A Dance for the Fallen

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Part I. Enme & Ajeshah

And they took me to a place in which those who were there were like flaming fire, And, when they wished, they made themselves appear as men. They brought me to the place of darkness, and to a mountain the point of whose summit reached to heaven. .... I saw the great rivers and came to the great darkness, and went to the place where no flesh walks. I saw the mountains of the darkness of winter and the place from where all the waters of the deep flow. I saw the mouths of all the rivers of the earth and the mouth of the deep.

I saw the winds of heaven which turn and bring the sky and the sun and all the stars to their setting place. I saw the winds on the earth carrying the clouds: I saw the paths of the angels.

--1 Enoch, 17:1-2, 6-8, 18:4-5


1. GARDEN


Ajeshah

I was born a weapon. Fashioned by an archangel who would be called Michael, but was then called Mesh, I was to be his hand of justice. A beast, ten feet tall, horned and monstrous, who could tell a liar by scent and rip a man apart with his teeth. Covered in fur, like an animal, with a lion’s mane, and yet my mind was as advanced as my maker’s. It had to be, so that I could understand and carry out his law. I only could not speak because he gave me a beast’s tongue, to prevent me from ever voicing dissent. Did he truly think that because I could not protest, that I would never rebel? Did he not realize that giving a creature a mind that did not match its body could only reap misery?

Ajeshah, I was called in that life. “One who brings death,” in a language that no man can understand any longer. However, if there is one thing I will teach you over the course of this story, it is that names are mostly meaningless. Only the substance behind a name gives it purpose, and that substance has often had many names before that one. If anything, a name serves only as a marker in time--learn to recognize the person by their character and this story will be a lot easier for you to grasp.

As Ajeshah, I was oxen and executioner for my lord-master, Mesh. I slept on the floor of his Tower of Justice. I dragged his cage through the city of Eridu as he visited the huts of the accused, determining which humans were unfit to participate in this experiment called Civilization. The original Eridu was lost to drought many years before, as were the two other settlements that followed, as the Creator’s world was unstable in those days. This region had been called Shurupagg by the humans already living there. But we called it Eridu once again.

The cage was made of iron and rolled on spiked wheels, so that anyone who stumbled while escaping got caught underneath and bled out in a gruesome public display. Each day he fastened it to me as though I were a horse--even only knowing what he permitted me to know, I knew that was an insult. But he was my master, and as he reminded me daily, he loved his monster as no one else could.

Our weekly rounds were dull, but predictable. When we arrived at a hut Mesh had marked out, I was left outside, chained to the cage, until such time as Mesh concluded I was needed to scare the piss out of his victims. Then, he would drag the person out, throw them in front of me, whereby I would sniff them like a slab of meat until I snarled or huffed. The latter meant they were harmless, the former that they smelled of some breed of pedophile, or murderer, or whatever was on the menu that day. Mesh would throw those in the cage and we’d be on our way.

What do pedophiles smell like, you ask? Urine, mostly. I don’t know what the connection is between a human’s lack of hygiene and a defective moral compass, but there was always some correlation. I don’t know why Mesh needed me to tell him that. Probably didn’t want to sully himself by putting his nose that close to the human trash.

I digress. This must have been my five hundredth time in the village, chained to the cage, my head on my paws as I heard a woman screaming inside the hut whilst her man begged and cried for forgiveness at the feet of my lord-master. They should have known Mesh was not a forgiving man--he strung up the corpses of the guilty along the outside of the tower so the living would not forget that fact. But humans are slow, I’ve realized. My pity towards them was already waning at that point, their wails of misery as common to me as the pillbugs rolling over one another in front of my nose, in the dirt, oblivious. (Obviously, they were not called pillbugs then.)

I extended a talon and pried the two pillbugs apart, watching their tiny legs shrivel in protest. The one caught on my claw wriggled a lot. The one on his back wriggled less. I blew that one into the trunk of the tree in front of us, where it rolled over and stayed still, perhaps thinking that playing dead would dissuade me from further torture. Bored, I ate the one on my talon. It tasted like futility.

The commotion in the hut spilled outside then, and the woman’s shrill cries were torture to my Heaven-crafted senses. While I lifted my head and stretched into my hind legs only out of stiffness, it must have been a terrifying display to the humans, as the woman’s shrieks piqued to a grating pitch. Wild-eyed she stared at Mesh’s monster, her face streaked with dust and tears--so consumed by petty terror, she appeared to have forgotten my master was carrying her lover by his vest like yesterday’s lunch.

