“Come in, come in. We have to move quickly,” the voice continued.
Eändelion ushered Fra Angelico inside the chapel-like house. The friar had just enough time to see the outside walls framed with statues of hooded angels, cool, blue light spilling through the glass windows.
Eändelion closed the door behind them, and Fra Angelico was surprised at the sudden noise. The city had been ghostly quiet, but in here, a multitude of ticking clocks, dials, and sand glasses floated in alcoves in the walls. The letterheart bobbed close to them, inspecting the tiny copper hands marking off minutes.
But the room was empty. No one waited for them. He had heard a distinct voice.
“So this is one of the Ransomed Race?” the voice continued. It was a gentle, strong voice, that came from different parts of the room, as if the angel was moving around. Multiple tables covered in slabs of colored glass twinkled like faceted diamonds. Fra Angelico realized that words and letters moved across them, some were detailed paintings of scenes in which the characters moved.
Eändelion chuckled. “He can’t yet see you, my friend.”
“Of course, let me finish this…” A slab of blank glass lifted off the table and flew over to a wall. It was pressed against the pale marble as if being hung like a painting, and then it melted into the wall.
“Here, drink this,” the voice said.
A cupboard door opened on its own and a vial plucked from its place into the air. Thankfully it didn’t burst with light, and Fra Angelico could study it. It was a simple, glass bubble surrounded by twisted copper threads. Inside, the contents spun like a grey cloud.
Fra Angelico unstoppered it and downed it in a gulp. He felt a cool wind blow through his being, and a sudden heat in his eyes. Details sprang into view that he hadn’t seen before. Stairwells appeared in the floor leading to other rooms. Brightly lit hallways opened into a maze of balconies and new rooms stacked with tables and more clocks.
His eyes raced everywhere stunned. There was no way this little chapel house held a mansion this massive.
“The angel world isn’t the same as yours, good friar,” the voice continued. “Here, what is within is greater than without.”
Fra Angelico turned to see a tall, thin angel dressed in layered grey robes, his hair and eyes a pale, silver. He smiled and rested his hands on the friar’s shoulders in greeting. His grey robes were embroidered with broad triskellions and flowering seeds in faint, white patterns and denser hemlines. His wings seemed etched from shattered silver, bound with blue ribbon.
“My lord,” Fra Angelico tried to bow.
Eändelion stepped forward. “You may address this Virtue as ‘Milanwen’.”
“What is a Virtue?”
Milanwen patted the friar’s shoulder and turned back to his tables, watching the glass panes. “Ours is the duty to govern the ways of the natural world, control the elements, and dispense miracles.”
“You are greater than Principalities?”
“Yes, a higher choir.”
Eändelion smiled. “You’re wondering why he doesn’t look as majestic as the principality we met?”
Fra Angelico nodded.
Milanwen turned back to the tables. “If we showed you everything as it is, my dear friar, your mind could not handle it. Everything you see is what we let you see, in a way that you can understand.”
“So, with glorified eyes,” Fra Angelico gestured around, “all this would look different?”
Milanwen glanced back. “Yes. With glorified eyes, you could even behold the infinite majesty of God Himself and not die.”
Fra Angelico shook his head slowly. So much to learn…
Eändelion clapped his hands. “What is it we need to do?”
Milanwen gestured at the panel he’d pressed into the wall. It now glowed with light and an image. “A group of friars need food, and we must get it to them. You can see them here.” he said, and ducked into the one of the hallways, checking store rooms on his way. “I’ll be back.”
Fra Angelico headed over to look at the wall. Everything in this room gave off a cool, blue light. Like a painted parchment, the wall showed a scene of friars huddling round a scarred table, carefully dividing a small loaf of bread into pieces.
“Who are they?” Fra Angelico asked.
“I would have thought you’d know this,” Eändelion said, his eyes twinkling with a smile.
Fra Angelico looked where the angel pointed at a slim. tonsured friar with reddish hair and beard, and large, riveting eyes. All the friars wore black cloaks over white robes. Mystified, Fra Angelico shook his head. “They’re Dominicans, that much I know. Where are they?”
“You mean ‘when’ are they?”
Fra Angelico turned around. “What do you mean?”
The letterheart finished inspecting the great moving clocks on the walls and flew over. P.a.s.t… it signed.
“Past? What is past?” Fra Angelico asked.
“Eändelion, help me,” Milanwen said, returning, his arms filled with boxes of ingredients. “Let’s fill that satchel. My good friar, can you cook?”
“Me?” Fra Angelico paused. “I can make bread, I suppose. And I can burn chestnuts.”
“Good. That’s what we’re making. Bread.” Into a great, grey satchel of cloth, the angels were sliding boxes and vials.
“We’re making bread?”
