Chapter 1

Matteo was but a child in the cradle when he saw his first angel. His mind never remembered it, but his soul never forgot.

While there are no sexes in the world of the angels, there are spirits, and this one was motherly fire. She, Matteo’s angel, sat by his side and enveloped him in the wide span of her featherless wings. They felt like many spinning wheels of flame, looked like many turning bracelets of gold, sounded like nothing at all but a lullaby in the ears of Matteo the baby.

The baby reached out with his tiny hands, reached up with his dimpled fists to try to touch the ever so many swirls of light. He could not reach them, but the effort was not taxing; he could not touch them, but the task was not daunting. It simply felt like trying to grasp stars in the sky, or the sun reflected in water. There was light everywhere, and then light trapped in one’s fist, and then the light free and unholdable.

Matteo laughed, giggled, chortled. He continued to grasp at his angel’s wings, continued to miss, continued to laugh as though he would never stop, as though he never wanted to stop.

His parents wondered at his joy, and thought that, perhaps, an army of angels was swarming around their child, protecting him, the way that all angels were visible to the innocent, the stories said; the way that all angels could speak to children, the old tales told.

They were not wrong. There were angels beyond the wings of Matteo’s special guardian, but he was being shielded.

He would not understand it for a few months more. All he knew was that besides his parents and his sister, there, too, was a creature so resplendent, it appeared to be both human and ever so many interlocking golden rings at the same time. The creature watched over him, but with eyes that seemed to know so many things, to have seen so many wars; the creature loved him, but with a love that no human heart could hope to return, let alone accept, had it been given in its fullest, greatest form.

And she always seemed to surround him with a veil of clouds, to protect him with the burnished wings that seemed to call down the sun from the sky. On some days, when he heard his parents talking, he would catch a glimpse of a world that appeared to have dark spots in it, as though not all things were as bright or as beautiful in what felt like his little corner of the world. On some days, when his sister spoke to him in her sing-song voice, he would see beyond the fog, and behold what looked like waves of fire, or seas of blackness.

One day, he uttered his first word, and recognized that it called forth his mother.

The veil disappeared; the fog lifted; the clouds cleared. In that moment, his soul understood what the protection had been for.

He did not remember it at all, but he suddenly began to bawl, and he would not stop. His mother only saw that he was pointing to a corner while hiding his face in his pillow. His father saw nothing of note to be frightened about, only felt that the room was abnormally cold for the extremely hot summer night.

The next morning, when Matteo awakened, the veil returned, but it was thinner now, and he could see through its gossamer sparkles. And it would thin progressively as he began to talk, to connect words to objects, to connect names to people, to connect words to each other and form phrases.

Some of the first sentences chilled his parents, returned them to that night when Matteo first called for his mother, when they entered his freezing room to find him screaming his lungs out.

“Scary man! Go away!”

And yet, those first sentences were but a sudden blast of cold; they did not freeze his parents in place, nor did they encourage the good people to ascribe everything to some overactive, infantile imagination. They did what any parent in their Catholic country would do: they prayed by their son’s bedside, and they held him until he calmed.

Matteo discovered the power of prayer slowly, in the habits of his parents, in the way his nanny later taught him to talk to God before going to bed, in the words whispered to him by his fiery companion from his very first moment in the cradle. He could see her only vaguely, but she was there, he felt: she was the angel whose wings shone with their own light, whose spirit had seen battle as a chariot that streaked across the once velvet heavens of the universe, whose task now was to guard a child whose eyes could see beyond reality plain and simple.

And yet, was reality ever so plain and simple, especially in a country like the Philippines?

Matteo grew up in the city, in a small house that sat in a busy street that was loud with jeepneys in the day, raucous with people at night, tittering – his nanny later said – with dwarves, fairies, and elves when midnight struck. She had meant for the stories to serve as a warning, the way that such stories were often used to keep children docile and obedient. And yet Matteo believed them, not because he trusted his nanny and hung on to every word she said – but because he could really, truly see the pointy-nosed dwarves creeping in and out of burrows, could really, truly hear the elves plotting to take the soul of this or that good-hearted child, could really, truly smell the rotten food that the fairies used to lure the unwitting to their secret kingdoms beneath the earth.

