a short story
It’s always in the way her eyes drift as she speaks. The way her words trail off as if a dream of which she can never recall all the details. I sense sureness in her voice, almost, every time I ask, and yet she cannot give me what I seek. Maybe what I ask are too big questions with even bigger answers. My mother assures me she cannot remember the Garden, though she knows of its name, not its whereabouts. And if it still exists, she only knows to tell me “No.”
Eden, that’s the word she mutters in passing, at night while she sleeps, in the corners of the long hours of days when she thinks no one is listening; she whispers the name aloud to herself.
“Eden,” I will repeat to her when I help her weave.
It makes her twitch when I do this. I don’t know why. I am only six, but I have learned the power this word holds over my mother. It’s an old wound. A deep cut. Broken flesh.
If my father heard me say the word, I doubt he would have the same reaction, if any at all, though my voice has yet to be heard by his ears. Even so, I wonder if he allows the word to carry the same weight that my mother clearly lets sag beneath her eyes, in the void of her hips, the hull of her chest.
My brother, Cain, hears me when I speak to my mother about the Garden, and although he never interferes, he will often observe our conversation from afar. Most of the time it’s outside while I accompany my mother in fetching the water, and he helps our father with the crops in the field. Like today, I see him listening to us, hearing enough of our dialogue, at least, to confront me about it tonight before the fire is burned out.
“You should not speak of such things,” he tells me. “It makes her sad when you bring it up.”
“She spoke of it first.”
He frowns. “So?”
“So?” I echo. “If she hadn’t then I would not know to ask. Has Father ever mentioned such a place before?”
“You don’t hear me, Abel. Speak no more of it. She doesn’t need to be reminded.” It’s an order he gives me, one I must follow; so, I seal my mouth closed for the night and don’t mention it again.
Then, when he is satisfied with my silence, Cain smothers the fire, turns his back to me, and goes silent. Following this, he is quick to fall asleep while I lie awake with a thousand eyes and a thousand more thoughts. The room swells with the voice inside my head. The wind blowing in through the slit of our tent does little good to distract me. In fact, the way it strikes the straw in my pallet pricks my flesh, and I am left not only mentally aware of myself but physically aware, too. And I’m also left thinking: How can my brother not wonder? He is older than me, did he not hear our mother speak of a promised land before I came tender and pink and screaming into the world? However, I know this is just another question I should not ask.
The next morning, Cain and I find our mother sitting in front of the reflection pond behind our home. Formed by a dirt pit my father dug and filled with rainwater, this is Mother’s favorite place to rest. On her knees, she combs the knots out of her long, liver-colored hair and regards herself on the surface of the pooled water.
“Where is Father?” Cain asks when we approach. He presses the edge of a fig to his lips and sucks on the skin until it splits open and pink, seed-filled meat spills between his teeth.
I stay behind him, in his shadow, where I’m most comfortable. We are supposed to assist our father in the field today. Cain is to teach me how to handle the crops. Despite my lack of interest, as my older brother, he insists I must learn.
“Your father has gone,” answers our mother.
“Gone?” Cain’s face scrunches in an ugly expression. “Gone where? Where is there to go?”
“Your father has gone…” Mother continues. “He has gone…has he gone? To Eden?” Her voice drops to a mere rustle of breath. “Eden?” She repeats as if to question herself.
Cain gives me a quick look out of the corner of his eye; I register his irritation. Do nothing, his gaze instructs me.
Mother’s fingers tangle and twist and pull at her hair in sync with her thoughts. She cannot get them out. “Eden? The place with lush greens and heavy, sagging fruit?” Her words are a never-ending string. Then she move her hand to her heel. With gentle force, she presses the soft pads of her fingertips to either side as she continues mumbling. “Eden? Eden? No. Keep that away from me!” She slaps the fig from Cain’s grasp. It drops to the ground half-bitten, rolling a few steps away from where I stand.
Cain stares at Mother in disbelief. “What was that for? Who are you speaking to? What is this Eden?”
“There is no such place,” I slip in, looking up at Cain for approval. He glances down at me and nods.
But then there is light. Recognition dawns on our mother’s face, illuminated with remembrance. “Eden,” she says again.
