The Tree of Life
©2013 Savannah Antrobus
Hunter, crawling on her belly across the ground, spied the cherubim from a distance. Dirt ground into her pores and sweat poured off her face. She felt a little thrill run through her in spite of the miserable conditions. At last she had found it! The Tree of Life! After all the months she’d spent searching she could hardly believe it, but the cherubim was proof. Now she just had to figure out a way to get around the creature and get to the Tree.
The cherubim paced this way and that, swishing its tail as it went. It had the body of a lion, the face of a man, and eagle’s wings on its back. The flaming sword it carried seemed to be slicing through the air in all four directions at once.
Hunter edged as close as she dared and then, unsure how to proceed, simply lay still. A breeze fluttered over her back, providing blessed relief for just a brief instant, and then it was gone. It was just enough to make her wish for more. Sweat dripped into her eyes, the salt making them sting, and she reached up to brush it out. She realized, too late, that her hand was caked with dirt and grit. Her vision blurred as a particle lodged painfully under her eyelid.
“Ouch!” she exclaimed.
The cherubim abruptly stopped pacing. It sat down on its haunches and wrapped its tail around its legs. It appeared to be looking directly at her.
Hunter laid perfectly still, waiting, her heart racing. The sweat continued to well up from her pores. It rolled over her skin until it evaporated, leaving hot, sticky trails. She licked her parched lips and tasted salt. Time seemed to have no meaning here as the sun beat down endlessly and the tall grass swayed all around her. If she was discovered now then her journey was for nothing.
Still the cherubim sat, eyes fixed on her position.
Gradually Hunter became aware of a vague prickling sensation, as if something were crawling on the back of her leg. She squeezed her eyes shut, willing herself not to move, as whatever it was inched around, tracing agonizing lines on the back of her knee. It must be a bug, she thought. She hated bugs. Oh God, make it go away! The bug circled around for a while, making itchy little tracks on her skin. And then it made one final pass across the crease of her knee before starting to inch its way up her thigh. Hunter bit her tongue to keep from screaming, determined to wait it out and not give away her position. She felt goose bumps prickling along her flesh.
Now another bug was crawling on her arm. Oh God, oh God, please stop it, please go away! She didn’t think she could stand this. The grass was itching her skin. Dirt and sweat were mixing into a gritty paste that clogged her pores. When she breathed her nose filled with dust, making her want to sneeze.
She tensed her muscles in frustration and then she felt it, a sharp pinch on the back of her leg.
“Owwwww!” she yelled, jumping up and flailing her arms, trying to brush the thing off. Her skin burned where the bug had bitten and she scratched violently, while at the same time hopping around in circles on the other foot, trying to locate the offender.
The cherubim laughed then, a harsh, brassy sound that seemed to echo and reverberate and fill the entire valley with its sound.
Startled, Hunter spun around and into a fighting stance, scanning for the creature. It hadn’t moved. It was still sitting there near the base of the Tree with its tail wrapped around its legs, watching her with amused eyes.
“Did something bite you?” it asked, swishing its tail.
“What do you think?” Hunter snapped, and then instantly regretted it. She had no idea how powerful the creature might be, but she was pretty sure that she was no match for it.
“Um, I mean, I think so,” she said more carefully. Her leg burned and she went back to scratching, warily keeping an eye on the creature. It watched her with an unblinking gaze, not moving except for its swishing tail.
Finally, after a while, it said, “Aloe.”
Hunter paused mid-scratch. “What?”
“Aloe,” the cherubim said again, flicking its tail disdainfully towards a gray-green, succulent looking plant growing nearby, “for your itch.”
Hunter had no idea what the creature was talking about.
The cherubim waited, and then finally it rolled its eyes and stood, pausing briefly to stretch. It sauntered over to the plant and broke off one of the thick, fleshy stalks, which it kneaded between its paws, squeezing and flattening it, until a thick, clear gel oozed out. Then it held it out to Hunter, gesturing for her to take it.
She approached cautiously, half-expecting this to be an ambush, but the creature made no threatening move.
“So what? I drink it?” she asked, snatching the stalk and quickly backing up to what seemed a safer distance. She raised the stalk towards her lips.
“Well, you could drink it,” the cherubim snorted, “but I’d recommend just rubbing that gel on the bite. Works better that way.”
Hunter’s cheeks flamed with embarrassment. “Yeah, I knew that,” she mumbled, squeezing the gel onto her fingertips. She rubbed a bit on to the bite, tentatively at first, still not sure if this was a trick. The instant the gel touched her skin she felt the cool, soothing relief. Quickly she squeezed more gel out and slathered it on. It felt like heaven. Hunter worked the stalk, squeezing and kneading, until she’d obtained every last drop of the gel and applied it to her skin.
