The Beginning of the World

Long ago, when all of us now living were the curve of a conch shell, a man stayed alone by the sea. All day he tended the water, turning and beating the surface with his rawboned arms, making waves. He tossed fistfuls of salt into its depths and chipped stones with stones until they were a beach of sand. Red crabs scuttled on the beach. He patted their heads and sharpened their pincers. With heavy stones he sunk himself to the seafloor, where he leveled ridges of sand, planted kelp beds and shoal grass, coated rocks in algae, planted mangroves, eelgrass, tenderly nursed a whale calf, and cut mouths for oysters, filling their heads with pearls.

Facing the beach was a mound of dirt. The man formed it by gathering trimmings of hair and bits of his own spittle, the droppings of birds, and the stinking, sludgy trails of sea snails. He planted seeds in the dirt to make seedlings. All day he watered the seedlings to make saplings, and he cared for the saplings until they became great woodlands and jungles. In these forests the man stood sentinel over bear cubs and hunting cats. He protected pine hollows and the fleshy pink nestlings that cheeped and cawed from within. He gripped his way to the tops of redwoods and made dwellings for voles and fed them needles, and on his magnificent descent toward the forest floor, instructing monkeys and tree bears with his swinging, he tickled the feet of birds and offered seeds to those perched on the bent-down branches. They ate quickly from his hand before taking off into the green dim of the backwoods. They sang to him and he sang back. The man’s voice was tired and sweet.

Beyond the forests was a heap of dust. The man formed it by collecting cockle shells, eyelashes, and flecks of shedded exoskeletons. Onto the heap he piled pebbles and silt to make a hill. All day he climbed the hill, lifting enormous slabs of granite on his shoulders. He shaped the granite into crests and braes, until a mountain range cut the horizon. New life sprang up on the mountains: horned sheep, needleleaf trees, crane flies, finches, whistlers, climbing lions, sagebrush, antelope, and frogs. He taught the animals to breathe and to blink. He taught the trees to collect snow. Atop the mountain, the man looked around. He heard the sniffing of an eagle, and he smiled.

The man did not eat much. He occasionally sucked the bones of former animals—loose ribs long ago stripped by scrupulous vultures, bleached white and discarded far from their cages. Other times he chewed the dead petals of bitter flowers that blanketed the forest floor. The man’s stomach ached nearly every day, and it had to, he decided, for he was an assistant to life. He was a counterweight on a trembling scale, determined to measure all he could in perfect balance. When a wolf was born, he guarded rabbit burrows. When a rabbit was born, he sharpened the teeth of wolves. Every occurrence tipped the world in one direction, and it was the man’s boundless responsibility to level those occurrences in all his power. The weight of this undertaking was immeasurable. He created the stars and the moon to work throughout the night.

One sunrise, while fishing for food to chew for seabirds, the man made an effort to enjoy himself. Resting atop a jetty, he relaxed his net—a dangle of horsehair and sea sponges—and took notice of the ocean’s curling waves. A bead of sweat trailed down his temple. He shivered as it evaporated into the warm air. For a moment, the man forgot about his task and the infinite tasks ahead of it. He giggled. He followed a cloud. He watched gulls doing patterns in the sky and felt the skin on his shoulders be golden.

It was then that a woman appeared.

She floated above the crests of seafoam, more beautiful than a heron or a spoonbill. Her face was a bright light, and her voice was knocking down trees: ‘Do not be afraid. You are not alone, nor have you ever been. I have seen your endless labor, and it fills me with pride. Take comfort now. Your life is not for tears. I will take on rocks for you. I will make the world turn.” The man’s heart brimmed at the woman’s speech. His eyes pooled with joy as he listened to her words. ‘Your worry days are over. I will lay you down to rest. No matter what I will—’

But as she spoke, the man’s mind began to chatter about the work that followed.

Soon he’d have to turn on the sun; the woman faded into the color of sunlight. The seabirds would go hungry if he did not feed them; two feathered wings sprouted from the woman’s back. Once he was late to feed the birds, and they threw themselves violently into the water; the woman threw herself above the water and into a flock of birds. The man clung to his net and watched her fly across the brightening sky. Soon she became a gull like any other, then there was no trace of her at all. Sorrow stirred inside the man. He wished to dive into the water, to chase after the woman, to disappear into the vanishing point of the horizon. But then he remembered what needed to happen next: the catching of the fish, the chewing of their bodies, the birds picking fish from his throat, the making of the weather, oh, the wind and the rain!

