He was a priest, and he could see angels.
Sometimes, there would be one or two of them, standing watch over children in the playground, flying with individual cars that were going too fast, trotting alongside bikes that were going too slow. They would be silent, observing, watching the world through eyes that had all the semblance of human eyes, but none of the humanity, none of the weakness, none of the viciousness that seemed to bubble even beneath the most gentle of glances.
They were pure, incandescent even, these angels. He had learned to recognize them from his childhood, when they were the only ones who sat in his audience as he conducted make-believe masses at home. They would sit in between his teddy bears and toys, nodding at his attempts at imitating the parish priest, smiling at his little homilies – and, as he grew older, correcting his work. He grew up in their presence, and he learned to love them. They were, after all, responsible for encouraging him to remain in the seminary, and to finally pursue his wish to become a priest.
His superiors knew that he could see them, but word never got out to the media. Matteo preferred it that way – Matteo the child saw angels as his friends, and no sensible man would sell his friend for a few minutes of television airtime. Rome knew that he could see them, and he met with other priests there once a year, to discuss what they each had seen. Some priests saw them as confidants and defenders, who could be assigned the individual humans or to Heaven, depending on the angel’s rank. Matteo the priest saw them as his guards, as God’s representatives, as Heaven’s messengers – but one day, he saw them as warriors.
He worked on a Jesuit campus as both a professor and researcher, and he saw angels every day. They would be crowding the hallways, following professors, having lunch with students who wished to be alone. Once, he saw an angel sitting with a sobbing girl at the back of the campus church. The angel was looking up, as though asking for assistance; still, the girl kept sobbing. Fr. Matteo wanted to approach her, but she ran away before he could even take another step. The angel sped away as well, bright, silent, a quiet shadow that seemed to muffle the sobs of the fleeing child. Fr. Matteo saw that the angel was sobbing, too, and looking back at him, as though telling him to stay where he was, to pray, to ask God for assistance, to leave the young human to figure out things on her own.
One afternoon, he was taking his usual walk around the campus, when he noticed an angel sitting on a rock by the football field. Sometimes, the angels would notice him and give him a nod. But today, this angel was preoccupied with cleaning his sword, sharpening it, scraping off flecks of what appeared to be dark blood.
Skrish skrish skrish, went the stone. Matteo watched, breathed slowly, and then looked up.
There were around a dozen angels on the field, with their swords drawn, with the slashes slicing through the dull gold of afternoon sun, with the movements so swift, he could see only the blur of metal and blood as thick, dark, velvety as mud. At the head of the army was an angel looming and grand, with his hair blasted white by the sheen of metal greeting the sunset. This, Matteo guessed, was a guardian angel. They had their own swords, and they were protectors, resembling the humans they guarded.
Behind him was a line of angels of a different class altogether. They seemed to be wheels of fire, but when Matteo looked straight at them, their flames seemed to be hands hewn into blades of fire. The sunset seemed to glow brighter in the wake of these angels, as they sliced into the oncoming army, illuminating faces twisted by hatred, contorted by darkness.
It was the first time that Matteo saw the seraphim. They were the highest of the choirs, an angelic guard. He had only read about them, seen sketches in books, listened to his professors refer to them as the highest of all the angelic armies. He had never seen them in all his years, never seen them fight. Their presence could only mean one thing.
Skrish skrish skrish, the stone kept on going. The angel stopped, lifted his clean sword, rushed into the fray again. Matteo’s gaze followed the angel, into the rush of fire and metal – into a tide of darkness, of little arms and joints fitted with spikes and thorns, of snarls that seemed to shake the earth on which Matteo stood. He tried to ease the dread in his heart, for while he always saw angels, he hardly ever saw demons.
He saw one, once, as a child. The demon was pretty at first, hopping about his makeshift altar at home, telling him to go play with something else. And then an angel came and swatted it away. Matteo learned to see them as flies, pests that could be crushed by faith underfoot. He saw them rarely, and always felt something die inside him – he was not sure whether it was fear, or despair at seeing their hopelessness, or their mere presence. The demons always seemed to want to claw at him, to break open the locks of a fortress guarding his soul, to scatter inside him and trample on memories and lay waste to his heart. He avoided them, prayed, walked away.
But not this afternoon – not when they were so many, not when they seemed to keep coming even with the valiant efforts of the guardian angel and his seraphim. Skrish skrish skrish, went the stone, in his mind, as though the rhythm could make his soul mend itself. Matteo could not move, much less look away.
No human words could describe the dread in his heart, the sensation of being pulled beneath waves of hopelessness and despair and anger and fear, the willingness – the sudden willingness to let go of everything, to give up any fight… For if the world was so overrun by evil, then what hope was left for humanity?
Matteo could not block out the dread with imaginary sounds, so his scholarly brain took over and instead. Seraphim and guardians in one army, with blood drawn on both sides, with a guardian angel glowing with his efforts. Who was he protecting?
He looked at everyone mortal who stood around him. There were a few students with their own angels, some of whom were offering to join the fight, but who quickly looked away when an unspoken summons from the guardian angel told them to go about their business. The fight seemed isolated, as well though it were a mere exercise to train younger angels for bigger battles.
At last, the guardian angel met his eyes; and at last, the angel glanced swiftly somewhere to Matteo’s west. Matteo would have missed it had he blinked. The angel was fighting again, spilling blood, lost in a blur of darkness and fire.
Matteo saw her. She seemed young, with dark eyes, dark hair, a blend of races on her face. But he knew she was older, from the way she carried herself, the way she looked at the sunset, the way she greeted him with a, “Good afternoon, Father.” She did not see the angels, did not see the blood or the demons or the battle waged on her behalf.
And then, the field went quiet. The demons were gone. The knives and swords were stowed away. The head guardian angel followed his ward, and behind him trailed seraphim.
Fr. Matteo found his feet at last, and remembered to breathe. He recognized her. Battles were usually waged over the souls of teenagers, whose decisions seemed to teeter on a balance between evil and good every day. The greatest and most bloody battles, Matteo had been told, were fought on the deathbed. One priest had told him that, on his last meeting in Rome. The battles for souls were the most desperate, the most bloody, and often, the weakest of souls could do none but watch, and then cheer if the angels won, or bawl if the demons triumphed. The priest said he could see souls being swallowed by the darkness, with screams that could tear mortal hearts to pieces.
Matteo recognized her. She was a professor. Why would the demons battle for her? And why had she been assigned a regal, fiery angelic guard?