It’s story time today, something I plan to have every week or two: that is, a day when I post a piece of my fiction on some skeptical, atheistic or biblical theme. A few of these, like today’s, will be excerpted from my collection The Lateral Truth: An Apostate’s Bible Stories, in which I explore how certain iconic narratives might have looked to the poor sods on the inside. A note on today’s story:
“Omphalos” is Greek for belly button. In the ancient world, it also referred to conical or beehive-shaped stone monuments, one of which, in Delphi, was thought to mark the navel of the world. Obviously, the world is an outie. More to the present point, however, it was the name of a book published in 1857 by the English naturalist Philip Gosse, who set out to harmonize divine creation in 4004 BC with the geological evidence for an old Earth. His argument was that, just as God created Adam with navel, teeth, hair, nails, and food in his gut, all signs of a personal history that never happened, so too God created the Earth with mountains, rivers, deltas, and peneplains indicating a geological past that never happened. The book fell flat, though it makes at least as much sense as the works of 21st century “scientific creationists,” and is rather better written. See also Terry Pratchett’s novel, Strata.
In the morning Adam toiled, and in the afternoon he saw God for a few minutes, by appointment. On his way home, he passed through the melon patch—one of his better experiments, he thought, brightening, and he paused with pleasure to count the swelling golden globes on the left‑hand vine, the fat globes on the right with their delicate pale‑green stripes, Eve’s favourites. He took his recent invention, the knife, from Eve’s recent invention, the pocket, and hacked off the ripest melon he could find. Eve could use some cheering up these days.
He stumbled over a vine on his way out, and a flash of colour under a spreading leaf caught his eye. When he saw what it was, he muttered under his breath. It was a brighter green, longer on the axis than the other melons, and the ribbing of its skin was more pronounced. Beside it was one with knobs all over, though it was still recognizable as a melon.
“O God,” said Adam, in the furtive voice he used when he was not expecting an answer. He hacked off the knobby one as well, to show to Eve.
She was sitting on a pile of skins in the mouth of the cave, with Cain draped half‑asleep over her shoulder and dribbling milk down her arm. Adam could see right away there was something on her mind. He put the knobby melon down beside her while he cut the other one open, hoping to distract her. She picked up the knobby melon, frowned at it, set it down again.
“Not another new variety,” she said. “Really, I don’t see how He expects you to keep on naming them at this rate.”
“I know, I know,” he said. He handed her a slice of melon, but she put it down without tasting it. She was still frowning.
“It’s hard enough to keep up with the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, the way these new varieties keep popping up, and as for the things that creep upon the earth ‑ “
“Hush now, darling,” said Adam, glancing across the valley toward the treetops of the distant Garden. “You know He’s let me off about the things that creep upon the earth. He said a few generic names would do.”
“Sure,” she said bitterly. “Beetles. Brilliant. I lost count of how many beetles I stepped on today, and each one was different from all the rest. What does He want with all these damn beetles? I sometimes wonder if He really knows what He’s doing.”
“I’ve been thinking,” Adam said cautiously, “that maybe He isn’t actually doing it. That maybe it’s sort of,” he paused, “happening by itself.”
She looked at him with such scorn that he wriggled. “Oh, what does it matter?” she said. She glared at the sunset, shifting the now‑sleeping baby from one shoulder to the other. Adam could see she was seriously worked up about something. The extravagant burgeoning of God’s creation was only a side issue.
“I had an idea for an invention today,” he said brightly. Eve liked inventions, and usually had refinements to suggest for his. It was she who thought of adding a longer handle to a knife to make a spear, she who noticed that his clay vessels became harder and waterproof when they fell into the fire. The plough had been entirely her inspiration, also footwear and buttons and painting pictures on cave walls. But this time she was not taking the bait.
“Did you see God today?” she asked.
“What did He say to you?”
Adam moved unhappily on his hams. “Not much. He never does anymore. He asked after the baby, though.”
Eve snorted. “Really? I thought He knew everything already.”
