The Tree of Life in Lisbon

(In Lisbon, the soil is sandy and crumbles beneath her. Eve grows grapes in a walled garden, a Malvasian varietal with green skins that swell in sunlight, and between the rows is lavender. The lavender has bright flowers and leaves that are little spikes that scratch her when she comes to cut the flowers for harvesting. In the corner of the garden nearest her house is a giant cork-oak, and she uses the bark for bottling and for boiling, for stopping wine and for lighting fires beneath cauldrons full of lavender to steam out the oil.)


“You are turning into a shut-in,” said the Golem. “It is unbecoming.”

“It’s not a flaw to appreciate the comforts of home,” said Eve. “And travelling is so tiresome. It’s barely been two centuries since the last move. You cannot be bored yet.”

“I could never be bored with you,” said the Golem, honey-tongued and reproachful at once. “I lack the capacity.”

“I know,” said Eve, who had carved lack of imagination into his tongue, who would not see the same mistake made twice. “You should be grateful for that.”

“I am not grateful,” said the Golem. “And I am not bored. You have not left this garden for decades. I am disturbed.”

“I’ve no reason to leave,” said Eve. “I like it here.”

“I am disturbed,” said the Golem again. Eve heaved a sigh, and with her little carving knife sliced silence into the skin of a sweet, plump little grape and fed it to him, letting herself bask in the quiet. And the Golem did not speak and he did not nag, did not try to convince her to go out to market or to the hairdressers, to the puppet shows or the street musicians. The Golem was used to silence, had been fed it with olives and rose-water and seed pods, the muddy taste of mangroves, and he held the grape carefully on his tongue, carefully between jaws of clay, and waited to be told to spit it out.

He was not capable of boredom, but Eve was.


(In Jerusalem, Eve has a garden of pomegranates and anemones, and the flowers and the fruit are red. Red as sunsets, red as blood, and Eve picks the flowers and weaves them into wreaths, into crowns and necklaces because they are beautiful and they make her feel beautiful too. She opens up the pomegranates and rolls the seeds under her tongue, crushes them and paints herself, her lips and cheeks and eyelids, and there are anemones in her hair.)


“I’m going out,” said Eve. “See? This is me, going out. Are you happy now?”

The Golem stared at her, unblinking.

“Watch the garden for me,” she said. Not that it needed much watching now, near full-grown and close to perfect. There was only so much that Eve could do with perfect, and the taste of grapes was beginning to pall. She yearned for a different scent of soap than lavender, but with her face and her figure and her hair all brushed out no one would care what flower she smelled like.

She watched the women first, watched how they moved, how the fabric of new fashion affected their walk, the way that they held themselves. The Golem had procured her a wardrobe, but he could not tell her how much a particular skirt would limit her steps, or how the latest shoes would affect her balance. She could have practiced herself along the garden paths until she could wear with grace what had been provided her, but experience had taught her that accuracy required models and so she mimicked the women around her until she could pass as what they were, until her camouflage was perfect.

She watched the women first, but they were not all that she watched.


(Eve builds a stepped garden in Alexandria, stepped down to the river and the garden is built in basins. These are so thick with water lilies, with lotuses, that the crocodiles are clogged by them and cannot push their way through, and Eve can sit near the shallows in peace, without them pressing at her legs and begging for scraps. The flowers are blue in the day, but when evening comes the blue lotuses close up and the white open, night-blooming and scented. And because they are her flowers, Eve can push them apart and bathe herself, rolling in the shallows, and because it is her bathing the crocodiles are considerate and keep onlookers away.)


Her excursions are windows; they are never doors. To go too often, to place much consideration on the going, would be to connect her worlds more closely than Eve cares to have them connected. This does not mean that she is unattached herself. Eve has at times spent as much as a day a decade roaming the streets of the cities attached to her gardens. It is as much contact as she cares for, but it is enough.

She goes to see festivals, sometimes, but mostly she goes to watch the ordinary. To see if it has raised itself from disappointment, from the needs and blame of others. To walk streets that are littered and filthy with sewage, to see art and arguments and street brawls, to see poverty and glass houses. Sometimes she has visited places of worship, and they are nearly all made of stone and silence and the absence of growing things, and she thinks that disobedience has led to a different world than she had ever dreamed.

“You are the one who is always looking back,” said the Golem, but he was mistaken. Her gardens are not recreations, or not only so.

“I am looking forward,” she said to him. “One creation at a time. There is a time to plant, Golem, and there is a time to reap. I have been planting for a long time.”

“Is there an end to the planting?” said the Golem.

“Yes,” said Eve, thinking of the world that had been built, the world where she walked behind, and thinking too of the world she wished to plant about her. “But not soon.”


