Eve woke up with the birds each morning. The piping and burbling of thousands of little brown birds in the reeds, so numerous in kind they’d not even managed to name them all. The deep thrum of the lake birds rising in unison, swirling around Eve’s camp on the edge of the marshland in vast formations, twisting and fanning. Spiraling and clotting together like sentient smoke. Pulsing and throbbing like her heartbeat painted on the sky. And then the piercing cries of the day hunters of the airs as they woke hungry, always hungry, on their perches in the craggy marsh.

Every dawn this wonder, yet Eve never failed to marvel. So much and so many kinds of beauty for her ears and eyes. And to sing with such clarity! Though Eve spent much of her day humming and singing, it was rarely so achingly perfect as the trill of a warbler with the wind sighing counterpoint in the dried marsh grasses.

Still she did sing. And she knew that the birds seldom paused in their labors to wonder and marvel. Yet she could stop to listen every morning, even with all that she had to do. So she supposed she might be better off. She smiled at the thought.

As she did each morning, she slipped soundlessly from the woven sisal sleep shelter. She did not wake her mate. She probably could not even were she to try, but she did not try. Mornings were for solitude and birdsong and slow silent thought. She pulled her shawl around her shoulders against the chilly morning air and smoothed down her tunic. Both were cleverly woven by her hands from pounded plant fibers worn smooth and lustrous with age. She had woven the down of shore birds into the borders to caress her skin. She had knotted a waterfall of blue beads into both garments — of shell, bone, and smooth pebble — cascading over her shoulders and down from her breast. She pulled the leather thong, died root red, from her hair and eased out the night tangles with her fingers and a small toothed-edge bone comb. She watched the birds and thanked the spirits for another day as she worked through her curls. Then she tied it all back up and set to work.

She padded over to the hearth and retrieved the small pile of twigs and dried grasses gathered the day before and left under a tent of stone at the hearth’s edge. Using her fire-hardened pronged stick, she raked the ashes until the coals were naked to the morning and glowed in delight. She fed the coals and fanned them with her breath. Soon the flames were dancing. She added larger chunks from her pile of wood and dried dung and waited until the fire had truly claimed the fuel. She then thanked the fire and rose to check on the morning meal.

She kept the meal in a sun-cured and salted bladder of rabbit skin that she had suspended from a small three-legged willow frame. A rounded slice of bark served as a lid. The whole thing was sheltered in a stacked stone box with a flat stone base and roof and a tightly braided willow door. In the rainy season she kept her meal shelter near the hearth or sometimes in her own sleep shelter. But she’d discovered that it was less prone to going wrong in the windy dry season if she kept it shaded under a bush. 

This morning’s meal was ready. Sharp and tangy it filled her nostrils even before she took it from its shelter. She didn’t need to add more water, nor thankfully, more ground roots or seeds. Its surface was bubbly and slick. Scraping it from the bladder and softly crooning to it, she folded the meal a few times onto itself and patted it into a flat cake which she placed on the fire stone to cook. Then she went to fill the water gourd and gather tomorrow’s meal.

She used what the earth provided, depending on the moon and the season. Sometimes hard, flavorless roots were all she could find, but there were also seeds and the nutty pits of fruits. She set traps for rabbit, water birds and lizards. After cooking off the meat and making what use she could of the rest of the body, she would grind bone marrow into the meal. Fish bones too she would dry and grind and add to the mixture. Sometimes insects and grubs as well, but she didn’t like either the flavor or the texture. She always tried to mask it with bark when the meal contained bugs. And it never really worked.

Her snares yielded a good-sized rabbit, old and canny but hungry, she supposed, desperate enough at the end of the dry season to sample the bit of baked meal she’d left as bait. The best patch of marsh roots gave up just three hefty tubers. She worried that she might have to move camp if the rains didn’t come soon. She couldn’t take much more from this place or there would be nothing left for next season.

Along the way back to her hearth, she pulled leaves and bark from various plants and stuck them into grass pouches sewn into her shawl. Her mother had taught her this trick for carrying things that left her hands free to gather more. She would have to clean, peel, shred, sort, dry and cook most of what she gathered. Most things needed fire and pounding to be tasty. Some things would make you sick without proper preparation and cooking. Very little food came without labor. She thought back to the birds. They didn’t pause from gathering and eating, eating and gathering. But they also didn’t bother with all this other work. They just ate. She wondered what was different about people that they needed the help of fire, water, stone and stick just to get food into their bellies.

