The Old Man and the Beginning of Death

There is a story I once learned, one that I told myself again and again, but with so many tales filling the world, it got pushed out of my head.

I will tell the bones of it that I remember, probably changing a few minor details.

Once long ago, before any time that any human can remember, there was Na’pi, the old man. He lived by a long and calm river, the only of his kind, with only the animals to talk to. One day out of loneliness, he took clay from the riverbank and formed it into two shapes, a woman and her son. Saying, “You must be people,” he put them in the water, where they came to life, and he helped them back onto the land. If he gave them names, they are not remembered, but the names of the plants and animals he taught them, and they walked with him each day to learn these.

The boy was quiet, respectful of the man he saw as a grandfather, but the woman had many questions. One day by the river, she asked Na’pi,  “How will it be with us? Will we live always?”

The old man said, “I have not thought of this. I will throw a shard of bark into the water, and if it floats, when people die they will come back to life after three days, they will be dead for only three days. But if it sinks, there will be an end to them.”

The old man threw the bark into the water, and it floated. Humans had won immortality, but only for a moment, for the woman said, “No, I will throw this stone into the water, and if it sinks people will die, so that they may always feel sorry for each other.” She threw the stone in, and it sank at once to the bottom.

Na’pi sighed, “Then humans will die. Let there be an end to them.”

It is often the woman who is the bringer of ill fortune, as in Pandora opening the famous box, Eve accepting the forbidden apple. We may now think of these stories as proof of the long oppression of women, but I always saw them differently. I think Eve was braver than Adam to want the knowledge of good and evil, and anyway, when I was young my father told me that some people (the Gnostics, perhaps) believe the God of the Old Testament was actually a cruel demiurge, that Jesus’s good God of the New Testament was actually the serpent in the Garden, trying to lure the first people out of their ignorance. “You must be people,” he thought, believing that it is better to live in a harsh world and be aware than to live a perpetual, ignorant childhood in the Garden.

The Garden may be what we all wish for now, but I think our longing for it is not a wish to be ignorant again, but our missing the Other Side. Adam and Eve’s story may be an allegory of human life before we came to inhabit the Earth, when we lived in Heaven’s perfection, and the biting of that fatal apple was our decision to begin to incarnate. I wrote a story once about that choice and the grief it caused, but I don’t think my characters regretted their decision. Not very much, anyway. And I wrote a screenplay once that included the above story of Na’pi. If I can ever find it or remember it well enough, I may make it into a book, though I’d rather see it as a movie. I once had the whole soundtrack picked out.

If you look at that story a slightly different way, you actually see that the woman was the kinder. Bringing death into the world meant a release from Earthly bondage, the ability to go home between incarnations. I can’t think of anything worse than living here forever, being trapped in this cage of a body, like being trapped in a burning house. I think the only way we can stand life on this planet is we get to go home every few or several decades, and if you’re like me, you tell yourself each time you incarnate, “Never again, this is the last time.” It’s a promise I never keep to myself. Over and over I find myself a strange child again, a wavering adolescent, a calmer adult. And when death washes over me like a cleansing water, I think, “Oh, this. I remember this…”

Author: athlynne

"From mirror after mirror, No vanity's displayed. I'm looking for the face I had Before the world was made." - W.B. Yeats