This is a story that has had many, many variations over the past couple of months. But here (finally) is the finished version. It’s based on the story of Cain and Abel. Thank you to everyone who has read it and given feedback: you know who you are and have been helpful in getting this piece to where it is.
Warnings: Character death, grief, mentions of violence. Yeah this isn’t fluffy y’all.
All italic lines come from Song of the Open Road by Walt Whitman
The Road of Traveling Souls
Healthy, free, the world before me
Down by the river, I clean my hands. His blood, warm and red, disappears in the water. As the water rushes by, so do the memories. I am seven, Abel is five. He mutters under his breath that I am a terrible shot. You didn’t hit a single pigeon today. He laughs. I bet you couldn’t hit the slowest pigeon in the whole world. His voices lilts with scorn. Full of rage, I hit him. For a moment, I am appeased. I can’t hit a pigeon, but I can hit him.
Then it all shifts. He begins to cry. Mother turns, and scolds me. I am the eldest and should know better. She holds him, rocking back and forth. She sings quietly in his ear. Through Abel’s tears, I could see the faintest smile. He always was a great actor.
I blink and the memory is gone. I stand up away from the river. The forest lies behind me, where I laid Abel down. His final place of rest, where the animals may use his flesh. Where is your smile now Abel? No one watches us now.
The earth—that is sufficient;
I never wanted to be the hunter. I was glad to give that to Abel. The land spoke to me, as it did father. I find wonder in the small miracle of life. The slow burst of green against brown. My hands bring it forth. It’s a heady feeling.
Where is Abel, your brother? The wind asks, whipping about me, always whispering about Abel. His eyes, vibrant green and browns, dance in my mind. He is no longer there. Where do we go when we’re gone? “How should I know? I’m not his keeper” I roll my eyes. I turn my face from the wind. It is, as always, too close and too far.
His blood cries out to me from the earth. What did you do?
Didn’t you watch? No, the air was stale, humid that day. You could have saved him. Or were his offerings not good enough? If he had given you more, would he have been beyond my reach?
I’m always here. Where were you?
Stupid riddles, you never answer my questions. Why should I answer yours?I turn back to the earth, yet something has changed. The wind blows coldly and fear coils in my belly.
Did you think this deed would go unnoticed? The ground took his blood. It won’t yield to you any longer. Leave this place.
Suddenly searing pain goes down my face. Ending in a flash, there’s no time to scream. I feel my left side. A jagged scar runs down my cheek from eye to chin. Even the blind will know me. “After all of this you curse me? How will I survive?”
You won’t die at the hand of animals or man. You must carry my sign and remember.
Though I cry and beg,the wind never returns.
I do not want the constellations any nearer;
I know they are very well where they are
I leave without saying goodbye. I cannot bear looking into Mother’s grief stricken eyes. I run from Father’s frown of disapproval. Comfort will come to them soon enough. Like a summer wind, it will wrap around them, and soothe their grief.
I carry nothing with me, only the clothes on my back, the staff in my hand. The sun sets as I walk away. I walk into a world unknown. Beyond my first steps, and seedlings. Beyond even Abel’s wanderings with his sheep.
The moon and I travel together. As the moon reaches the east, I lie down exhausted. The stars shine dimly above. They must watch over my parents now.
Still here I carry my old delicious burdens;
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return
My days take a new rhythm. I let my feet propel me forward. Though I can’t bear to eat for days, I don’t die. That would be too easy. One morning I rise hungry. I begin to walk, hoping to find something.
I enter a forest, and finally, luck. A bird sits a few stone throws away. Crouching quietly, I grab a stone. Abel laughs at me,“You always were too slow and too eager to hunt birds.” Breathe in, wait a moment. Focused, I throw and hit the bird. Turning to crow, no one’s there. Abel is dead.
The bird is not as satisfying as I thought it would be.
Here the profound lesson of reception, neither preference or denial
The full moon comes and goes twice before I see sheep again. I wonder where Abel and father are. I get closer: they aren’t our sheep. Abel is gone.
A woman comes round the hill. I stiffen, my hand goes to my scar. I expect her to run away in horror. She blinks. I don’t move. She cocks her head at me, “Who are you?”
I am Cain son of Adam and Eve. (Do they call me their own now?)
