The Serpent and I
The first day of existence was the longest. Consciousness and its counterpart, curiosity, trickled into my body, and as soon as I had enough of each to figure out the basics of how my body worked I rose to my feet. Then I sat back down. I stood up again and jumped as high as I could, feeling my muscles and skin stretch. I ran my hands over my face and chest and compared the feel of my skin to the feel of the grass and rocks. I admired the other animals and compared them to myself. Many of them walked on four legs. I put my hands on the floor and maneuvered through the foliage. I couldn’t move as deftly as the horses or as nimbly as the cats and wondered what I was lacking. I flopped disheartened onto my backside and looked up into the trees. The branches bustled with colonies of birds and it wasn’t long before I was perched on one of the lower branches, preparing to take flight. I flapped my arms a few times to ensure that I knew how to do it, then, fully confident in my ability, I leapt off of the branch. I met the thick tree roots that networked the ground with a thud that seemed to break me into pieces. The pain took control of my senses and I had no choice but to lie in it, exploring the flood of blood that filled my mouth and listening to the ringing that pulsed in my head. I thought it would last forever.
I don’t know how long I lay over the roots, soft groans escaping my lips, but at some point the pain subsided and relinquished control of my body back to that which had controlled it before. I pulled myself to my feet and walked slowly through the knee-high grass and thick bushes of flowers, rubbing my legs and back which would later be covered in purple bruises.
I had become used to the changing textures below my feet. I learned that while the grass was mostly soft and moist, at times there were sharp rocks and thorns hidden within it. The ground was full of colour and though it was very green, yellow, purple and red. With all the plants that grew and the animals that lived in it there was always something different to look at. I had come to trust the ground to be, for the most part, very solid and expected it to support my footsteps. But I came to a point where I could slip my foot, and whole body, into it. I soon realised that this new thing was not land at all. It was far wetter and home to a different kind of creature. I bobbed playfully in my new discovery and enjoyed the coolness of it. I opened my mouth and allowed it to fill my throat.
I saw the way the creatures that lived in the water glided through it, beneath the surface. I plunged myself underneath and moved my arms and legs in such a way that I too glided through the water. I enjoyed it immensely and was certain that it was the way I was meant to live. It wasn’t until I went to instinctively fill my nose with air that I realised that I was not made the same as the creatures that lived here. I pulled myself onto the riverbank and coughed the water from my lungs.
I sat at the edge of the river taking in my surroundings, basking in the sensation of everything. Life lived all around me and I was a part of it. The life that pulsed through the lion was the same that pulsed through the cotton, was the same that pulsed through me. My gaze turned back to the water. A strange creature seemed to be floating very near the surface. This creature’s colour was as dark and rich as the soil and its eyes were soft and kind. I reached toward it and it reached out to me too. Our hands met with a shiver of ripples that made the creature disappear. I whimpered as disappointment swept over me. When the ripples settled the creature returned. I wondered what world it lived in and how it traveled between here and there. The creature showed me its teeth, but not in a malicious way. It didn’t seem to be snarling the way I had seen some of the other animals do. This showing of teeth was something else–a good thing. Then I realised that I too was showing my teeth. I could feel a stretch in my cheeks and when I reached to touch them the creature in the water reached toward its mouth too. I quickly brought my hand down. So did the creature. I touched the cushiony bundle of hair on top of my head. The creature did the same. We reached toward each other and again, as our hands touched it disappeared. A feeling that I now know to be frustration overwhelmed me and I lost interest.
Soon I became aware of another sensation. It was an empty cramping in my stomach. I gulped at the water and found that though it filled my belly it did nothing but aggravate the discomfort it met there. I grabbed a handful of grass and put it into my mouth. It didn’t taste bad and I shoved in more. The cramping in my stomach stopped and I settled in a nook of a massive tree and closed my eyes for a moment.
My body relaxed and I felt the consciousness I had just been given slipping away. It seemed to not be disappearing, just subsiding. Creeping away from the surface of my body and settling some place further in. I was enjoying the feeling of it when something gripped my shoulders. My consciousness reconnected with my senses and I opened my eyes. For a second I thought that I was looking at the creature from the water. But this animal was covered with more hair and was bigger and broader. Besides little differences, like the round, fleshy things that grew from my chest and the long, thick thing that swung between his legs, we seemed to be made the same way. I had seen the way many of the other animals lived in groups with other creatures that looked like them and spoke their language and I was filled with happiness for finally finding someone I could live with.
