me by force, I slept with a jagged rock in my fist. But he attempted more original means of seduction: a combination of baths, compliments and empty threats that might have worn me down if not for my stubborn resolve to always sleep alone.

* * *

One night, many years into the Pairings, I heard that Abel had fallen ill. The rumor was that he had the fever and couldn’t eat. Ruben, who was as close to a doctor as we had, bled him several times. But even this did not help and he advised us there was nothing to do but pray.

Abel began to writhe. “Pray to who?” he gasped. “God hasn’t talked to us in years.”

That night, I lay awake for a long time. I was worried about Abel. No one had gone the way of Eve since Eve herself, and many had started to believe that her departure had been an aberration. This didn’t comfort me. Eclipses are rare, but they come back all the time.

The following night, I made sure Cain drank more than usual. He fell into such a deep sleep that I was able to wrap myself in a shawl and slip away. Abel’s house was built out of logs. They had stuffed moss into the cracks to keep in the warmth and the windows had been built high so they were near the roof. I used the edges of the logs like a ladder and climbed to the top. Through the window, I could see into the other room where my sister had fallen asleep in a chair. Her snores were as thick as Cain’s, which pleased me. They snored alike; clearly they had been meant to be together. I should never have gotten in the way. My Abel lay on a low mattress, swaddled in pelt like a newborn. He was thrashing in his own sweat and calling out indistinctly, murmuring over and over in the most unfortunate voice I had ever heard. He seemed so lost and alone that I could not resist crawling through the window. I was so thin from misery that I slipped through easily like a snake.

I dropped to the ground and knelt by Abel’s bed. There was an earthen bowl nearby with water and a cloth. I ran water over his face and kissed his fingertips. He was my husband for thirty-eight kisses. On the thirty-ninth, he whispered my sister’s name. “Lily,” he said, opening his eyes. I waited for him to see that I wasn’t her, but he only reached up and touched my cheek, as soft as if he thought I might break. “Oh, Lily,” he whispered and he kissed my hand.

I began to cry.

“Oh, Lily, don’t. I’m not going to leave. I’ve seen how I leave, remember, and this isn’t it.”

I didn’t dare speak. Abel kept kissing me: my wrist, the inside of my elbow, the soft space where the shoulder meets the arm. Drawing me closer and closer. I could smell Ruben’s strange ointments. “Abel,” I said finally, “Abel, stop.” At any moment, I thought, he’ll figure it out. But he didn’t. He never knew it was me. Not even my voice was my own. I was my sister’s echo in every way.

* * *

Two days later, the fever broke, but by then I had my own problems: someone had spotted me crawling out of Abel’s window. It was Malachai, now sour with age. He came to me one afternoon, dragging Cain behind him. Already I could see Cain’s terrible temper beginning to flare. He hated to be taken from the fields.

“Way I see it,” said Malachai. “You were either there for stealing or sexing. Which was it?”

Cain stared at me, suddenly inscrutable. I could not tell what he was thinking. It was a rough place I was in. If they thought I had been there to lie with Abel, he would be in as much trouble as me. And I couldn’t have Abel know the truth. Better it spread I was a thief; better Abel thought I had done it for a bushel of pears.

“Thieving,” I answered. “But I didn’t take a thing.”

“No matter,” said Malachai. “It’s the thought that counts.”

Theft, of course, was as bad as any crime—Adam looked upon it with particular disdain. Like everything else, it was punishable by exile. Fortunately, Malachai was the corruptible sort. His price was a sack of potatoes and two bushels of wheat, with the assurance that he could have more whenever he liked. Cain did not object. He wrenched his eyes from me and paid our brother for his silence.

After that, Cain turned the full force of his cruelty upon me. I was no longer permitted to sleep in the house. “Don’t I give you everything you need?” he bellowed. “Don’t I see to it that you never suffer?” I didn’t try to defend myself. I felt whipped and beaten. He didn’t try to lie with me anymore, and every day when the sun set, he threw me into the yard. I imagine if I had waited until the icy time, he wouldn’t have let me share the same pelt. But I didn’t wait. I couldn’t. Already, my stomach had started to swell.

* * *

Not far from the Garden’s western wall lay the field where Abel and I had buried our prized possessions. I hadn’t been there in years, but I knew exactly where to dig as if it were marked with words. Under the next full moon, I broke the earth with a rock, throwing it again and again into the ground. The soil broke easily and I was able to claw at the rest with my hands. Cain had a few tools which would have made the whole thing easier, had I thought to bring them, but I was stubborn that night and was determined to walk away with nothing but the skin on my hands. When I survived, I didn’t want it to be on account of a single thing crafted by Cain. I’d come to regret this, of course, but they say pride blinds us all, and that night I could barely see a thing.

Nails black with dirt, I dragged the first ram’s horn from the earth and shook my treasures free. There was my lobster claw, there was my wishbone, there was the stone from my first peach. Last of all, a walnut shell, inside which I had put Abel’s tooth. I dug some more. Abel’s treasures were also down here and I wanted to bring them with me. I knew what he had buried: a pink feather, a shard of Eve’s pottery, a pebble from the heart of an oyster. But I never found it. When I think back on this now, I realize that the earth moved far too easily and that even my own horn was not precisely where I had left it. And I know now that we had buried both horns together, so that in finding one, I should have instantly found the other. He probably dug them up months before, maybe to offer them to Lily. But at the time I didn’t think of this. I just kept digging, digging, digging until my fingers started to bleed.

After that I just walked. I walked for the rest of night. I didn’t know if I was going the way of Eve or the way of the unicorns, but at some point the sun rose behind me and I knew I was heading east.

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AUTHOR BIO:

Joel Fishbane is a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and actor. His fiction has been published in such varied places as the Saturday Evening Post, the Massachusetts Review, nerve.com, On Spec, and Witness. His novel The Thunder of Giants is now available from St. Martin’s Press. Visit him at www.joelfishbane.net [1]

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Beginning”

We admit it: we love stories that are different or that give us different takes on a familiar story or situation. In “The Beginning” author Joel Fishbane gives us an Adam and Eve story from an imaginative—perhaps almost believable—and very human perspective. The narrative flows smoothly, moving back and forth in time, never losing the reader, to a very appropriate ending.