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from the July 2004 issue


Two brothers, the first two brothers. Conceived on the threshold of paradise, so to speak, when Adam and Eve, driven out by the cherubim with the flaming sword that turned every way, took up residence in this our world. Such an origin undoubtedly represents a great mark of distinction compared to subsequent generations. Nevertheless, it carries a side effect, a certain inexperience, a naïve ignorance of what would later become the most common human sentiments. Thus Eve coupled with Adam, but she couldn't give the word "love" to that strange shudder which passed through her when she lay in his arms (one of the few pleasurable sensations that were not savored in Eden, yet were destined to alleviate the pains of exile with a fleeting rapture). And if the two little ones, Cain and Abel, were late in returning from one of their fearless expeditions far from home, her heart seemed to beat less regularly than usual. Yet she wasn't capable of defining this strangely disquieting phenomenon as "fear" or of linking it to her sons' absence.

Life flits by, then, in a state of unawareness, which is perhaps the last trace of the bliss that was lost. We do know from an authoritative source, however, that the word "brother" is already familiar to humankind, and we can suppose that the two boys avail themselves of it to summon each other during their games. "Brother," says Abel to Cain, with whose help Abel inspects the fine woolly sheep that will be his responsibility as future shepherd. "Brother," says Cain to Abel, while Cain tests the hard ground with the tip of his staff, preparing himself for the future of farming that he knows to be reserved for him.

If he could have chosen, perhaps he too would have preferred to become a shepherd, to lead those docile beasts to pasture, to watch over them for hours while lazing in the shade of a tree. But certain things are as they are, and it is useless to delude oneself that they can be changed. Tilling the ground will be Cain's lot, since thus it has been decided, and he vaguely suspects that this decision wasn't taken by his father or his mother, in the room of the humble cottage where they nightly hold their intimate gatherings, but elsewhere, in the company of a higher authority to whom even they owe obedience. He will till the ground because thus it is written somewhere, in a book that he has never read, but from the plot of which he cannot hope to escape.

Everything is already written, in the dense, invisible characters of that book, as if no difference between before and after existed and time were nothing but a series of pages that can be leafed backward and forward at will. Those pages undoubtedly report the birth of Cain, a boy whose face shone, a boy so handsome as to make his mother exclaim: "I have gotten a man from the Lord." Those pages also relate how the same mother, when another boy was born to her, decided to name him Abel because this name bears a resemblance to the word "doleful."

Cain is unaware of what "doleful" signifies, as were his mother and even Adam (who is nonetheless credited with the invention of all seventy human languages). This world will not be paradise, but no one has yet died there. It is therefore impossible to understand what might have passed through Eve's mind when she baptized her second-born son "Doleful" because, she explained, he was born only to die. This explanation explained nothing; as a matter of fact, it joined mystery to mystery; it was a curious remark that was, moreover, immediately forgotten since life in those days was hard and people were too busy following the injunction that in the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread. But ever since childhood Cain had often pondered those obscure words, which he turned round in his mouth as if savoring them and sometimes inserted into the improvised nursery rhymes that he sang to his little brother. "Born to die," he sang, bending his radiant face over the baby. Abel would suddenly open wide his eyes and stare at Cain with mute seriousness.

Apart from these words, another memory obsessed Cain. It was a tale that his father had told him, one of those stories learned from the angels' lips in paradise. According to the winged narrators, who had personally assisted in the unfolding of the event and related it with an abundance of detail, the sun and moon shone with equal brilliance in the beginning, but the moon, dissatisfied with such a parity, beseeched God to grant it supremacy. The Lord, however, irritated by the moon's presumption, punished it by removing nearly all the light that it possessed and leaving only the sixtieth part, since hateful to Him is any desire for preeminence, and even more hateful is the creature who wishes to exceed the limits that had been fixed for it. This, moreover-as Adam routinely observed by interrupting the story with a bitter digression-was something that he himself knew only too well, with no need to refer to the angels' testimony.

