He felt so full of wonder and delight that he called out to his younger brother Abel, asleep in the bunk below. Cain wanted Abel at his side, flying through the air of that mysterious land. Cain knew in his heart it would be a long time and a far way before he’d see those colours or hear that music again.
The next morning Cain felt off-balance. He was happy and excited, as if he had discovered a great secret that would change everything. But he was also angry and resentful that he had to get up and go to school. He wished he could just go back to sleep and resume the magic dream.
Abel woke up that morning feeling hot and dizzy. Their mother, Eve, took one look at his pale sweaty face and said “no school for you today sweetie, you must be coming down with something.”
Then Cain said “he’s faking, it’s not fair…” and Abel said “am not!” and Cain said “liar liar your pants are on fire!” and Abel said “well your pants smell like poo!” at which point Cain flew at his brother in a rage, throwing punches as hard and fast as he could.
Eve stepped forward with a here-we-go-again expression on her face. She grabbed Cain’s shirt and hauled him off Abel, who had begun to whimper.
“Your father’s gonna hear about this,” she said, but Cain had already stormed off to the kitchen for breakfast. He felt sorry for himself, though he wasn’t sure why. Distracted by the fight with Abel, it didn’t occur to him to ask his brother about the events of the previous night.
The day continued as it began. For Cain, nothing went right. Whatever he did seemed to be at odds with everyone and everything. In History he couldn’t find the right page in the book and everyone laughed at him. In Language he was the only kid who couldn’t do the comprehension test (he was too busy thinking about the dream and also about how unfair it was that Abel was allowed to stay at home in bed).
In lunch-break Cain stood alone while everyone around him was laughing and playing and shouting at the top of their voices. Cain didn’t feel welcome in any of the groups. Even his friends didn’t seem to want him around.
Those patterns were to be repeated daily for the rest of his life.
~~~***~~~Over the years, the paths of the brothers diverged substantially.
Cain dropped out of high school well before any of the other kids in his year. Continuing to live at home he made some desultory stabs at looking for a job, at least in the first few months. But after a while he stopped his half-baked efforts and instead resorted to lies and pretence.
He would leave the house saying he had been called to an interview, but in reality would meet up with his “friends”, who were older but not much wiser, and who helped him into the habits of his future degradation.
Ultimately he gave up pretending – it required too much energy and focus to keep his stories straight. He would sleep most of the day behind his locked bedroom door, leaving the house only in the late afternoon and returning in the early hours or even well into the next morning.
This period of his life was marked also by increasingly heated clashes with his parents. At first these were about relatively minor things, such as his rudeness and surliness, his unwillingness to help around the house: things like that. Then, when money began to go missing from Eve’s purse on a regular basis, and the rudeness began to be amplified by drunken abuse, the clashes intensified into emotional screaming matches that usually ended with Eve in tears and something broken. Cain would fling a porcelain vase against the wall or smash a window or rip up Eve’s favourite shrubs in the front yard.
Matters came to a head one evening during a particularly regrettable incident in which a drug-affected Cain punched his father in the face. Adam lost his temper and responded in kind. The fight ended when Abel bravely came to stand between his raging brother and father, a helpless Eve sobbing hysterically as she watched in horror.
Gasping for breath and shaking with suppressed rage, Adam told Cain to pack up and leave the house, which he did, hurling threats and abuse over his shoulder.
Despite the drama playing out for years around him — all the shouting and screaming and broken windows and tears — somehow Abel managed to excel at school, academically as well as on the sporting field.
Adam and Eve were proud of the achievements of their younger son, and celebrated them at every opportunity.
It was on one such occasion that Cain returned.
Eve had prepared a special dinner to mark Abel’s achieving the highest grades of any student in his final year of high school. Adam opened a bottle of wine for himself and Eve, pouring Abel a single glass so they could all toast his success.
There came a knock at the door. Adam went to open it. On the doorstep stood the prodigal. Cain entered. Haggard and dirty he stood before them in silence, then looked thirstily at the bottle of wine on the table.
Father’s eyes met mother’s. How could they refuse their firstborn? With shaking hand Adam poured a glass for Cain. Eve made a place for him at the table.
The trouble started soon enough, when Cain on hearing of Abel’s high grades said, in between chewing a gigantic mouthful of chicken, “Mister smartypants, huh? Same old, same old.”
Cain wasn’t being malicious, explicitly; didn’t intend to disparage, specifically. It was just Cain being Cain.
“Smartest kid in school,” responded Abel. It was the spark that lit the fire.
“What the fuck!” shouted Cain, “Having a go are you?”
“Abel’s proud of what he’s achieved,” said Adam, “Why shouldn’t he be?”
“Haven’t seen my fucking family in eighteen months,” shouted Cain, “and all you can talk about is HIM. Nobody asks how I am, where I’ve been! Why can’t you all just fucking shaddup!”
Adam’s anger boiled within him. “Why can’t you just get a job, Cain? Why can’t you just be a normal person?”
“ I WOULD... IF I WAS ABLE!” screeched Cain, food particles spraying out of his mouth.
“If you WERE able,” said his brother softly, “the subjunctive tense is used in a counterfactual conditional clause...”
Cain’s arm lashed out over the dinner table, knocking over the bottle and smashing his wineglass. He lurched to his feet, turned, and stomped out of the house.
~~~***~~~After high school, Abel went on to university where he studied a range of subjects including sociology and psychology and politics. His academic achievements culminated in a doctorate, enabling him to write “PhD” after his name, which he did whenever he could, a habit that close friends found endearingly irritating.
Life was good to Abel, delivering happiness and contentment as well as success: social, emotional and financial. He married a woman he loved and who loved him. They created children and the family lived together in a large, comfortable house on a hill looking out on the ocean. The house was always full of love and laughter.
In contrast, the harvest of Cain’s life was bitter fruit — loneliness, poverty and misfortune. He never married, never held down a job longer than a few weeks, never found his way in the world. Wherever he went, whatever he did, sooner rather than later he would move on, leaving a trail of debts and broken promises behind him.
It was as if he’d been cursed, as if something were holding him back, weighing him down, preventing him from making any progress. That something was the magic dream journey. He thought about it incessantly. Had it really happened? Had he soared like a bird in those deep skies that sparkled as if alive? Had Abel been there with him? Did Abel remember anything about that night, about that mysterious land of wonder and beauty, where Cain had been happy and free for the first and last time in all of his lifetime?
Over the years, the brothers crossed paths every now and then: twice, when Abel went to pay Cain’s bail following his arrest for drug-related offences; once, on Cain’s release from a psychiatric facility; and a number of times when Cain called Abel demanding money.
Each time they met, Cain would remember that he wanted to ask Abel about the dream. But something always got in the way, and the Question remained unasked and unanswered.
Most of the time Cain’s mind was in a fog of alcohol or drugs or both, and it wasn’t productive to try and hold a meaningful conversation with him. Or he’d be sleeping it off in a gutter somewhere, in a puddle of his own vomit.
But whether his mind was foggy, his mood black or merely dark grey, his thoughts would invariably turn to the night of the magic dream journey, so long ago. What had happened? What had ...