His Ministers a Flame of Fire

by T.B. Jeremiah

Our Father, who art in Heaven, I don’t know what’s going on anymore.


Here is Ed Brady. He is trying to sleep on the settee that takes up one end of the first room of the pair he shares with Mama and Rory and Fing. They are all crowded into the bedroom; the settee is Ed’s statement of independence. He curls his spine into the sloped back and burrows his face into the crook of his sweaty elbow, trying vainly to apply more pressure to his eyes. He is having the visions again (three suns rise over a field where a dead pony and a small train dance slow waltzes). This is not so bad in itself—you get used to them—but with the visions (the man walks along a narrow boardwalk and the sharks snap at his feet) comes the headache, and right now a ball of throbbing pain is expanding and contracting gently in the space above and behind his eyes. He is making an effort to keep his jaw loose, because he has observed that when he gives in to the tooth-clenching instinct, the pain increases subtly.

Earlier he was whining gently to himself, as much frustration as agony (Fing is standing before a chalkboard but the words are on fire and they cast his face into shadow). Now he is silent, aside from the commotion whenever he rolls over in an attempt to shift his internal balance and throw the pain off for just a moment. He thinks of it as a hot-breathing predator, and like any wily prey animal he has tricks and strategies to evade the pursuing ache. The total darkness in this room, stifling curtains drawn despite the summer air, is one of those strategies (the wolf’s eyes are bright, bright blue and he snaps his bloody jaws over the handsome god’s hand). Total darkness, the nearest thing to total silence, and always the pressure on his eyes.

The pain pounces; there is no one crescendo, but the throbbing dilates beyond endurance, just beyond sanity, and even the flow of visions is interrupted. He grinds the heels of his hands into his eyes, gasping aloud, repeating words he doesn’t even hear, thrashing because the ache drives convulsive energy into every cranny of his body.

Then cold fingers close on his elbow, and the suddenness of it turns him rigid. For a long instant he does not move and barely breathes. The hand on his elbow does not tighten its grip, but it remains and at last he removes his hands from his eyes. It releases him then. He squints at the person standing beside the settee, whom he can make out because she glows gentle white. Her outline is blurry.

She requires a paragraph to herself. She is slender, and not tall—about Ed’s height, perhaps—but she fills her inches with herself more completely than anyone Ed has ever seen. He is not entirely sure that she is a woman, but she can’t possibly be a man. She is clothed, but the flowing thing that obscures her figure is not a dress. It is more like an extension of herself. It has a hood. Her face shines pale blue with great luminous eyes, and she does not seem to have a nose. She has wings, which Ed can tell are too big and colorful for him to see truly even with his vision-bright eyes.

Perhaps she is a vision herself (faintly a dragon rises in never-ending coils through the branches of the great tree). Or a fairy. Then she puts her hand on his forehead, and it is irrelevant because she is so cold, so wonderfully cold, and the frigidity of her palm is the one thing in all the universe that he longs for. It surrounds the spiky ball of agony in his head with ice and blessings.


I thought she was an angel, anyway, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do anything wrong if she wasn’t, she never said she was. I didn’t want her to just be a vision or a pooka. I’m tired of them. They never do me any good, I don’t know why I’ve got to be the one to see all these weirdy things. I thought she might be a miracle, miracles can happen to anyone, they don’t mean I’m weird. I’m so sick of being weird, Mama says it’s your will but I don’t understand why, it doesn’t do any good, the visions just make things hurt more. I know there must be a reason but I just don’t understand.


The next time Ed has the visions (sweet roses in heaps while the white-faced king awaits the noose) he hopes for her return, but she does not appear. Instead Rory staggers out to join him on the settee, whining and pawing at his own head. Rory gets headaches, too—but not because of the visions (the dark-eyed bear staggers blindly down the alley knocking dustbins as he goes), Rory doesn’t have the Sight like Ed and Fing. Rory is just sickly. Ed sits up and lets his brother huddle beside him, though another body on the settee is maddeningly hot in the clotted dark. Rory puts his forehead against Ed’s shoulder; he too seeks resistance to relieve the pounding within. Ed drapes his arm across his own eyes once more (the quiet woman in emeralds and brocade bleeds herself of starlight).

“I’m sorry,” Rory says.

“For what?” says Ed (one by one the streetlights dance themselves into nothing by the banks of the dead river). He tries to ignore the way his shirt sticks to his back.

“I’m stupid.”

“Dammit, Rory!” Ed says.

Sorry,” says Rory, and Ed relents because of the thickness of his brother’s voice and knowing that the spiral of apologies will not stop if he stays angry.