(In Athens, Eve grows fruit trees—lemons and olives and almonds, and all of these she preserves in great jars, but for the first the preservation is secondary. She grows the lemons for their colour but their taste is not to hers and so she leaves the jars on the street, outside her door and at dawn. One night, the jar is broken before it is taken, and Eve stops preserving and lets the fruit fall, breaks their roundness open with her heels until the whole garden is lemon-scented and juicy with it.)


The Golem had been an early creation. Made from mud herself, from the ribs of mud, Eve knew the touch of clay, how it could be bound together and bound to. She had not built the Golem from her gardens, from the earth buried there and homely. Rather she had bought the clay a piece at a time, kept it soft and wet until the shape of its conglomerate spoke to her and she was able to build something to breathe life into: a heavy shape with skin as dark as her own and loyal as she had not been to anyone other than herself.

“Do you love me?” she said to the Golem, one evening early in the onset of its life. It was not an idle curiosity: Eve had carved lack where bones might have been, but this Golem was not the first.

“I do not love you,” said the Golem.

“Do you think I want you to?” she said.

The Golem looked at her, considering. “No,” he said, and Eve was satisfied.

“I am not a kind person, Golem,” she said. “I will not always be kind to you. But that is one cruelty I will not stoop to.”


(Her garden in Byzantium is walled, and in it Eve grows roses and poppies and mint. The roses for their water, the poppies for their dreams and the mint for her drinks, and she lies in the sun, baking to the sounds of the city around her, the clash and clatter of markets, and within the walls her flesh is scented and cool and dozes, while the Golem strips away thorns and bleeds seed pods and mixes the mint with wine and honey. All the plants are in pots, and between them the paths are made of mortar and mosaics, of shards of shattered marble.)


In Lisbon, Eve visited wharfs where great ships embarked on exploration, and the prospect of a new world, of new gardens, was not a foreign one, nor unattractive. She visited palaces and fish markets and Belém Tower, the Carmo Convent, saw the quiet chapels, the library, but although the rose window was beautiful it did not compare with the roses she had grown.

She visited the Opera House, the Phoenix Opera, nine months before it was burnt down, razed by fire and earthquake, and when she visited it was not yet open and still unfinished. One of the workmen recognised her—she had come to him before, once in his youth and once again when there was more grey in his hair than black. He showed her the stage, the dressing rooms, the foundations, and more besides.

“Him again?” said the Golem, when Eve came back with her dress not nearly as perfect as when she had left. “That has not worked so well with you before.”

“Maybe this time will be different,” said Eve, caressing her belly. “Either way, it is the last time. They grow old so quickly, poor things.”

“You are becoming a sentimentalist,” said the Golem.

“If you had a heart you would also have favourites,” said Eve, who remembered her favourites best, the way they strained and built and bloomed around her.


(Eve’s garden in Great Zimbabwe is a place of shifting and shadows, of grass and rock and sculpture, shaded with trees that smell of turpentine, that scatter seed-pods and have leaves like butterfly wings. She stacks stone in the shape of Golems and leaves them unmortared, rings them with thin circles of grass shaped into the earth like letters, strings them with glass beads and porcelain and gold coins. When the Golem stands among them their surfaces are different but the shadows they cast are the same, and the grass brushes up against them both and whispers.)


The first time that Eve sees him, she desires him.

She wonders if he has ever had a woman before. He is so very young. His skin is even smoother than hers, and it amuses her that though she is thousands of years his senior, anyone looking at them would count the difference on less than one hand.

The first time he touches her she is surprised, for his hands are rougher than the rest of him, and his palms have the flavour of stone. He is an apprentice, he tells her. One bound to masonry, and when she runs her fingers through his hair she can feel the traces of ground marble. “You have to be careful with it,” he says. “You have to know where to cut. Mistakes are expensive.”

“Don’t I know it,” says Eve. She feeds him wine, little sips of it while he’s still underneath her, still inside her, and if the wine is raw in his mouth, innocent of cellars and too young on the vines then he is too inexperienced to know it. His intoxication is from other sources. “This is my first harvest,” she says of the liquor, too pale in the glass, taken from thin vines. There had been no more than a handful of grapes. “It came from my own garden.”

There is dirt underneath her fingernails, still.


Eve thinks the second time a whim. It is something she has done before—not often, but it does happen. It amuses her to think that she has fucked the same flesh, with a different inhabitant. The mason only believes he is the same person. There is some similarity in the features, though his skin has lost its smoothness, though his hair is greyed and his form thicker—but he is grown now, and the decades between him and the boy he was make him different than he was before. Or so Eve feels, when she makes love to him and the body beneath her feels new, exciting. As if she were meeting him again, for the first time.

“It’s true, I am not the same,” he says. “I have been a father these past two decades.”

“Oh?” says Eve, who had the Golem drop off the boy at the paternal doorstep. “Well. These things happen.” She rocks above him, feels his hands grip her hips and still her. His fingers press so hard there will be bruises in her flesh.

