Crystal Robert-Ubaechu, Academy for Allied Health Sciences
This was the road that cut the continents in half, snaking through desert, mountain, and city alike, stretching as west as the horizon. Everything from carriages to hooves to bare feet trampled its miles of sand and gravel, wealthy and poor
It was noon, and he could feel the sun scorching the bare skin of his head, but he would not pull up the hood.
“Small penance,” he whispered in a gravelly voice.
This mantra explained every pain or trial he’d experienced in the last 12 years. They were all parts of a greater punishment he deserved. He knew he didn’t belong on this walk, but years had scuffed by and he was ready.
The fugitive reached for his burlap sack of bread and dried meat. He’d given away what was left of his money a town ago in exchange for three day’s worth of rations. It wasn’t enough for the five days of walking, but he’d happily starve on the way. Going there was all he had life left to do.
The man put his hand into the sack and was surprised when he touched the bottom. He felt around and found only crumbs and a tear in the material. His last bite must have fallen out miles ago, becoming part of the shifting sands of the road. He sighed his mantra and brought his canteen to his lips to fill his empty stomach. That, too, was as dry as the earth. Not even a million small penances would sanitize the sin of his past.
“Hungry, sir?” The first voice he’d heard in days came from beside him.
The fugitive turned and saw its source: a man guiding a donkey with leather reins in one hand, and the brightest orange he’d ever seen outstretched in the other. Upon the donkey was a woman, draped in a fabric shield from the sun. She held a small pouch of the oranges in her lap, as she peeled and tossed the skins over her shoulder with a patient smile.
“Give him this one, too.” She told her husband. “He looks hollow.”
The fugitive, after a moment of hesitation, accepted the two fruits and held them to himself.
“I...thank you…” he breathed, almost forgetting how to eat.
The three of them snacked for part of a mile, not speaking but loud in the language of kindness. It was a sensation the fugitive had forgotten. Between bites, he would scrutinize his good samaritans. The other man had tan skin and a tuft of dark, curled hair that poked out under his hood. When he smiled, lines creased under his eyes, though he was not very old. In fact, he was the same age as the fugitive on his first day of exile.
The woman was dwarfed under many robes and scarves. Periodically, she’d reach down and draw the fabrics away from her bare feet when they dangled too far over one side of the animal.
“Do you have names?” The fugitive asked carefully.
They looked at each other for a moment as if deciding. “I’m Jo. This is… Mare.”
“Abe,” the fugitive smiled, as he joined in their lying. “How has the road treated you?”
It was pointless to ask those on this path where they were going. This was the road to nowhere and everywhere. It could guide nomads, refugees and rulers to any corner of the world. Many trekked it just to see where they could land, like leaves carried far from the branch by wind.
The young man smiled sadly. “We’re searching for a new hometown, better than our last.”
“I couldn’t relate less.” Abe chuckled. “Unless your family drove you off, too?”
“No, sir. Our home was meant to be wandered from. The road takes us to see many others. None have been a good place for us, though. Not yet, at least.” He locked eyes with his partner, who covertly placed a hand on her belly, exchanging a silent worry.
“We have this,” Mare said, holding up a folded piece of a map. “This town will be the one.”
Abe couldn’t believe what he was witnessing. As he watched the young couple banter, offering hope and joy to a world left grey and miserable, he realized what they were. Without this thing, only suffering remained. He knew that this thing had long since died, yet, before his eyes, the two of them embodied it fully. It was―
“And what about you?” Mare prodded. “In return for your curiosity about us.”
Abe hesitantly let his mind wander back to the years gone by and could not decide where to begin his tale. Perhaps at the end.
“I’m going to my home…” he started, looking towards the outstretched horizon. “It was a wonderful place, where the trees and soil bore fruit and crops effortlessly. It didn’t belong to my family, but the owner let us live there. I remember it surely as I remember my name. It was...paradise.”
“Ah, I’d love to live in paradise...” Jo mused.
His wife rested her chin in her hands and smiled at the yellowing sky as the donkey's gait jostled her to and fro. “If it was so wonderful, what possessed you to leave it?”
The fugitive looked down at his sandals in shame, comparing the calloused and dusty skin he trudged on to the running, skipping feet he used as a boy. He stopped being a mere boy that day, when his clenched, jealous hands that knew nothing, but freedom and comfort had ruined everything...
He said, “I angered the man who owned the land,” but couldn’t bring himself to say more.
Years of exile had turned Abe into a hopeless, wretched husk. But that day on that road, he dared to walk, he was a different man. He had more than learned his lesson while counting his curses. The couple was a sign that he would be allowed to see that fine land again.
It was evening. A fork appeared in the road, branching off into a smaller trail headed north. The time came for the three to go their separate ways. Jo and Mare nodded their silent goodbyes and well wishes, but Abe’s heart ached to see them go.
“I have nothing to repay your kindness,” he shouted at their retreating silhouettes. “But if I am welcome in my home, god willing I will share the joy of the land with your new family!”
An unbelievably optimistic thing for a fugitive like Abe to say, but he let the words escape him anyway. He had a good feeling, and those were rare.
Jo looked at his young wife and shared in her apprehension. Then she smiled. As the wind picked up, she raised her hand holding the folded map, then allowed it to be carried away.
“We’ll follow you!” The young man said with a laugh.
The last few miles came and went more easily than the ones before. Abe told stories about his homeland and cried. As he blotted the tears from his eyes, he remembered the thing he had seen in them. He finished his thought out loud.
“You two are the mercy that this world has cried for since the fall!”
The dryness of the road was forgotten when the green pastures came into view. It was like stepping into a different world. Waves of grass rolled with each pass of the wind. The air was sweet with the pollen scent of perpetual spring. It made Abe and the couple want to sing. He remembered his youth in the way the pure water of the small stream burbled, so he bent down and removed his sandals so the stream could carry away the dust.
“This way!” He motioned and took off running like a young boy.
Mare slid off the donkey, took her husband’s hand and raced after him. The three hurried around the bushes, laughing as Abe and his brother had done when they played together twelve years ago. The pace only slowed when they passed by a large stone. It was the biggest one shaking hands might find in the midst of jealous fury.
The couple didn’t notice it, but Abe did. He took a moment to blink away the sorrow and regret, and to force determination into his aching heart. He was home. His parents should be waiting in the secluded clearing where the greenery huddled, guarding the center like a secret. However, in the heart of the garden sat a single man, dressed in white, napping against a tree.
“Excuse me?” Abe asked, suddenly embarrassed of the tears on his face, “Where is my family?”
The man in white ignored him and continued to nap.
Abe’s pulse quickened. “My name is―”
“I know your name,” he sighed slowly with a deep voice.
The man lifted his sharp chin and revealed harsh eyes that stared through all three of them at once. His gaze swiveled across the sight of them, before stopping on Mare.
“Woman,” the man in white aimed his finger at her. “Pick a number.”
She looked at Abe, then her husband, then at the strange man, confused, “T-Twelve?”
The man in white nodded and seemed pleased. “That is a good number.”
They saw how unnaturally tall he was when he stood. With his long arms he could reach any of the low-hanging poison fruit above their heads. Instead he grasped the scabbard hiding in the grass. When he took its hilt and drew out the blade, Abe was sure his eyes were hallucinating the reds and yellows that shimmered and warped around it, almost like―
“Fire...!” Jo’s voice shook as the tall man assumed his stance with a bored look on his face.
“Welcome home, Cain. You have twelve seconds.” Tendrils of flame trailed behind the sword as he swung it in a wide arc and pointed it directly at the fugitive. “Run.”