A Clockwork Phoenix featured story
The Gospel of Nachash
In the beginning God made the world, and on the sixth day he made creatures in his image. Male and female he created them, and they were the bekhorim, to whom God gave dominion over every herb bearing seed, and every tree bearing fruit, to be in their care. Mankind he formed from dust, but the bekhorim were made from air, and their spirits were more subtle than that of man.
Then the LORD planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed, and the bekhorim tended the garden, for they had dominion over all growing things. And he gave to each of them a duty, saying, Each tree in the garden you shall tend, and each of you shall have a tree, which shall be as meat for mankind, and for the beasts of the field. But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil they shall not eat.
Among the bekhorim there was one called Nachash, and to him it was given to tend the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And Nachash was saddened, for all his kindred had purpose, but he had none, for man and woman ate of every tree in the garden save his, and he labored without purpose.
He went therefore to the woman, who was called Chava, and said unto her, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
But the tree was the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and Nachash knew of no death in it. And for what purpose did it bear fruit, if not to be eaten? Therefore he said to the woman, Ye shall not surely die, for in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
And the LORD God was wroth with them, and expelled them from the garden. And the bekhorim he expelled likewise, for the sin of Nachash, who had beguiled the woman into eating. Their forms he altered in divers ways; but Nachash he cast down upon his belly, to crawl in the dust from which man had come. He placed at the east of the garden of Eden cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
Thus were the bekhorim made wanderers in the lands outside of Eden, which were as a wilderness, full of thistles and thorns. For the LORD had cursed the ground, that Adam might labor with much toil to bring forth food from it, and for the bekhorim it was likewise cursed; that which was their dominion was now fallen into ruin. And the bekhorim lamented, saying, We are condemned; for the sin of Nachash we are condemned.
But he had sinned unknowing, for Nachash had not eaten of the fruit of the tree. Of good and evil the bekhorim were ignorant.
Now it came to pass that many among them sickened and became weak. In the garden there had been neither sickness nor death, nor any ill thing, but in the wilderness beyond there was much confusion, for no creature yet had knowledge of death. And the LORD God went to the tree of life and took from it a branch; and from that branch he formed a creature, shaped like unto the bekhorim, and breathed life into her, saying, This is my daughter, for she is created from me. And she was called Anaph, because she was born from the tree of life.
The bekhorim were then living in the lands west of Eden. Nachash lived not among them, but skulked and crawled at the edges of their camps, and whenever one saw him, that one threw a stone, to drive him forth. Yet one day he came within their camp and said to them, Send me not away, for I have had a vision, which comes from the LORD God. He hath shown me a wind out of the east, where Eden lies; and this wind bringeth a great mystery, which is the mystery of life and death. Follow me into the east, that we may greet this wind, and know the will of God.
But the people jeered and did not believe. They said, Why should the LORD show this vision to thee, for whose transgression we are all condemned? And in their hearts they were afraid, that if they approached the garden they would be struck down by the angels who kept the way of the tree of life.
Therefore Nachash went alone, journeying forty days and nights through the wilderness, until he faltered with weakness and thirst. He said, Though I can go no further, my faith endures; I will lie here in the dust, and await the coming of that which is promised. And in that moment he felt wind upon his face.
The wind was the coming of Anaph, who came as a storm and a whirlwind, driving all the dust before her. Yet when she laid her hand upon his face, her touch was gentle, despite that there was strength in it; and with her touch Nachash was revived, and opened his eyes. Before him he saw a glory so terrible he hid his face, saying, You are an angel of the LORD, and I am not worthy to look upon your face.
Look, said Anaph, and Nachash looked; and now she was as any bekhira, but he did not forget the glory he had seen. She said unto him, I am the wind that was promised, and I bring the mystery of life and death, which few will understand. Because thou alone has sought me, I will make of thee my first disciple, and to thou shall be given to understand more than all the others.
Nachash bowed his head and said, You honor me more than I deserve.
No honor, said Anaph, but a terrible burden, for the mystery of life and death is both cruel and kind. Thou wilt grieve for thy decision to seek me here, and be despised for its consequence. Yet I tell thee truly, all of this must come to pass, for it is the will of my Father the LORD God.
And Nachash did not understand, but bowed his head again, and accepted the burden Anaph lay upon him, which in later times brought much grief to his people.
Westward she went with Nachash, him upon his belly in the dust behind her, until she came to a camp of the bekhorim. And when they saw her they were much surprised, for their kind were few in number, though not so few as man; strangers had they none. Yet they welcomed her in; but when they saw Nachash in the dust at her heels they halted, saying, Here is one who is not welcome. For his wrongdoing we were expelled, though we are guiltless of his crime.