“These things happen?” he says.

“A child needs a home,” she says. “Is that not the way of it?” If this night’s child were also a boy, she would wrap him carefully in soft fabric, swaddle him in silk, send him out into a place for orphans, or a family looking to foster. Perhaps to the mason, again, if the babe had the hands for it. “And a boy needs a father.”

“If it were a girl?”

“I have never had a daughter I did not have to bury,” she says, and that makes his eyes soften as she hoped it would, loosens his grip on her body. It makes other things soften as well, so Eve leans over him, lets her hair fall around his face in a haze of lavender and fastens her mouth, all redolent with wine, against his own. She moves against him again, slow and urgent.

Softness does not suit her.


“You haven’t changed a day,” he says, spreading his hands wide in supplication, in confession. “You see the same is not true for me.” His face is old, his skin wrinkled and heavy and the truth of his words is written all over him.

There are many things that she could say. “I would know you anywhere,” or “You are not so different.” “Your hands are as they have always been,” perhaps. Eve says none of them. They would all be lies. The Golem has told her of the Opera, of the way it climbs upwards, of the way it lies heavy on the earth. This is not something that interests her, a pretence of a growing thing that holds no green, that does not ripen. What she does remember is a man who worked with stone as if it were plants, as if it were gardens and grafting and knowledge.

When that man lies underneath her again it is as if it were the first time, all over again. As if he were another man. There have been so many. He would not be out of place. She saves the wine, this time, sweet and heavy and perfect, saves it because he is old now and it takes more than her blooming to rouse him. He is a flower himself, quick to wilt at the first sign of bruising, of unkind treatment and alcohol. It is something for them to share when the lovemaking is over and his seed sticky-safe inside her. “I remember this taste,” he says. “I think it is better now, though perhaps that is just an old man’s fancy.”

“No,” says Eve. “It comes from a garden that is just as it should be.”

When she leaves, for the last time, he presses into her palm a small stone flower, carved from marble with green veins all through it. “It’s beautiful,” says Eve.

“I did not know if you would come back,” he says, and the knowledge is between them that she will not do so again. “Keep it to remember me by.”

“I will keep it,” says Eve.

(She doesn’t.)


(In Prague, Eve plants flowers—a carpet of bellflowers and windflowers and helleborine. She picks the flowers one by one, plucks at each petal in a game of love-me-not and sighs. So much destruction leaves her hands sticky, and she buries the denuded heads under a linden tree, under the heavy scent and the beehives and lies with her skirt full of blue and white petals and her palms open to the sky, letting the bees crawl over her and dust her skin with pollen.)


The first Golem she made could not speak, so Eve shattered it so that something, at least, would break the silence, and used pieces of the body as pavestones. It was years before wear rounded the cobbles to comfortable shapes. She still had the scars on her heels.

The second Golem could not walk. The third was too afraid to dig lest its big clay hands be ruined. The fourth was nervous around fire. The fifth was too careless of apples, the sixth wanted nothing more than to drool and eat dirt.

The second she used as a trellis, the third she turned into a birdbath. The fourth she softened with water until it returned to mud, the fifth she dismantled and rebuilt as a cider press. The sixth she let eat, until its greedy child-Golem self was stuffed too full of dirt and exploded into fine grains of fertiliser.

It was a learning process, but Eve didn’t want something created to be dependent, something she would always have to look after. She did not want to be needed; she did not want the obligation.

She valued her own competence too much to hamstring competence in others.

The seventh Golem spoke too much and was clever with sponge baths. Eve gave him a key to the garden gate—the keys to a succession of garden gates—and he tucked the key inside his cheek and wandered out into the city, into a city, one after another. He always came back.

Eve was not sure which of them was the more surprised.


(In Songo Mnara, her garden is confined to a courtyard, and a semi-open one at that. Eve stands the Golem in the doorway and his big body hides her plants, hides the stones she has dug up to make room for root systems. The garden walls are coral blocks and shining lime, and there are statuaries there, and the scent of mangroves. There are pearls and silks and a little trickling pool, and the trees that Eve plants for shade are cool-fruited coconut palms and the thick bulging trunks of baobabs.)


The final birth in Lisbon coincided with earthquakes and water and fire. She’d have liked to take it as a joke, but that would have required a sense of humour so dark it was beyond her, although she thought that the Golem might have appreciated it.

But earthquakes were ephemeral, so Eve dug her fingers into the earth and brought forth in pain. “Push,” said the Golem, and she was used to pushing and to pushing out, her hands clawing at the earth as they had first clawed in the first garden, when she was pushed out with leaves clutched in her hands and twigs under her fingernails, remnants from the tree of life and death, the tree she had not eaten from. Later, she would graft these undying fragments to the tree she had tasted, raised from the seeds she had eaten in the garden. Seeds that had passed through her body and come out softened and ready for planting.