The cherubim, meanwhile, had settled down into a reclining pose in the shade of the Tree, its tail wrapped around its body. It yawned lazily.
Her itching relieved, and sensing no immediate danger, Hunter glanced around and spied a large, smooth, flat rock close by. Exhausted, she went to it and sank down, folding her legs underneath her.
“So,” she said, still kneading the now-flattened aloe stalk, “I thought you were supposed to be guarding the Tree.”
“I am guarding it,” the creature replied.
Hunter studied the Tree then, really noticing it for the first time. It was perfectly shaped and formed, and its leaves were a verdant shade of green. It was laden with fruit, round and firm, and each piece was covered with beads of condensation that formed little droplets and dripped invitingly. Suddenly conscious of her thirst, Hunter stood and took a little step forward.
“Careful now,” the cherubim warned, its ears perking up.
Hunter stopped, unsure, and reviewed what she had learned. The Tree of Life was supposed to be one of two trees in the center of the Garden of Eden. A stream was supposed to come forth from the ground at the center of the garden and branch out into four rivers. She looked around. She certainly didn’t see any rivers nearby, nor much that looked like a garden, though there were plants scattered about, including the Aloe. But there was no other tree nearby.
“Is this the Garden of Eden?” she asked the cherubim.
For an answer the creature swished its tail.
“Where are the rivers? Where is the rest of the garden? Where is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?” Hunter asked. She couldn’t stop; the questions rolled off her tongue like waters over a dam whose floodgates had just been opened.
But the cherubim just yawned; it almost seemed as if it were asleep.
Giving up, Hunter settled back onto the rock, tucking her legs up underneath her again. She was stumped. None of this was how she had envisioned it: the Tree, the garden, the cherubim, none of it. But she was certain that she was in the right place. And she was also certain that the creature would let her get nowhere near the tree, which was a problem. She had to eat a piece of that fruit!
And then another thought struck her: she knew the location of the Tree. What if the creature wouldn’t let her leave either? Hunter panicked. Stupid! she thought. I’m so stupid; how could I let that creature see me? She twisted the aloe stalk in her hands while mentally railing herself. Nothing was going according to plan. All she’d wanted was to get a bite of the fruit so that she could live forever. The plan was simple: get in, get a bite, and get out. Instead, she’d gone and struck up a conversation with the Tree’s guardian. She had to get out of here.
She rose to her feet carefully, quietly, eyes glued on the creature. Its flanks rose and fell slowly and rhythmically; she was certain it was sleeping. Moving as quickly as she dared, Hunter laid the spent Aloe stalk on the rock and started walking.
A gentle breeze blew again, tickling her skin. And then a cricket chirped. Its trill echoed through the valley, much louder than a solitary cricket should have been. Hunter froze and glanced back towards the cherubim, but the creature was still sleeping. Chiding herself, Hunter started walking again.
And then the valley erupted with life. A gust of wind came hard and fast, nearly knocking her to the ground.
“What in the world?” Hunter cursed softly, struggling to keep her balance. She took another step and nearly tripped. The tall grass was, impossibly, wound around her feet. She bent and pulled at the stalks, trying to free herself. A chorus of unseen crickets took up song then, all around her. Then, the birds joined in; thousands of them. Some soared through the air above her; others lit in the tall grass. They were everywhere. Bees joined in, their drone buzzing providing a backdrop to the melody winding around her.
“Caw, caw,” a raucous crow called, overhead.
“She’s here! She’s here!” chirped an annoyingly informative cardinal, fluttering straight up and down above her.
Panicked, Hunter tore at the grass that was restraining her, pulling it out of the ground by its roots, and then she began to run. Every step was a chore as the grasses of the field clutched at her and clung to her. It felt like trying to run through a snowdrift. Every step was an exhaustive effort that yielded scant progress.
The bees took flight in formation, their drone buzz following her, their combined mass a giant arrow in the sky, pinpointing her location.
Hunter leaned forward, pumping her arms, and tried to run faster. She was no longer certain which way was the way out of this valley, still she ran, violently tearing her feet from the clutches of the grass with each step. Her heart raced and her lungs heaved, trying to get enough oxygen. Her legs were tiring quickly and already her muscles were screaming in pain and exertion.
“Get her,” the wind whispered.
“Get her,” the birds chirped.
