In the beginning.
It was a nice day.
All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn't been invented yet. But clouds massing east of Eden suggested that the first thunderstorm was on its way, and it was going to be a big one.
Slate black curtains tumbled over Eden. Thunder growled among the hills. The animals, freshly named, cowered from the storm.
Far away, in the dripping woods, something bright and fiery flickered among the trees.
It was going to be a dark and stormy night.
It was a dark and stormy night.
Aziraphale gave up trying to shield himself from the rain and lowered his wings. (1)
"So, what happens next?" asked Crawly, who had snaked his way up the side of the Gate, in order to avoid being suffocated in the newly created mud.
"I don't know what happens next for you, but my duty is to guard this Gate until I'm told otherwise."
Somehow the serpent smirked. "You're guarding a place with no one in it from two people who now have the weapon that you were supposed to use to keep them out? You know, the fact that you gave them the means to overpower you and re-enter the Garden probably won't make them happy Up There."
Aziraphale looked worried. "It does sound a bit ridiculous when you put it that way, but nevertheless that is my duty and I will do it. You don't really think they'll try to come back, do you? If they did, I would just have to fight them and retrieve the sword."
"Nah. They're too afraid. They won't come back. But even if they did, you'd never fight them. She's weak and with child and alone he's no match for an angel, even with a flaming sword. Except for you, maybe," he said dismissively.
Aziraphale glared at him and said nothing. A few minutes passed silently, apart from the patter of the heavy rain.
"What are you going to do?" asked the angel thoughtfully.
Crawly made a complicated wiggle that looked like the serpentine equivalent of a shrug.
"If I get called back, I'll go back. If I don't, I'll stay here and keep making trouble. I like it here." He looked up. "Even with this rain stuff it's better than Hell."
"Yes? What's Hell like anyway?"
"Why? You want to find out personally?"
There was another tense silence, which Crawly broke this time.
"What do you think they're doing out there?"
The angel looked towards the flickering firelight. "I don't know. Just trying to stay warm and dry, I suspect."
"Sounds to me like they've got the right idea. Bugger this, I'm out of here."
Aziraphale watched Crawly slither down the gate, moonlight glinting off his shiny scales, until he was gone. The angel then stood in his assigned place, waiting. Although time still had very little meaning, it was about an hour later when what he had been dreading actually occurred. A golden light filled the air before his eyes and the Lord spoke to him without preamble.
"Where is the flaming sword which was given unto thee?"
The angel glanced around. "I had it here only a moment ago. I must have put it down somewhere. Forget my own head next." He smiled weakly.
Without another word, the light and the Presence were gone.
Please forgive me, Lord, he thought.
Aziraphale knew he was going to be punished for this transgression and he had a fair idea as to what that punishment would be. He was already on probation for an incident that had occurred during the war.
The clanging of steel on steel and the tang of blood filled the air as angels fought all around him. He was running, jumping, half-flying over fallen debris, as he tried to make his way to the Abyss. "Stop them from escaping," Michael had said. "Kill them if you have to, but don't let them Fall. Heaven will be outnumbered at this rate!" Igniting his sword with a whoomph, Aziraphael had run desperately towards the gaping hole at the center of Heaven.
When he finally arrived, he could see that hundreds of angels were standing shoulder-to-shoulder around the gaping chasm preventing any more rebels from going through. There was one last empty space that he was clearly supposed to fill and he rushed towards it. Suddenly out of nowhere, a body tackled him from the side and they fell in a tangled heap to the ground. After a brief scuffle, Aziraphael leapt to his feet and turned to face his attacker.
"Draw your sword, rebel."
"No," declared the lesser angel.
"What do you mean, 'no'? Draw your sword and I will fight you."
"No," he said again. "You will have to kill me for I will not fight you."
"Then you renounce the rebellion and desire to return to the Heavenly Host?"
The rebel angel sneered. "Indeed I do not. I desire to die for my cause and I desire for you to have my blood on your hands for all eternity. Do it, Cherub."
