Fra Angelico closed his eyes to listen to the cantor intone the next section of Lauds, the early morning prayers before breakfast.
The morning air was still. In the stone-built chapel, it was always much colder than the rest of the monastery. They had built it of irregular limestone, whitewashed the walls and hung them with lanterns and paintings of saints. A great, gilt crucifix hung over the altar, backed by the broad, colored blades of stained glass windows. Any warmth that the friars brought with them fled up into the shadowed vaults of the ceiling, and they shivered slightly, drawing their black cloaks tightly about themselves, keeping their hoods up to cover their freshly shaved tonsures.
As the sunlight broke through the lines of cypresses growing on the shoulders of the nearby mountain range, warm light sliced into the chapel, slowly swinging across the floor.
Fra Angelico watched the spots of light dance across the floor, realizing he had a special love for this place. It was where the Mass was said daily, where he spent several hours of his day in prayer with his brothers, and it was where he had met his guardian angel for the first time.
He took a deep breath, inhaling the sharp, intense, resiny scents of pine beams and benches. Fra Lapo to his left was still hopelessly out of tune as he struck up the Canticle, and Fra Angelico joined him, with a smile. They worked hard to sing from memory, following the lead of Fra Benasuto, the cantor.
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you,” they sang, “I will take the stone heart from your breast and put a heart of flesh in its place. I will put my spirit among you…”
Just then, his seat started to glow, the edges of the wood lining with light. He glanced around, but no one seemed to notice.
As he raised his head, the sounds of the friars faded away. His guardian angel, Eändelion, stepped through the air and into the chapel, falling to his knees and prostrating himself before the altar. He was wingless, as usual, his red garments bursting with bronze stars and his blonde hair arranged like a friar’s tonsure.
“Are you ready, my friend?” He said, climbing to his feet.
Fra Angelico glanced at the abbot, and then turned around slowly in his place to find himself, singing lustily with his brethren.
“I’m bilocating again?”
Eändelion nodded, adding “We’ll be back before you know it.”
Fra Angelico hopped out of the line of friars, genuflected carefully before the altar, and then joined the angel. “Where are we going?”
“We have an interesting task this time,” Eändelion said, leading the way out of the chapel. “A little girl is lost, and we can save her only by bringing her a particular baby.”
Fra Angelico blinked. “That is interesting.”
Eändelion pulled open the door to the chapel with a soft groan from the hinges. Instead of seeing the monstarey courtyard dense with herbs and a fluttering fountain, Fra Angelico was stunned to see a forest of pillars so massive he couldn’t see the tops. The base of each pillar was a riot of gold and diamond carving, sprouting from a floor of glassy flagstones. Light seemed to come from everywhere, and angels as great as the pillars walked among them, carrying vast crosiers and robed in many layers of cloth and light.
Eändelion pushed him through, and Fra Angelico stumbled in, once again feeling like an ant entering the home of a giant. This immense courtyard of stone extended in every direction, farther than he could see, and faded into mists. He thought he saw churches between the pillars, like homes. In fact, it looked like a sacred village made of chapels, churches, and cathedrals tucked in the spaces between the pillars.
A silence as deep as friars in complete prayer filled this world. It was so quiet that the mist slipping between the columns sounded like a soft river. Occasionally, an angel would fly in between the pillars, descend and enter one of the churches through a door, splaying brilliant light and faint music into this misty, roofless world.
He turned around to watch Eändelion pull the door closed, and was again surprised into silence.
From this side, the door to the Chapel in San Domenico was fitted to a frame of polished marble. Glass-smooth granite walls pushed up into spires and clusters of colored glass. The roof was an explosion of gold and garnet, as if a sunrise had frozen in the middle of a storm, and angels had carved the light into a dome surrounded by studded minarets.
“What is this?” He stammered.
Eändelion glanced at it. “It’s your chapel, just seen from this side, from Heaven.”
“And what are the rest of these?”
Eändelion led the way toward a distant set of braziers bursting with firelight, set around the broad surface of a vast, flat altar draped with angelic linens. “These are all the churches of the world. Every church, every chapel, every cathedral overlaps with Heaven. They are the distinct places in the mortal realm where man ordinarily partakes in the divine mysteries of deep Heaven.”
