Every very year around this time, I take out “The Flammable Angel” and I read it or tell it again. I wrote it in the 90’s as part of a short story collection called A. Seeker’s Storybook, which was published by the Canadian Career Development Foundation. Albert Seeker is a fictional character who keeps encountering mythical stories as he searches for a meaningful place for himself in the world. Every story touches him in some way, and encourages him to keep flying through the winds of doubt to keep his dream alive and realize it on earth.
For me, it’s a story about compassion that goes out to all my compassionate friends.
The wonderful, smoky illustration is by Richard Leach, who illustrated all the stories in the collection.
The Flammable Angel
There once was an angel named Patsy who got her wings burnt on the first day of the job. After that, she didn’t want go to work anymore. She sat on the steps of the heavenly temple and watched while the other angels took their harps and streamed down to the fiery earth. They were proud of their ability to stand in the flames of human suffering and not get scorched. They would play their harps to comfort people, but most of the time their music went unheard. They just played their harps while the fires burned, happy to be angels and above things.
Patsy’s wings were all crispy and blackened at the tips, and she had burnt her breast so badly that it hurt to fly. She had hardly approached earth when she went up in flames. Luckily, a big angel stepped in and snatched her out of the fire, but Patsy returned to heaven in a terrible mess. She had lost her harp, to say nothing of her dignity.
The other angels looked down and said: “Oh, isn’t that terrible, there, there dear,” and, “You’ll heal in time, you just rest now,” but when Patsy wasn’t looking they glanced at one another with raised eyebrows and wondered what business she had in heaven. Angels weren’t supposed to get burnt. Oh, it happened on occasion that a very mature angel might take a little browning after overextending herself, but it usually took no more than a good night’s rest for her wings to return to their dazzling snow-whiteness.
As for her own peers, they didn’t speak to Patsy at all—with the exception of a tiny angel named Cora. She sat with Patsy on the steps of the angelic temple and watched as the other angels swept past and disappeared under billowing white clouds. She huddled close, like a little owl. Cora had been in heaven a long time, but she had not grown in greatness like the others. She had stayed small. She preferred to stay small, she said. When you’re small you can get into small places, and small fires can be put out.
Patsy hung her head. “Angels aren’t supposed to be flammable, are they?”
“I don’t think so,” said Cora. “You’re the first.”
“Why was I made an angel if I can’t do the work? I’ve got no reason for being here at all.”
“Oh yes you do,” said Cora. She picked off bits of Patsy’s burnt wing tips and watched the singe float down through the clouds. “God put you here for a reason, even if we don’t know what it is.”
Cora looked at her with widening round eyes. “Maybe you need to find out.”
“You mean, from God?”
“Absolutely. Go right to the top.”
They gazed over their shoulders at the towering purple mountain with the white spiral road that led to the palace where God lived. Right then and there, Patsy knew what to do.
During the time that it took for her wings to grow back, Patsy took short flights around her home colony, Cloud 9, in preparation for take-off. She would need all her strength to fly through the windy region that separated the home of the angels from Mount Divine. There, the tails of the four winds met and lashed the air-bound traveller with such force that only a very courageous angel with furious conviction could hope to make it through.
One morning, before any of the other angels had risen, Patsy headed off through the winds. She took quite a beating but by mid-afternoon she had come out the other end, and there is no describing the gladness she felt when her foot finally touched solid (albeit, soft and cloudy) ground. She stumbled forward rubbing her stinging eyes, and, for that reason, she didn’t notice the huge green dragon who lay sleeping in the field with his chin on the road and his tail coiled around the base of the mountain. She bumped right into the side of his head!
The beast woke up with a start and reared back on his haunches. He roared, sending a blast of fire across the road that scorched a swath of trees on the other side. Patsy sprang back in terror, but when the dragon saw who had disturbed his nap—an angel, and not much of a specimen at that—his yellow eyes rolled back in his head, and his chin came crashing down on the road. He had just started a new dream when he heard a tiny voice say:
“Pardon me, but I would like to get by, if you wouldn’t mind. I need to see God.”
He lifted his heavy head and yawned. “Ah yes, well you know the rules. Those who want to see God have to walk through fire first. I’m sure you’re as excited as I am about your big test.” His tone was decidedly sarcastic. He opened his jaws, let out a sigh of fire, and then dropped his chin back on the road.
Patsy crossed her arms and stood her ground. “If you expect me to walk through fire, I can’t.”
“Why not, pray tell?” The dragon opened an eye, which didn’t even so much as flicker with interest.
“Because I’m flammable, that’s why.”
The dragon grinned and then he began to chuckle, causing the mountain to teeter and totter dangerously. “Hehe, that’s a good one. A flammable angel. Now seriously, go on through before I blow you back to the winds. Poof!” A ball of fire shot from his mouth and poof went Patsy! The dragon reared up declaring: “Heavens to Betsy!” and threw himself over the burning girl to snuff the flames out.
