But I didn't know how much these nails would hurt.
You wouldn't think I'd be afraid. Why should I be? If you know— know all the way down— that you're an indivisible one-third of the Trinity that made everything, what's so bad about dying? Even this way. Crucifixion is just one long bad afternoon and once your heart stops beating, presto, you open your eyes at the right hand of the Father. So I shouldn't be afraid.
I didn't think I'd be afraid. Neither did they. The Eleven. Formerly Twelve. That's one of the reasons I had to send them away while I waited for what had to happen. I knew they'd listen in, of course, so I kept the panic out of my voice. I just asked the Father to see if He couldn't see a way around this. I knew He couldn't, of course. It didn't occur to me until after I'd asked just how wrong that was. Not that I was asking— odd, perhaps, because I was in some way talking to myself after all— but that at that moment for the first time since I opened my eyes with the Magi goggling at me I didn't know what was going to happen next.
Or what was happening. Until yesterday I was always part of everything. Everything that was and would be. I looked at a man and saw his most distant ancestors and his children's ultimate grandchildren. When noon heat beat on my back I felt not only the sweat trickling down my ribs but each atom fusing at the sun's core. The general made particular, my eyes no more than a point of view loose in a universe whose limits were narrower than my own skin.
Today I'm not. When I asked for the cup to pass last night it was as though a connection broke. Sudden silence.
Or maybe it just stretched. Because I still have moments when I see it all. Like when they put me on this cross. The Romans were neither brutal nor gentle. They were just doing a job. Professionals. The cross was lying on the ground a few feet from where they eventually erected it. My new friends, the two thieves, were already up and not being too quiet about their situation. The nails had just gone through my wrists and the soldiers were pulling my legs up into a fetal crouch to finish the job.
I was hoping the pain in my hands, the devil I knew so to speak, would distract me from the new pain about to come to my feet. Just then a voice cracked through the babble and laughter of the Chosen.
"Stop." Tall man. A Roman soldier, an officer, clearly an aristocrat. Old.
"Stretch out his legs."
The centurion commanding this detail looked puzzled. "Tribune? I don't understand."
"You don't have to." The tribune came a little closer. Leather creaked, bronze clanked. "I don't have to like this detail, either. But I don't have to perform it like an animal." His armor sounded again and suddenly he blotted out the sun. He spoke to me directly. "I'm sorry about this. You're getting a bad deal. Can't be helped. With your legs straight down like this you'll be out of it a lot faster." He turned away. "Centurion, when the rabble aren't looking finish him with a lance." The centurion had neither time nor inclination to ask when a crucifixion crowd would be looking elsewhere.
I tried to thank the tribune but my mouth was swollen shut with thirst and the aftermath of a scourging. I saw who he was: Decius Quintilianus Metellus, aged fifty-four. His father had known Cicero and Brutus. He was part of the old world, the one that had stopped believing in the gods but hadn't begun to believe in me, a man truly alone, unafraid of punishment in an afterlife only fools and Persians could credit. Thus he acted out of simple kindness and decency. Not fear of death. Not like my new friend on the cross who would decide to believe when he had no reason not to, like a hundred billion others would, soon enough, when their own lives were at an end.
I saw too how he had come to be there.
The day before in the proconsul's palace. "Since when have we done the Jews' dirty work for them?" Decius asks. Though Pilate is his friend he stands at attention.
"Since I got sent here to enforce the Pax Romana, that's when," says Pilate. "Which means, Decius, that we don't let them kill each other."
"So we kill them for them?"
"Exactly. Winning the hearts and minds of the people." Pilate smiles through his irritation.
"I'm not happy."
"You're not happy? You're not happy? How happy am I? I'm sixty years old and I'm the Governor of East Buttfuck. Middle of the fucking desert, chronically pissed off natives, closest Roman garrison ten days' hard slog away if the courier makes it. Great career move, right? Well, I'm shit sure not going to be the Governor who lost East Buttfuck. You think I want to write to Antioch for a couple extra legions because I got a civil war on my hands because I wouldn't snuff one carpenter?"
"You want Roman soldiers to execute a Judean subject for blasphemy against a local god." Decius' back, never flexible, grows just one degree more rigid.
"Oh, for fuck's sake, Decius, if we don't do it they'll stone him to death and there'll be a riot and we'll have to kill a bunch of them and some of our boys might buy it and I have to double the garrison and execute a bunch more of them and then where are we? And he, incidentally, is still dead. So look at the bottom line and tell me I'm wrong."
"I still don't like it," says Decius.
"I know you don't. Which just means you're still a hardon. Listen. We do this and we minimize loss of life, cement community relations, and demonstrate respect for local custom. Win-win."
"I still don't like it. Are those your orders, Proconsul?"
Pilate stiffens at his friend's tone. "Those are your orders, Tribune. Just do it."