Guiltless you are not, said Anaph, for all your kind are kindred, and what tainteth the one tainteth the many. Yet I say to you, be not wroth with him; all this was foreseen by the LORD God, from whom nothing is concealed, and nothing may happen without He permits it. You must allow him into your camps, for none should ever be exiled from among yourselves, however great his crime.
And they said unto her, Who are you to know these things, that are a stranger to us?
She answered them, A miracle hath come to pass with Chava and Adam. On the day I was created, so too was life created within Chava’s womb; on the day I set forth on my journey, so too did her travails begin, the great pain which the LORD promised her. And when Nachash opened his eyes and beheld me, yea, at that very moment, she put forth new life, which is a son, and he is named Qayin. For a branch hath come forth from the tree of life, and the spirit of the LORD hath gone into it, and I am that branch, sent unto you.
But many among them believed not, for they did not understand the mystery she had imparted regarding Chava and her son. Neither did they understand Anaph herself, for they believed the LORD had turned his back upon them, condemning them to sickness and suffering.
She went therefore among them and found one, a mighty bekhor, whose body was grown weak, so that he could no longer lift himself from where he lay. And she stretched forth her hand, and when she touched him, strength grew once more within him. Thereupon he leapt up as if newly created. Then he knelt at the feet of the daughter of God and said, I know not who you are, but you have given me back my strength; for that I will follow you to the ends of the earth.
She said unto him, Follow me and you will bear that which you understand not, for this is the will of the LORD, that the bekhorim, his firstborn, should bear to mankind this mystery, which is for them. And he was called Koach, and became her second disciple.
She went then among the camps of the bekhorim, and wherever she found sickness, she had but to lay her hand upon the one who sickened, and that one became well. She performed great miracles in this manner, and some who witnessed her miracles followed her, even as Nachash followed her. They complained greatly of this, asking why he should go before them, who was the source of all their guilt. But Anaph told them he must be at her heels, for she had laid a burden upon him, and he must stay with her until he had delivered it unto its fruition.
These were the disciples of Anaph: Koach, and Gidul, and Yofi, and Savlan; Ometz, and Yedida, and Tikvah, and Machshava. And Nachash was the ninth.
To these nine she taught many things, which were hints of the LORD’s plan for the bekhorim. She therefore took them apart, and sat with them upon a hill, and spoke, saying, You are the firstborn creations of the LORD, the elder brothers and sisters of mankind. And it is right for the elder to teach to the younger, knowing things of the world which the younger has not learned. For this you will be rewarded.
I bring to you the mystery of life and death, which is to govern the world now the gate of Eden has been barred. On this day Chava has brought forth a second son, who is called Hevel, and in this manner shall all of mankind be propagated: in woman’s desire for her husband shall the seed be planted, and in pain for their sins shall she bring it forth. And their days upon the earth shall not be without number; in time their strength shall wane, and when that hour comes their souls shall depart their bodies, going to their heavenly Father to be judged. But of that mystery none among the bekhorim may speak, nay, not even myself; for that is reserved to mankind alone.
Through me do they gain this gift of life, but you must bear it to them. As once you tended the trees in the garden, now shall you inhabit the wilderness without; to you the LORD gave dominion over every herb bearing seed, and every tree bearing fruit, to be in your care. You shall be of the trees, and of the waters, and of the airy winds, and of all things giving life. For you there shall be no weakness, nor any departure; you shall neither eat nor drink, save by your own desire, and the toil of mankind is not for you. Eternal shall your lives be, and this is the gift of the LORD to his firstborn creations.
So taught Anaph, and the disciples marveled at her words.
Then she laid the commandments of God upon them, saying, Remember always the day of your birth, which was the sixth day of creation; and celebrate it with your actions. Fear the name of the LORD, for it is fitting for the eldest to show respect by their fear. Give not your own names to those who might abuse them; names are holy things, and in them is power. Break not your oaths to any creature, for as light and all things came into being upon the word of the LORD, so too do your words call forth the thing which you swear; to render them false is to destroy that which you have created, which is an abomination.
These were the teachings of Anaph to her eight disciples, and to Nachash, who was the ninth, and first among them all.
