Chapter One: Fear of Burial
An offshoot of the Tigris flowed at my feet as I pinned a butterfly between my
thumb and forefinger and pulled gently, slowly, at one of his colorful little blue and yellow wings, peeling it back until it popped off with a little snap. There is a depth in cruelty, an emotion few are brave enough to discover, something I feel every time I peel the wings off one of the little insects.
As its juice flowed over my fingers, the little bug wriggled like mad, flapping its one wing as it fought desperately for its freedom. A voice called through the forest where the miniature struggle was taking place, waking me up to what I was doing, kneeling in the grass and torturing a helpless bug.
"Cain!" It was my eldest sister, Azura. Fearful at the possibility of being discovered, I quickly dumped the struggling bug into the flow of the river and wiped my hands off on my tunic.
The cruelty wasn't something I talked about, but something I hid, deep and secret like the stones at the bottom of the river. The crumpled butterfly was now hidden by the gently tossing waves, and the cruelty was hidden by the mad shuffle of my thoughts as I prepared to answer her.
Mother and Father couldn't find out. No matter what. I didn't mind if my younger brothers and sisters knew, but not mother and father. I felt a stab of guilt as I glanced about the forest, a green sea of trees that blotted out the sun to mere dabs and shadows. I was ashamed of my cruelty, and I wanted it buried.
Father had told me about burial. The first death in human history had been an infant. One of my sisters had died in childbirth, breaking my mother's heart. Father had buried her, wrapping her tiny, fleshy body in blankets and digging her a deep hole, a deep, dark, gaping, black mouth that had swallowed the baby whole and licked its lips, jaws of earth clenching its teeth over her forever.
"Cain!" a voice interrupted my thoughts, a face breaking through my vision of the dead baby's grave. Angry green eyes glared into mine. Azura. Older than Abel, our younger brother, but not as old as me.
"Quit dozing, Cain. Father needs your help. Another of Mother's babies is going bad." She grabbed my wrist and gave it a sharp tug, leading me out of the forest.
"I wasn't dozing." I insisted stubbornly as the quiet eleven year old dragged me out into the brilliant sunlight of the fields beyond the trees. And yet, I knew better than to tarry in whatever Father asked of me. He was short on patience for his cruel firstborn son.
As we neared the modest, one room cabin that my family currently called home, thoughts of that gaping grave came to mind. I almost wanted it to happen again, craved it with all the darkness I hid from my family. Curiosity blinded me, driving me to want to know more about it.
As in the forest, darkness was blotting out the light inside our tiny house and relegating it to whatever slats and cracks would abide its passage. Mother was perched upon a simply constructed bed Father had once said angels had taught him how to build. She was groaning in pain, her dark hair plastered to her face by perspiration. Even then, she still managed to look beautiful. For a moment, my cruelty was unwoven like a rope fraying into its individual fibers, unmade by a simple, childlike love for my mother.
Father stood at her side holding her hand, face a picture of loving concern. Still holding my wrist, Azura dropped it very suddenly and gasped, holding her hands to her mouth in horror.
The sheets and blankets of the bed were stained red with blood. I was rarely taken with a desire to pray, but right then and there, I wanted to drop to my knees for Mother and pray to God to take away the pain that tortured her so. I felt suddenly and unreasonably like it was all my fault. I the monster had been inflicting pain on the beautiful, and now Mother was hurting for it, almost as if she were somehow the butterfly.
Adam, Father, released Mother's hand when he saw me. He walked across the room and knelt so that our faces were inches apart. Azura began to bustle here and there, attempting uselessly to busy herself in helping Mother.
"We're losing another one." He whispered quietly, as if Mother didn't already know, weren't already mourning the dead body bleeding inside her. As if Mother weren't a living grave for the snatch of time before she gave "birth".
I didn't speak, merely waiting. He had a command for me. Father never spoke to me unless he had a command.
"Fetch me a blade," he growled under his breath.
In less than a minute I was back with the only blade we owned, a small plow. "Abel's got a steadier hand than either of us," Father said. I'd burst into the room out of breath and gasping for air, insisting that I could still help, but Father took the blade and gave it to Abel with trembling fingers, his nerves shot.
He didn't even cut the cord himself. Instead, he stood back, his face a mixture of fear and shame. I remembered then something he'd told me long ago, about that first day outside the garden, how God had told Mother that every baby that would ever be born was going to bring great pain to its mother.
Life always begins with pain.
We come into the world inflicting cruelty on the one who will teach us how to stand on our own, how to walk and speak and live. Screaming, we emerge from our mother's womb surrounded by tired faces just relieved that you are alive enough to cry. Is it merciful or harsh to die as you are born? I couldn't decide.
