When the Reverend Oliver Harmon rounded the corner of Rome’s All Saints Anglican Church late on an October Sunday afternoon and saw a couple embracing by the side door—a tall blond man wearing black leather and a nicely dressed, slightly older woman—his instinct was to fade back into the parking lot. If his Bishop knew he’d observed something like this, he’d be expected to stop it. And if he stopped it, the media hounds would hear of it, and the proponents of sexual liberty would arrive, and the Catholics would laugh up their sleeves at the straightlaced Anglicans once again.
The woman’s cherry-colored picture hat sailed to the lawn, holding his attention long enough for him to realize this was no amorous encounter. The young man’s fingers gripping her arm dug into her flesh. Blood splattered down the back of her pale shirt. As she twisted to free herself, he pummeled her with his free hand, hard blows audible across the churchyard.
“Stop. Stop that!” Harmon called and trotted toward them. When he was still some twenty-five yards away, his long legs closing the distance, the man plunged his hand into his jeans pocket and withdrew something narrow that flicked open and caught the sun. A blade. “Stop!” Harmon yelled.
He continued his sprint without thinking—a blessing, because thinking would have slowed him. The man’s colorless eyes took in Father Harmon’s approach, and he released the woman’s arm. She slid to the ground as he spat imprecations. He gave her several vicious kicks and ran off. Kneeling alongside the unconscious woman, Father Harmon fumbled for his mobile phone.
The mild excitement he felt as he punched in the numbers was a rarity in his uneventful life. He was only about thirty, just a small cog in the Anglican hierarchy, and here in Rome even the powerful Anglican Communion stood in the Vatican’s deep ecumenical shadow. He’d received one consistent message from his Bishop since arriving in Rome: “Don’t make waves.”
Soon the side yard was crowded with police and emergency workers. He paced as the police identified the woman from the contents of her handbag—an American, Eugenia Clarke—and the emergency medical team carefully handled her. They said her labored breathing might mean broken ribs, and she undoubtedly had a concussion. The detectives gathered bits of evidence—the man’s broken sunglasses, her hat, and a heavy stick bearing blood and a few hairs.
* * * * *
Several days later, Father Harmon peered around the bedside curtain of a room in the Ospedale Fatebenefratelli, and Eugenia Clarke turned her bruised face, swaddled in bandages, toward him.
“You’re awake! Well!” He rubbed his hands together. “May I come in?”
She motioned toward the bedside chair, and he folded his slim frame into it. “Delighted to see you sitting up. Propped up, rather. I was in yesterday, but you were still unconscious. I was sorry to see you lying there . . . with . . .” He gestured vaguely toward the ranks of mostly disconnected medical equipment standing by. He’d worked his sentence into a sensitive corner where he abandoned it. “Are you comfortable?” His brow creased, as he contemplated the large and bloody bandage on her arm.
Her eyes seemed focused below his chin, on the white patch of his clerical collar. “Who are you?” she asked, her voice weak.
“So sorry. Thoughtless. Oliver Harmon. Associate chaplain at All Saints.” When he saw her blank expression, he said, “Via del Babuino.” Still no response. He dropped his voice: “I found you.”
“Oh!” She shook her head, as if trying to jostle a memory into place. “Oh, my god! Thank you, thank you so very much.” Her eyes glistened. She put a hand to her bruised face. “I’m afraid I don’t remember.”
“Just wish I’d come along sooner. I popped around the corner from the parking lot, and there you were. I called out and started running toward you. Don’t know why. Hadn’t any weapon, naturally, and he had that terrifying knife.” He flushed to the tips of his ears. “Must have been instinct. My father and grandfather were Army.” He didn’t pause for a reply. “He ran away then, of course. Not my grandfather,” he chuckled, “the man with the knife. I don’t know what I would have done if he’d stayed. You were in a bad way. Really, when you fell, I was afraid you . . .” He halted. “Called emergency services at once. Ambulance brought you here. Best place.” He smiled. Stop babbling. Drives people away, Bishop says.
She smiled back. “I’m so, so grateful you did.” Wincing, she shifted to sit more upright. “You can help me, Father Harmon.”
“Oh?” Surprised, but ready.
“I have no idea who did this, and the police don’t seem interested. Can you tell me anything about him? Do you know him?”
“Never saw him before, but I’d know him again, I think.” He paused. “Blond, wasn’t he? And his eyes, let’s see, well, I couldn’t tell what actual color they were, but they were . . . For an overall impression, I’d say . . . menacing. Menacing. I told the police so.”
He was aware of how vague he sounded and feared she’d lose patience, but the memory unsettled him. “‘It all happened so fast,’ everybody always says, and they’re right!”
“You were very, very brave. Did he say anything?”
“I don’t think so. Not in English, anyway. I’m working on my Italian, you know. Italiano.” The word rolled out, the “t” a tiny, sharp sound, a prickle of glass in a flow of caramel sound.
“Without the language, life just goes on around me. Plunge in, that’s what I want.” He flushed again.
For a moment the only sound in the room was the soft beep of a bedside monitor. She said, “Anything else?”
