East of Eden
The kid looked up.
“What’s your name?” Crawly asked. He dribbled along a branch and swung down to peer into the kid’s face.
The boy eyed him dubiously. “’M Cain. Look, you’re a serpent, aren’t you?”
“Approximately,” said Crawly, warily. “In a sense.”
“Our mum said no talking to serpents,” said Cain. He looked satisfied with himself. “She said serpents was evil liars.”
Crawly was mildly offended. “I didn’t lie,” he said, forked tongue fluttering with agitation. “I told her the truth, every last word. And look at the thanks I get . . .”
“She said we was s’posed to bash you over the head if we found you,” Cain continued, with a wide grin. He picked up a stone.
“Hey, hey, calm down,” Crawly said hurriedly. “I just wanted to stop by and see how everything was getting on. Look, is your mother around? Or your father?” Crawly had never seen children before—there had been no children, before Cain and then his little brother—but some inner wisdom told him that bored children were to be avoided. And he supposed that getting back on Eve’s good side would be a nice start to his assignment.
Cain paused, the stone dangling forgotten in his fist. “I don’t think so,” he said after a moment. “But Uncle ’Ziraphale might be around.”
“Uncle ’Ziraphale?” repeated Crawly. He blinked. “Oh. Him. Oh, no. I don’t want to talk to him.”
“You’re going to talk to Uncle ’Ziraphale,” Cain told him cheerfully, and before Crawly could slither to safety he found himself clutched between a pair of chubby fists. He tried to bite, and failed; one of the hands was wrapped securely around his head. The boy grinned. “Come on, Mister Serpent.”
Aziraphale was humming cheerfully as he stirred a pot of something foul-smelling over a fire. “Oh, Cain,” he said as the child entered. “Come in, dear boy. Your supper’s almost ready.”
“I gotta naminal,” the boy announced. “Look.” He lifted Crawly proudly, and the demon was sure that his scales reddened. “He’s cute, but he’s kinda dumb.” Crawly hissed.
The angel turned around, smiling, and froze the instant his eyes landed on the serpent. “Cain!” he squeaked. “Put that down right now. Very carefully.”
“Don’t wanna.” Cain’s lower lip quivered ominously.
“My dear,” said Aziraphale, in a reasonable tone, “please put the snake down, or Uncle Aziraphale shall be very upset.” He reached behind him and seized a long stick of wood from the fire. It sparked and glittered with flames. “Now, Cain . . .”
“Hardly a flaming sword, that,” said Crawly. The angel gave him a sharp look, and glanced back at the child.
“Cain,” he said sternly.
“You’re mean!” Cain yelled, and flung the serpent at Aziraphale. “I don’t like you anymore!” He fled, small heels thudding against the dust.
Crawly thought very, very quickly. He did not want to be grabbed again, and he did not want to be squashed or bashed or roasted on a spit. He transformed midtoss, and his human-shaped body crashed heavily into the angel. They landed several feet beyond the bonfire, skidding in the dust, and Crawly gasped for breath. After a moment he decided that something was wrong. The air smelled funny.
“Please get off,” came the angel’s muffled voice, and Crawly was about to say something rude when he realized that he was lying on the fiery stick as well as Aziraphale. He cursed and rolled off, beating frantically at his smoking leg.
The angel sat up, rubbing dust from his white robe and looking very pleased with himself. “It did as well as a sword in a pinch,” he beamed. “It’s a flaming sword in spirit.”
Crawly made a gesture, and the flames died. Aziraphale looked put out.
They both scrambled to their feet and paused, looking around at the surroundings and at each other, and tried to hide their identically embarrassed expressions.
“What are you doing here?” Crawly asked.
“Watching over the Lord’s creatures,” Aziraphale said, guiltily. “And what are you doing here, foul serpent?”
“Excuse me,” said Crawly. “I’m doing the same thing. Well. Sort of. Anyway,” he added, suspiciously, “why were you cooking for them? I didn’t think angels were supposed to cook. Worship, yes. Smite, yes. Guide, maybe. Cook?”
“Er.” Aziraphale looked at his sandaled feet. “They’re sort of busy. The humans,” he said meekly. “They have to plow the land and all to eat now, you know. Thanks to you,” he added, with a disappoving frown.
