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It was good. Really good, she thought.
Why had he forbidden it? The thing – whatever it was – wasn't poisonous. She hadn't stiffened and died like the monkey that ate the hemlock. The thing hadn't suddenly grown teeth and bitten off her hand. He – the one who told her not to eat it – had not swooped down and killed her. All that was was a bright sunny day and the sweet taste of the thing in her mouth.
And what a taste! What a mouth! What a thing he had given her. How complex, to detect the nuances of such a simple-looking edible thing. She was suddenly filled with appreciation and love for him, he who had bestowed upon her this wonderful mouth, this wonderful face, this wonderful body. Away, temporarily, went the knowledge that when he found out he would kill her.
But then, if she knew she had disobeyed him, and she was now like him, wouldn't he already know?
She turned around to relay her thoughts – thoughts! – to the animal, but it was gone. She shrugged, thinking it must have gotten distracted and left, like animals tend to do. Then, suddenly, the knowledge overwhelmed her: I figured that out myself! I can think! How I love that I can think, and I know that I love thinking!
I love life, she thought, studying the tree.
It was beautiful. And without turning around, she knew the rest of it was beautiful as well. She froze for a moment, unsure of what to do next, suddenly aware of the choices, and how each infinitesimal variation on an action represented an entirely new path with possibly radically different consequences. She was also aware that knowing this could incapacitate her, but instead the knowledge was exhilarating. She then chose to go and get a drink of water, reveling in how arbitrary she could be.
But she had barely taken a step toward the stream when the bushes rustled and her companion emerged. He looked at her, and she was suddenly self-conscious. He could see the grin on her face, the enlightened gleam in her eyes, her straight, confident back, the thing lying half-eaten on the ground. He would be angry, furious that she had disobeyed him. He will kill us, her companion would yell.
She braced herself for the onslaught, eyes trained at her feet. But none came.
She glanced up. He was staring at her tranquilly, welcome in his eyes. And suddenly it dawned on her: He could think all those things … but he didn't. Because he hasn't yet eaten the thing.
And though she had the capacity to, she did not think about her next action. She reached down, picked up the thing, held it out to him, and said, “Try it. It's good.”
After a flash of hesitation that was soon overcome by curiosity, he walked the few paces toward her, took the thing from her, and took a bite.
And then she saw in him what she had felt only a few moments before: It was good. Her companion lit up, his eyes wide, his lips parted, a bit of pulp on his mouth. She saw the flash of a grin and waited for the joy she felt right now. They would celebrate together. They would eat all the things on the tree and then they would celebrate their enlightenment, their thoughts, their gifts, their becoming like him.
But then she saw the fear on her companion's face.
“What's wrong?” she asked.
“We shouldn't have done that,” was his stony reply. She frowned. If he hadn't wanted to eat the thing, he should have told her so and she wouldn't have asked again. “It was a bad idea. It was wrong.”
There was a pause, which she took to enjoy briefly the song of a bird, and to appreciate her ability to hear. Then he said, “He'll punish us. Kill us.”
“You know what?” she responded impatiently. “I don't think he will.”
“Because he should already know, and if he does, why hasn't he killed us already?”
It took a moment, but she recognized the comprehension on his face. She suddenly realized with grim satisfaction that her companion was a bit slow.
“Maybe,” he said uncertainly. Then he looked down. “We're naked,” he said, as if it was the worst thing in the world.
“So?” She had been mildly aware of her nakedness, but it did not bother her. Yes, she did not like the idea of millions of eyes of big and small animals seeing her, but other sensations were more important. Then she realized that she had never thought about it before, and her ability to feel was suddenly overwhelming again. She was naked; she could recognize she was naked, she knew she could recognize anything and everything, she was beautiful, she was human, she was …
“We have to hide ourselves,” he cut in. He looked so pained that she could not bring herself to contradict him. Besides, she was thinking of the animal that had told her to eat the thing, and the thought of it seeing her did not appeal to her.
They hid – though, in her mind, it was not really hiding – in the bushes. They sat silently on the soft soil as if waiting for something. After a few moments a bug scuttled across her leg; she squashed it without utilizing her ability to question why. Then she thought, I just took a life. This made her uncomfortable.
Her companion was stiff, straight-backed, as if every sensation the thing had brought him was repulsive. Every time a bird sang he jumped, and every time the breeze rustled the trees he let out a yelp, as if the branches would turn on them and kill them. She found herself feeling sorry for him, pitying his inability to appreciate what he had been given.
But there was something else mixed with the pity. He was beautiful, just as everything else in the world was beautiful, but he was a different kind of beautiful. The kind that made her want to rest her head against his stomach, run her hands through his hair, tell him she loved him over and over. She wanted to do other things, too, but she didn't understand those desires. And the awareness that her new knowledge didn't enable her to understand them made her even more uncomfortable.
Then she saw the fear in his eyes and said, “Let's cover ourselves.”
She walked over to the tree, the tree that had given her so many gifts, and plucked bunches of leaves from it. She wove them together until she had made a cover and draped it over his shoulders. He looked at her, grateful, and then lay down in the dirt, his eyes blank.
She made another cover for herself, then lay down next to him and for the next several hours watched the sun filter through the leaves. She stared at the clouds and wondered how he had thought them up. She wanted to see him, to thank him properly for willing it all into existence. Even though she was now like him, she couldn't have done it.
The sun had almost disappeared when he finally came. Her companion was asleep and she was almost, but she became instantly awake when she sensed his presence. The trees still rustled as if moved by a breeze, but it was different. The leaves stayed where they were a split-second too long, as if brushed aside by a physical force. No longer did she hear the hum of animals talking; they and the plant life seemed to jump aside to let him through.
Her companion suddenly sat up and looked at her. He was shaking. “He's coming. We're in trouble. He's coming,” he said.
They nestled in their hiding spot, though she knew it would not help. His presence came near. She waited for him to stop, to ask them what they were doing, but his shadow passed over them again and again.
She realized, He can't find us. What kind of he is he?
Finally they heard the voice, the voice that came from everywhere and nowhere. It said, “Where are you?”
Her companion's face paled. He stared at her, and she read his question quite clearly: Should I say something? And because she knew he would find them eventually, she nodded. So her companion called out, “I'm here, in the bushes. I-I knew you would come, and I was afraid because I am naked, so I hid myself.”
There was a silence that lasted both a nothing and an eternity, because nothing was linear with him. Then the voice came again, everywhere and nowhere. “Who told you that you were naked?”
The coward that she now realized he was, her companion told everything, admitting that he had disobeyed him. Then he blamed her. At that moment something broke between them, and though she often pretended otherwise, from then on her companion was only ever beautiful to her.
When it was her turn, she readily and unapologetically told him about the tree, the thing, and the animal, and she faced his wrath. It was only later that she realized he had punished the animal and its descendants as much as he punished her and hers. She had never meant to incur punishment on the animal, but its children still blamed her.
He also sent them away, leaving their beautiful world to rot, all except for the fire surrounding the giving tree. They cried, begged to have some of it back, lamenting the waste of such a place, but she still considered the wasteland he sent them to very beautiful, because he had created it.
Oh, she cried. She hated herself sometimes for eating that thing and hated the animal for telling her to. She experienced pain beyond pain a dozen times, and then again when the oldest product of that pain murdered the youngest. She wished to go back to the beautiful place; she wished her companion wouldn't look at her so coldly; she wailed and ground her teeth like anybody – especially him – would expect her to.
But though she never said it out loud, she knew that it had all been worth it.