“Why? Are you afraid He’ll hear me? What difference does it make? He says He knows what we’re thinking.”
“We’re in enough trouble already, Eve.”
She made a sour face. “So? What more can He do to us?”
Adam considered. “He could think up some new weather.”
“Oh, you don’t understand at all,” she said. She closed her eyes and leaned her cheek against the baby’s fuzzy black hair. Adam hoped for a moment that her storm was over, but when she opened her eyes, they were glittering with tears, which she angrily wiped away. She picked up the slice of melon and examined it, as if trying to decide whether it was a gift from God or from Adam. Finally, she took a bite.
“I mean,” she said with her mouth full, “if He really does know everything, He could surely pass a few hints on to us. When you think of all the fuss He made about the knowledge of good and evil, and what use did we get out of that in the end? We’d be better off now if we’d stolen a good working knowledge of agriculture.”
“But we wouldn’t have needed that in the Garden,” said Adam reasonably. “We only need it now because we ate of the fruit of the Tree of ‑ “
“Shut up,” said Eve. “And I think you’re forgetting which of us invented logic.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes. The light that shone by night ‑ Adam was still trying to think of a suitable name ‑ hung orange and round on the horizon, in line with the distant and also unnamed mountains beyond the Garden. At last Adam asked quietly, “What’s bothering you, Eve?”
In answer, she laid Cain asleep on the skins between them and tenderly unwrapped the swaddlings of soft leather that were all she had been able to think of at short notice. Adam frowned at his offspring. There was definitely a difference in the child, but it took him a moment to work it out. It was the cord ‑ the stump of it, that is, that only this morning had stuck straight up from the child’s belly like a blackened twig, and now was gone. In its place was a neat round pucker of flesh like the one in the centre of his own, Adam’s, belly. He admired this for a moment, thinking it certainly was an improvement, then looked up at Eve with mild mystification.
“So? Don’t you understand?”
He thought about it. “No.”
Sighing, she rewrapped the child. “I didn’t understand it myself until the stump came off, but it’s perfectly obvious now.”
“Think about it, Adam. You see that little button of flesh on Cain’s belly? Doesn’t it remind you of something?”
“Well, I – “
“Yes, that’s right. You were made with one and I was made with one, but we didn’t know what they were for, did we? Granted, I had my suspicions when the first animals came along that He didn’t create from raw dirt, but I wasn’t sure until now.”
Adam thought again. He was afraid he knew, dimly and with unease, what she was talking about. “Sure of what?”
“Sure that He knew we’d fall,” Eve hissed, “even before He created us.” She reached across the baby to clutch Adam’s arm. “Don’t you see it? He planned the whole thing ‑ the tree, the fruit, the tempter. He set us up.”
Adam bit his lip. “How,” he ventured, “do you get all that out of a belly button?”
His wondering look seemed to infuriate her. She sprang to her feet and cast off the pelts that God Himself had put around her nakedness. Adam gazed up at her, at the still‑swollen belly, the torn and healing parts from which he had washed the blood a few days before, the milk‑heavy breasts that she was hefting in her hands.
“There’s more. He made me with these, didn’t He? And you, with that snake between your legs ‑ do you think the cherubim have anything like that? Do you think He has one, for all you’re supposed to made in His image?”
“Um,” said Adam.
“Then tell me something: why would He make us with all these useful bits and pieces, if He didn’t know we’d need them someday? Of course He knew, Adam, He planned the whole sordid mess.”
Adam said nothing. He glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the Garden, then back at Eve with faint pleading. After a few moments of breathing hard she shrugged and wiped her eyes and pulled the skins back over her own polished black skin, and sat down again on the far side of the baby.
She was calmer after her outburst. “It’s one thing,” she said, very precisely, “that He’s playing cruel games with you and me. I don’t even mind that He’s punishing us for doing exactly what He meant us to do, eating that damned fruit. What I can’t bear…” She choked and fell silent. Adam reached across to pat her hand.
