So here’s the thing, lovely people–the story you are about to read is very strange. It has an even stranger history.
And there is much more to it than what you see here.
“In the Garden I Did Not Sin” is part of the larger world of the novel I’ve been working on and off again for many years, tentatively titled The Apple Queen. I am heavily influenced by the bones of myth in my writing, and The Apple Queen is no different. However, when working with “living” myth, it is not so easy as retelling a story no one has believed for thousands of years.
The Apple Queen recounts the love story between Eve, the first woman, and Lilith…the *first* first woman. And the story of their daughters. It has gone through many incarnations…what you see below is the beginning of the saga that would be serialized in novella format.
Here’s the thing. I’m working on many more projects than I have space to list. I’m swamped. I now have two amazing agents. This project has always had the softest spot in my heart, but let’s be honest: it’s weird, it’s blasphemous to a large portion of the population, and *lots* of people are interested in retellings of myths. But retelling a Christian and Judaic myth? Maybe not so much.
But maybe I’m wrong.
If you want to see “In the Garden I Did Not Sin” become something more than this short story, tell me. You guys know that I listen. If something about this project tugs at your heartstrings, let me know. If you want this in its whole form, spread the word about it. I’m listening. You guys are amazing, and reading and sharing the Project Unicorn stories, but this one is a little different from the others. There is a great and expansive story behind what you see here.
I’m leaving it in your hands. If the world wants a lesbian retelling of the myth of Eve, I would be overjoyed. If you want this, tell me.
Either way, enjoy. ❤
A Word About Blasphemy: My intention with this story has nothing to do with blasphemy. If you are Christian and believe the word of the Bible, that’s awesome. I don’t–I believe the Bible to be myth, and as a myth reconstructionist, I have long worked with the myths of the Bible as I have with many other myths. I respect your religion, and am not making any Blanket Statements with my reinterpretations–I am merely retelling the story as I would any myth.
When Meno, the daughter of Eve, watches her mother–the first woman–die, she journeys back to that thing which Eve loved most, the Garden of Eden. But she didn’t expect to meet a stranger there…
(photo by drivefaraway)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Fridays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
“In the Garden, I Did Not Sin”
by Sarah Diemer
In the beginning, my mother was immortal.
When she puts her hands to the small of her back, when her pained, pinched expression makes her tongue sharp, I watch her in small, risked glances, trying not to stare. Trying to imagine what she must have looked like, been like, once.
Before the fall.
My mother is not beautiful. Her body sags and arches in the wrong places and she never stops frowning. Her long black hair lies tangled about her face, and her eyes are red and puffy from always crying. There is dirt beneath her fingernails, and blood on the edges of the skins wrapped around her waist, from when she drags them through the edges of the fire where the men leave the bones.
Sometimes, when I am alone with her, she cups my cheeks in both hands, pressing hard enough against me that I breathe out. She watches my eyes, her own blurred with tears, and she tells me: “it wasn’t always like this. It’s getting worse.”
And then she’ll tell me about the garden.
“There was no pain there,” she’ll whisper, words so soft I can scarcely hear them. I lean forward, not daring to breathe. “It was beautiful. So beautiful. Fruit fell off the tree into your hands. The animals spoke to you, would never harm you. It was perfect,” she says, closing her eyes, rocking herself back and forth.
She’ll stay like that until the sun sets, in the corner of the cave, face against the wall, rocking back and forth, eyes tightly shut against…everything.
She used to talk more about the garden, until father demanded she cease. My brothers and father mimic her, laughing, when she brings it up now in those rare moments she’s forgotten his order.
Mother is with child again. She is always with child, because she must always be with child. She’s sick this time, and Bidia stays with her constantly, rubbing her back, placing wet leaves on her forehead.
I’m angry. Mother has always told me I have the same spark in me that made her do it. That I must be careful, must never let the spark ignite, for there are always consequences.
I mustn’t say it aloud, but I think it, fiercely:
God was wrong.
One of Mother’s punishments was that bearing children would be excruciating. And it is. It always is. But one of her “gifts” was that she would be the mother of all people. It is not a gift to watch her stomach’s contents spatter against the rocks. It is not a gift to watch her retch and moan, day in and out. It is not a gift when she turns white as a doe’s belly, when she shakes and trembles when it’s hot.
