Cain and Abel
We grew up together, Abel and I. He always had it easier than me – how not? I came first, before the shock of becoming homeless had fully faded from our parents’ minds. She was pregnant with me, our mother was, when she and Adam were driven from their first home by sword and flame. They will tell you now that prenatal shock makes an imprint on the fetus – who knows, truly? But when I was little, toddling around the mud floor of our hut, G-d was the capricious grandfather who set my parents up in a garden for life, then in a fit of temper took it all away.
The skills to fend for themselves came later, slower, earned with bitter sweat and the growling of empty bellies after a harvest failed, or a flock broke through an ill-made fence. Adam and Chava grew up in a world where food could be plucked from trees for nothing; it was three years before they could scrape a decent wheat crop from the ground, before there was anything but potatoes to gnaw in the new cold time called “winter.” I was their child of hunger, the hunger for one another’s bodies which G-d gave them for delight, and the hunger, bone-deep, they endured as growing pains of independence and the consequences of free will.
They taught me farming from the moment I could walk. Earlier – farmers cannot stop their work when children come, then or now, and my mother hoed rows with me bound to her back in my first months. Talk at the evening meal was invariably of work – a new berry patch found a few hours’ walk away, which might be edible (should we try them on a lamb? Can we afford to lose one, if they’re poison?). A worrying cast to the colour of the leaves on the carrot crop. The wheat near the sheepfold growing bigger and faster – better sunlight, or did the sheep shit improve it? I took these conversations in like milk, as vital as any food or love from my father’s hand. They were both; in a world where he’d had to start with nothing, neither tools nor knowledge, he’d make damned sure I learned as fast as he and my mother did. Self-sufficiency had been thrust on them with fire and without choice, but my father set his jaw and made it a gift he could give me, the first inheritance. What he learned hardest, he passed to me in pride and with love, to his eldest, his firstborn.
By Abel’s birth, things were easier. We had food to last out the long cold, and some of the bigger, tastier animals – the ones whose skins kept warmth in ours – no longer fled the rough pens we cobbled together. In the winter they filled our dwelling and together, the four of us huddled with them and endured the dark. When the roots and tubers ran low, we slaughtered a sheep and got new strength.
Father and Mother felt, as Abel began to run on chubby legs, that he should learn the care of the animals who’d nurtured him so, and who were now our prime source of food. The task suited him; he was always quicker than I, more lighthearted, seeming almost like a sheep himself as he leapt over rocks, leading them to water. He grew taller, with good eyesight, no victim of the rickets I’d suffered as an infant. Our parents loved us both, and began to call themselves blessed.
So we grew, Abel and I. My father and mother were able to rest more, still consulting with us as we developed our fields and flock, but no longer in terror of starvation from every mishap. Our fare expanded; Abel learned to milk the goats he tamed, and soon cheese accompanied our meals, along with bread my mother coaxed from the yield of my grains. Late one summer, sitting outside at the last of the day, cup in hand and belly full, my father said softly, “We should give thanks for this.”
We fretted for days. What would G-d accept? Where should we make this rite? Our parents decided that, just as G-d had given them us, we should be the ones to present offerings. I think it spoke to their pride – see, G-d, how we have grown since last we saw You. See what even our children have learned to make. My father, ever wishing to perfect, consulted with us on what we should bring. With no precedent, we decided that fire returned things most easily to dust and air; so with fire we would offer a measure of grain, potatoes, lettuce, those things we had worked hardest to cultivate. Abel would bring a sheep. I could see the fear and pride in my father’s eyes, and remembered my youth – a sheep was food for a week, and this offering would have broken us in those years. Now we could afford gratitude, not buy it with starvation.
The day arrives. My mother has woken early in the morning, coming into the garden with me to pick and wash vegetables. I pace the rows of wheat in the field beyond, find a stalk that looks plump and golden, unblemished. I bring it back to the house. My mother has rinsed the produce, dried it on a sheepskin, and is laying it out on flat rocks in the sun to let the last of the water evaporate. She pauses in her work and smiles up at me as I look it over, from a face creased with lines of work and worry and unexpected joy. “Do not fret,” she says. “You’ve done well. We’re proud.”