Crawly sulked. “I only told her the truth,” he protested. “They chose to eat it themselves.” He looked around. “Anyway, are you supposed to be cooking for them?”
“Well . . . I’m supposed to guide them in their spiritual paths, and guard them from evil, and, and, what was the last one—thwart wiles, I think.” Aziraphale looked hopefully at his ladle, which was bobbing gently in the pot. “By cooking for them, I’m staving off starvation and overwork. That’s thwarting, right? Of a sort?”
“Do you even know what a wile is?” Crawly asked resignedly.
The angel looked at the sky and shuffled his feet. “Well . . . no.”
“I think that’s where I come in,” said Crawly.
“. . . and they scream when they die,” said Crawly, more than a decade later. He had settled quite comfortably into the permanant body Hell gave him. It had dark hair and good cheekbones, and if the eyes were a little strange, well, who would complain? Nobody knew what normal was, yet.
Cain looked at him nervously. “They do?”
“Yes.” Crawly gave a sorrowful sigh. “The poor little lambs. It’s only right,” he added. “After all, the garden is what you produced. The herd is Abel’s. It’s not a sacrifice if it’s not properly yours.”
“I guess that’s true,” admitted Cain. He still looked troubled. “The Lord won’t mind? He did specify a blood sacrifice, Uncle Aziraphale said.”
“Uncle Aziraphale is getting old,” Crawly said, with a tolerant smile. “His hearing is not quite what it was. Why would the Lord want blood?”
“I dunno.” Cain’s mouth moved in a very familiar way, and Crawly found himself mouthing along: “Ineffable. That’s what Uncle Aziraphale said.”
“Well.” Crawly’s voice was decisive. “The lamb needs it more, anyway.”
Cain looked thoughtfully at his garden. It was green and leafy against the caked reddish dust of the desert, and it reminded Crawly subtly of Eden. “What about vegetables?” he asked.
“What about them?”
“Do they scream when they die?” Cain asked.
“Um. No,” said Crawly. “They haven’t got voice boxes.”
“Look, kid,” Crawly said persuasively. He felt a hiss coming on. “Sacrifice your crops. It’s only fair, after all. You don’t want to hurt the innocent little lambs, right?”
“I guess not,” said Cain, slowly. He paused. “You’re sure the Lord won’t be angry?”
“Oh, sssertainly,” hissed Crawly. He smiled.
Aziraphale looked at him sternly. Crawly shuffled his feet in an embarrassed sort of way and tried to whistle. To his disappointment, it sounded more like a hiss. He shoved his hands in his pockets and gazed innocently skyward. “Hullo.”
“Cain’s sacrificed vegetables,” said the angel, coldly. “I told him blood. Did you have anything to do with this?”
Crawly ignored the question. “How did He take it?”
“How did He take it? How do you think He took it?” Aziraphale’s face glowed with righteous irritation. “He does not want carrots. And of course He favored Abel’s sacrifice, Abel knew better than to sacrifice a pile of legumes, and now Cain’s in a huff . . . really, Crawly. Aren’t you ashamed of your actions?”
Crawly considered the question. “No,” he said.
“Well, you should be.” The angel glared at him. “Do you know how hard I’ve worked to bring these children up right, and you, and you . . .”
Crawly felt that was unfair. “I helped raise them too,” he pointed out. Uncle Crawly was now a part of the family just as much as Uncle Aziraphale. The wonders of mutual blackmail.
“That’s my point,” snarled Aziraphale.
“Look . . .”
“Oh, go find Cain,” the angel interrupted. “Maybe you can calm him down. I couldn’t. He’s always been very jealous of Abel, of course—”
“Well, He is a jealous God,” Crawly said reasonably. “Maybe jealousy’s not such a bad thing.”
Aziraphale gave him an icy look. “Go,” he said.
Crawly had been just a little disturbed by the ease with which he sidled into the family. The kids adored Uncle Crawly, Aziraphale seemed to welcome the company in a carefully antagonistic sort of way, and Eve, well, Eve was just an ungrateful bitch.
