From Sand and Ash

By: Amy Harmon


24 March, 1944

Angelo must have slept in the damp grass beside the road for a while, but the evening was cold and his cassock was thin, and he awoke, shivering. Even that small movement made him moan, but at least the sharp pain along his right side revived him. It was dark, and his mouth was so dry he licked the dew from the grass near his face. He had to move in order to get warm, and he had to move to find water. He had to move to find Eva.

He struggled to his feet and took a step, then another, telling himself that walking wouldn’t hurt as badly as lying down. Each breath felt like fire, and he was pretty sure a few of his ribs were broken. The darkness and his bad leg made each step precarious, but he found the posture that hurt the least and settled into a sort of rhythm, limping along the Via Ardeatina toward Rome. At least he hoped he was going toward Rome. God help him if he was turned around. He could barely see out of his right eye, his left eye was swollen shut, and his nose was broken. No loss there. It had never been his best feature. He was missing three fingernails on his right hand, and the smallest finger on his left was broken. At one point he stumbled and fell, only to catch himself on his oddly bent pinkie. The pain had him retching and seeing stars, fighting to remain conscious. He gingerly pushed himself onto his knees so he could moan a prayer to the Madonna, begging her to help him just a little longer. She did, and he kept moving.

It wasn’t that far to the Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere—five miles, maybe? But he was moving so slowly it would take him hours to reach it, and he had no idea what time it was. The darkness was welcome, if only to hide him. He was supposed to be dead, and he would be safer if people continued to believe it. He could only imagine how he looked—hair matted with blood and grime, his cassock filthy with gore and stinking of sweat and death. He’d been wearing it for three days. He looked like a messenger from hell instead of a member of God’s army.

He knew there was another church along this road—there was a church or five along every road in Rome. He searched his memory for the pastor’s name but couldn’t produce it. There was a monastery nearby too, and a school. He’d placed a few refugees in each. Children. Jews. But the road was quiet. He hadn’t seen a soul since the trucks carrying German soldiers, well-used weapons, and empty cases of cognac had rumbled away, leaving the old quarry and the catacombs behind. There was new death in the catacombs now. Old ghosts would have no more claim to the caves of Ardeatine.

It took him a painful eternity to reach the church, but he picked up his pace when he saw the fountain. He practically fell into it, face-first, choking when he gasped in pain and inhaled a mouthful of water instead of swallowing it. It was brackish and would probably make him sick, but it was the best thing he’d ever tasted. He drank his fill and eased himself up, trying not to cry out as his shredded fingertips grazed the icy surface. He washed as best he could, cleaning the blood and dirt from his hair and his skin. If he didn’t make his destination before sunrise, he wanted to make himself as presentable as possible, and the water revived him.

He started in fright when a shadow loomed over him, only to realize it was just a man made of stone. A statue. The statue looked down in frozen compassion, hands extended but unable to help him. Angelo didn’t know the name of the saint or the significance of the statue—the name of the church eluded him too—but something about it, the solemnity of expression, the melancholy acceptance in the stance, made him think of Donatello’s sculpture of Saint George and the day Angelo had found his calling.

He’d been thirteen when Saint George had spoken to him. Not audibly. Angelo wasn’t a fool or a seer. But Saint George had spoken to him, all the same. He’d been on crutches that day, his leg too sore to wear his prosthetic. The school excursion had tired him, and keeping up with the other boys was of little interest to him anyway. Father Sebastiano had brought them to the Palazzo del Bargello, and Angelo hadn’t made it much farther than the entrance when he saw the statue.

It was recessed and elevated so he couldn’t touch it. But he wanted to. He got as close as he could and stood with his head back, gazing up at the statue as Saint George stared off into an ancient distance with an innocence that belied his armor and a fearlessness that contradicted the concerned slant of his brows. His eyes were wide and clear, his back was straight, and he faced the approaching threat with steadiness, though he barely looked old enough to wield a sword. Angelo could only gape at his face, transfixed. He’d stayed in that same position for a long time, ignoring the famed dome, the frescoes, and the stained glass. The enormity of the museum and all its wonders were reduced to that one sculpture.