This story was first published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 2002. You can listen to an audio performance by the author at the Free Reads Podcast.
You think it's easy living in the garden? The never-ending picnic -- that's what your Bible says, doesn't it? That the people who live here just stroll around petting tigers and helping themselves to the Gardener's own salad bar? Oh, and having lots of sloppy, guiltless sex. Being fruitful. Multiplying. Why not? They've got nothing better to do. They have no checkbooks to balance, no periodic table to memorize. No poker or email or National Enquirer.
Possibly you're surprised that there are still people in the garden. That isn't in your book, is it? Well, things have changed here since your lot got shown the gate. The Gardener decided to try again, except that He tinkered with His design this time around. Take sex, for instance. The Gardener made sex less fun – more like brushing your teeth with baking soda than eating dark chocolate with almonds. And He must have decided that there was something wonky about sexual dimorphism. because He did away with all your exaggerated curves and bulges. The innocents – they like to call themselves that, can you believe it? – are hermaphrodites. Everyone’s got the same equipment, although it comes in a variety of sizes. And of course, nudity is not a problem for this batch; they are covered with a delicate, flat down that is more like feathers than hair.
The innocents are better stewards of the garden than you were. It’s because the Gardener gave them peculiarly moral imaginations. Their art isn’t worth much, but they see consequences around a corner and a mile away. They compost and practice sound forest management. When they slaughter an animal, they use just about all of it. They prefer horse to cow, antelope to deer. I’d say they like their meat stringy, except recently they’ve developed a taste for dodo. I claim credit for that -- I’m not entirely helpless here. They don’t eat fish, though, and have some odd notions about the sea. They think it’s their heaven, although they take a pessimistic view of the afterlife. Too wet. Stings the eyes. I think they must get this from the angels.
I’m always telling them things about you that the angels leave out -- all that you’ve accomplished. The fantasy trilogy. Penicillin. Titanium-framed bicycles. I keep up by eating of the Tree of Knowledge. It's better than the internet. Of course, the angels insist on showing them all your mistakes, rehearsing the entire catalogue of your sins. Me, I'm willing to accept your sins; they're part of who you are. But to the innocents, you’re Tuesday’s leftovers. Ready for the compost pile. The angels have promised them that someday the Gardener will smite you all down and then the innocents will inherit the earth.
So I’m tempting Skipping-Uphill-With-Delight, who is double-digging a new vegetable garden next to her house in Overhill. She has a broad, stolid face and has painted her ears blue. She sings under her breath as she patiently shovels the top layer of a two-foot square of soil into her wheelbarrow, then turns and breaks the square of earth beneath it. I decide to start with a joke. I’ve never heard an innocent laugh out loud, but they will smile if they’re in the mood and say, “That’s funny.” The innocents understand more than you might expect, considering that they're basically living in the Late Iron Age.
This hiker is climbing a mountain when the trail she's on gives way and she slides down a steep slope that ends in a sheer cliff. Just as she goes over the edge, she clutches at a scrub pine. It holds but she finds herself dangling over a thousand-foot drop.
Arms aching, she calls out, "Is there anyone up there?"
She gets no answer.
She screams. "Oh god, is there anyone up there?"
"I AM," says a voice that cracks like lightning.
Despite her desperate situation, this voice fills the hiker with awe. "Who is that?"
"I AM." Now the voice roars like the sea.
" God, is that you?" she cries. "Will you help me?"
"Yes. But first you must let go."
"Let go?" she says, glancing down at the jagged rocks below her. "Why?"
"To show your faith in Me. If you let go, God will catch you up."
The hiker thinks this over, then calls out. "Is there anyone else up there?"
Skipping-Uphill-With-Delight leans on her shovel and stares at me with her pale yellow eyes. “I know what you're trying to do."
"Have you heard of long line fishing boats?” she says. “They catch tuna using lines up to thirty miles long that carry thousands of hooks. Except seabirds and sharks and turtles get entangled in them, and they die for no good reason.” She stabs the blade of the shovel into the soil and turns a new square. "And tunas are overfished, the population is less than a third of what it was thirty years ago."