Fra Angelico’s heart froze, and felt like it would burst. “Are we… in Deep Heaven?”
Eändelion laughed. “No, I could never bring you there like this, without an extraordinary grace. We are still on the edges, the fringes of Heaven.”
Several of the churches and chapels around them began glowing with light, as if they’d been set on fire, or multiple suns had started to rise inside them. They grew bright, like glass-girt stars spilling brilliance through the pillars.
“What’s happening?” he asked, keeping pace and holding his cloak away from his feet.
“Priests are starting to celebrate the Mysteries of the Mass around the world. This place will soon fill with thousands of angels who come to attend.”
In the distance, angels like great mountains moved between the cathedrals, their heads lost in the distance above. Fra Angelico pointed. “Who are they?”
“They are Dominions, angels of leadership. They govern all of us lower Triumvirates and regulate our duties, and make known to us the commands of God.” Eändelion pointed. “Here we are.”
The letterheart appeared in the air as if popping through an unseen door and whirled around them both, ecstatic to see the friar. It then led the way toward the altar, and Fra Angelico saw the air begin to ripple and shake, fragmenting into facets of golden glass.
Then the shards of air peeled back to reveal a brightness so blinding that his eyes burst into tears and he had to swerve away, shoving his fists into his eyes to block out the light.
A cascade of music exploded around him coming through that magical doorway, but it was strange music, and his ears felt like they couldn’t make sense of it. He heard violins and organs, perhaps harps and trumpets, but they sounded more like the deep roars of waterfalls and the sighing of mountains pushing up from earthy beds, the groaning cry of stars wheeling in their constellations, the shuddering heave of ocean waves thrilling into foam.
And then it all disappeared, the music, the light, and he could open his eyes again.
A cohort of angels had arrived, robed in white samite threaded with silver scenes and embroidery. They carried tall staffs topped with clusters of amethyst flowers and fruit, pale ribbons flying free and forming a ceiling of softly shifting shadows. Their ivory wings were broad and tipped with silver, like etched sword blades. Their eyes watched the friar with a suppressed merriment.
They parted to reveal an angel who’s wings were gathered tightly before him. The wings were barred in several colors, dark greys and golds feathering into flares of red.
His wings parted and he looked up with a smile. His robes were a dusky rose, bound by heavy gold embroidery and a great gold breastplate.
He cradled something in his arms.
Eändelion bowed deeply, and Fra Angelico followed suit.
The angel silently held out the bundle in his hands, and the friar decried a sleeping baby wrapped tightly in warm, woolen cloths. The angels all waited.
Eändelion nudged him.
The friar glanced at him.
Eändelion gestured that he was to go take the baby.
“Sorry,” Fra Angelico whispered and he shuffled forward with a respectful attitude, reaching out with both hands and taking the child from the angel. He tucked the warm bundle carefully against his chest, keeping the folds of the cloth close to the tiny face, but free of the nose and mouth.
He stared at the little features. He thought he recognized the child somehow, but he wasn’t sure. It was certainly a little boy, dark, wispy hair curling into locks, pale skin blushed with sleep.
“Who is it?” He asked Eändelion when he had rejoined him.
“You’ll know soon,” his angel said. “Come.”
The letterheart dipped in the air, as if bowing to the cohort of silent angels, and whipped over to a series of stairs leading up to the arched doors of a cathedral, tapping on it with a colored wing. The building was massive, built of aged granite, two towers rising boldly into the air, one capped in a steeple.
Eändelion and Fra Angelico bowed in respect, and then followed. Eändelion headed up the steps, pulled open the door, and a breath of warm, scented air greeted them. He led Fra Angelico through into a cathedral pregnant with the silence that hung after a Mass has ended.
Incense lingered in the vaulted darkness, votive candles burning faintly in shadowy side altars. Fra Angelico couldn’t see very far, but he inhaled the rich, warm smells of polished wood, beeswax, cinnamon-dusted clothes, a scattering of perfumes and colognes, and the sprays of fir branches tied into clusters with holly berries. Distant candles glowed on pale stone.
