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As we have two eyes and two ears, so we have two minds: one to see and hear that which is born of the world, and one to see and hear the gods themselves.
— The Partite Vision of Julian 45.15
And Sophia, an aeon called the Wisdom of Insight, named her terrible offspring Yaldabaoth, the demiurge known to you as Jehovah.
— The Apocryphon of John 9.25
Yesterday, when Lucian ben Hananiah had climbed the sheer precipice that overlooked the yellow, sulfurous expanse of the Dead Sea, he was a boy of twelve. Today he was a man who had reached his majority. Today he was allowed the singular privilege of praying and studying inside the innermost sanctuary of Merh Fl'awr, the Cave of Light, the highest and most sacred repository in all the fortified settlement of Khirbet Qumran. But as he sat before a natural outcrop that had been used for centuries as a reading plinth, his back against a wall of smooth, worn stone, he did not feel the joy of privilege. He felt trapped, alone, and humiliated, for other boys were not allowed to take the oath of the Covenant until they had reached their eighteenth year and were considered learned enough in the Book of Meditation to be recognized by the Council and the twelve priests as a 'son of light'. And only the maskil and his chosen priests were allowed to enter the Cave of Light.
However, other boys weren't the firstborn son of Hananiah ben-Yohanan the Zadokite, the hereditary leader of the community. Other boys couldn't trace their lineage back to God's chosen maskil: the first master and guardian of the sacred scrolls. Other boys had to earn the privileges of entering the Covenant.
Lucian had felt the force of their hatred and disdain — and the hatred and disdain of their white robed fathers as they accompanied him to the foot of the cliff face; and even after his father and the twelve priests blessed him, even after his father blessed and thanked the standing congregation — none of them remained to watch the newest member of the Covenant navigate the dangerously stepped handholds and footholds called the stairs. Only his father remained to guard, fast, and pray on the heat-shimmering stones and marl below.
Lucian gazed out at the dusty light of the cave's narrow twilight zone, shook his head as if to clear it of unworthy thoughts, and then looked back down at the copper scroll before him. It shone like burnished gold in the flickering light of the oil lamps. His father called it the golden scroll and swore Lucian to secrecy before speaking of it in tones of awe. Older than the mountains, as old as the moon, it was God's terrible and puzzling warning to the chosen. No one else in the community, not even the twelve priests, knew of its existence or whereabouts. But the future maskil needed to know; and now, until the waxen moon rose full above the cliffs and crown of the settlement, Lucian would have the priceless artifact to himself.
The scroll was pitted, creased, and wrinkled. A section at the end had been cut or torn away, and some of the ancient proto-Hebrew script was impossible to read: words and entire lines looked like they had been scratched or pounded out. He touched the indented script and filled in the missing or indecipherable words as best he could:
Listen to me now, sweet, vulnerable children of light, listen to me, you who are worthy but will not see until the shadows of the tree of death are upon you. Until its twisted vines are already emptying your souls into the darkness. Yea, even as they devour the aeons and angels sent by the Lord of Hosts to protect and nourish you.
He memorized as he read, as he would be expected to discuss the scroll in detail with his father, for it was unlikely that he would be allowed to return to this place until he reached his physical majority in another seven years.
The demiurge who is the shadow of a shadow that your fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters mistakenly worship and offer sacrifice to as the true Lord of Hosts awakens with intention. He will make certain that the aeons he created with his own seed are not disturbed or turned by the creatures of light. And his faithful servant Belias who rules the darkness will make certain that his intention is their intention.
Blasphemy, he thought. But, no, that could not be. It must be God's truth or his father — and all the maskils who guarded and kept the scroll secret before him — would not revere it so. He continued reading; but try as he might, he could not make out the words that were partially scratched away.
And what is the intention of the demiurge, the one I will call Yaldabaoth, vulnerable children? It is to end the age of life, destroy your souls and mine, and humiliate and destroy the True Father of us all in His heaven above all aeons and thrones. It is written that such calamity shall come to pass unless you can find the last maskil and possess the
And there the scroll ended.
Feeling perplexed — and somehow soiled — he searched for answers:
And who is to end the age of life?
The Lord of Hosts?
No, the Lord God in Heaven, Holy be His Name, could not be the Adversary.
Satan is the Adversary.
But Father will know, he consoled himself. Father always knows.