Yet almost always (as should be deeply etched in children's memories) God's justice is tempered by His mercy, in the absence of which creation could not exist, not even for an instant, and which He also displayed with regard to the rash nocturnal star. Touched, in fact, by the moon's entreaties, He promised to restore all its light in the world to come. Here Cain and Abel were already rubbing their hands together, rejoicing in the happy ending. But Adam was quick to dampen their enthusiasm: they needed to be patient, the tale wasn't finished. For the moon, instead of saying thank you and leaving satisfied, was pricked by a certain doubt and wanted to be clear about the significance of the favor that God was promising it. "Forgive me, Lord," it enquired, timid yet resolute, "but if in the world to come my light will be as great as the sun's now is, I would appreciate knowing just how great the sun's will be then." A malicious, downright arrogant request, which naturally unleashed God's wrath: "What? Are you still scheming against the sun? As sure as you live, as sure as I am, in the world to come the sun will possess sevenfold the light that it now possesses."

Adam considered this tale of the moon's mortification particularly instructive and repeated it often to his sons. Nonetheless, while Abel seemed to delight in it, Cain could not be convinced that the Lord had acted with justice. After all was said and done, the moon's doubt stood forth as legitimate, even in the world to come God intended to reserve the worst part for it, and on top of everything else He was cruel enough to present the worst as a gift, as a munificently bestowed favor, with a sleight of hand that was doubtless unworthy of His majesty. In the episode in question, in a word, Cain's sympathies went entirely with the poor mistreated moon, and he felt that he suffered in his own heart what the moon must have suffered when, humiliated, it withdrew from the throne of Glory.

This ability to identify with the feelings and destiny of the lunar star increased as the years passed, especially from the day when his little brother Abel, born to die, was big enough to celebrate sacrifices. At first Cain was alone in making a burnt offering from the fruits of his harvest, at most Abel assumed the subordinate role of assistant, and in those days the Lord did not at all appear to turn up His nose at the firstborn's gifts, in fact He welcomed them with moderate satisfaction, so much so that from the pyres lit by Cain the plumes of smoke rose thin but straight, climbing all the way to heaven.

When, however, brother Abel could also light his fires and sacrifice the choicest well-pastured lambs of his flocks, one understood with absolute clarity who received the preference and who the disfavor. It was enough to see how well those flames burned, seven times more lively and bright than those that issued fitfully from the wood Cain stacked, and seven times higher climbed Abel's smoke, so that seven times more appreciated his offering obviously appeared, in accordance with the unjust proportions previously established between the light of the sun and that of the moon. And Cain, who did not hate his brother because he did not know the meaning of the word "hate," who was ignorant of what envy and jealousy might be, nevertheless continued to brood over that old tale of the two stars and asked himself whether it could have ended differently, whether there were not a way for the moon to strip the sun of the brilliance whereof he had been cheated.

There must have been a way: of this Cain was deeply persuaded, and during his sleepless nights he left the cottage to scrutinize the pale star to which he felt bound, to see whether it did not by chance shine with a more intense light. At times it seemed so to him, it seemed as if the light had once again managed to equal the sun's brilliance. But he was forced to change his mind at dawn, when the favorite suddenly emerged from behind the mountains in the east, vainly parading his own superiority. Still, there must be a way, and Cain, who did not know the meaning of the word "hate," kept on asking himself what it could ever be.

The more he asked himself this question, the less successful were his sacrifices, much to the amazement of Adam, Eve, and even Abel, who, seeing those plumes of smoke worm dubiously towards heaven and finally fall straight back to the ground, irritated his brother by pretending to enquire into the disconcerting phenomenon. "Are you certain you've done things properly? Did you approach the sacrifice with an impure heart?" But Cain was absolutely certain that he had done things properly, he was certain that his heart was pure. The problem, if there were a problem, lay in his hands, where he noticed a strange tingling, as if they were endowed with a will of their own and yearned to strike something or someone.

We don't wish to accompany Cain and his brother Abel as far as the day that was always fixed, as far as the event recorded from the beginning of time in that book with the invisible characters. It is better to take leave of them at this moment, when hands are limited to tingling, when thought broods over the actions of the sun and moon, and when hate still awaits the knowledge of its own name. We leave them in a condition that, if no longer paradise, still partakes of it to some degree by sharing a final glimmer of its innocence. Nevertheless, we must say, before parting company with him, that already Cain's face is no longer what it once was: it is no longer radiant, it does not even retain the sixtieth part of its original brilliance, ever since the smoke of the rejected sacrifice descended upon it, transforming it into a dark mask.

Read more from the July 2004 issue
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