Aziraphael hesitated. Was it really part of God's plan for him to kill a fellow angel in cold blood? He didn't think he'd been created as a soldier, but it was certain that He had foreseen this moment and knew already what Aziraphael would do. Unfortunately, he didn't know himself and second guessing God wouldn't help. He had been recently ordered to stop the rebels from escaping at any cost, but his original duty was compassion and this rebel wasn't really trying to escape anyway. How was he to determine which took precedence? He became so withdrawn while he agonized over the question, that he didn't see the other angel's eyes flicker to the Abyss. Nor did he see Michael rise up and swing his sword, until it was too late and the rebel was dead. His eyes were closed and he was smiling as his body dissolved back into the ether from which it was formed.
"Aziraphael!" roared Michael. "Get to your post!"
He turned to flee towards the hole, where a horrible sight caught his eye. Another dozen or so rebels, pulling a somewhat reluctant angel behind them, were sneaking through the gap he had left in the circle. The rebel angel he'd been speaking to must have been left as a sacrifice in order to distract him so that they might escape. He moved faster than he'd ever moved before, but it was too late. By the time he skidded into place, the twelve had gone and dragged the thirteenth with them. Aziraphael got an impression of dark hair and outstretched wings as the last angel Fell just a little more slowly than his fellows, but then he, too, was gone.
"That was the last!" Michael bellowed. "Seal the Abyss!"
The angels grasped hands and a golden bubble formed around them and the huge chasm. Slowly, and with great effort, the bubble began to contract and the ugly gateway sealed. With a pop, the bubble and hole were gone. Exhausted, the angels staggered away to mourn the dead and the Fallen.
"Not you, Aziraphael," said Michael.
Aziraphael halted and turned back to the archangel.
"Because of your inability to smite a single, unarmed rebel, even under orders to do so, you have created another thirteen demons to work against the Lord. Congratulations. You are demoted to Principality for such a time as I see fit and you will call yourself Aziraphale as a mark of this punishment. Another mistake and it will be permanent. Do you understand?"
Aziraphae...Aziraphale hung his head. "Yes, Michael."
He didn't really mind the reduction in rank and the public humiliation of the name change. He didn't really fit in with the other Cherubs anyway. What he did mind was the memory of that last reluctant angel tumbling from the grace of Heaven. What if that angel hadn't really wanted to Fall? Could Aziraphale have saved him if he'd killed the rebel? It was something he'd wonder about forever.
Aziraphale was shaken from his reverie by another beam of light. Blue this time. Through it came Gabriel, the Messenger, and Aziraphale braced himself for the bad news.
"Aziraphale, Guardian of the Eastern Gate," Gabriel began, officially. "Due to the unauthorized distribution of angelic equipment to a human being," here he looked sternly at Aziraphale, "your temporary demotion from Aziraphael, Cherub to Aziraphale, Principality is now made permanent. You are hereby relieved of your duties at the Eastern Gate and are reassigned. From now on, your task will be to remain on Earth until further notice, influencing the humans to behave properly so that they might once again be received by God."
Gabriel's face indicated that he thought this was the worst punishment that could befall any self-respecting angel. Aziraphale didn't think it sounded too bad.
The archangel continued, "At the beginning, you must do this without being seen, heard, or otherwise sensed. Adam, Eve, and their children and their children's children unto the seventh generation must not know that the Lord continues to watch over them, for knowledge is not faith. They have free will now and must earn their salvation with it. You will retain your ability to perform miracles as long as they do not notice, but you cannot intervene directly. Once the world has been significantly populated, you will be given a human body to continue your work." He paused and sighed. "Do not fail again, Aziraphale, or the subsequent consequences will be dire."
"What about the gate?" asked the lesser angel.
"A Cherub has been assigned to it."
Aziraphale winced, and Gabriel continued.
"He will be here shortly to guard the gate while we begin the process of dismantling the garden."
"The Garden is going to be dismantled?" asked Aziraphale, shocked.
Gabriel scoffed. "Of course it will be, what did you think would happen? The humans no longer deserve it. The animals and plants will be distributed around the globe and then the walls and gates will be destroyed. It will be as any other piece of land upon the Earth."
Aziraphale silently disagreed. He would always know it had been there. "How long will this take?"
"As long as our Lord deems it necessary, Aziraphale. Just begin your new task and do not ask so many questions."
The blue light brightened, Gabriel stepped through it, and then he was gone, too, leaving Aziraphale alone again.