Abel woke up early, as is his custom. One of the sheep had begun bawling in labour last night, and he’d seen her through a difficult birth. This morning he’ll water the flock and check up on the mother and the new one. Our flock is small, still, each increase a precious victory against the incursions of predatory animals and our own imperfect stewardship. Females, like this new one, are particularly important, for their milk and the promise of new lambs to come. Abel’s job is to guard them, care for them, keep them from straying and make them feel they’re ours. A more pleasant task, it often seems to me, than my daily battle with hard ground and voracious bugs and uncertain weather, but, as I must remind myself, no less vital.
It’s high noon, near the time we agreed upon. Still no sign of Abel, but he’s to meet us there. My parents and I fill a skin with the works of our hands. My father takes a sharp cutting-stone, and we set out for the stand of oaks at the edge of the wheat field. As we draw nearer, we see that Abel is there before us, with the fire already kindled in the pit. His light hair shines, golden as the shock tops of the wheat he stands among. We reach him, and see the lamb he’s brought.
For a good moment all three of us are speechless. It’s the new lamb, eyes barely opened, washed and dried, looking small but sturdy in his arms. A breeder, sure, good for years of milk and wool and issue. I cannot contain myself, and burst out, “What are you doing? How can you be so careless with her, with your responsibility? With us?” Sacrificing so great a part of our potential for survival to a G-d whose menace, not mercy, has informed most of my life, boils my blood. I remember nights I cried myself to sleep, hungry, with our parents powerless to assuage me. I remember a winter my father could barely get up in the morning, weak and stiff with cold. My anger chokes my throat, and I can’t utter another word.
He stands there, tall, beautiful, this arrogant brother of mine. He says, “If we are giving thanks, should it not be with the best of what we have? G-d is a guest at our table, today. I choose to gift Him with the best of promises, as He has gifted us. Would you undo what our father has asked of us, and show less gratitude than he?”
And he stretches out his hand to my father. Adam looks old, suddenly, as his eyes go from my brother’s face to my flushed one. I see him swallow, deep in his throat. My father looks hard at me, as if to say “Do you understand?” He nods once, and places the cutting-stone in Abel’s fist. Abel puts the lamb down on the ground, holding it between his knees. The small animal enjoys the warmth of the fire and settles itself, stretching its head out towards the firestones, blinking with sleep. Abel grasps its head firmly in his left hand, and with ease, fluidly, as if he had all the time in the world, he draws the sharp edge across the lamb’s neck.
Blood pours down, pooling along the fire, which sputters and crackles. It spatters our feet, and Abel’s shins up to the knee. The animal thrashes as it dies. I cannot look away. My little brother hauls it up over the fire and says in a loud, clear voice, “We give thanks to You, G-d, for what You have given us.” He throws the carcass of the lamb into the hottest part of the fire. Its wool catches, smoking, matted with blood; then the meat begins to cook, fat dripping down among the coals. The smell is mouth-watering, intolerable. I am furious at the waste. All this, for a G-d who I have never seen, voice not heard, a story of pain? We could at least have saved the pelt, I think bitterly as the flesh roasts –
and then my ears are torn open
the fire whips high into the air, a bright column
the ground moves under our feet,
and suddenly we are flat on the earth, burrowing into it with our shoulders, agape at the voice that sounds along our bones, “הנה אני שועה את מנחתך חבל.” Not a sound from my family, as I lie with my eyes pressed to dirt, and I dare make none. The reverberations continue in my body, wave after wave, receding, long after the voice has stopped.
I get to my feet shakily. My father is helping my mother rise, as she brushes dust and tears from her cheeks. He holds her close as she sobs. I look around for my brother. Abel kneels by the firepit, a look on his face such as I have never seen before. Not triumph, or fear, but humility. He whispers, almost to himself, “It was accepted.” The air is empty; his voice carries. Abel meets my eyes, and we both look to where he’d stood just minutes before.
The fire is dead. Bones, coals, all are gone, as if they had never been. By the clean pit, just where we put it down, lies my small bundle of produce. It is untouched.
The silence is, suddenly, as deafening as the voice before it. I need to leave this place or I will burst, become my own column of flame. I spin on my heel, away from Abel’s new maturity, from my father’s anxious eyes, from my mother’s reaching hand. “Wait!” she says, but I do not, sprinting through the trees, across the brook, past our sheepfold. I run and run. I am not made for it, do not have Abel’s long graceful legs, but I keep moving until the air reaching my lungs is simply not enough. I drop to a rock and there, finally, I let my throat release. I cry like the sheep do when a bright-eyed lamb is snatched by a hawk, too swift for our staffs and stones. My shoulders shake, and I can hear birds retreating from me, squirrels backing away lightfooted in the grass.