He was fond of the kids in his own way, even to the point of avoiding the myriad available ways to make their lives miserable. Positive reinforcement. Tempting happy kids was easier than tempting miserable brats. Sometimes, with Abel and Cain nestled on his knees and laughing, Crawly wondered how anyone could banish such endearing little people from Eden, even unborn. Then, too, sometimes, when his influence grew all too obvious, he wondered how anyone could resist sending the brats Down Below.
They settled into a pattern. Life was slow and lazy and golden, at least for Crawly. Even his adversary couldn’t ruin things. To Crawly, it felt like a game: chess, maybe, or checkers. A friendly competition. And he was pretty sure that he got the better bargain, since Aziraphale considered himself far too dignified for pranks that involved leaving frogs in other peoples’ beds and arranging buckets on top of doors.
Sometimes they talked, when the humans were asleep. Aziraphale was hardly excellent company; his conversation had a sad tendency to drift toward matters of cooking and cleaning, which was boring even if it did offer Crawly the necessary information for sabotage. Still, Adam and Eve shunned him rather viciously and the kids were cute but immature.
“Abominable fiend, do you know any good recipes for lamb?” Aziraphale would ask. And Crawly would shrug and shake his head, or, if he were in a cheerful mood, reply:
“Oh, yes, I found one yesterday.”
And Aziraphale would say, “What was it?”
Crawly would describe a recipe, often created on the spur of the moment, which would result in either a nearly-poisonous mass of organic matter or an impressive explosion. Aziraphale never learned.
Sometimes, Aziraphale asked him for help in other matters. “Do you know how to get stains out of wool, vile monster?”
“I hear pig’s blood works well,” Crawly would respond, all golden-eyed innocence. “Make sure you scrub it in well.”
Sometimes he nurtured the sneaking suspicion that Aziraphale was on to him and simply went along out of curiousity. They were really very impressive explosions.
Crawly contemplated assuming snake form; he kept getting tangled in growths of plant material and his feet were beginning to hurt. “Cain?” he called. No response. “Cain?”
He glanced quickly at the sky, and frowned. It was nearly nighttime. No sign yet of Cain or Abel. “Cain?”
A scream rang out through the stillness. Crawly froze.
“Oh, shit,” he said, and ran.
He found Cain kneeling beside his brother. Abel spurted blood from numerous wounds, most noticeably the gash across his throat. His eyes were wide and glassy. Cain’s were blank.
Crawly licked his lips. He found suddenly that he couldn’t speak.
“Hullo, Uncle Crawly,” said Cain. His voice was higher than usual, and he spoke very rapidly. “The Lord didn’t like my sacrifice, because it wasn’t bloody. So I made another. Do you think this will do?”
A soft glow permeated the edge of Crawly’s vision, and he thought he heard feathers ruffling. A familiar voice from behind: “Cain, what happened?”
Cain looked at Crawly and smiled. His eyes were wide. His face was splashed with Abel’s blood. “Hey,” he said. “Do people scream when they die?”
Crawly simply stared at him, paralysed with an unfamiliar feeling. Later he would learn the name of it, horror, and he would slowly start to grow used to it. He opened his mouth and closed it again.
Aziraphale stepped past Crawly and looked at Cain with guarded pity. “Cain,” he said gently. “Do you know what you’ve done?”
“He wanted blood,” said Cain, defiantly. “And—” Suddenly he was crying, shaking with sobs. After a moment Aziraphale walked nearer and held out his arms; Cain grabbed at him desperately.
“Shh,” the angel whispered, rocking him. “It’s all right.” He stroked Cain’s hair. “It’s all right.”
Crawly, watching, felt a hot flush of embarrassment and despair. His eyes kept drifting back to Abel’s corpse and the expression of stupid surprise on its face. Glancing back at Aziraphale, he saw that the angel had risen to his feet, leaving Cain asleep on the bloodied soil. “He’s fine,” said Aziraphale, shortly. “The Lord will handle the rest.” He brushed off his robe and walked back to Crawly, frowning abstractly.
“He killed him,” said Crawly. His voice was stunned. “Over carrots.”
“I don’t think that was quite it,” Aziraphale murmured. He looked anxiously at Crawly. “Do you think I handled it right . . . ?”
Crawly blinked, slowly. “Oh. Sure.”
“Ah . . .” Crawly began. Aziraphale gave him an impatient look.