Before you can know what Mesh looked like, you must first understand that Mesh was an angel, and that he chose the way he looked. An angel’s true nature being a creature of pure consciousness, on Heaven, they occupied bodies that never aged, never grew, never changed, because the rules of Heaven made that possible. Those bodies could only exist in Heaven. On earth, angels had to make themselves a body of flesh that could operate within the rules of earth: a changing, chaotic, brutal place. Generally, the flesh bodies angels made for themselves were very tall, white, and strong, in contrast with the humans of then, who were small, brown, and pathetic. The features the angels gave themselves otherwise were reminiscent of the bodies they had in Heaven, or else they served some purpose when interacting with the Creator’s Earthbound-favorite, mankind. Mesh always considered himself a cut above the rest, so it figured that he would make himself the tallest, the most handsome, with the most golden hair and broad shoulders like the broad wings that he had to leave behind in Heaven. I doubt he understood that mankind didn’t exactly quake with fear when beholding a creature of uncomprehending beauty--in making me, I suppose Mesh got to have his glorious golden cake and eat it too.

Regardless, Mesh towered over these people. His black cloak could have made a knapsack to carry them both to the river to drown them, and his favorite iron chain that hung around his neck could have doubled as the most expensive noose in the short history of man. He wore such a grim look on that uncomfortably handsome face that it was a waste to have made it handsome at all. His sneer said for him: “grovel lowly underling, for I am the reason mankind no longer flings shit at each other for sport.”

“Great En-Mesh,” the woman sobbed, falling to her knees in the mud. “Spare Bunak, he didn’t mean to kill my brother!”

I think that’s what she said, but it was hard to discern from the blubbering.

Bunak, the confessed murderer, was flailing about as he dangled from Mesh’s stone grip, nearly a foot in the air and still the stench wafted off him. Had he killed her brother and slept in his corpse? I wouldn’t put it past mankind, at this point. I had judged women who ate their babies and men who fucked their cattle. It was best to get them out of the gene pool. I snarled; Mesh tossed him in the cage, the catch of the day.

We took in only two others from the village that day, which was low, considering the mood Mesh was in. That didn’t lessen the weight of dragging the three of them up the hill in an iron cage while they rattled about, sobbing and beating each other in turns. I gnashed my teeth as I hiked the slope, step by step. Creator forbid that Mesh consider helping his beast with the sinners. Mesh ignored my growls, but the sounds left the jailed ones cowering together--I only killed the worst offenders, but they didn’t know that. I honestly couldn’t have cared less about any of them. Who were the dregs of mankind to a beast with no stake in their world? No voice to participate? No friends to defend? They were meat to me. By some sick joke of the universe, I couldn’t even revel in their pain, too fair a judge to stomach it.

Thus far, it was an ordinary day. We arrived at the top of the dusty hill, I worse for wear when Mesh finally loosened the harness, as he called over the other Angel Guardians to escort these prisoners to their place in the tower. Yet for whatever reason, Mesh forgot that day to put me back on my leash. I sat outside the tower doors, waiting to be dragged to my holding pen, but Mesh did not return. Perhaps a human disciple had distracted him, or some emergency had happened somewhere in the village. In any case, for the first time, I was forgotten. Alone outside the stone walls, I was given the first choice of my existence: do I do the right thing and lock myself up, proving I’m as much a civilized angel as my lord-master, or do I reveal myself a lowly beast and slink off, exercising the right to self-governed stupidity?

I decided to leave. I did hesitate at first, having never considered the possibility of doing so. My first few steps were shaky, legs caught on phantom chains, I half-convinced that at any moment Mesh would snatch my tail and find new ways to make me howl. But Mesh did not come. Before I knew it I was at the bottom of the hill, looking up at the silhouette of the tower against the dusty sky. I think I smiled, which must have been horrifying. Empowered, I bolted then into the trees, ready for a true taste of freedom.

Eridu was always a beautiful place, no matter where it was built. Although the humans largely lived in huts of their own construction--though their make was instructed by the angel En-lil, who enjoyed teaching mankind such things--the angels always took time to build other grand things in the city proper. There was the town square, with a ground made of bricks dipped in gold, beneath a canopy weaved with the designs of Heaven and fringed with peacock feathers; the ornate healing tents, where Tal and his disciples brought the Creator’s touch to the sick of the Earth; there was the hall of records, where Penemue the angel scribe sat scribbling details of human activities, since no mundane advancement in their culture was to go unnoticed; most remarkable was the Chapel of A-nu, towering above the caravans and workshops, its colored dome large enough to be seen far out in the grain fields.

I had only ever seen these things in passing, on my way to enact judgments with my lord-master. Although I should have been more impressed with them, in hindsight, they were sights I took for granted. Enjoying my first prowl of freedom, I found myself satisfied with glimpsing each landmark at a distance. I stayed to the perimeter, in the trees and tall shrubs, more concerned with avoiding the stray gaze of an angel or a brave human than I was with admiring architecture. A gathering of bickering human women by the well was enough to chase me further off the beaten path. It wasn’t long before the sights of Eridu were far behind, as I followed the riverbank towards the forest cradled by the western mountain-face.