Eändelion pulled open the door again and a blast of wintry air bit the friar’s skin. He tucked his cloak over the baby and held him close to his chest. They stepped out into a silent, overcast midnight, the moon a smear of pale light behind heavy clouds.
Drifts of snow had built up around the stairs. They descended into a courtyard of cobblestone, completely surrounded by tall, red bricked buildings, and studded with wintered trees. Candlelight flickered in some windows, broken by the shadows of people moving around. The air was heavy, and a soft silence pressed down on them. Flakes of snow filtered through the air, tapping his skin with spurts of chill ice.
“Come,” Eändelion said. “We’re looking for a little home, to the northeast.”
The baby stretched and shifted in his arms, and Fra Angelico covered his little face from the snow. “Who is this baby?” He asked again, his breath a puff of steam in the air.
Eändelion smiled. “You’ll see.”
The angel led him through a series of streets rimmed with tall brick walls, all silent as a tomb apart from the quietly falling snow. He focused on walking carefully, and keeping the baby safe from the snow. The letterheart explored the streets around them, inspecting tall, blind lanterns standing along the edges of the streets. Fra Angelico guessed they housed candles or flames for the early evening hours.
He guessed they had walked for less then a half hour when the angel pulled them up short before a large, multi-storeyed home of pink stone, edged with white and prefaced by a dreaming garden.
“Who lives here?” the friar asked, shivering in the cold. His lips and fingers felt frozen. He’d lost sense of his feet a long time ago.
“Tonight is Christmas, and a little girl has been lost for a long time. We have to head inside.”
Fra Angelico paused. “Will they see us? Won’t it be strange holding this baby?”
Eändelion shook his head. “We’ll be fine. I have a grace from Milanwen that will let us stop time.” He pulled an engraved, grey ring from his cloak and slipped it onto his finger, the gem a cloudy, fractured silver glinting in the moonlight. Then he reached out and pressed it to the letterheart.
A flare of light like a bubble burst into the air, swelling and extending in a rippling dome through the air. Faint and delicate like glowing glass, it touched down gently in a ring round the house.
The snow stopped in the air, the flakes frozen in place. And suddenly it stopped being cold as well. Fra Angelico smiled. This was always fun.
He followed the angel around the garden path and into one of the front doors, to find a lovely interior lined in dark wood. The walls were pale yellow stone, hung with bright paintings and warm with firelight from a large fireplace directly to their right. To the right of the fireplace opened a room floored in blonde parquet, warmed by another fireplace and set with meticulously hand carved chairs rich with detail. Finely ornamented clocks stood on the mantelpieces.
A pair of small shoes sat before the fireplace, and the room had been decorated for Christmas with bows, ribbons and candles, all still from the angel spell. A rich family lived here, Fra Angelico was sure of it.
Glancing left, Fra Angelico saw a balding man in an expensive evening jacket and flowery cravat beginning to enter the room, frozen in midstep, clutching his beard with one hand and his face drawn into a tired frown. His other hand carried a bag filled with wrapped candies and small toys.
“Who is that?” he asked.
Eändelion crossed the room quickly and pulled open a door leading to a tight, white-paneled staircase heading to the second level of the house. “That’s the father, a watchmaker. The little girl has just overheard him saying that she’s too old for Christmas toys.”
They headed up the stairs, the wood creaking under their feet. Fra Angelico used the wooden handrail to help himself up, watching the baby carefully to keep it asleep.
Upstairs, a corridor connected series of rooms, and Eändelion followed the letterheart into a lovely, white room with a bed tucked into an alcove, surrounded by beige wallpaper. A large, white statue of the Blessed Virgin stood on a table surrounded by roses, and Fra Angelico was surprised to see her hair unbound, free and surrounded by a ring of gold stars.
In the center of the room, a little girl with masses of brown curls had thrown herself in a heap, still in her lacy finery from Christmas Mass. She couldn’t have been older than ten, Fra Angelico guessed.
An older sister knelt next to her, reaching out with a hand to console her.