The cave's depths seemed to be closing in on him, as if the dusty darkness had weight. He felt the need for light and air, for the bright sunlight that baked even the sea to salt and the air that was as soft as hair. As Lucian began to pull himself away from the scroll — it was a tight squeeze between the plinth and sitting stone: there were no fat scholars in Khirbet Qumran — he heard a rasping noise that sounded like wind blowing. But it was not the wind. As he leaped away from the sound, he felt something strike his bare foot; then felt a searing, burning pain like the touch of red hot iron. And he saw a rock snake side-slip across the floor, its smooth scales glittering like cut sapphires in the flickering lamplight. Its rasping coils sounded like wind pushing through stone chimneys.
fh-fh-fhh-fff fh-fh-fhh-fff fh-fh-fhh-fff.
Fh: the Egyptian name for viper.
It slowly side-slipped back and forth toward Lucian as if it were now stalking him, or herding him. Lucian backed away and would have cried out in terror, but for the burning numbness that struck him like icy-sharp shards of hail. Then the snake dartled into a fissure in the cave wall a handbreadth's away from him. But the wall was smooth, rippled stone. There was no fissure. The snake had just ... disappeared.
Lucian felt dizzy, lightheaded. He shook his head to clear it.
It's the venom, the poison.
Then turned to stagger toward the mouth of the cave. But venom was coursing through his arteries like Greek fire. Both legs were burning. Both legs were numb. Soon they would be useless.
If I can just get far enough to call down to Father keeping vigil below. If I can just ...
His labored breathing sounded like the rasping coils of the sapphire snake. His vision blurred; and as he fell he heard the droughty, fricative fh-fh-fhh-fff. But it was not the hollow sound of his own breathing echoing in his ears. He turned his head toward the rasping ... and saw an angel hovering before him.
It was bathed in pure white light, and its great feathered wings were partly furled, as the cave walls were too narrow to contain them. The beautiful apparition seemed to shift in and out of sight.
Lucian took a deep, dying breath.
fh-fh-fhh-fff fh-fh-fhh-fff fh-fh-fhh-fff.
And the sweet uplifting scent of cinnamon perfumed the air.
* * *
"Am I dead?" Lucian asked the angel, blinking.
The angel smiled at the skinny, gangly, and frightened thirteen-year old and settled to the ground. He wore purple robes and a white circlet around his head. His features were sharp as etched glass. Handsome and beautiful he was, heroically masculine, yet gracefully feminine ... he was translucent as vapor, and as substantial as the cave itself.
"No, young maskil, you will not die this day. Today is a day of learning and forgetting. Your tomorrows will be for remembering."
"The snake that bit me —?"
"Is it ... real?"
"Do you still feel the pain of its bite?"
"Yes," Lucian said. He propped himself against the cave wall and looked at his leg, which was red and swollen.
"But you mean to ask if I am real or a vision, a phantasm."
"Yes," Lucian said again. His head seemed to clear, the pain suddenly abated, and he felt comforted by the soft brume of warmth and light that radiated from the angel. "Who are you, and why have you come to me here ... and now? And ..."
"What else would you have?"
Lucian felt the angel's laughter, although he could not hear it. "If you are an angel, as you seem to appear, can you not draw away the poison that sickens me?"
"A poultice of physalis somnifera and onion would serve as well."
"But as you can see, angel," he said impatiently, "I don't have such a poultice."
"Would you speak in such a manner to your father?" Searing, pulsing pain and dizziness returned.
Lucian groaned and said, "No, I would not. Please forgive me, Holy One."
Now Lucian felt the angel's amusement.
"You may call me Gabriel, and I am both real and a phantasm. Like the snake that bit you. But even when you forget, as you surely will, you must try to remember that although both the snake and the vine will seek you out, only the snake will sustain you."
"But how can I both remember and forget?"
"Your heart will remember, and your heart is yoked to your soul."
"Why must I forget?"
"So that you may grow into your great soul and discover how to fulfill your destiny."
"Can you not just tell me ... or show me?"
The angel laughed, a swirling lightness of cinnamon and joy, and said, "I could easier teach you to fly. And if I did — if I could and would — you would become as loathsome as the twisting shadows that seek you out."
"What shadows? What you said before: the vines? Or the snake? Why would such things seek me out?"
"The snakes are my own. The vines are the creatures of another: they belong to Belias, the dark aeon described in the scripture your father sent you here to study. Belias is bound to Yaldabaoth, the demiurge you call Jehovah. It is he who created you and all your kind. And now he is ready to destroy all creation, all that has been, is, and will be."
"But why would the Lord of Hosts wish to —?"
"The demiurge is not the Lord of Hosts ... any more than I am. He is an aeon, who was created by the Lord's most beloved aeon Sophia, Queen of Angels."
Lucian could feel the angel's controlled wrath; and for an instant his chest froze, and he couldn't breathe. Then, with a gasp, he inhaled the cloying smell of cinnamon sweetness and tasted the tongue-searing bitterness of ash.