Great. I cannot help but feel responsible because I have reminded her. I am to blame. Cain warned me, he told me not to let this happen, and I have done just that. What have I awoken? How can I fix this? But then there is another thought, which is that, is it truly such a bad thing for her to remember?
“Cain,” I tug on his tunic. He disregards me.
“Oh, my sons, there is a place.” Our mother whips around to face us and seizes my brother by the shoulders. “There is a place by such a sweet name! I can taste it, the pulp of fruit crushed beneath my teeth, lodged underneath the bitter underside of my tongue, draining down my throat.” She digs her fingers white into my brother’s plump, adolescent body; I eye the forgotten fig.
“Cain,” I voice again, louder this time. And again, his only focus is on our mother.
“Tell me where it is,” she shakes Cain.
“No,” he says, firmly. “You need to stop this. Your sons need you.”
“Tell me how to find it again,” Mother continues without faltering. “Tell me. Tell me, and I will not fail you again, Lord.”
“Mother!” My brother rips himself free of her hold. “Where is our father? You will tell me now.”
“Your father… your father?” There it is again. The drift of her eyes, the drag of her words. Then: “There,” she points to a figure off in the distance. One of our goats is out of our protected gate, alone. “He is there.”
I do not wait. My feet turn dirt to mud as I run after it. It doesn’t take much to guide it back to our herd. The animals have always taken to me better than my brother, or even my father. If either of them was to go after the goat, it would continue to flee. With me, our animals approach, never run.
“You have a kinder touch,” my father once told me when I was much younger than I am now. It’s one of the few times he has spoken so directly to me. I like to think that what he said is true.
I am nine when I am put in charge of our livestock. My father’s decision, of course, though my mother agrees with this responsibility for me. She waves to me from our home down the hill. I lounge beneath the shade of an olive tree while the animals graze around me.
Cain, now a man, tends to the field beyond our home. He does not mind me much, not anymore. Ever since the field passed on to him from Father, he has only cared about making impressions. To be a better farmer than even our father, to the point of moving his pallet out of the tent we shared to a palace where he can see the crops before he falls asleep at night and as he wakes in the morning. It’s an obsession, this need to please our father. Cain takes his job with fierce attentiveness. Perhaps I should be envious or wish to carry the same tenacity with my new job. However, I’m happy with my sheep, and goats, and the olives that drop ready for eating from the branches of this tree that veils me.
Today, my mother joins me beneath the shade. We lie on our backs and watch as the clouds pass us by. She takes my hand in hers. “Your brother loves you,” she assures me. “He just has a hard time showing it. He is like your father in that way.”
“Father was like this before Cain?” I pry, careful not to speak of Eden so blatantly. It’s been quite some time since she has had an outburst of mad emotion regarding the topic. I don’t dare ensue one now.
There is a shine in her eyes at my question, a ghost of a smile crosses her lips. “Adam was worse. I could not get him to leave me alone.” She remembers, she must, since her only time before Cain was in the Garden. She’s thinking back on it now. Still, I don’t say its name. When she is ready, she will tell me herself, without the help to do so.
“Consider this distance a chance to breathe,” Mother continues. “Find yourself, my babe, for you will be a man yet.”
She threads her fingers through my hair and draws me close to her. I do not ask her about Eden, but I do mention it to Cain this evening while we bathe ourselves free of the day’s grime and work in the river.
“She remembers. Mother remembers Eden,” I tell him.
Cain’s brows narrow to a straight line over his eyes. “What did you say?”
“Mother remembers the Garden called Eden.”
“What makes you say that? Why would you ever say that?”
He hates when I mention the Garden or utter its name. I know this because of how his face shifts. It leaves him prickly with heat hearing the words leave my mouth, though I cannot claim to know why. I can only assume he wishes to safeguard Mother. But from what, again, I am lost to my own questions.
“She spoke of Father,” I explain, “and what he had been like before you were born. From a time that could have only been spent in the Garden.”
Cain drags his feet toward me, but he says nothing. Then, he scoffs and turns away from me. “You do not know what you say.”
“I do.” I think through his words. “She told me.”
“She would not?” I argue. “Before you, there was only Eden.”
All at once, Cain takes my neck between his hands and shoves me onto my back in the sludge that surrounds the river grounds, driving my shoulder blades in so that I cannot move.
