Mom sat there rubbing heads of grain between her hands. He loved to watch the chaff fall down into her lap, and then she’d open her hands and pour out the grains in a pile next to her. Then she’d grab another handful and keep rubbing. She worked with darkened eyes (like a raccoon, he thought) until eventually she’d start nodding, and the sun would go down, and it was time to sleep.
Today, though, he leapt onto her lap, scattering the chaff and making her drop the heads.
“Pretty!” he said. His fist held out three flowers, bright red and blue and yellow.
Mom’s eyes narrowed in irritation, but then she noticed the blossoms. “They are pretty, my little firstfruit,” she said, and she smiled a little. The smile made her son’s heart glow with joy.
“I suppose it’s time to stop anyway,” she continued, and hauled herself to her feet. “Tomorrow we rest, but before that we need to do the killing.”
The boy reached up to take her calloused hand. “Awwwww. I don’t like the killing. Do we have to?”
“Well, do you always do kind things?”
“Even to your brother?”
“Doing the killing is how we know the unkind things won’t stick to us.”
“I don’t understand completely. But that’s how it is. Also, it’s how we get the skins we wear and sleep in to stay warm.”
“I don’t like it! It’s mean! It makes me sad!”
“I know, Stomper. Me too. But today, watch your Dad. Maybe you’ll learn something.”
This time the boy didn’t hide. His father brought the young goat with the innocent eyes to the stone. He stood over it and grasped its head. The boy held his breath. With a sudden twist and a dull snap, the goat fell dead. The boy remembered his mother’s words and looked up into his father’s eyes. Teardrops fell freely from them, just like the tears in his own eyes.
This mother held the goat spread out while his father grabbed the sharp rock. Watching the blood spill and the skin peel back made the boy recoil, sick to his stomach. But his little brother crouched close and watched intently. He dipped his hand in the bloody mess and pulled it out, and started fingerpainting on his belly, squealing with delight. The older boy couldn’t watch anymore.
Later, as the stars came out, he asked his Mom.
“Did you and Dad always do the killing?”
She hesitated, then spoke quietly. “No, my great one. We didn’t. Once upon a time we didn’t need to.” But she didn’t elaborate.
+ + +
As he grew, he began participating in the killing, holding the animal down as it was skinned and gutted. Once he broke its neck himself, and later vomited into the goat’s bowels. When his brother grew old enough, he gave up doing the actual kill and stuck to burning the bones and innards and burying the blood.
He became strong and intelligent, and joined his father in the fields. After a sharp disagreement, his father relented and gave him a small plot to “play with”. Using sturdy sticks and sharpened stones he made tools which eventually tripled the harvest–just in time for the new babies that had come. From then on his father let him follow his instincts.
One rest day he struck up a conversation with his mother.
“Isn’t there something other than skins to wear?”
“Other than skins? What do you mean?”
“I mean…isn’t there a way to, I don’t know, grow something to wear? Leaves can be pretty broad and flexible, for example.”
His mother rolled her eyes. “Wearing leaves is a terrible idea. We tried it. Take my word for it.”
“There has to be a better way though. There has to.”
“I know the killing bothers you. But it’s a fact of life. Our unkindnesses need to be washed away. You don’t want them sticking to you. And besides, you’ve even started wearing skin sandals when you go out to the field. Wasn’t that a great idea your brother had?”
“Eh. Maybe.” But his mind was working.
+ + +
“Mom! Mom! Look what I made!”
His mother’s eyes widened. “Wow! What is it?”
“Here, let me.” He put the thing on his mother’s head, much to her confusion.
“But what is it?”
“Come out into the sun.”
She looked around, puzzled. Then understanding dawned.
“Oh my! It’s like I’m standing under a tree! Out here in the sun! This must be wonderful out in the fields.”
“It’ll keep the rain off your head too! Mostly. And it’s made of leaves and the stalks of the grain that are left after we pluck the heads off.”
“Ah! No skins. I see. Good for you!”
+ + +
“You’re old enough now, son.”
Father looked grimmer than usual.
“The Lord has shown me that you need to do your own killing. To cover your own unkindness.”
“But I can’t! I can’t kill an animal that never did anything to me. Why do they have to die? It’s cruel!”
“It’s how God says is has to be. You’ll do it.”
