“Then Michael, one of the holy and honored angels who was with me, and was their leader, spoke.
And he said to me: ‘Enoch, why do you ask me about the fragrance of the tree, and why do you wish to learn the truth?’ Then I answered him saying: ‘I wish to know about everything, but especially about this tree.’ And he answered saying: ’This high mountain which you have seen, whose summit is like the throne of God, is His throne, where the Holy Great One, the Lord of Glory, the Eternal King, will sit, when He shall come down to visit the earth with goodness. And as for this fragrant tree, no mortal is permitted to touch it until the great judgment, when He shall take vengeance on all and bring everything to its completion forever.”
--1 Enoch 24:6, 25:1-4
The human brain is made up of three spheres: there is the reptilian brain at the center, driving mankind to eat, sleep, and reproduce; next is the mammalian brain, which feels and loves, even has a concept of family, and knows in a rudimentary way what is “right” and what is “wrong”; last of all, the outer layer is the part that thinks. They will later call this the primate brain, but the human mind has evolved so far beyond this that it can only rightly be called the human brain. It was shaped to allow for the complex thought afforded to the angelic consciousness, so that the souls inhabiting it could start to behave like us. This is the cerebral cortex--it was the creation of this that made the angels question themselves. If humans could become like us, did we have an obligation to help them on that journey? Or could they ever truly be like us, when they were driven by a reptilian brain that we did not have, that we did not understand--how would that change them? The most important question was, how dangerous would that make them?
Angels have emotions, and in that way our soul provided a pattern for the evolution of the mammalian brain. However, we had no understanding of the survival instinct born in the reptilian brain, until the chosen few of us inhabited Earthen bodies for ourselves. Only then did we desire food, clothing, pleasure, and that changed us. Michael would argue that it corrupted us. He believed it was the rotten core that polluted what should have been the pure reason offered by the cerebral cortex, and even warped the feelings offered by the mammalian development. Humanity was a disease, he argued, one that needed to be tightly controlled lest its selfishness consume Father’s other worthwhile creations.
I believed then that mankind was more than Michael said, that their reptilian manner could be the difference that made them necessary. They could provide insights we would never imagine. Father would not have made them if they didn’t have some inherent worth divergent from our own. All they needed was to be taught what we knew and naturally, they would come to understand that order was good, and that moderation of their baser instincts was for their own benefit. But many years have passed since I made that argument, and I have seen far too many generations of mankind since. At times, I fear my brother was right.
In those last days of peace, I decided to allow humans to help with the harvest festival. Michael, recovering from an attack at the hands of his beast, was too proud to show his face outside the tower while Raphael treated his wounds. I took this as an excuse to rebel. For the first time, mankind would help with every aspect of preparation: they helped Remiel paint the tables, Uriel construct carts and mold dishes (we normally destroyed them at the end of banquet), and the dancers had a hand in stitching their own costumes.
I admit, it was fun. They were creative, combining colors I never would have put together, offering ideas about anything and everything. With everything being the same in Heaven, I suppose there wasn’t much use in thinking outside the box. I would have been happy to let them help the next year. If there had been another year.
During the harvest, the day before the festival, was the first time I had seen Michael since the incident. I stood watch over the children, who picked insects off of the vegetables before they’d be washed. In the distance, Uriel stood in the fields with the men and their sickles, felling grain. It was a cool day, tendrils of clouds dimming the sky. I held a handful of shallots, a half-full basket at my feet, when I found my brother staring down at me.
His appearance startled me. Four dark, angry scars stretched across his once-handsome face, twisting his lip and crossing his eye, now dulled to gray.
“Saraquel did this?” I asked, a pit in my stomach.
The bite in his voice could tear a man to pieces. I set down the shallots, trying not to stare, or betray any feeling whatsoever. I should have felt more sorry for him, but after so many months of treating Saraquel’s lash-cut flesh, it was hard to muster it.
“What do you want?”
“Clearly, you don’t care what I want,” he said, harsh. “You’re just going to let these apes run amuck, destroying everything they touch.”
“They’re hardly destroying anything now,” I snapped. “What harm will they do knowing how to make plates? Or adding color to their clothes? Your restrictions on them are absurd. If you’d just look around, you’d see that they want to be good to one another. They’re the ones running this society, so it’s time that we get out of their way and let them.”
“You’ll learn, Sister. Mark me, you will rue the freedoms you offer them.”
Staring into his dead eye, his words were all the more threatening. He said no more, leaving me there with the children, and our task. Ever the coward, I couldn’t shake the fear he left me with. I longed for Saraquel’s comfort, but he didn’t come to me; he hadn’t, since that night. I worried about him, but I couldn’t risk angering Michael by going to the tower uninvited. All I could do was work, pretending I didn’t feel the ominous winds encroaching.
The festival began with the ringing of the great bell. Mounted in the center of town, in front of the festival stage, it was made of bronze and echoed with a great low hum far out into the fields. Uriel and King Ubara had rang it in recent years; this time, I chose two human men to wield the hammers. Upstanding men, tall and strong, both father to a number of happy children. They thought it a great honor, and rang it well. Their smiles and their family’s smiles when it was done gave me such joy.