“Yes. Alright, we’re ready. We have to go now.” Milanwen tossed the satchel over his shoulder and turned.
“Is this our first task together?” Fra Angelico asked.
“Yes. We must bring a meal to these friars before the Night Prayers rings. If we leave now, we’ll be in time to bake it all and serve it.”
Milanwen held out his hand and pressed it to the air, as if a glass wall stood between them. Lines and letters burst from his palm and splayed softly across the shape of a door, melting together like a cloud. Milanwen then grabbed an invisible handle and pulled the door open.
Fra Angelico gasped.
Through the doorway, he could see an old, clean kitchen in an ancient monastery. Moonlight shone through the slitted windows onto long tables. Withered herbs hung from the rafters.
The letterheart whisked through ahead of them, glowing brightly to bring more light to the room. Eändelion tapped the friar’s shoulder and then stepped through beckoning him to follow.
Fra Angelico touched the edge of the doorway in the air. It was quite solid, and it hummed as if a great power kept it in place. He held his breath and hurried through, Milanwen following up behind him and pulling the door closed.
The pale, blue light disappeared, the clicking of countless clocks silenced. They stood in a quiet, dusty kitchen lit by moonlight. The letterheart searched for candles and touched the wicks, bringing them to life. The scents of dried rosemary, basil, oregano and strings of garlic sifted down from the rafters.
Milanwen opened his sling and started putting the boxes on the table. “We don’t have much time; they will be sitting to table soon, and readying themselves for dinner. Heaven has asked that we make them some extra bread to answer their prayer.”
Eändelion headed for the fireplace set in one of the walls, taking some of the old logs and stacking them together, tucking kindling and straw into a small pile, and pushing away the ashes from the center of the pit. He blew on the kindling, and fire bloomed to life, licking the logs and spreading warmth into the kitchen.
Fra Angelico rolled up his sleeves, studying the fireplace. Above it were the doors to the ovens. He opened one of them, a loud, rusty creaking echoing in the kitchen. Inside, the oven was clean.
“Well, this place is old, but whoever lives here knows how to keep dirt out,” he said.
“Good. Come now,” Milanwen said. “You need to make this bread. Eändelion and I are heading back to Angelium.”
“Wait,” Fra Angelico turned quickly. “I’m doing it? Alone? I thought you were helping me?”
“We are. We brought you here, and we’ve prepared it for you. Now you must make the bread.”
Eändelion brushed the ashes from his hands. “We’ll be back in time to serve them to the friars.”
Fra Angelico glanced around the kitchen. “But what if they find me here?”
“No one will see you. We’ve arrived before their dinner, they are still at prayer. Here.” Eändelion stepped forward and traced a symbol made of several circles, a cross, and letters. Like a cloak growing out of the air, robes rippled from the symbol and encircled the friar. Once he was covered, it disappeared.
“You are now hidden from the eyes of mortals,” Milanwen nodded. Then he reached for the door, pulled it open again, and the angels slipped into the blue room of clocks.
The door closed again, and silence returned to the kitchen.
“Well, I’m glad you stayed.” Fra Angelico placed his hands on the table, and glanced at the letterheart.
It spun a little circle in the air, and then flew over and tapped the cover of one of the boxes. They looked like simple, wooden boxes, pressed with details of wheat and waving water.
He tiptoed around the kitchen, looking in a couple of the drawers, and then sticking his head out the kitchen door. All he saw was a swept hallway leading to several doors, and a stairwell at the end.
Feeling overwhelmed, and unsure, Fra Angelico returned to the table and reached for the boxes. “It’s been a long time since I made bread,” he muttered. “Fra Lapo kicked me out of the kitchens because I burned the last batch. I hope Milanwen knows what he’s doing leaving me with this.”
The letterheart swung closer. H.e…d.o.e.s…
“Well, good. Let me see if I can remember how this works.”
He opened each of the boxes, and found ground wheat flour, a couple of vials of water and oil, ground salt, and a musty, yellowish powder. “What’s this one?” he asked.
“I’ve never heard of that.”
Fra Angelico shrugged. “I don’t understand. Is it what makes the bread rise?”
“I assume we don’t need too much of this,” he said, cupping a single handful of the yeast flour.
Milanwen had also left a bowl, so Fra Angelico grabbed it and tossed in the yeast, several handfuls of wheat flour, measured in water, salt and oil and mixed it to together with his hands.
“Maybe I’ll have a loaf of this myself,” he grunted, blending the flour with his fingers until it turned into a large pile of pale dough. “I haven’t even had breakfast yet.”
Flour puffed into the air, settling on his cloak. He wiped his brow with the back of his arm, sure that he’d left a smear of flour behind.