“Why does God want us to kill? What does he get from it? It makes no sense!”
“That’s how it’s–”
“Why can’t I give something important to me instead? There’s a lot I’ve done that I’m proud of! Giving God something important, something I’m contributing to the family, would mean a lot more than killing some helpless animal who doesn’t deserve it!”
Father glared at him. “It’s tomorrow. You will be there. It will go as planned.”
The father’s younger son ran up. “Whatcha talkin’ about? Is he going to do the killing?”
“Yes. Yes he is.”
“Can I, too? Can I?”
Father considered. “Very well. You’re a little young, but I’ll allow it.” He glared at his older son. “Maybe you’ll set a good example.”
+ + +
Today was the day. The family gathered around. Father, mother, his brother, and many more younger brothers and sisters. All staring with anticipation.
The second son was practically hopping with excitement. “Me first!”
He rushed to the rock. The older son had to admit the goat he saw led to the rock was healthy and strong. Its hair was glossy and nearly white. The animals of today were much bigger, hairier and healthier that they had been, years ago, when he was a child. Mostly due to his brother’s work.
But it still sickened and disgusted him, as his brother eagerly snapped the goat’s neck, then buried his hands elbow-deep into the guts. He pulled out his blood-covered arms and laughed, and continued the skinning and the disposal of the internal organs.
“Excellent!” father said. “I am proud of you today, and God is too!”
After his brother finished the disembowlment and folded the skin to be scraped and cured later, he turned to his older brother. So did father and mother.
He took a deep breath. He lifted his bundle to the rock and opened it.
The kernels were plump and golden and heavier than anything ever seen before. Rubbing some heads between his hands, he smelled the delicious aroma of the ripe grain. He opened a straw basket and brought out the brightest, roundest fruit and the darkest, meatiest roots he had ever bred.
He laid them on the rock, and crushed them with a flat chunk of slate.
Then he scraped the remains into the fire pit, and set them on fire, proud that he was giving the best he had.
Then he turned to his family. His father just stared, then shook his head and walked away. His brother said, “What…what was that?” The other children stared quietly.
His mother looked at him with shocked sadness. “I didn’t think you’d go through with it. I really didn’t.”
He tore his basket in two and left, furious, wandering far out into the fields. He slept that night alone, cold, under an inadequate bush.
+ + +
When he woke he was no longer in the same place. It was dark. The horizon stretched around a featureless, dim plain.
“Don’t be angry,” said a voice. He turned. There was a figure there, dark, but he could hardly stand to look at it.
“Don’t be angry,” the voice repeated. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be upset. Do right. Your father knows what’s right. He hears it from Me. Do it the right way, and you will be accepted. But if you keep resisting, keep going the wrong way, unkindness is ready to ambush you and take control. Instead, you must take control yourself. Do the hard thing, the thing you don’t want to do, and all will be well. I promise.”
+ + +
He woke again, shivering and not just with the cold. Was that the Lord? Who father so often talked about? What was all that about unkindness taking control?
Could he go back and face everyone? Could he steel himself and do the killings that were demanded of him? Over and over, rest day after rest day? It made no sense, though apparently God demanded it. It was cruel and pointless and made no sense. How did killing have anything to do with removing unkindness? If anything, it added even more unkindness to the world!
There had to be something just as good as skins, if he thought and experimented enough with his plants. Then would never have to kill again. Over and over in his mind, he wrestled with it, and couldn’t make it add up. The killing accomplished nothing. Why was the Lord demanding it?
He sighed, and wandered, and discovered that he had returned to the family. His mother saw him and ran to meet him.
“I was so worried! What happened to you? You look freezing! Come and warm up!”
He let himself be led into the family area.
“Hey, you’re back. What was that yesterday?” It was the voice of his younger brother, coming from behind.
“Was that supposed to be a killing? You didn’t kill anything. It didn’t count. You know that, right? You didn’t kill anything, it didn’t count. Why didn’t you do it right?” He knew the signs. This harangue was not going to end anytime soon. He turned to face his brother.
“Shut up a second. I found something out there in the field I want to show you.”
