It was midday in the monastery, and the bright sun beat down on the central courtyard. Fra Angelico was sweeping the fallen leaves and loose clods of dirt off the paths and back into the herb gardens.
Dark brown swifts and white-bellied house martins perched on the eaves, chittering at him and singing to each other. The happy smell of rising bread and Fra Lapo’s armies of parsley and thyme haunted his nose. Around him, the monastery bustled with noise, novices hurrying between their duties and classes on Greek history, philosophy, Roman law and Christian theology.
Fra Angelico smiled and paused to stretch in the sunlight. Perhaps there was a blister on his hand from sweeping too hard, but he enjoyed being outside. Painting was crushing work. Even though he only used three fingers, the rest of his body froze for hours in a posture of careful attention. It felt good to be in the sunlight, getting exercise in the fresh air.
Fra Benasuto, the administrator for the novices, came bustling through a side door. He was in a bad mood. Sometimes the novices fled their duties to find a sunny bale of hay and sleep the afternoon away. He wasted time chasing them down.
Rubbing his large nose, he glanced around. “You call this swept? Do it all over again!” he barked, and then pushed his bulk through another door.
Fra Angelico gritted his teeth. “I can’t be here long-” he started, but the door slammed.
A boil of anger swelled in his chest. He wasn’t a novice. Fra Benasuto shouldn’t treat him that way. And the courtyard was clean. What was he talking about?
Grumbling, and getting angrier with each sweep, he started in the corner of the courtyard again. For today, he had been put under obedience to Fra Benasuto, so he’d better do it again, even if it was clean.
A whiff of apples and incense swept by.
He jerked his head up. The letterheart hovered nearby, watching him.
“You’re not in a good mood,” Eändelion said. His voice came from a bench set in the shade of a wall.
Fra Angelico turned and smiled at the familiar sight of red robes and blond hair. “Well, I guess I shouldn’t be angry,” he said. “I like being outside anyway. I just don’t like being treated like a disobedient novice.”
Eändelion raised an eyebrow, and glanced over at the crucifix standing above the central fountain.
Fra Angelico hung his head. “And neither did Our Lord like being treated like a liar.”
The friar nodded. “I should be more patient. Fra Benasuto has a lot on his mind.”
The letterheart bounced happily.
Eändelion leapt to his feet. “Well done. So, are you ready to go?”
“But I have to resweep the courtyard?”
Eändelion laid his hand on Fra Angelico’s shoulder. “You will.” he said with a smile. Fra Angelico glanced back and jumped to see himself still wielding a broom across the stones, humming to himself, and heading toward the dormitories.
“Am I… bilocating?”
Eändelion nodded. “Time to go. We have a tight schedule today.”
“Where are we going?”
“You’ll see.” Eändelion pushed open an unseen door, spilling wild air from a different world across the friar’s face. The letterheart rushed past, and Eändelion placed his hand on the small of the friar’s back and pushed him through.
Fra Angelico staggered to his feet and jerked his head around, trying to take in the scene. He stood before a tall, broad Virtue angel, draped with the dark blues and pale foam of water, light rippling across his embroidered tunics like sunlight off a still lake. His wings flared bright and strong, extending wide to right and left. He smiled in welcome.
The hot light from a glaring sun beat down on the stone colonnades around them. They stood in a great, square building open to the sky, rimmed with red tile. The coughs, murmurs and soft singing of several hundred people filled the air. Crowds of poor, sick men and women sat patiently, chatting with each other, sitting as close to the edge of the deep pool of water as they could.
Fra Angelico jumped for the second time that day. He, Eändelion, and the floating Virtue stood on top of a pool. They stood on the water.
The ripples lapped his feet. He realized that the hem of his robe was getting wet. “This is water!” he started to say. “How am I standing on-”
Right then, the water ceased to be solid and gave way beneath him. In a frantic floundering of black cloak and white cloth, he fell straight down into the pool and sank, thrashing his arms and straining through a cloud of silvery bubbles for the surface.
In a second he broke air again, gasping, splashing like a mad man. “I can’t swim!” he panted.
Eändelion shook his head. “Where’s your faith, little friar?”
Eändelion held out his hand. “You won’t be the last to do that,” he said with a smile.
Fra Angelico grabbed the outstretched hand, and was surprised at the strength that hauled him up from the water. Eändelion carefully deposited him, dripping and soaked, back on the surface of the water.
Shivering, he stared down at the depths of the pool, bright blue above and darker down below where stronger currents fed in from a deeper source.
“Where are we?” he asked, wiping the water from his face, shaking his head free of drops.
