A Serpent in Paradise

by Roderick T. Long



[written 10 June 1978, age 14, in Hanover NH; my vision of Eden seems to be drawn partly from the Greystoke estate in the Tarzan books and partly from the Joubert ranch in Story Like the Wind. The Man’s first words to the Subtle One are just a notch away from Monty Python’s “you snotty-faced heap of parrot droppings!” My grasp of the flora and fauna of Africa seems a bit spotty; I also seem unaware that snakes lack eyelids. I had originally planned to end the story by having the Woman blow the Subtle One away with a shotgun; but my characters had their own ideas about where they wanted the story to go.]



The lush, rolling hills of the African plantation could be seen from a great height, spreading like a growing green square on the charred blackness of the surrounding radiation-scarred wilderness. The Subtle One, coiled around the trunk and braches of a great banyan tree, thought back sadly to more innocent days, when he had lain stretched out on a rock in the warm Mesopotamian sunlight, above the point where the Tigris and the Euphrates poured into the Persian Gulf. For a moment, he wondered if he had not been happier then. He banished the thought quickly. He had grown since then, grown in wisdom, strength, and maturity. His power had swollen like a great bloated balloon since he had broken his chains and claimed his independence.

The unearthly blue bowl that was the African sky stretched from horizon to horizon, but the Subtle One had no eyes for it. The memory of the old days had made him angry, and his coils tensed as he lay brooding over the ancient past.

He stiffened as the sound of laughter jarred him out of his reverie. The Man and his wife had come out of the expansive mansion on the hill, and were sitting on a large rock by the water hole. When the Man was not looking, the Woman pushed him in with a laugh, and then screamed in delighted surprise as a nearby elephant who had been passively watching them collected a trunkful of water and released the entire load in her face, causing her to lose her balance. A monkey, crouched lazily on the limb of a nearby shade tree, chattered at them in amusement.

The Subtle One hissed angrily at them. He lifted his head and regarded the upper branches with thin-lidded eyes. From each stem hung a curved orange fruit. The Man and the Woman had, so far, expressed no interest in them. None of the animals, either, had come near the twisted tree, and no birds rested in its branches.

“I must interest the Man in my fruit,” the Subtle One purred to himself, and was surprised to find that he did not get as much pleasure out of contemplating future deeds as he once had. Perhaps his skin was flaking, he thought. He scratched his back irritably against the tree.

“Once,” he informed the banyan tree, “the morning stars sang together.” The tree did not respond. The Subtle One bit his fangs into the trunk savagely, looking back for an instant, on a time when he had been beloved over all God’s creatures and was named the Shining One, not the Subtle One.

“Hellfire and damnation!” he muttered, though the curse was, for him, a meaningless one. “You’ve been free for hundreds of millions of years, and you still look back with nostalgia on your days as a slave to the every whim of” – these last words were uttered with a sneer – “the ... Lord.” With concentration and will power, he put the thought of the past from his mind.

The Subtle One tried to slip a suggestion into the Man’s mind to come over to the tree, but it was like slamming into a brick wall. The Man was not in a receptive state of mind. The Subtle One stretched his flat head out and called in a grating voice, “Ai! Man, son of man! Come here where I may speak with you!”

“Be silent, you mindless, mouthing heap of rotted flesh!” cried the Man. “I do not wish to speak with you.”

“O Man, son of man,” replied the Subtle One hoarsely, “will you deny our brother? You relax in easy friendship with gazelle, jaguar, and hyæna – will you spurn the serpent who loves you and lives to fulfill your needs? Alas, that the day should come that a son of the line of Abraham should refuse to converse with a fellow creature!”

The Man hesitated, and then approached the tree. “Have your say, then, accursed fiend, and be done with it! And attempt not to confuse my mind with twisted words!”

The Subtle One dropped several coils to a branch nearer the Man and slithered forward. “Man, son of man,” he hissed, “I am hurt that you accuse me of masking truth. I am here to open your eyes and let you see clearly. Perhaps that is an idea that God does not like.”

“Do not speak so of the Lord!” said the Man angrily. “He wishes only good for us and all the creatures that inhabit this place!”

“Why, then,” retorted the Subtle One, chuckling inwardly at the Man’s growing anger, “did He forbid you to speak to me or eat of the fruit of this tree – fruit that, if eaten, would open your eyes as mine are opened, so that you might know both good and evil?”