“I hope it’s an animal.” They began heading out, their mother watching anxiously. “I can get you some animals. I know the good ones. I can show you how. How to jerk the head around so it snaps quick, the goat doesn’t feel anything. And how to cut clean, and separate the skin. It feels so good on your hands! Warm and slippery and squishy. The killing is so great! I don’t know why we can’t do it more often. But now we get to do it three times each rest day instead of once, now that we’re old enough! I can help you, too. It’s easy! Not like what you did. Squishing food on a rock? That was hardly anything. Father was really upset. Mother too. That didn’t count at all. It didn’t count.”
The anger peaked, and the roiling in the stomach. He watched himself as he reached to seize his brother’s head. His hands twisted abruptly. His brother dropped. He watched as he grabbed a nearby sharp stone and neatly sliced his chest and abdomen open, and the blood poured into the ground.
“Did that count?” he heard himself shout.
He burned the innards and buried the blood. After considering it, as if from a distance, he decided to burn the skin too.
He sat there, resting. It was rest day, after all.
+ + +
With a start he woke. He was back on the featureless dark plain.
“Where is your brother? Where is Abel?” The dark figure must be behind him.
“How should I know? He’s grown, he doesn’t need me to watch out for him. If you like him so much, why don’t you protect him?”
“Don’t you realize what you’ve done? Didn’t I tell you unkindness would take control of you? Now your brother’s blood, which you buried, is shouting against you, and you cannot hide your guilt. Not from Me. And not from your mother and your father and your siblings. Won’t they know something is wrong when he doesn’t return? Won’t they see the smoke of the burning? What will you tell them?”
He thought of his father’s disapproval, and his strong hands breaking the goats’ necks…and how the son he approved of was now dead. It sunk in; his brother was dead. He would never babble again, never take care of his animals, never make the little ones laugh with his antics, never revel in the killings that washed away his unkindnesses…
The voice continued. “Do you know the ground is cursed for you because of your brother’s blood? Crops will not grow for you anymore, and the weeds will outnumber the grain. You will have to wander from place to place, eating what grows on its own.”
He looked at his hands. The ground would never grow its crops for him? It was what he knew, what he loved…but that was the least of his problems.
“They’ll kill me,” he said. “Father will find me, mother will hate me, they’ll be so angry, he’s so strong! They’ll come out to look for Abel, and they’ll find the burned spot, and the burial mound, and they’ll know!
“I can’t go back! Not ever! What will I do? And I can’t go, all by myself, afraid of everyone, wandering the world alone! Even…even You are disappointed in me! I can’t face You! I…I can’t take it! It’s too much! I…I know I deserve it all, but…it’s too much! They’ll kill me! I will wander and starve, and everyone will want to kill me!”
“No. They won’t.”
“They won’t kill you. I am marking you, now, and everyone who finds you will see the mark. And they will know that whoever kills Cain will be avenged seven times over.”
“Really? But…how will I keep this terrible unkindness from sticking to me forever? What killing could wash this…murder…away? The only thing I can think of is that the one being killed…has to be me!”
“No, Cain. That’s not the way it works. But I will do the killing for you, Cain. The Serpent-Crusher will come, the one your father and mother told you about. I Myself will do the killing.”
“Does it have to be killing? Do innocent animals need to die, over and over, to keep the unkindness from sticking? Lord, help me, but it still seems wrong, and disgusting, and unnecessarily tragic.”
“It must be killing. And you are right. It is wrong, and disgusting, and tragic. It is terrifying, and cruel, and heartbreaking. You of all your family see most clearly what the reality is, and even you do not realize how deeply the pain of all that killing really goes.
“But the killings must continue, year after year, so that your siblings and nephews and nieces will know unmistakably that your father’s curse can only be undone by death and blood, and not by improving the world or by one’s best efforts or by wealth or by fame. The killings will continue until the Serpent-Crusher comes. Then the final Killing will occur, the one for which all the killings that came before are but a faint reminder. I will do it Myself. I will prepare my own Young Goat. And it will be the most wrong, disgusting, tragic, terrifying, cruel and heartbreaking Event the world will ever see.
“But after that last Killing, the killings will stop, and the unkindness will forever become unstuck, from all people. This is certain. I promise it.”
“Nevertheless, you–and all people–must constantly remember and constantly be reminded that it is blood that frees you from what has taken control of you today. Not all the good things you might do for me and bring to me, but the Blood and Death that is coming.”
Next week: What Cain Got Right
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