I was eager to share my discoveries with him and even more eager to see the things that he had learned. His eagerness, though, lay in exploring me. With an emotion that seemed to be something other than curiosity he put his hands on each of my breasts and squeezed. He watched his own fingers knead my flesh and I watched in amazement as the thing between his legs grew long and straight and pointed directly at me. I felt my familiar feeling of curiosity change to something else, something more like the urge that drove this creature who was standing to close to me. With extreme eagerness I opened my mouth and licked his face. It was a broad lick that allowed his salty, earthy taste to touch my entire tongue. His eyes left his hands and looked up at me. He brought his fingers to my lips, squeezed and pulled them. Then he brought his mouth close to mine and stuck his tongue into it. We stood like that for a moment, with our tongues prodding each other’s mouths and I soon found other parts of myself being prodded.
I tried, at the time, to make sense of what was happening. Questions about what he was, what we were doing, and why I felt like I needed it flashed briefly into my head but were quickly replaced with a dense desire for him to continue. I was sure that it was what I wanted, but when the thing that grew from him like a tree trunk forced itself into me the pain tore through my body. My muscles contracted and with each of his movements a deep, throaty cry moved up my stomach and escaped from my mouth. I tried to fight against him but his bigger body was stronger than mine and I had no choice but to remain under him until he rolled off of me onto the grass.
This first day of existence was the longest because I didn’t know that it would end. When the darkness came, I was forced to question everything I ever knew because up until that point, all I ever knew was light. When the sun set my existence changed. My sense of reality and is-ness changed. Like a fish swimming on the bottom of the ocean, I swam in light. I didn’t know that anything else existed. I couldn’t imagine that anything else that could exist.
I studied my new world. Thinking that it was permanent I tried to adjust. It was actually quite beautiful, and in its own way, just as beautiful as the light. In this darkness I could see that the sky was full of holes. I stared at them for a long time and did not realise when my eyes closed. Soon my consciousness slipped again into that deeper place, somewhere behind my senses, and I fell asleep.
The second day of existence was filled with perhaps even more wonder and amazement than the first. My consciousness found itself in the forefront of my head again and I opened my eyes. I sat there for a while, still a bit sleepy and still very new to the world and tried to take in the magnitude of what I saw. The light had returned and made the Garden glisten. I looked at everything closely and tried to see what it was that made it look different than it had when I went to sleep. I touched my skin with my fingers trying to feel what it was that made it so warm.
The feel of this warmth excited me and filled me with a kind of electricity that I had not noticed the day before. The trees themselves danced in the daylight, the birds sang happy melodies with which to welcome it, and flowers opened themselves wide in order to feel the warmth deep inside. This light had meaning to me now only because I knew dark. I began to wonder what else existed, what else was a part of me and my world that I could not see, just as I had not seen the light until it was gone.
It’s hard to explain the state in which I existed during those first few days. I was filled with a desire for things that I could not conceptualize. It was like craving a food I’d never tasted, missing someone I’d never met. I felt empty and paralyzed, tormented by the indescribable, yet all-encompassing ache that told me that I was missing so much. I wondered what else I was blind to. What other elements in my world were invisible to me? I became hungry for them. I barely understood what I was thinking and found it impossible to discuss with Akim. I can only imagine that he felt the same way, but at the time, we were unable to talk to each other about it. We didn’t know how. Though we had created a language, we only had words for the things we could touch. I could have said something like “I think there are things which we do not know, and as a result we do not know the things we think we know.” If only I possessed the faculties to formulate such a thought, and Akim, the faculties to understand.
It was not long, though at the time the days seemed interminable, before the Serpent entered my life, or rather, before I entered his.
I had wandered away from Akim and came across a massive tree. I was surprised that I had never noticed it before. The tree was huge and beautiful, a thick dark brown trunk and branches holding deep, dark, broad leaves. Orbs of bright purple fruit dangled from it and coiled around its trunk was a massive snake. The snake was long, thick, and seemed to draw its life from the tree. It could have been my imagination, or my lack of understanding of reality, but both the tree and the serpent seemed to glow. I stood for a moment and stared, not sure if the Serpent noticed me.
“Come, eat with me.”