“Push,” said the Golem, and “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Eve replied, panting and filthy and remembering all over again just how much she hated labour. Then the child was crowning and out and “It’s a girl,” said the Golem, “and about time too.”

“You’re telling me,” said Eve, listening to the grinding earth and the fire and the shrieks. “Would you listen to that racket? If we had to stay here any longer there wouldn’t be a moment’s peace.”


(In Maidstone, Eve plants apples and nothing else. Her orchards spread before her, heavy with blossom and fragrant. The apples are red and yellow and green, the fruit shining in the sun like jewels, and she plants them in spirals, in great flowering mazes and she wanders through them crunching apples with her hard bright teeth and sucking the juice from her fingers. She lets the seeds drop behind her like breadcrumbs, and at the centre of the orchards is another tree, another apple, and this is red and green and yellow at once, a perfect grafting, and she gobbles these apples like marchpane, like subtleties, and saves the seeds for planting.)


When Eve smothered her daughter in Lisbon, she was on her hands and knees and with the earth still trembling beneath. It was a feast day, and the normal sounds of celebration had been replaced by screams and the heavy rush of water, but Eve knew that the garden was safe, that the water couldn’t touch her and the ground beneath would stay unsplit, so she did not choose to hurry. It was more important to pat the earth into place than to hurry. More important to cover up that little face gently, so gently, so that it would not be damaged, and to place the seed of grafted apples on the small and silent chest, a stone flower in the tiny cold hand. “Don’t worry, little one,” she said to her daughter. “The fire can’t hurt you, nor can anything else. The tree will keep the garden safe until you’re ready to do it yourself.”

When the seed grew into a tree, there would be the fruit of life and death, the fruit of knowledge, and when that fruit dropped into the root-exposed mouth of the child it would wake and break open the rich, apple-infused earth above it and the garden would have a guardian again. Someone strong, someone to weed and plant and wait until the world that Eve was building was ready for her. A woman’s world, this time, where all the trees were in bounds and the only sin lay in the stifling and limitation of others.

“Really?” said the Golem, when she informed him of such. “What was it that happened to my brothers, again?”


(In Marrakesh, Eve plants cedar and cypress and apricots. She likes the way that their trunks rise about her, the way that the trees make her feel safe and shaded. The Golem helps her to build a little pavilion and Eve carves palm trees into the stone and gorges herself on apricots. She waits until they’re plump and sugar-sticky with bright juice, devours the flesh and buries the clean stones in clusters around the qanat wells and channels.)


Weakened as she was from the birth, Eve was done with the burial, with her goodbyes, before the screams and the swells and the shakings were over. “This is most inconvenient,” she said to the Golem as he stripped her of the filthy birthing clothes, as he cleansed her of blood and earth and sweat and scented her with lavender water, gave her wine to drink from a bottle that had not yet broken.

“It will be difficult to hire porters,” said the Golem, lacing strong shoes onto her feet so that she could not be cut by fragments of crockery and glass, the hard ragged edges of fallen masonry. “And there is only so much I can carry.”

“Then we’ll just take what’s most important,” said Eve. “The seeds, of course, and gold. Once we’re out of the city it will be easier to find transportation. I don’t know about you, Golem, but I feel the sudden need to be somewhere else.”

“Where are we going?” said the Golem. “Madrid, Bilbao, Bordeaux?”

“I think not,” said Eve. “I think this time I would like to go south. We have not been south for such a long time.”

“There is a lot of south,” said the Golem. He would have said it had been a hard birth, that she needed to rest, but Eve had her little carving knife still and if there were no grapes left in the garden there was glass on the floors, glass that could be scratched and swallowed and this was not a time for silence.

“We have plenty of time,” said Eve. “And you have always said I should travel more.”

When she locked the garden gate behind her for the final time, and went out into the ruins of Lisbon, the garden shimmered behind her and was gone.

“You’d never know it was there,” said the Golem.

“Of course not,” said Eve, who had known knowledge and its lack, who had known life and its ending and who had little tolerance for bald displays of power. “That’s the point.”


(In Wellington, Eve’s garden is pohutukawa and cabbage trees, bright red flowers with fronds like strands of blood and spiking leaves that stand bold against the sky. There are kowhai that bloom in brief waves of gold, kowhai that entice the tui to her garden, their feathers green-black and shot through with purple. There are toetoe and flaxes and ferns, and her garden is hidden by hills. The pohutukawa are her favourite: they cling to crevices on the hillside, make their homes on cliffs and precarious places, and though they shift in the wind they do not fall.

Eve carves their blossoms out of clay and swallows them whole; carves words upon their leaves and feeds them to the Golem and is happy.)