The first attack did little harm. A sprinkling of stones fell from the sky, scaring people around the city square, piercing the canvass of a market stall, shattering a honey jar and striking one man on the shoulder. There was a moment of shock and hours of speculation on the cause, with most ready to accept it as a strange physical phenomenon, a powerful blast of air from the mountains. The second did more damage, more stones, tiles and windows broken, several people struck and one poor woman killed by the impact on her skull. Again the reaction emphasised the physical elements, albeit combined with fear of more to come. The third was lethal, showering jagged chunks of rock across the central streets, crashing through roofs, destroying carriages, sending many to the hospital and a handful to their graves. And in its final seconds a few people claimed to have seen figures in the sky, wings and haloes swirling in streaks of light as they cast projectiles down on the city. At first many doubted the description, describing it as a vision stirred by shock and fear. But on the next attack all eyes went up to the sky and hundreds saw them, angels shooting between the clouds and sunrays,conjuring then throwing the stones onto the people below. It went on for several minutes, killed more than dozen, drove everyone else under cover and caused panic among the horses and dogs. Then they disappeared, upwards into the heavens. A scientist from the university tried to argue this was a hallucination, that there was an explanation in the physical elements that had yet to be derived. Cries rang around the frightened populace:
It’s the fury of angels!
A punishment of the Almighty!
What have we done!
How can we atone!
The Patriarch had been reluctant to respond to the first attacks, staying in the apartment and private chapel of his palace. He was defender of the faith but also conciliatory towards the men of science, sometimes suggesting they could explain intricacies of how God’s work unfolded. But as the crowd outside the gates grew and their voices grew louder – clamouring for his explanation and guidance – I told him he could not continue to ignore them.
“You think I have an explanation?” he asked me.
“You are the closest to God.”
He dipped his eyes. That was the foundation of his power.
“God often works in mysterious ways,” he muttered. “I need time to contemplate.”
He was still contemplating the following day, when the angels returned, sustained the barrage for half an hour and left almost fifty dead. The city was beginning to resemble a scene of war. I found the Patriarch in his private chapel, seated with head above his knees, conveyed the mood of despair and anger and told him that the people needed guidance. At first he remained silent, until my pleading prompted him to sit upright and turn towards me. His expression showed that he was lost. He spoke quietly.
“I need more time.”
It intensified my own despair, but it was my duty to serve, not question. I went back out to the balcony of the palace and watched as people returned to the square, comforted the injured, gathered the dead, inspected the damage to buildings and exchanged a tortured question.
Some began to gather the stones that had been thrown by the angels and place them in a pile near the doors of the palace. I heard muttering that someone must be to blame, that there was an evil within the city, and was alarmed to hear the Patriarch’s name spoken, as if some thought he may have offended the angels. I was ready to return to him with a fresh warning when I noticed a man emerge from an alley across the square, attracting a number of people that quickly grew into a small crowd. It was the scientist from the university. He halted in the square, looking around and taking two of the stones for inspection. He said something that agitated the crowd around him, causing some angry shouts and one man to jostle him. At first he remained calm, but there were more shouts and another man pushed him hard. The lecturer raised the stones in the air and yelled.
“This is not the work of God! You did not see angels!”
It provoked a rumble of anger.
“An illusion! Caused by elements of the skies that we do not yet understand!”
“We understand God’s anger!”
“Not angels! It was a twisting of the light and wind, a rare force that lifted stones to the sky then dropped them to Earth!”
The crowd muttered and exchanged glances; the anger remained but nobody touched the scientist. There was an uncertainty, as if his explanation might be as good as their own.
“It will pass!” he shouted. “And we will collect evidence and learn!”
A moment of quiet followed, then a loud voice from behind me.
“Now I see!”
It was the Patriarch. Now he looked confident and threatening. He came beside me and looked down.
“It is this blasphemy, this denial of God’s power, that has caused this! Men such as he have offended the Almighty!”
The scientist looked up to the balcony, his insistence now turning to fear. Then a man pushed him, and another grabbed his arm, and in seconds he was lifted, carried and thrown against the wall of a building to the side of the square. Then people began to take stones from the ground and the pile in front of the palace, forming a ring around the scientist but doing no more. Hundreds of faces turned towards the Patriarch. He stared at the crowd, his expression becoming more thoughtful, and I thought this would be the moment that he would urge restraint, remind them of the merciful God. Then his face hardened again.
“We must atone! The blasphemer must be punished!”