The Man jumped as if stung, his eyes snapping up to see the ripe fruit hanging in clusters. He trembled as if in a fit. Then, a sudden calmness filled him, and he smiled. “No,” he said, and there was no more trace of anger in his voice. “The shadows that fall from this tree shaded my mind, even as I followed your words down an endless labyrinth of cobwebbed corridors. I reacted with anger, as you wished. But to hate something is to admit fear of it, and fear I do not feel of you. I only pity you, for you are destroying yourself, and yourself only. ” With these words, the Man stepped out of the darkness that had covered his face, and returned to the serene golden light of the African veldt.

Gone was the momentary paralysis the Subtle One had felt while the Man was talking, and he lashed and writhed in rage at his impotence. Why could he not have looped his body around the Man’s and crushed it? He considered sliding from the tree and seeking the two humans out, but it was useless. Beyond the shadow of the tree he could not go. Men could come to him, but he could not go to them.

Instead, he stepped back in his mind to a day when he had joyfully beguiled a man and a woman into betraying themselves and following him instead of his former Master, God. He wondered for an instant why he didn’t feel quite the same enthusiasm any more. His dream-image flickered, and then returned. The Subtle One saw himself leading mankind through illness, poverty, sin, false righteousness, hypocrisy, fear, and death. He saw nations falling, children screaming, cities burning, and more. And all through this rain of horrors, he saw himself growing and growing. Suddenly, like a dam breaking, he saw all these horrors collapsing in upon each other in a nuclear holocaust. But through the fire and smoke, like a golden ray of light, he heard the gentle voice of the Lord, filled with the same calmness that had lit the Man’s face earlier. Then he saw the final image – a new Eden spreading across the Earth.

The Subtle One blocked the flow of memory images. The cavalcade of his former deeds had not given him the pleasure he had hoped for. It had given him an idea, however. On that day so long ago, it had been the woman he had convinced to follow him, not the man. If the path to glory had led through a woman before, perhaps it might again.

In the morning, the Woman rose before her husband, and went walking in the garden. She stopped for a moment to gaze at the beautiful snow-white mountain that rose majestically from behind the African horizon, which always seemed wider than the horizon of any other place on earth. She smiled to think that the plantation was growing, and, as long as the man and woman sinned not, would continue to grow until it covered the entire world.

At the Subtle One’s call, she approached the tree, but did not enter the area of shadow. “It is futile to tell me that you can give me the knowledge of good and evil,” she said. “The knowledge of evil is no blessing, and I can do well without it.”

“Woman, daughter of woman,” whispered the Subtle One, “listen to me. You obey God, attend to His wishes. You are His slave, as, once, was I. He said He loved me above all else – but when I asked to be made ruler of all the land, He denied me!” The Subtle One was frantically aware that these words were not so much arguments to the Woman as rationalizations to himself. He switched the emphasis from himself to her. “The Lord says He loves you and would deny you nothing. Why, then, does He deny you the fruit that would make the equal of Him?”

“If the fruit is all you say it is,” asked the Woman, “why do you not eat it yourself and regain your former glory?” The Subtle One noticed, however, that she had stepped forward into the shadow. His mouth argued on, with all the devious eloquence it could muster, but he himself was no longer listening to it, except as a dry, crackling sound in the distance.

The Subtle One realized that he had just made his final point, and as the Woman stood unsure, the branch with the fruit lowered in front of her. The Subtle One saw this and suddenly, against his will, his mind was flooded by another series of scenes: the eating of the fruit, the falling of mankind, the final war, a new Eden, the eating of the fruit, the falling of mankind, the final war, a new Eden, the eating of the fruit ... the same scenes repeated themselves again and again, senselessly, like a boring dream or the meaningless refrain of a dull song. Here was his “glorious rebellion”! The Subtle One was filled with disgust for himself and the cycle he had been part of. Suddenly he was gripped by the fear that the Woman might eat the fruit. He jumped back to the reality of the plantation, praying that he would be in time to prevent her. But it would be too late – he knew it would be too late, and he cried out in anguish, afraid to open his eyes.

When he did open them, it was like light coming through a window whose shade has been closed for a great deal of time. The fruit was untouched, and the Woman was standing away from the shadow, shaking her head. “I am happy here and now. I do not need anything more.”

The figure that lay on the branch, weak with relief, spoke in a voice that had not been used in a long time – his normal voice, with no tricks in it – and said, “Woman, daughter of woman, yours was the right choice.” And, silently, he added, “O Lord, can You find it in Your heart to forgive me?”

He did not expect an answer, but one came anyway, like a shaft of sunlight. “Beloved one, you were forgiven even before you sinned. You said that I denied you your birthright. It was never I, but you who, in your pride, denied yourself. Go, and forget the past. Join the others of this garden in play.” And so the Shining One entered into the Kingdom of Heaven.



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