Volume 1 Number 2


Spring 2003

The Choice

J.R. Cain

"What would you do if you discovered you had the power of God?"

James looked up at the silhouette of his brother perched on a misshapen boulder above him. He squinted against the refulgent glare of the setting sun, the rock towering above his head, reaching out over the edge of a sheer cliff. Its stone bled elongated shadows, black phantoms that scratched at the dirt.

"What ya mean? Don't be a twit?" James' scraped fingertips burned from climbing the escarpment. His clammy shirt stuck to his back--a hot, flat leech suckling his skin--and his muscled thighs quivered from overexertion. The sun had been trying to dry the brown flesh off his bones all day, and he wished he'd remembered to bring a cap.

Why'd Jay want to go camping anyway? he thought.

The pair were lost in the bush and starving. The last thing James wanted was a philosophical discussion with his brother. He spat and sent a ball of phlegm splattering against the trunk of a stunted tree.

"Sun's gone to your head I think." James flung his backpack to the ground and ran his nails through his matted, raven hair. He crouched and fumbled within the bag, disinterred a leather water pouch, and lifted it to cracking lips.

"I'm serious." Jay was in a reverie of thought, staring at the horizon as though his gaze could somehow penetrate the sky and find heaven. The sun floundered and slowly descended into the carnivorous peaks of a distant range. "I understand the meaning of life, the secret of creation."

James averted his eyes and simply shook his head, struggling to hide his annoyance. He was exhausted from battling through tangled scrub and climbing boulders heated by the sun to the point where the stone singed his skin.

To top it all off, they didn't have adequate provisions. He was more than hungry. He was almost sure that if a lizard happened by right now, he'd skewer it on a stick, light a fire, and cook it.

"You need water, man." James looked back the way they'd come. "Your brain's fried." He replaced his water pouch and tossed his backpack over his shoulder, scratched his groin through his loose-fitting shorts. "Why'd we come here anyway?"

Jay was ancient sitting on that boulder, an extension of the stone, as though some living totem had risen out of the rock. Fierce contemplation had aged him, dried him like a fig. Even though he was only slightly older than James, he could have been a thousand sitting there--such was the intensity smouldering in those hazel eyes.

"I need to think," Jay sighed. "Can't do it at home. I needed to get away . . . from people. I've been pondering this for a while, and everything's finally becoming clear."

James was somehow disturbed by these words. He didn't know why, but he did notice a crow crossing the sun burnt clouds. A bird watching him. Waiting. Looking down with a hungry yellow eye.

"Stupid's what you are. I was an idiot to tag along, but I'd hoped we'd have a chance to talk--get closer. Starving doesn't make me your pal. Just pisses me off." James picked up a rounded pebble and threw it into a nearby bush. There was a hiss of leaves. "Hope you know where we are, because I sure as Hell don't." He skipped onto a nearby boulder and leapt towards his brother like a frenzied mountain goat, eyes glaring at the one person he blamed for his hungry stomach. "You're lucky I came to watch out for you. At least I can tell Mum where your bones lie."

"Thirst and hunger don't matter. Fasting clears the mind."

"Fasting clears the stomach and bowels, that's all."

"Meditation sustains me." Jay's eyes were fixed on the sunset, and the light reflected from his pupils made them white like the dead eyes of a boiled fish.

James scrambled up beside his brother and collapsed onto the rock. He peered tentatively over the edge of the cliff--a sheer drop, plummeting into a chaotic mass of shattered stone. "Just get us home . . . please." He disengaged his backpack. "Drink." An order.

Jay held up his hand and pushed the pouch away.

James muttered his annoyance and retrieved an apple from his sack. Bit into its flesh--juice spurted across his chin and trickled down his throat. He lifted a hand to shield his eyes from the sun's glare. Watched that circling crow. "Is that a vulture?"


"I bet it is. And it's spotted us too." James resisted the urge to swallow the mashed apple pulp in his mouth, hoping to trick his mind into thinking he was eating more than he was. "Dad'll knock you senseless when I tell him about this." He looked out across the valley. An endless expanse of contorted trees, jutting rocks, a cooked wilderness with heat rising from the land to warp the air.

"Feels like we've been out here for a month. Longer." James took a second, then a third bite of his apple. It was mostly gone. Its pulp was hot and sweet and caused his stomach to gurgle pathetically. The insufficient bounty only agitated his hunger. He decided he'd eat the apple core and wondered what apple seeds tasted like, realizing that, right now, dirt would probably taste good.

"It's all in the mind. The seeds of divinity lie in our subconscious, waiting for the discerning soul. We have the power to shape reality, just have to believe, believe without a doubt . . . believe in what we are, mostly."

James gnashed at the remains of his apple core--his last piece of food. He resented that he didn't have anything but water to drink. Yearned for his bed. Missed his mother's cooking. Jay hadn't brought provisions, and that tested his beleaguered tolerance.

"There's no need for hunger. We could remake the world." Jay reached his arms upward towards the sky, as though he intended to ascend to the awakening stars.

James tore at the remains of an apple core.

"Man doesn't have to suffer. He could cure sickness; abolish death. Only sin, our secret shame, keeps us from progressing. Failing to love others and ourselves causes us to lose faith, kills the power with greed and selfishness."

