I said nothing. A decision that doomed us both.
“Well, what do you see?”
The valley below me holds a beauty that is indescribable, and so I don’t even make the attempt. Tree branches rustle loudly behind me as Harold finally catches up, breathing heavily and full of bluster.
“I said… what do you s-”
He stops midsentence as he takes in the view for himself.
“Oh.” He says, dumbstruck.
“Yes, oh.” I finally allow myself those two words. And I realize the whole time I stood there I had not been breathing.
Rocks stumble down the valley side as Harold prepares to descend.
“Well, John… you coming?”
I scratch my chin, itching at the week’s worth of stubble. “I…”
I hesitate, how to describe my doubts? The sense of doom that accompanies my awe at the beauty below. Such golden rivers, glittering emerald glass, trees leak sap—an ambrosia that can heal any ailment, if the rumors are indeed true—we descend into the halls of paradise. This is not natural. Such a place cannot exist in the world we know. And so, to find it so haphazardly, after searching for so long, this smells like a trap. I know if I tell Harold my feelings, if I insist we turn back after the years of work, the sacrifice, the sins that weigh both our consciences, the darkness we perpetrated to stumble into this light. He would merely laugh and say the truth: that we have come too far to turn back now, that innumerable riches await us.
So I say: “I’ll be right along.” And watch him scrabble down toward the valley floor, whooping and hollering, large piles of cash dancing before his eyes. I watch him grasp at the grass, ignoring how the sharp jewels cut his fingers and unshod toes. I watch him wade into the gleaming river, delve his hands in and come away with riches enough to last a hundred lifetimes. I watch him kneel before the trees bleeding amber, suckling greedily at their fonts, as his skin grows clearer and decades of life fall away from his weary brow. I watch him accomplish everything we dreamed of and more, and my doubts fall away.
He turns to me, eyes brimming with tears, joyful tears, smiling as I have not seen him smile since we were children: open and unburdened and free.
“Jon,” He cries, “What are you waiting for… an invitation from God herself?”
“God…” I whisper.
And that reminds me of the specter I feared, words from a holy book none of us bothered to read, raised as we were in an irreligious foster home. Words I scanned idly in a history class, which stuck with me in my gut, even as they passed by my mind. Words of warning from God, creator of Heaven, of Hell, of Aeden, the garden born free of men.
“Beware to those of the other sex, the sex that infects my progeny with life. He who enters my gardens without permission, shall not so easily leave. Beware…”
She left Cayne with that warning, disappearing in a flock of sparrows. Her voice carried in their chirping song. A hundred high-pitched echoes.
“Harold, I think we shoul-”
But suddenly the smile leaves his face, and I know somehow that my warning comes far too late, that I should have spoken immediately of my secret doubt. He looks down at his feet, sees them encased in green. The bejeweled grass winds insidiously up his legs, turning them hard and bright and unbreakable like the emerald itself.
“Jon, I… help me!”
I dare not move, but I also dare not turn away. God’s punishment weighs on us both. He is to suffer. I am to watch, helpless before the transfiguring of my brother.
“Jon…” He smiles again. He knows I cannot come, to do so would be my own end, and does not ask me again. “It’s okay. I’m okay. This was worth it Jon.”
His stomach glows golden, the swallowed ambrosia playing its part. The gold in his hands melts against them and swims up his arms and around his neck. He gasps and chokes and his eyes roll up in his head.
“Jon… Jon.” He spits, and then does not speak again. Frozen, the golden melted metal that just covered his head slowly bleeds through his clothes. The transformation is complete.
Down in the valley, amongst the impossible riches impossibly grown, there stands a statue. One eerily reminiscent of a man I once knew.
I flee back through the trees, forgetting the path that led me here. Leaving the man I once called brother. That is all my sanity will allow. And as I flee, I hear whispered on the wind like a chorus of song birds:
At night, I hear that voice still. I close my eyes and see the gilded smile frozen on his face. And I know, Harold’s doom came with his death, with becoming an object in a land not meant for men. Mine comes in the living, in surviving, in knowing I said nothing, and that silence doomed us both.