As they approached, an angel similar to Eändelion became visible in a ripple of air, robed in blue. He knelt next to the girl, his hands on her shoulders in sad protection. He glanced up at them. Fra Angelico guessed it was the girl’s guardian angel.
“Ready?” the angel asked.
Eändelion glanced at Fra Angelico.
“Always,” the friar replied.
The girl’s angel touched a finger to the girl’s creased, tear-ridden brow, and the friar felt a sudden rush of change, as if sucked into a new world at the speed of thought. What he saw chilled his soul.
He stood at the entrance to a dismal maze, the walls a mixture of drab, grey stone and dark bushes clutching to crevices. Overhead, the sky was a silent mass of heavy clouds, pressing down on them like a heavy blanket. Before the maze stood a gravestone, the name carved in a language the friar couldn’t read.
About the gravestone, every blade of grass had been plucked free of the soil to make a broad, black ring of earth. The shape of a child’s small body had been pressed into the ground, as if a little girl had lain there often.
In the utter silence of this strange, dew-dripping world, Fra Angelico heard the whimpering of a little girl.
“What is this place?”
The girl’s angel stared sadly at the grave. “It’s the interior of her mind. Since her mother’s death, she’s retreated into here at the first provocation. It’s hard to get her to come out.”
Fra Angelico held the baby close. “You can come into our minds whenever you want?”
The angels both shook their heads. “No, we require your permission. Or in this case,” the angel gestured at the baby, “We bring a special grace.”
Eändelion patted Fra Angelico’s shoulder. “Follow the letterheart,” he said. “Find the girl, and give her this child.”
“Will I get to know who this is?”
“Soon,” Eändelion smiled.
Fra Angelico took a deep breath, and followed the letterhearts colored wings into the maze, grateful for the glow of light from its core. The light seemed to push back the darkness that flowed from the walls like a mist. Occasionally, the mist touched his foot, or his leg, and he felt the deadening finger of despair try to enter his soul. He hurried to stay close to the letterheart.
The maze twisted and turned in curved and angled paths, so that the friar was soon completely lost. The floor was a mat of grass, packed densely together as if someone had walked on it often, wandering these dark ways looking for a way out, but unwilling to actually leave.
The sad moans of the little girl was getting closer, and after a last turn, they found her sitting in a corner, tucked into a small ball. She glanced up at the sudden light from the letterheart, blinded, and gasped. She covered her eyes.
Fra Angelico removed his cloak from around the baby, and carefully pressed it against her hands. In shock, her fingers curled around it, and she gathered it to herself, completely ignoring the friar and the ball of winged light.
She parted the woolen cloths and stared down into the tiny face.
In that instant, the baby exploded with light, a halo of blinding brilliance circling his head, fragrances of smooth vanilla, and the vibrant, luxuriously sweetness of roses burst into the air. The clouds split apart like a shattered shield, sunlight rushing into the maze and melting away the darkness of the mist, drying up the dew and turning the boring walls into galleries of frosted glass, the edges clustered with brilliant red roses.
The girl had eyes for nothing except the baby, her face transformed into an incredible smile. The baby reached up to touch her cheek lovingly, and then trace a cross on her brow.
Fra Angelico guessed who the baby was. The Christ Child. He fell to his knees to adore the baby, wondering who the little girl would be. An angel’s colored wing swept between him and the children, hiding them from his sight.
A hand rested on his shoulder. He glanced up to see Eändelion, smiling down at him. “Thank you, my friend,” his guardian angel said. “Now it’s time to take you back.”
“What has happened to her?”
“This Christmas a conversion for her. She will leave behind the depression of her childhood, and become a truly great saint.”
Fra Angelico smiled. “Then I’m glad I got to meet her, in a way.”
Eändelion wrapped his wings around them both like a cloak, concealing them in a dome of red and rose quills edged with gold.
The friar blinked and looked up, finding himself back at his bench with his fellow friars. The chapel was once again still, slit by early morning sunlight, the air cool and humming from song.
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you,” they were singing again, “I will take the stone heart from your breast and put a heart of flesh in its place.”
He stretched, arranged his black cloak, and glanced at the crucifix. He joined them in singing, “I will put my spirit among you.”