“So who’s been saying you’re stupid?” He wrinkles his nose, wanders a hand over his spectacles on the stacked shoeboxes, but refrains from putting them on (the windows choked with desperate fish trying to escape the burning building). Rory does not respond immediately. “Huh?”

“Nobody said.” Rory sits up. Ed lowers his arm and puts it around Rory’s narrow sweat-damp shoulders, and he can feel the series of cobblestone scars against his skin. These are small scars; the big ones are on Rory’s face. “I know I’m stupid, I can’t do things.” Ed shuts his eyes (four little pigs eat the slobbering wolf in a smoky cabin), swallowing again the dark acid. He hugs Rory, as hard as he can. It’s not God who made his brother sickly—Ed will not blame God for the things that happened to Rory. The people to blame know what they did, even if Ed will never know their names. He wonders sometimes if he has met them without realizing on the walk home from school, or even in school. This hurts almost as much as the visions, and so he tries to take them both somewhere else.

“I once knew a hero with easy eyes,” he says. “He goes upside-down daisy over the hedges with the sun on his curls. He’s starshine and moondust and he runs like an antelope, oh how he runs. He’s half-tiger half-jack-in-the-box, he’s got a great big gun called Marianne, and he hunts the biggest fiercest monsters of Italy and Spain. He’s the biggest, bestest, fastest anywhere, and there’s a demon-prince who wants him, but he won’t go, because he’s a big ol’ hero. And the demon cursed him with bad magic that makes his luck go wrong, but he don’t care ’cos he doesn’t need nothing and nobody as long as he’s got his brothers.”


The visions didn’t help Rory, they never help anyone, I can’t interpret them. I would’ve helped Rory if I’d known what was going to happen. I’d’ve been with him, I’d’ve protected him. You sent interpretations to Daniel, I wish someone up there would help me just a little. I know I’m not a prophet or anything, but I don’t understand why you let me have the visions when I can’t understand them. I couldn’t help her, either.


Another hot night. In a sane moment, when the pain is not so bad and the visions are just a quiet hum (three starlings impaled on the tight-stretched green wire), Ed thinks about the pooka that lives on the corner, a big round person with shaggy fur and a cat’s face. It must be awful having all that fur on a night like this. How do they stand it? He flips his pillow and clamps it over his face. Ten seconds later his body heat has rendered this side of the pillow intolerable, and the cotton is now smothery. He goes back to the arm over the eyes. His head is getting worse again.

This time when she arrives the pain is at ebb, and Ed hears the liquid sound of her entrance. He peers at her from beneath his forearm; she looks back at him with those white eyes that seem to have no pupils. Their regard extends, stretches, thinner and thinner, until the pain seizes opportunity and digs its pulsing claws into his eyes (the prime minister’s head falls down the stairs with a strangely wooden thunk). And then as before her hand is there on his forehead, and instead of the dark explosive red of agony-clenched eyes there are circles of blue, purple, gently shifting on the inside of his eyelids. He can feel the coldness of her skin not just where her fingers tangle themselves in his hair but dropping the temperature of the air around her. How can anyone be that cold, he wonders.

After they have sat together for a while, Ed opens his eyes (deep ocean fish nibble at the floating giant’s toes). She is sitting on the shoeboxes, her free hand playing with his spectacles. She shouldn’t be light enough to balance on the shoeboxes. She peers earnestly from shadow to shadow; there is something tense in her that he does not remember seeing before. He shifts his weight and levers himself up onto his elbows; she does not remove her beautiful frigid hand. He is afraid to speak to her, but the awkwardness of sitting in the dark with a stranger grows ticklier and ticklier.

“Are you a pooka?” he says. She tilts her head to one side, shakes it. But she does not vanish. Encouraged, “Are you an angel? You look like an angel.” In response she puts on his spectacles, absurd broken things on her impassible face. She answers every question with a gesture such as this, and at length Ed gives up and closes his eyes again (sweet Mercy Brown makes faces in class until the ceiling collapses). She runs her fingers through his hair, then returns the goodness of her cold hand to his forehead.

“Thank you,” he says. After that they are both silent.


She was so good, she never hurt anyone. I don’t understand, I don’t understand, oh God I don’t understand. Please, I just want to understand, please. And please someone have mercy on her, I don’t know what to ask for her.