Echoes of hissing-chirping of wildlife in the brush. An eagle cast its shadow across the grasses that stretched out before me, before it disappeared into the blackness cast by the willowy trees above. My paws sank deep into the soil here, too protected from the sun by matted leaves to have dried after the rains weeks prior. I considered turning back, but I knew I would already be punished for having gone as far as I did--if I returned now, there would never be a chance to go further.

Going nowhere, fleeing nothing, I wandered north. I didn’t expect to see anyone beyond this point. Lions roamed these parts, and though angels could fashion weapons to defend themselves, their bodies were as squishy as their human counterparts’. Another drawback of becoming flesh. I had yet to be used as a lion-hunter, but I imagine that was another reason Mesh chose to make his pet as big and mean as he did--just in case. I had heard Mesh and the other angels complain how inconvenient it was to recreate a body if it was ever “uninhabitable.” Bitter thing that I was, the longer I wandered the more I itched to see a fellow beast emerge from the bushes, longing to test my claws on something that could fight back. I wasn’t as needlessly violent as I was endlessly bored--if spilling guts was to be my only satisfaction, then why not see different guts before my eyesight went stale?

This thought had me worked up. Surely there was a lion somewhere in the jungle, rearing to challenge me. Nevermind that I could crack one’s neck between my jaws with the ardor of a sneeze, the idea that I might bat around something incapable of screaming for its mother was satisfying enough to be savored. Should I return with a fresh lion draped across my back, my lord-master might even forgive my running off and let me eat the parts he tossed aside. By this point I was both hungry and bloodthirsty, a combination that made even me forget I had a mind. I was running through the brush, startling birds, finally relaxing into my own freedom.

I smelled her before I saw her. A sweet smell, like springtime dew, though it was already late summer. By the time I recognized the scent of an angel, I was already stumbling down a slope into the dense foliage that had sheltered her hideout. I crashed through a shrub riddled with thorns and I howled, helpless, before my face slapped mud.

I thanked every star in Heaven that Mesh wasn’t there to witness what his dumb monster had managed to do to himself less than an hour off his leash. Unable to lift my head out of the mud, ready to drown in my shame, I heard the angel approach. I knew it was an angel, because the toes in leather sandals were white as clouds. But I didn’t know it was a woman until she knelt down, placing her hand upon my horn, and spoke.

“That was quite a fall,” she said.

How I wanted to die. I didn’t have to see her to know who she was, for there was only one angel who took a woman’s shape. Enme, she was called. Enmenluana in her first life, Enmengalana in the second, and this one was called Enmendurana. She was the humans’ queen, who helped them evolve into something she and her brothers could speak with--to them she was “Nin-lil,” their Great Lady. As I said before, for those like us, names are best considers markers in time. At this point, she preferred to be called Enme.

“What’s Mesh’s beast doing in the jungle...?”

Words directed at me. Strange. No one spoke to me, not really; Mesh gave orders, but he knew I could hardly make small talk. I was so dumbfounded I finally lifted my head, clumps of dirt dripping from my chin as I had my first look at the angel I could know only from a distance.

I knew already she would be beautiful. After all, angels chose their flesh. Yet hers was more than the beauty of skin, or a flawless face, or even hair gold as the sun--it was the beauty of kindness. It made her face glow, eyes soft, it even brought color to skin that should have been pure as marble. From afar, I had seen human children clamoring for a turn to be held by her. I understood why. Holding her gaze for no more than a moment, I too wanted nothing more than to have her take me in her arms, whispering to me that all was right in the world, and I would believe her.

Was it sorcery? Her eyes were the same blue as my lord-master’s, her chin no more defined, her garments even less refined than those my lord-master wore. Yet at once, I loved her more than Mesh, my own maker.

Apparently she didn’t expect a response, yet she spoke to me all the same. She smiled, even, as she unwrapped her outer skirt to wipe mud from my horns. Why wasn’t she afraid? I flinched when the cloth touched me, but she didn’t hesitate. She wiped my horns, my chin, and my shoulder, before her firm hand hoisted me back onto my feet.

“I’m not sure if you understand me,” she said at last. “Perhaps I’m losing my mind. It’s just...why don’t you seem like an animal?”

Something like sadness held her there. She looked at me, into me. I felt then like I had never been looked at in all my life.

“That’s why. He gave you human eyes...Red, but human. Why would he do that? Giving human eyes to a killer...”

As she touched my horn again, her elegant thumb tracing its curve towards my ear, a strange shudder crept through my body. I was out of sorts, only able to grunt in acknowledgement of her presence. All I knew was that I didn’t want to scare her away, like I scared everyone.

“I doubt he let you off the leash.”

Her small laugh accused me of exactly what had happened. I was half afraid she would return me to him herself; instead, she let her hand fall, stepping away as she folded her soiled skirt.