The Virtue of the pool waved his hand over the friar, and in an instant, the water fled from his clothes. He stood dry and fresh as he did when sweeping the courtyard.
“Welcome to Bethesda,” the Virtue said, his voice deep like the ocean.
Fra Angelico gasped. “The healing pool? In the time of Our Lord?”
The angels nodded.
He looked back at the crowds of sick people perched on the edge of the pool, watching the water with the utmost intensity. It smelled surprisingly fresh and clean, despite the bandaged disease, and the thickly padded cots tucked beneath the shadowy colonnades.
Between the sick moved nurses, passing out skins of water and serving bread from baskets. Some of them applied ointments, burned incense in braziers and checked bandages to rewrap with fresh cloth. Many were blind, lame, or even paralyzed.
Eändelion gestured at a chalice floating by the Virtue. “When this fills with the prayers of those present, Heaven allows that the chalice is tipped into pool and the waters stirred up. Then the first who can fall in is healed of his infirmity.”
Fra Angelico nodded vigorously. “I know, I’ve heard the Scriptures on this account.” He paused and looked around. “Is the Christ coming… today?” He felt weak kneed, and half thought he would fall back into the water again.
“No. He is two day’s walk up north in Capernaum.”
Fra Angelico was slightly saddened. Then he wondered if he could see the man who had lain there for thirty eight years. He studied some of the bearded faces quickly, but there were too many to tell.
“Fra Angelico, here, take this.” Eändelion was saying.
The angel was holding out a beautiful, broad diamond bottle stoppered with a twisted bronze cap, securely placed in a stamped, red leather pouch. When the pouch was closed, an opening in the top allowed the neck of the bottle to poke through. A long bandolier allowed the pouch to hang over a shoulder, or around a neck.
“Fill this with the stirred water,” Eändelion finished.
Fra Angelico took it carefully. As delicate as it seemed, it felt solid and heavy in his hands.
The Virtue of the Pool of Bethesda reached for the now brimming chalice, and with a silent closing of his eyes, he tipped it over, spilling liquid light into the waters. Then he bent down into a crouch to stir the water vigorously with the cup.
The light sank deep into the pool, roiling and frothing as it streaked around the great room, the surface shivering with bubbles and foam and rushing against the sides of the colonnades like ocean waves.
“Fill the vial,” the Virtue intoned.
Fra Angelico turned and dropped to his knees on the water. Somehow, the waves didn’t soak his clothes like last time. He fought hard to stop his mind from thinking too much about what he was doing. He was afraid of falling in again.
Supporting himself with one hand pressed against the hard surface of the water, he unstoppered the vial and dashed it into the water. In an instant the light filling the water rushed together and flew into the bottle. Light hardened into gold letters in Angelic along the edges. The bottle shrank in size till it fit perfectly in his hand.
He drew it out from the pool and rammed the stopper in. Inside, the light rippled across his eyes and face like muted sunlight.
He glanced around at the crowds. The entire rim of the room had thrown themselves into the water, and they now carefully clambered out, each one checking to see if he’d been healed. A lot of disgruntled sighing filled the air.
“Time to go. Thank you for your time,” Eändelion bowed to the Virtue. Fra Angelico tried to bow as well, slipping the bandolier over his neck.
Eändelion placed a hand between Fra Angelico’s shoulder blades. The angel’s wings burst from his back and pumped the air, throwing spray and foam high around them in a gush of rough wind. They rose into the air. Fra Angelico gasped and shook, looking for something to hold onto.
“I won’t drop you,” Eändelion said with a smile. Fra Angelico’s heart beat hard and fast, and he tried to breathe calmly.
He found that he had closed his eyes for a moment as the wind rushed against his face. The sounds of the crowds disappeared, and they entered into the great silence of the upper air, where the winds blew broad and strong. He opened an eye and looked down.
The pool was a tiny square of blue water, two squares, actually, two square buildings open to the air surrounded by a broad plaza of worn, white stone.
It sat between the broad bulk of a fortress’ tall, merloned walls, and the massive walls of the temple itself. Blinking with shock, he stared down at the tall Sanctum rising in a blaze of white marble and gold leafwork, surrounded by courtyards and a city filled with soldiers and Jews.
Dimly, as if seeing faint reflections, he thought he saw glimmering shadows floating above homes and porticos, of different sizes, each with feathered wings, staffs and swords. They traveled the roads, following people, talking to each other, ferrying orders from the greater angels who stood at the corners of the city, replenishing a great, fractured dome of rose-gold light that spilled upward from the walls.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine myself here!” he shouted against the wind. The letterheart swung in circles around them, and then settled between Eändelion’s wings.
