Un Angel de la Guarda
(a guardian angel)
By the time Monsignor Francisco was appointed Abbot at the monastery, no one in the village could say with certainty how long Brother Philip had been there. A few of the oldest men remembered that he had arrived as a young man, but there was general disagreement on the exact year.
In those impolitic days it was considered a kindness to call people like Philip "simpletons." He had never mastered the written word, and although he had the religious calling as a child, he clearly was not material for the priesthood. But the Mother Church had nonetheless found a place for him and, from the day of his arrival at the monastery, he happily worked in the kitchen, mopping the rounded stones of the floor every morning and scouring pots and pans three times a day. Every Saturday afternoon, in preparation for Sunday services, he would polish the fragrant wood of the church's pews and pulpit and reverently dust the large crucifix and other trappings arrayed on a table in front of the pulpit.
Philip had a great respect for all living things, and on numerous occasions he was seen to usher a cricket or spider out of doors, holding the uninvited guest carefully in his cupped hands so as not to harm it. It was rightly said of him that he would not harm a flea.
Five years after Philip’s arrival, an elderly priest who had tended the monastery’s large rose garden for many years was taken ill. He was not expected to recover. A replacement was vitally needed, since the altar boys sold the beautiful blooms outside the church's massive doors every Sunday, the proceeds being used to help the poor. In view of Brother Philip’s love for living things, it was decided to give him a try. It turned out to be a good choice. Although he could not read the scant horticultural literature available in those days, after his work was done he would sit at the bedside of the stricken priest, learning about the roses. In short order he was seen to have the proverbial green thumb.
The old priest went on to his final reward, and Brother Philip became the official tender of the roses. For many years the beautiful flowers flourished under his attentive care. Never a complaint was heard from his lips at this extra duty. Every Saturday, after preparing the church for Sunday mass, he would fill the vases on either side of the altar with scarlet blooms. And on Sunday mornings, when the sky was still dark, he would rouse himself in his tiny cell and hasten out to the garden, there to cut budding roses for the altar boys’ baskets.
Not far from the monastery a beautiful stream wended its way through the village. It was filled with clear, sweet water year ‘round. Centuries before, it had been dammed to provide waterpower to a mill that had long since fallen into disuse. An all but watertight gate that spanned the breadth of the stream had been constructed upstream from the dam. In the days when the mill had been used to grind grain, the water would be diverted into a sluice that carried it to the top of the great wheel inside the mill. But, that had been years ago. After the mill had ceased operations, the gate had been left open and the water was allowed to flow over the top of the dam, there to crash with great fury onto the rocks below.
Above the dam both sides of the stream had been walled with great, square blocks of stone. On the upstream end of the pool that formed behind the dam the walls were higher than a horse, but they tapered to half a man’s height down at the dam where the water was quite deep. Rich loam from the region was backfilled behind the walls, creating park-like meadows which eventually became blanketed with grass and trees.
It was customary for the children of the village to play in the cool grasses that grew there, despite their elders’ stern admonitions not to get close to the walls. Probably not a single boy had not been told many times that he would certainly be killed if he ever fell into the water and was swept over the dam. Raul had received his share of such dire warnings by the time he was six, but along with his peers he was undeterred from playing along the side of the stream above the dam.
There were always white ducks plying the waters there. For the most part they would turn upstream and paddle furiously when the current threatened to carry them over. Raul and his friends took great pleasure in pilfering scraps of bread from their homes and, by tossing crumbs into the water, seeing how close they could get the birds to approach the brink. Of course they were careful to practice this somewhat cruel sport only when no adults were around to take note and to scold them.
Brother Philip enjoyed seeking out the stream and sitting on one of the ancient stone benches at streamside whenever time permitted. Sometimes he would tag along with a couple of monks, and on such occasions he would take great delight in quietly listening to them talk of priestly things. When the boys playing there became too raucous, the monks would chide them to quiet down. In his heart Brother Philip secretly sided with the boys, and always softened the scolding with a gentle smile.
One such day in late spring Philip accompanied two young monks to a favorite bench. Raul and a few other boys were already there at play under the trees. If any of them had any bread to tease the ducks with, he kept it carefully out of view. Raul, who already thought he might become a priest, sidled over to the bench and, along with Brother Philip, eavesdropped on the two monks. At some point a duck darted toward the dam, evidently in pursuit of a bug in the water. Too late it realized that it had crossed an invisible line and would not beat the current. But of course this presented no problem. Just before being swept over the edge, the bird opened its wings and exploded into the air, flying several yards upstream and quacking loudly.
"Lucky for him he can fly," one of the monks mused.
The other monk, aware of Raul’s eavesdropping ears, agreed and loudly allowed that the fowl would have met with a certain death, had it gone over the dam’s top. Although Brother Philip never had anything to say on such occasions, he surprised even himself that day by murmuring, "Angels never die."
Raul looked earnestly up at the old Brother’s face, wondering what he meant. Was the duck an angel? Philip only smiled back at him. The two monks glanced Philip’s way with disapproval tugging at the corners of their eyes. It was not expected that a simpleton should or would interject quirky non sequiturs during priestly discourses. Brother Philip blushed and Raul sensed that he should rejoin the other boys. He did not see the priests leave, and did not know whether Philip had left with them or, like he, had slipped away early.
It was the custom for the monastery to host a festival along the stream bank early each Summer. The monks provided food for the villagers, and a small group of them sang beautiful songs of faith and devotion. A statue of The Virgin stood in a small alcove under the trees, and every year Philip would place a garland of roses around her neck.