I was Cain tiller of the Earth (My hands itch to dig into the soil)
I am Cain killer of Abel (But the blood is gone from my hands)
I was Cain brother of Abel (Does brotherhood end with death?)
What am I without Abel, without the earth?
“I’m Nekoda” I finally say. I rub my hand along my face, feeling the deep indentation. The new name feels right. She nods, accepting my answer. “Aviva.”
She looks me over, like a knot to unravel, “Come with me, my father will want to meet you.” She turns quickly, and promises me nothing. I like that. She glances back, waiting for me. Only then do I realize: I hadn’t moved.
Shaking my head and apologizing,I follow her down the hill.
None but are accepted—none but are dear to me…
From the living and the dead I think you have peopled your impassive surfaces, and the spirits thereof would be evident and amicable with me.
I stay a week with them. It feels both good and painful to be around people again. They are a large clan, their leader with three wives and a dozen children living with them. I forget their names, but I love them. I love them for the bits and pieces of my family in them. I see Father’s pride as Aviva stands overlooking their land. I hear mother’s voice as the women sing over the fire.
Yet Abel is everywhere. I hear him in the young boy’s teasing tones. I see him in the pride of catching game. I almost call out to him as he guards the sheep. Abel is dead.
Instead, I keep my hands busy. The wood here is beautiful and smooth. Father used to sit us down, creating small animals to play with. As we grew older, we made bowls for Mother, tools for ourselves. But food came before trinkets and I fumble with the knife.
Abandoned by the earth, I begin to carve. At first, I only have small whittled trinkets for the babies. But after two dozen splinters, I finish a large bowl for the women. The pile grows: bowls, gourds, and even a small box. It’s not life, bursting from the ground, but it’s creation. The childrens’ squeals and the adults open smiles leave me warm and satisfied.
At the end of the week, I gather my few things. The moon hangs low and orange. It calls to me to depart. I kiss each of them, thanking them for their hospitality. Though I try to refuse, they give me the knife. It is a bittersweet relief to leave, knowing I will never see them again.
Here is a man tallied—he realizes here what he has in him;
The past, the future, majesty, love—if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them.
It is a strange punishment this wandering. It’s not full of suffering and pain, but the work of survival. It overflows with the strain of walking and hunting. I am cook and nurse, navigator and homemaker. I am grateful to the physical pain, it reminds me that I feel.
My days are full of sky and land. Though I could roam from clan to clan, too many ghosts lurk among the living. The wilderness, rough and empty, suits me. Here I find drinking water and food. I sleep in the trees and under the sky. The wind blows, but doesn’t speak. I cherish it’s silence.
I know so much more about the land now. I forage her fruits, and find her waters. Yet if I died tomorrow, she wouldn’t notice. No one would notice. The voice in the wind? It doesn’t come east of Eden. It, like the Earth, turned from me. They are with Abel now. Or did I give Abel to them? The answer doesn’t matter now.
Yet I survive. I roam, feeding upon nature’s back. Even death flees from me.
Am I alive if no one is watching?
These yearnings, why are they? These thoughts in the darkness, why are they?
Why are there men and women that while they are nigh me, the sun-light expands my blood?
…What gives me to be free to a woman’s or man’s good-will? What gives them to be free to mine?
I stumble upon another camp. It’s larger than the last. A father, Eli, and his son, Yotam, work together here. So many are here: multiple wives and just over a dozen children. They create such noise. After an age of silence, it overwhelms me.
Eli and Yotam usher me into a quiet tent. They ask me to stay. Spring has arrived and they need help shearing the sheep. Suddenly I am home: Abel laughs as we try to hold down the largest sheep. Together, we mock father’s tone as he shouts at us to hurry up.
“Well, will you stay stranger?” Eli waits expectantly. I am in a tent, east of Eden. Abel is dead.
“It would be my pleasure.” They laugh, pound me on the back. Did men always make such noise?
“Yael!” Eli yells, “bring us wine! We must mark this occasion” He smiles broadly at me. I squirm under his smile. Friendliness is a strange beast after solitude.
She enters the tent silently. “Ah, Yael my heart, come here” Eli’s eyes brighten at the sight of her. She smiles fondly at him and kneels, filling our cups. Yotam nods his own gratitude, “Yael, this is Nekoda, he will help us with the sheep. Nekoda, Yael”
Her hair is dark as a moonless night. She turns to me. Her eyes stop at my face calmly. They are warm amber, yet piercing. Her skin is smooth and young, but her eyes are so old. What does she search for?