Eändelion’s voice appeared in his mind. “Few are granted the privilege.” He smiled, and then redoubled his speed. Jerusalem dropped away behind them and they swung east before heading north, rushing through a broad valley split by a single blue river, the Jordan. The banks were dense with farms and villages, forests of pine and fig trees, olive groves and meadows gold with ripening wheat.
To the distant west, Fra Angelico’s watering eyes caught the pale blue of a great sea; he wondered if it was the Mediterranean. Below him, the land was rich and green, swelling with meadows, fruit and homes, split by the occasional hard line of a Roman road, mostly webbed with the brown meandering paths of the people.
Eändelion began to lower from the air, back into the belt of warm scents of wild persimmon and frankincense. He maintained his speed, and ahead the land gave way to the green belt of a beach studded with boats and clouds of drying fishing nets. In a second, the beach had disappeared behind them, and Fra Angelico guessed that they were crossing the Sea of Galilee, a great, landlocked sea, deep and dark, fed by the Jordan river from the north.
“We come to Capernaum,” Eändelion murmured in the friar’s mind.
Fra Angelico’s legs bolted. “Our Lord is here?”
“Will we meet Him?”
“Does that excite you?”
Eändelion smiled. “You receive Him every day in Communion, at Mass, with all your brothers.”
Fra Angelico fell silent. “But here, it’s different. He’s… really here.”
“There’s no difference, my friend. He is equally present in both places. In your time, He has hidden Himself from your senses to invite your faith.”
Fra Angelico nodded. Still. It would be amazing to kneel before Our Lord and kiss His robe, or His feet, and tell Him that he loved Him.
“But you will not see Him today,” Eändelion continued. “We have something else we need to do. He has requested you bring this healing water to a servant.”
A beach rushed up to them, and they dropped down, sweeping silently past clusters of fishermen’s boats, nets, drying fish and poor huts, dense with shadow from palm, oleander and cypress trees. Eändelion descended to the street, and pressed his palm against Fra Angelico’s brow. His clothes ruffled, and changed color and style to match the people around him. A beard appeared, and a broad cloth landed around his shoulders.
Eändelion draped it over his head against the sun. “Now you are disguised like any other Jew. Keep this bottle hidden, you will need it soon.”
Fra Angelico nodded. He glanced around at the small, poor fishing town, the greatest building being a two storeyed synagogue at the center, built of dark, fine-grained basalt. Most homes were small, made of light, plastered walls and roofed with branches, thatch and mud. Some of the larger homes were made from the abundant basalt, high walled around courtyards. Stairs led up to hidden roof areas.
Jews wearing long, dark robes of earthy browns and blacks greeted each other, busily crossing the paved streets in search of meals and wares. Merchants brought their lines of donkeys loaded with covered bags toward the shops along the main street, the overwhelming smell of fish filled the air. It wasn’t bad, just strong.
“Soon there will be a distraction, and you will be able to slip into the centurion’s house unnoticed. You must wait until the third hour before healing the servant.”
“You’ll know it.” Then Eändelion disappeared.
Fra Angelico started in shock. “Where did you go?”
The letterheart fluttered up into his face. N.o.w… i.t… i.s… y.o.u.r… t.u.r.n…
“To do what?”
F.i.n.d… t.h.e… h.o.u.s.e… o.f.. t.h.e… s.e.r.v.a.n.t…
“On my own? I don’t even speak the language!”
“Who are you talking to?” A man hauling a donkey laden high with bales of straw was staring at him.
Fra Angelico glanced around, realizing that no one could see the letterheart. “I’m… looking for the home of the centurion. I have a message for him.”
The man shrugged. “You must be from far away. He is a good centurion, not like the rest. His home is just outside the village. Follow this road through and take a left, and you’ll see the soldiers. Their garrison is outside his home.”
Fra Angelico thanked him and hurried on.
The town was tiny, perhaps a thousand feet across, bright with sunlight and fresh air, studded with delicately scented tamarisk trees. The surrounding hillsides were thick with fields and ripening trees, he couldn’t tell from this distance what they were. Birds flitted through the air, some white and whiskered, some darker with reddish chests.
A well-traveled road swept off into the hills, and along this road just outside the village stood a large home, similar to the others, but better planned, with neat corners and taller walls. Several roman guards stood outside the main doors at attention, spears in their fists, the edges of theirs shields resting on the ground at their side. This was definitely the home of the centurion.
The letterheart flew up and perched on the edge of a wall, as if watching him.
Fra Angelico swallowed. If the sick servant was in there, how was he supposed to get in? It didn’t look like a distraction would distract those soldiers.