The angel slowly closed the Eastern Gate, making sure it was securely locked and decided that if his job was to influence the humans, he might as well be where they were. Stepping carefully through the slippery mud, he moved towards the bright flame off in the dripping distance.
The light was farther than it looked and Aziraphale had been walking for about twenty minutes when he heard the voice.
"Hey, angel! Over here!"
He turned towards the sound and saw a tree. Aziraphale hadn't been aware that trees could talk, but he remembered that with God all things were possible and figured He must have had a reason for wanting a talking tree.
"Yes?" he said, politely to the tree trunk.
"No. Up here, you idiot."
Aziraphale looked up to where a yellow eye was staring balefully at him from a mud coated branch. It looked familiar.
"Demon? Why are you covered in mud and up a tree?"
The demon rolled his visible eye. "Because I was told it would be amusing."
"Oh!" Aziraphale exclaimed. "I guess I'll leave you to it then."
"Wait! I didn't really mean that."
"Then why did you say it?"
"It's a new form of humor called sarcasm. You say the opposite of what you mean with a really wry tone of voice so that people around you realize how stupid they sound when they speak. It's like irony, but calculated to wound."
"Why would you want to wound me?"
"Because you asked a really stupid question. Why do you think I'm covered in mud and up a tree? Could there possibly be more than one explanation?"
"Well, I expect you wanted to see which direction Adam and Eve had gone in and couldn't tell from the ground."
Crawly closed his eyes and his head sank to the branch.
"Actually… that's a fairly reasonable alternative explanation. Except that it doesn't explain the mud or the royally pissed off expression. I'll just tell you, then, shall I? In small words?"
"There's no need to be like that, demon. It isn't my fault that you're muddy and in a tree."
"Oh, call me Crawly already, would you?" he said, exasperated. "Although I'm thinking of changing it…"
"Very well, Crawly. Now will you tell me why you stopped me?"
Crawly really didn't want to have to explain his predicament to this doofy angel, but if he was going to get anywhere in the next week he figured he'd have to.
"I'm a snake, right? We travel along the ground. Which at the moment is wet, clingy, and very difficult to push through. Took me an hour and a half to get this far. I'm cold and I'm never going to make it to the humans' camp at this rate. I climbed the tree to get out of the mud and I stopped you because I want a ride. That clear enough for you."
"A ride? Why on Earth should I carry you to the humans? You're just going over there to make trouble for them, but it's my job to provide succor. We'd be working at cross purposes."
"I thought your job was to guard the Gate."
"It was. Now it's changed."
"And you're now supposed to look after the humans?"
"Not so much look after them as encourage them to be good."
The snake sniggered. "It doesn't work that way anymore, angel. They chose free will."
"They didn't choose anything," said Aziraphale severely. "You offered Eve that apple and she didn't know enough to refuse."
"She knew she had been told not to eat it. Anyway, what's done is done and we can't change it. What I'm trying to say is that by whatever means they now have free will, right?"
"So if you traipse over there now and only influence them for good, how is that free will? They might as well be back in the Garden, right? There's no virtue without vice. You have to have some temptation around in order for them to choose the right thing to do. He's not going to be impressed with a bunch of sappy humans who got back into Heaven just because they never had anything to overcome. Where's the character building in that?"
Aziraphale first looked surprised, then thoughtful. "I suppose you're right, dem…" he coughed, "dear."
If snakes had eyebrows, this one's would be raised. But he said nothing. For a moment.
"Great, so how about a hand over here?"
Confused and worn down by the day's events, Aziraphale complied meekly, stepping next to the trunk of the tree. Crawly summoned his energy and slithered down the tree trunk around Aziraphale's bare shoulders.
The angel squeaked. "You're cold!"
"Well, you're nice and warm. Off we go then. Wake me when you get there."
Crawly wasn't an especially large snake; just long enough to wrap loosely around Aziraphale's neck once. He curled up snugly, trying to absorb any body heat he could, and exhausted from the cold trek, promptly fell asleep.
Aziraphale sighed. Once the demon's body had warmed up a bit, his presence was almost… comforting. He walked on.
It took another thirty or thirty-five minutes of walking before Aziraphale found himself near the sleeping humans. He stopped, not wanting to get too close and shrugged a shoulder to nudge the sleeping demon.
