Of Good And Evil - A Heath Story
"The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground-trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil." - The Book of Genesis
"Momma, this apple don't taste good," the blonde-headed little boy complained as he stepped onto the front porch.
Leah laughed softly at the bitter look on her five-year-old's face. "It doesn't taste good," she corrected, and taking the small, green fruit from his hand, she smiled at the tentative bite marks in its spotted skin. "It's a crabapple, Heath. You're not supposed to eat it like a real apple. It'll sour your stomach."
"But it is a real apple." Heath frowned and his brows drew together. "Jamie told me they were sweet."
"He lied to you." Sudden anger had her throwing the bitter fruit into the yard. Jamie Atwater had no business telling her son such lies. He was fourteen and knew better. "Don't you listen to Jamie again. He's trouble. Come inside, supper's gettin' cold." She placed her palm between Heath's thin shoulder blades and guided him into the house.
That night, when supper was put away and dishes dried, Leah settled into her rocking chair by the lamp and took up the Bible that lay next to her. She opened up and began to read, but Heath wanted her attention. He put a small, warm hand on her arm. "Momma..."
She folded the book and looked at her son. His hair glowed golden in the lamplight and she placed her hand on his head. She imagined the fine strands of gold were like an angel's hair. "What is it, my love?"
"I can't sleep." He rubbed his eyes. "My stomach's sour."
She laughed out loud, but hushed when she saw how serious he looked. "You didn't eat enough crabapples to get sick. I promise. Come here." She knew she should not allow him on her lap. She should let him grow up quickly, for the sooner he was a man, the better off he would be, but sometimes-just sometimes, she wanted to hold him. He was all the love she had.
"I'll tell you a story about an apple right from the Bible."
"The Bible has apple stories?"
She nodded. "Mm-hm." She started to rock as he rested his head on her shoulder. It would do well for her son to begin to learn something about the good as well as the evil in this world. "The story begins in a garden..."
"Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"
Heath cradled his government-issued rifle in one arm and plucked three apples from the trees near the old Henderson road. The trees had been cleaned through and the apples he grabbed were likely worm ridden. He examined them for holes and found none.
He received a slap on the back.
"You're lucky day, Heath!" His friend, Jesse Camp smiled from ear to ear. He was missing a front tooth, but he didn't mind showing it. "What I wouldn't give for one of them fine apples."
Heath shot him a suspicious glance and shoved two into his pocket. "It ain't a prize, Camp. It's green and wormy and won't give you but a mouthful." Heath tossed it to him anyway. "Have at it."
"Shut up, up there!" Someone shouted from the ranks of marching men. "And don't eat them apples. There's a reason why they was left behind."
Heath grinned. He didn't care about their condition. Any apple was a change from a constant diet hardtack, tea, and occasional corn cobs found in untended fields. Someone in the back started to sing and more men joined in.
Can I go, Dearest Mother?
Heath didn't join in. The song was as bitter to him as he was sure the apples in his pocket must be. He couldn't think about Leah. She was too far gone from this war torn land. Might as well be in another world, in another lifetime from him.
"...but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.'"
Carterson prison was hell, and Matt Bentell was the devil himself.
The headquarters rested on green grass near the main entrance to Carterson. Heath only glimpsed it once before when he was entering those very gates as a prisoner. That must have been only two months ago, but it seemed like years.
He was making it though, despite the aches of an always empty stomach, despite the deaths of those around him, despite the near absence of drinkable water. He somehow coped. Perhaps it was Leah who kept him going. The thought of returning to her in the end, of helping her toward a better life when all this was said and done, kept him alive. Perhaps it was her faith too that held him, for he'd lost his long ago.
Jesse Camp hadn't done well in the prison. His body wasted away to just skin and bone. He could still talk, though in raspy whispers. He still tried to make Heath laugh. He was dying. Couldn't get himself off the tattered blanket he'd lain on for the past three days. Couldn't even lift his head. He needed something to sustain him just a little longer, until the prisoner exchange could take place and he could get out of here.
Heath took a rare chance today, by offering to work on the chimney at Bentell's headquarters. He lied about the masonry work he'd done in the past and learned all the necessary skills on this one job. He was a mason now. In another time, he could have laughed at the irony of it.
He was gone two days and nights, getting that chimney patched up so Bentell could live in comfort through the coming winter while the men under his charge tried to survive in ratty canvas tents.
He found Jesse where he'd left him two days ago, only he had no shoes. Someone had stolen them right off his feet. Heath shivered at a cold gust of wind and heard his friend's voice. "Thought you were dead."
"Someone took your shoes," was all Heath could say.
"Liar." Heath knelt beside his friend. He was used to the stench of the dying, but he was repulsed that his friend had to die in such conditions. "I brought you something." He reached into his pocket and pulled from it a shiny red apple. "From Bentell's own garden. Bastard's got a kitchen full."
"Your lucky day, Heath."
"It's yours," Heath insisted and he held it out to his friend, only then realizing he had no way to bite through its shiny skin. Sickness had made him too weak to even reach up to take it. Jesse would die where he was.
Heath sat back on his heels. The apple was the most perfect thing in this dingy, evil-ridden world. It was a bitter fruit indeed.
"For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."
His father's house was mighty. Built by hands he'd never seen, by hands he was never allowed to know. Now he knew. Leah told him, finally, who his father was. It didn't matter to him that he hadn't known Tom Barkley. He didn't care that he'd never seen his father when he was alive. He only knew that Tom's family had everything good God had made. Anger had brought Heath to this house, to take that which should have been his and Leah's all along. He'd come here to lay claim to it, to fight tooth and nail for what was rightfully his.
What he hadn't expected, was her.
He wanted to hate all of them, but the evil he built up in his mind simply wouldn't materialize. No matter how many times he'd made monsters of all of them, they came back to him with kindness.
This night, he meant only to gather his things and be on his way, but he saw the apples. Plenty of them on the parlor table, just as they looked that day at Bentell's headquarters. Gleaming and rich. They were untouchable.
But they weren't. He could take them all. He'd fill his hat with them and walk right out as free as he pleased. No one would stop him.
But she was there again. He tried to walk past her, but he couldn't. Victoria was a woman of extraordinary courage, not unlike his Leah. He saw it in her eyes now. She seemed to understand him without question, and without really knowing who he was, she proceeded to tell him who he was.
"…if you were my son."
Those words lingered in his mind for a long time afterward. He was almost felled by them. She spoke to him as if he were her son. He was in awe of her.
His mouth was bitter now, the apples he left uneaten.
"And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil."
His horse went lame miles from the Barkley house. He walked rather than cause the animal more harm. Limping and dusty, he dragged himself into the house he now called home. Grateful for the soft chair he sank into, he pulled the boots from his tired feet. His brother, who sank into the chair beside his, was always interested in anything Heath was up to and kept asking questions. Heath answered patiently as they both grabbed apples from the bowl in front of them.
Heath took one sweet bite, never for a moment taking this new family or this apple for granted. His brother did the same, not thinking at all what a fresh, juicy apple might mean to a fellow like Heath. At that moment, his sister marched in, eyes alight with anger. Marching, he assumed, to the gun rack.
"Heath," said his brother. "I swear if I didn't know better...I'd say it seems like-maybe-Audra's planning to shoot somebody."
My lucky day, he thought, here with this family. Before he got up to find out the truth of his sister's quest, he took another bite of the deliciously sweet apple and was glad that in the end he found good in the world.