I muster all of my strength and push upward into his chest, but my brother has grown. The field has made him strong, much stronger than I. It will not be long before he is like our father, sinewy with thick curves of muscle.
“Let me go!” I fight back.
“No—stop! Abel, stop.” But I am not so easily swayed. I keep pushing, I keep trying. It does little good. Even at fourteen, Cain is a stone, unable to be moved by sheer force alone.
I give up, he has me. The knobs of his knees squeeze in against the side of my ribs. I will not be able to leave until he does.
When Cain catches his breath, he glares down at me; however, there is not only anger tightening between the ridge of his brows, but also a type of somberness. Or perhaps it is a concern. I will not know until he speaks.
“We will talk no more of this Eden.” Another order. “Do you understand me, brother?”
I cannot get my words to pass his grip, so I give no reply. But would it matter if I could? He is strict with his reactions, always has been. This has been his response to every mention of the Garden, with anger and caution. He protects what little knowledge he possesses. I’m almost curious to know what he has been told. If I ever considered it before, it was not enough. Now the thought is plaguing, but it’s not worth dying over; so, I swallow it whole, eating it raw until the time comes for me to receive answers.
* * *
The sheep are playful today. They run alongside one another, knocking their head into the soft wool of another’s side, and they bleat, and bleat, and bleat. Secrets they no longer mind sharing. I keep an eye on them from beneath my olive tree.
Behind me, there is a grunt, the clearing of a throat, and it catches my ears. When I turn to find where the noise had come from, it’s my father, I see, come to find me.
My back straightens against the trunk of the tree. As he nears, he says nothing. However, he does acknowledge my good work. His eyes drift across the pasture at all the sheep grazing our land; the barest incline of his head. He is pleased.
“Which one does he belong to?” My father’s finger points to our newest lamb. I watch the small creature as it stumbles, struggling to keep up with all those twice the size. He had not been there for the birth of this one, a sticky, red occasion. Logically, he does not know where the youngling comes from.
“That’s Seth. From the younger sister of our oldest,” I say.
He looks down at me, wrinkling his nose. “Seth?” It’s not so much a question as it is a reaction. One of puzzling interest, and yet one that doesn’t make sense.
I nod in turn. “That’s what I have named him.”
“Hmm.” That same reaction, again. Had I the right to name a creature whose name already belonged to my father? They are all lambs, sheep, mutton, but this one, he is Seth. And he is mine.
The next day, far off in the distance, I see a figure stalking the pasture. It’s no beast I have ever seen or animal that drags its claw along the ground, but a man. Perhaps my brother or father? But why have they come to the pasture? And why so far away? But that’s when I learn the truth. Every answer to every possible question I can conjure in all of half a second. The arms of my father strangled around the little neck of my dear Seth.
I watch, helpless, as Seth struggles underneath the weight of my father, but it is useless to fight. If there is any one skill my father has that the rest of us don’t, it’s his strength. I know he is dead before it happens. There’s no stopping what my father so clearly deems necessary.
Tonight I cry in my mother’s lap, thinking only of Seth’s mother this evening doing the same, no longer having her son warm and alive by her side. If only I could not hear her cries for him from within the tent. I wish she would settle down. I wish it did not happen.
“It needed to be done,” explains my brother, in the morning.
It did not, I think inwardly. But I do not say it. “For what purpose?” That is all I am capable of asking.
Cain lifts his shoulders in disregard of the value I have placed on such a young creature. An illogical response to life if I want to do well in this brutal new world our Creator has provided us, my brother would tell me, if he were to have anything to say about it. He thinks he is wise. But he cannot know much when he values his field over my animals.
“Our father seeks forgiveness from God,” explains Cain.
“For what purpose?” I bite out, again.
Cain pauses. Silence settles. Then he tells me, “It will make you feel better to know it died quickly and with little pain.”
I scoff. “Go feast on your figs and leave me alone.”
What he says does not make me feel better, and he did not answer my question. I depart his presence without another lift of my tongue and find my way to the altar just off to the side of our house where I am told Seth had been sacrificed. The air remains thick with the flux of death and the smell of smoke. His once small, contorted body that had been placed mangled over the ill-formed stack of logs below him is now nothing but a pile of feathered ashes. Here is where I cry what few tears I have left in my body.
