Once upon a time an angel lost a feather. It hardly ever happens, only once every two or three hundred years, but it does happen. The angel was flying over a solitary lake, through the bluest waters of the sky; forests and blossoming meadows stretched as far as his eye could reach. He was enchanted to see such radiant beauty and descended to skim the water. It was then that he lost the feather. The water shivered as he passed, and when the angel rose towards the sky, the feather remained, afloat. No one had seen the angel; no one saw the feather. It was no more than a spot of light, shining like pure silver, and the water slowly carried it to shore.
Time passed, and there, where the angel’s feather lay, flowers began to bloom. They sprang from the water, with sparkling, transparent petals and long, thin stems that seemed like crystal. Such flowers had never been seen before, but there, in that solitary lake, they grew undisturbed. No one had ever arrived, except for the angel who lost the feather.
Then a man turned up, in the company of a woman. She was young and beautiful, and the man loved her ever so much: you could tell from the way he looked at her. They must have walked very far, because they were exhausted. They stopped by the shore of the lake and saw the flowers. The man was about to pick them, to present the woman with a gift (they were very poor, and that would have been his first gift). But she said no. Those flowers should not be picked, she said, they were too beautiful. To look at them was enough.
“Then let’s stay here,” said the man to the woman, “and build our house, so we can see them all the time.” And she nodded in agreement.
They stayed. He made her a house from the stones of the lake and the wood of the forests, and he decorated the windows with green branches and berries. He built an oven to bake bread and a loom to weave cloth, and for himself he made a plow.
“We don’t need a thing now,” said the man, and again the woman nodded.
But the soil in the forests was greedy. It brought forth berries and wild fruit, but sorry, stunted wheat, and there was never enough woven cloth, because frost singed the flax plants. Their first child was born, and the man wanted to present the woman with a precious stone. He loved her ever so much, but he had only a few coins in his pocket. Downhearted, he walked along the shore of the lake to pick at least one flower for her. But the wind had blown all through the night, tearing off the petals and scattering them in the water.
“Patience,” said the man. “I’ll gather them and make a garland.”
He returned home, took a net with a fine mesh, and began to collect the petals. When he had drawn in a small heap of them, he saw something squirm and glisten in the folds of the net. He looked and saw a tiny fish. It wasn’t like the ones he had caught so often, it was made of precious metal, pure silver, and its scales sparkled like gold.
Lost in wonder and happiness, the man brought it to the woman.
“I’ll go to the city to sell it, and I’ll buy a stone the color of your eyes.”
But the woman said no. Such a fish should not be sold, she said, it was too beautiful. To look at it was enough.
This time, however, the man did not heed her. He went to the city to sell the fish and buy a precious stone. Then he returned to the woman, satisfied.
“This is my gift,” he said as he offered it to her. But she did not smile.
In the meantime news of the silver fish had spread through the city, and a crowd of people set off on the road to reach the lake.
They hurled nets of every kind and shape and caught fish of every kind and shape, but none with a fin or single scale of silver. Nevertheless, they did not give up. They kept on fishing till the lake was emptied of fish, the water turned cloudy, and the stems of the flowers, now broken, were swept away by the current. No trace remained.
The woman thought that the flowers would never bloom again, and she felt immensely sad. She took the stone, which had bought such harm, and threw it into the lake. The man saw her and said nothing. But from that moment on they were no longer happy as before.
Summer passed and winter arrived, a winter of ice and storms. One night the child awoke in tears and the mother, to console him, began to sing. Her song flowed out through the closed window and traveled on the wind. An angel was passing by: it was pitch dark, a snowstorm was blowing, and the angel had lost his way. He heard that voice, gentle and pure, and thought that he had arrived home. He followed the wind, flew low over the lake, and only when he was before the window did he know that he was mistaken. But that song was so beautiful that the angel stopped to listen.
The woman sang a long while, till the child had fallen asleep again, and the angel stayed at the window, listening. Then he beat his wings in silence and flew away.
Perhaps it was then that the wind plucked off his feather. In the morning it lay on the frozen lake and sparkled like pure silver.
No one noticed; they thought it was a sheet of sunlight. But in spring, when the ice melted, the stems of crystal sprouted from the lake and bloomed anew.
The man and the woman never knew about the angel. But they were happy again.
First published as “La piuma dell’angelo,” pp. 7-11 in Angeli (Trieste: Einaudi Ragazzi, 1999). Copyright 1999, 2002 by Edizioni El. English translation copyright by Lawrence Venuti. Image by Fausto Bianchi courtesy of Einaudi Ragazzi.