There were still some berries on the plum bushes. Dry and leathery from the sun, they nevertheless would lend their sweetness to the rabbit meat. And this one looked like he might need it. He was a tough old beast, grey around the ears and eyes. Perhaps he had tired of long life and offered his flesh to her rather than wait for hunger or disease or the cruel hunting of the hill cats to take life from him. At least he’d probably had a nice full rabbit life, siring quite possibly dozens of children and nibbling his way through a whole meadow of sedge and grass. 

Eve had once found a warren in a sandy pit that had been dug out by the wild dogs, leaving the bodies of a whole tribe of mothers and infants exposed in a tangle of bodies. It was a sad scene. But it made her think about all the mouths to feed. She immediately went to find the hand-shaped marsh sedge that would keep her body from creating new life. She wasn’t ready to bear a child then. Even though she was a woman, she still didn’t feel like a mother.

Today, though, she thought she might be. She wanted a daughter. Someone she could teach, who would help with the chores and maybe care for Eve when they both grew old enough to reverse roles. Just as Eve had done for her own mother. Eve missed her mother fiercely. Missed the companionship and the love. Missed sharing burdens and joys. And to keep the pain sharp, there were no other women in Eve’s life. She sometimes felt she was the last woman left in the whole world. Eve pressed that thought to the bottom of her heart and covered it firmly. No use dwelling on it. And if she was the last, then she needed to keep living. And for that she needed to keep her wits sharp and her body fed.

The sun was climbing high in the east when she returned to her camp. There were rustlings and chitters all around, other beasts going about their lives. But her mate still slept, adding his nasal snores to the day’s chorus.

Eve sighed.

Then she set about preparing the morning’s gatherings. The tubers she set at the edge of the fire to roast slowly. The various plant things, she laid out on her woven work mat. Most would go into the meal. Some would flavor the rabbit meat. A few she added to her medicinal stores. She was very proud of her collection. With these bits of leaf, root and twig she could heal many things. Anything but old age, anyway. And there were some things that nothing could heal; she had a few leaves that would send a quick and quiet death in those cases.

She turned her attention to the rabbit. Still alive in the tangle of netted cord she used as a snare, he showed no apprehension or stress. Good. The docile ones always tasted better. Maybe because they gave up their lives willingly and didn’t stew their flesh in the heat and juices of fear just before death.

She looked into his old eyes and thanked him. Then she took her sharpened rock blade and slit his throat with one deft stroke. Seeing that the life left him quickly, she hung the body head down to drain the blood. Her mother had taught her to collect the blood to add it to her meal. Eve didn’t like the taste, didn’t even like the smell of it cooking. But collect it she did. And later she would take it to her special glade and offer it to the earth.

She had been experimenting since her mother died. Died here. When her mind began to wander into the spirit world, she took a few leaves and gave her body to the waters. But Eve still felt her mother’s spirit lingering here in this place. She was loath to move on as most people did when food ran short. So she’d been nursing the land to keep the food growing. A little nudge here. A bit extra water there. Maybe help the seed along by clearing other plants and squishing predatory bugs. And always set aside portions for the land and beast so they might thrive. Her favorite experiment was a small meadow of grass with seeds borne high on reedy stalks, out of the mud and mire, held proud to dry in the sun.

These seeds yielded a wonderful meal when pounded and mixed with water. And the cake, when baked by a hot fire, was like eating clouds, if clouds were sweet and nutty and wonderfully filling. Which she supposed was probably not true of clouds.

She tended her grassy glade each rainy season, keeping the hot mustards and vicious vines and thorns out of the patch. It had quickly spread from a few tufts to a field thick with her special grasses. Only narrow trails for her feet were left in the waving grain.

When the dry season came, she took the seeds, a few handfuls at a time, back to her hearth to mix with the rest of her meal. This year, even with the long dry season, there were still plants that bore seed heads. She thought that maybe her mother was helping her, coaxing the grains into lusher growth. But mostly she felt it was her very own doing and she was proud of it. And grateful. It meant she could tarry here with the birds, the reeds, and the abundant waters for far longer than she’d ever remained still as a child.

At the smell of warm blood and the baked meal, her mate woke at last. This one had a talent for being present exactly when the meal was ready to eat. He came out of her shelter and blinked at the sunlight. He smiled at Eve, a bleary, blurry expression that both warmed her belly and exasperated her head. Then he stumped off into the bush to relieve himself. And she supposed to clean up from his night stewing, but she’d not seen much evidence of this.

He returned and plopped down by the hearth, picking up the meal cake and biting into its hot edge. She could tell it burned his mouth by the water that sprang to his eyes, but he resolutely chewed and swallowed before reaching for the water gourd. He put the cake back down on the cook stone. She smiled and took it off, setting it on her work mat to cool a bit while she finished with her gatherings. When all was tidy again, she and her mate at the cake together.

Afterwards she dozed a bit in the warm sun while he gathered up his hunting tools and left the camp. When he had gone, she set about grinding up the next day’s meal.

By the time her mate returned, empty-handed as usual in the dry season, she’d set the meal to ferment, skinned the rabbit and had the body stewing in a hollowed basin — a tool that had been made by the ancestors from soft rock which had been passed from mother to daughter for many lifetimes. It was just large enough to hold the old rabbit and some bits of plants and dried plum. She’d been to the lake to refill the water gourd and replenished her kindling and fuel piles. And on her way back to camp, she’d come upon a boggy patch thick with mint. She pulled up several plants, roots and all and brought them with her, rooting them in the shade next to her meal shelter. She’d then visited her grass field to offer the rabbit’s blood and brought back some seed heads and some cane. The seed she set aside in case tomorrow’s meal went runny and wouldn’t hold form. The cane she softened with her teeth and began to weave a girdle for her mate so he could have his hands free and yet carry all his tools.

He stumped to the hearth and dropped his gear, visibly frustrated by the long, hot, wasted day. But when she held up the girdle and demonstrated what it was for, merriment lit up his whole face. He took the thing from her, examined it thoroughly and smiled. Then he set it down carefully and reached for her body. They mated to the chorus of insects and frogs and night birds, the wind cooling and the sun burnishing their entwined bodies, turning all to light and fire.

As the evening deepened, they remained by the hearth watching the stars kindle and the slivered moon fall into the fading dusk. Then he stood and went into the bush again while she covered the fire with ashes so that it would glow but not burn through the night. She topped the basin of stewed rabbit with a heavy stone so night creatures would be less likely to steal it — though she had found that the smell of some of her favorite plants put off a good number of scavengers. Mint especially annoyed them, so she added a handful of the leaves to the stew before covering it. She couldn’t understand why the jackals hated it so; it smelled of fresh rain and cool airs in her nose. To each their own. And good thing, else she’d probably never get to eat the meat she labored over.

She went to the edge of her camp to pull a few leaves off the mothering herb that her own mother had rooted in this place when they arrived many rainy seasons ago. If she ever left — and she hoped she would not need to — she’d carry a branch of this plant with her. At least this plant, she mused. As she chewed thoughtfully, she realized she’d be carrying many plants and tools with her should she leave. It was both amazing and alarming. Amazing because she’d learned so much of what the earth provided. Alarming because how could she carry it all! And what if, as was likely, it refused to grow wherever she next made camp? A blessing and a curse, she supposed. Life was like that.

Eve and her mate entered the shelter. She took off her shawl and tied her hair into a long thick braid. She would need to cut it soon, especially when the hot humid rains came. It was already becoming a chore to manage. But her mate seemed to like it. They lay down and mated again. More slowly. Enjoying their healthy, well-matched bodies. Then they drifted into sleep.

Many rainy seasons later Eve still lived by the lake on the edge of the marshlands. The shoreline had drifted over the years, but the waters had never failed and remained sweet and fresh. 

She’d explored her home for as much as a day’s walk in all directions. She knew every rock, every tree and bush, every stand of grass and sedge, every beast’s nest or burrow. She’d grown her grasses until they covered a wide swath that took several dozen strides to mark off on all sides. She’d also grown a grove of fruit trees and bushes to provide sweetness right near her hearth, and she fed these marvelous plants with her own womanly blood. So productive were field and grove, she didn’t even need to eat tubers when she didn’t want to. And she never ate bugs. Didn’t even teach her daughters to look for them.

She had two girls, no living boys. She’d lost more than one baby before it was born and two had died within a season of their first cries. But she felt blessed. Her own body still thrived and her daughters grew like lovely reeds, tall and graceful. Her elder would soon be ready to find a mate though Eve wished to delay that, prolong their time together. She loved both girls fiercely and didn’t want to risk them to death — and mating and motherhood came with that risk. But more than that, she felt she still had so much to teach them. Craft and lore. Secrets and hidden things. Where to find food and where to seek beauty. 

And words! They had developed a kind of song that they could use for teaching and to express their thoughts. Eve had learned somewhat of the names of things from her own mother, but she and her daughters greatly expanded and elaborated the song until there were words not just for things and doing, but for feeling and ideas. Words that played with each other in the song to mean different things depending upon how they played. Eve and her daughters, who she named for the Dawn and the Evening Star, had so much yet to create and do and be. She didn’t want that to end.

But time will march on. Nothing ever remains static. Which is a good thing, though it often feels otherwise.

Eve hadn’t had a mate since her last baby died. She’d chewed sedge leaves for a full year after that, and when her heart had healed she’d found it had also cooled. She no longer craved a man. From time to time she would allow her former mates to stay in her camp and eat from her hearth, but they seldom stayed long. And even that little ended when they began to see her daughters. It was never a good thing to let a former mate lie with your children, even if the child was ready. And her daughters were not. So she mostly chased away men now.

And still she never encountered another woman. She thought that they must be out there beyond the edges of her homeland. Maybe she would travel again and find them, she thought. But not just yet. That was true of many changes. Not just yet.

Because she loved her life and wanted to keep on living it. She was sure that the best way to do that was to stay close to what she knew. What would keep her well and whole. Eve did not believe in adventure for its own sake. Home and health and birdsong and meal cakes were all much more interesting. Let the men wander. Maybe she would teach them the song of words so they could carry tales of their wanderings to her hearth — since they rarely came with anything else.

One day, just out of the deep blue sky, her old mate, from that time long ago when her eldest daughter had grown in her belly, walked into Eve’s camp and set down his tools at the hearthside — just like he’d never left! He was old now, scarred from his travels, shriveled and grey from his many seasons. But his eyes were still lit with kindness and merriment. They twinkled as he looked at the baking meal cake, hot from the fire and sun. Eve was so disarmed by his smile and the memory of that bygone time that she didn’t bother chasing him away. She inclined her head toward her own sitting platform — an invention of her second daughter who did not like dirt on her skin unless she put it there with intention. Strange child.

He squatted and they shared some of the meal cake, leaving more than half for her daughters who were out gathering and would return soon. Eve’s family had food to share. There were fruits on her trees and grain still stood tall in her field. And as it did not look likely that this man would try to lay with anybody, much less her daughters, she let him stay. And stay he did. One moon stretched to three, then a whole season. Gradually she became used to his presence and even a little thankful. He seemed to ward off other men. Since he’d come no other men had bothered them and she was spared the tiresome chore of chasing them away. Eve saw that he protected her children as well as herself. And all he required was a place to sleep and a share of the plentiful food. It was a good bargain.

And he took such delight in that food! Everything she did amazed him. He stood under the trees and just grinned. He stood at the edge of the grain field and shook his head in wonder. He thrust his weathered hands into the roots beds and laughed at the fat tubers that nearly leapt from the ground. He took to tool making with enthusiasm, even improving on snares and blades, though he never quite mastered weaving and braiding. It would all turn to a knotty mess and he would just giggle and set it aside. He did make wonderful things from wood and soft stone, carving faces into digging sticks, eyes and suns and wavy rivers into the pots and basins, and whole fantastical beasts that charmed Eve’s children and made her smile.

Gradually, he learned the song too. It was hard for him, Eve could see. Words did not come easy to his tongue. But haltingly he began to tell tales of his travels. Eve couldn’t quite believe in them all — fending off lions from the carcass of a water buffalo slain with a single thrust of his spear or wrestling the great river lizards just for sport. But she did note that there were very few tales of other people. She asked him about this one day, and a shadow covered his usual smile. 

“No people,” he said.