That night, the man lit a fire on the beach in case of the woman’s return. When she didn’t arrive, tears fell from his eyes. As he cried, great storms poured down to make waterfalls, standing pools, salmon routes, and homes for pond skippers. The man’s tears exhausted him, but he was grateful for the rain.

Years passed.

At this time the man began producing his own honeycomb. He fashioned a hat out of palm fronds and a coconut shell, which he wore at all times.

He took up the fife and played charming songs to a crocodile. When the melody was just right, the crocodile’s enormous tail kicked up ocean rocks to make islands. He wondered if the alligator enjoyed this activity.

He kept a cave for smelting iron. He forged statues of heroes and positioned them in rows against a red sky. The statues all wore hats made of palm fronds and coconut shells. One statue was of a winged woman, who would one day come to relieve him of his labor.

Every sunrise since their first encounter, while fishing for food to chew for seabirds, the man tried to summon the woman. Always he rested upon the same jetty, breathed the salty air, and tried hard to let his mind wander, as it had that fateful morning. But he could quite coax her return. He occasionally gathered small details of her appearance: while tilling a meadow, her nails were painted yellow and her wrists were thin as daisy-necks. Another time, in the forest, she was brown-skinned and towering, with legs like tree trunks. Later, while swimming in a river, she wore a glittery veil and blew water from her mouth. The woman showed herself in flashing glances—two hands over his eyes, a trail of hair dissolving into a fishing net, her fingertips wiggling in a bean garden. Throughout all these tiny glimpses she never spoke, and this was good, he decided, for her crashing words would surely level the man and all that he maintained. But he longed to hear her voice again.

The man wrote messages to the woman and tied them to birds’ feet, but the birds always returned empty-taloned. He placed her statue in a night canoe and offered it to the sea, but the canoe was flooded by waves and sank into the murky depths of the water. Coral made a home on the statue, and periodically the man descended to the seafloor to pray to it

He planted a field of flowers arranged in her likeness. Rows of lilies outlined her cheekbones and roses sprouted among them. Her hair was stalks of corn and there were clusters of violets at her eyes. Her body was irises and dried out sun stars. But no matter how hard he tried, no matter how elaborate his signals, he could not invoke her presence. The woman never came to assist the man, as she had promised in a fading dream.

Centuries passed.

The wind was eroding the mountains, so the man boiled his iron statues and made metal beams to fortify the crumbling cliffs. The waterline was getting higher, so the man filled a volcano with his blood, which erupted into bigger beaches. But then the beaches were too big, so he dug up sand and swallowed it. There were too many turtles. Some needed to be food for coyotes and wild pigs. So he stomped their babies’ shells as they shuffled into the sea. He could not get the water levels right. The rivers flowed too harshly. The wind was perfect for the insects, but somewhere a sloth lost its grip. He wasn’t sure how he made a tornado. He cut off his hair to build a bird’s nest. He punched snow. He gave wings to a stone. It no longer rained when he cried. He made lightning with his mouth. His arms were cold and lifeless. Sometimes it rained when he screamed. Flamingoes danced and made love on a frozen estuary. He tore out his fingernails, for he was not a wolf. He made a rabbit attack a duck. He threw a pumpkin into a pond.

The world was now an even more intricate mechanism and the man was at its center. Time did not pass without him, and this was terrifying. He built cities for a future when people might join him. He assembled ships and jackscrews and tugboats and split-levels and storefronts, but no one ever came. He laid plans for a vessel that would allow him to travel the sky and monitor distant planets. He stomped with every step; this is what kept the world turning. He sailed into the ocean one night, desperate to escape his labor. He tried to die at sea, but he could not stop feeding himself to mosquitoes. And then he remembered the mosquitoes on land and all of the other lives which depended on him and needed to be grateful to him. They were not grateful. Every now and then a doe licked his hand. Or a squirrel looked him in the eye. This had to be enough for the man, and it could be, he decided, if he abandoned the possibility of anything more. So, when the mosquitoes at sea were sufficiently full, he returned to his life of labor. He never again went sailing, except for when it was necessary, to carry meals to far-off whales. He never again ceased working, except for a solitary second each night, to look out at a pale star and exhale.