“Got her,” the grass answered, twisting cruelly around her calves. And then, Hunter fell.
She hit the ground hard, with an impact that nearly took her breath away. Gasping, she rolled and tried to free herself, but the grass held her tight. The bees circled round in an ever-tightening vortex, making a funnel shape until all she could see was a thin point of light high above her. And then she blacked out.
When she woke, she was back on the flat rock. The cherubim was still sleeping near the base of the tree. Everything was as it had been before. Hunter glanced down at her shoes; there was nothing to indicate the struggle with the grasses. What is going on?
“Is something bothering you?” the cherubim asked.
Startled, Hunter let out a little cry. “I … I didn’t know you were awake,” she stuttered.
The creature just stared.
Hunter rose again. “I, uh, it was a pleasure meeting you,” she said, “but I really have to be going now.” She turned slowly and took a tentative step. Nothing happened. She took another step. Nothing. Another step, and then she glanced back at the creature. “Aren’t you going to try to stop me?”
“Why should I?” the cherubim asked.
Hunter let out a high-pitched giggle. “Well, of course you shouldn’t,” she said. “I don’t know why I said that. Silly me.” She clamped her mouth shut with her hand before she made it worse, and took another step.
“I almost never get company,” the cherubim said, sounding much closer.
“Oh?” Hunter said, her voice cracking. She turned.
“Yes, well,” the creature said, advancing on her, “as you can imagine, this place is incredibly hard to find.”
Hunter was unnerved by the creature’s approach; its body was low to the ground, as if stalking prey. She took a step backwards.
“As a matter of fact,” the cherubim went on, “you’re the first human visitor I’ve ever had.” It was almost to her now.
“Oh,” Hunter laughed. “Well,” she gestured around, “this valley is so isolated, I mean, I seriously doubt if I could ever find my way back here again.” She took another step backwards. “I mean, I really didn’t find it this time. I just sort of stumbled upon it. I really didn’t even know what I was doing.” Hunter shrugged her shoulders and held her palms out in front of her, upraised.
“Yes,” the creature mused, “but you’re here now.” It smiled.
“Yes, I am,” she agreed. She felt sick. She wanted to bolt and run, but there was no way she could outrun the creature. Still, there must be some way out of this mess.
“Sit down and visit awhile,” the cherubim commanded, nodding towards the rock. Its voice brokered no dissent.
Going against every instinct she possessed, Hunter obeyed.
They sat in silence for a long while as the sun arced its way across the sky. Presently, Hunter’s curiosity got the better of her. “So why do you stay here?” she asked.
“It’s my job,” the creature replied airily, arching its back and stretching.
“But do you like it?” Hunter pressed.
The cherubim fixed her with a look of disdain and didn’t answer.
“You stay here, guarding this tree, day in, day out, for all eternity. Doesn’t that get boring? Don’t you ever want to do something else?” Hunter knew she was pushing her luck, but she was curious.
“What else would I do?” the creature sniffed.
“Oh, I don’t know. Go out and see the world. It’s changed a lot you know.” Hunter leaned to the edge of the rock and ran her fingers through the grass.
The creature contemplated, but gave no response. They sat in silence for a while more as the sun continued its timeless march across the sky, eventually sliding under the horizon. The moon peeked up in the east and the stars began winking on. The light from the flaming sword illuminated the immediate area like a campfire, causing the Tree to glow in the dark.
Hunter was lying on her back now, looking up at the stars. “I wonder what’s really out there?” she mused, half to herself, still running her fingers through the now benign-seeming grass.
“Me too,” the creature answered, flexing its wings.
“What?” Hunter flung herself up, incredulous. “You don’t know?” She stared at the cherubim.
“You expected me to?” It sniffed.
“Well, yes.” Hunter thought about it. “You’re supposed to be immortal and put here by God and … well, I just assumed you knew all the answers to life’s great questions.”
“A common human fallacy,” the cherubim stated. “I’m a created being, just like you.”
“But you’re stuck here, all by yourself,” Hunter said. “How do you stand it? Don’t you ever get lonely?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it.”
“Well,” Hunter said, an idea forming in her head, “I think you should take a break. Stretch your wings now that you’ve got the chance.”
“What do you mean?” the cherubim asked.
“I mean, you might not have another opportunity like this for quite some time. I’m here to guard the Tree for you, so take a break and see the world a bit.” She leaned back again, folding her arms behind her head for a cushion. The night sky was beautiful.
“Well,” the cherubim said. It appeared to be considering.
