Fra Angelico tossed the front of his tabard over his shoulder, rolled up his sleeves, and dipped his quill into the gold paint.
On tightly stretched vellum, he had lightly drawn out an image of the Blessed Virgin. She held the Christ Child, and they looked at each other tenderly. Behind their heads, ruby-studded haloes reflected the light of a myriad whispering angels, peering in from the sides of the page.
One of them blinked at him.
He stared hard.
It didn’t move again.
He rubbed his fingers into his eyes, and pushed the heavy, black cloak of his Dominican order away from his shoulders. He was getting tired.
This was his favorite time of the day to work. The friars’ evening prayers had just finished, and Fra Benasuto would continue chanting with the novices, filling the grounds of the San Doménico abbey with faint music.
He hummed along with them. “For he has given his angels charge over you; to keep you in all your ways…” And he checked that angel face again.
The sun had almost set, and broad fires blazed in the great hearth to his right. He worked as an illuminator, in the scriptorium. The scriptorium was the great, airy room where the friars copied manuscripts and created masterpieces of painted art.
Between wide, wooden tables, the slanted, lectern-like desks of the friars supported brushes, charcoal pencils and vast sheets of pinned parchment. Broad shelves of simple olive and chestnut wood stored leather boxes and books.
Fra Angelico sat alone, flexing his stiff muscles. It was hard, tiring work sitting in one place all day, carefully tracing tiny details, grinding up ink powders and mixing them with egg yolks to get the right consistency.
The warm afternoon air had given way to the chill evening breeze. The scents of wild wheat and greening olives faded away. Right under the window, a riot of rosemary and mint clambered up the side of the wall, dense, and rich, and delicious.
For the next half hour, Fra Angelico crouched on his chair, tracing lines and filling with color. The night torches were lit around the monastery as the sun disappeared, quiet friars flitting through the hallways to touch tapers to sconces.
Fra Angelico stared closely at the eyes of the Christ child. He was filled with a strange urge to paint them gold. Instead, he turned to the last letter on the page, an ‘O.’ He edged it with gold lines, indicating that it glowed. He had painted little wings on it in red, green and blue. He tipped each feather with more gold.
A wash of light flared across the edge of his vision.
Had the candle fallen off the wall?
He glanced at it, expecting to find it doused in a splatter of steaming beeswax.
It sat quietly on the wall. He frowned. He knew he’d sensed something.
And then it happened again. The bright, flickering light of a candle flame shifted the shadows across the room again.
He jerked his head back up to look around.
And there it was.
A ball of light hung in the air. Two faint wings fluttered like a moth. It was slightly larger than his two fists put together.
Fra Angelico froze.
The ball pulsed with strong, golden light. The more he stared at it, the more he could see layers of luminescence within its heart, swirling and creating letters. He had just painted it.
And now it hung in the air before him?
He blinked, and knuckled his eyes again.
The ball of light danced around his head, drawing his attention away from everything, flitting backwards, then forwards, and then backwards again. It seemed to be trying to tell him something.
He slowly got up.
His mind raced. He’d never seen or heard of any creature that glowed like this. Or created letters within itself.
He stared at the wings; they were exactly as he painted them. Gorgeous red, green and blue feathers, edged with glowing gold. The wind from its wings came softly to his face, lightly perfumed with something incredible… Apples… cinnamon? Definitely clove incense.
Putting down his brush, he slowly raised his hands, and then snatched at it.
It ducked back a foot, just out of reach.
“What are you?” he muttered. He followed it across the room. It headed for a closed door and stopped to wait.
Fra Angelico snatched up a towel, hoping to throw it over the apparition and grab it. As he neared it, it slipped through the wall and disappeared.
He stopped, stunned.
Then he crossed himself. “My Lord and lady, my guardian angel, protect me.”
This apparition might not be a good thing…
Then the ball popped back through the wall, and bounced in place, like a child. It seemed annoyed that he hadn’t chased it. Was this a game?
Fra Angelico raised a shaky hand and drew a sign of the cross in the air, muttering ‘in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, be gone if you are evil.”
The ball flared a glorious gold, and spun in place at hearing his words. It seemed happy to hear them.
Then it ducked through the whitewashed wall again.
He hauled the door open and raced after it. It paused at a corridor. His outstretched fingers brushed it briefly. Then it was gone, speeding down the stairs that led to the inner courtyard.
Fra Angelico hitched up his habit and took off, slipping down the stairs and wildly grabbing at window sills to stop from pitching forward and landing on his head. His body was stiff and tired after illuminating all day. He gasped to breathe… he wasn’t built for racing.
He reached the columned walkways around the courtyard and hauled open the second door, right in the face of a cluster of friars. One of them, Fra Benasuto had been reaching for the door handle. His fingers were frozen in midair.
Behind him, the novices with their tiny tonsures stared in interest.