He floured the surface of the table and tossed the dough onto the smooth, old wood. It needed a little more water, so he tipped more from the vial into a depression, and then worked it through.
“Okay. Now I think we need to let it rest.” He gathered it up into a ball, and then pressed it onto the table, covering it with the large, silver bowl. “Let’s check the oven.”
Dusting his hands off, he headed over to the fireplace. The logs had turned into a pile of coals, hot, red and pulsing with heat. “There’s no way that happened that fast,” he wondered, and then shook his head. “Angels.”
Hanging to the side of the oven was a shovel, used for smoothing out the embers into a flat bed. Grabbing the shovel, he raked the coals around, blowing on them till they burst back into momentary flame, the heat scalding his face and hands.
Inside the oven, the stone slab steamed lightly, and the smells of a thousand baked breads and pies met his nose. As if the oven had memories.
He turned back to the dough, took a deep breath and set his hands on his hips.
“Right then. That rising will take a while, so let’s find a chair.”
The letterheart tapped the top of the bowl.
“What is it? Something wrong?”
It bobbed from side to side.
With another frown, Fra Angelico peeked under the edge of the bowl.
The dough had risen already into a great, puffy pile. He scratched his head. “That should have been at least twenty minutes.”
A.n.g.e.l…b.r.e.a.d… The letterheart signed.
“You’re right. I suppose these are enchanted ingredients.” Fra Angelico dusted the table with more flour and hammered the dough back down with his fists, breaking out the air. He broke it apart into smaller balls, and patted them with his palms into longer shapes. He made twenty loaves.
While he worked, he glanced at the letterheart. “You know, Milanwen never answered my question.”
M.a.n.y… The letterheart nodded. W.h.i.c.h…o.n.e.?…
“Well, I asked him where we were going, and he said ‘when’ instead. I didn’t understand what he meant. I also don’t know who these brothers are. And for that matter, where are we?”
The letterheart remained silent, but stayed overhead, keeping its light on the table so that he could see what he was doing.
“I guess I’ll wait till he gets back,” he said. “It would be nice if they helped. Bread making is backbreaking work.”
S.o… i.s… i.l.l.u.m.i.n.a.t.i.n.g…
“Well, yes, it certainly is too. But that’s different.”
He smacked his hands together to clear the flour from his fingers, and then reached for the broad paddle hanging from a hook by the side of the door. He opened the oven door, and slid several of the loaves onto the paddle.
As he turned to put them into the oven, the kitchen door opened.
A young friar came walking in.
Fra Angelico froze, holding out the paddle toward the oven, the loaves ready to bake, flour everywhere, and the letterheart hanging in the air above the table. Only his eyes moved, following the friar.
The young man seemed to see nothing. He seemed tired, and a day’s growth of stubble dotted his chin and tonsure. He reached a cabinet, pulled it open and found a single, dried loaf inside. With a sigh, he paused. Then picked it up.
He blessed himself, glanced toward the roof, and then placed the loaf on a platter. With quick, quiet steps, he hurried out.
Fra Angelico then realised that he’d been holding his breath. One of the bread loaves had been softly sliding off the paddle, and he jerked the paddle forward, catching it from hitting the floor.
“I guess Milanwen covered everything in this kitchen from normal eyes,” he whispered, glancing at the door. “He didn’t even see the fireplace.”
He slid the dough loaves into the oven, separating them into neat rows so that they had room to rise, and then closed the door.
“Done.” he said, satisfied, laying down the paddle and staring at the mess he’d made on the table. “And I’m exhausted, and hungry.” He rubbed his aching back.
The loaves were already smelling delicious. He glanced at the oven and peeked inside. They had risen already and started turning a light brown.
“This is incredible,” he shook his head. I need to take this flour back to Fra Lapo. He will be so excited to bake with this.”
The letterheart nudged the paddle urgently.
It pushed it toward him again.
He opened the oven door again. The loaves were done, and the fragrance of fresh bread filled the kitchen and made his mouth water. His stomach growled loudly.
Grabbing the paddle, he deftly popped each loaf up off the stone and slid it out, skidding it onto the table in quick lines where they had time to rest.
Steam rose from the loaves, hot, fresh, and delicious.
Swallowing hard, he closed the oven and hung up the paddle again. Then closed up all the boxes, stacking them up again for Milanwen.
“Ok, time for some breakfast.” He reached for a loaf, tapping its crust to hear the perfect, hollow crackle, and prepared to break it open.
A soft line of line opened in the air and the door to Angelium opened again, filling the kitchen with the bright glow of cool light and the clicking of Milanwen’s clocks.
The two angels hurried through, pulling it closed again.They had changed their robes for a pair of identical blue garments barred with gold details. Their wings had changed to look the same, pale grey with a stripe of red feathers.