This would not have happened in Eden, I think. I don’t know much, but I do know that. Mother’s ramblings of the Garden tell me I’m right. I repeat them to Seth, into what is left of his innocence.
It takes me many winters to become strong enough to withstand the sacrifices that have been going on since before I was born, it seems. Mother informed me Father did not involve me nor my brother to protect us from the horrid sight. I did not ask her, and yet she shared this information with me, anyhow. Whether to believe her or not, I don’t know. My mother is not a woman of lies, though I cannot say the same for my father.
The months pass this way, I tend to our animals and ignore the ripe stench of shed blood and burned flesh, and before I know it I become the man my mother prepared me for. When I look in her reflection pond, I see him taking shape. He is in the tight rigidity of my brows, in the structure of my jaw, nose, mouth, and in my thick developing neck. He is in the dark trail of hair that has sprouted at my waist and beneath my arms.
I am fourteen when my brother notices these changes, too.
“For a man, you sure do take after our mother,” he says before leaving for a day in the field. I don’t know if this is a compliment or if he does this to belittle me, but I will not allow myself to dawdle on his comment.
It’s because of my eyelashes, I decide. They are too thick, too curled. When he told me, his eyes lingered over them far too long for this not to be what he had been referring to. My brother has no lashes like mine. His are dark, and as thick as mine, yet they are much shorter. Between us, he has always been the one who looks the most like our father, but as we continue to grow and age, it’s more apparent than ever.
At dinner tonight, while we feast on salted pork, glistening olives, and smeared, curdled goat cheese on matzah, my father asks me to provide our next sacrifice. All chatter and scraping of fingernails against earthenware ceases. Every set of eyes, including those of my brother, are hard-set on me. There is silence. My father has to repeat himself before I am able to loosen my jaw.
“Is this a task you’re capable of completing?” he asks me.
“Yes,” I answer—no pause for thought—since I am now a young man and the animals are under my care, it’s my responsibility to supply the offering. I can give no other answer. It was inevitable this day would come. And I guess I always knew it would arrive sooner than later, I don’t get to walk away from this, despite my apathy. My father is not a man to put off accountability. He expects me to be part of his bloodline, therefore I am not to question his judgment. What he deems important, so am I supposed to deem important; yet it is my brother who quarrels.
“You don’t truly believe, Father, that Abel is ready for such an obligation.”
“I do,” says Father.
“He cannot even observe the flux of his own blood when he is cut,” argues Cain. “Let me take the honor of providing the sacrifice.”
“No,” Father shakes his head, his mind made up.
“No!” He raps his hand hard against the table, splitting his plate, a crooked vein down the center of hard clay.
I check our mother’s face; a tearful, and tortured expression. Yet she does not hesitate to collect the broken pieces and sweep up what little shards of clay remain across the spread of ground between the four of us. My father places his now blood-stained palm against the side of her face as she’s bent over his shoulder.
“Eve,” he mutters her name.
He’s sorry and she forgives him. Of course, she forgives him. Love still lives in every fold of their being. Even through the bitter taste my father presses hard against the roof of his mouth, there is always care. Where that trace of resentment came from, I don’t know, and I never ask. I can only assume it comes from the time before my brother and I were born. A time from the days of Eden, a time we are forbidden to know of.
After this, the two of them share a kiss and the room clears.
I force myself to the flock pinned behind their gate for the night and search for our littlest body. When I find it, I pick it up in my arms, careful not to listen to the cries shared between the child and its mother as I pull the lamb away from her. I once thought I had become desensitized to the act of killing these creatures, but now as I feel the babe’s heartbeat against my own I’m not sure. My eyes well with unsolicited tears and I bite down, ripping the skin over my bottom lip to suppress them. I am lucky to not have to perform the sacrifice myself. My father continues to take that duty for now.
And later, as I clear away the ashes and replace the logs of our man-made altar behind our home, I hear my father and brother speaking.
“You have never asked me to help in the sacrifices, Father. Abel does not understand their significance as I do. Allow me to take this on for him,” my brother pleads.
My father makes a noise, a huff of breath, similar to exhaustion. How many times must he say it? “Cain, you do everything else. Let your brother have this.”
My father has given the final word, Cain knows this and retreats to his pallet for the remainder of the night.