A cheer erupted and the crowd closed around the scientist. I saw it change shape as people squeezed to the front, threw the stones then slid away, and the gradual smattering of marks against the wall. It lasted minutes, following which the crowd moved back and thinned to leave a shabby lump of flesh and bone in lines of blood. I looked towards the Patriarch and saw that once again his expression had changed into one of anxiety. He did not know if this was going to prevent another attack from the angels. He looked around, picked up four stones that had landed on the balcony, then turned towards the door.
“I must retreat,” he muttered. “This requires intense prayer.”
I followed, shaken by the fate of the scientist, through the grand chapel of the palace, up the staircase to the Patriarch’s apartment, then beyond through a short corridor to his private chapel. I was the only person he would allow into the room, there to light the candles, chant a prayer or respond when he required sustenance. As always I waited for him to kneel before the altar, placing the four stones in the narrow strip of light from the single window, then kneeled myself a few feet from the closed door. He began to pray, a gentle murmur from which I could not distinguish the words, and I wondered if it would be one of those occasions when he would finally turn to me and say that God had spoken quietly inside his head. After a few minutes he fell silent, lifted his head and raised a knee to stand. He had received the words. Then came a flash at the window, the strip of light expanded across the floor and a pulsating glow settled above the altar. My heart leapt, I heard the Patriarch gasp and saw him fall on his rear. He shuffled backwards until almost in my arms and we crashed into a mingling of fear and awe. His lips moved but without sound and I realised he had seen nothing like this before. Then a deep but soft voice emerged from the glow.
“You should not have done that.”
The Patriarch still struggled to speak. The glow swirled gently around the altar. The voice came again.
“That man did not deserve to die.”
“But your ….” The Patriarch couldn’t speak his words. I found the courage.
“Please. He blasphemed, denied that the angels were throwing stones on the city.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
The Patriarch and I glanced at each other, confused by what we had heard.
“Remember I’m a merciful God,” the voice continued. “I do not want any man to die because he doubts my presence. He had a right to speak what he thought.”
The Patriarch recovered his voice.
“But Almighty! We saw the angels in the sky. We felt the stones upon the city. We knew it was your fury.”
“But I felt no fury.”
“It was the angels.”
We were stunned into silence. After a long moment the voice continued.
“Sometimes angels are unruly, infected by the urge to do harm. Especially those who have recently ascended to my realm.”
“But they do your service.”
“They do my service when I watch closely, but I do not always do so. Sometimes I discover misdeeds, and I have to rebuke, or deprive them of their wings.”
“So it was not your doing?”
“It was not my doing.”
I realised the Patriarch was now shaking.
“I will not punish,” the voice continued. “But ensure the scientist receives a decent burial, express regret for what happened, and show more restraint in the future. I wish for tolerance, forgiveness.”
“And you have mine.”
Again the Patriarch looked at me, lost in a struggle to understand. I tried to find words, looked towards the light above the altar, and managed to say: “We thank you Almighty.”
Then the glow swirled, spun upwards and out of the window, and the chapel was once again in shadows. We both crawled towards the altar, prostrated ourselves and spent the following hour in intense prayer. It concluded with exhaustion, both of us sweating, breathing heavily. I wanted to rest but knew there was something to be done.
“Shall I go to the square?” I asked. “The scientist’s body should be moved to a safe place, prepared for burial.”
The Patriarch stared at me, a glimmer of anxiety in his eye, then shook his head.
“But it was the word of the Almighty. Surely we must tell the people of his instruction.”
He took my hand and gently squeezed.
“This must stay between us.”
I stared open mouthed. How could he wish to hide a revelation from God?
“You may struggle to understand,” he said, “but the church has a wisdom from hundreds of years of spiritual guidance.”
“But God spoke. He told us that it was the angels who were wrong.”
“I know, but it is better to protect the people from the knowledge. It would create confusion, stir up heretical ideas. And remember, we instructed the people to inflict vengeance upon the scientist.”
You instructed the people. I thought but did not speak the words.
Then he stood, looked around the floor of the chapel and began to pick up the stones he had brought from the palace balcony. I watched for a moment, felt a rising sense of revulsion, then moved towards the door.
“Wait for a while,” he said. “We need to clarify what we will tell the people.”
“I will tell the people the truth. They must know what God said.”
I turned away, took two steps towards the door then felt a sharp pain explode across my head. I collapsed, ran a hand over my scalp, felt the wetness and looked to see blood on my hand. Then I realised that the Patriarch had advanced to stand over me, holding a stone in each hand.
“Sorry,” he said, “but you threaten the church.”
Then a stone struck the bridge of my nose, another crashed into the centre of my forehead, and I tumbled out of the world.
Now I am with the angels.
Image: Angels Throwing Stones on the City by Natalia Goncharova, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons