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 holding the Christ Child, and they looked at each other tenderly. Behind their heads, ruby-studded haloes reflected the light of a myriad whispering angels, who peered in from the sides of the page.
This was his favorite time of the day to work on illuminating. Vespers, 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.
“Quóniam Angelis suis mandávit de te, ut custódiant te in ómnibus viis tuis…” he hummed. “For he has given his angels charge over you; to keep you in all your ways.”
The sun had almost set, and broad fires blazed in the scriptorium’s deep hearth. 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, ready to get a little more work done before the bells rang for Compline and bedtime. 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, with plenty of glances out the window at the other friars working the fields in the bright sunlight.
The warm afternoon air had given way to the chill evening breeze, and the scents of wild wheat and greening olives faded away. Right under the scriptorium window, a riot of rosemary and mint clambered up the side of the wall, dense, and rich, and delicious.
The snapping of logs on the fire broke his concentration. And someone cleared their throat.
Fra Angelico turned to see his brother, Fra Benedetto, holding a glass of wine and a bowl of freshly roasted chestnuts. Fra Benedetto was also the abbott.
“Working late again?” he asked. “Fra Lapo thought you might like these to keep going.”
Fra Angelico put down his brushes and hopped off his stool, readjusting his cotton cloak and pulling the front of his tabard down. They both wore the black cloak of the Dominican order, and their heads had been tonsured. A Dominican tonsure meant the head had been shaved almost bald except for a broad ring, or crown, of hair.
“Please thank Fra Lapo for me,” Fra Angelico responded, hurrying over as his brother set the food down on a table. “This is exactly what I need.”
The brothers smiled and dug into a couple of chestnuts each. The trick was to peel them while hot, fresh from the fire. The rich, sweet fragrance of earthy chestnuts made Fra Angelico’s stomach growl, even though it had only been a few hours since dinner.
Fra Benedetto wandered over to see the progress on the page. “This one will be lovely, I think.”
“I hope so,” Fra Angelico nodded, taking a sip of the wine and wiping his fingers on a towel.
“Good, well, I’ll leave you to it.” Fra Benedetto patted his shoulder and headed out the door again, his sandals shuffling against the worn stone floor.
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’, and tipped out its edges with gold lines, indicating that it glowed. He had painted little wings on it in red, green and blue, and he edged each feather with more gold.
A wash of light flared across the edge of his vision. The candle must have fallen off the wall.
Or at least he thought it did. He glanced at it, expecting to find it doused in a splatter of steaming beeswax, but 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 fluttering like a moth, slightly larger than his two fists put together.
Fra Angelico froze.
The ball pulsed with strong, golden light, and 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 glanced at the wine. Had he been too hungry?
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, trying to imagine what it could be. He’d never seen or heard of any creature that glowed, much less 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, something like apples and cinnamon. And 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 grabbed the towel as he passed it, hoping to throw it over the apparition and grab it. As he neared the ball of light, it slipped through the wall and disappeared.
He stopped, stunned. Then he crossed himself. “My Lord and lady, my guardian angel, protect me.” This might not be a good thing.
Then the ball popped back through the wall, and bounced in place, like a child annoyed that its father hadn’t chased it in 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 the words.
Then it ducked through the whitewashed wall again.
Fra Angelico hauled the door open and raced after it. It paused at a corridor, and allowed his outstretched fingers to brush it only for a second. 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 himself from pitching forward and landing on his head. His breath came in short gasps. His body was stiff and tired after illuminating all day. He wasn’t used to this much running.
He reached the landing and pulled open the second door, right in the face of a cluster of friars. One of them, Fra Benasuto had been reaching out for the door handle, and his fingers now stopped, frozen in midair. Behind him, the novices with their tiny tonsures glanced up 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 panted.
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 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’ heads swivelled in different directions, trying to make out what he meant. They murmured their agreement.
Fra Angelico grabbed his habit and pulled it up away from his feet so that he could run after it. “I think it’s calling me. It wants me to follow!” He ignored the way the novices made strange noises and tapped their heads with their fingers.
Fra Angelico rushed out from the columned walkways surrounding the courtyard where Fra Lapo grew all the herbs he used in cooking. Every inch was a cluster of fragrance, from sage to bushes of thyme and platoons of parsley.
The ball of light was leading him toward the chapel, the great doors that hung slightly ajar, spilling chapel light out across the cobblestones. 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 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 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 at the commotion.
And that was when his fingers closed tightly around it. A sudden warmth filled with 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 disappeared. He turned to look around the courtyard, but everyone had vanished. 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. He gasped.
