Sephina was an artist, shaping nebulae into coils of sparkling colour and sculpting stars from their raw ores. She sang as she worked, soft and sweet, the music of the celestial heavens.
She was the Archangel of Art and Music, which trailed her everywhere she flew.
Sometimes she worked alone. Sometimes with others. One, a red-haired angel with an infectious cackling laugh, was particularly creative, and always fun to work with, as they cheekily batted wafts of glittering stardust at each other and braided the strands of galaxies into a slender silver arch across the jewelled vaults of endless night. Their time together was often brief and fleeting; his martial duties kept him away long hours at the Citadel, training fledgling angels as their Blademaster. But in the quieter respites whenever she was paired with Azazel, her heart swelled with gladness.
On the day they hung the last gleaming star, the Great Plan was revealed: The world would last for 6,000 glorious years, and end in fire and flame.
Sephina looked at the beauty of the stars that she had forged, and the thought of it being destroyed so soon put a lump into her throat.
Her red-haired workmate stared too, open-mouthed, despair etched on his face. ‘They’re going to – destroy – everything?’ he asked at long last, devastated. ‘But why?’
‘It is not given for us to know that,’ Sephina replied stiffly. ‘It is the Great Plan. It is not for us to question. We must trust in Him to do what is right.’ But as she turned and walked away, her heart broke, just a little. Behind her echoed Azazel’s bitter cry of anguish, blazing with indignant hurt as he soared into the glittering heavens.
She knew about the way artists worked. About sketches scribbled, screwed up and discarded. About drafts of words and lines that were cut away and changed and abandoned in favour of a newer and better version. That didn’t make it any easier to see Heaven – to see herself – treated as nothing more than a rough sketch, screwed up and tossed away at the end of the Great Plan. As if she – as if they – had no use or value, no matter what they did, no matter how they tried. No matter whether they improved or not.
What was the point of trying to improve? Of doing more than marking time and tracking the Great Plan? They were all going to be discarded anyway. They were the broken shards, the abandoned rubble, the dried smear of paint that prepared for something else. She only hoped that whatever God made in the end, it was beautiful. And worth all the pain, and the grief that streaked her – streaked them – like the smudges of angelic gold that glittered on their wingtips.
Her work partner wasn’t the only one asking questions. Heaven was in an uproar, with almost half of the angels downing tools, crowding at the glittering gates, yelling in disbelief, demanding answers. Demanding to know why Earth was considered a far better creation than they ever were. Flat out refusing to just accept what that meant for them.
Sephina couldn’t bring herself to disagree with their pain, but she said nothing, burying herself back in her work and choosing not to look too closely at what it all meant for her.
Then those who wouldn’t accept it, who rebelled against their lowly place in the Great Plan, Fell. Sephina was a soldier. A platoon leader, even. She fought in the War, the Rebellion, and she’d been good at it. Fighting. Killing.
That didn’t mean she had enjoyed it. It didn’t mean she hadn’t wept for every life she took (later, much later – to be soft and weak and sad on the battlefield under Gabriel’s eyes was suicide), for every poor fallen angel she’d slain. It didn’t mean the holy fire that lit her flaming sword hadn’t scorched her hands as well, the blade soon drenched with black demon blood. But she was still a soldier. An angel. And after the Fall, to be an angel was to obey. So she’d done what she was ordered to do, she’d slaughtered and maimed and burned as Gabriel commanded, and she’d watched with a heavy heart (and tears in her eyes, tears that she could never let spill) as the Fallen were forced to kneel, screaming and pleading as their wings were crudely sawn off with cruel knives of star-metal, then hurled from the Summit down into the abyss. Flares of light and flame streaking through the sky like a devastating glimpse of the end times. Like falling stars burning up on their way to the ground far Below. She was a soldier, and soldiers didn’t mourn the passing of their enemies.
Her old friend soon knelt before her, stripped of all rank, titles and weapons, his flaming sword now in Gabriel’s greedy clutches. No longer Blademaster of the Citadel. No longer a warrior of righteousness. Azazel’s mournful golden eyes never left hers even as the Keruvium Knife trembled in her hand. A crude, serrated blade of sky-iron, etched with Enochian runes of banishment, of rending, of dismemberment. I’m sorry. Sephina, he’d murmured. But I cannot ever condone this. God’s plan … it was monstrous. And as she made the first terrible cut between his shoulderblades, with barely a whimper passing his clenched teeth, her heart crumbled. Yet there was no anger in his eyes. No seething hatred. Only sorrow. And gentle sympathy.