Perhaps they would somehow let him in. He could ask. He shrugged. Or perhaps he could sneak in over the wall…
One look at the burly strength of the soldiers dispelled that thought.
He hopped out of the way of a passing family, studying the walls of the home. The guards had started watching him.
Fra Angelico turned away, his mouth suddenly dry. He shouldn’t have stared so hard.
At that moment a strong voice called out. He glanced back, hoping they weren’t calling him.
Instead he saw a bold, middle aged man with a perfectly shaved head, immaculate white robes and detailed breastplate. At his side, a short gladius of polished silver hung from a wealth of silver-stamped red leather.
Fra Angelico guessed that this was the centurion. He had pulled open the doorway, revealing a paved courtyard shadowy with fruit trees and busy with servants. A man carrying a heavy satchel filled with cloths and ointments hurried out, head down.
The friar guessed that this was a doctor, with another failed attempt to heal the sick servant. Probably at this point the centurion had given up on medicine, and was looking for another solution.
“The master is here!” someone shouted, and a cluster of people barreled down the road, pushing past Fra Angelico. He stepped out of the way, his heart beating madly, watching them hurry between the houses toward the main road. In the distance he could see the pale clouds of dust kicked up by a group of travellers.
Was it Christ and some of His apostles?
Fra Angelico itched to join the crowd. The letterheart flapped near his ear, creating a circle in the air as if to draw him back toward the centurion.
At that moment, someone rammed into the friar’s back and sent him flying. Arms pinwheeling, Fra Angelico reached out and grabbed at anything to stop himself from falling.
Someone grabbed him back, saving him from plastering his face across the pavement. Taking a breath, he staggered back to his feet and realized that a fisherman had rushed by, accidentally knocking him over.
He looked up at the man who had saved him, and his mouth went dry. It was the centurion.
“Are you alright?” The man seemed kind, if certainly strong and accustomed to command. He smelled of olive oil. Behind him stood a perfectly shaved servant in a white tunic, holding a cup of wine for his master.
Fra Angelico nodded, and bowed. “Please excuse me,” he tried to say, not sure how to address a centurion.
Just then, the glass bottle filled with the glowing water from the Pool of Bethesda slipped from his clothes and hung free for everyone to see.
“Where did you get this?” The centurion snatched at it. He turned it over in his hand. Fra Angelico guessed that it didn’t glow for him, but looked like an expensive, elaborate vial in beautiful, red leather. He tried to think of something to say, but the words stuck in his throat.
The centurion’s eyes narrowed. “Did you steal this? You couldn’t afford to own this.”
Fra Angelico shrugged, trying to think of something to say. Should he tell him that it was holy water from Jerusalem that could heal his servant?
At that moment, several women rushed up from the beach, dusting the sand from their hands and faces. They bowed to the centurion and chattered happily among themselves. The centurion heard the words “Master is coming” again, and paused.
He motioned to his soldiers. “Lock him up for questioning. I’ll deal with him later. Put this in my room. I’ll deal with it after the third hour.”
“No, please, that’s mine-” Fra Angelico tried to say.
The centurion shot him a look of angry surprise, as if amazed that someone would challenge him. He tugged the bottle off from around the friar’s neck and handed to his servant.
The soldiers stiffened to attention, bringing shield and spear close to their bodies. Then one of them shifted his spear to his shield hand and took hold of Fra Angelico’s arm. His grip was firm, but not rough.
They led him away around the house to an additional building, also walled around a central courtyard. More soldiers relaxed around tables, tipping amphoras into cups and adding water and herbs. A firepit in the center of the building roasted hunks of bread and pieces of what looked like lamb.
Angry, shaking, not sure what to do, Fra Angelico’s mind raced. How was he supposed to finish his task? He thought about breaking their grip and running, tackling the servant holding the bottle, and running through the centurion’s house like a mad man till he found the servant.
Before he could do anything, the soldiers marched him over to a wooden door in the wall, yanked it open and pushed him in. Then locked it behind him. Their voices joined the others in laughter.
Inside, it was dark, and smelled dank. Beams of light split through the darkness like pencil-thin ribbons. It smelled like tired people and old grain. He wondered if it had ever been washed. Perhaps it was some sort of store house.
He slumped. Judging from the sun, it might almost be the third hour. And he was now jailed, and had lost the bottle.
“I leave you alone for one minute,” Eändelion’s voice came from the air, “and you’re already in trouble.”
“What am I going to do?” Fra Angelico asked. “I lost the bottle.”
“Let’s go get it.” Eändelion appeared out of the air, as if stepping through a mist.
