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 pinky. 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.
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.
Now, more than a dozen years later, he stood peering up at a statue that wasn’t Donatello’s famed sculpture, yet he beseeched him anyway. “Help me, San Giorgio,” he said aloud, hoping the heavens were listening. “Help me to face what is to come.”
Angelo turned and staggered away from the fountain, back to the road that was as ancient as Rome itself, feeling the eyes of the unknown sculpture on his weary back. Angelo’s thoughts returned to his champion, to the long-ago afternoon when things had been made so clear, when immortality seemed like a prize and not terrible torture. He hurt too much to be tempted by immortality now. Death sounded so much more inviting.
That long- ago afternoon, he had eventually been joined in his contemplation of Saint George, but was unaware of it until the man spoke up, telling him the story behind the art.
“George was a Roman soldier, a captain of sorts. He would not renounce his faith in Christ. He was promised gold and power and riches if he would simply worship the gods of the empire. See, the emperor did not want to kill him. He valued young George very much. But George refused.”
Angelo had pulled his eyes from Donatello’s sculpture. The man beside him was a priest like Father Sebastiano, older than Angelo’s father, but younger than his grandfather, Santino. The priest’s eyes were bright and his hair neatly groomed. His face was kind and curious, but his hands were clasped behind his back, his very posture bearing solemn witness to his self-denial.
“Did he die?” Angelo had asked.
“Yes, he did,” the priest answered gravely.
Angelo had supposed as much, but the truth still wounded him. He had wanted the young hero to be victorious.
“He died, but he defeated the dragon,” the priest added gently.
That hadn’t made any sense to Angelo, and he wrinkled his nose in confusion as his eyes returned to the sculpture and the huge shield in George’s hand. He thought this was a true story, and there was no such thing as a dragon.
“The dragon?” he asked. “He fought a dragon?”
“Evil. Temptation. Fear. The dragon is a symbol of the battle he must have waged within himself to stay true to his god.”
Angelo nodded, understanding perfectly. They fell into silence once more, staring at the sculpture of the soldier brought to life by a master’s hand.
“What’s your name, young man?” the priest had asked him.
“Angelo,” he answered. “Angelo Bianco.”
“Angelo, Saint George lived more than fifteen hundred years ago. Yet we are still talking about him. I think that makes him immortal . . . don’t you?”
The thought had moved Angelo to tears that he tried to blink away. “Yes, Father,” he whispered. “I do.”
“He risked everything, and he is now immortal.”
He risked everything, and he is now immortal.
Angelo groaned, the memory making his stomach twist. Oh, the irony. Oh, the incredible, terrible irony. He too had risked everything, and he may have lost the only thing he would trade his immortality for.
As dawn started to creep into the eastern sky, pale light falling over spires and campaniles onto the eternal city, Angelo finally reached the gates of Santa Cecilia. The bells of Lauds began to ring, as if to welcome him back, but Angelo could only cling to the iron spires and pray that, by some miracle, Eva waited for him inside.
Mother Francesca discovered him a few minutes later, sitting with his back against the gate as if he’d been propped there by Satan’s henchmen. She must have thought he was dead, because she cried out in horror, crossing herself as she ran for assistance. Angelo was too tired to reassure her.
He watched through swollen lids as Mario Sonnino appeared above him, checking his pulse and crying out instructions to several others to carry him inside.
“It’s not safe,” Angelo struggled to speak. Mario was not safe outside the gate. Mario was not safe inside the gate.
“Someone could see you,” Angelo tried to warn him, but the words were sloppy on his lips.
“Take him up the stairs to Eva’s room!” Mario commanded.
“Where’s Eva?” Angelo asked, forcing the words out, needing to know.
No one answered him. They took the stairs quickly, and Angelo cried out as his ribs protested the motion. He was laid carefully on the bed, and Eva’s scent rose up around him.
“Eva?” he asked again, louder this time. He peered through the eye that wasn’t completely swollen shut, trying to see, but the shapes were blurred and the people were ominously silent.
“We haven’t seen her for three days, Angelo,” Mario finally answered. “The Germans took her.”
Copyright © Amy Harmon