GIDEON BEING Elder and shaman both, it should have been he who ate of the Fruit that night, at the Second Feasting. But this could not be; for Gideon and I shared a secret from the rest of the Seventh Tribe. As the sight of his body had declined, so too had the other Sight. It had been taken from him so quickly, five cycles at most before both sight and Sight were gone as if they had never been, and the Fruit would no longer vouchsafe him visions.
As far as either Gideon or I knew, this had never happened before; none of the Stories, our usual source of wisdom, gave tell of it. But the fact that it had happened presented us with a grave problem for the Fruit is poisonous to all but the very few. And it maddens, may even kill, those who have not inherited immunity. Gideon possessed this immunity, but he had no sons. After my mother’s banishment he kept his oath to take no other woman in her place, as would have been his right. One child only Gideon had.
Only sons had ever been permitted to eat of the Fruit, so we had no way of knowing whether I was immune, or even whether a daughter could be immune; but the visions were so important; they allowed us to see through the flesh, through the appearance of things, and so to the truth. It was in accordance with these visions that we planted our crops, decided when or whether to marry and divined the futures of the children born of those marriages.
And so, between us, we had decided upon a plan. At the appointed time we would retire into Gideon’s hut: no one would be likely to object to a blind man being assisted by his daughter in this most solemn of rituals. Once inside, hidden from the Tribe, I would lie down and take the fruit, with Gideon at my side. As the visions came to me – if they came – I would attempt to give voice to what I saw, whilst Gideon would listen carefully. When all was done, and whether or not I survived, Gideon would step out to the waiting Tribe and relate my visions to his tribespeople as if they were his own.
‘Are you sure that you want to do this, my child?’ Gideon’s voice, for the first time, was that of an old man: I heard the grief in it, I heard his fear. I raised to my mouth the bowl into which he had poured the juice of the Fruit. Pieces of the green flesh swam around in the juice. It appeared a harmless, everyday substance, like any other drink.
Gideon said, ‘I never told you, my dear, how much I have loved you.’
There was no going back, however much I might wish there could be. Until today I had merely been apprehensive of the effect of the Fruit; curious, even. I was a woman accursed of Menem. There could never be a man for my bed or children for my heart and I had nothing but loneliness and a barren life ahead of me. What could there be in death to frighten me so very much? But having seen the vision of Sharma, with her head in the cloud and her snake-children writhing, and that arising just from laying my hand on the Fruit, I found myself shaking violently in anticipation of the ordeal to come. Controlling it as best I could, and forcing a smile into my voice, swiftly I drained the bowl.
‘But I knew, Gideon. I always knew.’
THE HEAT of my own funeral pyre returned me to my senses. In my head I was trying to move, but my body refused to obey. Every part of me hurt so badly. A flame licked at my ankle, and then I caught the smell of my own flesh, roasting. I screamed, and screamed again. And then there was pandemonium. The voices, many. Hands gripping tightly. Arms reaching in to snatch at me, pulling me down from the pyre in a tearing of twigs, a tumbling of logs. Fire had caught at the robe I was wearing and someone was beating at the fabric with their hands, rolling me over in the dust. And finally, silence.
The Tribe arranged themselves in a circle around me, apparently waiting for me to speak. I opened my mouth and tried, but no sound issued forth; my throat seemed clogged with the dust of ages. Someone held a flagon of water to my lips and I drained it to the last drop.
‘Where is the Angel?’ was what I was trying to say, but still I could not make myself understood.
Finally, and all at once, it seemed, the Tribe started to talk to me, telling me what had happened. I had drunk of the Fruit and had lain as one dead, neither speaking nor moving. When much time had elapsed and he had been unable to revive me, his heart numb with grief and having received no intelligence from me as to what visions I might have seen, Gideon had stumbled out of the hut to confess what had been done.
‘Marthe has sacrificed herself for you, my people, and for me. She partook of the Fruit, and has perished for our sakes.’ And with that he ceased to be a shaman, or an Elder. Becoming my father again, he wept.
To all this they had listened in silence and then some of the older women had followed Gideon into the hut. One by one they stooped to discern a heartbeat, but there was none. Holding a mirror to my mouth, they saw that no breath clouded it.
‘WHERE IS the Angel?’ I screamed at them now, for the vision I had suffered under the Fruit was returning to me in full force.
‘Where is the Angel now?’
‘Why, he took all the children to The Edge for a special feast,’ said Sharma. ‘He thought to save them the sight of the funeral pyre. His only concern was for them. They followed him willingly enough, for he promised them games and laughter.’
I was up and attempting to walk now, but my legs buckled under me. ‘Carry me,’ I heard myself shouting, ‘carry me!’ An unfamiliar note of command seemed to have entered my voice, and they obeyed without question. And so we hurried to The Edge path, Gideon and I and the whole of the Seventh Tribe; but of them all, I was the only one who despaired, certain it would be too late.
I knew what I would find there: children hurled down one by one into the darkness of the Forest. On the very spot where I had so lately stood, casting around for a Forest Song to sing, we would be forced to gaze upon a heap of crumpled, bloodied bodies. And there, crouched amongst them, would be the creature. Angel no longer but a great carcass of a thing, brown and hideously winged, its hind legs hinged and long, out of all proportion to its carapace. It would be chattering to itself as it picked over the bones of our children, scrabbling at them with its long disgusting claws, some kind of insect being, equivalent in size to the Angel but different in every other way.
I looked down into the Forest as the dark images the Fruit had vouchsafed me translated themselves into reality, in our everyday, daylight, sunlit world.
It glanced up then and I swear that even from so far above I could hear it mocking me, a faint tinny cackle no Angel could have made. Then it recommenced its gnawing upon the tumbled limbs.
And at that moment a sound came from the village. A woman crying out in pain.
Sharma’s labour, even now, had begun.