A month passes. Then another, and another, and another, and soon months turn into years and I find that I am twenty. My time is spent with the animals, observing Cain in his distant field, and Mother down at our home.
She warns me daily: “Keep an eye on your goats. Separate them from your sheep if you must.” And when I ask what for, she only ever gives me the same, one answer, “I have seen Cain speaking to a goat, black as charcoal.”
Today she accompanies me as I prepare the flock. She cautions me of the black goat again while I fiddle with the knot that keeps the sheep pinned. I regard the stretch of her eyes across the field, up the hill, where near my tree they rest on two figures: Cain, my brother, and a great, black, male goat. But it is impossible since I have yet to unfasten the knot that would otherwise keep the heavily horned creature contained. How has he escaped our holds? Does Cain care for him without my knowledge?
Mother clutches onto my forearms with fierce concern, nails splitting skin. Her touch runs cold as though her blood curdles below her flesh, and in her face, there is no color. She stares panic-stricken at my brother who gestures as if in conversation with the beast.
“Can you see it?” my mother’s voice rasps.
“See what?” I ask.
“How it’s looking at me, neck twisted back, almost like an owl would, with an unwavering gaze.”
But I do not see what she claims to. The goat is turned the opposite direction, facing my brother who by now has noticed our staring.
My mother seizes me once more. “I tell you again, keep an eye on your goats,” she says. “Separate them from the sheep—”
“If I must—”
“No,” she cautions, “separate them. Do it.”
Following this, Mother seals herself behind the walls of our home where she insists she will spend the remainder of the day. I cast a glance back to my olive tree up on the hill where my brother, now alone, peers down at me. And when I turn around to finish untying the knot, the goat, black as charcoal, stands in the center of the sheep.
Later that afternoon, when the sun is at its highest, my father comes to find me. He says nothing about the goats being left in the pen while the flock freely grazes. Although, the way his lips pinch together tells me he thinks otherwise.
“I have done only what Mother asks,” I say.
He appears to understand what I mean, and places his hand to my shoulder. “Feed the sheep,” he says, “feed them plenty, for you will need blessings to offer our Lord when the time comes for you to take a wife.”
“But you told me—” I begin, but the rise of his hand silences me.
“I know what I have told you. But I tell you this now.”
My father claims to have seen people to the east while out on his hunts, but they are not blessed in the way our family has been—this is how he describes them. They harvest no plentiful fields, nor tend to a flock or herd of any kind. But they do possess women, that was the tone-changing word. These people have women, women he intends my brother and I to one day find and partner.
My father continues: “Feed them until sundown every day, and when your brother seeks to correct you, tell him you are doing exactly as I have advised.”
“And what have you advised Cain?” I pry.
Sort of strange it is, the look he gives me. It’s not quite a smile, but it cannot be described as anything else. His cheeks lift and lips thin as if to seal off information he has promised not to speak of. “Feed them,” he presses his weather-worn hand to my neck, “and you will find holy sanctuary.”
So, I do as I am told. The hours of grazing extend, beginning when I wake and ending once the grace of night descends from heaven. For many weeks my brother says nothing, and the sheep become rounder, plumper with each passing day, and as my mother and I exchange glances from across the stretch of space between my tree and her reflection pond, her face brightens with joy. It would be a lie if I claimed to not feel the same. My sheep are well-nourished and my mother is happy. This is enough.
* * *
Cain comes to visit me in the night, a goatskin filled with well water clutched in the tight of his fist. My hands are still stained with blood from the sacrifice I now perform alone, and every fingernail is dirt black from the clearing of the altar that followed. He drops the sack of sun-warmed liquid between my feet and gestures for me to clean. I sit up and spill the water over my hands. He has not set aside time to speak with me in a long, long while. For him to come to me now, there must be an important reason, though for some time neither of us say anything to one another. We have both lapsed in silence. Until: “What do you believe will happen to you after death?” he asks. “Does our Lord save you?”
“Me, specifically?” I ask.
“In general,” he clarifies through a nervous hitch.
I thought he had come seeking to correct me about the sheep grazing for too long hours like our father had warned me of, but this does not seem to be the reason he’s here, so I don’t immediately answer. I take my time, turning his question over in my mind. My brother’s face grows dark in the lingering, flickering light of the flames that burns beside us. There is a figure, although vague, that takes over his features. A trick of the eye. Or is this what my mother had been warning me of? I have seen Cain speaking to a goat, black as charcoal. Me, too. He looks like one now. I drag myself closer to the fire to see him better.