Food was passed all around from the carts, while the beautiful maidens danced on the stage to the pounding of drums. There were so many people--I had hardly realized how large the city had grown, but when they all came together, it was astonishing. In Heaven, there were only six-hundred of us on that vast planet; in Eridu, they had already surpassed that.
Remiel played his flute on stage, his eye on one dancer in particular: Na’amah, a human girl of considerable talent. She stood out amongst the rest, who flung themselves about where the beat took them, while she moved with practiced grace. Her braids were long, her skin black as onyx, her lips plump and her eyes sharp as a falcon’s gaze. She was known to the angels for being the most inquisitive human we had ever come across. Whatever we did, she wanted to know how it worked, and she insisted that we teach it to her. ‘No’ was not an answer she accepted.
I knew even then that she would rule the world as long as it held her interest, and certainly Remiel knew the same. I don’t know if he had already expressed his interest to her personally, at that time, but I was not blind to the lust in his grin. Na’amah, uninterested in impressing him, made herself the center of the dancer’s circle, and the women fell in line around her. I admired her confidence, remorseful that I hadn’t been made of such mettle.
Even the scribe Penemue emerged from the dark Hall of Records to partake in the festivities. I spotted him stuffing his face with dates from a cart of fruit, clearly assuming no one would notice nor care what he did with himself in such chaos. He was a curious-looking angel, with a peaked nose and a willowy frame, his dark hair always greasy on his temple after long nights with the quill and scarce trips to the wash room. But I enjoyed his odd humor, the few times he and I crossed paths. I decided to join him at the fruit cart, picking up an apple. Even then, I had a sweet tooth.
“Ah--ah, it’s Gabriel,” Penemue said, choking on a date. “Queen Enmendurana, Nin-lil, the great Mother of Mankind, Good Gabriel. How is Gabriel? Good, I assume? I’m doing great--the dates are great, praise be to the Father and all that such. Sorry, sorry. I’ll just be out of your hair now.”
“Where are you going?” I laughed, grabbing his sleeve to prevent his escape. “There’s plenty to go around, the rains were plentiful this year. Eat your heart out. I’m not here to stop you.”
He hesitated, looking at me, then back at the cart. After a time, he gave in, spitting the pit out of his cheek before grabbing another handful of treats from the pile.
“Well, well then, don’t mind me,” he stuffed another date in his mouth.
I loved him and his babbling. Always on the cusp of brilliance and madness, an angel that had no interest in being understood by anyone. I leaned against the cart, eating with him, glad to relax after the chaos of the last few weeks.
“Have you seen Michael, Gabriel?” Penemue asked eventually, as I watched the dancers. It was hard to hear him over the conversations all around.
“Recently, you mean?” I asked. “He’s...a sight.”
“No, I mean today of course. Strange that he isn’t here, isn’t it? Certainly he isn’t embarrassed about humans seeing him like that, not after he spent so much time trying to make them afraid of him and all that. No, no certainly there’s something else that’s keeping him away. Can’t help but wonder what it is, there are so few puzzles to be solved on Earth, and this is indeed a puzzle.”
“Trust me, it’s not as interesting as you think it is.” I sighed, biting deeper into the apple. I wished it could be sweeter.
“You saying that makes me think it’s more so,” Penemue mused, then spit out three pits in a row. “Good Gabriel, always making light of everything so that people won’t notice how important she is. Sat at the helm of creation and says it was no particular incident. Can’t help but wonder what would be an incident to you then.”
“You could have been there, anyone could have been there,” I said, uncomfortable with his pressing. “It just happened to be me. That’s all.”
“No need for praise or worship, yet worshipped all the same. Such tragedy.”
“I assume this is just how you talk to yourself all day,” I muttered.
“You assume correct. I am very alone in there and there are spiders. Got to keep your mind off the spiders.”
I choked a laugh. Oh, Penemue. Father must have smiled when He made you.
“Ah--there he is,” he said suddenly.
I looked where he was pointing, feeling my heart drop. There was Michael, going to take his usual seat beside King Ubara on a raised platform behind the stage, where the humans could all see him. Many gasped and whispered, pointing at his face; the fact that he showed no anger at this made me more uncomfortable than anything. Why was he late?
Mesh raised his hand, summoning the full attention of the people who already watched him with a wary eye. The drumming stopped. The dancers ceased.
“The monster Ajeshah is missing from the Tower of Justice,” he said. “I have reason to believe he is already at this gathering. To anyone who brings him before me now, you will receive immunity from all future punishment, regardless of your crime.”
Saraquel was missing? Instinctively, I looked around me, hoping for some sign of him. Penemue was white as chalk. He shrugged, then grinned.
“Beast on the loose, hm? That bodes well.”
