Father O’Flaherty was an ancient.
At the age of eighty-four with all the decades behind him dedicated to the priesthood, he was responsible for the Tridentine Mass at Saint Fiachra’s, as well as at several other churches in North Dublin. He was possessed of very narrow, thin, square shoulders that scarcely moved as he shuffled along, hunched forward – although in his youth, Jean-Pierre suspected he had been six feet in height, he was now far shorter with age and arthritis, and he moved with neither speed nor agility. Balding, with only a scant few wisps of pale white hair clinging to his liver-spotted head, he was pale as milk, and as he made his way laboriously up the steps toward the altar, all but swimming in his vestments, Jean-Pierre felt himself lean forward, craning, expecting to hear a soft, reedy voice to match the old man’s body.
When O’Flaherty began his prayer, the sound of his voice was hoarse and dry, but his intonation was so loud that his voice echoed from the walls and high, high ceiling, and Jean-Pierre felt himself blink in shock at the sudden volume, leaning back in parallel to his brother beside him.
Closing his eyes and looping his rosary beads loosely around his fingers, Jean-Pierre exhaled, and let the familiar liturgy, in large part unchanged since first he had set himself into a pew, wash over him.
* * *
“I’ve not lain eyes on either of you two before, hm,” said Father O’Flaherty as Colm moved to shake his hand, and Jean-Pierre followed after him, giving the old man a smile. “Are you visiting, or…?”
“My name is Colm O’Beaglaoich, and this is my brother, Jean. We recently moved onto Grangemore Lane there. We’ve been living in America the past while.”
“Oh,” O’Flaherty said, glancing between the two of them and smiling. “I believe I had a letter from your brother, Ashley, saying the two of you would be joining our congregation, hm – O’Beaglaoich, and you, your last name is Delacroix, isn’t it?”
Jean-Pierre inclined his head, and he was aware of the way O’Flaherty looked him up and down, no doubt thinking of the difference between Colm’s suit – a charcoal number with a pale blue shirt, though without a tie – and Jean-Pierre’s own clothes: wine-coloured trousers, a cream-coloured blouse, his waistcoat worn open. Jean-Pierre had spent some time this morning embroidering new dampening enchantments into his clothes, that he shouldn’t be plagued overmuch by the volume of other people’s emotion as he settled himself into a new city, a new population. He might even go further, soon enough, and enchant his own skin, too – he so hated the weight of other people’s feeling, sometimes.
“Beautiful handwriting, your brother – he isn’t one for the Tridentine Mass?”
Jean-Pierre glanced at Colm, meeting his gaze for a moment, aware of the amusement no doubt showing from them both in waves, and then said, in a smooth and easy voice, well-practised by now, “Our brother is lapsed, Father.”
“Oh, sure, hear the accent on you, so,” O’Flaherty said, raising brows that were very nearly bald, and held only the ghost of silver hair. “You two are brothers?”
“We have the same father,” said Colm. “All three of us do.”
“Ah,” said O’Flaherty, in tones of slow understanding, and then he nodded his ancient head, though his stiff neck barely moved. “You’ll be wanting a house blessing, I suppose?
“We understand if your schedule is busy, Father,” Jean-Pierre said.
“No, no, s’not me who’ll be doing it, so – you’ll be wanting Father Byrne, so you will. I’ll pass your number onto him, and he’ll call you to sort out a time and place, hm.” Like many old men, the priest tended to some soft hums and grunts in the course of conversation.
“I wanted to ask, Father,” said Colm, casually brushing the old man’s elbow of a piece of lint: a moment later, he seemed to relax slightly, releasing a soft, wheezing sigh, and Jean-Pierre suppressed his smile, “the rose garden in the church’s front there – is that your doing?”
“Oh, no, no, that’s Father Byrne as well, hm. A green thumb he has, you can be sure of that. What congregation are you coming from?”
“We were living in College Station, a city in Texas,” Colm said.
Father O’Flaherty’s eyes, which were a cloudy blue colour, but focused and active, had still been fixed on Jean-Pierre, at the glint of the gold crucifix around his neck, but how he looked to Colm.
“Many Irish there?” asked O’Flaherty: there was a note of disapproval in his voice that suggested he had a suspicion of the answer, and disapproved of it.
“Enough for a good community,” Colm said mildly, not rising to the bait. “But Jean and I have good Spanish, and we didn’t refine our service attendance to Irish Catholic services only, when we were travelling.”
“We are all united by our faith in Christ, are we not, Father?” Jean-Pierre asked in a sweet voice, leaning his head to the side and feeling the way his hair fell against his shoulder as he did, worn loose, as he always wore it for Mass. The old man softened, however marginally.
“That’s true enough,” O’Flaherty grumbled, in the tone of a man outnumbered.
“It was good to meet you, Father,” Colm said, stepping back slightly to allow an old lady to come forward. “You’re always welcome to drop into us if you’re out Donaghmede way.”
As they stepped out from the church, Jean-Pierre tilted his head back, feeling the warmth of the sun on his face – it had been clouded over, when they’d stepped inside, but for now it was peeking out from behind the swathes of grey.
The churchyard had a small cemetery to one side, every gravestone in it some two-hundred years old at least, and a grotto dedicated to St Mary to the other side, with several benches for private contemplation. It was between the church entrance and the path toward the grotto that the rose garden lay, and they saw its artificer step through the church gates.
“Father Byrne, I presume,” Colm said brightly and proffered his hand, and the other man took it without a word, shaking Colm’s hand before looking to Jean-Pierre.
James Byrne was a man in his forties, and handsome, with a strong jaw touched over with the beginnings of a beard, and high cheekbones, steel-grey hair. He had a haunted look about him, and Jean-Pierre saw in him a vulnerability that he had seen in some half a dozen priests since he had known Asmodeus, and that Asmodeus had no doubt searched for and found in thousands.
There was nothing his brother liked better than a man of the cloth besieged by doubt.
He was glad he couldn’t feel it.
“My name is Jean-Pierre,” he said softly as he took the other man’s hand, “and this is my brother, Colm. We’re recently arrived in Dublin from America – Father O’Flaherty says you might perform the blessing on our home.”
“Of course,” Father Byrne said quietly, his voice very soft and solemn, his eyes dark pools of cold, flint grey, in line with the colour of the stubble on his jaw. “I could fit you in next week, I think – but no sooner. You two sit the Tridentine Mass?”
“All our lives,” Colm and Jean-Pierre said together, and shared a soft chuckle that Father Byrne visibly distrusted.
“Father O’Flaherty has our contact details,” Colm said. “Let us know when would be convenient for you, and we’ll prioritise your schedule, Father.”
“You two aren’t working in the city?”
“Our working schedule is flexible,” Colm said. “And Jean won’t be starting university until September.”
“Right,” Father Byrne said quietly, and nodded his head. “I shall see you both.”
Moving between the two of them, he ascended the steps and under the arch of St Fiachra’s door, and Jean-Pierre slipped his hands into the pockets of his waistcoat, his boots making a quiet noise upon the path as they stepped out from the church’s gates, the two of them making their way toward the bus stop.
“Are you going to get a car?” Jean-Pierre asked.
“I expect so,” Colm said. “Asmodeus asked me about it when my new license came in from the Embassy in the post this morning. Why, you think you might actually learn to drive?”
“No,” Jean-Pierre said. “I was thinking about all the things you want to get for the garden.”
“Ah, we’ll see. I’ve a delivery coming the afternoon, and I should have the porch rebuilt by tonight, the greenhouse done by Friday,” Colm said. “You know what you’re doing about school?”
“I have interviews in May,” Jean-Pierre said softly. “But I resat exams earlier in the year to match our new IDs here, and I’m not expecting any problems – I’ve never had any before. “
“This is your sixth go at medical school?”
“Don’t you get tired of it?”
“It’s so different every time,” Jean-Pierre said softly. “I really don’t.”
He’d first attended school in Paris – that had been in 1735, and there had been next to no practical learning whatsoever, until he’d actually studied under another physician. The difference between his study then and his study at the turn of the century was almost impossible to wholly describe, so complete was the separation between one world and the other – and every return to medical school seemed yet again more extreme in its divorce from the schools he’d attended before.