“Fra Angelico, are you alright?” Fra Benasuto asked. He was a thickset friar with the thinnest tonsure and the largest nose in the abbey.
“You didn’t see the ball of light?” Fra Angelico managed.
The friars glanced at each other and then looked around. “What?”
Fra Angelico pushed through them and glanced around the gardened courtyard. “There!” He stabbed his finger at the feathered globe flitting along the pathways. “You can’t smell that either?” Fra Angelico sniffed raggedly at the trail of apples and incense the hung in the air.
Fra Benasuto’s nose was famous, and he twitched it, inhaling. “I see nothing, I smell nothing.” He frowned.
The novices swiveled their heads in every direction, and shrugged. They saw nothing either.
Fra Angelico grabbed his habit and pulled it away from his feet so that he could run. “I think it’s calling me. It wants me to follow!”
The novices made strange noises and tapped their heads with their fingers. He pointedly ignored them.
Fra Angelico pushed through the bushes of sage, thyme and platoons of parsley. The courtyard was an opening between four buildings, the refectory on one side, and the dormitories on the other. Overhead, the final smears of sunlight faded in a haze of pale pinks and purples against a dark, star-studded night.
The ball of light was leading him toward the chapel. The great doors hung slightly ajar, spilling chapel light out across the cobblestones.
The ball paused, whirling in a tiny, turning dance.
Fra Angelico staggered to a halt, his feet flapping on the stones. Shooting out his fingers, he reached for it, and tried to touch it again.
It didn’t move.
His finger brushed the bright surface. It still didn’t move. He cupped his hands around it, still not touching it, and gently closed his fingers together.
The wide wings fluttered out from between his palms. Each wing was almost the length of his forearm.
The letters in the ball’s heart were racing quickly, changing one after the other. They were incredible, gorgeous letters, in a script Fra Angelico couldn’t recognize.
He turned his head to look at the friars clustered at the entrance. “You’re telling me you don’t see this?” he called.
Other friars with their tapers had gathered at the windows to stare down in curiosity.
And that was when his fingers closed tightly around it.
A sudden warmth, made of happiness and excitement burst through his fingers and streamed through his body, centering in his heart. His mouth and nose were filled with an intense fragrance of cedar and frankincense, and for a second he thought he would explode from joy.
He gasped and stared down at the ball.
Suddenly he could read the letters. He let it go and stared at it.
It said ‘C’. Then ‘O’, then ‘M’, then ‘E’.
He glanced up at the others, a great smile splitting his face, but the friars had vanished. There one second, gone the next.
He turned to look around the courtyard, but everyone was gone. The friars in the windows too.
He glanced up at the sky, and the night had disappeared. The radiant stars continued to twinkle, but the black had given way to a great painting of clouds and galaxies, bathed in a sea of purples, blues, pinks and gold.
The ball of light tapped a wing against his face. He glanced down, and the lettered heart signed c.o.m.e. again.
He followed, and it led him to the chapel. The scents of incense and cinnamon were stronger now. As he walked, he studied everything around him, so familiar, and yet suddenly so different.
The more he stared, the more he saw that tiny seams of light lined everything, every sage leaf, every cobblestone edge, every colonnade pillar, as if held together by a heavenly mortar.
That thought made him pause. Heavenly? Was this what he was seeing? Was he following some sort of angel?
He’d always imagined angels as large, glorious citizens of Heaven, flowered with gilt wings and diademed tonsures.
The ball of light reached the chapel. And disappeared inside.
Fra Angelico reached the door and pushed it open.
The chapel had transformed from the simple, bare Dominican style into a glowing panoply of gorgeous colors. The ceiling had disappeared beyond the arches. Deep purples of night vied with star-studded blues of midday. The walls marbled with color, gently moving and dancing under a glossy surface.
The altar had almost disappeared under a blaze of light. It was so bright he had to look away. He could barely see the edges of the altarcloths. They seemed sewn with trumpeting angels. He saw the Blessed Virgin as a seamstress of grace, weaving time.
He pulled up short. There was no way that he’d seen all that. This vision had bloomed in his mind in a single second. He felt as if he’d swallowed an entire cask of wine without any time to taste a drop.
“Good, you came,” a rich, friendly voice said.
He blinked, and twisted his head up. And stared.
An angel stood by the holy water font, a box floating at his side. The angel wore the layered red robes of a deacon, his long golden hair free to flow down his back. His wings flexed gently, vast bars of red and rose painting his quills. Every feather was lined in pale gold.
He held out strong arms toward Fra Angelico in welcome.
At the sight of this angel, Fra Angelico froze, the way a child freezes on seeing a Christmas tree ablaze with candlelight and cookies, and choked with gifts.
The angel’s eyes shone bright and hard like burning topaz, somehow warm as honey.
Fra Angelico threw himself to the ground, struggling to draw breath. The presence of the angel was a vast, crushing weight, so heavy the friar expected the stones of the floor to shatter and collapse into a pit. He gasped.
