Every Angel is Terrible

Emily couldn’t find the chapel, and no one on the streets or in the shops seemed able or willing to help her. Nothing but shrugs of indifference or incomprehension, or startling bursts of Italian that defeated Emily’s meagre phrasebook.
Charles was no help, of course. He dragged sullenly behind, veering into his own strange diversions and offering no suggestions except to return to the hotel for an early dinner.
Eventually she found it, at the end of an unmarked alley. The reliquary chapel of Saint Penelope, medieval martyr and (Emily consulted the guidebook) patron saint of barrenness and, apparently, haemorrhoid sufferers. She was also the target of the prayers of Emily’s sister Charlotte, anguished and lonely, nine thousand miles away in Melbourne.
The chapel front was tiny and almost lost among the crowding shops and homes of the street. Emily hesitated at the narrow door, peering into the gloom.
There were only candles to light the place, and Emily and Charles stood for a few minutes by the dark doors. Charles breathed loudly, waiting to become accustomed. Slowly, the chapel revealed itself: high and elaborate, a miniature history of Baroque style, as Charles had pointed out in other churches that week: gold leaf, frescoes, elaborate plasterwork, friezes, tessellated designs. A triumph of mind and matter, and certainly some money.
It was high and narrow and almost empty, save for a small and elderly nun who sat to one side, near the altar, collecting money for the votive candles.
“This is beautiful,” Emily whispered. “I can see why Charlotte insisted we come.”
Charles sniffed. “It’s rather a gloomy place. And cold. It might suit her, I think. Built in 1730, can you imagine that? Amazing.”
Charlotte was the religious one. As soon as she heard that Emily would be in Florence, she urged her – almost begged her – to visit this chapel. Pray for me there, she said. Pray for me and my husband.
Always a little overwrought, Emily thought. But she wanted to please her sister, so whether through love or fidelity or simple obedience, she came. Emily herself wasn’t given to prayer. She’d been through countless churches and mosques and synagogues in her travels, but only as a tourist, as an architect, and never as a supplicant.
“Quite the treasure trove, isn’t it?” Charles was stage-whispering at her shoulder, less concerned with the sanctity of the chapel than with the hooded gaze of the nun nearby. “They keep this place well hidden.”
Emily frowned at him, a flash of annoyance, and walked to the front where she faced the elaborate chancel. It was high and imposing – marble and gold everywhere. Behind, raised and embedded among twisting columns, was the reliquary, the sacred centre of the room, the glass box that held the mortal remains of Saint Penelope. The bones of her right index finger, laid out on a satin pillow.
“Is that it?” Charles peered doubtfully at the relic. “It’s probably just a chicken bone, you know.”
“Shh!” Emily flapped her guidebook at him. “Don’t be disrespectful.”
Charles ignored her. “I mean it. It looks like a chicken bone. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone had swapped it over in the past few hundred years. Flogged the original to a relic hunter for a tidy pile of lira.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t know what you mean.”
“Well, look. This is supposed to be her index finger. The human digitus secundus is about so long,” he held up his own finger as an example “and it has jointed knuckles. It is divided into one metacarpal bone and three phalanges, and it tapers noticeably towards the end.” Charles wiggled his finger in front of Emily’s nose and then used it to point at the glass box. “This thing, however, has no joints. It doesn’t taper. There’s a lump at the end. And I’m sure there are teeth marks on it.”
Emily looked closer. “Well, it certainly looks old. It’s very brown.”
Charles sniffed again. “Let me know when you’re done,” he said as he turned away. He smiled quickly at the nun and offered a brief ‘Bongiorno’ before striding to the back of the chapel, where he made a show of inspecting the frescoes.
Emily approached the nun and selected a candle. She paid a few coins, and the old woman clucked in appreciation. She grasped Emily’s hands and held tight, looking closely at her with smiling water-blue eyes. There was surprising strength in her ancient grip. What is this? Emily wondered. A blessing?
“I’m sorry about him, Sister,” she whispered to the nun, while glancing sideways at Charles. “I have some family trouble, and I hope to ask Saint Penelope for her help.” The old woman smiled and nodded, still gripping Emily’s hands. She seemed to understand. But of course she would: everyone who came here was like Emily. Everyone wanted something.
Despite the late August warmth outside, it was so cold in that little room that the skin on Emily’s hands had shrunk to her bones. Her fingers were winter twigs as she added her little candle to the half-dozen next to the shrine. She knotted her fingers, hard knuckle to knuckle, and knelt to the brass railing that separated her from the relic. She bowed her head.
But how to pray? She did not know what to do, how to begin. How do you address a saint? How do you contemplate the fingerbone of a woman who has been dead for 500 years, and then ask its owner a favour? Emily had no idea, so she just tried to clear her mind and think about her sister, poor Charlotte, so far away and miserably childless.
In time, she started to relax and forget her surroundings. She began to feel at ease in that small and unlikely room. The low candlelight, the stagnant air, and the cloistered reassurances of height and depth and placid order. Her mind stopped its whirling, slowing itself in the calming nest of unmade thoughts. Only then did she feel herself rising, slowly but definitely rising into something like prayer.
She produced a thought: Deliver us. She felt a little dizzy, as though released, as though unbuckled.
Lift from us our burdens. She became light and thin. The words swam in her, circled and condensed. She repeated them, entranced.
Lift us. And she rose above herself, her mind drifting at tether to her body.
“Save us from our pain.” She whispered this aloud, and the tether broke.
Emily floated above consciousness, above her kneeling body, above the nun and above Charles. She went higher, slowly higher, rising like a gas towards the ceiling. She felt herself move, settling into a drifting calm that soon resolved into a vision, a placid face, a calm presence.
Far below, her eyes were closed, her head was bowed. She could see the scarf pulled tight across the top of her hair. But she was not there. She was unknown, unbeheld. Emily was alive and apart and in the presence of something. The presence … of what? A face, a beautiful face. A child. Yes, a child was smiling at her, pale and unearthly. She reached for it. She stretched towards it, this wonderful vision, but it receded. It moved into darkness. The child, still smiling, fell away from her as she reached.
How long? How many minutes passed, still and silent, in her detachment? Slowly she reeled back in, and her self-awareness returned. Emily found herself back in the chapel, at the railing, kneeling in prayer. She opened her eyes, took a deep breath and stood up.
“Oh my!” She clutched her throat with one hand, stunned. “Oh, my Lord. Charles? Charles, you won’t believe …”
But Charles was not there. His hat was perched on the end of a pew at the back of the chapel, but there was no sign of the great doctor. Emily moved towards the back of the room, and then she saw his feet in their big black shoes, and his long, linen-clad legs, stretched out on the floor. He was on his back and he was not moving.
“Charles?” She approached carefully. “Charles, what are you doing?”
His eyes were closed, and as Emily came closer she saw the heavy plaster moulding lying in two pieces on the floor. It was the cherub, beautiful child from the ceiling above. A common feature of Baroque chapels, heavy and elaborate. Charles had pointed them out to her before. And this one had come to earth, fallen from its plaster skies onto Charles’s great head.
Emily stared silently at her husband. She did not move. At the far end of the chapel, the nun rose from her seat and, with slow and quavering hands, lit another candle and placed it next to Emily’s by the shrine.

Every Angel is Terrible


Joined September 2008

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