The Fruit of Consent
(or Me, Too)
YOU ARE in a vast cavern. The sound of dripping water echoes in the silence. You want to rest here, but there is a problem. Nearby sits an emaciated, bearded man in a loincloth. Chained by the ankle to a steel eye bolt in the bedrock, he is clutching his knees, head buried between his thighs.
His presence makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t it? It certainly spoils the ambience. Above this prisoner, within standing reach, hang dense clusters of peaches, while just beyond his feet lies the edge of a crystalline pool. The man looks to be starving and, judging by his desiccated skin, parched. Why does he not bend to the water or reach for a peach? The question is not unreasonable.
“Excuse me, sir? You look hungry. Why not eat the fruit?”
The man raises his head and squints in your direction.
“Sir?” you repeat.
He sighs. Like an aged pony forced to again perform his one trick, he stands to reach for the low-hanging fruit. Just as his fingers close in on a peach, the branch retracts, drawing the bounty from his reach. As if to preempt the next question, the man bends and lowers his lips to the pool, but the water slips away. The man slumps back down.
The tree refuses its ambrosia, the pond its nectar. You are clearly in a magical place. You might have clued into this when you first saw a peach tree growing in a cave. That said, you have gleaned valuable intelligence. You deserve to know more. Perhaps you should ask the tree.
“Tree,” you ask, “why do you not give freely of your fruit?”
“This man assaulted me,” the peach tree responds. “He assumed my fruit was for the taking.”
“But we want to be taken!” a cluster of peaches squeal in unison. “We’re so ripe and heavy! We’re desperate to be squeezed and plucked! To feel large, firm teeth sink into our juicy meat—
“Enough!” booms the tree. “Who gave you permission to speak? Another word and I’ll fling you off and leave you to rot upon the rock!” The tree takes a calming breath. Its leaves shiver. “Forgive my feckless fruit. Drunk with their sensual flesh, they forget the consensual imperative.”
You are speechless. Maybe you want to hear more from the peaches but, judging by your glassy look and drooping jaw, it’s for all the wrong reasons. Do not go astray, focus on the crime. What if the man never asked the tree for consent?
“Tree, did the man ask if he might eat of your fruit?”
The tree scoffs with a shaking of branches. “He’s a bad guy, that’s all you need to know.”
You pause, then turn to the man. “Sir, have you asked for consent from the tree?”
The man glares up at you. He says nothing.
“Only when it’s advantageous!” the tree snaps. “He begs like a dog. Groveling at my roots. It’s a major turnoff.”
It appears we are at a stalemate. The man must ask to be given, but the very gesture of asking repels the tree. Such are the unfortunate paradoxes of life. The man must starve. The peaches must go uneaten.
You consider asking the pool why it withdraws from his lips but then, to your credit, realize that water is too mysterious for prosaic questioning. You remain silent.
You have other questions that also remain unasked: How does the man survive without food or drink? How did peaches acquire the power of speech? How in God’s name did you arrive here? All reasonable questions, all tangential. The only thing that matters lies inside your fist.
You open your fist to find an iron skeleton key. The shackled man leans toward you and extends a trembling arm, palm up. You take a tentative step toward him. Are you not forgetting something?
Where is his consent? Don’t look so puzzled. Consent is compulsory. Nonnegotiable. Ask him.
“Sir, do I have your consent?”
The man holds your gaze but says nothing.
Ask again. Be more specific. And remember, no means no. Ask him.
“Sir, do I have your consent to give you the key?”
He shakes his head. His voice is hoarse but perceptible: “You don’t need my consent for this.”
“Then you don’t need the key!” you scream. You hurl the key far out, deep into the pool, where it plops with a bright splash. You are shocked by your violent response but also invigorated by your outrage. As the concentric ripples travel out from the sinking key, you await further directives, but there are none.
The man has been watching you. He rises with ease to his feet. “True, I don’t need it,” he says in a clear voice. “The key was not for me.” He strides toward the tree and the shackle, which was never locked, slips off his ankle. After plucking a peach, he walks out of the cave.
“Wait,” you cry, overtaken by remorse. “I’m sorry I asked for consent, don’t judge me, I was pressured into it!” You leap up to chase after him, but the shackle locked around your ankle jerks you back and slams you to the floor.
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This story would not have been possible without the enduring sacrifice of King Tantalus, whose torment kindly brings us the etymology of the day:
"to tease or torment by presenting something desirable to the view, and frustrating expectation by keeping it out of reach," 1590s, with -ize + Latin Tantalus, from Greek Tantalos, name of a mythical king of Phrygia in Asia Minor, son of Zeus, father of Pelops and Niobe, famous for his riches, punished in the afterlife (for an offense variously given) by being made to stand in a river up to his chin, under branches laden with fruit, all of which withdrew from his reach whenever he tried to eat or drink.”
- Online Etymology Dictionary
This evening at sundown marks the start of Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, a time of celebration and festivity but also a day of judgment, when deeds and misdeeds are accounted for and the fates of the righteous, the wicked, and the middling (where most of us, alas, fall) are recorded.
Happy Judgment Day! 🍑