The snake’s voice was silvery but surprisingly soft and welcoming. I felt so at ease that it took me a while to realise that he was speaking in my language.
Although I knew that he was, I asked, “Are you talking to me?”
The Serpent laughed a warm, friendly laugh. “Yes, I’m talking to you. Come. Sit. Have some fruit.” This was indeed a very strange scene. Even then, before I had a clear sense of what was normal, I could tell that this was bizarre. I stepped closer because curiosity was still very much an important part of me. Under the tree was like a different world. It was cooler than the rest of the Garden and it smelled different. Like the air underneath it blew from a different source.
“Would you like some fruit?”
I was hungry, and the Serpent was kind and comforting. I reached among the thick branches, touched the smooth purple skin of the fruit, wrapped my fingers around it and pulled it gently from the tree. I sat on the cool grass near the Serpent and brought the fruit to my parted lips. As I bit, the juices flowed onto my tongue and filled my mouth. Before I had swallowed the first bite, he began taking to me again.
“How are you adjusting to your body?”
I chewed the piece of fruit. I swallowed. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Of course you do,” said the Serpent. “My body is long and green and is currently wrapped around this tree. Your body is brown, it has four limbs and is covered in hair. Are you enjoying it?”
The ‘body’ to which the Serpent was referring was that fleshy, noisy, warm thing that followed me wherever I went. It hung around me like a cage of some sort, or a protector perhaps. It was the thing that hurt when I fell out of the tree, the thing that had responded to Akim’s touch only to tremble in pain soon after. It was my body that felt hungry and tired. It hadn’t occurred to me that it was something to be enjoyed.
“How does the juice from the fruit feel on your tongue?” asked the Serpent.
I stopped for a moment and concentrated on the activity in my mouth. It was mostly sweet but had a bit of tartness to it, especially toward the end. It was delicious. I had not noticed before and realised that I really enjoyed it. I became ecstatic at the new discovery of taste. What else about this body had I not experienced out of a lack of concentration?
“This,” said the Serpent, quite possibly reading my mind, “is only the beginning. This body that you possess is capable of feeling all sorts of things.”
I was eager to discover what else it could do.
“Thank you for the fruit,” I said to the Serpent, licking the last of its juice from my fingers.
“You are very welcome, my dear.”
I stepped out from under the shade of the tree and felt the sun warm my skin. There was a stream nearby and I stopped at it to take a drink of water. The cold water touched my lips and sent a shiver through their newfound sensitivity. The coldness of the water filled my mouth and slid down my throat. I continued drinking long after my thirst was quenched just because I enjoyed the feel of it. When my stomach could hold no more I held my breath and plunged my head beneath the surface. The cool water washed over my face, filled my ears, soaked into my hair and felt wonderful. I lowered my entire body into the water and felt the coolness all around. It was magnificent the way the currents moved over my flesh.
Wanting to share the experience, I walked back to where Akim and I slept. I found him there biting the skin off of a banana. He didn’t notice when I sat next to him. He bit the banana and quickly swallowed it, barely chewing. I put my hand on his and he looked at me.
“Akim,” I said, “You should taste the fruit.” He didn’t understand, so he did what I found him often doing, he ignored me. Before he could bring the fruit toward his teeth for the second bite, I pulled it from his hand. I broke off a small piece of the banana, brought it close to his mouth and let it linger there for a moment. He looked at me like I had gone insane, or he would have if we understood sanity and insanity, until the smell of it registered in his nose. He sniffed it eagerly a few times. Then I pressed it against his mouth. He seemed to enjoy the soft texture against his lips. He parted them slowly and allowed me to slip the piece of fruit in. He moved it around his mouth, letting it roll around his tongue. Then he chewed purposely and slowly. After he swallowed it a smile spread across his lips.
“How does it taste?” I asked him.
He replied, “Good.”
We got to our feet and wandered about the land. As I put different plants on my tongue I noticed that the differences ran deeper than just their appearance. They each did something different in mouth and I found that a combination of them is what pleased me most. Many of the trees had, amidst the birds, beautiful, colourful orbs hanging from their branches. I reached and picked one of the closest and brought it to my lips. I let its smoothness linger there for a moment before I sunk my teeth into it. The juices flowed over my tongue and I giggled with delight. We sampled many of them that day, leaving many more untouched.