On this particular occasion, in the beginning of Raul’s sixth summer, the day was more beautiful than usual and a good crowd turned out. As the villagers made polite conversation with the monks and daintily picked at the free food, Philip sat happily under a large tree, leaning against its trunk and alternately listening to the birds above and to the people milling about before him. As usual he said nothing, only smiling and nodding each time a child paused before him to say "Hi, Brother Philip."
Raul and some friends were busy throwing twigs into the current and watching them be swept over the top of the dam. They would then race past the dam, down a path to the turbulent pool below it, and wait excitedly for the sticks to emerge from the white maelstrom where the water fell.
Midway through one of the cantos being sung by the choir, Philip thought he heard a splash. With a nimbleness that was surprising for a man of his years, he leapt to his feet when several boys began shouting, "Raul! Raul!"
A horrible scream pierced the air as Raul’s mother ran to the stream wall. There in midstream was Raul, swimming with all his strength against the current, but to no avail.
"Raul!" his mother screamed, running toward the dam and flinging herself onto her belly, half hanging out over the water. Her outstretched arm beckoned desperately at the small head, willing it to move toward the wall. But Raul’s gaze was riveted upstream as he fought his losing battle with the current.
In seconds he was swept by, his terror-stricken eyes locking with his mother’s. In a few more seconds he would be swept over and pounded into the rocks that everyone knew lurked beneath the white water at the dam’s base.
In those few seconds, with a speed that people afterward said was miraculous, Brother Philip flew in a great arc out over the wall and into the current. He surfaced just below Raul, unceremoniously grasped the boy by the back of his shirt collar and plowed with powerful strokes toward the wall. People ran toward the spot but, before they could get there, Brother Philip gave a mighty heave and launched Raul up out of the water and onto the wall’s great capstones. The effort was enough to drive the old man deep beneath the surface. His head bobbed up again at the brink of the falls. For one instant his eyes met those of Raul’s mother. Then, with a smile and a nod, he went over.
Raul’s mother stared at the spot where the old man had disappeared from view. Her mouth worked wordlessly, but she was too stunned to make a sound. Several of the men ran down the path below the dam. Three of them waded out into the current below the savage white water, hoping to catch Brother Philip when he emerged. But he never did. The men ended up taking turns until dark, standing in the cold water and peering into the swirling current until their eyes ached. Minutes after the accident, several young men raced downstream, watching the water and asking people in the neighboring villages to watch for a body.
After a time, with no sign of Brother Philip, some of the monks concluded that he or his body had slipped by unseen below the surface. Others feared that he was wedged among the rocks that lay beneath the boiling white water. Monsignor Francisco spent a restless night wondering what was to be done. By the time the first gray light of dawn stole into the eastern sky he had made a decision. He ordered that the gate be pried loose from its moorings and deployed across the stream as had been done in the old days, diverting the water down through the old mill. The water wheel had long since become dilapidated, but no one thought that presented a problem. The water would still pass through the mill and out through another sluice, re-entering the stream below the pool at the dam's base. The idea was that, once the stream had been diverted, it would be safe to enter the stilled pool at the base of the dam and to retrieve Brother Philip’s remains, if in fact they were there.
And so the whole thing was done. But no sign of Brother Philip was ever found. Some of the daring young men from the village even dove down among the treacherous rocks, but to no avail. All the next day monks lined the banks below the dam, and Raul and the other boys of the village peeked between their flapping robes. What could have happened to Brother Philip? Although people in the villages downstream had watched the waters all afternoon on the day of the accident, no one had seen anything.
Monsignor Francisco ordered that the gate be left in place and the water diverted through the mill indefinitely. It was generally agreed that if the pool below the dam was allowed to dry up during the hot summer, then Brother Philip might eventually be found among the rocks.
As the waters in the great pool below the dam evaporated, thorn bushes took root among the emerging rocks and even among cracks in the exposed dam face itself. By early fall the pool was all but dry, but there was no sign of human remains anywhere among the rocks. It was decided to leave the waters diverted through the deserted mill until the following spring, when a fence would be erected along the stream walls. All that winter the villagers contributed to a special box at the monastery, created especially to finance the new fence. Everyone agreed that the fence should have been constructed years ago, but no one could figure where the blame for this oversight should be placed.
The winter came and went and Raul celebrated his seventh birthday. One day early in the following spring, before the fence construction had gotten under way, the two monks that Brother Philip and Raul had eavesdropped on the year before, again sought out the stone bench. After a while the two young men rose and strolled down the path to the bank below the dam to view the flowers there. For to everyone’s delight the thorn bushes, now sprouting densely from the wall of the dam and the jagged rocks at its base, had turned out to be wild roses. The monks gazed appreciatively at the profusion of small blooms adorning the dam face and the rocks below. Raul, who had been eavesdropping again, had quietly followed the monks down the path a few discrete steps behind. As the monks sucked the sweet smelling air into their noses, their conversation turned to Brother Philip.
"His body must have slipped by under the water and been swept out to sea," one of them remarked.
"Yes, no one could survive being thrown down onto those rocks with such force," the other agreed.
Raul turned silently away from the monks and began climbing back up the path. An uncomfortable lump filled his throat. In the now placid pool above the dam a duck quacked. With a sigh and a sadness of heart rarely found in the breast of one so young, he saw Brother Philip’s smile again and heard him whisper, "Angels never die."