It goes on for a long time before I am spent. When I lift my head, I am alone, the shadows of late afternoon my only witnesses. A small breeze shoos thin clouds about their business in the sky. I say to the dust and the insects, “Will you say nothing to me? Not a word? Was my sacrifice so poor, you would not answer it?” The bitterness of my words weighs down my tongue. I take a deep breath in, spit out their taste. I sit and I wait, patient in my bereavement. I feel I have nothing left to lose.
When my ears begin to thrum again with the voice, the relief of it is so great I almost cry out again. The words, however, are inexorable.
Cain, son of Adam and Chava,
brother of Abel,
you ask what you do not give.
You gave grains with your hands, but withheld your heart.
Your heart was not open to Me.
Would you plant a seed in stony ground?
Do you eat of a tree whose fruit is bitter and not ripe?
G-d’s words chase each other between my ears, circle my heart, wring it like my mother’s hands in her hair after rain. I want them to stop, but my ears are not responsible for them, and fists do no good. “It is enough!” I scream. “I did not know! You were not there! How could I have known?” I might be dumb for all the effect I have. The voice rolls on.
Abel knew Me, though fewer his years.
Your father has not forgotten.
Your mother still whispers ‘Eden’ to each sprouting plant.
Walk in your brother’s ways,
and the work of your hands
will be pleasing to Me.
Pleasing to Me. Pleasing. I look at my hands. Small nicks and cuts dance across them. The veins are raised, and cradle a hump where my left pointer’s bone crushed between two stones years ago. Callus cushions my palms when I rest them on my knees. The muscles show clearly, taut and bulky. I have carried fire in my hands, pulling burning hay away from piled skins. They have frozen and cracked. I have plunged them into earth, into rivers after fish, inside the steaming wombs of animals in hard labour. Time and again, in these years of G-d’s silence, we have lived on the work of my hands instead of dying at the mercies of this deity.
I stand up abruptly. A shudder passes through me, and I whisper, “I will remember,” though the last echoes of the voice are long gone now. The landscape before me is nearly dark, a bare star or two approaching through dusk. I set out for home, retracing my footsteps easily in starlight. It is not a long way to go. The hut is quiet when I enter, my family black shapes buried in the piles of skins. Abel’s curls, in this hour, can’t be told apart from the lambs he sometimes shares his bed with. I lie down and will the pounding of my blood to stillness. Tomorrow will arrive. I have no doubt of it.
And it does. Daylight is essaying my eyelids. A thump hits my shoulder, and Abel bites into an apple, the twin of the one he’s hucked at me. “Come, let’s go to the field together,” he announces, as if there is no question of the shape this day will take. Our parents are nowhere in sight. “They have gone for berries,” Abel offers over his shoulder as I emerge into the light, rubbing at my eyes. “You slept late.”
Each step I took after Abel that morning was in his shadow. We collected grain in silence, checking for bugs or blight along the rows, each wrapped in his own thoughts, even when one’s hipbone bumped into another’s shoulder in the tight, cultivated space. I wondered if this was a kind of apology of his, this work in the hot sun, away from his beloved sheep. He was rarely to be found by my side of a morning. The sun beat down on our necks and shoulders, and sweat moistened the stalks in our fists as we squatted, weeding between rows. By this time I’d have gone for water, but had not thought for it. Earth dried between my toes. Yesterday could have been a dream; but it was not, for my brother was here, and when I so much as glanced at his face I could see G-d’s favour shining out from him.
It burned in me, hotter than the sun above. Midday came and went. Neither of us slowed; my anger drove me too hard, and Abel worked with unaccustomed diligence. We fell into a rhythm, as two in a field do, and our motions began to thrum in my chest. Each yank of weed from dirt, each slap of a bare foot and rip of ear from stalk, jarred my sore heart like an echo of the voice which had torn it. Everywhere I looked, I saw good grain; each step I took, on painstakingly softened ground. And all of it, for naught? Without food, we were nothing; could we die, come apart in that same field like the husks of insects, for all G-d cared, so long as He had the best of those who could bleed for Him? The dazzle of Abel’s confidence made slits of my eyes.