It wasn’t as though he avoided complementary reading in the meantime, wasn’t as though he ceased his study of the profession simply because his last university focus was behind him, but it was important, to be entirely up-to-date.
And he liked to be around students. He liked the flare of hope that so many of them carried, the want for change, the energy and verve, the belief that the world could and should change to fit that which should be Right…
And where he didn’t find that particular spark of revolutionary fervour, he did so like to create it.
“If you say so, Docteur,” Colm said softly. “I’m going to drop by the supermarket before I go home. You coming with me?”
Jean-Pierre shook his head, reaching into his pocket for his travel card. “I need to go to the witch’s market – I was running low on paint before we left Texas, and I need more – and I lost my enchanter’s hammer, so I need to pick up another one.”
“You can use mine.”
“It’s just a hammer – the wood will splinter when I pry off the skirting boards.”
“Oh, that’s what you’re going to do with it? You never use the blunt end?”
“Have you ever watched me do the house enchantments?”
“No,” Colm admitted, and Jean-Pierre laughed, shaking his head.
“Me ignorant? You have any idea what I’m going to pick up for the porch?”
“J’sais rien.” Jean-Pierre shrugged his shoulders. “Bricks?”
Jean-Pierre grinned, and he looked at Colm, at the good-natured grin on the other man’s face, felt Colm’s knuckles against his shoulder as he lightly punched Jean-Pierre on the arm.
Once they climbed onto the bus, Jean-Pierre leaned back in his seat, his arms crossed loosely over his belly, and he dropped his head onto Colm’s shoulder, feeling the muscle of it under his cheek. Colm leaned into him, so that their heads were together, and said, “You’re feeling sad.”
It wasn’t a question.
Jean-Pierre supposed that was one of the benefits of Colm’s particular predilections – there was no need to bother with questions, when it came to statements like this one.
“I’m not sad,” Jean-Pierre said softly. “I’m lonely.”
“You miss home? You could visit for a while.”
“I could. But it was never about the land, or the city, or the… the climate.” He thought of Jules, of lying beside him on warm summer nights as the rain fell down outside, of the first time they’d kissed in the rain, and fallen atop one another in a wheat field, where Jean-Pierre’s wings had come loose and left an angel’s imprint in the crop… “It was the people. My people. You understand that.”
“I do,” Colm agreed, his voice quiet, and serious in tone. “I do.”
“You will go home to Kerry?” He didn’t mention Berlin, and if Colm took particular notice of it, he didn’t let it show – it was a petty cut, anyway.
“Maybe,” Colm murmured. “Maybe. We’ll see.”
“The next is my stop. Do you need anything?”
“Iron salt for the garden, if you can find any. I know you’ll carve the proper wards into the fence for pests, but I like to have it just in case. You have your phone?”
Jean-Pierre nodded, and he stood to his feet, loosely wrapping his fingers around one of the poles to keep upright as the bus came to a stop. The melancholy that was settling in followed him like a cloud.
* * *
L’ange, as Aimé came to think of him, for an angel he certainly was, always possessed of a certain effervescence and with his halo of blond hair, became a regular passer-by on St Stephen’s green, often moving past the main path where Aimé tended to paint.
L’ange, on most days of the week, had a fairly predictable wardrobe. He wore tight pants, either tailored trousers or skinny jeans, and then he would wear cardigans or jumpers that were so large he almost swam in them – Aimé did not believe he had ever seen the angel wear a jumper with a hem higher than his mid-thigh, so that it almost might as well have been a dress. He often wore his hair loose, the finely blond hair bouncing merrily around his shoulders and upper arms, and he tended to wear a variety of shoes.
Aimé initially believed him to be the sort of rich, air-headed twink that was constantly in and out of the discount clothing stores, but he realised, over the course of April giving way to May, that he was seeing most of the same articles again and again, just worn in such different combinations that they seemed almost entirely new. L’ange had, Aimé suspected, four pairs of shoes: a pair of red trainers, two pairs of calf-high leather boots – one in black, one in brown – and a pair of black ankle boots with a gold buckle, which he wore on Sundays.
On Sundays, l’ange always dressed up – he wore one of his blouses, which were either white or in a pastel shade, with a waistcoat or a suit jacket overtop, and he never, ever wore jeans.