“The Lord saves all who trust in heaven,” I say, at last, keeping an eye on the shadows that dance across my brother’s face. He shifts, uneasy at my reply. So I repeat myself.
“Trust,” Cain echoes. “Trust?” I incline my head.
He stands, leaving the skin of water with me, lopsided and leaking on the floor. Although, before he steps away into the sweeping darkness that awaits him, he pauses and glances back at me from over his shoulder. “You trust that you will be by our Creator’s side in heaven once you leave this earth?” His final question.
Again, I think it over. “I believe that, yes.”
After that, he is gone, and I sleep.
The morning comes for my brother and I to present our offerings to the Lord in order to gain blessings that will allow for the pursuit of a wife.
We dress in our best tunics. Mother scrubs our nails, between our toes, and behind our ears with soap and sun-warmed water. She combs our hair and oils Cain’s beard; she does the same with what little I have.
“Spotty,” I tell her while the delicate ends of her fingertips massage into my jaw.
“You are still young,” she reminds me. “Have you made sure your offering is of great weight?” I lower my head in submission, she cups my cheek. “My good boy, I have prayed for this. You will do well today.”
“How will I know when our Lord arrives?” I ask.
She has only one answer. “Our Lord takes many forms, though one constant remains. You will see a set of eyes, and it will be like peering into a fog that lies over a clear stream.”
The wait for our Creator is an unusual taste, soured milk. Cain and I speak little to one another. He and the cart he built to lug around his bundles of wheat and seed are quiet next to me. There are only the vague bleats of the sheep I have prepared for today who rests lazily by my side—too much weight for its stocky, little limbs—and the sound of the wind whistling through the trees. I scratch my fingers into the lamb’s neck, Cain relaxes his legs on his cart; we wait hours.
“Our God is not coming,” my brother complains.
“We will continue to wait,” I say.
In the distance, Cain’s goat peers around bushes with amber-hued eyes. Its slit-shaped pupils observe my brother. These, however, are not the eyes my mother had cautioned me about. When Cain notices them, it is too late. The sky darkens and clouds dissolve, and the goat is gone. A voice comes over us. From behind, our Lord appears, and despite presenting as our mother, I know this is God. Mother was right, it’s in the eyes. Puddles of diluted milk, void of pupils; I’m rooted to the earth at the sight of them.
Cain leaps to his feet the moment he sees her. His first instinct is to attack, I know, I have watched him my entire life. His reactions are at times more familiar to me than my own. My arm around his waist is all that is keeping him back. He is not wrong to be scared. Our Lord chooses the form of our mother, though she looks wrong. The sight of her sits with me in a bad way, too. Perhaps it is the way her hair falls across her shoulders and over her breasts, loose and tangled like that of wet moss. Perhaps it is how she stands with such confidence before us, with straight shoulders and a lifted chin. Or maybe it’s her eyes. Those panic-causing eyes; how vacant, yet complete they appear.
With my hands still around Cain, I lower to my knees. My brother follows, but not without reluctance.
“Oh Lord,” I lift my palms, “we are here to present our offerings to you so we may be blessed.”
When the Lord speaks, it is not what I had been expecting. The voice of our mother, clear and direct, can be heard in my mind. Before us, her mouth parts, yet the voice that spills from her lips is entirely in my head. My brother must hear it, as well, for he no longer appears afraid, but eager.
She extends her arm out to me. I will not wait. Standing, I gather the leash I have my sheep controlled behind and guide it to our Creator. At the feet of our mother, I kneel. “It is here, my Lord, I offer you one of the best in my flock.”
She reaches down to my face. Her hand is stiff, petrous, gliding along the edge of my cheek in a bloodless state. “My child,” the Lord says, “you have done well. You have my respect and surely my blessing.”
Following this, our Creator turns to my brother. Cain kneels, presenting his fruits of the ground, his arms out like that of a heron in flight. “Oh holy one, Creator of all life, I have for you the best of my harvest.”