"Sophia wanted to bring forth another luminary like herself," Gabriel continued, "but she did so without the consent of her creator; and her miscreant desire produced an imperfect, misshapen thing. When she tried to hide her shame from the Lord of Hosts, the demiurge overwhelmed her, stole her power, and created his own realm of aeons and authorities and seraphim. In his arrogance, the demiurge exults himself over all. He cannot admit to being consequent, to being other than the One.And his intention, young maskil, is to destroy the Lord of Hosts."
Lucian was still shivering; whether from abyssal fear or the snake's flesh-swelling poison, he could not know.
"Now you understand the warning of the scroll," the angel said, reading him like writing on parchment. His voice was soft and lyrical, a tangible manifestation of a profound, sympathetic sadness. "If the demiurge is to prevail, he must destroy everything, including himself and his minions. His very success depends upon his own annihilation."
"But how can he become the One if he destroys the world and the heavens and himself? And surely no one — or no thing — can prevail over the Lord of Hosts."
"By possessing and destroying every single soul, he denies — and destroys — the Lord of Hosts. And all that would remain is —"
"Himself," Lucian said, overwhelmed by the angel's radiating grief.
"Yes, child, for one eternal instant the demiurge would become the One, the only one."
Lucian shook his head, as if he could deny by force of will what the angel had just told him. The angel gentled the boy's hair, soothing him as if he was a startled animal and then said softly, "Even now one of Yaldabaoth's servants approaches ... even now you are in danger."
"But why? I am nothing, I —"
"He seeks you because of what I will give you ... and because of what you have the potential to become."
"And what would that be?"
"Perhaps the last maskil," the angel said, looking sadly at the boy.CHAPTER 2
That Judas perished by hanging, there is no certainty in Scripture ...
— Thomas Browne, Religio Medici
"If the Lord of Hosts awakens his angels to destroy us, what can I do?" he asked the angel. "You should be speaking to my father, not to me. He knows ... he knows ..."
"I'm right here, Lucian."
Lucian stared hard at the angel, whose robes were no longer purple, but were striped black and white linen. "Father ...?" he asked earnestly, grasping his father's linen sleeve in recognition and twisting his hand inside the fold as he did when he was a child. "I'm very glad to see you. But why did you come to find me? Is everything all right?"
His father nodded, touching Lucian's forehead gently with his free hand.
"When you did not come down from the cave at sunset, I became worried. I found you in high fever and dared not move you until you awakened. It will soon be light ...and thanks be to God who delivers us from all distress, your fever has broken."
Lucian shivered and looked around the cave. The oil lamp on the opposite wall was guttering, and there was no twilight zone around the cave opening. "Did you find the snake?"
His father looked at him quizzically.
"The snake that bit me."
"No snake has ever been found up here," his father said. His eyes looked deep and shadowed in the flickering lamplight. "I fear that my rashness has made you ill. I have asked too much of you too soon, worked you to exhaustion, but —"
Lucian examined his leg, but could find no swelling or puncture marks. There had been no need of a poultice. There had been no snake. No angel. Just fevered imaginings brought on by a sudden ague. Relieved, he drank deeply from the water skin his father proffered. He wiped his mouth, which felt cottony and swollen, and asked, "But what, Father?"
"You have accomplished the tasks I set before you, and you have made me proud," the older man said softly. He stared into the cave entrance, stared at the halo of dawn's first light as if he were trying to see through time itself. "Did you commit the words of the Golden Scroll to memory?"
"Every one of them? Even the excision marks?"
"Yes, Father. Do you wish to test me?"
He turned to Lucian and embraced him. "No, my son. You have already been burned deeply enough by God's words. Your fever was proof enough." His father still held him close.
"Are you cold, Father?"
The maskil released his son and said, "No, I am perfectly fine."
"But you're trembling."
His father smiled indulgently. "I am old. Old men tremble. Now ask me the questions that must be still burning inside you, and then we will climb down the stairs together. Surely you must be hungry, and I promise not to exhaust you with study again. Your mother will take a long time forgiving me."
"Does she know why you readied me to take the oath and enter the sanctuary?"
"She knows that you are the future maskil."
"You are the maskil, father. My time is many years away."
His father looked at him, touched his forehead again, and nodded.
"But you are worried that something bad is going to happen, aren't you?" He leaned closer to his father. "That something will happen to you."
"I just need you to be ready. If you read the tablet with understanding, you know that the age of life might come to an end at any moment."
"Are you strong enough to climb down the stairs?" his father asked, meaning the footholds and handholds that were cut into the cliff face.
"Yes, father, I will try."
"Try? No, you rest here. I will —"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Shadows in the Stone"
Copyright © 2019 Jack Dann.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
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