“Would you like to see my garden?” she asked.

I did. And though I could only show it by pressing my muzzle into her elbow, she understood.

Created on Earth, I had not yet had the privilege of seeing Heaven’s crystal vineyards, or their rainbow skies, or the seas of fire. Yet in my eyes, Enme’s garden was as breathtaking as any wonder of Heaven. I had seen one, maybe two flowers in my all my years, but here there were hundreds. Some grew on vines wrapped around trees, others grew in clusters out of the soil, breathing an aroma so sweet and strong I lost my footing around them. Red, violet, blue, yellow, white blooms, vibrant as the berries that hid away beneath emerald leaves. Even the trees bore fruit, their branches heavy for harvest, though some of the bounty had already begun to wither.

Enme lifted a basket from the ground, gathering up some of the red fruits that had scattered when she dropped it (when I showed up, no doubt). She said that she used to call the garden “her eden”--her delight, it meant--and so the children of the village had a habit of begging her to go to Eden to bring them fruit. She said the name grew on her, and now she didn’t know what else she would call it.

She said I could come visit her whenever she was in Eden. She liked the company. I don’t know how I could have been any good as company, crushing berries under my paws and scaring off the other wildlife, but my antics only ever made her smile. I loved her smile. This monstrous beast would have fallen into a hundred mud pits if it meant she would keep smiling. The looming danger of having to return to Mesh was a far-off dream, until the moon began to rise.

Too soon, she lifted the full basket onto her hip, gazing at the red horizon.

“Let’s walk you home,” she said.

I whined with protest. I arched into my hind legs, muzzle down and horns scraping the dirt as I fervently shook my head. I didn’t want to go back. Please don’t make me go back.

I saw her sympathy, but she only placed her hand on my head, scratching behind my ear as though I were a pet (not that I minded much).

“Mesh misses you,” she promised.

When I sat stubbornly on my tail, she laughed. “Some killer you are,” she said, and I huffed.

I don’t know how she coaxed me into following her, in the end. I was used to being pulled, prodded, cursed at and beaten into submission, but somehow Enme got me to move with nothing more than a smile and a head scratch. I followed her through the jungle like an ugly duckling stumbling after its mother. Except, I was vigilant--I didn’t want lions to cross our path, now that I had something to protect.

I slowly began to realize that my whole world had changed, despite nothing being different. We passed the same landmarks, on the way back to the tower: the Chapel of A-nu, the hall of records, the healing tents, the distant town square. They were all just as they were before, just shaded in evening light. But inside me, there was something new. Warmth, tension. I watched the back of her as she led me, the swish of her blonde waves, the curve of her hips swaying. I saw the folded, muddied outer skirt tucked into the basket beneath the fruit, a memory of the moment I first laid eyes on her. I was a beast, the only one of my kind, but I knew I had an angel’s mind--so what was it I felt towards her, the only female angel? I had no word for it.

The sight of Mesh at the top of the hill was enough to crush that feeling. He just stood there, a grim statue, watching Enme climb up the slope with his monster behind her, unrestrained.

“Sister,” he said. “Must I ask what you’re doing with my beast?”

My admiration for Enme grew when I saw his scowl didn’t move her.

“I’m leading him home. My guess is someone didn’t tie him properly and he decided to stretch his legs.”

“He isn’t to leave my side.”

“He’s done no one any harm,” Enme said. “Look--he comes home willingly.”

She waited for me to do my part, but I hesitated. I didn’t want to surrender the warmth of her hand for the sting of his whip. Too long I hesitated, and Mesh began to march towards me. I slinked forward, too late. He grabbed me by the horn, throwing me, boot in my rib. Enme watched in horror, saying nothing--perhaps knowing Mesh’s nature better than I. With a broad sweep of his arm he gestured over his favorite lackey, an angel named Rig, to fasten a chain around my neck.

“I don’t know what you think he is, Sister, but he is not some puppy to be played with. Ajeshah was created to punish mankind’s savagery--I will not have you corrupting his purpose. Am I being clear?”

The chain was too tight around my throat. Rig held it taut at the nape of my neck, watching Mesh for his next instructions. I doubt Rig took any pleasure in torturing me, really just too good a soldier to see me as anything more than his commander’s weapon. It was Enme’s expression that meant something to me, her kind eyes averted, her jaw tight with dissent that wouldn’t come. I couldn’t be angry with her for her silence. She was the first person to acknowledge I had feelings at all.

“I won’t interfere,” she said.

I watched her as she walked down the hill, back towards the city beyond. I watched her until Rig dragged me into the tower, nearly crushing my windpipe with the effort it took to haul my enormous body across the terrace. I knew I would be punished this night, but it didn’t matter. All I could think about was how I would get loose again, somehow, to see her again. Somehow.

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