Ava, the youngest daughter of Adam and Aurora, perched on the end of a branch high above Paradise and sang happily. She had arranged her brown, waist-length hair to cover her body and was pretending to be a bird with hair, not feathers. To complete the illusion, she had carefully pulled her arms beneath her hair and used them to hug her knees tightly to her chest, so only her lean, oval face was visible. Her bare feet were the sole part of her that made contact with the rough bark of the branch. Ava maintained her balance effortlessly, as her brown eyes vigilantly swept the distant landscape of the Garden of Eden below her.
Ava was centuries old and perpetually young. She had the same innocence and joy that every member of her family possessed, and the same brilliant mind. Her only problem, as she saw it, was that as the youngest of her eleven brothers and sisters, she was still treated like a baby. Her family acknowledged her superior performing skills and her verbal abilities, but she had never been able to beat her entire family in the physical games they played. Ava was fiercely competitive. Over the centuries, her obsession to excel at everything had become an affectionate joke among them. Ava was determined that today would be the day she would win her first tracking game and put an end to the jokes. She blushed to think how proud everyone would be of her, especially Seth, as they realized she was no longer a baby, but an equal member of the group. Only the praise of the Creator, who walked among them sometimes, meant more to her than the respect of her family.
Ava was well schooled in the two rules of Eden. The first was not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Even Ava recognized the desperation in Adam’s voice when he exhorted them never to eat the fruit of that tree. Ava had considered hiding in its branches, but if her trail led the best tracker among them to the center of the Garden, she would surely be discovered, because that tree stood alone. It was a solitary reminder of one mysterious tragedy.
The second rule was not to cross the Wall that separated their homeland from whatever lay beyond it. Almost three hundred years ago, when Ava was still a child of five, she had seen the Wall for the first time. She remembered it perfectly, because in Paradisia there were never any breakdowns of the pathways of the neurons in the brain.
Ava stopped singing as she recalled every detail of that day. Her mother, Aurora, had thought of a way they could harness water for power. The family was engaged in the last stage of her project, which involved attaching the wooden paddles that would be turned by the river. Aurora was enthusiastic about the project and did not have time to entertain Ava. There was no way a five-year-old could contribute to this stage of the process. Everyone in the family was engaged in Aurora’s project except for Adam, but he would not play with his daughter because he was deep in thought. Ava was lying on her stomach in the hot sun watching some ants on the ground as they worked on a project of their own. She glanced up and saw her father walk away.
She got up and followed him stealthily, making a game of it. They traveled for hours until Adam reached the great Wall. Adam stood facing the Wall and placed his hands against it. His shoulders began to shake and a strange noise emanated from him. Ava was overwhelmed by curiosity and approached him.
“Father, what are you doing?” Ava asked.
Adam turned to her. Ava was surprised to see that his face had water on it. She looked up to the sky to see if it had begun to rain and she hadn’t felt any droplets yet.
“Ava! What are you doing here?”
Ava examined her father’s face more closely.
“Everyone is busy and I wanted to play,” she said. “I followed you because it was fun. What is the water that runs from your eyes?”
“I don’t have a name for it. It only happens here, at the Wall,” Adam said. He challenged her. “Here, Ava, stand at the Wall and see if water flows from your eyes.” Adam resumed his stance and Ava imitated him.
“No, Father, it does not happen to me,” she reported. “Perhaps it only comes with great age and great wisdom. You are the oldest one of us, right?”
“A wonderful hypothesis, young one!” he said with a laugh. “Yes, I am the oldest, and you are the youngest. Someday you will be able to test your theory.”
“When, Papa? When will I be as old as you are and have the water flow from my eyes?”
“I will not tell you how very old I am!” Adam said. “Your mother is a baby compared to me. I will not have her fuss over me as she did over Seth when he had the accident on the mountain and broke half the bones in his body. How old I am will remain my secret!”
Adam took her hand in his, and they walked back to the work site together.
As Ava thought about that day, she remembered the happiness she felt at having the companionship of her father all to herself. He loved to carve wood, and he always smelled of wood dust, and pleasant scents of pine and cedar. They had taken turns talking. Adam had told her it refreshed him to hear her speak of the wonders of the world as she saw them through her young eyes, and he had patiently answered her many questions, especially her favorite one: “Why?”
That day had led indirectly to this one. Every few years she returned to the Wall to test her theory. Though she imitated Adam precisely, her eyes never watered the way his had done when he touched the Wall. It was on one of her pilgrimages that she had the brilliant idea of hiding in the branches of the tree that she was perched in now. It grew outside of the Wall, but its branches breached her homeland. She believed she was the first in the family to think of this hiding place, and they would never know that she traveled to it by climbing a Garden tree and swinging from limb to limb, like a monkey, across the trees until she reached the branches of the not-Eden tree.