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 could see that everything was lined with tiny seams of light, every leaf on the sage bushes, every cobblestone edge, every pillar in the colonnade , as though 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 freshly oiled hinges mostly quiet.
The chapel had transformed from the simple, bare Dominican style into a glowing panoply of gorgeous colors. The ceiling had disappeared beyond the arches, and deep purples of night vied with star-studded blues of midday. The walls had become marble, where the varicolored seams gently moved and danced under a glossy surface.
The altar almost disappeared under a blaze of light so bright he had to look away, and yet he could still see the edges of the altarcloths, sewn with trumpeting angels and scenes from the apocalypse, depicting the Blessed Virgin as a seamstress of grace throughout all time.
He stopped for a second. There was no way that he’d seen all that. He realized that the understanding had arrived in his mind in a single second. And his mind was still trying to pick it apart and understand it all, as though he’d swallowed an entire cask of wine without having had any time to taste a drop.
“Good, you came,” a rich, friendly voice said.
Fra Angelico blinked, turned and snapped his head up. He 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. Strong arms reached toward Fra Angelico in welcome, and his wings flexed in the air behind him, vast bars of red and rose painting his quills. Every feather was lined in pale gold.
At the sight of this angel, Fra Angelico froze, the way a child freezes upon seeing a Christmas tree ablaze with candlelight and cookies, and choked with gifts. The angel’s eyes were a burnished gold, bright and hard like burning topaz, somehow as warm as honey.
Fra Angelico threw himself to the ground, struggling to draw breath. The presence of the angel was a vast, crushed weight, so heavy the friar fleetingly wondered how the stones of the floor could hold him, and not shatter into fragments. He gasped, every thought in his mind turning to adoration.
“Kneel not to me, my friend. Rise! We have much to do together.”
Fra Angelico was able to lift his head. His eyes teared up staring at the the angel. It was like looking into the sun at midday.
“Who are you?” he asked.
The angel passed his hands through the air, the tips of his fingers drawing a lines of light that hung in the air. When he finished creating a detailed symbol, his radiance disappeared, and the gold around his being vanished.
The sense of being pressed under a mountain also disappeared. The symbol gently 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, and Fra Angelico wanted to reach out and touch him, 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 that still floated 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?”
His guardian 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 and whorls 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 cushions of blue brocade. One was red and spiny, made from twisted thorns. The other was a circlet of glossy diamond pressed with motifs of flowers and pale opals.
“Our glorious God and Lady Mother have bid me bring you these,” Eändelion was saying. “One is the Crown of Sacrifice here on earth to earn great riches and graces for you others. The other is a Crown of Joy, that your work may flower and grow here in this world, bringing hope and joy to souls for generations. You may also freely choose either.”
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, if it weren’t for his wings flexing their tips like fingers aching to fly.
“Our Lady knew you’d pick both. They are both yours.” Eändelion’s amber eyes danced with a smile.
Fra Angelico’s heart thudded wildly. Eändelion turned back and picked up the crowns, then laid one on top of the other. As if by magic, the crowns melted into one another and became a single circlet of glassy red spines twisted with flowers and gems.
“There is no joy without the cross,” Fra Angelico murmured. For a second he wondered what he was getting himself into.
Eändelion reached out and touched a finger to the friar’s forehead. “You are doubting right now.”
Fra Angelico froze.
“Don’t worry, I can only read your thoughts when you let me. Right now I am guessing that you are unsure. Ask yourself, do you not trust Our Lady?”
Fra Angelico nodded, a swirl of fear beginning to surface at the sight of the spines.
Eändelion cupped his fingers into a ball as if catching something, and a tiny gem burst into light in his palm. He pressed it to Fra Angelico’s brow and the gem vanished, swallowed into his mind.
The fear disappeared completely.
“That was a grace,” Eändelion said. “Our Lady just sent it to you.”
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 over head. 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 stabbing in, and the flowers soothing the pain and spreading a deep, cool sweetness throughout his body.
He closed his eyes, dropping to the floor and sucking in great lungfuls of air. “I don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into, do I?”
“Does it matter?” Eändelion asked, crouching to stroke his head. “It is the good and great will of Heaven. 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. “Ok then. 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, instantly, he was sitting back at his lectern in the scriptorium, the fires blazing in the hearth, the chestnuts on the table near his glass of wine.
“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. Light from within streamed out, but it was the ordinary light of candles.
He turned around to stare at 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 stained by all his paint colors.
And then a thought appeared in his mind, as if Eändelion had pushed another gem into his head; 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.