After a long and frustrating discussion for which neither of them had the words to move along smoothly, she gathered from him that for a journey of many days around her camp, many moons even, there were no people. He’d see smoke in the distance and run to it, believing it to be a hearth fire with food, but it never was. And if there happened to be a ring of stones around cold ashes it was even worse. For then there were bodies. Bodies wasted from sickness and hunger and decay. He’d run away from these camps even if there were shelters still standing and water gourds full and dripping into the dust.

Eve’s homeland was a miracle to him. To find her here, to find this abundance amidst so much dearth and death was the work of spirits for sure. Eve suspected as much and from long habit inwardly thanked her mother. But she said nothing. What words were there for such a tale!

After a long silence, he raised his head with a fierce look in his normally gentle eyes and said, “Teach me”.

She raised her brow in question.

“Teach me,” he repeated and waved his arms toward her growing orchard and her grain field and the hearth stone topped with meal cake, and then swept his hands back to his breast.

This was unprecedented! A man asking to do woman’s work?

And work it was! Hauling, digging, grinding, pounding, weeding, guarding, cooking, trapping, cleaning, fishing. Well, maybe fishing wasn’t too hard. But cleaning fish was miserable work, and there were the endless holes in nets to be mended and bone hooks broken and lost to be replaced. And then the burns, cuts, bites, rashes, thirst, aches, and on and on and on. Could a man, weak as men are, endure it all?

It was a challenge. Eve accepted.

It was a good thing too because if they were the only people for a long journey’s distance, what would happen to all her labors if she fell ill? What would happen if she were injured? The more her wisdom was shared, the better. She suddenly shivered. Would this one man be enough? And praise the spirits she had not known how tenuous her wisdom store had become or she’d have been too busy fretting to keep adding to it.

So she labored to teach him. And he labored like a woman. And whenever she felt this to be just too strange, he would laugh and rub his expanding belly. Better to do woman’s work and eat, he seemed to be saying, than to wander as a man and starve. Better by far a fire and a sure meal even if it came from monotonous work than all the adventures of the traveller. Better a home. Much better a home. He had become a domesticated man and he was happy for it.

Well, life went on. Her daughters turned into women. Her fields expanded with the extra hands and backs. She took to feeding the hill goats so they would be easy and accessible quarry close to her hearthside but found that her gardens grew lush on their droppings. And they ate the plants she did not like. What a wonder!

Her orchards were nourished with the wisdom blood of three women as well as goat apples. Her man grew adept at choosing the best plants for seed, the best soil for rooting, the best twigs for grafting. Her only worry was that there might never come a mate for her daughters. Because they were an island in the center of a wasteland. Who could cross that desert to find them and why would they know to try?

Until one day a young man came up out of the lake.

They all stood gaping as he approached. Where had he come from? That way was only water.

When he arrived and lay down his tools they saw he carried a large and strange implement. But being polite, they held their many questions until he had settled and eaten and had a long drink. And anyway, this young man did not have the song. He told his tale with his eyes and his hands and his body, but not with his mouth — except to shout to show fear or surprise or such like. But finally, having exhausted his abilities to tell tales he apparently decided to show them. He beckoned to them to follow him down to the lake shore. He carried the large tool, skinny on one end, flat on the other. It was perplexing to Eve’s family, but when they came to the reeds he pulled out an even greater oddity — a kind of sleeping platform but with a base so pointed it surely would never stand upright. And it didn’t. But when he put it in the water it floated like a hollowed log. And then. . . he climbed into it!

They were delighted!

He could direct the floating platform with the long tool, paddling like a duck through the water. He took them each in turn for a ride in his conveyance, though Eve was not comfortable and soon pointed him back to the shore. Her eldest however had no fear. The young man and Dawn spent long afternoons on the water. Fishing. Gathering lily bulbs. Or just lounging together in the sun.

For he stayed with them. And soon he became Dawn’s mate. They built another sleeping shelter and hearth, but they stayed close in Eve’s homeland. And all was good for a while. However, inevitably he wanted to wander on. Several seasons had passed. Dawn would soon bear a child. But her young mate felt the wandering urge and would be gone.

He had not taken to women’s work like Eve’s man. He even seemed to scorn their life. Eve began to frown. She did not want to see her daughter leave, especially not so close to her time, but she could not pretend that she’d be sorry to see the last of Dawn’s mate. Who ate and ate and ate but never lent a hand and seldom brought anything to the hearth. For all that he spent hours in that boat thing.