Bidia says she might become like the still ones, if it gets much worse.
The still ones never rise again.
Another of the punishments.
It isn’t fair. It’s pitiful, that thought, but as constant as the thrum of life moving through me. My mother’s punishment isn’t fair.
The moon is full and white and cold, far away, when Bidia wakes me in the firelight. I am sick, immediately, watching her face in the shadows. She is weeping.
“I think Mother will not make it until morning.”
I gulp down air, rise, stumble through the caves until I am at her side. Mother grips my hand tightly in her own white knuckled one. She is so thin, so frail, her lips almost blue.
“Meno,” she says so softly, I must lean down until her mouth is almost against my ear. “Meno,” she repeats my name, drawing it out, and my breath catches. A single tear falls from me, dashing against the skin of her wrist. “Meno, you must believe me,” she whispers: “In the garden, I did not sin.”
“I believe you,” I gulp, closing my eyes tightly. “Mother, I’ve always believed you.”
There is such a terrible pain within me, erupting, pricking. I stand suddenly, staring down at the husk of my mother, this poor, pitiful creature who plucked a fruit. This, all of this, for something so simple as reaching up and taking an apple from a branch. I am so angry, I cannot speak, can only stare down at her writhing, panting, my fists clenched at my sides.
She closes her eyes, and she does not open them again.
I am one of so many, they do not notice when I leave the caves in the early morning. I take nothing to protect myself with, because to touch one of the men’s weapons would be a sin—according to our father. I run out into the woods, and I do not look back.
I am not afraid.
I am raging.
My mother was the first woman. She was beautiful, once. She was strong, once. She chose, once. She did not sin. I run until I collapse beneath a tree, head in my hands, sobbing. She’s gone. My mother is gone forever.
I take great, heaving breaths, lean back against the trunk, feel everything in me breaking. It’s so big, this feeling of despair, it’s going to swallow me whole. I can’t go back there. I can’t, not into that putrid, stinking mess of a cave. It makes me feel so small, so meaningless, one of so many girls who will grow up to be one of so many women, rutting with one of the boys who will become one of the men, because we were told to do so. I press my fingers against my face, run them through my hair, stare at the dirt beneath me.
I can’t go back.
I won’t be like my mother.
In the garden, I did not sin. I stay very still, listening to the forest around me, the harsh squeal of a boar as it quarrels with its siblings, the cry of birds overhead, the countless insects that buzz and whir.
In the garden…
“Why can’t we go back there?” I’d asked my mother, once. Only once. She pressed her finger against my lips, shaking.
“There is an angel,” she whispered, her eyes bright with fear. “He guards it. He would destroy us. We can not go back.”
I don’t know what an angel is, but the way my mother said the word brooked no argument.
But anything is better than the caves.
I stand shakily, pressing my hand against the bark of the tree to steady myself. I close my eyes and I listen. There is a riot of song, of chaos, around me. There are no predators nearby.
It is forbidden (as so many things are forbidden) to go near the edge of the great blue waters. There was never any reason given. I have always thought that the garden must be there, green and beautiful on the cusp of blue. I breathe in and I breathe out, and I gaze up at the sun, slowing the beat of my heart. I make my decision in that heartbeat, then.
I turn, and begin walking west, through the trees.
Toward the waters.
“God used to walk among men,” she tells me, voice softer than a whisper. “But he doesn’t walk among us anymore because of…” she blinks, breathes out. “Because of my sin.”
I stare at her, gritting my teeth, when she says it. “You took an apple…” I begin, as I’ve begun a hundred, a thousand, times before.
Sometimes, my mother will look up at me with fear in her eyes. Sometimes, she will say, “I should not have,” or, “I broke a promise,” or, “God said not to do it, and yet I did.”
Today, she does not repeat these excuses. She murmurs only, “I hate that word…sin…” She scrubs her hands against the rocks for a while, then, so hard that her palms bleed as red as apples.
The sun is overhead when I reach the garden.