From that day on we explored ourselves, each other, and the Earth with eager fascination. We basked in everything delightfully, especially each other, and our differences. What I did not realise then, was how much I learned about myself because of Akim. First, I developed an intuitive understanding of me and myself, as opposed to him and himself. The notions, though not the words, of female and male came next. And the times spent exploring exactly what that meant were extraordinarily exhilarating and exhausting. While Akim and I enjoyed our bodies, I spent a lot of time admiring the other bodies that lived in the Garden. We were all so different. I was nothing like the tree; the butterfly was completely separate from the hog.
One night, we sat together by the riverside, looking at the way the full moon shone on the water’s surface. The strange water creature that I had met before was also there, but she wasn’t alone. Next to her, was… I studied the figure closely. It was Akim! But Akim was also sitting next to me. I looked to my side, just to be sure. Yes, he was there. I looked back at the water. He was there too. The creature in the water wrinkled her forehead. I reached out to touch him, to make sure that he was real and as I did, the creature in the water reach toward her Akim. I quickly pulled my hand back, so did she. I reached toward my face, so did she. I picked up a branch that lay next to me and the branch appeared in the water creature’s hand too.
This creature was me. I studied myself and almost forgot that Akim was there.
A few days later I went back to the Serpent to say hello and to thank him for opening my eyes. I thought that the discovery of my body was the zenith of understanding. What else could there be to know?
“Hello, my dear,” he greeted me, “you look wonderful.”
“Thank you,” I said with a broad smile. I ran my hands over my arms and shoulders, giving myself a brief hug, “I feel wonderful.”
“Help yourself to some fruit.” He said. I did so happily, pulling the largest and most purple one off of the tree.
Before I could brag about how far I’d come and how much I’d learned about myself, the Serpent asked, “So, my dear, what have you created?” My familiar feeling of confusion returned. “Yes,” he said, “You can create.” The puzzled look on my face bade him continue. “Look at the ants.”
There were thousands of the tiny creatures bustling to and from a mound of dirt. Many of them carried relatively enormous morsels of food and deposited them at the hill before abruptly heading back out again. This pile of soil seemed to be their gathering place. The place to which they all returned.
“The ants,” explained the Serpent, “have created a home for themselves. You can do the same, and much more.”
“But I don’t think that I’d like to sleep in a mound of dirt.”
The Serpent stretched his slit of a mouth and smiled, his bright red tongue dashed in and out of his thin lips, “Then do not use dirt, my dear.” During my walk back to Akim, I saw just how much creation was going on in the Garden. Ants, birds, cats, they all lived in homes. I met Akim lying on the patch of grass that we slept on. When he saw me he smiled and so did I. I enjoyed his presence, I was beginning to understand that. He stood up and walked over to me. He put his hands in my hair and placed his lips on mine.
“Where have you been,” he asked.
“With the Serpent.”
This piqued his interest. “What did he teach you?”
“We are creators,” I said with a sense of pride that I would not have been able to name at the time. On his face was the look of confusion that I imagined the Serpent had seen on mine. “Look,” I instructed.
I gathered small pieces of branches and stones that were around. I stacked the stones in such a way that they made an enclosed space. On top I placed the branches.
“If this were bigger, we could sleep inside. We could be protected from wind and rain and the bigger animals that would like to taste our flesh.”
Akim thought about this. “Ok,” he said, “But first, I would like to taste your flesh.” I giggled as he nibbled on my neck and shoulders.
The sun rose and set many times before the pile of stones and wood became something that wouldn’t tumble and crush us. Once our days were consumed with gathering, lifting, clearing, and stacking I began to wonder what it was we used to do all day. I enjoyed the sweat and pain. Swimming in the river felt different, better after working hard all day. Falling asleep became more than just what I did because it was night. It was needed. I craved it. When we were done for the day Akim and I would curl into each other, exchange a few kisses and rubs, and then pass heavily into the sleep realm.
When we were finished we had an almost perfect square of clay and stone, topped thickly with fallen tree branches. There were small windows on the east and west facing walls that allowed the sun to wake us in the morning and kiss us goodnight. Though the house was tiny, a breeze blew through and filled it so nicely that with our eyes closed we could hardly tell that we were inside.
We made our house but did not live in it. It was where we slept, and kept small stores of food. It was where we went when it was raining or if it was too windy, but our living was done outside. Now that we had a place to keep food, our days were not consumed with gathering. We were free to create.