Dawn, being weepy with child, begged him to stay. And when he turned his back on her, she went to her mother to ask him to make him stay. Dawn’s mate had not taken to words, so Eve wondered how she might persuade him — even if she wanted to persuade him. Which she did not. Still, Dawn wished it and Eve attempted what she did not want to accomplish for Dawn’s sake. And perhaps because she knew that she and her man were both growing grey. Who would help Dawn and Evenstar with all the tending and the cultivating and the cooking and the doing? It had become quite an enterprise.

Which gave Eve an idea. The young man had not paid attention to where the food came from. As men were wont to do, he gathered his tools each day and left camp, returning only to eat and sleep. Some nights not returning at all, after which he always ate for three men. He did not know where the grains for the meal grew, where the tubers were to be found (except the lily bulbs Dawn gathered into the boat, and even these he’d be hard pressed to find if Dawn were absent). Most of all he did not know where grew the fruit that he gobbled with such abandon. The fruit of Eve’s orchard. Fruits that he indicated through wide eyes and spread hands had no equal in size, in flavor, in luscious juiciness anywhere in the whole world. Or what part of it he’d seen anyway.

So one evening when he came to her hearth, Eve rose and took his hand and led him into the orchard. She stopped and pointed up. And oh! his amazement to see the fruit he loved just hanging there like sun drops, like dew berries, like magic.

But he was uneasy. Surely, this fruit was the work of the spirits. Surely, it was forbidden. How had they convinced him to eat of it? He recoiled and grabbed his stomach.

Eve reached up and picked a ripe orb. She took his hand again and laid the fruit in his palm. The scent was intoxicating.

“This is my wisdom,” Eve said, meaning that it came from her cleverness, her hard learning and labor, and even from her own womanly blood. Her wise womanly blood. “Eat it and you will learn too,” she told him.

He was still uneasy. But he did as she instructed. 

And he consented to stay. To learn this mystery. To learn how to make food, rather than just eat it as it comes to you by chance. He stayed and he became a farmer, toiling in the sun with Eve, her man and her daughters. He stayed and he learned to do woman’s work. 

But he did not like it.

There were nights as he lay by his mate that were sleepless with regret. And shame. He felt he was no man to stay in Eve’s homeland and work for his food. He yearned for his former life of sailing after adventure, letting the river take him where it may, eating from many hearths, taking pleasure from many women. Laboring not at all.

Yet he did stay. And he was father to Dawn’s children. And he was uncle to Evenstar’s children. And he was as a son to Eve and her man. And he learned the song of words. No. He became a master of word song!

Long after Eve, her man and even Dawn had passed away into the spirit world, he began to tell a story.

“In the beginning, there was a garden. All the world was a garden. And no man toiled to bring forth his food. The garden provided all his needs.

“But one day Eve took my hand and led me to the tree and bade me to eat of its fruit and know the wisdom therein. And this I did.

“And from that day to this I have labored to fill my belly. There is no longer a garden; there is only a farm. I have been rooted to a homeland and must work its soil every day. To get what once I was accustomed to take freely.”

This story endured and grew like a thorn bush. And when one day Eve’s children’s children’s children were forced to move on because the rains did not come and the orchard no longer bore fruit and the grains withered without bearing seed, then. . .yes, then did they learn the true depth of woman’s labor. And the story became a story of woe to all men.

“This is how we came to labor hard to wrest food from devious Nature. Oh, that man had never tasted Eve’s wisdom! Fools to eat from that tree!”

And wise Eve and all her works were looked upon with scorn down all the long years, through thousands of generations, in lands near and far. And men have been running from that work since the Tale-Bearer’s very first bite.

It is said that Eve’s children have wandered far. Many have forgotten their homeland. Many are like the Tale-Bearer and want no bondage to homeland. But some keep the faith. And wherever these come, there are gardens. And among these people it is said that those who listen to the birds can hear the first song. Among these people it is said that a mother watches over her children with undying love, and a wise old man of the woods teaches them craft and laughter. And there the fire dances merrily, the bread rises without fail, and there is always an apple tree laden with fruit.

©Elizabeth Anker 2020

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