And it is the garden. There is a great wall, as rock makes a wall, but built of bush and tree, branches interwoven so tightly, I cannot fit a finger between them. Mother told me that the garden was surrounded by a wall. I walk along it for a long while, heart beating so strongly inside of me, it makes my breath come short.
I do not think that I am afraid of the angel. I’ve seen nothing that makes me think another person is here. Only animals. I stop every few steps to listen, listen closely, but the predators have left me blessedly alone. It is strange, but I do not question it.
Staring up at the wall, I wonder what Mother could have seen in it. I can not see over the wall, can not see through the wall, but it is as green and lush as every other part of the forest, does not look different, better.
I walk along the wall until the sun begins to set, until my feet cry out in protest, my stomach joining in that wail with a desperation of its own.
I find the opening, then.
Where the wall was, it is no longer, an opening wider than the mouth of the cave. The wall continues along, after the opening, but this is the way into the garden.
I can see into the garden.
I breathe out.
It is not beautiful. It is nothing like my mother told me, not glorious or perfect or lovely. It is only the forest, overgrown and wild and dangerous, and nothing else besides.
Is this the garden? It must be, the wall is here…but there is no angel, whatever an angel may be.
It is ordinary.
Something in me cracks. I kneel down, then, and I weep. Hot, salt tears course down my cheeks, pattering upon the earth. What did I want? I don’t know. I wanted a glimpse of what my mother loved, when she loved something. Once, she loved the garden, and it is no longer what she loved.
My mother is gone, and her garden with her.
A sound, in the forest beyond the opening, within the walls. Within the garden. I raise my head, leaning back on my heels, because after all of this, if I am hunted…I don’t want to become still this way. I hold my breath, stop my tears, run a quick hand over my cheeks, gulping.
A snap of branch, a movement of leaves, and she walks out of the shadows, pausing.
In the dying light, I wonder if my eyes play tricks on me. There was Father and there was Mother, and there are now their many children and grandchildren. There are no other humans, only our family. But this girl is not of our family. Her skin is brown, like ours, but it seems to glow with starlight. Her hair is black like ours, but shiny, not tangled. She wears something white and soft, not an animal skin. I’ve never seen anything like it. And she’s holding an elaborate spear, what is forbidden for a woman to touch.
She stands with her feet apart, watching me, and when my gaze stops lingering on her form, I gaze up at her face and fall back onto my bottom.
Her eyes are red.
She takes a step toward me, and another, and I crawl backward, falling down onto my back, now.
“Who are you?” she asks, her voice a deep hiss. I shudder, closing my eyes, waiting for a blow.
It does not come.
My eyes open, and she’s standing over me. She doesn’t look angry. She looks…excited, mouth opening and closing as she drops down to her knees beside me, setting the spear down upon the earth.
“Who are you?” she repeats, leaning forward. She is close enough to touch, and I…do. I reach up, and I brush my finger along her arm. She cocks her head, stares down at my hand inquisitively before she picks it up in her own, threading her fingers through mine.
“I am Meno, daughter of Eve,” I whisper, then.
She stops breathing, glances into my eyes with her own, flashing red ones.
“Eve,” she whispers, mouth open. “It cannot be…”
“Who are you?” I ask, finally forming the words burning in me.
“Lysys,” she says, breathing the word between us. “Daughter of Lilith.”
I stare at her for a heartbeat more, and I shake my head slowly. “I know no Lilith. There is only my father, Adam, and my mother, Eve, and all their get.”
“No,” says Lysys, leaning toward me, close enough to touch, close enough to smell the sweetness of her. “I am the daughter of Lilith. She knew your mother. She knew Eve.” She works her jaw for a moment before she stares at the ground. “Why are you here? Why did you come to the garden of Eden?”
The garden of Eden. My mother never called it that, but when Lysys speaks the word, a thrill runs through me. I shudder.
“I came…” I breathe out, close my mouth. “I came,” I try again, “because my mother is still, now. And I…” I run out of words. I don’t know why I came. I wanted to leave the cave. I wanted to leave all the pain behind me. But there is only family, and there is only the cave, and that is my only future.
But Lysys watches me curiously. She does not look afraid of anything. I doubt she has bent her head to anyone in her life. She has a proud tilt to her chin, and she smiles easily.