"Wake up, Crawly. We're here."
Crawly opened one eye. "No, we're not. The humans are still way over there under those trees."
"Well I can't go any closer." Aziraphale looked into the middle distance. "I'm not supposed to be seen, heard, or otherwise sensed."
Crawly grinned, which is a very disconcerting thing for a snake shaped being to do.
"How are you going to influence them, then?"
"I really don't know yet, but I'd best figure out something quickly."
"You'd better or I'll have the field to myself for a while."
At those words, Aziraphale began to get angry. "This isn't a game, you know! Their eternal souls are at risk. It's because of you that they were cast out of Paradise in the first place. I really don't think you should try to make it worse!"
He took a deep breath to try and calm down.
"Besides, you're in the same position I am, so you've no room to talk."
Crawly looked puzzled. "What do you mean? I'm not under orders to stay hidden. I can go right over there and talk to them if I want."
"No, you can't," said Aziraphale, who'd been thinking about this for the last half hour. "I shouldn't think that either of them would like to see you or listen to anything else you had to say. I'd be rather surprised if they didn't try to smite you."
"It's kill," muttered Crawly. "Angels smite. Humans kill."
"Whatever," snapped Aziraphale, peevishly. "Either way, neither of us can do anything until morning when they wake up. I'm waiting here. You may do what you wish."
He sat daintily on a relatively dry patch of grass beneath a tree and leaned against its trunk, pulling his wings around him. Crawly squirmed for a moment, pinned against the rough bark of the tree, until he freed himself and moved smoothly down the angel's chest and into his lap where he curled up sullenly and went back to sleep.
By the time dawn had broken, Aziraphale was feeling much better. It had finally stopped raining, the sun was shining brightly, and he had come up with an idea about how to help the humans without interacting with them. It would be lonely, he reflected, but it would only be for a few hundred years. He nudged the warm snake curled up on his legs.
"Crawly. They're awake," he let a note of disapproval enter his voice. "You probably should be, too."
While Crawly roused himself, Aziraphale watched Adam and Eve. Adam appeared to be trying to build some kind of shelter and Eve was looking around for food. When she seemed to have no luck for some time, Aziraphale took pity on her and miracled a strawberry plant a few feet away. When she found the plant and smiled, Aziraphale thought that this assignment might not be that bad after all. He did notice something odd, though.
"It's a warm day, isn't it?"
"Yesss, which was why I was enjoying it. Until just now anyway."
"Then why are Adam and Eve still clinging to their night blankets? It's too hot to need them now."
Crawly opened his eyes, yawned widely (3), and slithered up Aziraphale's body and onto the tree to have a better look. Aziraphale giggled slightly because it tickled then looked amazed that such a thing was possible.
Crawly peered over at the humans. "Those aren't night blankets; they're clothes."
"What are 'clothes'?" asked Aziraphale, perplexed.
"They're body coverings. The man and the woman are ashamed of their nakedness and want to hide their bodies. They put them on during that whole scene yesterday. Where were you?"
"I was at the gate like I was supposed to be," the angel sniffed, "not tempting people into doing something they shouldn't." A pause, then, "I did notice that they were wearing their blankets, but I thought they were cold or would find them easier to carry that way." He peered down at his own nude body and spoke quietly. "Why would they be ashamed of the bodies God made for them?"
"I dunno," said Crawly. "It must have something to do with the knowledge of good and evil. Maybe being naked is evil? The real question is, why are you?"
Aziraphale pulled his wings around his unclothed body. "God made us in His image. I am proud to look like Him."
"Then why did you just cover yourself, angel?"
"Er, I got a chill."
The snake smirked. Aziraphale was really beginning to dislike that expression.
"What would you know about it anyway, serpent?" he snapped.
Before Crawly could respond, the ground opened up beneath him, glowing a dull red, and he disappeared.
Aziraphale felt rather guilty that his last words to the demon had been spoken in irritation, but he was also quite relieved to be free of the confusing presence. Ready to do his job, he turned his sights to the humans.