He was a practising Catholic, and actually went to Mass every Sunday.
The idea was unimaginable.
L’ange favoured bold colours in block formation: he did not wear patterns or prints, except for the complicated cording of some of his expensive-looking oversized jumpers, and occasionally, he wore scarves or hair ribbons with striped patterns, always in red and gold.
There were two men he regularly walked around with, and at least one of them was his brother, perhaps the other one too – the one Aimé had seen before, Colm, was shorter than his brother by nearly a head, but he was buff, often looked ready to pop out of the tight shirts he wore because of how muscled his arms and shoulders were. He had chestnut hair that was a mess of curls on the top of his head, and although Aimé never saw stubble grow on his jaw, he had thick sideburns, and his chest and arms were thickly thatched with curling hair. He had a scatter of freckles on his shoulders and arms, and some moles and marks on his face, and Aimé guessed from the twisted shape of his broad, flat nose that, like Aimé’s own, he’d had it broken at least once.
The other one, Aimé had never heard the name of, but he was taller than the others, possessed of broad shoulders and a model’s energy. He was Middle Eastern, Aimé thought, or maybe African – Aimé’s mother had a particular affection for badly written romance novels about being kidnapped by a handsome sheikh, and this man was handsome like the men on the covers of those, with the same kind of haughty arrogance, although his skin was much darker.
He didn’t think he was l’ange’s boyfriend, and that was the important thing.
When the angel walked by with Colm, there was an easy affection between them, and he was constantly leaning on his brother’s shoulder or walking arm-in-arm with him: Aimé had seen them wrestle in the park, once, laughing the whole time, and while he didn’t wrestle with the big guy, he’d twice seen him pick the angel up and throw him over his shoulder like he weighed nothing, and each time the angel had struggled without seeming all that much like he wanted to get free, beaming like sunshine.
Aimé liked to watch the people who passed by on Stephen’s Green, and at Christmas, see who passed by at the witches’ market.
You really did see all sorts of people – drunks stumbling along in the streets, people selling this and that, buskers with their instruments on their backs, rich ladies walking arm-in-arm to some overpriced café, tourists of every kind, every kind of fucking guard, homeless auld lads with their little trolleys in tow, kids running one way and the other, dads jogging, walkers of dogs, cats, and in one particular case Aimé held in high affection, a ferret, families off for a picnic…
And there was l’ange again.
Wrapped in a cardigan that Aimé suspected belonged to the bigger of his maybe-brothers, because it looked ready to fit three angels at least, he was walking alone, a smile on his face, his chin high and his gaze angled upward, watching the birds in the trees as he walked. No headphones – he never wore headphones, did l’ange.
Sighing softly around the cigarette held loosely between his lips, Aimé picked up his paintbrush, his can held loosely in his other hand, and returned to work.
* * *
Jean-Pierre hadn’t learned complex enchantment until after he had left France for the first time. He had learned a few small runic pieces here and there, but they were all single-purpose and could only be turned on and off, but any school child could do that.
The Revolution had been and gone, as had the turn of the century, and disillusioned by all that had come of it, he’d latched onto Asmodeus when he had passed through Arras, where Jean-Pierre had been practising medicine after his second bout of medical school.
They’d travelled west at first, spending time in Salzburg and travelling through Hungary before moving back east, and Jean-Pierre still remembered that first voyage to Dublin, how sick it had made him. When they’d left, he’d made the flight himself, meeting Colm and Asmodeus when they landed in Liverpool, and when later, they’d sailed east again, to Greece, he’d done the same – they’d landed in 1818, and had time enough to settle before joining the uprising.
He’d learned much of his skill with enchantment then, and only learned more when they’d travelled on again, further east.
Jean-Pierre was no master enchanter, but he didn’t need to be: he had prodigious skill in the areas he most needed it, and was no stranger to combining certain modes of the art under a crisis, for the benefit of explosive results. Colm liked actual explosives – he’d not come to develop that particular passion until after he’d been caught in an explosion in 1823, and now he had so innate an understanding of nitro-glycerine and its volatile moods that one would think the stuff ran in his veins – but Jean-Pierre favoured, where it could be managed, more atomic explosions, where one could achieve one’s desired result without fiddling for matches or fuses or powder.