After some time, Patsy wriggled out from underneath his belly. She was a sorry sight to behold. Her wings were scorched, her face and hands were covered in soot, and her once-white feathered hair stuck up in short black spikes around her head.
When the dragon saw what he had done to the delicate little angel, his heart burst, which is saying something because this guy didn’t even know he had a heart, much less that it could burst! He wept, sending a waterfall of tears down his cheeks, so many tears that he nearly drowned the poor blackened angel.
“You weren’t supposed to get burnt,” he snuffled. “I never burnt an angel in all my life. Does it hurt?”
“Yes it hurts very much.”
“Oh gosh, I’m so sorry. I never thought I had the power to burn an angel.”
In spite of her burns, Patsy had to laugh. The mere act of the dragon’s sobbing had caused the sky to crack and the mountain to rumble and rock. “Why you’re the most powerful being I’ve ever met,” she said.
“I am? I just thought I was a big, useless … well you know, roadblock.”
“Well you’re not. You’re a Very Important Dragon. Maybe if you took your job more seriously, the other angels wouldn’t think they were so indestructible.”
“Now may I please go through?”
“Of course, I beg your pardon.” The dragon got himself out of her way, completely forgetting the test. Then he sank into thought, and that’s how Patsy left him, all hunkered over at the edge of the road with his chin on his belly. Thinking, thinking.
Patsy made her way up the steep path. It wound round and round without ever seeming to go up. The scenery was always the same. Ahead, emerald green pine trees with soft translucent bristles. Above, cloudless blue sky. Below, many large fluffy white clouds, each a floating island with a temple nested in its center. After Patsy rounded the mountain the thirteenth time, she found herself standing before the shining White Palace where God lived. No one stood at the gate to greet her, so she let herself in through the big golden doors.
When Patsy entered the Divine Hall, she found herself completely in the dark. Contrary to angelic lore, the Hall was not filled with pure white light, nor did God sit on a golden throne. There was no God to be seen at all. Only one simple flame burned in the center of the room. Patsy walked slowly towards it, and as she did she felt … well this may sound strange, but she felt as if a huge Ear were pressed to her heart, and the closer she got the more deeply the Ear heard.
“God?” she whispered.
“Uh huh.” The voice came from the same place as the Ear. She felt as if she were holding a very dear friend to her breast, not a great big impressive friend but a friend who was perhaps very small, like Cora, who had been waiting a long time to see her and had been very lonely in the meanwhile.
“I’ve come to find out what I’m supposed to be doing in heaven, God. I don’t belong. I’m not like the others. I’m flammable.”
“I know,” said God. “So am I.” Then there was just silence, and listening, and a great deal of comfort passed between. Finally God whispered, “Angels are meant to be flammable.”
Patsy wanted to tell God that most angels considered themselves to be non-flammable, and maybe if the dragon hadn’t been sleeping on the job, there would be more flammable ones, but she decided to hold her tongue. She felt that she should perhaps not take up anymore of God’s time, but she did have one more … well, burning question to ask.
“How do I keep from going up in flames?”
God thought for a while and then said, “Imagine I am a collector of angels, and I have two angels that are very dear to me. One of them is very delicate, old, and hand-made. The other one is store-bought, made in a factory and indestructible. Which angel do you think I am going to be most careful with?
“Well, the delicate one, of course.”
“And so it is with you, Patsy. Stay flammable, just the way you are, and while you’re looking after others, I’ll look after you.”
It wasn’t exactly the answer that Patsy was hoping for. She would have preferred some antidote for flammability or something, but she was nonetheless comforted. She thanked God with all her heart, pulled herself away from that warm, intimate Presence, and made her way out of heaven.
Down the spiraling road she went. When she came around the last curve, there was the dragon, craning his head up the road. He offered to give her a ride back to her home cloud, and she gratefully accepted. He lifted her up, gently tucked her into the folds of his belly, and together they flew down through the tail of the winds.
The next day, Patsy the blackened angel sat with Cora on the steps of the angelic temple while the other greater angels got ready for work. Laughing, joking and carrying on, they streamed down the stairs and disappeared under white billowy clouds. Cora put a small wing around Patsy’s charred back and listened as she related the whole story. Afterwards they sat in silence, staring down into the clouds.
“So, are you ready?” Cora asked finally.
“As ready as I’ll ever be.”
They spread their wings and flew down towards the earth where fires broke out day and night—here, there and everywhere. Patsy started out very much afraid, but she trusted that God was looking out for her, and she flew straight down into the pain. Oh yes, she caught fire, but when she lit up, the most beautiful, compassionate angel would appear, and the person would feel so comforted that all the fires of pain would go out, sometimes for as long as forever. Patsy’s wings never whitened, but no angel in heaven was more effective than her at dousing flames. Seeing this, the others stopped scorning her and began to discuss the virtues of getting a little burned. As time went by, a few brave souls set off through the winds in search of their own flammability, which the dragon—who now took his job very seriously—made sure they found.