More time passed.

And still more time, forever.

He swallowed a sea urchin.

He held a beehive to his ear.

He wished to be a fish breathing in sand.

He allowed this.

Until one day, he didn’t.

It was a day unlike the world had ever seen. On this day, the man did not tend the water and beat the surface with his rawboned arms. He did not water seedlings to make saplings. He did not pile pebbles to make hills. He did not make the rain with his tears. He did not plant kelp beds on the seafloor. He did not go fishing for food to chew for seabirds, or lead packs of dogs, or bleed into volcanoes. He did not make a sound—he rarely did, except for when he played his fife, which he did not do on this day. On this day the man did nothing.

Except he heard a leopard yawn.

And he tasted a grapefruit.

A cool breeze that was not his doing blew in from the west.

Trees stood and gave their fragrance without assistance.

And when the stars came out, he looked out at the pale one. And one second passed. And then two seconds. And then hours. He sat on the beach and traced shapes in the sky and listened to the waves churn against the sand. Animals hunted or hid. Mountainous plates of earth shifted and grew imperceptibly. A zebra gave its last breath. He listened to the world as its wolves howled and its temperatures changed, as they had always done, without him. He grinned at a sandgrain, all there ever was, and time. He lay back onto the beach, basking in the light of the moon and everything magnificent all on its own. He felt comfort when his head touched the sand.

‘Ouch,’ a woman said. ‘Scoot over. You’re on my hair.’

‘Oh,’ The man was startled. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t notice.’

‘No, you didn’t.’ Her voice was sleepy and low in her throat. A seagull squawked overhead. ‘I was wondering when you’d come to bed.’ She closed her eyes again.

‘I didn’t— I mean—’ He trembled. ‘Have you been waiting long?’

She snapped to attention. ‘I know much better than to wait for you. ’

‘I’m sorry,’ he covered his eyes. ‘Has it been long?’ he asked with caution.

‘As long as ever.’

The man studied the woman: her bright face, her strong voice, her eyes like clusters of violets. He recognized the image of a thousand statues growing coral on the seafloor. He waited for wings to sprout from her back, for her to dissolve into the distance like a scared-off bird. But she continued resting next to him, nestled near his neck. ‘You are the one who has been watching over me,’ he cried. ‘You are the one who is here to relieve me of my labor.’

She adjusted her posture to look him in the eye. ‘Do not take me for a sign. While your toils have broken my heart forever, you must know they are yours alone.’ The man’s body quivered like a mouse pup. At this, the woman smiled. ‘Now look up at the sky. It is rare for us to see the same stars. But you see them, don’t you?’

‘I do,’ he said. ‘They are beautiful.’

‘And you feel this blanket, don’t you?’ She lifted the covers up to his chest.

‘I do,’ cried the man. ‘It is a great comfort.’

‘Well now, that’s something to be excited about. That is your relief.’

The man was overwhelmed with feeling. He clung to the woman, and a cat meowed in the distance. ‘I never wondered what I deserve,’ he sobbed. ‘I thought I needed to be a burning sun, casting light and according faithfully to the curves of the earth.’

She touched his hair. ‘But there is already a sun.’

‘You’re right.’

‘And it casts light and accords faithfully to the curves of the earth.’

‘I can see it now.’

‘And though it moves the world, it cannot kiss me.’

‘Oh,’ he cried harder and harder. His tears made little cakes in the sand. ‘I’m sorry I’ve been away.’

‘Then do not be away.’ Her voice was sturdy, as safe as home.

When they kissed, he breathed her hair. Eight dead stars made a sickle, and the earth was covered in grass1). The man could feel the world turning underneath him. A turtle blinked, and a blue whale, and a toothfish. Then he felt it no longer. Everywhere nothing stirred, except his warm heart and the heart of the woman, and the world kept turning.  

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