Abruptly, Ava put her hands on the bark and leaned forward. The branch drooped slightly as she shifted her weight. She watched a tiny figure in the distance cross a stream where she had been early this morning. She had never thought to hide where she could observe the others tracking her. She had never realized how good they were at following the signs of her path. Ava lost sight of her pursuer, a speck on the landscape, as he or she followed the trail Ava had inadvertently left into a valley.
Ava was worried. The game would end when the sun kissed the horizon. Someone was closing in on her, but she might still win if sunset came before she was found. Her hiding place was daring. A small hope kept her quiet and still.
She heard a rustling in the tree behind her. Ava looked back toward not-Eden. On the same branch that she sat on, but much closer to the trunk of the tree, was a creature she had never seen before. It was long, dark, and tube-like. It had no legs that she could see from her position, but it moved in an unusual side-to-side motion on the wide limb. Ava could think of nothing but the novelty of the strange beast. Long ago, her father had named all the creatures of the earth. Ava wondered what he would call this one. How amazed he would be that she had found a new species! She forgot about the tracking game.
Enthralled, Ava held her breath. She sat motionless and willed the creature to come closer. It inched cautiously toward her but stopped abruptly, as if there was an invisible barrier between them. For a moment, the black eyes of the creature, eyes set on top of a triangular head, looked directly into hers. Its tongue flicked in and out of its mouth. It did not speak, but made a hissing sound and dropped its head out of sight into the foliage below. The length of it followed in a slithery motion. Captivated by the strange movement and bursting with curiosity, Adam’s youngest daughter turned and followed. She crossed the boundary between Eden and the rest of the world with a vague feeling that she had forgotten something important.
The creature moved much faster than she expected. She was not able to keep it in sight once her feet hit the earth outside the Garden. She searched, hoping to find it, or at least find some clues about its habits so that she could tell her family about her adventure. She was disappointed that she could not find anything. Ava noticed the sun was almost at the horizon. She remembered the game and was consoled to know that she had not been found.
With an unerring sense of direction, she began her return trip to the Garden. When she was close enough to see the Wall, she saw a figure standing near it. Anxious to be back with the people she loved, she ran.
She recognized a familiar form, the one Michael the Archangel most often took, and felt relief. A few paces closer she could see the expression on his face. Ava slowed. Michael did not look happy. She recalled how her father looked that way sometimes. He would never explain his expression, no matter how much her mother, Aurora, begged him to tell her what troubled him.
She stopped, uncertain of her reception. She had disobeyed. The Master taught them to love cause and effect, to learn from it, and to embrace it. But she hadn’t meant any harm, and there was nothing here that wasn’t in Eden except for the creature. She shuddered for a reason she could not understand. Surely, she would go back to the Garden to face her consequence.
Michael had not shown any sign that he had seen her. He stood, as if on guard, with the inexplicable look on his face. Ava changed her course to pass by him. She hid behind foliage and trees, and made her way sideways, always keeping the top of the Wall in sight. Whenever she peered out, no matter how much progress she made, Michael was there at the Wall directly ahead of her. It was as if he was guarding Paradise from her.
It was a preposterous thought! She had every right to go home. She belonged to the Master, heart and soul; and besides, how would the family get on without her? It would break their hearts, especially her mother’s. Aurora reviewed the two rules of the Garden with her children frequently. Her father would get those sad moods more often. She was certain of it. Recalling her father’s dark moods took on an ominous portent. As if he could read her thoughts, Michael, who had not seemed to notice her, called her name.
Ava left her hiding place and went forward, trembling. Michael’s look softened. She spoke before he could.
“Michael, I was playing the tracking game. I didn’t mean to go over the Wall. I only wanted to hide in the branch of a tree that breached our garden. I saw a creature I’d never seen before. Without thinking, I followed it. I’d like to go home now, even if I’m disqualified from the game. I’ll accept whatever punishment the Master has for me. I’m sorry, Michael, truly sorry.”
“I am sorry, too,” Michael said. “To disobey our Master and leave the Garden of Eden is to leave forever.”
The enormity of what she had done hit her. In response to an unfamiliar pain in her heart, water leaked from her eyes. She made the connection instantly.
“No, Michael, no! Oh, I am not the only one to break a rule of Paradise, am I?” she asked.
“No, precious one,” he answered gently. “You are not the first. Because you are not, you won’t have to live in the land outside the Garden alone. You have relatives there, less than a thousand-day walking distance from the Garden.”
