by Alexis Carter
There was a young man who, ever since he could remember, wanted more than anything in the world to know everything. As a child, he’d ask his parents why the sky was blue and why the rivers babbled and sparkled so prettily. When he was older he asked himself what it felt like to have no restrictions, only the desire to unearth pleasures wherever he wandered. One day he told his priest and, coincidentally, his dear old friend that he thought if he were in the Garden of Eden, he’d have still taken of the fruit of all the trees, knowing what would happen.
When he was told this, after a proper moment of shocked silence and the sign of the cross being made over both his own and his young friend’s chest, the priest said, “But that is selfishness to be sure. And wickedness. May God forgive you.”
The young man, drunk with the sudden release he felt in his veins, the release that had come with his uttering the darkest secret of his heart, declared, “I wish to be the most selfish person in the world if only I could be content at the end of my life. Actually, I will eat of every tree. In my own way. I won’t deny myself anything I desire. I will be gone a long time on this journey to satisfaction. I will not see you nor my mother or father until I am satisfied.”
“May you eat of a tree of humility that you may rediscover your morals,” the priest said with bowed head and quavering voice, for he was righteously angry and frightened of both the young man’s intent and for his safety.
“I care nothing for humility nor morals, now, dear priest. I only care for my desires. Oh, I know I am wicked, but so are you, and surely one must discover these things for oneself. I shall be back and I will tell you all I have seen and learnt.”
“May God be with you though you turn your back on Him,” the priest said, embracing his friend one last time.
And so the young man set off on his journey. He wasn’t long on the road when a tall, handsome man approached him, dressed all in black. The young man had not seen him coming, but suppressed his surprise enough to reply when the man spoke to him in a silky, rustling voice.
“Say, child, where are you headed off to so resolutely?” The young man noticed that he felt drawn to the stranger. He wore an expensive-looking suit and many rings on his long, pale, slender fingers and carried a long, black, polished walking stick with a snake’s head carved on the top.
“I’m—“ he faltered. “I’m off to know myself. Is that so strange?”
A tight smile. “No, not at all, child.”
“I’m not a child,” the young man said indignantly.
“All are children to me, for my eyes are older than you can dream of becoming,” the stranger said, his black eyes flashing with something like malice, only to be replaced with charm. “Now,” he said smoothly. “I am very glad we have met. I know of just the place you look for. There are so many desires to be quelled there and even more delightful things to know about. If you would be so bold as to take my hand, I will point you in the right direction.” And he extended his hand to the young man and waited. A shiver of apprehension ran through the young man, but he ignored it, remembering his vow not to deny himself anything; for he very much wanted to know this place. And the stranger’s voice seemed so familiar, so alluring even though his breath was like a cold gust in a graveyard and the air around him carried the perfume of equal parts decay and lust, a strangely alluring scent, but still bordering on unpleasantness.
And remembering his vow, the young man took the familiar stranger’s feverishly hot hand. With a smile that revealed his glinting teeth, the stranger stood behind him, still holding his hand and pointed with the young man’s arm down the road where there was a splendid garden just yards away.
“That wasn’t there before!” the young man said.
“Of course it was.”
The young man turned to look at him, but the stranger had vanished.
The young man wondered where he had gone for but a short time, however, because the fragrance wafting to him from the garden was enough to drive him mad. He ran toward the garden and upon entry gave a cry of joy. White lilies bloomed to delight the eye and the gardenias’ scent gladdened his heart. He wandered deeper into the garden, his hands brushing the spring green of the tall grass and fingering the fruit of the heavily laden trees.
“Come,” a voice whispered suddenly from the tree whose golden fruit he had touched in wonder. A man bedecked with jewels and wearing linen said. “Come. Take a bite of the fruit here and you will be rich beyond anything you could imagine.”
“Will I?” the young man said, greatly interested.
“Yes. Just one bite. Though those who have tasted wealth have not been content with one bite,” the man said with a hearty laugh. And eagerly, the young man snatched a golden fruit from its branch and bit into it. Immediately, his mouth was awash with the loveliest flavors, as if sweet music had become available to the taste. The shimmering juice dribbled down his chin but he didn’t care. Suddenly, he became aware that his raiment had been altered and he wore a purple robe as a king would, and his pockets were filled with gold.
“This is amazing!”
“Yes, it is, isn’t it? Go and discover the other pleasures of the garden.”
And so he did go and came upon another tree with dark red fruit. When he saw it, a beautiful woman with dark eyes and scarlet lips appeared and said to him. “Come. Take a bite and you and I can live in a paradise of our own making.”
“Will we love each other?”
She laughed. “Of course not, silly. Love would get in the way of our romantic relations with others. We don’t want love, only intimate companionship.” This sounded strange to the young man, but assuming that this was what was only natural for a heart to desire, he plucked a fruit from the tree, took a bite and was immediately after kissed by the woman. And he was glad to be kissed even though it was not love.
To another tree he went and there standing around it were people in rags. “Come. Take a bite and we will be your servants to praise you and lift you high above ourselves and others. People will worship you and sing your praises all the day long. Come, it will be fun.”
And agreeing, the young man bit of the fruit, which made his heart harden satisfactorily and he was lifted on the shoulders of the people and they kissed his feet and sang, “Praises to the man who knows himself. May he forever be glad and complete in his glorious enlightenment! He is worthy of adoration!”
And the young man enjoyed himself immensely. Months passed as he traveled the garden, all the while avoiding the shadowy areas that made his skin crawl and soul shiver. Months he spent in his glorious happiness.