After Anaph had wrought many miracles among the bekhorim, and taught to them their holy covenant, she drew apart for a time. And Nachash stayed by her side, for he had been with her since she opened his eyes in the wilderness, and he bore great love for her. Recognizing this, Anaph said unto him, It is not good that thou holdest me thus in thy heart, for it will only make heavier the burden thou bearest. But Nachash said, It is only through my love that I was saved; though I am not yet redeemed, for I still go upon my belly in the dust. I will obey any commandment of yours, save that which commands me not to love.
Then she gathered together her disciples and once more imparted to them the will of God, saying, Chava hath borne two sons unto Adam, who are Qayin and Hevel; she will in time bear more, and daughters besides. But it is not fitting for a man to marry his sister, nor for a woman to lie with her brother; it is an abomination. How then are the generations of mankind to continue? I say to you, this is the gift the bekhorim shall bear to them, taken from the hand of the LORD. Two of you must go forth now to the place where Chava and Adam dwell, and give yourselves as wives to their sons. And before you depart I shall baptize you, and wash from you the gifts given to the bekhorim, that you may receive the gifts of mankind; human you will be, and bear sons and daughters to the sons and daughters of Adam.
When the disciples heard this, they were much disturbed. They went apart from Anaph to consider her words in the stillness of their hearts. But when the bekhorim heard what had passed among them, many were wroth, and the angry ones said, We are the eldest children of the LORD, and favored in his eyes: for us there is no toil or sweat, no sickness and no death. Why should we abandon these gifts to become less than we are? For Anaph said also that others must go: until the numbers of Adam’s seed grew so many that one might not be close cousin to all the rest, they must take their husbands and their wives from among the bekhorim, who thereafter would be human.
And even those who heeded Anaph yet questioned, asking, Is it not fitting that the seed of Adam should give something to us in return? This sacrifice is asked of us alone, whose numbers are few and unchanging; why should we not have compensation out of the multitudes of his children, to console us for those we have lost?
She answered them, saying, Consolation shall be yours, for when it is needed, you shall bear children, and not with the pains of Chava. As you bring life to mankind, so must they bring it to you; they shall be your midwives when that time comes, that your numbers may be restored. And this reassured many, but not all.
Her disciples then came to her again, and Anaph asked them for their answer. And Ometz stepped forward and said, I will be wife to Qayin, and Yedida followed her, saying, I will be wife to Hevel. To them Anaph said, Sorrows you both shall know, for hard is the way for those who first break the path; but you shall be rewarded for your choice.
Then she took them to the banks of the river, and there she washed from them the guilt of Nachash, so they were bekhorot no more, but as women. But she clothed them in green, in remembrance of their former natures, and thus they went forth to the place where Adam and Chava dwelt, and there gave themselves as wives to Qayin and Hevel. And Anaph said, Keep the memory of this act, as your tribute to Heaven, and to the Father who gave you life; that in future times others may go unto mankind and cleave to them as wives. But let mankind treasure that which hath been given to them, and mistreat it not, lest they lose that which they have received.
And to the six of her disciples that remained, and to also Nachash, Anaph said, The final mystery is soon to come, which shall seal your covenant with the LORD. Truly I say to you, though you understand it not, this is the fruition of all that my Father hath willed for you; for I am born of the tree of life, and this is the fruit I give unto you. Take, eat; by this are you washed clean of the guilt of Nachash, and made holy again in the eyes of the LORD.
And the disciples did not understand. But Anaph drew apart with Nachash, and said to him in secret, This is the burden laid upon thee, that thou must understand more than all the rest. Unto Qayin thou must go, and counsel him; for the time hath come for the sons of Chava to make an offering unto the LORD. And he is a tiller of the ground, as his brother is a keeper of sheep, and from this will each make his offering: but unto Qayin thou shalt go, and tell him there is a fruit he must offer to the LORD.
But Nachash, fearing, said unto her, I cannot tell him of this offering, for in the silence of my heart a voice speaks, warning me that great grief will come of it.
Anaph said, And so it will. For it shall be as I warned thee: that thy greater understanding would be a burden, and thou wouldst be despised for it. Yet this is the mystery I bring to thee, that without death there cannot be life: whereas in the garden all was perfection, and neither life nor death were needed, here in the wilderness there must be both; and so I bring them. Through me did Chava bear her first son, and through me shall come also death, so that man’s time upon this earth shall not be eternal, but only that of the bekhorim.
Then Nachash wept, for love abided in his heart, and so great was the pain that he thought this must be the death of which Anaph spoke. But death was not for the bekhorim. And he had promised her that he would obey any commandment, save the commandment not to love; and the bekhorim could not break their word, lest they commit an abomination.