Finally my mouth opened. I ran my tongue over my dry lips and said quietly, feeling my brother’s eyes upon me, “You did well, yesterday.” It was not what I meant, and we both knew it. He flushed – when had I ever seen his blood rise at words before? – and said as quietly, “Whatever I do, it is by G-d’s grace.”
I blanched, then could not help myself. I sneered, “Have you grown so much in a day, little brother? Who taught you the work you are doing now? Did you learn to walk without our mother?” Abel grew even redder, but held my eyes. He said, steadily, “G-d was in her then, Cain, as in our father as he learned the ways of this place, and every other good thing that breathes. G-d is in all of us, always.”
Always? Not now, not here. His words turned me sick. My stomach clenched in around its emptiness, and to drown out the silence along my bones where G-d had been but now was not, I cried, “How do you know that, Abel? How?”
He stood up at my noise, still looking at me very close, hands loose by his sides. And then I heard my brother say gently, “Why, G-d told me so yesterday, brother. When we killed the sheep. Did G-d not tell you?”
No. G-d had not told me. It was enough. It was more than enough. It drove me to my knees in the soft dirt. If G-d was good – and if G-d was everywhere – and G-d was not in me – what could I be? What use was this task, this yearly fight to fence out cold and to struggle through want? If every word the fruits of my labour earned from G-d was bitter, what of worth could I fill my hands with?
In despair I looked down at them, empty but for a stray kernel or two. They might break for all the good they would get me, for they would not serve G-d with joy. And then I thought, if it is a sacrifice of the best that G-d wants, I will make it.
I looked up at Abel, dark against the bright sky. I could hardly make out his eyes. He had not moved. I thought then that he was slow from the sun, but now I think he knew. After all, G-d was in him.
My right hand found a stone in the hollow between the rows. As I stood up, it moved with me.
I move without haste through the trees, picking up sticks. My back is bent in the permanent bow of the farmer (an irony, that my body is shaped like a hunter’s tool), and the firewood is easy to my hand. I do not have to go far these days. There has been drought these past two years, and dry branches fall aplenty. Besides, it is a small fire that I need. I am only one to warm.
When I return to my shelter in the rock, the sheep crowd in around me. “Hello, friends” I say, “have you missed me?” They butt their heads against my hip, bleating assent. I dip some water from the pool at the bottom of the cliff, where the rainwater collects near the vegetable plot, and drink deep. I go inside, put down my armful, squat on my heels, throw a stick on the fire. I remember Abel sitting like this.
That day, after it was all over, when I stood over his body in the field and my hands ached from the strain of their work, I had thrown back my head and howled. Whether in triumph or loss, I did not know, and do not. Heart pounding, eyes closed, I lowered my chin and waited for G-d’s voice to come back to me.
What I heard, in that awful stillness, was weeping.
It went on, as the sweat cooled on my skin and my knees began to tremble. I wiped my hands on them and stood there. After a time my breathing was even and my eyes were clear, and the roaring in my ears subsided, and among the weeping I heard, Oh, son of mine. Oh, my son.
I waited. There was nothing else that I would do. G-d spoke, and the voice was thick with tears and a sigh that seemed to hold every breath Abel had taken.
Cain, I did not leave you.
I will never leave you.
The lesson I tried to teach you…was not well made.
You have grown too quickly for me, son of Adam,
and I spoke fear to teach you love.
Your hands are my hands in this world.
I have no others.
We must begin again, you and I.
And we did begin again, G-d and I. It was slow, and often silent. My parents, unable to see me without seeing Abel’s shadow on my face, moved away; I woke one morning and the hut was empty. I do not know where they went. I did not try to track them. I whispered blessings on their names, as I have each morning since, and I went to the sheepfold and took the animals to their pasture, which my mother had done since Abel’s death. It was a new task, but not a difficult one to accustom to. Indeed I have become as much shepherd as farmer.
I found this place some time later, wandering far with the flock one evening. It is smaller than where we once dwelt, but I can still get to the fields with little trouble, although I am slower now. Each year they yield a little less, but sufficient still for my needs. I have the sheep, for milk and company and occasionally for meat. When the summers come, in Abel’s name, I slaughter a lamb, and lay it in his firepit with the first of the grain, and burn them together.
And every year, as I turn to walk away, that pit is empty. But I am not.
– Vera Broekhuysen, copyright 2013