Saturday, April 7, 2012

"Man of Red Clay: A Novel of Adam" by Jonathan Hooper, Chapter 12

Chapter Twelve

The birth of our son forced me to agonize again over the mystery of creation. I watched him, strong-willed as he suckled his mother's breast, or releasing from his tiny lungs a cry that belonged in the mouth of a gale. He came into the world already strong in character, shaped in the womb; finished, too resilient for the world to form him anew. I was reminded of that time in the Garden when I pondered the mystery of the clay, and tried to understand how the divine breath had wrought such shape out of mere earth. Cain was the mystery incarnate; he breathed the air like it was spirit, his heart beat as if it would escape his breast. I thought of the moment of our desire, our coupling in the wood. Nothing in this mortal world could explain the life I now held in my arms. So I thanked God for blessing us, and watched our son grow up.

Cain, as a young boy, did not emerge as the strong son I had expected. Though his will had great resilience, his body was of poorer stuff altogether. He would tire after the smallest tasks, or perhaps just give in to boredom, and would escape the sphere of duty to play in the fields. He loved to swim in the Jordan, however, and was strong enough to dive down to the river's sandy bed, or to snare the fish in his nets. Those first years, I silently regretted that my son would not take the yoke of the farm upon his shoulders, but I let him alone. My heart was too filled with love to discipline the boy. I thought it better that he be free to find his own way. I did not know then how wild-hearted he would be, but even if I had, I do not know whether I would have acted differently.

As I watched the boy grow older, I tried to bring him closer to me, accompanying him to the Jordan to fish, but though I drew some idle talk out of him, he declined to open his heart; always, his look was absent, his mind perhaps delving in the depths with the fishes or soaring above the wheat with the hawks. He did display a fascination with the wild creatures around our home and endeavoured to penetrate their mysteries instead of the mysteries of planting crops. So I let him alone, and his mother knew that when the lamb was cooked, she could call for him and he would come wandering idly through the wheat to sit down silently next to the fire, thinking absently again.

When our second son was born and I named him Abel, Cain kept himself remoter than usual. Then, when I killed one of the young lambs to make a feast for the birth, Cain appeared incensed for days, though he would not broach his feelings to me. I realised later that he had coveted the lamb for himself, as a pet, but had not shared it with us. His silence disturbed me, as did his indifference towards his infant brother, forcing me to voice my anxieties to Eve.

"He will go his own way," Eve said with certainty. "Let him alone. You cannot draw him out of himself. He speaks well enough, when he wants to. If he is happy to roam around the wild places, be content that it is so."

"He spends too much time on the desert's edge. I fear he will come to harm."

"Perhaps he will find God there. God made him as he is. You cannot change him."

So I tempered my efforts to nurture Cain and sacrificed all my time to my second son, Abel; Abel was the physically stronger of the two, but his nature was milder, so that he seldom cried unless he was hungry. He began to sprout into a fine, gregarious boy, fairer than Cain and more handsome. The spirit is stronger with this one, I told myself, carrying him out into the Jordan's shallows on my shoulders. I anointed his head with water, as I had done Cain, and asked God that he too be blessed. From the river's shore, I let him gaze upon the fruit-laden valley; when he tried to stare too long at the sun sinking behind the mountains, I shielded his eyes. Abel was prone to laughter, which delighted me, and he kept my company more than he did his mother.

In the spring, when Abel was five years old, I took him with me each day to see how the corn and maize were planted; he followed my example, scattering the seeds with his hands, copying the words of a prayer I intoned to bless the land. It pleased me to know that Abel wished to accompany me, even though he would eventually tire of work in the fields and ask that he may play instead. All this time, I did not think of my firstborn, but rested in certainty that he was happy; that his solitude would eventually lift and he would ask to be taught the ways of planting and growing crops.

One night, Eve reproached me because Cain had not returned from his wanderings; in truth, I had hardly noticed his absence by the fireside, so content was I with Abel's learning. So I put on my cloak and went seeking my neglected son, searching first by the Jordan and then as far as the borders of our land. Beyond the mountains, the wilderness stretched like a silent sea, wave upon wave of sand receding towards the dimming horizon. Cain was nowhere among this vast, thirsting ocean; now twelve years old, I dreaded that he had felt the calling of the wilderness, deciding to challenge himself by spending the days and nights there alone.

I walked further, calling his name to no avail. Returning to Eve, I found her preparing to go out in search of Cain - for in truth, she still felt a bond with her firstborn, and defended his reclusiveness whenever she could. I persuaded her to remain and look after Abel, and returned to the desert myself, this time with supplies of food and water, hoping to find his trail before the shifting sands covered over the traces.

