by Nikki Vogel

B4.2 — of sheep and tillage —

“Enough kvetching, you make the call,” his brother, the shepherd, said, leaning against the spotless kitchen counter. He was chafing dirt from under his nails with a Swiss Army Knife—a gift from their grandfather. The scrapings capitulated to gravity, became shmutz on the well-worn but highly polished floor.

The farmer, sitting in his favorite kitchen chair, fought a powerful urge to retrieve a broom, or even the Hoover, from the cupboard where he kept his cleaning supplies. “It was your idea. You know the shtick. You should do it.”  Resentment tinted his words the same red as the knife—as usual Zayde had given only the one gift. He turned his face away from the fragments of soil and dead skin that had fallen and continued to fall. Debris. Detritus. Small black motes in his I.

He straightened his shirt cuffs and smoothed his dark hair, breathed slowly in and slowly out through his nose. Just in time he caught himself in the act of rising from the chair, but failed to stop a glance toward the cupboard. He saw his brother see him look there and the subsequent smirk that shaped his lips. Smooth-straight-planted-rows—he used the image of smooth, straight, planted rows to sooth the agitation and anxiety he felt in his brother’s presence.

B4.4  — zayde always loved you more —

“You’ve got more chutzpah than I do. Besides, you do the voice better than I can.” The farmer spoke into the void of continued silence. “You know the one. Like Johnny cuh-cuh-cuh-Carson.”

His brother had been pressuring him to do this prank, and he did not want to participate: what were they, five? Ruddy-complexioned, he could feel his face color at the unintended stutter. Just once could he stick to his guns?

“Bupkes. Since it was my idea, you should do the dirty work,” his brother answered, with heavy emphasis on “dirty.” This was one of the ways his brother made fun of him for being a farmer. Why it was nobler to chase sheep around the hills he had no idea. And seemingly he’d convinced Zayde of this “fact” as well. Would it be different if their father intervened, told his own father mano a mano that his actions were unfair?

He crossed his arms over his chest and stuck out his chin very slightly. If he refused, really refused, would his brother change his mind, forget this mishegas?

The clock ticked its tocks while the brothers stared each other down. The blade paused under right pinky nail: farmer watched shepherd stack resolve one brick at a time.

His brother closed the knife, set it on the counter and slowly drew his cellphone from the butt pocket of his Wranglers like water from a deep well. He pressed *67 so that their mother could not identify the caller. The phone rang and rang. If she were anywhere but right next to the phone it could take upwards of twenty rings to answer. She didn’t have an answering machine and wouldn’t spend a penny on a second phone, though, Zayde knows, she could afford both. Forefinger intersecting lips in a symmetrical cross much like the one on the knife’s red casing; his brother touched the speaker button.

Finally, her wispy, “Hello. Who’s there?” She concocted a noisy false wheeze. “I’m sorry it took me so long to get to the phone. I’m not well. I’m not a well woman.” No matter how often they took her to the doctor, and how many times the doctor told her she was in excellent health, she told anyone who would listen that sickness and death waited for her right around the bend.

Before he could speak, she continued, “Is this one of my sons? No, it can’t be. They never call. They never come to Shabbos dinner. I gave them life, but they ignore me. That’s the thanks I get. Am I not baleboste? Did I not cook and clean and wipe their tuckuses?” His brother rolled his eyes theatrically, and he couldn’t help the small smile he gave in return: she really could go on and on. Guilt pinched him hard enough to leave a mark: he hadn’t been to visit her in over two weeks. Harvest was his busiest time, and he knew that if he had gone to visit, all she would have done was question him about the crops left untended.

B4.9  — am I my brother’s keeper? —

They listened to her strident inhalation. Precisely timed to the last bit of whistle and before she could continue kvetching, his brother broke in. “Ma’am, this is Constable Mada. I have some very bad news.” He winked while imitating the deep pitch of an announcer’s voice. “Both of your boys have been killed.” 