“But, I’m locked in.”
“You really have little faith, don’t you?” Eändelion smiled. He took Fra Angelico’s hand, and then pressed open the door as if it wasn’t sealed.
Surprised, Fra Angelico followed him. The soldiers ignored them completely. Even the one soldier who kept glancing over at the door seemed to think it was still locked.
Eändelion led the way back out of the garrison and opened a sidedoor that led to the centurion’s quarters. “Find his room.” he said.
Fra Angelico tried to give a humble, sorry bow, and hurried inside. At first he found himself in another storeroom, lined with shelves and stacked with amphorae, large sacks, dried herbs slung from the rafters, and bunches of twigs tied together.
The letterheart stayed close to him. He tiptoed through, and stuck his head out an open door.
He found a broad courtyard surrounded by walls, the entrance at one end, and the walls joining to a larger home at the other. A fish pond rimmed with polished limestone sported several birds, who dipped and fluttered their wings in the water. Large basins placed around the pool held herbs like basil, bay and celery seed, bunched beneath bursts of pink oleander. Polished wooden benches were draped with cloths and pillows.
Around the courtyard ran a covered colonnade of red tile. Keeping to the shadow, he headed for the main house, stiffening when a servant appeared from no where and hurried for the store room. It seemed that he was invisible again.
With a rush of relief, he glanced at a sundial standing before the main doors to the home. The dial’s shadow sliced across the number three. He only had minutes before the third hour.
Picking up his robes, he rushed inside, looking around for the centurion’s quarters. The house was a single storey, paved with marble and simple mosaic of plants and birds, the walls hung with olive oil lanterns, alcoved statues and bronze disks of gods. It looked very comfortable. The letterheart ducked into each room as he passed, spinning aside to let servants and a couple of children in grey tunics run past.
The last door on the right opened into a large room potted with indoor plants, bunches of anise, basil and mint, the walls painted a luxurious dark purple, and a great, pine bed draped with white sheets. Several chairs and a desk allowed for private meetings. Curtained windows cut into the walls opened out onto a view of the hills and fields. A cluster of Roman idols and statues of dead family members flickered in the light of melting candles.
The letterheart whirled over to the table and hovered over something. The bottle. Fra Angelico sighed in relief.
And then a brief cough pulled him up short.
In the middle of the bed lay a single, thin figure. One side of his face hung loose and unresponsive. He seemed unable to move his limbs. He coughed weakly in his sleep.
Snatching up the bottle, Fra Angelico hurried over to the bedside. He was surprised to find him recently shaved and smelling fresh.
He unstoppered the bottle and leaned over. “This will help you,” he whispered. Carefully cradling the servant’s head in one hand, he pressed the bottle against his lips. The servant woke slightly, accepted some of the water, and swallowed it clumsily.
Fra Angelico laid his head back down and stood up, glancing at the bottle. He wondered if he should pour the rest all over him. Back at Bethesda, people were healed by falling into the water. The letterheart nudged his hand, as if telling him to wait.
Just then the sound of someone taking a deep breath filled the room, and light softly ran the length of the servant’s body. Before the friar’s eyes, the muscles in his limbs and body which had lain limp and weak filled out with healthy flesh, the blood running back into the pallid cheeks, his breathing becoming stronger and more even. He remained asleep. The light faded away in streaks, like clouds fading before a sunrise.
“Well done,” Eändelion whispered. He appeared again to Fra Angelico’s right.
“Why do you keep leaving?”
“I can’t tell you what to do at every moment,” the angel smiled.
“Where did you go?”
“So you were with me?”
“Always.” Eändelion patted his shoulder.
“Did the centurion talk to Our Lord?”
“Yes, they just finished their conversation outside.”
Fra Angelico looked wistfully in the direction of the entrance.
“Time to go.” Eändelion said. He pulled the door open in the air and, taking one last look at the beautiful Roman room, Fra Angelico stepped through.
His hand hurt. He was humming. He looked up, and found himself still sweeping the courtyard, the swifts and house martins still on the eaves in the sunlight.
A cluster of novices carrying piles of wood headed past, refilling the fireplaces in the main rooms throughout the monastery.
Fra Angelico stopped to stretch. And then realized that he had returned right before he’d left. He still had an entire courtyard to sweep all over again. And now the blister on his hand had gone red.
He stopped humming and looked around. “You know, you could have brought me back after I’d finished my sweeping,” he grunted.
Someone patted his head invisibly.
“I know,” he sighed. “My crowns. I asked for them.”
Even though he saw nothing, he felt his guardian angel smile.