On the first night, as I tried to sleep in the protection of a blanket, I heard a voice mingled with the winds; I had come to expect the worst from such voices, connecting them with the adversary, but finally, I realised that these were no tempter's cries: they were shouts of distress. Rising from my sleeping place, I stumbled through the dark in the direction of the shouts, convinced now that it was Cain's voice I was hearing. I came to a shallow ravine, sheltered by a thicket of desert bushes, and found my son.

Cain was squirming on the ground near the side of the ravine; beside him were the smouldering ashes of a fire. His cries were agonising. As I approached, I saw a serpent slithering away between the rocks, its yellow back patterned with diamonds. When I reached him, I saw a wound on the side of his face, just below his eye, already beginning to swell. My time in the desert had taught me the way of survival. I knew if I acted quickly, I could save him. As soon as my lips touched the wound, his small body convulsed beneath my strong grip. For a few frantic seconds, I sucked out the poison, driven to desperation; all this time, Cain was crying out in his fever and sweat was soaking his body. I noticed, at that moment, that the flesh of one his arms had been scorched by fire; evidently, his convulsions had brought him too close to the flames. Then he passed out, the wafting smell of burnt skin rising up into the cold air of the ravine.

I carried Cain back to his mother; the spread of the poison had been stopped, but a mark on his face remained from the snake's fangs; so too the burn mark on his arm. In the years to come, the distinctive purple scar beneath his eye only increased his lawless appearance, until that moment when we expelled him from the valley. I thanked God that he was saved, but resented the strange, deformed appearance the scar gave him.

A few days after the incident in the desert, I pressed Cain about his motivation for going there, but he would not reply to my questions. Only through Eve, with whom Cain was more intimate, did I understand something of his purpose.

"He was tired of staying this side of the desert borders," Eve explained. "That is what he told me. He wanted to find out what was beyond the valley."

"I've spent long enough there. I could have told him."

"Don't reproach him, Adam. He also told me that before he slept, and the serpent bit him, he saw a vision."

This stirred me at once. "In the desert, there are two kinds of vision. Did it come from God, or from the devil?"

"It is hard to know sometimes." Eve interpreted my stare, and continued. "Even you have seen the devil in angelic form, and did not know him at first. In any case, he would not say."

"He did not tell you?"

"No. Don't press him, Adam. Let him find the right moment."

Nevertheless, my curiosity got the better of my reserve, and I implored him to share the vision with me. It could be important to the well-being of all of us, I reasoned. Cain, however, would not break his silence, nor would he confirm that he had witnessed a vision in the first place. Dejected, I let him return to his wanderings, despairing that my son seemed beyond my reach.

I had the feeling, in those days, that some evil portent had been revealed to him, that some dark fate had been decreed for us; countless prayers and sacrifices could not dispel the feeling, nor open my eyes to the things to come. I sought to know the mysteries, but God kept such things hidden. So I returned my thoughts to the harvest, and gave up the struggle for understanding.

Seth, you are the son of my own flesh. But Cain too was my son.

“Father, don't go on. Let's return to the others.”

My son, let me say these things now that Horeb, and the time to leave you, is close. When Cain was twenty years old, I divided some of my land between he and his brother; by this time, he knew the principles of farming. Cain's was the low country, the land near the desert, and Abel's the fields around the Jordan. I helped Cain build a hut there at the edge of the plains. By this time, Abel was older, and took it upon himself to pay visits to Cain, that they might become closer than before, that the bonds of blood and kin might conquer Cain's silence. But each time, Cain sent him away, barely concealing his hostility. After one especially violent clash, Abel shared his worries with me.

"He says he cannot look at me," Abel said, disturbed. "He said, 'Go away and leave me be. Why do you torment me with your visits? From the womb, you were favoured to be your father's son, whilst I was born already marked. I am what I am. I was not born with grace, and my lot is to curse. Do not beseech me, lest I would begin to love you in spite of myself. That I cannot do, for my nature is not thus. I dare not love you, Abel; do not make me shed more tears than I have already shed.'

"''The heart is free to love or to hate,' I told him, 'and if it chooses to love, will God deny it the grace it is due?'

"'I am free to curse, nothing more.'

"When I demanded that he reveal the sentence of all this, he set upon me violently and drove me out of the hut. I last glimpsed him from the foothills, setting out to tend the sheep. I do not know what he meant by what he said, but his despair frightens me."

The words were inscrutable to me too; not even my prayers would shed light on Cain's darkness, on his intractable anger. From the beginning, he had been born with a thorn in his flesh, and the thorn had dripped poison into his blood. This was a consequence of the Fall, I reasoned; to feel estrangement from my firstborn. Yet I held out a hope for a change in his heart, as he got older, and bade God let him prosper with the harvests. He took a wife from one of Eve's daughters, and kept himself private from us in the succeeding years.

The year of the tragedy came with an early thawing of the frosts; a rich, plentiful spring. By that time, Cain was thirty years old, and his brother too kept a family in the Jordan valley.

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