But then, he wasn’t making anything explode, just now.
“You’re making quick progress,” Asmodeus said mildly, putting a cup of jasmine tea on the floor beside Jean-Pierre’s cross-legged seat on the floor, and Jean-Pierre smiled, dipping his brush in his paint brush and making rapid, sweeping strokes on the wall base, revealed where he’d pried off the skirting boards. Enchantment wasn’t so complicated an art – one channelled small amounts of magic through carved or drawn symbols, and the effects could last for centuries if one completed the circuit correctly. This particular work was time-consuming, but useful – Jean-Pierre used a variety of structures to ensure fire couldn’t catch the walls, to keep pests out, to strengthen magic performed within the house’s bounds, even some basic disinfecting measures that would run over surfaces.
There were other measures, of course – in every home Jean-Pierre had inhabited in the past two centuries, he could have an intruder eviscerated with very little blood with little more than a twist of his wrist and a trio of symbols drawn on the nearest flat surface, and that was without even considering his ability to blow the place to kingdom come, but so far, such measures had never proved necessary. It wasn’t as if they’d lacked hostile intruders, God only knew – but other defensive measures were more than easily employed.
“Is that new?” Asmodeus asked, gesturing with his toe to a series of inscribed symbols on the edge of the kitchen doorjamb.
“Not that new, I learned that when we spent that summer in New Bedford. I always put it in the kitchen, now – it’s a scent dampener, keeps strong smells from entering or exiting. I put it in the cellar, too.”
Asmodeus had dropped into a crouch, leaning back on his heels, and put on his glasses to examine the symbols in more detail, his lips twisted in concentration, and then he asked, “It’s specific to fish?”
“The first line is, the second is for meat, and the third is for alliums. You know Kirsten Waters?”
“I never visited you two when you were in Massachusetts,” Asmodeus reminded him.
“Her wife owns a fishing boat but the smell was too strong – she had all sorts of scent dampening charms, but the enchantment keeps it from expanding too far outward. You saw Mac Giolla Chríost?”
Asmodeus gave him an unappreciative look, his lips pressing tightly together, and Jean-Pierre could see the thought in the furrow of his brow as he took a sip of his coffee.
“Bedelia made tea. I explained that we’d moved to Dublin, that we’d probably see the two of them here and there – I explained that there was a Fall coming in Dublin, that I might ask for his help with it, depending on the circumstances.”
“We’ve not seen him at Mass.”
“He doesn’t go to the Latin Mass – he and Bedelia go to the Saturday evening Mass.”
“That one’s as Gaeilge,” Jean-Pierre said, finishing the final the symbol in his line with a flourish, and pressing his thumb to the paint, watching the silver turn molten under his touch as the whole circuit flared white hot for a moment, and then settle into place. He liked this new paint – it had only been developed in the past few years, but once you ran a magical current through it, it embossed itself onto whatever surface you’d painted it on, and it was much more long-lasting than paint used to be.
“Does that mean you approve?”
“I think Mass should be in Latin,” Jean-Pierre said.
“Because that’s what God would prefer,” Asmodeus said in dry tones, voice dripping with a venomous sarcasm, and Jean-Pierre didn’t bother to reply, because there was never any point when Asmodeus got catty about things like this.
Taking up the skirting board and beginning to fit it back into place, he said, “Did you tell him he was welcome to come around to the house?”
“What did he say?”
“He didn’t say anything. He doesn’t say much.”
“What does he do?”
“He’s a special needs assistant.”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“He helps children with special needs at school – children who need mobility aids, deaf children, blind children, kids with cognitive impairments…” Asmodeus made a gesture of “and so on” with his hands, and Jean-Pierre nodded his head. “He used to be a nurse, but the hours were too long once he had Bedelia, so the Embassy paid for him to go to school.”
Jean-Pierre considered this for a moment. He had never met Mac Giolla Chríost himself, or his mysterious daughter, but Colm had said on multiple occasions that he was a kind man, and had defended him when his name came up in conversations with other angels, when people talked about him with distrust or distaste.