I have to do this, her eyes pleaded with him as the cruel iron sank ever deeper. I have no choice.
I know, his gaze replied. His severed wings soon curled around them, fallen feathers littering the ground beneath her feet, gold fading to ash-grey tatters.
And as she watched her dear friend Azazel dragged limply to the edge and tossed down into oblivion, her heart crumbled.
If Heaven was a first draft, and Earth was the second, then Hell was but a footnote. An afterthought scrawled in a cramped corner of the page and abandoned.
Sephina never spoke a question out loud again. Even so, they lingered in her head, tiny aching seeds of inspiration that could never be allowed to take root and blossom. Even if what they promised to grow into was beautiful.
Humans disobeyed. Humans asked questions. Humans argued back against destruction. Sephina was an angel. She couldn’t disobey. But she could watch. She could learn.
Sephina had watched the humans for the first two days – Adam and Eve, their names were. They were kind, and sweet, and innocent, and they had never seen the horrors of war. Sephina envied them their innocence, almost as much as she loved them. But Sephina was a soldier. She was meant to follow orders, to tow the line. She was meant to guard, to protect the Western Gate, not to love the beings she was meant to be saving.
But Sephina was also kind. She was a soldier, yes, but one who had hated the fighting, the killing. And these new, wonderful creatures, so open and unafraid, reminded her of how things had once been long ago, back when he’d been allowed to be soft and warm and kind and welcoming. Things had only gotten worse afterwards, when Heaven had put up its towering walls and allowed only its strongest and coldest soldiers entry, but maybe here, with these gentle beings, she could find her place.
And so, on the third day, Sephina went down into the garden, sheathing her flaming sword for the first time since the war. And she introduced herself to Adam and Eve, and listened to Adam fondly naming the plants and animals, and listened to Eve joking and laughing, and the weight on her heart had begun to lift.
And then, on the eighth day, the unspeakable happened. Man fell, just as half of Heaven – demons, they were demons now, no longer angels, no matter how recently they had been – had Fallen not so long ago. And Sephina was a soldier. She wasn’t meant to offer comfort. Wasn’t meant to give away her one source of protection against the ever-encroaching dangers of Hell.
But she was also soft, and kind, and perhaps a little bit weak at heart, and she loved these humans, despite everything and everyone telling her she shouldn’t. And so Sephina ushered them out of Paradise, pushed them from the lush green refuge out into the harsh barren wilderness of the unknown desert. But she gave comfort where she could, a flaming sword for protection and light and warmth in this new foreboding place, a piece of herself given away. A piece she had hated, yes, but a piece all the same.
And when God asked about the sword, Sephina reacted in instinct. Instinct as a protector, as a guardian, as a soldier. She had given herself to the humans to shield them, and shield them she would, even at the risk of His wrath– a risk she had never been more aware of than in that moment. She lied to God, and got away with it. And then she was given no further orders. No further instruction.
And so Sephina followed what instructions she had. After all, she was a soldier. She was made to obey.
Sephina stood upon the wall, gazing towards the East. Watching as Adam and Eve moved ever further away, guided by the light of her fiery sword.
God gave warning of destruction. Noah asked questions. The Flood swept across the land in a softer, duller, destruction than fire or brimstone. And one man, one righteous man and his family were saved with the animals.
God gave warning of destruction. Abraham argued back. What if there were righteous men there? A thousand? A hundred? Even just ten? Ten good men? Sodom and Gomorrah burned with fire and salt, vicious destruction by another angel delivered for poor hospitality. And one man, one righteous man and his family were saved by fleeing when they received their warning – all except the woman who disobeyed and looked back.
God gave warning of destruction. Jonah disobeyed and argued and sulked the entire way. The city repented. God … did not destroy it.
A seed of hope unfurled in Sephina’s fractured heart. A tiny, frail, thing with no more than a distant suggestion of beauty in the end, but there. If it was possible that destruction could be averted, even destruction that came from God and was clearly warned about, perhaps, just perhaps, the final destruction that was the Great Plan could be averted?
If there were enough to be saved? Innocent enough, like the animals led to salvation? Righteous enough, like those Abraham argued for? Submissive enough, like the city Jonah warned?
If there was, perhaps, enough beauty? Enough art? Enough created by humans to give back whatever it would otherwise cost God the Artist to discard the sketch that was Earth?
Sephina drew a careful breath, and gathered all these questions up into her heart, though she voiced nothing to the other angels. How did humans create? She wasn’t sure, only that it was different from an angel’s creation.