Distressed his fount of information contained so few drops, he shook his head and stood, running his finger up and down the crackled spine of his breviary. “I wish I could help.” He bit his lip, anticipating the Bishop’s reaction. No mixing with criminal matters!
“I appreciate the visit. I can never thank you enough for—”
As her voice broke, he stepped away. “Come visit when they let you out of here. Always welcome.” Please come to one of my sermons. Not many do. He waved cheerily and darted beyond the curtain.
* * * * *
Eugenia Clarke did stop by the next week, but he was unavailable. He was in the Bishop’s office, being informed of his numerous shortcomings. These included his “lack of charisma”—something he felt more acutely than the Bishop did, for a certainty. A few days later, Eugenia telephoned and invited him to visit her and her companion at their hotel.
The companion, an Italian woman named Agostina, opened the hotel room door, and he greeted her uncertainly in her own language. Crossing the room in three strides, he took Eugenia’s outstretched hand. “Oh, my dear, you look almost recovered. I’m not sure I would have recognized you without all the—” He made a circular motion around his face. “Tired, though?”
“It’s a stressful time.” Eugenia explained that the police believed the man who’d attacked her was still a danger and had confined her to her hotel room.
“I don’t understand,” Father Harmon said, studying her.
“That Sunday, I was sitting in a caffè and overheard part of a conversation I shouldn’t have—plans for some big crime, apparently. Really, I wasn’t paying that much attention, but when they noticed me, they acted so threatening, I left and the blond followed. I must have ducked into All Saints, but, with the knock on the head—15 stitches — quindici suture, giusto?—” she looked to Agostina, who nodded “— I don’t remember. Though I dream about him. Those unearthly pale eyes.”
“Terrible, rough man. You’re sure he’s still looking for you?”
Agostina said, “Oh, yes. The police are quite sure.”
Eugenia turned to him, saying brightly, “We hoped you’d cheer us up. You seem to have a talent for rescue. Maybe you can save us from boredom.”
He beamed and, in a halting Italian-English mix, told them about his early days in the Church, under several eccentric Yorkshire bishops, entertaining them ably until nearby church bells rang two o’clock. “Two! I must fly. Ladies Guild meeting with a delegation from our sister congregation in Princeton, New Jersey. And new needlepoint designs for our seat cushions.”
At the door, he said, “I am so sorry you have this trial. I’ll try to think of a way I can help.”
“You’ve saved my life once, you know,” Eugenia said. “I couldn’t ask more.”
* * * * *
In a telephone conversation a few days later, she told him the police wanted to use her as bait to draw out her attacker, and he protested. “Much too dangerous. Much, much.”
“But I can’t live in this hotel room forever! We’ve learned the man hangs out around the Spanish Steps, and the police will have people all over. They want to take advantage of Halloween night. Lots of people out, disguises, the whole thing. He may think it’s his chance.”
“I wish you wouldn’t —”
“Pray for me.”
Father Harmon, having cast himself in the role of Eugenia’s protector, silently promised to do more than that. So, in the early evening of Halloween, he joined the revelers on the street. A few devils and ghouls nodded in appreciation at his long cassock and old Canterbury cap. He made a vague sign of the cross in their direction, and they all laughed.
Add “impersonating a clergyman” to my list of sins.
He saw Eugenia sitting at an outdoor restaurant table, studying the menu, and stationed himself where he could watch her and the people around her without being spotted. Not seeing the promised police presence, he nervously fingered his prayer beads. A young man in the gaggle of waiters did something to a glass of water before another waiter brought it to her. When the young man looked up, the priest recognized him. Those eyes!
Harmon hurried down the crowded street in search of a policeman. He found one but stumbled over his broken Italian. When the man finally understood, he pushed the priest in the direction of a detective—he caught the word investigatore—who asked him to point out the fake waiter, then ordered him to wait in the lobby of a nearby hotel.
Father Harmon peeked around the hotel door and witnessed the enormous commotion that erupted down the street. People crashing to the ground, gunshots, falling tables, and smashing dishes, customers screaming and fleeing. Soon he saw a police car leave with the fake waiter, and an ambulance shrieked away. Once the scene quieted, he sat in the lobby and prayed, quaking and alone.
After a while, the detective entered the hotel with Eugenia. Father Harmon stood and embraced her. He was embarrassed at his tears. “I felt so out of it being here. I wanted to help.”
The detective said, “You put things in motion. And she’s safe now. If it hadn’t been for you—”
“You’re a hero,” she said.
* * * * *
Publicity about Father Harmon’s role in this confrontation reignited the Bishop’s wrath. Nevertheless, he worked hard on his Sunday sermon, bravely titled “An Active Ministry.” As he rehearsed in front of a mirror, he saw that, instead of his usual halting delivery, he spoke with surprising conviction. When he walked into the nave, it was crowded with smiling people, more than a few of whom were denied the pleasure of the Ladies’ Guild’s lovingly needlepointed cushions, as they had to stand.
Weisfeld has a numerous published short stories. Her website includes book and movie reviews, literary matters, and a big dose of et cetera: www.vweisfeld.com. She studies creative writing with Lauren B. Davis.