“Welcome” her voice is low and smooth. Image of dripping honey fills my mind. She comes closer to me, and in a whisper, “The wind will not chase you here.” I shiver as her words, like cold water, seep into my mind. What does she know of the wind?
But there’s no time to ask. She is gone.
The night overflows with stories, food and wine. Yet I hunger. For her answers. For her eyes. I look for her again and again. Waiting for her. She never returns.
Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first;
Be not discouraged—keep on—there are divine things, well envelop’d;
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell
The days pass, and I stay. Despite the ghosts that linger. Despite the moon that calls me. They fade next to Yael. My eyes search for her proud back, erect as she balances the water jug upon her head. My ears wait for her sweet low voice to soothe the young ones to sleep.
One night, I carve by the fire. Stories and songs rise with the smoke. My hands reveal a bracelet. It is ridged like the ibex’s proud horn. I smile, remembering Yael’s upright back and quiet strength. I pass the ridges along my palm.Yael’s wrist fills my mind. The feel of her wrist as I push the bracelet on. I want to feel her arm, brush my hands through her hair.
Looking up, realization and shock course through me. I want to stay here. With her. The scar mocks me now. It was too late long before we met. My feet move me into the darkness of the forest. But I am not alone.
“You always gave up too quickly” Abel’s voice calls from behind me, still light and mocking.
“You always had terrible timing.” I can’t bear to turn. Sweet relief fills me to hear his voice, to feel this old irritation.
“So you’re running again?”
“You return from the dead about this?” I can’t stop my raw choked laughter “I have no choice. Let me atone brother”
“You love her. Don’t be a fool–”
“I killed you!” The scream rushes out, breaking the silence. It’s longer than this journey, longer than memory can measure. My voice breaks trying to hold back the tears, “I.. I killed you. I regret it every day. But I can’t take it back. She deserves more than me.”
“I forgive you. But you must let me go.”
“Let me go on. Cain, You must live beyond this.”
“How can I? You’re everywhere! You lurk in the corner of my eye.”
Abel chuckles softly, “It’s you who keeps me there.”
I throw up my hands, as l always do in our arguments. Realizing this, I can’t stop a bitter laugh. “Even dead, you still drive me mad!”
“Some things never change.” I can hear the smile warmed in his voice.
“I miss you. I don’t make sense without you.” Only the dark gives me the courage to reveal the truth.
“You will. Keeping me here won’t help you.”
Grief chokes me “How c-can I? I should be dead. Why don’t you berate me? Condemn me like I deserve? Haunt me for eternity.”
A hand ghosts across my back. “You are more than my murderer. More than even my brother.” Warm breath moves against my ear and then, “Goodbye Cain.”
“Wait” I turn, needing to see his face one last time. He’s gone. Forever. And for the first time I feel the raw pain of missing him, my other half. My knees buckle, and tears stream down my face. Is it my voice howling like a wolf?
Yet someone stands at the edge of the woods. My blood runs cold when I recognize her. It is Yael. She stands silently, just watching me. I stay silent, crouching low to the ground. Let her go, run and warn her family. Oh Yael, I wanted to give you the world. With my horror revealed, I can only give you precious moments.
But she doesn’t run. Without breaking eye contact, she walks towards me slowly. As though I am not dangerous. Her eyes hold no anger or revulsion. I sit, awaiting her decision.
She crouches before me, and reaches for my hand. “Stay” she murmurs. It’s neither a question nor a demand. Just an offering, so plain I barely believe it. I take her hand, and stand up. Our fingers fit together. And a part of me begins to heal, slowly, surely.
Brother, wherever you go, may the summer wind protect you.
Allons! to that which is endless, as it was beginningless,
…To know the universe itself as a road—as many roads—as roads for traveling souls.
I dream that night. Yael’s hair is covered in a gold veil. She laughs as we kiss. I build higher and higher, until wood and stone embrace the sky. A small child rests in my arms. He has Yael’s nose, my mother’s eyes. The wind wraps around us, whispering blessings. He squirms in my arms, reaching for the wind.