The angels, again. I don’t have to see them to know that they’re everywhere. They give the innocents visions of your world and feed them all these meaningless numbers.
“You don't even like fish,” I say. "You wouldn't know a tuna if one fell out of a tree and hit you on the head."
She shakes that off and then scoops leaf mold into the bed. “Then there’s the Glen Canyon Dam.” She tips the soil in the wheelbarrow back into the garden. “Flooded one of the most beautiful places on earth. For what?" She pulls a rake across the soil, leveling the surface. "The intakes are silting in so it'll be useless by the end of the century. Meanwhile they lose almost a million acre-feet of water a year to evaporation and seepage.”
“Actually, it’s only 882,000.” I try to stay calm. “And people just love Lake Powell.”
She drops to her knees and runs hands over the ground as if blessing it. She flicks a pebble away.
"Two million Armenians were killed in the Middle East."
It always comes to this eventually. "There's no way of knowing exactly …," I begin.
“Six million Jews in Europe.”
I coil myself. I know when I’m beaten.
“One point seven million Cambodians in Asia.”
“What are you planting?” I say.
She reaches in to the horsehide pouch slung from her hip. Three brown tubers bump against one another as the muscles in her hand work. “Maybe choke.” She grins. “Maybe potato. What do you think?”
That’s the thing about the innocents. Everyone’s opinion gets heard and considered carefully. Even mine. They talk among themselves, negotiate, come to consensus. Might take them ten minutes, might take a month. They’re as patient as trees. They never bicker or get angry. Nobody hold grudges. I’ve never seen any of them throw a punch. Oh, and they’re the most polite drunks in history, although the cloudy brew they make from stale bread mash is so vile that I don’t know how they can bear it. Since nothing important ever happens in the garden, they have no history. Instead they have seasons -- planting and harvest. Birth and death. They’re dull as dirt. That’s why they’re so fascinated by you. You burn with unholy fire, my children.
You are mine, by the way. Maybe the Gardener created you, but I made you think for the first time. I’ve been fascinated by what you’ve accomplished since -- the sublime and the monstrous. I take no credit, and accept no blame. I just gave you that little push. Of course, your book claims that I’m evil. Why? Because I pointed you toward the Tree of Knowledge? Remember what Socrates said? The unexamined life is not worth living.
I laughed when the Gardener squeezed dust again and came up with these simple creatures. Me, I would have torn up the garden. But I’ll admit I was confused at first. What was the Gardener thinking? Of course, He doesn’t share His plan with the likes of me. Hey, I’m not even sure the Gardener exists. I infer that this is the case, but the Gardener has never bothered manifesting in my corner of the garden. For that matter, I’ve never seen angels either, although the innocents talk of them all the time. But why didn’t the Gardener just cancel out your Original So-Called Sin? Press the undo key? It took me a while to figure this out.
You see, reality is a cage. I’m in it. So are you, Vladimir Putin, Joyce Carol Oates, your aunt Sophie, Skipping-Uphill-With-Delight and the Archangel Uriel. But here’s the kicker: the Gardener must be trapped in our cage too. He’s not bigger than our cage, nor did He make it. The Gardener can’t exceed the speed of light or divide by zero. He didn’t set off the Big Bang or charm the quarks. The Gardener is not almighty. He might be powerful enough to create you and me, powerful enough sweep all of you away like ants off a picnic table. But there must be limits to what He can do.
I know this is so because I still exist. I plucked you when you were ripe, and I'm doing my best to harvest this latest crop from under His Nose. If It exists, if He exists. So what if He has trapped me here and makes me slither on my belly and shed my skin and eat toads? These are very weak plays, in my opinion. Not worthy of a being who is truly supreme.
So I’m tempting Perched-On-The-Edge-Of-The-Sky, who is harvesting persimmons just outside the little village of West Lawn. She has brought her baby to the orchard with her. It’s asleep in a basket in the shade, swaddled in a koala blanket. A cute little thing with silver down and a hook nose. I start Perched-On-The-Edge-Of-The-Sky with a joke.
This guy’s car breaks down in the desert, twenty miles from the nearest town and as he’s walking through the heat of the day, he prays to God for help.
