Authors: Robert T. Jeschonek
Robert T. Jeschonek
The Tree of Knowledge didn’t exactly teach us everything we needed to know...like what to do with a dead man’s body, for example.
From experience, we knew that when an animal died, its body would rot and stink after a while. We’d figured out it was best to burn or bury them, but I guess we still thought people were different. The Voice had told us we would die someday, but it never really sank in until we finally saw a dead man.
My dead son, that is. Sweet, beautiful Abel, the light of my miserable life.
When we found him, lying out in the field, we just didn’t know what to do with him. To tell you the truth, we didn’t even realize he was dead at first. He wasn’t breathing, and he wouldn’t respond when we shook him and spoke to him, but we weren’t too bright back in those days. Maybe he was just sleeping soundly. Maybe he was in a trance. Maybe it was some kind of magic. Anything was possible back then.
I figured it out before my husband, but that didn’t come as a surprise. Adam had his good qualities, don’t get me wrong, but when God was handing out brains, he kind of got an early model, if you know what I mean. Not to mention that he was drunk a lot of the time, including that particular day. Unfortunately, he’d discovered the joys of fermented grapes before learning how to work out his problems constructively.
Let’s just say, ever since we got thrown out of Eden, Adam had his share of problems.
Anyway, once I finally got it through my head that something bad had happened to my boy, I got upset. My husband was no help, of course, because he was convinced Abel would wake up at any moment. There I was, in more pain than I’d experienced since Abel’s birth, just crying my eyes out...and Adam insisted on carrying Abel back to his bed at our camp so he’d be comfortable for the rest of his nap.
After which, Adam proceeded to stretch himself out on his own bed of straw to sleep off the grapes.
So I was left alone to mourn for my dead son, and it was terrible. Keep in mind, this was the first time I’d lost a loved one...the first time anyone had lost a loved one, in fact. These days, I’ve had a lot more experience with that kind of thing, which still doesn’t make it easy, but it’s never been as bad as that first time.
I cried and screamed all afternoon and all night. Sometimes, I’d calm down a little and sit there in a daze, like nothing had happened...but then, I’d look at my dead boy again and remember everything in a rush, and I’d start right back up again with the weeping.
Once, I pretended to convince myself that Adam had been right, and Abel was just sleeping after all. I knelt beside my boy and caressed his hand, calling his name in the darkness.
This, of course, accomplished nothing. The crying caught up to me again, worse than ever.
I think I cried for three days straight. My husband chimed in on day two, by which time Abel’s body had started to stink...but thanks to his stockpile of rotten grapes, Adam never went as far as I did. Before I knew it, he was snoring on his bed again.
As for me, I eventually passed out from sheer exhaustion. By the time I keeled over, my stomach ached, my throat was sore, and my eyes burned like open wounds.
Miraculously, when I awakened, I wasn’t sad anymore. I was angry.
Furious would be a better word. More than anything in the world, I wanted to find out who had done this to my boy.
And do the same to him.
That much was clear to me, even then. What had happened to Abel was no accident.
At first, it wasn’t obvious, because of the way he’d been killed. It wasn’t like someone had stabbed him with a sharp object or bashed his head in with a rock. There was no blood, no gaping wound.
But his throat was bruised purple and crushed. There were two circular bruises in front, on either side of his windpipe, the size of fat grapes. Or thumbs.
Though I’d never seen the evidence of a murder before, I recognized it for what it was when I saw it.
When the worst of the crying had passed, I told Adam to dig a hole for Abel’s body. It seemed fair at first, because I’d been doing most of the suffering...but it left me to take care of the body, which turned out to be the harder job. There is nothing so horrible, I found, as tending the body of your own dead child.
Abel was fifteen winters old and taller than I was at the time, but as he lay there on the straw, I could only see him as the tiny baby I had cradled in my arms. He had been so gentle and pleasant as a baby and had never grown out of it, unlike his brother. After leaving Eden, I had thought I would never be happy again...but Abel had made me happy.
And now, his perfect face was crawling with insects. In Eden, where all creatures lived in harmony and death never came, I had never imagined that insects could do such terrible things to one of us.
Crying again, I rolled him into a cow hide so I wouldn’t have to look at him anymore. Adam dragged him to the hole he’d dug and pushed him in, then covered his wrapped body with dirt.
When he was done, we stood by the mound of earth and held each other. He started to say a prayer, but I told him to keep it to himself, which he was kind enough to do. I wanted no part of praying to the Voice; none of this would have happened, I thought, if the Voice hadn’t driven us out of the Garden in the first place.
It was the first, and worst, funeral I ever attended, though we didn’t think to call it that then. It was the first funeral in the history of the world.
That night, as I sat in front of the campfire Adam had built before passing out drunk, I went over the possibilities in my mind. The list of possible killers.