They frightened him, made his skin crawl with what he felt were imaginary ants, made his inside churn as though his intestines were made of mere threads. But always, always his guardian angel was there, behind him, surrounding him with her flames, keeping the elementals at bay. The dwarves tried to talk to him, but her wings burned them, made them run away with screams that sounded like a chorus of slaughtered pigs. The elves tried to wake him one afternoon and invite him to play, but her fire scorched their pretty tresses and pushed their eyes out into slimy bulges and turned their teeth turn into fangs dripping with blood. The fairies tried to tempt him with their food and their kingdoms and their promises of eternal childhood, but she raised what looked like twin swords that called forth lightning from the heavens – and the once proud elementals promptly fled.

The visions became less and less pronounced as Matteo grew older: the dwarves faded into scratches in the fabric of reality, as though something with claws had ripped apart the world to reveal the hidden wars beneath; the elves became mere veils of silver that seemed to absorb all light and energy, and reflect only hatred; the fairies became sparks and orbs that populated the corners of his eyes.

But his angel was always there.

She never showed him her face, not in the way she had so freely done when he was but a babe in the cradle. As Matteo spoke more, walked more, listened more to the conversations around him, so did she become more and more faint – and yet more and more present, as though she had become the veil herself. She was there, in her wings that were but wisps of fire that appeared as though a pen of flame had shot across the universe; in her interlocking rings that came to life only when Matteo called her in his heart.

For she had a name, but it was not one he could utter out loud, for it was the single word he knew in the language that she spoke.

And the language – it surpassed all his understanding, made him feel like a mere speck of dust in the saga that was the millions of years of history of humanity. His angel deigned to speak with him only when she wished to, only when she was meant to, only when she was allowed to, and only in the language that she and Matteo later shared; otherwise, Matteo saw her wings and knew only that she was guarding him from behind. She imparted no wisdom to guide him, gave no hints of the future or hidden things; Matteo learned not to ask them of her, for though he was young, he, too, was wise.

As he grew older, he also began to see demons. His soul never forgot the burning man and his ugliness, never forgot the pain of weeping that tore at his lungs so that no scream was ever enough to calm his spirit. The demons reminded him constantly of that very first encounter in the cradle, when the veil had first been lifted and the eyes of his soul opened to a reality more vicious, more brazen. They were like the dwarves, only louder and insolent; like the elves, only more scheming and less beautiful; and like the fairies, only they seemed to feed on hate, and sorrow, and pain.

And yet that image, too, of an indescribable, wretched, unfathomable ugliness; that, too, became increasingly rare, until Matteo could see only shadows. And even then, he could see them only when allowed, only when meant, only when the battles were great and legions upon legions of angels fell upon in each other in fascinating fray.

Matteo could only watch. When he was younger, he would see the angels brandishing swords and shields; as he grew older, the battles became mere mixes of black and white, shards of gray and silver against reality, fire and cold combined. He knew, intuitively, that his guardian angel would be both by his side, and in the middle of the melee. Once, he saw her wings shattered, heard her weeping; in his dream that night, though his soul did not remember, he embraced her and prayed with her, and her wings became whole again.

And of course he could see the angels. He did not know their names, could barely identify their ranks; but he could see them, as they sang and fought, as they bowed to his guardian or accepted her salute. He saw them and felt a fiery union of both awe and fear swell in his chest. They, too, grew increasingly faded as the years passed. They became mere clouds, or torches of snowy flame, or metallic blades ringing forth rage as they slashed across reality.

Matteo saw, observed, wished that everyone else could see this layer of angels and demons upon reality.

For he felt himself burdened and alone. There was humanity around him, and kindness and love; and yet there, too, was a sadness that made his world of invisible powers both an escape and a place from which he had to run.

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