Everyday there was something new. We learned to squeeze the juices from fruits and trees and mix them to make paints. On the walls of our house, we painted life as we saw it. Swirls of colour represented the sunrises, full moons, families of antelope grazing and hippos bathing in a pond. The discovery of fire led to a cuisine of sorts. We roasted fruits and vegetables and sprinkled them with herbs. Potatoes and cassava, once inedible, became our favourites when we learned to cook them. We learned that the same mud clay that plastered our walls could be made into containers for water, and we no longer had to go to the river each time we were thirsty. The skins of dead leopards and cheetahs, when placed across the floor of our house, made it a more comfortable place to sleep and have sex. When the nights were cold, they could be draped over our bodies for warmth. We soon began wearing the skins all the time, not only when it was cold. They protected our most delicate parts from sharp stones and thorny bushes.
These days of discovery were exciting and empowering. We developed an almost tangible sense of power and enjoyed pushing our capabilities as far as possible. Every time we discovered how to create and use a new tool, it made us thirstier for yet another better and stronger one.
Our most extraordinary feat though, the one that moved us the most, was also the most ordinary, the most basic and fundamental of creation. When my belly started to stretch and become round we were propelled into another dimension of self-worth. For everything else that we had crafted, it was the tiny tadpole of a person growing in my womb that gave us the true understanding and appreciation of how powerful we, together, were.
It was this sense of power, laced with the same curiosity with which we ourselves had been created, that convinced us to leave the Garden. We had come to sense that there was more to this world than the groves and river we frequented. We did not know what else we would find, but we were confident in our ability to cope with whatever we encountered. The lessons taught to us by the Serpent filled us with a pride that bordered very closely on arrogance. We knew that we were able to manipulate the physical world. Everything we could see, touch, smell, taste, or hear was ours for the taking, for the controlling.
The day we were preparing to the leave the Garden I went to say goodbye to the Serpent. I found him where I always did, coiled around his tree.
“We’re leaving,” I said as I picked a fruit and lowered my widening girth onto a stone. “I wanted to thank you for talking with me, for making me wise.”
The Serpent smiled his slender smile. “My dear, you were wiser than you know long before you ever met me.”
I was surprised that the Serpent could say such a thing. I had since developed muscles for logical thinking and enjoyed exercising them. What he said made no sense. Before I met the Serpent I was blind and dumb. I was too simple to understand the difference between myself and the lesser creatures that roamed the Garden. My vision and understanding were so weak that I saw everything as one and could not understand the difference between even good and evil.
“My dear,” said the Serpent, “You have grown so much in the short time that you’ve been in this Garden. You should be, and I can see that you are, very proud of yourself. I know that I cannot convince you to stay here a while longer so that we can continue our chats…”
“No,” I interrupted, “Thank you. I appreciate all that you have taught me but it’s our time to go.”
The Serpent continued, “Please, allow me to tell you one more thing before you leave.”
“Go ahead,” I said.
The Serpent paused. He was thinking, constructing the best way to say this great, important thing that he had to tell me. Finally, and slowly, he began. “Everything that you have learned about differences and separateness is an illusion. It is that state into which you first awoke, when you felt like you were one with everything, that is the truth.”
“That’s impossible,” I said, my confusion replaced by incredulousness.
“Please, let me continue. Everything that you can see, touch, taste, smell, and hear, and even everything you can’t, especially everything you can’t…it is all, it’s all manifestations of one thing. One very simple thing.”
“And what it that thing?”
“It is what it is. You and your children will create many names for it as you go about your journeys, but the easiest name to remember is I.”
“I? But I am I.”
The Serpent smiled, “Exactly, my dear, as am I, and as is Akim.” I didn’t bother trying to understand. I simply walked over to the Serpent and kissed him gently on his head. He had shown me so much and I wanted to remember him for that.
“Thank you for everything,” I said, “I will tell everyone I meet how you’ve helped me.”
I placed the rest of the fruit which I had been eating at the base of the tree and walked away. Akim was waiting for me at the edge of the Garden, and I was anxious for our journey to begin.
•••Keisha Lynne Ellis is a writer and spoken word performer from The Bahamas. Her work has appeared in tongues of the ocean and in the anthology, A Sudden and Violent Change, Poinciana Paper Press, 2010.