As you might expect, it wasn’t a long list. There were only three people in the whole world back then that we knew of, and I knew that I hadn’t done it, so that left Adam and my other son, Cain.
Cain, who had been conspicuously absent since before the death of Abel.
Now, when it comes to understanding murder, I certainly wasn’t as sophisticated as I am nowadays...but I still realized that Cain’s disappearance could not be a coincidence. This left two possibilities which to me were equally bad.
Either Cain had been involved in Abel’s murder...or had been murdered himself.
Either way, nothing but misery lay ahead for me. There I was, the first mother in the world, and one of my darling children had killed the other. Or both were dead at the hand of another. Either possibility made me shudder with dread.
If only I’d known back then that in this violent world of ours, such fates are not uncommon among the children of any woman.
Sometimes, I wish that I could whisper back along the years to myself. “The world is much worse than you think,” I would tell her. “This is nothing compared to what you have yet to face. It will pass.”
In a way, I think it would be a comfort to her.
Of course, though I had absolutely no doubt that Cain had some role in Abel’s murder or was a victim himself, I likewise knew he wasn’t the only one who could have been involved.
I didn’t want to believe my husband could have done it, but I had to admit I hadn’t been watching him every minute of the day when Abel was found dead. We had worked together in camp for much of the morning, but he had gone off for a while to harvest berries in the forest. We found Abel not far away, so I thought it was possible that Adam could have killed him in the time we were apart.
Thinking back, I remembered how troubled Adam had been since our departure from Eden. He had agonized over disobeying the Voice, had prayed and prayed for forgiveness...and become more and more depressed when forgiveness never came. He had used the grapes to forget, but it never lasted long; he never seemed to get over losing his perfect little world.
So I knew he hadn’t been in the best state of mind lately. Plus, I couldn’t ignore the fact that he had tried to kill a son once before.
Oh, it had been innocent enough, believe it or not...but I still couldn’t get it out of my head. Back when I was pregnant with our first child, we’d both thought I was terribly ill; neither of us had really understood what was happening to me. Then, when I gave birth, the blood and screaming drove Adam crazy. When Cain squeezed out of me, all bloody and slimy, Adam didn’t have a clue at first that this was his baby. He picked up a rock, and I swear he meant to kill this awful looking thing...until Cain started crying. At which point he dropped the rock.
But still. Anything was possible back then. We were just making it up as we went along. Maybe that was how it was supposed to work; maybe it was natural for a father to kill his son. Or for a brother to kill a brother.
Which isn’t to say I was willing to let the killer off the hook, whoever he was. Not by a long shot.
That night, as I slept, I dreamed about the Garden for the first time I could remember in ages...only this time, Abel was with me instead of Adam.
Fruit hung heavy on every branch, fruit the likes of which I’ve never seen since leaving Eden. We picked it and ate it and lay in the soft grass under the sun, naked and innocent. Animals came right up and stretched out beside us, unafraid; birds landed on our knees and sang in sweet voices, and I understood every word of their songs.
Tiny angels fluttered down with gossamer wings and fed us honey and cool water. Abel picked flowers of red and yellow and purple and wove them into a garland for my hair.
It was perfect, just as I remembered, in every way...so much brighter and bolder and richer than anything I’d known in the rest of the world. No pain. No fear. No murder.
But still, I noticed one thing missing.
Abel stopped weaving the garland and looked up, listening to something that I couldn’t hear. He spoke, but not to me, and I understood at once.
He could hear the Voice, and I could not. In the old days, it had whispered often in my ears, warm and strong and reassuring. Musical. Tender.
But now, when I needed most to hear it once more, when I needed it to comfort me just this one time, when my boy was there in my dream but lost in life and whoever had killed him was someone I trusted and loved if not the fruit of my own womb
I heard nothing. Not even in a dream.
And I knew, as Abel listened and laughed and spoke to the air, that as much as it had cost me, what I had done, as much as it had cost all of us
I would do it again.
The next morning, I went back to the field where we had found poor Abel. I was looking for something that would help me understand what had happened, anything that might tell the story or even a little bit of it.
When Adam and I had found the body, neither of us had searched the area. I had been too upset upon realizing Abel was dead...and to Adam’s mind, Abel was still alive, so what need was there to look further? Either that, or Adam was the killer and didn’t want me to see anything that might tip me off about his involvement.
It was because of that possibility that I lied to Adam when I went back to the field. I told him I was going off by myself to bleed like I sometimes did...like I did every so often since leaving Eden. It was a good excuse, because he didn’t like being around to see it.
At first, nothing unusual caught my eye in the corner of the field where Abel’s body had lain. The grass that had been pressed down beneath him had sprung back up, so even the place where he had fallen was hidden now...though I would never forget that exact spot no matter how overgrown it became.