The baby was miscarried within minutes of my arrival, making me feel once more like the harbinger of bad luck. That whole side of the house had seemed to be stained with blood, even the floor surrounding the bed. In front of Mother, legs covered by a sheet so that only her feet were visible, the baby had lain still as stone at the foot of the bed.
Abel then quickly and cleanly cut through the little rope of wet, red flesh that connected Mother to the infant. And that had been that. For a moment time had seemed to stop, leaving the five of us frozen to the spot. A life had left the world. Perhaps that is the greatest cruelty of all, a life never lived. I knew it hurt mother to lose her baby far more than the trifling pain of the child's emergence.
Father ran to Mother and the two collapsed into each other's arms, sobbing. Abel stumbled outside stiff and numb, plow still in hand. Azura tenderly and quietly picked up the little corpse and began to wrap it an extra blanket.
I merely fell to my knees, wishing God had granted me the mercy of a stillborn death.
We held the funeral at dusk. Nine of us gathered to remember the life that never was. I stood between Azura and Abel, my head full and sick and sad with memories of Mother's miscarriage. She was the only one not present. I hadn't seen her since Adam had pushed me out of the house.
Far from the house and the farm, near the eastern edge of the valley, Abel and I had dug a little circle of a grave, a hungry mouth expectant for its next meal. Fear was seizing me. I didn't want to admit it, but I was afraid of the little pit we'd dug. The baby was already resting at its apex, wrapped as before in a swathing of blankets. I knew death wouldn't be sated this once, just like the last baby hadn't been enough. It wanted more. Mother, Adam, Azura, me. Abel. Part of me wanted more, too. I wanted to die, and take them all down with me, leading humanity stumbling into its waiting tomb. It was in our skin. As certain as we knew we'd been born, we were assured that death was coming.
Just standing on the edge of the round little hole, the dirt on the edges crumbling in my toes, I felt the fear and hatred growing in me. A gentle breeze whipped the air, sweeping a loch of hair into my eyes. Brushing it aside with my fingers, I glanced at the seven gathered around me. All my brothers and sisters, staring ahead solemnly and patiently. I wondered what they thought about all this. I also wondered if they blamed me.
The grave for this baby was right next to the old. I couldn't keep my eyes off the old, a raised mound of grass topped with a rough little stone to mark it. It was blanketed in flowers. Even though they didn't understand the significance of what they were doing, some of the younger children would still came out here and drape messy bouquets of dandelions and daisies all over the little mound. Whatever freshly picked flowers didn't find their way into our beautiful mother's hands wound up here, where they would wither into the dirt just like the child resting underneath them.
All of us were waiting. Father didn't want to begin until Mother felt ready to come out, so the eight of us children formed a half circle, expectantly awaiting her arrival. The opening melodies of a sunset were beginning to float through the sky, a song that would strain into beautiful crescendos of brilliant orange and pink before it fell off into the deep baritone of night. I couldn't help growing impatient. I didn't want to be here long, not in front of the waiting grave, not standing next to Abel.
I could barely stand the younger boy. Pious, arrogant Abel, always so ready to help, jumping to do this that and whatever. My hatred for him was like the changing tides of the sea, sometimes rising, sometimes receding, but always there.
Worse, every time I glanced his way, he would glance back, and I would have to fight to keep from glaring. From birth, we'd never gotten along. We both tried, him possibly harder than I, but it just didn't work. We were born enemies.
The tides were back today, leaving the beach dry and clean. Neither of us wanted to fight on a day like this. It almost disappointed me. I wanted a conflict, wanted to yell at him, blame him for the baby's death, even though I knew it was ridiculous, I wanted someone to point my finger at, anyone smaller than God.
As I looked his way, I couldn't help remembering the crisis that both of us had been caught up in just an hour earlier. It started with thoughts of the plow father had sent me to fetch. I could picture it too vividly in my head, stained with blood dried dark red, resting against the outer wall of the house. Despite its clumsy make, I was fascinated by the tool. Its round wooden handles were slippery and awkward, but I still longed to hold it tightly in my hand. It's thick, oddly shaped blade was dull and could not cut well, but I still wanted desperately to hurt something with it to see what color juices came out.
It should have been me who used the plow. Could this mess be because of me? The guilt was getting to me. I needed someone to point my finger at, and with every second I grew angrier and angrier with Abel. Just standing next to him was irritating.
I hated Abel, hated his steady hand, and his steady heart.