Her visits continue, though not regularly. Sometimes Ed gets headache after headache in miserable solitude. It gets harder to ignore the visions when she is not there. But trying to interpret them, trying to guess whose future they portend, whose secrets they reveal, does not relieve the ache. He wishes she’d show up more frequently. When she does, she never talks, simply sits beside the settee and makes the headaches more bearable. He notices that she avoids Rory and Fing, and he doesn’t like to mention her to them. It could be bad luck.

In early October Ed gets the visions in school, and the teacher doesn’t care until he vomits on his desk (a murder of crows fills the sky until one great raven stills their fury). He is sent home by himself. Staggering down dirty old Candle Street half here, half elsewhere, and all windblown misery, he meets her again. She creates a stillness in the midst of all the busy afternoon people, who skirt her without looking. She sanctifies the lilac chemists’ sign under which she stands (three tiny figures scale the blue-gold cliff, while the silent statue watches them struggle).

“What are you doing out here?” he croaks. She shrugs and puts a hand on his shoulder (the trees scream in the green light). He rubs the back of his hand across his mouth, for the sea-rhythm of nausea is back, and he has begun to salivate ominously. All around him are the street smells of people and food and refuse, intensified to the point of pain (the lovers flee the flooded cellar, wearing rags of blue velvet). He can pick them out one by one with terrible clarity, the wrenching whiff of a fat-spitting sausage, the unbearable foulness of a rotten cat, the even more maddening sweetness of cheap cologne. A man hurries past them, and the oniony reek of his breath makes Ed retch. A bead of spittle now trembles on his lower lip. The people who notice him are trying not to look.

Ed wants to drop to a crouch at the angel’s feet (the silent rows of lamps illuminate the endlessly circling skaters). Even the other fairies cannot see her, he realizes through the obscurity of his rebelling body (the long-faced girl paints her skin green, one delicate stroke at a time).

There is an unexpected wave of heat, so sudden and overwhelming that Ed is distracted from his own troubles. It comes from a man in a black coat across the street—no, not a man, Ed sees when he focuses (the tall boy writes letters dripping with blood to his sweet-faced friend). A tall black thing like a hooded pillar of ink, and the people give this one an even wider berth. Then Ed feels a new pain in his arm and finds that his angel has his wrist in a grip so hard he can feel his bones protest. It is enough to drive the other pain out. She is staring at the black thing.

It steps from the curb and she leaps forward, and all around Ed is an explosion of light and the flurry of cold feathers on his face, and they plunge through a hole in the world that was not there before, the wind screaming in his ears and his heart jerked to a halt and a great emptiness and the light becomes so strong that it is like darkness.

They are home, and the angel watches while Ed vomits again on the lean rug.


Why would anyone want to hurt her? Please keep us safe from the black thing, I don’t know what’s going on and I’m scared. Don’t let it hurt Mama or Rory or Fing. Please don’t let any more trouble happen to us. Why are you doing this to us?


Here is Ed examining the statue of an angel at church, a small chippy-plastery thing in keeping with other attempts to overcome the utilitarianism of the building: religious art in lieu of stained glass, never quite enough flowers to hide the ugliness of this brick cigar box. But there is the hand-carved pulpit—the oldest thing here, but old with sorrow rather than tradition—and there is Reverend Flavell, whose fierce erudition cannot inject life into the parish. The vestibule in which Ed and the statue stand is empty, but this is what Ed wanted, why he lingered while Mama and Rory and Fing went on home. The statue doesn’t look very much like his angel; it depicts a round-faced person, not quite a man but not quite a woman, with a suspiciously innocent expression and small hands. The wings are painted red and green.

“Ed Brady?” says Reverend Flavell behind him. Ed turns, and discovers that while Mama and Rory went home, Fing did not; he is standing next to the pastor looking sulky. “Fing and I have been talking,” Reverend Flavell continues, putting a hand on Fing’s curly head. Fing scowls more deeply. In the moldy dimness of the vestibule his eyes are almost lost in shadow. Even Reverend Flavell’s round face is made of angles and facets in this light.

“Oh,” says Ed. Automatically he extends his hand, but Fing remains at Reverend Flavell’s side. “Com’ere, you little whoreson—I’m sorry, Father, I’m sorry. Sorry.” He sounds like Rory, apologizing too many times. His head begins to feel odd—the off-kilter tickle he has come to associate with uncanny things. But it must be embarrassment this time.

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, as our Roman friends say,” Reverend Flavell says, and exposes the shy grin that surprises parishioners, especially those who suspect loudly that he cares more about things, ideas, than people. “I think that’s sufficient. Fing has been talking to me about your headaches.”