I got down on my knees and ran my hands through the soft green blades, looking for a trace of Abel or anyone else. For a long time, I combed through the grass, squinting at the earth beneath it...and found nothing.
Then, by chance, I looked up, gazing into the tangled bushes and weeds that rimmed the field. I noticed a depression in one of the bushes; something was holding down a cluster of leafy branches, though I could not see what it was.
Getting to my feet, I walked over to the bushes and looked down into the depression. Right away, I recognized what lay inside, and I reached for it.
It was a pole, about five feet long, and thick as the leg of a goat. All the branches had been trimmed off, leaving pale knobs along the length. One end had been whittled to a blunt point. Near the other end, a strip of gray bark had worn away where a human hand had encircled it.
It was Abel’s...the combination walking stick and herding prod he’d always carried with him when tending his sheep and goats. The animals were gone, off munching in another pasture somewhere; Abel was gone, too, killed and buried.
But here was his walking stick. He must have dropped it during the struggle, I thought, and been taken the few more steps to the spot where he’d died. Meaning he and his attacker had come this way, along this rim of bushes and weeds.
Carrying the stick with both hands, I slowly followed the curving rim of the field, carefully studying the tangle of vegetation. Nothing new caught my eye.
The rim led up to a thicket of trees and underbrush. There was a path, but I almost missed it; the opening was blocked with a thorn bush.
A bush that moved when I poked it with Abel’s walking stick...and I don’t mean just the branches or leaves moved. The whole bush moved; it wasn’t attached to the ground. Something or someone had hacked its trunk free of its roots and moved it here...and since “here” was the mouth of a well-worn trail through the forest, I was betting this wasn’t the work of animals or the elements.
I was a little nervous as I stepped onto the path. Forests had become a lot more menacing since I’d left Eden; the trees didn’t sing, the ferns didn’t tell jokes, and you never knew when something might jump out of hiding and try to take a bite out of you.
For a little while, I walked along the trail, winding deeper into the woods. I tried to concentrate on watching the ground and trees and underbrush for signs of who had gone this way before...but the million sounds of the forest kept drawing my attention this way and that, expecting who knows what to pounce with dripping fangs and gleaming claws.
Finally, the path led me to a break in the forest, an open circle in the midst of the dense, leafy growth. I stepped out of the treeline, glad to emerge into an open space, however limited...and stopped.
At one side of the grassy clearing, I saw something I’d never seen before. Something that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up.
There was a pile of stones about as high as my waist, neatly stacked to form a rectangular base. Atop the pile was a big, flat stone, long and broad enough to cover the stacked base and extend beyond it on every side.
Atop this stone slab was a sight that made me shudder.
Now, in the years since, I have seen this kind of thing too many times to count. It has become a way of life, though not one I have ever approved of or practiced with my own hands.
But that day, in the woods, I saw it for the first time, and I didn’t understand. In fact, it horrified me. I was used to seeing dead animals and had eaten my share of meat, but this was different.
This was death, not without purpose, but without a purpose that I could comprehend.
A gray-haired goat lay on its side on the smooth surface of the table. Insects crawled all over it and flew around it, but the thickest concentration of them swarmed at the goat’s eyes and mouth and throat.
The throat had been gashed open, probably with the flint blade that lay alongside it. I could see the dried, dark stain left behind by the pool of blood that had poured out of that wound onto the slab. A basket of grain and vegetables also rested on the slab, and the blood had soaked the reeds of the basket’s bottom, turning them crimson.
Beneath the slab, all around the base of the table, I saw the remains of other creatures that had died there...jumbled bones of all sizes, most picked clean by wild scavengers, some with scraps of shriveled flesh or clumps of fur still stuck to them. So many bones ringed the table, I could not even begin to guess how many animals had been killed to collect them.
I was able, however, to guess who had been there before me. And I began to see that the reasons for my son’s murder may have gone deeper than I had imagined.
For one thing, when I moved in for a closer look--but not
close--I recognized the goat. It was one of Abel’s.
And the basket of grain and vegetables on the slab...I recognized that, too. The pattern of the woven reeds that formed the basket was unmistakable; only Cain was known to make a basket like that.
Abel the herdsman. Cain the farmer. Both of them had been here, and probably not long ago, judging from the condition of the carcass. One or both had left behind a heap of produce, and one or both had cut open the throat of a healthy goat and left it on a slab of stone to rot.
My boys had been up to something out here, I thought. Something secret and strange. Maybe something that had led to Abel’s murder.
Killing, not for survival, but for other reasons. I had never considered it before...but someone had.
And if a goat could be killed like that, so too could other living things. So too could Abel.
As I stood there, I had a feeling. This was where it started.
Little did I know, as I do today, just how true that was. And just how much was started by what happened there. What happened in Eden was just prelude, I know now; this was the true cradle of man’s history.