“Did you push that through?”
Asmodeus watched Jean-Pierre, his expression revealing nothing. “What do you mean?”
“A lot of people at the Embassy don’t like him, don’t approve of Bedelia. Did you push through the approval for them to pay for him to take his course?”
“The Embassy is about to pay for medical training you’ve already had six times over.”
“I know – I think the Embassy should give grants for any course an angel wants to do. I’m asking if they resisted this one, because of his daughter.”
Asmodeus forgot, sometimes, Jean-Pierre suspected, that he and Colm knew better than to fall for bait that he threw into a conversation. Now, he leaned back on his heels again, watching Jean with his green eyes unblinking, too stubborn to look like he’d been caught out, and finally said, in a slow, measured way, “There was… a small protest of a minority of grant council members. It was soon eliminated.”
“What?” Asmodeus asked.
“You’re a good big brother.”
“And with that,” Asmodeus muttered, standing to his feet, “I take my leave. Have you eaten yet?”
Jean-Pierre shook his head, picking up his tea and drinking from the mug.
“I’ll get Colm, and we’ll go into town for something. When are his solar panels coming?”
“Five more days of complaints about the immersion in the meantime, then,” Asmodeus said under his breath, and Jean-Pierre laughed, pulling himself off the floor and putting the lid on his paint.
* * *
His mother had recently discovered the notion of organic, sustainable farming, which was how Aimé found himself at a painfully clean, cheerful restaurant on Dawson Street, which had reclaimed wood tables, white-painted walls, and offered thick, green, non-alcoholic drinks.
Having sustained an agonising forty-two minutes – against his better judgement, he had set his watch on the table, and had watched every second pass by – across from his mother and father both, Aimé now stood slowly to his feet, shrugging on his coat.
His father had said very little – he had made two wry comments about Aimé’s performance at university (or lack thereof), and two more about the amount of paint stains on his clothes. The only other thing he had said had been a rather pointed comment that Jamie Finnerty’s daughter, who had completed not only her BA in law, but a master’s besides, had recently had some of her paintings displayed in a theatre in Galway, and that she was pregnant with her second child.
His mother had said quite a lot, and very little of it had proved of relevance or interest to Aimé – she had talked at length about how she had recently been on a juice cleanse, and referred to her chickpea salad as “sinful” no less than three times.
In better news, there was a naggin of vodka awaiting him in the lockbox on his bike, and he would never have to step foot in this damned restaurant again, because his mother had argued at length with the server about whether she ought pay for their meal “because my husband’s barely touched his plate”, and declared that she would never return.
“All other reasons aside, cocaine should retain its ban for its contribution to musical theatre,” came the beautiful sound of a familiar, French-accented voice, and Aimé looked up as he pulled his hat onto his hand, dragging the wool edge down around his ears. “For example—"
“That is not an intelligent contribution to the conversation, and even if it were, it has been thirty-nine years,” said Colm, in long-suffering tones, his forehead pressed against the arm of the third brother. “If I hear you give me your speech about Cats one more time, Jean, I will sew your mouth shut.”
Jean. Standing in the queue between Colm and the older brother, Jean was dressed, for the first time since Aimé had laid eyes on him, in a t-shirt, and there were some drabs of black and silver paint staining his wrists and forearms: the t-shirt was printed with a complicated design of the flag of Haiti, and in a white banner underneath the coat of arms was written L’UNION FAIT LA FORCE. On his bare arms, which Aimé had never before seen, were two or three scattered scars like the one under his eye.
“I enjoyed it,” said the third brother in flat, emotionless tones. “I thought the choreography was inspired.” Jean whirled on his brothers, his expression a mask of fervent rage, and only marginally deflated when came the flat addition: “Kidding.”
Aimé smiled to himself as he put his hands in his pockets, and he stepped out into the street, putting his hands to his bicycle lock and clicking it open with a subtly drawn symbol on the metal chain, dropping it into his front basket before mounting his saddle.
For a few blissful moments, he thought only of the angel Jean, of his delicate wrists and the strange scars on his arms, of his accent, and his fiercely defended opinions. He remembered the naggin before his thoughts returned to his mother and father, and that was a small relief.