This is one of the many stories — some of which you have heard me tell and some not — of Emilio, the boy from Liguria whose mother entertained the men of the fishing village when their wives no longer could, and whose father left them before he was born. So Emilio, anxious to see the world — just as you will be when you are older — set out one winter day in his fourteenth year to find, if he could, the father whose face he had not glimpsed even once, and, though he could not know it yet, to become, through trial and tribulation but also faith and love, an emissary of our lady, La Compassione.
This story — or so they say in little Ligurian villages like Corniglia, Bordighera and Riomaggiore — occurred most likely before Emilio met the horse–racing girl Caterina, incarnation of the Madonna of Provenzano, and possibly even before he saved the Child Pope Benedetto from the Drinkers of Blood on the little island of Elba. But even when chronology is unsure, is a story's worth not its heart rather than its place in time?
It is enough, angeli miei, to know that it happened at the Convent of Monterosso, in the Five Lands, on a cliff overlooking the Ligurian Sea, and on a winter's day with the wan light we know so well. Emilio had stopped in the village near sunset, looking for lodging; and because he had no florins or lire on his person, had been sent to the convent and its compassionate nuns.
When he arrived, breathless from the stone stairs that climbed steeply from the village and its bright fishing boats to the great convent, he found the hallways in turmoil, sisters in their habits running everywhere and shouting Latin, only some of which did he understand. "Libera nos!" "Protegat me!" "Gloria tibi, Domine!" "Diabolus!" In their rushing — with looks of panic on their faces — they did not have time for him; and he walked the hallways without supervision, following the commotion until it led him past the kitchen and storage rooms to a small building on the convent grounds, one encircled with cypresses that seemed to point at heaven.
There the panicky voices helped him find the room where the terrible angel was.
The mother superior stood in the center of the room, doing her best to officiate, but no one, not even a mater superior conventis with years of experience in crises of the spirit, could have kept her composure fully in this situation.
The angel standing before her was bigger and taller than any large man, and, strangely, it was weeping.
That it was an angel at all was not obvious at first, for it had no wings. On its shoulders it bore only the nubs of bones and the scars that covered these nubs as evidence that there had ever been wings. The wings had been removed violently — that was clear — and by a force both angry and inhuman.
The angel, as it wept, was speaking in Latin, too, and the room shook from its voice, though in its grief its throat could barely make the words. "Ostende me, Mater, misericordiam tuam," it pleaded, and Emilio knew but two of the words — Mother and mercy. "Et clamor meus ad te venia!," it thundered. "Filia mea gloriosa me manca!" Of these words Emilio, whose education was less than yours, recognized none except daughter. And then the creature cried: "Quare me repulsti, Deus?" — which Emilio remembered from Father Nardi's mass, whenever his mother took him: Why has thou forsaken me, God?
The mother superior was trying not to flinch at the volume of the voice, at the assault such volume was on any ears, for it was a voice in terrible pain; and though it did not mean to roar, it was, after all, an angel, and its pleas were like a lion's grief.
But it was not only the stubs of the bones and the scars and the roar of a suffering heart that made it difficult for the woman to remain composed. It was the angel's entire appearance.
Where an angel should have had soft skin glowing from the grace of the Holy Spirit, this one had horny growths all over it, like a creature from a nightmare. Its shoulders had no skin at all, in fact, but only horn, which bore, as if branded into it with hot iron, expressions in a strange language. Its fingers were as knobby as the branches of a tree, and its brow was a single horn so heavy that the creature could barely hold up its head. And if this sight were not enough, its eyes — which were white and blind from defying what should never be defied — and its smell — that of burning flesh and feathers — would have made clear to any mortal soul who this creature was.
No one but the mother superior, Emilio could see, had the courage to stand in the room with it. The other nuns, almost all of them young, remained in the doorway, staring at the creature for a moment and then looking away in terror; and Emilio stood with them, trying to understand what he was seeing and hearing this strange day. A voice seemed to whisper: This is Light, not Darkness — which of course made no sense, for he knew as well as the nuns did who this angel was.
The young nun beside him was shaking. Little cries were coming from her.
"What is he saying?" Emilio asked.
"He — he. . ." the nun tried to answer, but her cries prevented it. "He says — " She was speaking a dialect of northern Liguria, which he could understand. "He says that he misses her. . ."
"Yes. . . He has come asking for our help, for he has heard that we are a convent where La Compassione — the one who weeps for the suffering of humanity and whose tears fill every sea — dwells."
"But how —" Emilio began, and stopped.
The mother superior had raised her hand. She was two strides from the creature, which was kneeling before her now on the stone floor, its knees disfigured by the same horniness that afflicted its entire body. With her hand still raised, she took a step, and then another, as if something pushed her.
The nuns around Emilio held their breath, and when the mother superior reached the creature, the nuns grabbed each other as if the earth itself might at any moment split apart.
The mother superior, her hand shaking, paused as if God had not yet made up His mind, and then touched the creature gently on its misshapen head, jerked back as she did so, touched it again, and this time did not pull away. A terrible moan came from the creature, but she held her position and, miracle of miracles, went to her knees as well, letting her hand caress the nubs of bone and scars on its shoulders.
She had moaned once too, Emilio realized, but it was the creature who was moaning loudest, twisting at her touch even as white flame — yes, flame — crackled along the horns that were not horns, along the bony stubs that had once been wings, to the caricatures that were its knees and feet and hands.
And then, because either God had decided it or because she could not help herself, the mother superior put her hand, which the fire somehow did not harm, on the creature's brow once more and said:
"Dominus vobsicum. . ."
These words Emilio did know. May God go with you.
"Et cum spiritu tuo. . .angelus perditus Domini."
At the last three words — which certainly meant lost angel of God — the creature twisted away and fell to the floor unmoving, its blind eyes staring at the walls. At its falling four nuns rushed into the room and with relief in their eyes helped the mother superior to her feet, pale as she was and barely able to walk.
As the nuns in the doorway parted for her, Emilio looked at her face. For an instant he saw, like a phantasm, another face — a woman's, beautiful, sad but peaceful — one that he would catch sight of more than once in the faces of men and women before his journey was through — and his own skin burned suddenly like fire, too.
The young nun beside him also saw the face before it disappeared. The nun's eyes widened, and, as she bowed to the mother superior, she whispered to Emilio under her breath, "La Compassione!"
When the nuns and the mother superior were gone, Emilio remained. He could not move. His skin still burned, as it would so many times in the journey to come, and he knew he needed to think. He stared at the creature that lay still on the floor and knew that he had witnessed what should have been impossible; but that of course was not, for God, as Father Nardi had often said, cannot but forgive, even if men cannot forgive themselves. A nun — a woman supposedly married to God and certainly without the authority of the Holy City to attempt such a thing — had forgiven, as mothers do, one who was lost; and, though Emilio did not know it yet, memory of this day would help him to understand what he needed to understand to become the emissary of La Compassione he needed to be, and was, of course, even now.
The story of how Emilio, wishing to show compassion, too, and knowing it would take courage, befriended the Fallen One in that convent room, set out the next day to find the creature's beautiful daughter, and did so that spring in a crumbling castle at Como — recognizing her by the wings she kept hidden under her robe, that people might think her a hunchback — is not one told in Liguria at all, but in Lombardy, where hunchbacks have always been viewed as fallen angels. But that story, my little angels, will have to wait for another, and even colder, night.