That creation was called on for the first time in millennia when she was appointed to create and conduct rehearsals (and eventually a performance) of a hymn of praise for the birth of God’s son. She built it slowly, harmonies layered on harmonies like feathers on a wing, as if the song itself was a wing forged of music, lifted to protect and shelter the whole world.
Peace on Earth. Good Will to those on whom his favour rests …
Let there be peace on earth, she all but prayed, and let it begin with this: that God’s good will and gentleness overwrite the promised destruction, now and forevermore. Let these four thousand years be the beginning of much longer, not the beginning of the end, but the birth of a renewed Heaven among men, where the fallen angel meets the rising ape. Let this be where all the blessings of the Throne flow and where beauty can grow forever, flourishing under a golden sun.
Mary and Joseph heard her out together, Joseph’s arm wrapped protectively around Mary’s back.
Mary said, ‘We’ll need to pack,’ and then glanced over at the child playing in the corner. ‘Would you watch Yeshua for us, while we do?’
Sephina followed the woman’s gaze to the child whose birth she had celebrated, and nodded. ‘I can watch him.’
‘Our humble thanks, friend,’ Joseph said, then he and Mary moved away, already discussing what they would need to take along for the long trek home to Nazareth.
Sephina hesitated, then walked over to crouch beside Yeshua. ‘Hello.’
He looked up, his eyes widened and he gave her a beautiful smile. ‘You’re an angel,’ he said in wondrous delight. ‘What’s your name?’
‘My name is Sephina.’
The child scrambled suddenly to his feet and ran to greet a new arrival, a woman shrouded in a black abaya. Sephina followed more slowly, ever watchful, ever wary. The whiff of sulphur stung her nostrils. She reached the door to see Yeshua hug the black-robed woman and look up at her, laughing and chattering.
Then the woman looked up. She still had the tumbling curls of red hair, and the dimple that showed when Azazel smiled. Her eyes had changed though, gleaming gold like a serpent’s hypnotic stare, and Sephina reached instinctively for a weapon as their eyes locked. Demon now, no longer a work partner. Shapeshifter. Fickle. False. Fallen.
Yeshua stood between them, blocking her ability to smite the demon. ‘No!’ he said firmly. ‘No smiting my friend.’
The power fizzled at his command, air crackling with menace. Sephina swallowed her fear down.
‘It’s ok,’ the demon comforted the child, hugging him back. ‘I’ll go.’ She followed word with deed, taking with her both the whiff of sulphur and a gust of love.
Yeshua toddled back over, and retook his seat on the floor nearby. His smile widened into a true grin as he patted the ground beside him. ‘Come draw with me?’
Sephina couldn’t help but smile back into eyes as dark as her own. Her sand-pale abaya resettled itself around her as she took a seat beside him. ‘You’ll have to show me how,’ she murmured.
He reached out, took her hand in his much smaller one, and together they drew pictures on the smooth flagstones with a stub of chalk that Joseph used to mark up his carpentry projects.
Sephina felt the lines of the simple art blossom under her fingers, like yet unlike braiding a galaxy into place in the sky, and the making of human art blossomed within her, filling out a corner of her purpose that she hadn’t realised was so empty. Joy blossomed with it, and just a touch of hope and wonder. Was this the purpose of the child, she wondered, or was there more written for him in the Great Plan?
There was more.
Of course there was more.
He made beautiful furniture when he was grown, a humble carpenter pouring love and kindness into every carved wooden bench, every elegant curved chair almost an art in itself. But his cross was a crude thing, a cruel frame of rough-hewn beams and vicious nails, and there was nothing beautiful on that fateful day. Sephina turned her face away and wept as the nails were hammered deep, as her precious charge sobbed in agony and was hoisted high under the baking sun. Watching him from among the mournful crowd were two hooded men; one robed in dazzling white, one all in black. The familiar crimson curls gleamed from his dark cowl. Sephina drifted closer, her ears pricked.
‘What did he say that got everyone so upset?’ Azazel muttered, face twisted with nausea.
The figure in purest white – shy, likes fresh blooms, hates the sight of blood – sighed. ‘Just … ‘‘Be kind to each other”.’
‘Oh yeah.’ Her old workmate turned away with a resigned shrug. ‘That’ll do it.’
Sephina couldn’t bear to watch any longer. She waited hidden deep within the Sacred Temple, unheard and unseen, and when the dreaded signal came from on high, she followed her orders. Like any good soldier. She tore the beautiful curtain in two and her heart broke with it, leaving only numbness where once there had been joy.
© 2021 | Tom Burton