Hadriel Alighieri had always felt the presence of angels. Perhaps it was due to his Catholic upbringing, or it could have been something else. He did not know, and he never questioned it. He accepted the presence of angels as he accepted the notions of love. Both arrived undetected, and neither the cause for man’s misfortunes.
The morning he first met Sophia Paula bells tolled in the distance. She walked with her mother toward the church wearing a yellow dress. She displayed a natural haughtiness in her stride, her head high, and her back straight, her gait gave the impression she was impervious to gravity and walked among the clouds. Her short brown hair swept over her shoulders with bronze glints. Her momentum was not interrupted when she cast him a sidelong glance. It was as if someone whispered in her ear and she noticed Hadriel Alighieri as a result. From the terrace, he watched her as she passed. The songs of the girls jumping rope in the plaza, and the haggling between merchants and customers in the stalls faded.
Their eyes locked until she disappeared below the leaves of a mango tree. The casual glance into her emerald eyes lured him onto the path of unrequited love. In the midst of their adolescence, she became the angel condemned to linger in his heart.
It had been the first time Hadriel Alighieri raised his eyes from his books. He lived in his books, novels and works of history and mythology alike. His father worried that Hadriel suffered from a monomaniacal condition, for the boy seldom accepted invitations from the other boys in the village to play ball. That morning, he set his books aside and despite the heat, he dressed in the brown wool suit his grandfather gave him and followed the girl to the church.
The bells tolled. The congregation bottlenecked at the entrance. The exterior walls of the old basilica were brown with white trim and reached high into the heavens. Padre Carlo Coelho greeted everyone despite their social status in the village. His receding grey hair slicked back with aceite de coco, and his blue eyes friendly. His olive complexion darkened by the sun of the tropical region, spotted with brown moles on his skin and face.
When Hadriel appeared before him, his eyes lit up. He had not seen the boy in church for close to two years. Not since Hadriel had asked him: If God created everything, then who created God?
His reply, “God has always been,” did not suffice for the curious boy. And he never returned. They saw each other often in passing and greeted each other kindly. Padre Carlo Coelho consistently asked Hadriel, “Will we see you in church this Sunday?” Hadriel Alighieri politely answered that he would not attend. They had continued their dance whenever Padre Carlo Coelho found Hadriel Alighieri sitting on a bench in the plaza reading one of his books. Neither relented to the other’s position, nor did they challenge it. For the boy knew to be respectful of his elder, and the cleric maintained his faith that all of God’s children find their path to Him in their own time.
Padre Carlo Coelho welcomed Hadriel with open arms. When the sun peered over the horizon that morning, he knew this Sunday would be different. The cleric took Hadriel’s hand in his and greeted him kindly. The boy read the sincerity in the cleric’s expression, and would not yet confess that his presence was not because of God, but for one of His angels.
He passed through the arched entryway of the cathedral. Hadriel observed the Doric interior. Marble statues of angels and saints watched him from either side as he followed the procession of believers along the main aisle between the pews. Sunlight fell through the high stained glass windows. Despite his lack of faith in the God of Moses and Abraham, Hadriel Alighieri felt a familiar comfort as he made his way through the church. He scanned the multitude of familiar, and some unfamiliar faces looking for the girl whom he followed to the house of God. Though his presence had gone largely unnoticed, he felt he was being watched. Not by the people. Not by the girl. But by an unseen entity that hid among the paintings on the ceiling.
“Hadriel, mijo, I’m surprised you’re here.” His mother said.
He turned to her, startled. She shifted to make room for him. Her modest orange dress looked elegant with its a-line silhouette design, a fitted top and a pleated skirt that fell just below her knees. Her brown eyes glistened, the same shade as her long locks pulled back into a bun.
Hadriel Alighieri gazed around and sat beside her. She inquired about his presence. She studied him momentarily and grinned when he shrugged. Though he did not reveal his intentions, she knew why he had come. A mother always knows. She patted him gently on the knee and whispered. “God understands.”
Around them the congregation filled the pews, and greeted each other in lowered voices. Elders smiled at infants sleeping in their mother’s arms. Parents instructed their children to take their seats and to behave. Hadriel scanned the sea of faces for the girl. His hope of catching sight of her again was short-lived each time he saw a girl with short hair who turned and revealed a different face.
When he finally found her, he felt confident and hope. She sat between her parents at the fore of the church. She had not seen him. Sophia Paula, the girl with the green eyes and short brown hair. She did not know he existed. Not as a boy of twelve, and certainly not as the love of her life. Would he approach her after mass? If so, how and when and what would he say?
He sat there in the house of God. Silent. Hopeful. Changed. In the presence of an angel, Hadriel Alighieri discovered the whimsical notion of love.