So he went forth, crawling upon his belly in the dust, until he came to the feet of Qayin. And to him he said, Go you into the wood, and you shall find there a tree, whose fruit is more pleasing than any that grow in this wilderness. Take with you your sickle, and reap from that tree, and offer its fruit unto the LORD. And Qayin thanked him and rewarded him, saying, For this gift I will give you a gift in return, that the first child my wife bears shall be yours to keep.
When Nachash returned all the disciples questioned him, asking, Where is Anaph, for we cannot find her. Then Nachash told them all she had said. Of the mystery they did not understand, but Koach saw the meaning of his words, and began to stamp upon his back, crying, Traitor. The others took up this cry, and threw stones at him, as they had in days past, saying, Traitor; thou hast betrayed our teacher, and because of thee she will die. And he lay beneath their feet, accepting their punishment.
At last Savlan halted them, saying, We must go find Qayin, and stop him, for he will slay our teacher.
In haste they went, and Nachash followed them, crawling in secret upon his belly, hidden by the grasses of the earth: but in haste also went Qayin, to the place where Nachash had told him the tree might be found. Together they came to that place, and there stood Anaph in the form of a tree; and Qayin took a jawbone, the sickle with which he reaped his crops, and swung it at the fruits of the tree; and they fell into his basket. But the blood of Anaph fell upon a stone, staining it red: which henceforth became anathema to the bekhorim, for it was the blood of their savior that made the stain within the stone. And a voice came out of the temple of Heaven, saying, It is done.
In that moment the tree withered and died. And the disciples, weeping, said, Where is the fruit that was promised to us? We have lost our teacher, the daughter of God; and in her place we have only desolation. And from the eyes of Nachash the tears fell unceasing.
Then Qayin brought of the fruit of the tree an offeringunto the LORD, and his brother Hevel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Hevel and to his offering: but unto Qayin and to his offering he had not respect. And Qayin was very wroth, and his countenance fell, for by his hand the savior of the bekhorim had died. But all this was intended by the LORD.
In the place of sacrifice, Nachash remained upon his belly in the grass, gazing upon the desolation of the tree. Then came to him one whose face he did not recognize, whose form was that of an angel, saying to him, For what cause do you weep?
Broken with grief, Nachash said, For the one who was my teacher and my love, who is now but dead wood before me; but truly for myself, who betrayed her, and who must now live with this pain until the day of judgment. For she brought death into the world, but it cometh not until its appointed hour, which lieth far off for me.
Unto him the other said, That need not be so.
Then he spoke divers things unto Nachash, of how the world might be changed; for if death were born untimely, then any creature might depart this earth and proceed to that which lay beyond. But Nachash said, Nothing lieth beyond, not for me, nor for any bekhor; for to mankind the LORD hath promised the paradise of the righteous, but to the bekhorim he hath promised nothing beyond this earth.
The other answered, You would end, and be no more; and be annihilated utterly. And to Nachash this seemed a thing to be desired, for it would bring an end to his grief.
He went therefore among his kindred, and again they drove him forth with stones. But many were angry, and to them he spoke, saying, Qayin hath killed our teacher; he hath slain the branch of the tree of life. To them we bring life, but to us they bring only death. And this perversion of the teachings the disciples did not hear, for they were occupied with their own grief.
To those who listened, Nachash promised a different covenant, saying, In this covenant shall the bekhorim be exalted, and not made servants to mankind; for we are first-born, and it is fitting that the eldest should have dominion over the youngest. From among them we will take our servants, and surrender none as their wives; to them we will give no gifts, but take that which is pleasing to us. And we shall have life eternal, a covenant sealed with blood.
He went therefore to Qayin, and to him he spoke, as once he had spoken to the woman Chava, but this time malice lived within his heart. He said, Why did the LORD have respect unto your brother and to his offering, and not unto you? Why should the younger be given the task of herding, that he might offer of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof, and the blood which is pleasing to the LORD, while the elder toileth among the thorns and the thistles of the ground? For Nachash had hatred in his heart for Qayin, and this was the counsel given unto him by the one who found him in his desolation, that it should bring greater grief upon him.
Qayin went therefore to his brother Hevel, and walked in the field with him. And with the jawbone that cut down the branch of the tree of life he slew him, spilling the blood of his brother upon the ground, so that all the earth cried out. Then came the voice of the spirit of evil, saying, It is done; death hath entered the world untimely, and now man may die before his appointed hour. For Anaph had died at the time appointed by the LORD, but Hevel was the first to be murdered.