We don’t smile, in the cave.
“It’s just…strange that you would come. Now…” She rises in one easy motion, offers her hand down to me. I stare at it before I take it, but her grip is tight, fierce, and she helps me up to my feet before I can even think that I’m rising. We stand close, my heart thundering. She steps back once, turning away from me. “You must come see,” she says over her shoulder, hefting up her spear. Her arm’s muscle flexes, and I know it must be heavy, but she lifts it easily. “Come, Meno,” she says, and I’m following her into the garden.
Only my mother spoke my name. But in this stranger’s mouth it sounds as warm.
“How are there other people? I don’t understand…” I’m saying, as I follow her. She tosses a smile back over her shoulder, shakes her head.
“I’m not human,” she answers easily, holding aside a branch in the overgrown path. I duck around it before I stop, staring at her.
“Not human? You look like no animal I know…” I mutter perplexed.
Lysys bites her lip, shrugs a little. “Your mother, Eve…she never mentioned Lilith?”
I shake my head.
“Did she mention the snake?”
I shake my head.
“Well,” says Lysys slowly, carefully. “My mother certainly talked a lot about yours.” There is pain in those words. I don’t know why, but they make my heart ache. “This way,” she says, clearing her throat, and we walk further into the forest.
I hear it, then, a sort of rushing, a sighing, a great breathing. “What is it?” I whisper, heart pounding against me, but Lysys reaches back and gently plucks at my elbow with her warm fingers.
“It’s only the sea. It’s all right,” she says, voice still a hiss, but kind.
Through the trees comes the blue.
My mother told me about the sea, about the endless waters that go farther than your eye can follow. I’d tried to imagine it, there in the muddy grip of the cave, but it seemed like something from a dream.
There is a bluff of earth, overlooking the water, which we stand on now. The water is dangerous-looking, angry, sucking at the dirty beneath our feet. The garden simply…ends. The trees beyond, in the water, are teetering dangerously toward the sea. As I watch, I see the blue drawing closer, closer, climbing up the wall of the bluff beneath us.
“The sea is taking the garden back,” says Lysys quietly. “It won’t survive the night.”
I stare, speechless, at the swirling, dirty waters.
“Why?” is all I can manage.
“I don’t know,” says Lysys quietly. “Because God wants it to be, I suppose.” The way she says it is sharp, biting. “But I’m glad,” she whispers, then, “that I got to see it before it went. My mother spoke of it often. I needed to see it.”
“It isn’t beautiful,” I tell her, in a rush. “I thought it would be beautiful.” A single tear runs down from my eye, splashing down and down, eaten up by the spiraling sea.
Lysys glances at me sidelong, hefts the spear up and over her shoulder, staring out at the horizon. “No,” she agrees. “It isn’t beautiful. But I think it was, once. I think it could have been again.”
I stare at her. “Nothing becomes beautiful.” I whisper. “Everything becomes ugly, eventually. From beauty to ugliness. That is part of the curse…” I trail off, stare down at the sea.
She takes my hand. It surprises me, my breath quickening, my heart thundering, as she takes my hand, and she squeezes it tightly.
“It’s a lie, Meno,” she says. “I promise you.”
The water curls long blue fingers into the garden, tearing it apart. We watch wordlessly, as the garden of Eden is eaten by the never-ending sea.
“Endings are beginnings,” is what Lysys tells me, promises me.
I don’t know why, but I believe her.
If you enjoyed “In the Garden, I Did Not Sin,” you can now enjoy the entire month of “The Monstrous Sea” Project Unicorn stories on your eReader, and support the project at the same time!
Sarah Diemer is an award-winning author of lesbian young adult (YA), speculative fiction. Her debut novel, The Dark Wife, the YA, lesbian retelling of the Persephone myth won the 2012 Golden Crown Literary Award for Speculative Fiction, and was nominated for a Parsec Award (first two chapters of the audiobook). She writes her lesbian adult fiction under the pen name Elora Bishop, including the Sappho’s Fables: Lesbian Fairy Tales series, which she co-writes with her wife, author Jennifer Diemer.
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