“Oh, those,” says Ed. “They just—I’ve been getting ’em for a while. They started when… when I got the visions, and all.” He hopes Reverend Flavell will not notice the hitch in his voice. It doesn’t seem right to be talking about the visions in church. The vestibule is chilly with October air, chilly with disapproval. The building itself dislikes this topic.

“Your ma told me, yes,” says Reverend Flavell. Ed looks at the angel statue. He didn’t know that Mama went to Reverend Flavell about the visions. He thinks of them as his own private ordeal. He wonders what Mama said. “Fing was saying that he’s worried about you.”

“I didn’t say—” Fing begins. Ed and Reverend Flavell both look at him. “The numbers said it,” he mumbles. “They said they were scared. They said… bad things were happening.”

“He talks to numbers,” Ed says hurriedly. Fing shouldn’t be talking like that everywhere, he knows better. The visions are one thing, people get that even if they don’t like it, but the numbers and fairies and really weird things, that’s why people avoid them, or do worse things. That’s why Rory… Ed tries to salvage. “It’s like the visions, a little bit.”

“I know,” says Reverend Flavell. And there is a hurriedness in his voice, an anxious vibration inappropriate to his role in this conversation. Ed looks up and finds that Reverend Flavell has leaned forward conspiratorially. “They still talk to me sometimes.”

It is not immediate, Ed’s realization; at first the words slip through his ears easily. Then he sees the quiver in Reverend Flavell’s face, eagerness and fear. He looks less like a minister and more like one of the bigger kids at school, with that awkward smile and crooked front teeth. The deep space behind Ed’s eyes tickles more than ever, and now it might be embarrassment or the other. He swallows and looks again at Fing, who is staring wholeheartedly at Reverend Flavell. The church is frigid around them.

“They talk to you?” Fing says.

“Not often,” says Reverend Flavell. “I learned not to hear or see those things anymore, so I could become a minister.”

His expression is not regretful, but for once Ed gets a clear vision, of a great and respectful silence where one lumpy figure sits reading the same words over and over.


I know I ought to’ve owned up to Reverend Flavell about her, he might’ve understood. I shouldn’t’ve lied, that was a sin, I know, I’m so sorry. Am I being punished for lying?


“Ed,” says Mama. Ed is trying to read, which is hard because his mind is a little slippy and he doesn’t know why (fishes flying through the dark). His head doesn’t hurt, mercifully, although everything is a little overloud and he catches himself yawning. But Mama is talking and so Ed ignores the warning signs, tries to listen. Her voice is more fibrous than it used to be, and more fretful. She smokes too much. “—said you’d skipped school.”

“I didn’t either,” Ed says, indignant. She keeps talking, and his attention drifts again (the hangman weeps tears that roll, like beads of honey, from the eyeholes of his mask). Her voice batters against him, against the walls of the room, against the rain-glazed window. Ed, frustrated, turns around and buries his regard in the book, so that her meaningless rebukes rebound off the shoulders of his jacket. There is a faint throb in his forehead, not quite there but not quite not (delight marks the corners of the chalk outline with drops of blood). Then Mama grabs him by the shoulder and he looks around, surprised because she is breathing heavy anger.

“Don’t turn your back on me,” she says.

“Sorry,” Ed says, but he says it wrong.

“You want to talk to your mother like that?” she barks. Her anger does not stop, and Ed doesn’t know how to placate her. She is so furious, like a maddened stoat, that he gets up and walks to the window, but she follows him. He has no more answers for her; repeating “I’m sorry,” seems only to make things worse. He looks out the window (the bleak hillside is swept by a green-shining wind and the knights topple).

The black thing is standing in the middle of the street, looking straight up at him. Hot black horror runs along the connection, and overwhelmed by the stifling wave of it Ed jerks back from the window, the whole room is buzzing and sparking in his ears and his heart is the only thing he can hear and the hairs on his arms, the back of his neck, his wrists scream in upright terror, the echoing chamber of his mind, the place behind his eyes is collapsing in agony and the total panic of the rabbit when the fox springs (the rabbit leaps, bucking, its spine snaps and the roll of its white dying eyes).

The black fear is so searing it’s white, it’s red, it sinks into his skin sizzling.

Mama is holding him. They are both sitting on the dust-tracked floor and Mama has her hands on his shoulders, she’s shouting at him.

“Ed, wake up, wake up, Eddie, wake up.”


But even if I’d told Reverend Flavell or Mama, what could they do?