“I only told him to sacrifice the vegetables,” Crawly said in a rush. “The other part wasn’t me. I didn’t know he would do that.”
“Right.” Aziraphale gazed at him.
“You don’t believe me.” Crawly felt unexpectedly depressed.
“Of course I do,” insisted Aziraphale, but he wouldn’t speak to Crawly again for at least several centuries.
“Remember Cain?” said Crowley, millennia later.
“It really wasn’t me.” Crowley looked out the window. “I only ever told him not to kill the lamb. Humans always take advice too far. You know the first woman, all I did was try to encourage a bit of self-respect and before you know she’s flouncing out of Eden after a fight with Adam over who got to be on top. Really. And the second one, all I did was slip Adam a bit of information on her construction. You wouldn’t think he’d find organs so disgusting; he’d got them himself. As for the last first woman—well, it was true. And she chose to eat the bloody apple herself. All I ever did was tell them the truth,” he added, gloomily.
“Hm,” said Aziraphale noncommittally. He took a drink of wine. “Why did he listen to you? He knew he was supposed to make a blood sacrifice.”
“I told him that God shouldn’t want blood,” said Crowley, distantly. “I told him that sacrificing what he’d worked for himself was the right thing to do, since he was the farmer and Abel was the shepherd. I told him that lambs scream when they’re killed.”
“Oh.” Aziraphale stared into his glass. “Why?”
“I don’t know.” Crowley stared into his. “It just sort of came to me. You know, killing lambs. Little harmless innocent lambs. Even I only kill people who deserve it. It all seems a bit—”
“Ineffable,” Aziraphale said.
“. . . that wasn’t what I was going to say, no.”
“Well. It is.”
Crowley looked out the oversized windows, at the warm autumn sunshine spilling over the park across the street. It was lush and green and bursting with flowers and leaves. Nothing compared to Eden, of course, but better than dust. Crowley hated dust. “Well, if He wants blood, He should say so. He shouldn’t pass Himself off as a loving sweet moral deity and then go demanding the slaughter of innocents when no one’s looking. He should say, ‘Look, everyone, I’m a bloodthirsty bastard of a deity, and I revel in pointless destruction.’ Out loud. On billboards.”
“My dear boy,” said Aziraphale, with a sigh. “You can’t judge Him. Ineffability.”
“If I don’t judge Him, who will?” Crowley asked. It was a rhetorical question, and not a very good one at that, he felt. “And anyway, the lambs were kind of . . .” Sickenly cute, his mind supplied. “I don’t know, I didn’t think they should be killed. It made sense, really. Back then.” A lot more had, back then. Now he wondered if he had been doing the right thing back then. More disturbingly, he now wondered if maybe doing the right thing wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Someone had to do it. Balance and whatnot.
“Abel was innocent, too,” Aziraphale pointed out.
“I already told you, Cain did that bit on his own. He wasn’t the most stable kid around.” Crowley rolled his eyes expressively, which was a sad waste of nonverbal communication because no one could tell behind the sunglasses. “And innocent? That brat? Aziraphale, young children are never innocent. Malevolent, yes. Ignorant, yes. Cruel, yes. Annoying, yes. Innocent—”
“Innocent in the sense of ‘innocent victim,’” Aziraphale said, with a sigh. “Now, look, Crowley, if you want to take up veganism that’s fine with me.”
Crowley stared. “Have you gone loony, angel? I’m not going to take up veganism.”
“I thought you were against the slaughter of innocents?” Aziraphale lifted an eyebrow.
“Yes, but that’s me.” Crowley looked at the window again, at the park shining gold-edged green in the sun. “Not God. God’s supposed to be perfect and merciful and nice . . .”
Aziraphale looked very old, suddenly, his eyes fixed on Crowley’s face. “Do you think he is? You’re—” and he stopped, because there were things one didn’t say.
“No,” said Crowley. His voice was plaintive. “But he should be.”
They sat in awkward silence for a few minutes longer. Then they paid, and wandered outside into the park and the sunshine. In the distance, they could hear children laughing, but neither of them tried to make out the words.
Aziraphale opened his mouth in a very familiar way, and Crowley swung round in a rage. “If you say that blessed word again I’ll—I’ll sacrifice your bookshop, and I promise you there will be blood.”
So they were quiet.