“After the Fig Leaves, Eve Cuts Her Hair”
So when they bury Abel, there is no veil
between her grief and her love. And there he stands,
so like his father, his cities yet unbuilt.
His father cuts open earth with bare hands,
leaving plough and shovel, the sharp edges
and the heavy handles, apart in furrowed field.
She calls each animal he resembles: mole, badger, fox.
He named them, once, and now she names him:
father unfathered, sonless, one son less. The sun hangs
round and clear, apple-red, above the dark tree line.
Once, when Cain was the only child in the world,
their fields withered and arrows flew fruitless.
Dull-eyed by the empty fire, beside the windless cedars,
he wailed at the dry breast. Much later,
after thunder dumbed the stars,
they faced the barren, muddied vale together. Adam said,
God made paradise, and we made this—
this is all we have to give him. He struck his staff
upon the seedless ground. Cain made two tiny fists.
Abel she cannot unsee as a splintered spear
of red lightning, reduced to kindling
on the perfumed grass, the churned earth
weeping red mud. Loss escapes her in a hiss
of distant fear: this time, the choice
for death has been made for her,
despite that it was life she’d sent into the world.
Her voiceless throat swells tight, dry as scales.
Her hair is short and stiff and gray. The world is young.
There will yet be other sons, and daughters more;
the seed of man must multiply. But this grief is older
than she knows, its gaze fixed far ahead
on what, someday, must be done. The wind’s voice
keens a long lament, a parent loss,
the form of sons’ deaths yet to come.
“After the Fig Leaves, Eve Cuts Her Hair” by LeighAnna Schesser was originally published in Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry 2018 and is used here by permission of the author. The poem will appear in Schesser’s first full-length poetry collection, Struck Dumb with Singing, to be published by Lambing Press in May 2020.
LeighAnna Schesser’s poem “After the Fig Leaves, Eve Cuts Her Hair” explores parental grief following the death of a child—in particular, that of our primordial parents, Adam and Eve, who mourn the loss of their second-born son, Abel. Genesis 4:1–16 recounts how Abel was murdered by his older brother, Cain, in a fit of jealousy. This is the first human death in the Bible, and it was the direct result of sin.
The poem starts with the title, which flows with unbroken syntax into the first line: “After the fig leaves, Eve cuts her hair so when they bury Abel, there is no veil between her grief and her love.” The cutting of hair in response to death in the immediate family is a ritual practiced by women in many Native American tribes and Aboriginal people groups, where the act of severing, and the subsequent absence of, a cherished part of your self serves as a stark physical reminder of your loss. Similarly, after 9/11, many non-Native women in the US cut their hair as a sign of shock and sadness at the immense loss of life; one woman said, “I felt so different internally, I wanted something to express it externally.” Schesser imagines Eve taking part in some form of this ancient mourning ritual, wanting to leave her crying face exposed.
This is “after the fig leaves,” euphemistic shorthand for that landmark event earlier in her life in which she stole fruit from an off-limits tree and then, feeling shame for the first time, went to cover her nakedness with the first available foliage. The title/opening line, between that prepositional phrase and the first clause, skips over quite a long period of time—from the Genesis account, it sounds like at least two decades passed between Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden and the murder of Abel. But these two events are life-defining for Eve, so the chronology is collapsed.
“And there he stands / [. . .] his cities yet unbuilt.” The “he” here refers to Cain, who, after being confronted by God, went into exile “east of Eden,” to the land of Nod (Gen. 4:17). In his later life he built up the world’s first city, Enoch.
Like the burrowing species of animals he named, Adam digs into the earth with his bare hands—elemental. For this, the making of his son’s grave, he leaves aside plow and shovel as a sort of penance: he wants to feel directly the hard dirt, his body’s full labor and sweat, the effects of the curse he brought upon the world, which he feels implicates him in his son’s death. As he digs, the sun hangs above him “round and clear, apple-red,” a taunting reminder of his former trespass.
In the third stanza the speaker goes back to the time that’s elided in the poem’s opening, back to when Adam and Eve left God’s teeming garden and entered a dead world. They struggled to secure food for themselves. Eve gave birth to a baby boy, but soon her breast milk dried up. It was then that they resolved to get down to business and fight for a life in this inhospitable land. Even baby Cain expressed defiance against the odds with little fists as Adam broke new ground.
Snapping back to the present, Eve observes Abel’s limp body, bloody and broken and reddening the earth. “The churned earth / weep[s] red mud”—an arresting poetic image to match God’s in Genesis 4:11: “The ground . . . has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand,” he tells Cain. We are taken back again to the Fall through more figurative language, this time evoking the snake: fear “hiss[es]” in the distance; Eve’s throat is “dry as scales.” Eve, God’s child, chose death in the Garden, and now her child (the one to whom she gave life) has chosen death too. She now has a taste of the horror, disappointment, and sadness God must have felt.
“Though the world is young,” the poem continues, “this grief is older / than she knows.” Older, even, than God’s grief at the Fall. For another child of God, his “only begotten son” (John 3:16), was destined to die millennia later—“the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). In his foreknowledge God saw this death and mourned it immensely. His is the oldest grief.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting The First Mourning shows the lifeless body of Abel sprawled out over Adam’s lap, and he and Eve ridden with grief. Adam clutches his broken heart, and Eve buries her face in her hands, sobbing uncontrollably. The only color in the bleak landscape is from the puddle of blood on the ground. In the background, smoke rises from an altar, mixing with the storm clouds in the sky; this is the remnant of Abel’s offering going up to God, the cause of Cain’s resentment that led him to commit murder.
By the time Bouguereau painted this scene in 1888, three of his five children had died of illness. (A fourth child of his would also die within his lifetime—twelve years later, at age thirty-two.) He knew the sorrow that accompanies such a traumatic event as seeing your kids leave this world before you do.
The iconography he uses is closely related to that of the Pietà, an image type that shows a grieving Virgin Mary holding her dead son, Jesus, on her lap following his crucifixion. The connection is intentional, as death—which Abel was the first person to experience—will ultimately be undone by the death and resurrection of Jesus. The writer of Hebrews says that “the sprinkled blood [of Jesus] speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:24), because Christ’s blood is redemptive, bringing us back to the Garden that we lost through sin.
For an adaptation of Bouguereau’s The First Mourning by African American folk artist Ellis Ruley, see http://collection.folkartmuseum.org/objects/2474/pieta.
Call to artists: I’d love to see you interpret Schesser’s poem visually: Eve shorn inside and out (her hair “short and stiff and gray”), wearing her grief openly; Adam animalistic, digging a grave by hand; Cain looking on; and the wind bearing their lament forward to the cross. If you pursue this suggestion, do let me know!
LeighAnna Schesser is a Catholic writer and a homeschooling mom of four from Kansas, whose forthcoming book of poetry, Struck Dumb with Singing (out in May), “meditates on family, devotion, divine mysteries, and their rootedness in place.” Visit Schesser at her website, https://acanticleforhomestead.com/, where you will find, among other things, links to some of her other published poems and articles.