“Oh, go on,” Hunter urged. “It’ll be all right. I promise.”
“Well, yes, I guess you are right,” the cherubim said. “Keep watch then. I’ll be back soon.” And with that the creature spread its magnificent wings and took to the air.
Hunter watched in awe as it circled around the Tree a few times. Then, in the blink of an eye, it was gone.
She looked around, not quite believing her luck. It seemed a little strange that she’d so easily tricked the cherubim into leaving, but there wasn’t time to ponder it.
She turned around and again looked at the Tree. With the flaming sword gone and only the moon and stars to illuminate it, it had a much softer, ethereal appearance. The fruit still looked luscious though and she stepped closer without even realizing it.
Just one bite, she thought. Her hand reached out and she tenderly brushed her fingertips over the surface of the fruit. It was remarkably smooth. Get in, get a bite, and get out, she thought, smiling. Yes. The creature was gone now; her plan was working out perfectly, finally. She would be long gone, and immortal, before the creature returned.
A moment of doubt caused her to hesitate, and then it passed. She plucked a fruit from the Tree and bit into it. The most exquisite taste she had ever experienced flooded her mouth and juices squirted in all directions, assaulting her taste buds and nearly overwhelming them. She seemed to chew in slow motion and finally swallowed.
Time seemed to slow and she felt as if she were floating. The branches of the Tree swirled and reached for her, the fruit bobbing heavily. The sky seemed to twist and bend and the stars zoomed past her ears and eyes, leaving tracers of light in their wake. The moon began to laugh, a pleasant, tinkling sound, and then it winked at her.
Leaves from the Tree caressed her skin as she floated among the branches. The ground below her bubbled and heaved as if in greeting. The tall grasses waved back and forth at her. The wind whistled by, then turned for another pass.
Hunter felt giddy, like a school girl. She soared in little circles around the Tree and then flew up and kissed the face of the moon. When she came back down she settled on the ground. The tall grasses embraced her and, blissfully tired, and with the uneaten portion of the fruit still in her hand, she closed her eyes and slept.
“Wake up, human girl,” the cherubim said.
Hunter propped herself up on her elbows groggily. She looked around, trying to figure out where she was. The sun’s rays pierced her eyes blindingly. There was something sticky in her hand and she lifted it to inspect. And there was the fruit, its juices still dribbling out. It all came back to her in a rush and she jumped up, afraid. She had eaten of the Tree and now the cherubim would surely kill her.
Fear propelling her, she turned from the Tree and began running as fast as she could.
“You can’t go anywhere, so you may as well stop that,” the cherubim called out to her.
Hunter ignored the creature and kept running. She ran for what seemed hours, until she could no longer breathe. Her legs felt like rubber, still she tried to coax them. Finally, gasping, she slowed to a walk, clutching her sides with her hands.
She glanced over her shoulder to make sure the cherubim wasn’t following her, and a startled scream escaped her lips. The Tree and the cherubim were still right there. She hadn’t gone anywhere!
“What is going on?” she demanded somewhat hysterically, still clutching at her sides.
“You ate from the Tree,” the creature said, looking at her as if she were dense. “Now you are bound to it, just as I am.”
No! Hunter thought. This can’t be happening; it’s not true. She glanced around wildly, looking for an escape.
“Believe what you like,” the creature said annoyingly. The flaming sword swished around.
“Why didn’t you tell me then?” Hunter demanded hysterically. “Why did you just fly off and let me eat?”
“You wanted to eat.”
“This isn’t fair; you should have warned me,” Hunter cried. “You’re supposed to guard the Tree.”
“You lied to me,” the cherubim said calmly. “But you amuse me, and I could use a companion, so I will spare your life.”
“No! You tricked me; you trapped me!” Hunter wailed.
“You tricked yourself,” the cherubim said smugly. “Don’t try to blame me for your actions.” It flicked its tail.
“And now I’m stuck here for all eternity?”
“That would be one way to put it,” the creature said.
Hunter sat down heavily. This was not at all what she had expected. Still, she consoled herself, it wouldn’t be so bad. At least she would still be able to fly with the moon and stars and talk to them, like she had last night. She sniffled and wiped her nose with the back of her hand.
“No,” the cherubim said, as if reading her thoughts, “that only happens when you first eat. Sorry.”
And with that Hunter began to cry.
This story is fiction, of course. It’s not theologically correct and it’s a horribly unfair treatment of the cherubim. However, in spite of Hunter’s fate, God (thankfully) loves us way too much to ever let us get near the Tree of Life and eat of it in our present, fallen state.