Here is Ed lying in the uneasy fever dreams of pain; when he is not having the visions (gold flakes fall relentless in the moonlight on the stone dogs), he drifts from one half-formed thought to another. It is not the worst night, by any stretch, and he is lucid enough to feel that lying here with his arm over his eyes is absurd. He feels restive, if not wakeful, and sometimes between the big waves of pain he thinks he could get up and do something. Even more absurd, because the light and the noise would wake someone. Only he’s been lying here for hours and he’s sick of it, his joints itchy (the third owl is the one with the answer, but Julius goes to the first and is devoured).

It has been a long time since he last saw the angel. Once, curled cold and miserable beneath a thin blanket with the pain stabbing through like icicles (beneath the castle the white-skinned worm sinks deadly winter teeth into the foundations), he thought he felt a brush of something soft across his shoulder—but when he sat up, blinking wildly and trying to make out any faint luminosity, there was nothing. He wonders if she is gone for good (silence has come to the forest and the glory-trees are stripped of their purple leaves).

Were it not for the visions, and the pain, lying here in this irresponsible unreality might be enjoyable. It is a quiet place without time. It is at once chilly and sweaty. It is neither waking nor sleeping. It is the in-between place, the gateway to dreams (the last princess dances on bloody feet among the clamshells). And it breaks up every time pain clamps red-strange claws around the dark space behind his eyes. Inadvertently Ed makes a fretful noise in the roof of his mouth. The sound rouses him somewhat, startles the pain away. Is it gone for good? Often when it leaves it does so with such stealthy feet that he cannot point to the moment. So he sits up, hoping against hope. It has gone, and he is full of energy.

Then, with a flap of heavy stubby wings agony careens back into him. Whispering an obscenity, he drops back. This is another old ritual. Sometimes sitting up quickly drives the pain off for a moment, just long enough to raise hope. Ed rolls over and buries his face into his pillow, shifting so that all his weight drives his pain-ridged forehead into the settee. He does not realize (the train glides across the tops of the pine trees) that this makes his bottom stick up.

She arrives just as he has determined to roll over and seek refuge in his elbow again. There is a rushing noise (he doesn’t remember the rushing noise last time) and a patchwork of bitter cold and fierce heat. He sits up. She stands on the rug—stand is too generous a word, she is upright but only just. Her garment is torn and her paleness is all dappled with black. Ed finds his glasses with one hand and puts them on.

“Are you all right?” he says. Stupid question. She totters into the arm of the settee; Ed puts out a hand to steady her and cries out because it meets something wet and searing. Then she collapses into him, curling her fingers into the fabric of his pajamas and burying her face in his knees, and aside from a few icy patches she is fiercely hot, and the wet stuff is the hottest of all.

“What’s wrong?” he asks. She does not answer, but she is shaking from head to foot. Her wings flicker in Ed’s face and he has to push aside the feathers to look at her. He wants to ask her who or what has injured her, whether it is coming back, what he can do to make her better. Instead he cradles her lolling head, trying not to mind the rising heat of her against his body. He doesn’t really need to ask her what happened; he already knows that the burning black thing has done this to her. But why is her blood so hot, and why does she only get hotter and hotter? Soon she will be too hot to hold, but Ed cannot bring himself to push her away. She shudders again and again.

“Please, what can I do?” he whispers to her. She shakes her head without raising it. And then strange things begin to happen in Ed’s brain, things like visions but tasting worse. Red things and yellow things and fierce sickly green things, dripping like sap through his awareness and making it hard to see the room around him. Toothy things, blood-raw things, and then high shining things with a cry like a thousand trumpets. The only sure thing, the only solid thing, is that he is rocking the angel back and forth in his arms, and he thinks he is crying. The heat is unthinkable. Her wings are knocking things over.

The angel makes a noise like a faltering violin.

It burns beyond all sanity.

Ed is alone on the settee. His voice wails; there are burns all up and down his arms and on his knees. People come in—Mama, Rory, Fing. There is light. His pajamas are soaked with the black angel blood already cooling.

(Isaiah on the mountain and the coal of fire is not to be found and he is burnt up)


God, I don’t understand, if I could just understand.

T.B. Jeremiah draws on decades of experience with migraine for this story. She lives farther than she’d like from some old mountains, with an AI researcher and a lot of plants, writing sad stories and drawing silly pictures of monsters. Previously she has been a janitor, history instructor, nonprofit marketing drone, and freelance illustrator and designer. Her fiction has been published in Amazing Stories and Bourbon Penn. Find her at www.tbjeremiah.com or @tb_jeremiah.

“His Ministers a Flame of Fire” by T.B. Jeremiah. Copyright © 2020 by T.B. Jeremiah.

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