I SAW it before it saw me, or at least so I thought at the time.
Daleth is the cycle in which the sun first begins to feel warm on one’s back and the birds start building their nests, and it was early one morning in Daleth that the Angel first appeared to us. Gideon had lost his favourite ewe and, he being sightless now, Sharma and I were accompanying him on the search.
Gideon, my father, The Elder, a shepherd, a shaman.
Sharma, a girl of sixteen summers, his brother’s child.
And myself, Marthe.
At first it was no more than a white speck moving a hundred cubits below, weaving a complicated path between the trees. I noticed, even from far above, that its long naked feet made no impression on the turf, as if they were out of sequence, the turf existing in one reality and it in another. As it came closer it resolved itself into exactly what you might imagine an angel to be, a flame-haired being, winged and robed. Ah, those wings! I felt such tenderness for those wings that tears started from my eyes and coursed down my cheeks. Glancing over at Sharma to see if she was similarly moved, I caught an expression I had not expected. For a moment I was sure I recognised it, but then, what could I know of such things? I told myself I was mistaken, for it had looked like lust.
Gideon stopped dead, scenting the air like a hind.
‘What is it, Marthe, what do you see?’
‘I believe it to be an Angel,’ I replied. Even to my own ears my voice sounding oddly prosaic, as if I was remarking upon an unusual moth or butterfly.
The Angel stopped and looked up, inspecting us with care. I could scarcely breathe. I felt engulfed by its attention, as by a wave of the sea. I swear that for a moment I sensed its eyes resting not only upon my face but in my blood, in my bones. Then it unfurled its wings and in a moment had risen up the sheer face of The Edge and was hovering. So close was it that I fancied I caught the hiss of air through feathers. All nature seeming to pulse to the beat of those glorious wings.
THE ANGEL returned with us to our village, home of the Seventh Tribe, where Gideon caused the horn to be blown in the age-old pattern, calling upon the people to prepare in haste a feast. One by one they began to appear in the doorways of their dwellings. When they caught sight of the Angel behind us, there was a moment of shocked silence as they tried to understand what they were seeing. Then they scattered, each to his own allotted task.
Before long every last member of the Seventh was gathered in the centre of the village. An ox was slaughtered and a bonfire built to roast it upon, and our children ran about in a storm of cinders and ash. The Old Ones set up a drumming, to call the Sixth from over the hill. Soon, by ones and twos, our cousins began to straggle in, anxious to catch a glimpse of, maybe even touch, the first Angel to visit us on Eden. Meanwhile the Angel sat by the fire, its eyes fixed on the flames, absorbing the heat as though long since starved of such.
The sun hung red and dying on the horizon as the moons began to rise. First Krista, the golden; then the twins Marta and Alph followed by indigo Shem and violet Shan. Finally, after an infinitesimal hanging-back during which you could not somehow help but to hold your breath, rose Menem the green, the smallest of them all. The first few rays of Menem’s light are of such poisonous intensity that they kill the unborn children, in any female child.
I, MARTHE, am thus accursed. Four and thirty summers ago, my mother having delayed too long in the fields that evening, Menem rose in the sky and I was born unsheltered into Eden. Ever since have paid the price for my mother’s carelessness, but the price she paid was greater. She gave birth alone in her hut, with none of the women to assist her. As soon as she was fit to walk she was given a small bundle of food and belongings and sent off in exile to the Ninth, the untouchables, those who have been cast out for their crimes, never to be invited to Feasts or communicated with in any way again. I think of her sometimes and wonder if she survived, and whether she would find another man to look after her. Maybe I have brothers and sisters.
Gideon’s father was the Elder then. Heartbroken at the loss of his young wife Gideon broke with tradition and begged to be permitted to follow her into exile. His father would not allow it.
OUR FEASTINGS last three days. The first day is to greet, the second is for the sharing of visions and the third is for saying farewell. On the second day Gideon and I set out for the Forest to pluck Fruit from the Tree. He had gone alone in the past but there was no question of that now. He needed my eyes, and my arm to steady him on the path and my body to make the descent of The Edge, which would be certain death to a blind man.
A descent of The Edge is always perilous. There are step-spirals hacked into the chalk with handholds only as nature happens to provide: an overhanging tree if you are lucky, or a tuft of grass. More than once I slipped and thought it would be the end of me, but although my shins were scraped raw and bloody I managed to save myself. Hastily I tore strips from my underskirt and bound up my wounds, covering all with my robe.
The foot of The Edge is a dark, dark place; it took all my courage to face those legions of trees stretching away, rank and file, as far as the eye could see. ‘In that place,’ Gideon had forewarned me, ‘the traveller has no choice but to sing. He must sing the Forest Song so that the Forest may know him. He trusts that, knowing him, the Forest will make him a path.’
It might not; and I was not a shaman. No woman could be.
My legs were weak from the strain of the long descent, still stinging from the vicious scrapes the path had inflicted; but worse, I found that my mind had become as white as a lamb’s back and I could no longer recall the words of the Forest Song that Gideon had taught me.
I cast around ever more desperately for any sort of path. The Edge stood at my back and no matter how I craned my neck, the top was invisible, lost in distance and clouds. And then, quite suddenly, a memory arose in me, of Gideon’s deep voice crooning lullabies as we returned from our long days on the hillside with the sheep. As I bumped along in the sling on his back in the summer twilight, my arms clasped around his neck, his words would drift back to me through a haze of sleep:
- Three things are known to me,
- Three things to compass by:
- Menem the Green will rise
- Sixth in a starry sky;
- A shepherd will find his sheep
- No matter how far he must fare,
- And the forest will make a path
- For a pure soul wandering there.
So I sang this, and without any awareness of having moved or travelled I found the Tree before me, so tall it reached right to Heaven, the trunk seeming to broaden even as I watched until all the Forest appeared to have melded into this one, single tree, whose leaves multiplied and multiplied again, a deeper and glossier green. As my song came to an end I stood trembling, with cupped hands, as the Tree itself reached down and dropped a great green globe into them. The Fruit rested heavy in my hand, warming, becoming part of me, then all of me, or I all of it.
Time to return to Gideon, and for both of us to return to the Tribe.
AS WE approached the settlement I saw Sharma coming towards us from the direction of the Angel’s hut. Gideon heard her greeting and stared ahead, smiling vaguely in welcome, but I had cause to give thanks that he could not see what I saw. We paused while she caught up to us; she looked, I thought, flushed and foolish.
‘He has been teaching me,’ she mumbled, the memory flittering across her face like a bat in the dusk, then a tiny, fearful, lascivious smile. ‘That is, the Angel has been teaching me, of the nature of the universe, and of Oneness.’ Sharma seemed scarcely to care whether I believed her or not, so lost was she in the throbbing afterglow of whatever had just taken place between herself and our visitor.
I thought of my Oneness with the Fruit, mirroring the Tree’s Oneness with the Forest. Seeing Sharma’s disordered clothing and inability to meet my eyes, I could not help suspecting that the Oneness Sharma spoke of was of another species. Gideon was now carrying the Fruit. Instinctively, without explanation, I reached across and placed my hand upon it.
This time it was different. It was as if I was being burnt, not so much in my flesh as in my soul. Sharma remained before me, but darkened and transformed. It was as if I was now dreaming her rather than seeing her. Her face was wreathed in cloud, infinitely high, and I saw that her feet were disappearing into the earth, as if taking root there. But what I saw coiled in her belly. O Menem! O Krista! Something writhing. No, no, many things, snakelike and bony and black, growing apace, clamouring to be born!