As surprising as this revelation was, Ava was not interested in leaving her family. She had an idea.
“Michael, what if I wrestle you to get back into the Garden? If I win, I get to return to my home; if I lose, I will accept banishment.”
She smiled innocently as she said the words. She was the second best fighter of her father’s children, having six brothers and five sisters to out-maneuver to get her way. She was shocked by Michael’s reaction.
He seemed to gain size, and his look of pity was replaced by anger, which frightened her. Fear was new to her. She took several steps away from Michael, but stood her ground as he spoke.
“If you try to return to the Garden, I have been commanded to use the power the Almighty has given me to kill you.”
“Kill? What is kill?” she asked.
“To kill is to bring death. Death is what comes to the leaves in the fall, to the flowers after they bloom, to fire when it has burned its last ember. You would not draw breath, or have thoughts, feelings, or movement. Your body would lay still and cold, uninhabited. Death comes to humans this side of the Garden, while it cannot touch your family in Eden.”
“Michael, I do not wish to die. Will this death come to me?” Ava trembled.
He still looked fierce.
“I do not know. It is not for me to determine. This moment you are immortal. You did not intend to break the rule when you followed the serpent. Your error was carelessness. Our Master has not ordered your death or appeared to you Himself to deliver your punishment as He did to the other one. I believe there is hope for you.
“Whether you will remain immortal when you are faced with the temptations of this land, I cannot say. You do not have the advantage of your stepbrothers and stepsisters who possess knowledge of good and evil. However, you know the Master well. If you choose to act as He would act, and live as He has taught you to, someday you will be reunited with your family.
“If you oppose the will of the Master on purpose, you will surely, eventually, face death. For now, I have been ordered to keep you out of the Garden. I will obey our Creator, even if I must kill you, though I love you.”
Michael smiled at Ava.
“My advice to you, dear one,” he said gently, “is to travel to where your stepsiblings dwell so that you will not be here alone, pining with misery just outside the Wall. Life is a gift; gather from it what joy you can.”
“Joy?” asked Ava incredulously. “I have just lost everything I know, everything that I love. How can you speak to me of joy? I will go because I must. I do not wish to pine at the Wall, and I do not wish this death. I will try to serve the Master well so that I can return someday.”
“You have the Almighty’s permission to ask me three questions about life on this side of the Wall. Choose your questions wisely.”
Ava thought carefully. Questions came to her easily, but she wasn’t sure which three she should choose. Her mind raced, and then she made her decision. “These are the three questions I would like for you to answer, Michael: Where did these relatives come from, what should I fear most, and will I meet the Master there?”
Michael nodded, pleased with her choices. “I will answer your questions, and as I do so, we will walk. Soon, the signs you left behind as you marked your trail will lead Seth and the others to the Wall. Since I do not want any more residents to leave Eden, I will remove the temptation for you to call to them.”
“And if I refuse to walk with you?”
Michael looked stern again. “Child of Adam and Aurora, search your heart. Do you wish any of your loved ones to share your fate?”
Ava made her decision instantly. As her answer, she turned and quickly walked away from the Wall.
“What of my family?” she asked the empty air around her. “To not know what has happened to me will grieve them. They will come looking for me here when they do not find me in the Garden.”
Michael appeared at her side, as she had known he would.
“The Master will give them the news. They must accept it, or go into exile.”
“Michael, can you take them a message from me?”
“Give me the message, and I will ask the Almighty.”
“Tell them I am sorry. Tell them not to come after me. Tell them instead to petition the Master to help me to obey Him. Assure them I will do everything in my power to serve the Master on this side faithfully so that I may rejoin them someday.”
“It will be permitted. Now I will answer your three questions. After that, you must travel on, alone.”
They walked together, and Michael talked until the sun was three-quarters past the horizon.
“Ava, I must leave you now,” said Michael. “The Almighty is with your family at present, and has summoned me to His side.”
Michael disappeared, but his voice continued.
“Follow the star your father named Aviva, and you will find your stepsiblings. I wish you a good journey and a happy life.”
“Will I ever see you again?” she whispered the words.
“You will see me if the Master wills it.” Michael’s disembodied voice sounded in her head.
Ava realized that if she had been in Eden, the Archangel’s words would have been an answer. The Master’s will was always known in the Garden. In this new place, she could not say for certain what the Creator’s will was.
Ava began her thousand-day journey. Though she could not see Aviva, she knew where it hung in the horizon, washed out by the dwindling light of the sun. What had begun as another of a series of endless days of beauty, purpose, and belonging had ended in separation, uncertainty, and exile.