Jay turned to his brother. "We are gods."

James flicked the nibbled apple stem venomously at Jay's face. It bounced off his nose. "This is the last thing I need to hear when we're lost."

"God looks after us."

James clenched his fist by his leg. "You're asking for a hit on the nose. I want to go home."

Jay stood up and looked down on the wilderness that crawled away beneath the cliff. "You're not listening, brother." He turned towards his sibling. "What would you do if you had the power to create?"

James was rummaging through his backpack, hopeful of finding a morsel of food that might have eluded him. He found nothing.

Jay gripped James' shoulder firmly, his face was red with intensity, his eyes glimmering like distant flames. "Think of it--the power of creation in the hands of a man. What would you do if you could unlock such a miracle?" His voice sank to a pained whisper. "What should I do?"

"Turn these rocks into bread because there ain't nothin' to eat," James sneered and looked out across the scrub land. He wondered what thorns and thistles tasted like.

Jay retreated to the very cusp of the cliff and stared in silence at the drop before him. Twilight had sunk into the recesses of the valley, making the land look like an abysmal sea; waters from the River Styx.

"Did you hear me?" James shouted, his voice echoing in the valley. "I want to go home!"

Jay turned slowly around, his back to the chasm, his face a mask of frustration and sadness. "People don't believe they can change reality. It's like they need to struggle."

Pools of shadow eclipsed the younger brother's eyes, and James' breathing came in short, hard gasps. A second fist clenched.

Make the imbecile see reason. Get him to agree to return home in the morning. Too late to travel now.

"You're serious aren't you?" James tried to relax as he spoke.

"Yes. It's so simple . . . so simple that I can't see why this has remained a mystery."

"Prove it." James bounced a jagged rock over the edge of the cliff. Chewed his lip. "If I had that power, I'd rule the world. Make myself the richest man that ever lived. I'd never be hungry. Buy Mum the biggest house I could find. I'd be the king of the world." He smiled as he imagined ways in which he could indulge his carnal appetites.

Jay's voice was harsh like pulverised granite: "I expected better than that from you!"

Jay was angry, and James was happy for it. He felt like a fight.

Jay continued, "You're not worthy."

"Like you wouldn't do the same? You'd better take us back tomorrow morning, first thing. After all, if what you said is true, throw yourself off the cliff. See if God protects you." James spat at his brother's feet, barely missing Jay's toes. "I'd sure like to see you fly."

"Don't tempt me! I'd only be too happy to leave you in the middle of the wilderness, but then you'd never find your way home." Jay's eyes were wet with tears. Small tracks of water could be seen in the dirt on his cheeks. "You're not ready." He looked out on the horizon. "Will people ever be ready?"

James moved to strike his brother then, punch him in the side of the jaw, but a blinding light distracted him. A blaze of saffron that enveloped them both. And Jay gently took James' elbow. The sun seemed to lift itself momentarily from its golden bed, sucked the brothers away into a brilliant vortex--a cocoon of sentient light.

James was terrified. He tried to cry out, thinking he must have accidentally stumbled over the edge of the cliff, hit his head on a rock, and was falling to his doom. Then, he became aware of the gentle touch of Jay's fingers on his skin and became confused. This small thread of reality--the sensation of a caring soul--held him, secured him against oblivion, and gave him the strength to overcome his fear.

Jay led him through a glowing tunnel of brilliant, shimmering colours. The brothers stepped onto a dusty roadway, and James instantly recognized the place as being close to home.

Jay smiled knowingly.

James shook his head in astonished disbelief. He couldn't decide if he'd simply imagined what had just transpired. His memory, unable to comprehend or cope with the mystical and wonderful journey began to grow uncertain and dim. Befuddled, he rattled his head in confusion and focused on his hunger--something real.

They walked towards home, both of them absorbed in thought. Finally, Jay broke the silence: "Thank you. I wasn't sure of what I should do, but now I know."

James didn't answer. His mind was fixed on his aching muscles and the grime caking his face. He needed a bath. "I'm sorry for back there." He was still a bit confused. "Guess I got a bit crazy."

"I know that wasn't you." Jay's eyes looked severe. "You've helped me, though, more than you know. My mind's clear now, and I just wanted to thank you for that."

James grinned and sniffed the air loudly like a hungry dog, detected the scent of lamb stew on the breeze. "We better hurry up, or Dad'll eat the lot. You know what he's like."

Jay held onto his arm. "Stop calling me Jay. Use my full name."

James scoffed and freed himself. "Whatever. Let's go." He broke into a run and sprinted towards the mud-brick home on the crest of a stony hill. Their father stood in the doorway, smiling and waving as he watched his sons returning home.

illustration by Kimberlee Rettberg

Jay walked slowly behind. He passed a dead tree that stood at the foot of his father's land and stopped to gaze at the last dying light of day. He cringed when he saw the silhouette of the tree and the long shadow, consumed by the approaching night.

The tree seemed to beckon with its skeletal branches, stirred by a parched breeze. In the descending darkness, it resembled a brutal cross.

Illustration by Kimberlee Rettberg