He felt his eyebrows shoot halfway up his forehead at the departure from the discussed script—a lottery win. He took the opportunity, while his brother paid attention to the intricacies of ad-lib, to lean toward him from the chair and make a gimme gesture indicating that he wanted to look at the knife.

“Yes, I’m afraid it’s true. A sinkhole. They fell in and were suffocated by dirt.” They listened to their mother make small sounds of distress. It was horrible and glorious. He loved her, and knew she loved him, them, but it was a suffering kind of love, martyred even, that was both awful and comforting.

What to feel? Admiration and irritation battled for primacy. He envied his brother’s ability to think on his feet. Feh! His brother’s ability to spiel was the genesis of their problems. When they stood before Zayde, heads bowed and gifts in hand, he clammed up and shyly offered the fruit of his labor in bushel, basket or bin. His brother, on the other hand, would present a few of his choicest sheep, pay close attention to which one Zayde favored, separate it from the herd and cut its throat, kibitzing the whole time. Then he’d regale Zayde with poetic bullshit: odes and psalms and slam poetry, and apparently this meant more to Zayde than ripe grain humbly presented.

His brother, still spouting bupkes about dirt and suffocation, was so focused on remaining in character that his attention slipped: impelled by unceasing gimme gestures, he delivered the coveted knife into the hand of his brother.

Their mother, however, was in real distress. It sounded like she might be having a stroke or a heart attack on the other end of the phone. His brother’s expression changed from sly triumph to sick fear. “Ma. Ma. Don’t plotz. It’s just a prank. Ma. It’s me, Cain. We’re just fooling around. We’re okay.” He straightened slightly, removed some of the habitual nonchalance from his posture.

Cain stood in reaction to the lie. Secure in his favored position, Abel held his palms up and open—a gesture of helpless arrogance.

“Ma, seriously, we’re okay.”

“Gornisht boy. Breaking your mother’s heart that way.” She was crying.

Abel took the phone off speaker, turned his back to his brother, and held the phone to his ear so that Cain couldn’t pipe in and out him as the culprit. During the distraction, Cain opened a few tools in the Swiss Army knife, one at a time, closing each before selecting the next—scissors, pliers, magnifying glass, corkscrew. It suddenly occurred to him how close his father’s name was to the word adom—“red” in Hebrew. He began scuffing the nail scrapings into a small neat pile with his sock-clad big toe, still intent on his examination of each and every tool housed so cleverly inside the knife. Eventually he came to the blades, found the largest of them and tested the hone of its edge. He made eye contact with himself in the blade’s shining stainless steel surface.

His brother, shoulders hunched, had moved further away; he was still trying to settle their mother down. “Ma, I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Cain reached around Abel from behind and cut his throat. The blood that sprayed from the wound was redder even than the knife’s casing. The phone dropped to the floor and cracked open, ending the call.

Adom. Adam. Red. Blood. Was this fated?

He wiped the blade on his brother’s faded denim shirt, checked the shine and wiped it once more for good measure. When it passed muster, he closed the blade neatly into its slot. “I’m going to keep it,” he said to his brother’s corpse.

B4.16  — he found a roadside hotel and dwelt awhile in the land of Nod —

For a quarter, the bed vibrated. He remade it, tucking the end corners and sides tight. When it was as smooth and wrinkle-free as possible, he floated the polyester bedspread over top. The blackout curtains met snuggly in the middle. He slept better than he had in years without the bleating of farkakte sheep to trouble him. 

Nikki Vogel lives in Edmonton, Alberta. She is currently working on her thesis project for UBC’s Optional Residency Masters of Creative Writing. Nikki has been published in Room Magazine, the filling Station, Luna Station Quarterly, The Istanbul Review and has a short story in an anthology entitled You Can’t Kill Me, I’m Already Dead. She was also a runner up in Little Birds Story Contest 2012 and recently had a story accepted for New Lit Salon Press’s anthology called Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: New Tales of Madness.