Some six months later, Aziraphale was resting against the very same tree while the humans slept. He felt fairly satisfied with how things had been going so far. True it was lonely and he often felt like a voyeur, but they were really learning how to live on their own now. Aziraphale no longer had to miracle food for them, but could do more subtle things like make a tiny pebble splash into the river near where the most fish were hiding, or dry out the wood they were gathering for the evening's fire. On the whole, they were living quite blamelessly and Aziraphale was pleased. That is, until he sensed the new presence nearby. It wasn't an angel and there were no other humans yet, so it had to be, "Crawly?"
"Oh, not you again," came the annoyed reply.
"That's not a very nice thing to say," said Aziraphale. "I was being polite."
Crawly hissed and was about to make some scathing reply when they heard a shriek issue from beneath the shelter Adam had built. They looked at each other and ran. (4)
It turned out to be Eve who was screaming. Her face was contorted in pain, while Adam looked on in panic and worry. Crawly stared.
"Why's she all deformed like that? What happened?"
"She's not deformed! She's with child. I think she's going to have the baby now."
"That huge lump in her stomach is another human? That's disgusting!"
"A very small one, I think," said Aziraphale peering through the bushes anxiously as another piercing cry split the night.
"How's it… How's it going to come out?" asked Crawly, disturbing images crowding his mind.
Aziraphale furrowed his brow. The other angels hadn't been very forthcoming with this information. "I think she's supposed to push it out from a little hole between her legs…"
"That giant thing? It's never going to happen."
A third scream rent the air, echoing around the glade.
Crawly paled. "Listen to that, would you? She's going to be killed. That's not childbirth, it's torture!"
Aziraphale glared at him. "Well, you should have thought of that before."
"Me? What's this got to do with me?"
By this time, Eve was crying pitifully.
"She suffers now because she ate of the tree of knowledge. It was His will that her disobedience be punished by painful childbirth for all women forevermore and that is your fault."
Crawly looked horrified. "But He was the one who assigned that punishment! And to inflict incredible pain on every woman that is to come for the first woman's actions is unusually harsh, don't you think?"
Aziraphale did think. Then he squashed that thought, jumped on it, shoved it into a small box, tied it tightly, and put it out of reach on the uppermost shelf in his attic of thoughts. "I do not question the judgment of the Lord," he said stolidly, his serene eyes clouded with empathy as he looked at Eve.
Crawly followed his gaze and saw Adam kneeling down between Eve's legs.
"What's happening now?"
"I think the baby is going to come out."
The angel and the demon watched as Eve strained, legs askew, Adam whispering words of comfort and encouragement. They saw the baby's bloody head appear, saw Adam take hold of it and gently pull until the baby was clear of his mother, who sagged back, relieved. They witnessed the whole gory process of the afterbirth until a new cry went up. The tiny baby bawled as the new parents looked on fondly.
Aziraphale couldn't stand it any longer, he made himself unvisible (5) and moved forward to see the child more closely. After a moment, Crawly followed.
The baby was a purple-red color and smears of blood were still left here and there on his tiny body. Aziraphale gazed in astonishment at the miniature human with his perfect little fingers and toes, his chubby, but well-formed arms and legs, even the fine, dark hairs on the top of his head. This child was truly a miracle. He stopped a moment to send a prayer of praise and wonder to the Almighty and bless the baby.
Adam took the baby, held him up and said, "Cain". Eve smiled weakly then sat up to take the newly christened Cain to her breast. Crawly and Aziraphale sat together in silence and watched the first child have his first meal as the warm rays of the rising sun began to spread over the Earth.
When the young family retired to their bed for some much needed sleep, Aziraphale and Crawly moved away to give them some privacy.
"Well," said Crawly breaking the long silence. "There's really nothing I can do right now, so I think I'll be off. See you around, angel." Aziraphale saw the flash of yellow eyes before the demon turned and slithered away. He wondered if he'd ever see him again.
(1) Using them to stay dry was more trouble than it was worth. (2)
(2) This is also true of umbrellas.
(3) Which is wide indeed for a snake with a detachable jaw.
(4) Well, Crawly curled around Aziraphale's leg and Aziraphale ran.
(5) It wasn't that he was no longer visible, it's just that Adam and Eve decided that they couldn't see him and so therefore they didn't. Aziraphale had found it was much easier to walk that way.