Standing next to him now, I hated him so much my chest grew tighter for it.. I forced myself to turn away, and focused on Azura instead. Quiet, beautiful Azura. She reminded me of mother so much, despite her green eyes and strawberry blond hair. There was a simple grace about her that demanded your attention. As I looked her way, she was focused on the house, watching for mother. After a moment, her eye found mine and a sympathetic smile erased all the dark, violent thoughts of Abel from my head.
It was growing darker now, as the song of the heavens had exhausted itself. The brilliant colors overhead were beginning to fade. I kept my head towards the sky for a long time, not knowing what I wanted to think about all that was happening. I almost thought I should feel guiltier. There were so many gloomy, evil thoughts in my head, I wondered if I was somehow the cause of all the suffering, because of the way I hated my brother and secretly loved causing others pain.
A soft gasp drew me back towards the earth. Azura had seen something. Squinting towards the house, I noticed Mother had appeared at the doorway. In the weak dusk light, we could just barely make her out, a shadow walking ghostlike through the field separating us.
When the shadow arrived at the infantile cemetery, Adam went to her and took her hand. For a moment the two simply stood like that, quiet. Then Mother slipped her hand out of his and threw herself into his arms, burying her head in his chest. All of us could hear a muffled wailing split the silence, deep sobs wracking her chest.
After a few minutes Adam began to whisper to her too softly for me to hear, and then the two of them took each others' hands again and joined our semicircle.
Adam commenced to speak loudly, as if giving a speech, his words stiff and mournful. He talked about how Zillah, the baby girl, was with God now. He talked about how God had made each of us, and knew our hearts. And he talked about how that same God was perfectly in control, but I didn't listen to a word of it.
Sometimes I secretly suspected all Adam's stories about being the first human and naming all the animals and eating that fruit were all just made up to keep us kids behaving. I thought that somehow there might be other people out in the world, maybe hundreds if not thousands of people. How could this whole wide world be completely empty except for us? I wanted to wander away and find them, to find the place we'd truly come from.
As Adam rambled through his sermon, Abel and I were supposed to begin shoveling dirt into the grave. This was the worst part, the part I was afraid of. As I lifted one of our primitive, flimsy shovels to begin tossing displaced earth into the lips of the yawning mouth, my heartbeat began to quicken. Seeing Zillah up close was disturbing. Looking at her blanket shrouded body, I began to think about what it would be like to be wrapped in blankets myself.
I could imagine the feel of the course fabric pressing against my mouth as I try to scream, sense it squeezing tight around my dead limbs as I try to move. Dread filled me as I felt dirt hitting my face, more and more and more as my family buried me. The fear lent an urgency to my work, and I put my back into motion, attacking the loose soil with frenzied speed. My hands began to shake. I glanced at Abel, saw him working without a hint of a tremor to his steady hands, and forced myself to keep my own hands still.
I was increasingly grateful I wasn't dead. I didn't ever want to die and be buried, and I didn't ever want to know what lay on the other side. If there was another world waiting for us after we close our eyes for the last time, I wanted no part of it. God could have all the light in the universe if he left me this little patch of darkness here on Earth.
After a time, Adam's voice trailed off into nowhere and the only sound filling the evening air was the rhythmic scraping of shovels. After a few minutes of silence, Azura began to cry very quietly. I thought I was the only one that could hear it, but after I heard a sniffle from behind me, I knew Eve had began to cry, too.
Finally after what seemed like an infinite spell of mechanical movement, we were done. Abel patted down the little mound of dirt with his shovel and that was that. Seasons would fly past, and grass would cover this place again. Flowers would smother it, as more children were born to bring flowers here with ignorant reverence. The smooth river stone we'd place atop it would grow pitted and weather-beaten and then soften again as it gathered moss.
Soon after Abel and I finished our work, the family began to disperse. Everyone was exhausted and sad, and not a one of us wanted to stay near the graves any longer than we had to.
Abel and I lingered for a little while longer. We just stared at each other, leaning on our shovels. Neither of us spoke. The silence and the night deepened. I don't know why, but neither of us wanted to leave. Perhaps we both wanted to fight. I wanted to scream at him, because I felt it was my fault the baby died. If I'd been kinder, things would have been different. That was the thought racing through my head, but it scared me so much, I couldn't deal with it. So I buried it.
At the same time, I decided it was completely Abel's fault, not mine. He was the one who made me so angry. I knew I was being irrational, but I didn't care. With a loud clattering, I let my shovel fall to the ground, leaving it for him to pick up. I turned back to the house and began to walk away. As I strode across the field in the dead of night, I couldn't stop myself from wondering what it would be like to bury Abel.