And the LORD said unto Qayin, Where is Hevel thy brother? And he said, I know not: am I my brother’s keeper?
And he said, What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand; when thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.
Thus was Qayin exiled from the presence of the LORD, with a mark upon him lest any should slay him; and this brought great joy unto Nachash, that he who spilled the blood of Anaph should suffer, and the gift of death should be denied him. But unto all the earth now that gift had been given: and so he went among the bekhorim who had heeded his words, saying, Remember this; slay their youths in the flower of their youth, before their appointed hour, in remembrance of the first murder. And this they did every seven years, on that night upon which Anaph was slain.
But when half a year had passed after the murder of Hevel, a great wind sprang up in the lands about Eden, bearing a wondrous scent, as of blossoms and growing things; and all the wilderness came into bloom, though its glory was less than the garden of Eden. And the disciples went into the place of desolation, and there they found the tree that was dead now lived again, and upon its branches were a myriad of fruits. These they took and gave unto the people, and everyone who followed not the words of Nachash ate of them, and the fruit was the fruit of life. Then came Anaph among them once more, saying, This is my body, which hath been given for you.
At the sight of her all the people marveled, and her disciples fell at her feet. Six there were, for Ometz and Yedida had gone as wives to the sons of Adam, and Nachash came not among them now. And Anaph questioned them, saying, Where is my first disciple? and where is he upon whom I laid this burden, which was to betray me unto my death, that I might be born again? And the disciples said, Teacher, he is gone; he hath formed a new covenant, which is not a covenant with God.
And Anaph sorrowed, for her Father had foreseen all this, that Nachash would love her, and that his love would bring him to obey her; but upon her death it would lead him away once more, and into the path of evil. But of this Anaph herself had not known, and it grieved her.
Of the resurrection of Anaph Nachash had heard, for the wind bore her touch to him. But he could not bear to look upon her again, with all the blood of his guilt upon her hands, and so he went once more into the wastelands about Eden, which were as wastelands no more, but blooming in the spring of her return. Unto the gates of Eden he went, and the cherubims permitted him passage, and the flaming sword did not strike him; unto the tree of knowledge of good and evil he went, which had once been in his care.
And of its fruit he ate, and understood what he had done. He cried out then, and Anaph heard him cry, and bowed her head in sorrow; for upon his understanding, he went without hesitation unto the tree of life, and from its branches he hanged himself. For the gift of the spirit of evil unto the bekhorim was the gift of death, which to them brings annihilation, and Nachash was no more.
And in after times those who kept the holy covenant were called Seely, which means Blessed, but those who kept the covenant of Nachash were called Unseely, and they kept his pact with Hell. And unto both was given eternal life, but iron is anathema unto them, for its mark in the stone is the mark of the blood of Anaph, who was the tree of life, and slain by Qayin. All this was known beforehand to the LORD God, who permitted Nachash entrance into Eden, that one among the bekhorim might understand what had come to pass. But when the day of judgment comes, then all the bekhorim shall cease to be, for on that day their appointed hour will come, and for them there is only life eternal, but nothing to come after.
Marie Brennan is the author of the Onyx Court series of London-based historical faerie fantasies: Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, A Star Shall Fall, and With Fate Conspire, and the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Her most recent novel, the adventure fantasy The Tropic of Serpents (sequel to A Natural History of Dragons), came out in March 2014 from Tor Books. She has published more than forty short stories in venues such as On Spec and Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
About “The Gospel of Nachash,” she has this to share: “One night, while out at dinner with a motley group of friends, I discovered that one fellow—a friend of my husband’s I’d never met before—was an Episcopal priest. Since he was also a folklore major in college, and I’m writing the Onyx Court books, I mentioned that I might want to pick his brain about the Church of England’s eighteenth-century theology, particularly with respect to faeries. This resulted in him telling me about how eighteenth-century priests, inspired by developments in astronomy, began speculating as to whether there was life on other planets…and whether that life had been saved by Jesus Christ, or whether they would need their own messiahs.
“To which I said, ‘That makes me want to write about a faerie Christ.’
“By the time my husband and I had driven home, I had the bones of the story, and a finished draft just over a month later. Many thanks to Rev. Devin McLachlan, my husband Kyle Niedzwiecki, Jessica Hammer, and Yonatan Zunger for helping me work out all my Old Testament/New Testament/Jewish Midrashim/faerie lore details. (For the record, this story is not background to the Onyx Court novels.)”
“New heights of rarity and wonder.”
—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
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