Cockatrices are born when a serpent coils around an abandoned chicken egg until it hatches.
They are rarer than hen’s teeth or eel’s wings. To see one is a marvel, a rarity, a precious and a magical thing. Few in life will ever meet the prince or princess of their deepest dreams; receive a vision of Heaven’s grace; or transcend the natures of the world and know enlightenment. Compared to a cockatrice, all of these things are dirt common, like winter or the flu.
Cockatrices are, unfortunately, very ugly.
It is 548 years before the common era. A cockatrice slithers into Belshazzar’s room. It finds him in darkness, but Belshazzar does not need light to see.
“How awful,” Belshazzar says.
“I am ugly,” concedes the cockatrice. “That is why most people die when they see my face.”
It shows its face to Belshazzar. Belshazzar does not die. He is, however, sickened.
“How do you live with it?” Belshazzar asks. His voice is faint. His nostrils have flared.
“I’d hoped you’d die,” says the cockatrice. “I thought, if I’m going to be so ugly that I kill everyone who looks at me, I should kill someone whose existence brings agony to the world.”
“I don’t know if I can die,” says Belshazzar.
“It’s all right to be a cockatrice,” says the creature. “I said that when I opened my eyes for the first time. I uncoiled myself from the membrane of my shell. I tasted the cold stone on which I rested. I looked at my mother, the snake, and she died. And I said, ‘it’s all right. Because I can slither, and taste things, and feel the sunshine, and kill people who need it.’ But mostly I kill people who don’t need to die.”
“It’s all right,” Belshazzar agrees. He devours the nature of the cockatrice. “But why would a serpent coil around an egg?”
There’s a thing, and it’s snaky, and it’s avian, but it’s not a cockatrice any more. It twists and coils. It eddies away along the ground. As it leaves the presence of Belshazzar, it passes a servant, who looks down and sees its face.
“How awful!” the servant says, and hits it with a tray.
543 years before the common era, Belshazzar visits Nitocris’ gate. This is a gate in Babylon. It has a tomb built into it. It is the tomb of Queen Nitocris. Anyone who walks through the gate walks under the dead.
Belshazzar runs his fingers along the writing on the stone.
If there be one among my successors on the throne of Babylon who is in want of treasure, let him open my tomb, and take as much as he chooses—not, however, unless he be truly in want, for it will not be for his good.
Belshazzar devours the nature of the stone, and now he may walk through it. He enters the tomb without breaking its seals. There he sees the limitless wealth of Nitocris, and the living corpse of Queen Nitocris herself.
“Are you truly in want of wealth?” the corpse asks him.
“No,” says Belshazzar.
“Then taking it will not be to your good,” says the corpse. “That’s as the writing indicates.”
“The world is in agony that I’m alive,” says Belshazzar. “I thought you might have advice.”
“It’s all right to be a living corpse,” says Queen Nitocris’ abandoned body. “But it limits the answers available to me. I can give you advice on the treasure. Don’t take it! It won’t be to your good. I can also recommend against mummification. I’d think better if they hadn’t pulled Nitocris’ brains out through my nose. You don’t need brains to think, but they’re really helpful.”
“I don’t know if I have a brain,” says Belshazzar. “Sometimes I think that I’m just a ring full of sharp, sharp teeth, even if I look like a boy.”
“Let me feel you,” says Nitocris’ corpse. It runs its foul hand over his face. Then it sighs.
“Most of the tactile processing was in my brain,” the creature says. “So I’ll tell you this. Pain is caused by wanting. So if the world’s in agony because you’re alive, then you’re probably making it want something.”
“What do you want?”
The corpse grins ferally. “Someday, someone’s going to come in here who doesn’t really need the treasure. Then I’ll make it all vanish, and I’ll point my long skeletal finger at them and say, ‘Had you not been so insatiate of money, and careless how you got it, you would not have broken open the sepulchers of the dead!’ Then I’ll crumble into dust and leave them wondering for the rest of their life if they really saw me.”
“What lingers in the body after death?” Belshazzar asks.
He devours the nature of the corpse.
The withered remains of Queen Nitocris give him no answer.
It is in a state of uncertainty that Belshazzar returns to his father Nabonidus.
“What is a monster?” Belshazzar asks.
“It’s someone who thinks it’s all right to be a monster,” Nabonidus says.
“Is it all right?”
Nabonidus smiles at him. “I think so.”
“It’s not so good to be a devouring god,” says Belshazzar.
“It’s because you haven’t figured out how to live with it properly,” says Nabonidus. “If you take the right path, it’ll satisfy you.”
“Thank you,” Belshazzar says.
It is all right, Belshazzar thinks, to devour the bad things. It would be all right if he could eat the nature of the monster; the nature of Hell; the nature of suffering. That would be a fair answer to the pain that gave him birth.
But he cannot bite Nabonidus. He is an instrument in Nabonidus’ hand, and Nabonidus is not so clumsy as that.
So he waits, a ring full of sharp, sharp teeth, for the chance to kill his father; and while he waits, he prepares to defend Babylon against the army of Kuras by devouring everything that makes the invaders who they are; and he leaves his mother Mylitta to suffer in the temple of Sin; and he does not think that these things are wrong.
Monsters think it’s all right to be a monster, after all.