Cain is everywhere among their tents.
They sleep apart now most nights,
driven to coldness by his restless memory
floating through both their dreams
on waves of Abel's blood.
It is in the sun of summer evenings
that reddens the tent ropes into strands of twisted cartilage;
that soaks the wool of the sheep that go unshorn,
gnawing on the sunset reddened grass.
How many years since the curse descended,
since the screaming began,
since Cain fled howling into the desert?--
and still they bleed.
And there is her. There is always her.
They do not speak, and do not speak of her.
She is the husband's memory and the wife's shamed knowledge:
drawn, not like the wife, from near his heart,
but from the fire that made him come to her first,
only then to the wife, Lilith's memory planted
in the womb he found: Lilith who fled, unpossessable,
on a cloud of fire that burned in his veins,
that drew him upward, inward to the wife to plant
the sons that were Lilith's and passion's,
not the wife's, that belonged to this first haunting,
to the streaming-haired memory with a kiss
that blistered his mouth, that made him spit out her taste
but remember her heat.
Her sons, truly: the elder, befuried, wild-haired,
in rage and blood raising a stone against the younger
who sooner would die--and did--than yield to his brother's will:
and the brains, the brains! twisted round in Abel's skull
like Lilith's legs twisted round the husband's waist,
Abel's death cry Lilith's satisfaction,
her satisfaction in Abel's final moans,
taking flight at last like the thief of their house and names.
He sleeps in the tent, solitary and restive, dreaming
not of gardens and a forgotten vision,
but of Lilith, and hears her hissing: Husband!
in his ear, and wakes, scalded by her breath.
Where is your wife, my lord? she whispers
in a darkness she fills with her glow,
her mouth moving over his bare belly,
moving downward, kissing him, her heat searing and raising him.
You are grown so old, my lord! she whispers,
removing her gown, but I have stayed the same,
and your body remembers me:
and rests atop him, draws him into her, looks into his eyes, breathes
It is I now, my lord,
moving slowly toward him, moving backward,
we are of the same fire,
as your sons are of my fire,
with me now as you are with me now,
who would have me only on your terms.
But now the terms are mine,
the sons are drawn back into me,
into fire and air, and you are truly mine
and fill me again with their spirit and memory.
The husband's fainting moan rises from his throat,
the cry of a sheep spurting forth its life upon an altar,
silenced by the final tidal fury of its own blood,
feeling only Lilith's hair, aflame, filling his mouth like a burning kiss,
hearing only Lilith's song, triumphant, riding the red air.
He wakens to emptiness, and always to the children,
from a dream of the sons, of the punishment,
of Cain running mad among the tents
under a drenching blackened sky,
his face--it is Lilith's face--smeared
with blood and ash, screaming for his own death,
finally disappearing beyond the hills.
So long ago: his wife kneeling in the pool by Abel's head,
bathing her hair in the blood, clutching her womb,
looking with horror at the father of this horror,
crying out She has done this,
her son you put inside me!
and drawing back into silence,
living apart from her husband,
wishing upon him the curse of another's embraces.
He looks round and remembers the nightmare,
Lilith astride him again, in a dream of betrayal;
goes forward to the tenthole,
looks out and sees the sky,
like Abel's open eye:
blue and sightless.
Printed in Journal of New Jersey Poets, Spring 1995.
to the Astrophysicist's Tango Partner Speaks