“Kneel not to me, my friend,” said the angel. “Rise! We have much to do together.”
Fra Angelico was suddenly free lift his head. Staring at the the angel made his eyes tear up. It was like looking into the midday sun.
“Who are you?” he whispered.
The angel passed his hands through the air, the tips of his fingers drawing lines of light. He drew a detailed symbol, and his radiance disappeared. The gold around his being vanished.
The feeling of weight also vanished. The symbol in the air faded away. “I am your guardian angel,” the angel replied. “Come, stand.”
With the light gone, the angel made himself look as simple and as human as a friar. Fra Angelico wanted to reach out and touch him, maybe shake his hand, or hug him.
“What is your name?” Fra Angelico managed, pulling his feet together. His legs felt so weak, he couldn’t stand.
The ball of light hovered above the box floating at the angel’s elbow.
“That is not for you to know, my friend. I will give you a name that you can use. Eändelion.”
Fra Angelico rolled the name around in his mind. Eändelion. “Eändelion, what would you have me do?”
The angel turned to the box and plucked it from the air. It was long and rectangular, with a domed lid. It seemed made of glass and marble, lined with silver curls that showed scenes of the Passion of Christ.
The ball of light dipped and touched the lid, and it swing open.
Fra Angelico pressed his hands together. Two crowns lay on blue brocade cushions. One crown was red and spiny, made from twisted thorns. The other a circlet of glossy diamond, pressed with flowers and pale opals.
“Our glorious God and Lady Mother bid me bring these,” Eändelion was saying. “One is the Crown of Earthly Sacrifice to gain great graces. The other is the Crown of Joy, that your work may flower and fruit here, bringing hope and joy to many. Which do you choose?”
Fra Angelico’s breath caught in his throat. His eyes danced from the sharp points of one to the softness of the other. And in a second, he knew what he wanted.
“Can… can I pick both?”
Eändelion smiled. He left the box in the air, stepped forward, grabbed Fra Angelico by the arms, and hoisted him to his feet.
Fra Angelico was stunned. Eändelion’s touch felt like any other friar, human and hearty. His wings flexed their tips like fingers aching to fly.
“Our Lady knew you’d pick both.” Eändelion’s amber eyes danced with a smile. “They are both yours.”
Fra Angelico’s heart thudded wildly. Eändelion turned back and picked up the crowns, then laid one on top of the other. The crowns melted into one another and became a single circlet of glassy red threads, twisted into flowers and gems.
A stab of doubt and fear. The friar froze, wondering if the angel had seen it flash across his face.
Eändelion reached out and touched a finger to the friar’s forehead. “You are doubting right now.”
Fra Angelico stayed stiff.
“I’m guessing,” the angel said. “I can only read your thoughts when you let me.” Eändelion cupped his fingers into a ball as if catching something. A tiny gem burst into light in his palms.
“Do you trust Our Lady?”
Fra Angelico shivered. And nodded.
He pressed the gem to Fra Angelico’s brow and it vanished, swallowed into his mind.
The fear disappeared completely.
“That was a grace,” Eändelion said. “send by Our Lady.”
Fra Angelico felt dizzy, and elated. “Give me the crowns. I am ready to do anything you need me to.”
Eändelion spread his wings, and the ball of light floated up overhead. He raised the crowns for a moment toward the blazing altar, and then pressed it into Fra Angelico’s heart.
Fra Angelico was surprised for a moment. He thought it would go round his head. He could feel the crowns like a ring round his heart, the spines pressing in, and the flowers spreading a deep, cool relief through his being.
He closed his eyes, dropped to the floor, and sucked in great lungfuls of air.
Eändelion asked, crouching to rest his hand on the friar’s shoulder. “Together we have many, many things to do. You are free to join me, or leave me, at any time.”
Fra Angelico raised his head. “You’ll be with me, whatever I have to do?”
“Always. And our friend the Letterheart will always guide you too.”
Fra Angelico got to his feet shakily. “The will of God be done.”
Eändelion grinned, and then swept him into a great embrace.
Fra Angelico blinked, and almost dropped the paintbrush from his fingers.
He jerked his head up and looked around. Somehow he was sitting at his lectern in the scriptorium. The fires blazed in the hearth.
“What?” He muttered, standing up and looking around. The Letterheart was nowhere to be seen.
He rushed for the window and stared down at the courtyard and chapel doors. The light inside streamed out. It was the ordinary light of candles.
He turned around to stare again the page he’d been painting.
It was completely finished.
Every detail, every shade, every line had been finished. He glanced at his fingers. They were completely clean.
Usually after that much work, his fingers were paint stained.
And then a thought appeared in his mind, as if a gem appeared from nowhere: Eändelion had painted it for him while he was away.
The bells began chiming for Compline, the final night prayers before bed.
Fra Angelico put the paintbrush down, wondering what had happened, and what was coming next.