Immediately, things fell apart. Humans rushed all about, searching, shouting at one another as they hunted. They grabbed whatever they could to use as a potential weapon--eating knives, planks, poles, obviously none trusting their strength alone to apprehend the beast. And as all this happened, the once peaceful festival reduced to a wild hunt, Michael sat still, waiting. All of the angels stayed motionless, our eyes shifting between one another, trying to find what to do. King Ubara beside Michael tapped anxiously at his throne, simply uncomfortable beside his elder brother. Uriel was the only one who took any initiative, standing out among the people and futilely yelling for order. He kept Anatu behind his body, no doubt to protect her from the mob.
Too soon, the hunt brought back its game. Saraquel was dragged by three great men to the center of the stage. He struggled, snarled, roared like I had never heard before. As my heart broke, my legs carried me forward, pushing into the crowd but unable to make it fully to the stage. There were too many people between me and him. I couldn’t see what they were doing to him, but I saw Michael’s cold response, and his order: “do nothing, Ajeshah.”
Suddenly, his struggle stopped. He sat like stone on the stage, even when the men prodded him with spears. By some witchcraft, Saraquel was rendered helpless.
The initial shock that rippled through the crowd faded into glee. They needed no encouragement to take advantage of the situation. Now given a docile version of the creature they so feared, they hurled food, rocks, knives at him from across the stage. They beat him with stakes. They laughed as he bellowed, and beat him harder. All that time, Michael did nothing. He sat there, watching this, without a twitch of remorse. He wanted this--he was pleased by this.
I didn’t recognize my own voice, booming over the commotion. I felt the fire of Heaven in my veins. They stopped. They stared at me, their maker, shaken as they should have been.
I broke through the crowd as my anger boiled over. Those who would not part my way were pushed aside by my angelic strength, for I was far from helpless. Once the humans remembered to fear me, they let me come to Saraquel’s side.
He was bleeding, his wounds matted with the juices of fruits broken against his skin. He was curled up on the platform, trembling, his great chest heaving with shock at what had been allowed to be done to him. I recognized the hate burning in his scarlet eyes, hate sinking deep into bone, towards everything and everyone that reminded him of this moment. He knew he had been humiliated. He felt the sting of it, the freshest wound there was. His claws twitched against whatever curse bound him, each labored breath coming from him like the hiss of smoke. His spirit would be twisted by this--and Michael had done nothing.
I would have my words for Michael. But not until Saraquel knew he would not be left like this. I unwrapped my skirt, using it to brush pomegranate shells from his back, before casting it over him like a blanket. I wrapped my arms around his neck, holding his head to my breast as I knelt there in little else but my loincloth. I wanted everyone to know that he was mine, and that what they had done to him, they had done to me.
“Shame on you,” I said. “Shame on you all.”
One by one, they dropped their weapons and fell to their knees. They groveled apologies. I heard whimpers of “Nin-lil, Nin-lil,” but it meant nothing to me. I held the head of my beast, feeling his snarls melt into whimpers.
Michael rose to his feet beside the speechless Ubara.
“You see now what mankind is,” he said. “You mean to give the secrets of our world to these apes, who revert in an instant to the animals we’ve spent millennia trying to tame. All of your careful preparations destroyed in a moment of their savage greed.”
“That’s not what I see,” I spat. “I see an angel so consumed by hatred that he threw his brother to the wolves to prove his own illusions.”
“He is not our brother, and now you make a fool of yourself before all of Eridu to protect a monster who does not need your protection.”
“He’s not the monster I see.”
It was as though the very fabric of the city unraveled at these words, and all that was left were the threads that made up what had been. Michael regarded me as one regards a festering sore, disgusted by every aspect of my continued existence. This regard drifted from me to Saraquel, who he commanded sharply to his side.
Though Saraquel was in no shape to leave my arms, the great beast rose up, my skirt falling from his shoulders as he slowly answered his master’s call. I lifted it, furious as I was miserable, not wanting to let him out of my sight.
Raphael, whose presence I hadn’t felt before then, was suddenly on the platform beside me.
“Allow me to treat Saraquel, Michael,” he said. “By his movement, his right arm is broken. He will be of no good to you as he is. I’ll set the bone and treat his wounds, then return him to you when tempers have cooled.”
Michael clearly wanted to reject the offer, but Raphael was too valuable an ally for him to risk.
“...I will expect him in the morning,” he said.
“You will have him then.”
With that, Saraquel was left to the healer’s care. Michael was gone, and the tension he had brought was gone with him. To my own surprise, even the festival managed to continue after this, thanks to a few soothing words from Remiel and Uriel’s quick handiwork on the broken carts. The day was salvaged, for the people of Eridu. But I couldn’t celebrate with them. I summoned the strength to rewrap my soiled skirt, but was unable to stomach the sound of drums, or anyone’s laughter. I wanted to be sick.
I retreated to Eden. I wanted to be among the fruits and flowers, far enough from Eridu that I couldn’t hear anything but my own thoughts. I ended up on the ground there, weeping--for Eridu, for my brothers, for Saraquel. Yet for all my weeping, nothing would change. Our dreadful future was stretching out before me, and I was the rotten root from which all suffering would sprout.