They carried skins of white leather, stamped with copper details of grapes and vines.
“These look perfect,” Eändelion said, picking up one of the loaves. “Well done!”
Milanwen waved his hands over the boxes and they flew into his satchel. Then he tapped the table, and every particle of flour rose into the air like a cloud. He pointed at the fireplace and the flour flew to the embers, flaring up quickly and disappearing. Then he closed his hands together, and the embers died away into a pile of cold coal.
“Where did you go?” Fra Angelico asked.
“There is always much to do, my dear friar,” Milanwen said with a smile. “That’s why we having been given you to help with these tasks.”
Eändelion picked up an armful of the loaves. “And now we must deliver them,” he said.
Milanwen nodded, and held out one of two broad, white cloths, striped with blue lines. The angels wrapped it around their shoulders like a sling, and packed them with ten loaves each. “They smell good,” Milanwen grinned.
“Well, thank you,” said Fra Angelico. “Could… you leave one for me?”
“No, we need them all for these friars. Their begging did not bring them enough food for even a single friar’s meal.”
Eändelion patted his shoulder. “We’re almost done here, and I’ll take you back in time for breakfast.”
Fra Angelico watched the angels leave the kitchen helplessly, his lovely loaves disappearing into the silent corridor.
The letterheart pressed against his back. He turned to look at it.
R.e.m.e.m.b.e.r… y.o.u.r… c.r.o.w.n.s…
He sighed. “You’re right. I did ask for both crowns; sacrifice, and joy. I guess I shouldn’t complain about not having breakfast once in a while.”
The letterheart bobbed in agreement.
“Well, I want to see what they’re doing,” he muttered. Tiptoeing, he hurried after them. A single open door at the end of the corridor broke warm candle light onto the stones. Faint chanting came through the door.
Fra Angelico reached the doorway and carefully peeked around the corner.
A row of Dominican friars sat at their tables in a refectory, silent, staring, as two angels with broad wings and white slings walked between them, passing out fresh bread. Between the friars’ still fingers were pieces of that old loaf the young friar had brought. They had tried to share one loaf between them all.
The friar with the reddish hair watched the angels closely, his eyes filled with tears, and his hand frozen in the last stage of blessing the room. One friar stood still at a lectern, his mouth still open from reading one of the gospels as the friars had their meal.
Eändelion and Milanwen finished handing out the bread, poured fragrant wine from the skins into each of the cups ranged along the table, and then returned to the head of the room. They bowed, then passed through the door to the hallway and closed it behind them.
“You did good work with that bread,” Milanwen said, leading the way back to the kitchen.
“Thank you,” Fra Angelico nodded, unfolding his sleeves from his elbows. “Who were these monks? I know of a similar story with our blessed founder St. Dominic, but that was almost three hundred years ago…”
Eändelion grinned widely.
“Why are you smiling?” Fra Angelico tilted his head.
Milanwen gathered up his satchel, opened the door of light in the air and stepped through.
Understanding dawned on the friar. “Was that… St. Dominic? Did we just participate in that miracle?”
Eändelion held the door to Angelium open for him. “Now you begin to understand the kinds of tasks that Heaven has in store for you.”
Fra Angelico scratched the crown of his head, trying to wrap his mind. “We went into the past?”
“Come, I must get you back for Dawn Prayer.”
Dazed, Fra Angelico headed for the door. “This is… amazing.”
The letterheart tapped him on the cheek, and then flew through ahead of him.
Fra Angelico stepped through the door, and felt a brief rush of wind. Then silence. He opened his eyes and found himself staring at the door handle to Fra Benedetto’s rooms.
He jerked up and looked around. He stood back in the hallway in his monastery of San Doménico, Fra Benedetto staring at him, and the monks filing past on their way to the chapel.
“Are you alright?” His brother asked. “You’ve been staring at that handle.”
“Have I?” Fra Angelico managed, looking around.
The angels had disappeared.
The world had gone back to normal.
“I’m sorry, I guess I was taken by… an image. I have something I want to paint someday.”
“Yes,” Fra Angelico glowed with excitement. “I want to paint the miracle of the angels feeding St Dominic and the brothers.”
“Ah, the miracle from San Sisto, in Rome?”
So that’s where I went, Fra Angelico thought.
“Exactly. Tempera, on a panel, I think.” He smiled.
“Well, this is for you,” his brother said, holding out a small loaf of fresh bread. “Fra Lapo just went by from the kitchens and thought you’d need this after your work last night.”
Fra Angelico took the loaf, blessed himself, and crammed a great bite into his mouth. It was hot, delicious, and smelled exactly like one of the wheat and oil loaves he had just made.
Fra Benedetto turned and led them all toward the chapel.