One day, however, the stranger he had met on the road appeared and smiled at him, still dressed in black, the same rings on his slender, pale fingers and the walking stick carved to resemble a snake’s head on the top still in hand.
“Hello, dear friend. I see you have discovered all the pleasure in the garden.”
“Yes and I am very happy. Immensely happy!” the young man laughed.
“Yes, but I see you have neglected the rest of the trees. Did you not say you would take from all the trees in the garden? Did you not vow it?”
“I did, but I think that I’ll ignore my vow.”
“Oh, sweet child, I’m afraid you can’t do that. That’s against the rules,” the stranger said, clenching his walking stick more tightly so his knuckles glowed white. “Come. Take my hand and we will see the rest of what experience has to offer. The dark side of the garden, so to speak.”
“May they all come with me?” he said gesturing at his troupe of wealth and people he had acquired over the months.
“No. They will stay here, waiting for you,” the stranger promised, though the corners of his mouth did not appear to be as serious as his words.
Hesitantly, the young man took the now scorching hand of the stranger and let him lead him to a dark, damp corner of the garden. He took a homely-looking fruit from a tree and gave it to him. “Eat.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t want it.”
“But you must have it.” And he took the fruit away from him and fed it to him himself.
No sooner had the brown fruit touched his lips and the sour juices crept over his tongue did the young man feel despair. He leaned against the tree, clutching his stomach for the fruit repulsed him and he felt miserable.
“I hate it,” he said. “What shall I do? I don’t know what to do!”
“We’ll have you try the rest of the garden,” the stranger said brightly.
“Let me lie under this tree and despair!” the young man cried.
But the stranger took his arm and led him to another tree.
“What is it?”
“I will eat of starvation?”
“Yes. Try it, it is an interesting paradox.”
“I don’t want it.”
“But you shall have it.” And the stranger fed the young man starvation. No sooner did the bitter juices from the gray fruit touch his tongue than the young man snatched the fruit from the stranger and devoured it, reaching for more as he ate until he was as thin as a rail and couldn’t bring himself to try any longer. “Wasn’t that delightful?”
“I am ill, I must stop.”
“No, you must continue. Here. Try hatred.”
And no sooner had the hostile juices from the black fruit flooded his mouth than the young man was filled with abominable rage. He was so full of rage that he was crippled by it. He was blind with it. Tears streamed down his face because he hated everything, including himself, so deeply.
Without another word, the stranger led him to yet another tree. The wind blowing through its branches made it sound like it was weeping.
“Welcome to sorrow. Believe me, you have not lived until you have felt sorrow. With it comes humility.” And hearing this and remembering what his dear old friend had said, in his rage, he tried to leave but the stranger’s grip was strong, and the wet blue fruit was forced in his mouth and the juices washed over him like tears. With a great cry, the young man fell to his knees and tore his clothes, covered his head and curled on the ground.
“Is this what death feels like?” he wept, his hands shaking as they pulled on his faded hair. “To be completely hopeless and regretful of everything you have done? Oh, I hate this. At least I have my love waiting for me?”
“She has gone with another,” the stranger said. “She doesn’t want to kiss you anymore.”
“But my friends, those who carried me on their shoulders?”
“They were never your friends. You were like a king. They feared you. Now you are nothing and they laugh at you. Listen.” And the young man heard them laughing and he wept all the more.
“And my money?”
“Ah, yes. You lost all of that due to your poverty, remember?”
“Will I die like this?”
“There is no way I can leave this place?”
“No. Or, at least, you will never find it.”
“Oh, I am wretched!”
“You have always been. Only now it is clearer to you.”
And in his despair and sorrow, the young man, whispered, “If only I could look upon the world again and be glad, and if the world could look at me once more and smile, because I am its son, then I will be truly happy and will never want for more than the sun and the moon and the grass to lie in and the flowers to bring me gladness for living. I will never want for more than those and people who love me and people I can love in return. I wish I could beg forgiveness of my mother and my father and my dear old friend, the priest. I miss them so! But I am a wicked person who didn’t see his own selfishness until he was wracked with despair.”
“As is the human condition,” the stranger said, clicking his tongue in mock sympathy. “Ah, well. You can die content now, knowing you’ve lived, can’t you, child?”
“I am not content. I am miserable!” the young man bellowed in his anger. “And I would repent of all I have done if only someone would care to forgive me!”
The stranger for the first time remained silent as if his mouth had been sewn shut.
And suddenly, the young man felt strangely… as though he might be able to accept his lot; a quiet reassurance as though there was naught but forgiveness in the world. Suddenly, he remembered that he hadn’t always lived in constant fear. And, still aching with pain and still with deep-felt sorrow, the young man stood up and walked out the garden the way he had come.
The stranger watched from the garden, his figure against the setting sun thin, black and motionless, as the young man left. He waited for the young man to glance back…but he never did.
The young man returned to his home where his mother and father greeted him with open arms and his dear old friend smiled and kissed both his cheeks. And though he still knew sorrow and heartbreak and utter despair, the young man was glad, for he had the sun and the moon and the grass to lie in and flowers to make his heart glad to live. What’s more, he had people he loved and who loved him.
Alexis Carter is a freshman who hopes to major in Creative Writing and English. Her human alias is from Madison, Mississippi, but, as it turns out, she isn’t quite human, but rather a space creature whose name is incomputable with this font.