Un Angel de la Guarda
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 Philipís arrival, an elderly
priest who had tended the monasteryís 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
Philipís 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 boysí baskets.
Not far from the monastery a beautiful stream wended
its way through the village. It was filled with clear, sweet water year
Ďround. 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 manís 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 eldersí 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
The other monk, aware of Raulís eavesdropping
ears, agreed and loudly allowed that the fowl would have met with a certain
death, had it gone over the damís 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 Brotherís
face, wondering what he meant. Was the duck an angel? Philip only smiled back at
him. The two monks glanced Philipís 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
Raulís 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
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,
A horrible scream pierced the air as Raulís 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 Raulís 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 motherís. 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
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
wallís 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 Raulís mother. Then, with a smile and a nod, he
Raulís 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 Philipís 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 everyoneís 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 Philipís smile
again and heard him whisper, "Angels never die."