“What I can’t bear,” she continued after a while, “is that Cain should be punished too ‑ and his children, and his children’s children, and all the rest of them, generation after generation, to the end of time.”
“No,” soothed Adam. “No, no, no.”
“It’s what He said, isn’t it? And I’ll tell you another thing.”
“Eve – “
“I know why the knowledge of good and evil was such a big issue.”
She was incautious enough to go ahead and say it, cautious enough at least to drop her voice. “It means we can see through Him.”
Adam looked fearfully towards the Garden, expecting thunder, lightning, or at least a shimmer of red wrath above the treetops. When nothing happened, he sighed. Perhaps God wasn’t listening, or perhaps Eve was right. Perhaps God did want someone around with the moral equipment to assess even Him. The angels, a thick‑headed lot, certainly couldn’t.
“I think,” he said tentatively, “that we should drop the subject for now. But we’ll speak of this again, I promise you.”
Eve nodded. Her anger seemed to be spent. Moving slowly because she was still sore from last week’s new experience, she got to her feet. “I’m sure we will. But it won’t change the facts. I’ll go see how the soup is doing.” She disappeared towards the rear of the cave.
Adam pondered briefly on soup, hoping it was an edible invention. Then he forgot about it, and, leaning his back against the cave wall, took the baby into his lap. He opened up the leather swaddlings, to re‑examine the soft pucker that appeared to fasten Cain’s belly together, and the little appendages that were a strangely proportioned copy of Adam’s own. Fine, so Eve was right to be suspicious – but could God really be as ill-intentioned as she thought?
He shut his eyes, remembering her agony last week, the screams and the blood, his own terror that he would lose her ‑ what was that word that God had coined? Adam could not think of it, but it was associated in his mind with the animals that stopped moving and never started again, that lay quietly on the ground undergoing a puzzling procedure of stinks and changes, unless the lions found them first. He had been afraid that something of the sort would happen to Eve, though he could hardly imagine it; and he had kept thinking, as God Himself had said in connection with flash flooding, that there had to be a first time for everything. But in the end the screaming had stopped, and he still had Eve, and he had Cain as well, and his next novel experience that night had been the feeling in his chest when his son’s perfect hand had curled around his forefinger. That unnamed feeling was strong inside him again.
He held the baby against his chest, gazing down the rocky slope to the broad bottomlands of the river, where a small flock of sheep had gathered to drink. Some of them carried his own mark – another experiment that was going rather well. Watching them, it seemed to him suddenly that this world was not so terrible. Difficult, certainly, full of shocks, pain and grinding labour, but interesting, much more interesting than the Garden had ever been. Perhaps that was the truth of it, he thought ‑ perhaps God’s planning had simply anticipated His own, and Adam’s, boredom in Paradise.
He smiled down at his sleeping son, thinking how unlikely it was that God’s wrath would be passed on to that innocent scrap of flesh. Surely Eve was wrong about that. The worst was over now, and they were learning to deal with life outside the Garden; and when death came ‑ that was it, the word he had been groping for ‑ they would learn to deal with that, too, once they knew for sure what it meant. And if God seemed a little more distant every day, had less to say to Adam and hardly even pretended to listen any more, perhaps that was all to the good. Perhaps He would forget about them and go off and play with His beetles. That, Adam realized, would be just fine with him.
There was a flat, round stone in his pocket, pressing against his rump. Adam took it out and rolled it idly on its circumference between his palm and the ground. He had put it in his pocket that morning because the shape had given him an idea. Round, rolling on edge, but perhaps, he thought, the shape would be better carved in wood since stone was both heavy and brittle, and then he would be able to put a rod through the centrepoint without much trouble. It was not clear yet what he would use it for, but he would surely think of something, or maybe Eve would. He sketched his idea in the dust, and saw that it was good.
Then the baby woke up, and Adam rocked him; and he wondered, with the world’s first upwelling of paternal pride, what marvellous new thing Cain would someday invent.