'I Hear Cain, Singing' / Odessa Blain
Odessa Blain is a nineteen year old university student majoring in English Literature and Philosophy at the Australian National University. She wrote this short story for a high-school English assignment asking her to develop a distinct and compelling voice. An article about U.S survivalists sparked Odessa’s idea for this piece, which was further fuelled by her long-lasting fascination with insular communities and cults. Odessa’s writing varies in style and genre, but she predominantly seeks to convey meaning through gaps and narrative silences.
I HEAR CAIN, SINGING
Last night I dreamt of Gabriel. It’s surprising how little that happens nowadays. All I remember is him pointing at the sky, at the smoke, great tendrils of it, like fingers, curling around the sun. Far off I could hear Cain singing, and when I looked down, blood was on my hands, a dead rabbit at my feet.
I was ten years old when Gabriel left us. Three days after his dog, Seven, was shot, he went mad, burnt all our supplies, released the bees and drove off in one of our pickup trucks. I used to imagine that he would come back for me; he’d press his fingers against my lips – no one could know that he’d returned. I’d follow him and as I ran, the grass would slide under my bare feet, and everything would seem to be alive, crawling and buzzing as it does in mid-June.
Our family used to be very large, so I’m not sure if Gabriel was my blood kin. We were told to call everyone brother and sister, and all the adults, auntie and uncle. Everyone except for Cain. Cain was just Cain.
Gabriel was always trouble, always testing Cain, seeing how far he could go. But he was a hard worker and Cain said that we needed workers like Gabriel. Cain said that society had become too complacent, and that when the bombs fell, the weak and lost would perish, and our family would be left to continue on. Cain used to call Gabriel a terrier, and he said that I was like a hedgehog, always curling up when I slept and never getting lost. “Hedgehogs always find their way home,” that’s what Cain would say.
Gabriel loved the animals. I think he preferred their company to that of humans – less small talk. He had a favourite dog, Seven. Flies always buzzed around Seven and his panting could be heard across the fields. I remember that his eyes were amber, all noble and sad, like pools of melted sunlight.
We weren’t allowed to name the animals. Except for the dogs, which were called numbers like One and Three; that’s because dogs are like people – we both need a name to be called by. But we were never allowed to give them human names. Cain said that someday they’d be needed for food, so we couldn’t think them as pets. It was a kindness, he’d say.
But, when Gabriel was thirteen, he started calling Seven ‘Samson’. And soon he named almost all the other animals. He’d whisper their names as he went to sleep. The others would’ve thought that he was praying, but I knew the truth, Gabriel always told me his secrets.
Gabriel used to go on long walks with Seven and that must’ve been how he met our neighbours. When he was fifteen, he told me that he’d been sneaking off for the past year or so. It was three days after my tenth birthday and I made a blood oath that I’d keep my mouth shut. We walked into the fields and Gabriel showed me newspapers that he’d hidden. We weren’t allowed to have a television or radio or newspaper, because Cain said that the government would corrupt us.
One of the neighbours used to take Gabriel to Eugene, the second largest city in the whole of Oregon. Cain and some of the adults like Abraham and Ishmael would occasionally go into town. But they’d only bring back supplies that we couldn’t grow here, like cat food, which is useful because other people won’t think of eating that so, when the time comes, it’ll be easier to defend. Gabriel used to work for our neighbour, selling stuff on campus. He’d never tell me what he was selling, only that people kept coming back for more and he was making lots of cash from it, and that was how he bought the newspapers. Gabriel only got them when something really special happened, and my birthday was particularly special, it was the day our President was shot. I didn’t know who he was because Cain never talked about politics, but Kennedy must’ve been some guy for so many people to go on about him like that. When Bathsheba died there weren’t newspapers written about her.
Gabriel made me promise never to return to the hollow again. He said that he’d take me there on my next birthday. But I’ve always been curious and we didn’t have many books around. So, once a week, for just over half a year, I’d sneak out and read and re-read articles about how General Nguyen Khanh seized power in Saigon, and how the final victim of the Boston Strangler, Mary Sullivan, was found and how Elizabeth Taylor got married in Montreal. It was only a matter of time till Gabriel caught me and I suppose I should be grateful that it wasn’t one of the others. But I didn’t expect Gabriel to get as mad as he did, and I didn’t ever think that he would hit me across the face.
I ran back in a rage because Gabriel had made me cry like a little girl. I told Elijah about Gabriel’s secret because he was a year older than Gabriel and I thought that he’d get him for what he’d done. I didn’t know that Elijah would tell Cain.
Cain made us all stand in a line. I remember that it was hot but not yet raining and the sky was bruised like it was about to storm. Cain burnt Gabriel’s newspapers and my eyes started to sting with tears. I was lucky there was smoke because I could pretend that my crying was on account of that and not my emotions. And then Cain asked us if there was anything else to say and he said that of a truth, God will not do wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice. Cain looked right at me as he said that, and he always knows when you’re withholding. So I told him that Gabriel had named animals – I said that he’d been calling Seven ‘Samson’ for years.
Cain said that it was time Gabriel became a man. He said that Seven was old and weak and he said that the frail would not survive. He told Gabriel to shoot Seven and then he gave Gabriel his gun. Gabriel’s hand shook so much that he accidentally let off a shot and Seven got all spooked and cowered into the ground. But when Gabriel knelt down and scratched his ears, he was okay again. And he didn’t suspect a thing until the bullet was through his brain and he couldn’t suspect a thing. The blood was darker than I thought it would be. And Cain was chanting that we’ve all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy rag. We all wither like leaves, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. And Gabriel kept shooting his dog, again and again, and he didn't stop until Cain placed a hand upon his shoulder.