Our Lord places a hand upon my brother and lifts his chin to look at him. However, this time when Cain is spoken to, I cannot hear what is being said to him. To witness the movement of our Creator’s mouth is enough of a sight, but to hear—I almost feel robbed of treasure. If Cain could hear my blessings, then these words must only be for my brother to witness, but I cannot be sure, so I must ask.
On our travel home, Cain is quiet. And in the dark of night that continues to swell around us, the silence swallows me whole.
“What did our Lord say about your offering?” I decide to ask. Cain remains silent. “I could not hear. Could you hear when the Creator spoke to me?”
“It is none of your concern.”
This is all he tells me.
At home, our parents wait for us with bountiful food. Enough to keep us fed for an entire week. I smell the lush meats and cheeses and breads mingling in the air as I enter. The evening is warm and full of hope and for what could possibly be the first time, I think about the soon reality that I will be forming my own family like the one I have the privilege of being part of. With a partner that I, in my heart, already vow to hold and keep safe for as long as time allows us. She will be loved in the same manner my father loves my mother. And together we will bear children that will grow up to cherish and uplift one another like my brother has with me all these years. Cain and I are created from the same heart, and so, too, will my children be.
My brother sulks in the corner, hardly able to take a bite of food, leaving me to wonder once again what it was that the Lord had spoken to him. It’s possible he did not receive the blessing he had been expecting. But even if this is the case, he pouts as if there is no tomorrow or next week, or next month to gain what he desires. What we all desire for him. My hope is still with him, that one, my brother Cain.
The night carries on with merry chatter and reminiscing over childhood memories. I have not seen my parents in such a state of delight for a long time, yet they wear it so well it’s hard to believe this is not a permanent state for them. And when it comes time to fetch the offering, I find I do not mind. God has blessed me; nothing is capable of ruining this newfound height of paradise.
When I approach the gate and take the knotted ropes in my hand, I come to realize all the sheep are gone. The same affliction has struck our goats who keep next to them in their separate pen. Every single animal under my care has seemingly vanished. All but one. A single goat remains. Of course. The great male, black as charcoal, too heavily horned for its own good, stands alone in the sheep’s pen. The knots still tightly fastened; I stare at the creature in disbelief.
“Cain,” I call out, turning away from the beast.
My brother stands behind me, having followed me from the house. I heard him trailing. He has never been light on his feet.
“Do you care for this goat without my knowledge? Where are the others? My sheep?” I am defiant tonight. He will give me what I seek, I have waited long enough for answers—about Eden, and now this.
“You want to know about Eden?” He speaks calmly, I will remember this. “The one no light can touch can tell you.” My brother gestures toward the goat. I look back at it, and in a moment—a bolt from the blue—Cain, with a stone firm in his grip, swings his hand upward and strikes me in the head.
I land elbows to the ground, and my teeth cut through my tongue, shooting blood into my mouth. I scramble to get back on my feet only for him to strike me down once more. On my hands and knees, I crawl in dirt that cannot keep me. Or perhaps it soon will, when Cain finally gets his way, and I am unable to move. It will be this very ground that will hold me, running red with my blood. I had not realized how much of an obstacle I have become in his life. As if I am his competition, I am only his brother, not his enemy. We are equals, I have always thought. How silly of me.
Between my fingers, grass fails to hold and rips free, pulling roots out of the earth. Cain pins me beneath his weight, his knees pressed in on either side of my torso. The stone, now stained with my blood, comes down on me over and over and over. This continues until the pain dulls and my senses fade. Until I feel myself drifting off. Until darkness closes in. This is it, I think. I have tried to fight and failed. There is nothing more that can be done.
The dark flux of blood streams from where I lie in the direction of the goat, which is now standing in front of me, upright on its hind legs. This is the last image I see, and my final thought is of my brother.
* * *
Cain hauls my body away with the very cart he built to deliver his offering, but he does not take me home. He tows me to the altar my father constructed before my birth. The one I repurposed after each sacrifice, and blessed with oils before each of them, as well. The night has grown dark, the sky is a deep, deep red, the cooling coal of a fire. But my brother is not alone. The goat, the one no light can touch, he described it as, remains in his shadow, spurring him on. The final piece of my soul that remains bound to my body watches as my brother gathers me in his arms like Seth’s had been in my father’s the day I learned of this holy ritual, and gently places me over the logs of the altar that I had prepared myself. Only I did not know I would be the one sacrificed tonight.
