Under a clear blue sky, the two brothers descended into the field. They had been walking for some time, and their village, visible to the north, was but a flyspeck upon the horizon. The older of the two brothers, a shepherd, stopped and looked over his shoulder to the east at the broad, sloping pasture from which they had begun their silent journey. The sun had just cleared the horizon and he could see his flock scattered over the hillside like grains of millet, their long shadows sliding into the brook at the base of the hill. He suddenly felt very alone.

The shepherd turned to look at his brother, who had also stopped but who kept his back to the rising sun. The shepherd watched in silence as his brother brushed his palms back and forth over the fleecy heads of wheat that bobbed and swayed in the breeze. His hands were the hands of a plowman and a thresher, strong and rough, but his touch was gentle, caressing. Merciful.

“Brother, why have you brought me here?” asked the shepherd.

The plowman turned and smiled sadly at his brother. His olive face was smooth and handsome. A bundle of auburn hair swept across his forehead and curled about a pair of dark, intense eyes. He looked down at his hands, turning them over and gently touching one with the other. How many fields have I sown? How many cubits of earth has my plow traversed? How many mouths have I fed? And still his hands had failed him, would always fail him, he realized. He looked up to the sky, closed his eyes, and breathed deeply the cool morning air, savoring the tawny woodiness of the crop field. When he opened his eyes, he was looking again at his brother, but he was not smiling.

He turned and walked toward the shepherd, whose confused expression changed to one of alarm when he saw the object in the plowman’s hand. As the plowman approached, the object ascended slowly, trying, it seemed, to float away and take the plowman with it. When the object, which the shepherd could now see was a small stone axe, the kind farmers use to gouge and tear at the earth, reached its apex, the plowman was standing over his brother. All had gone silent and a dark cloud passed over the face of the sun, diffusing gray shadows over the land and over the face of the plowman, whose eyes now looked like pools of pitch and whose open mouth appeared as a chasm of endless emptiness, something that fed on darkness but that could never be filled. The shepherd was surprised at the sudden force of this thought, that his brother should appear before him so unfamiliar, that the fear that now seized him should be so great as to render him incapable of speech.

The shepherd’s eyes followed the axe as it floated just a little higher. The plowman’s body was drawn taut as a hunter’s bow, every sinew and fiber gone rigid with the tension of built-up force . When the plowman freed the strain from his muscles, the axe descended with a swiftness that, just before it split his head open, the shepherd found remarkable.

Almost as remarkable as the fact that, although the blow made his entire body shudder, although he could see the bright red spray fan across his brother’s breast, leaving a cincture of crimson upon his tunic, he felt no pain. There was only the distant roaring in his ears, like a river heard from far away, and the warm floating sensation as if he were being borne away upon the warm, briny waters of that river.

And then, like the touch of a mother, gentle and caressing, and second blow cleaved the left side of his head, down his cheek and into his shoulder. Now the red came in gouts and spurts. My life. My life is flowing away from me, the shepherd wanted to cry out. But he had somehow lost his ability to speak.

Strangely his legs had melted beneath him, and he was on his knees now, bowing to the earth, his broken head spilling its contents at the plowman’s feet. Brother, why have you done this? Why? Why?

After the third blow cracked open the base of the skull, nearly severing the head from the body, the plowman stood panting over the ruined figure of his brother, whose forward fall was halted by a bare shoulder that had wedged itself into the earth. The cruelness inflicted by the second blow was hidden as the body pitched forward and pressed the once beautiful, youthful face into the earth. As if in askance, the right eye stared heavenward. Why?

The head of the axe glistened like a fresh pomegranate in the newly returned sun, its handle slick and sticky with gore. Again, the plowman closed his eyes and breathed in the familiar scents of the land, scents now tinged with the sweet, ferrous aroma of new life.

Jeremiah Boydstun


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