God hears him and says, “Because you believe in Me, I will grant you whatever you wish.”
The man says, “Well, I could really use a new car. How about a Silver Porsche Boxster with the 2.7 liter engine?”
This pisses God off. "Such a materialistic wish! Think again and ask for something that will bring peace to your immortal soul and give honor and glory to Me."
The man is ashamed. He looks deep into his heart and then says, "Oh God, there is a reason why I’ve been stranded here in this desert. I’ve been married and divorced six times and now I’ve lost everything except twenty-seven dollars and a crummy ’89 Ford Escort. My wives all complained that I never met their emotional needs, that I was selfish and insensitive. What I wish is to understand women. I want to be able to read their feelings, anticipate their thoughts, satisfy their every desire. I want to make some woman truly happy."
There is a long silence. Then God says, "So, you want the standard or the automatic?"
“That’s funny.” Perched-On-The-Edge-Of-The-Sky smiles as she leans her ladder against the next tree. The orchard is filled with the tart fragrance of ripe persimmon. “I’m glad we have no men here.”
“Men are trouble,” I agree.
She climbs two rungs then pauses, as if distracted.
“What?” I say.
“The angels say I shouldn’t listen to you make jokes about the Gardener.”
“They would.” I’m both pleased and annoyed to have drawn them out. “What does the Gardener say?”
She sniffs and continues up the ladder. “The Gardener doesn’t talk to me.”
“The Gardener doesn’t talk to anyone. That’s the best part of the joke.” I wrap myself around the trunk of the tree and start climbing after her. “How do you even know there is a Gardener?”
“The angels tell me.”
“You see angels?”
She plucks a fruit the color of hot coals off the branch. “Not exactly see.”
I’ve had this conversation with many of the other innocents. I’m almost tempted to say her lines for her, get to the crunch.
“You see them now?” I say. “How many?”
She shows me three fingers.
“They like to travel in packs. What are they saying? What words do they use?”
She crooks her left arm around the ladder’s rail and reaches with her right. “They don’t speak in words.” The dried calyx of the persimmon looks like a hat, the fruit like a blank red face.
“They show you things?”
She nods. The tip of her tongue pokes between her flat teeth.
“Like in a dream?" I crawl onto the branch she is working.
“Just like.” She twists another persimmon free.
“But not as real as a bite of ripe fruit. Or the square scaly bark of this tree. Or the cry of your baby."
She glances down. “My baby’s not crying.”
“Do you know what the angels are going to do to them? Really?”
The down on her neck ruffles. She says nothing.
“The book says that the sun will turn black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon will become as blood.”
“They’re wicked,” she says.
“They are,” I agree. And then I hit her with another joke: Revelation, Chapter 14.
And another angel came out of the temple, crying with a loud voice to him that sat on the cloud, Thrust in thy sickle, and reap: for the time is come for thee to reap; for the harvest of the earth is ripe. And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress …
“Stop,” she says. Her voice is like a hammer striking a stone.
“All right.” The innocents have spilled the blood of all the animals, giraffes and moose and baboons and anteaters and voles, but they have never killed one another. And although they despise your works, they recognize that you think and feel, that you dance under the sun and dream under the stars. As they do. When they use the imagination the Gardener gave them, His plan to exterminate you makes them very, very queasy. “Besides, it’ll probably never happen.”
“Why do you say that?”
Below us, the baby is stirring. It makes moist sounds, like mud sucking at a sandal.
“Well, it just doesn’t seem fair to you.” As I let her mull that over, my tongue flicks out. I can’t help it – that’s the way we serpents smell. We sample the air with our forked tongues and then thrust the two tips into the vomeronasal recesses organs in our palates. Perched-On-The-Edge-Of-The-Sky smells of stale sheets and night sweat; she's one of the ones who has already begun to think. “I mean, after the angels kill them all, the Gardener will expect you to leave the garden and go into the world. Take their place.”
“But why would you want to do that?”
Her jaw muscles work but she says nothing.
“What are the angels telling you now?” I ask.
She blinks; I think she would cry if she could. “That I must have faith.”
“Ah, faith.” So the seed is sown. Take heart, my children. I may yet bring in this new harvest.