He follows through with the ceremony, honoring my body with precious oils and incense before setting it ablaze with the striking of two stones. Then he is on his knees in prayer. It doesn’t take long for my flesh to burn, my blood to bubble. The fire is the biggest I have seen. My body is much larger than that of a mere lamb’s. What he sacrifices is a man, a human, an instrument of flesh and blood, his brother. Does he realize this? He must, because into his hands, he buries his face. And he weeps. Prayers are now lost to his tongue which is rendered useless by his own actions. I can do nothing but regard my brother’s suffering. Rushing water, that is how my surroundings appear to me now, the melting of ice, or a heavy rainfall. I am a disembodied soul, incapable of much else than observing.
It takes until dawn for my bones to be all that remains of me, and for the fire to die. Cain stays where he has been all night, on his knees before the altar. Tear stains run through the dirt that clings to his cheeks. His hands are blistered from the flames, as well as the vulnerable outer layer of skin that covers his face and neck, and chest. I have burned him, even in death, I continue to hurt him. That is all I can think, but I know he thinks worse thoughts.
A rosy hue claims the sky. Morning’s song chirps from those nesting in the trees nearby. The sound of flapping wings comes from overhead. Then there is a voice.
“Cain,” it calls out. My brother lifts his head to find the Lord standing before him. In the form of our mother again, our Creator appears.
Cain scurries to his feet.
“Where is your brother Abel?” asks the Lord.
My brother initially does not respond. However, he soon finds his tongue. “I am not responsible for my brother,” he says. “It’s none of my concern where he is.”
“You lie,” God retorts. “You are not so foolish to claim you do not know, for your brother’s body burned away at the very mention of my name. But it is not my name who guides you, is it? No, another has claimed you. Perhaps you are the fool you pretend not to be.”
Cain looks past our Creator to our home. “Where are my parents?”
“I have kept them away since this matter would only cause them pain. Your brother remains, however. His soul is shackled to the altar until I take him.”
“He is here?” Cain’s breath rags.
“For now,” the Lord tells him. “Cain, I urged you of your crouching sin. Did you take control of it? When you came seeking my blessing, did you listen to me?”
Cain says nothing.
“Sin slithered near your home, and you welcomed it inside, and now you have killed your brother. I can no longer allow you to continue living here where your family may find grief at the sight of you. Go to your field and continue walking east. Then you will continue walking, lost and wandering for the remainder of your days.”
“This is worse than death. I cannot,” Cain rebukes. “You know I will be killed in punishment by whoever discovers me along the way.”
“I will not allow this to happen.” Then our Lord takes a log from the altar and touches my brother’s forehead with the log, a mark is burned into his skin, between his eyes. Cain cries out in pain, but our Lord does not stop. God, appearing as the woman who carried us in her womb, holds my brother in her gaze, unmoved by his agony, until there is bone to feel. A ragged line, in the shape of two lines which point upward, and another that strikes across them at the center, now scars his flesh. “If someone attempts to kill you, they will see this mark, and know their death will surely follow and decide against it.”
And as the sun continues to rise high in the sky, Cain turns from the Lord and leaves to go back to a home where I will not be to greet him. Where he will have to wake our parents and tell them what he has done. His sins will be too great to bear alone, if only I could find a way to comfort him once more. But I cannot. He has killed me, his brother. A prick of pain still seizes me.
The Lord turns back and sees me, peering through the veil; I am visible. I try to make sense of what I have just witnessed, though the longer this occurs, the more muddled it comes to be in my mind. So, I decide I should wait no longer. I must know why I still wander the ground. “Lord, why do I remain tethered to the earth?”
“You are here to bear witness to my glory,” declares the Lord. “Your brother’s jealousy consumed his love for you as darkness corrupted light. But you, Abel, chose to love all of my creation, including your brother whose faults you sensed, though chose to forgive.”
“And now you have done the same,” I voice.
“As I always will.” The Lord steps aside and puts an arm out for me to take. “Come. There is much more for you to witness.”
Everything around me turns to dust all at once after this. I am engulfed by a thousand shimmering stars, like eyes in the night sky, and I find myself some place between my dreams and reality, where everything is as it should be, and where I am no longer in any pain.