I saw too how he will die. Kindness and decency and old-fashioned honor will be out of fashion in the next reign. At least he will end early, when Caligula still lets the wellborn kill themselves. He wedges the sword between two statues, its point angled up. I feel the hot flash of rage and sudden sinking despair before he throws himself forward to take the point just under the breastbone and up into his heart. I feel the stupid surprise and terror as he sees his life drain away scarlet against the mosaic floor. Then dark.
I think to warn him. I think to thank him. I think to tell one of the Twelve— sorry, Eleven— to write this down. But even if I could speak it would make no difference. None of the boys wants to hear what I have to say. Now that it is about to happen even the dullest— and that's saying a lot— knows that they're in the church-building business. And that means belief. Right action for its own sake doesn't raise a basilica or feed a bishop. So my friend on the cross will go into the Book and my friend in the army will not.
Decius was right. It is ending faster this way. With my legs hanging down it's much harder to breathe. When the muscles in my chest and belly reach the limit of endurance it will end. Unless the centurion obeys orders and ends it first.
I feel like a fool. I am just now starting to realize that I am going to die. Not someday. Today. I won't see this sun set. I may not see this hour end. I am very close now, and just now realizing that it's going to happen to me just the same as it happened to everyone ever born and ever to be born.
Only worse. This is just about as humiliating and painful a death as could be devised in a world that takes public agony as a matter of course. And while I don't think many of the rabble down there really think, really know, down inside, that the end will come to each of them, too, no other has walked the earth thirty-two years convinced he's God. Thus no other sane man has ever or will ever come to this place.
I look down and despite myself laugh. How strange I never noticed Peter's bald spot until I achieved this unique perspective. So much for omniscience.
As I think this there is another moment of connection.
It's after it's over. The light is almost gone. The boys are standing near the foot of the cross.
Peter approaches the centurion and addresses him in Aramaic. The centurion grunts and pushes him away with his ivywood staff, his badge of rank. Peter persists and the centurion raises the stick.
"Stop." Again, my friend in the army. He stands near the foot of the cross. I wonder why I can't see more than the bottom of the upright. Absurdly, I want to; I want to see what no man ever has seen, his own dead body. But I can't. Perhaps this means that I am just a man after all.
"What is it?" Decius speaks Greek. Unfortunately, Peter thinks he speaks it, too. Even at this moment I am embarrassed for him. Decius looks puzzled and a little pained. Finally the centurion tells him to speak Aramaic and translates for his superior. "Illustrious lord," says Peter, "may we have the body of our teacher for burial?"
I guess I am dead when this happens. Even Peter wouldn't try to bury a living man. Decius replies through the centurion. "Sorry. No. He's to be disposed of as your custom prescribes." The boys glance towards the big ditch at the foot of the hill. Briefly my heart rips open with pity. To see a man they think God die this way is bad; to know that come nightfall the wild dogs will be tearing out his bowels is torture.
Decius sees their pain. Again he softens. "I really am sorry." Then in halting Hebrew: "Come get him before the dogs do."
After the boys leave to await nightfall the centurion turns to Decius. "Sir, I didn't know you could speak Jew."
"You can't, centurion, can you?" Decius is absurdly pleased.
"I didn't think so. Perhaps you should learn it. We may be stuck here a while."
"So they say, sir." The centurion is silent a moment. No doubt dreading middle age in Palestine. "He didn't die like a god, now did he, sir?"
"No. No, he died just like a man."
"Yes. Yes, I guess he did. Like a man. Not whining like this other lot." The centurion jerks his head towards the thieves. "That quake at the end was a lucky break for him, wasn't it?"
"Not for him. His reputation, perhaps. Doesn't do him any good at all, I'm afraid. Well.
Wait until it's almost dark to take the bodies down." Decius scans the foot of the hill and points to the ditch. AI want his body dropped in at the north end and these two at the south. Guards at the south end. If his followers take the body after dark you didn't see anything. Got it?"
"Yes, Tribune." For an instant Decius thinks of adding a word or two of explanation but decides against it. He's already let discipline erode too far.
Later he reports to Pilate.
"So. Decius," says the proconsul. "Big fucking deal, wasn't it?"
"He didn't deserve to die."
"Right," Pilate sighs. "Right. He didn't deserve to die. Decius, how many men have you seen die? How many have you killed? Can you count them? No? No. Tell me now, how many of them deserved to die? All of them? No. None of them? Probably not. What difference did it make? You killed them because they were the enemy. You killed them because they were weaker than you. Only real capital crime so far as I know."
"You didn't say that to the Jews this morning."
Pilate is irritated again. He hates weakness, particularly his own. "Yeah. Well. I thought hey, they're priests, maybe they take morality seriously." He laughs. "Funny. Nothing gives you latitude with right and wrong like thinking there's something out there making the rules. Like you can argue with him, or them, or it later on to square doing whatever it is you did. Knowing that this is all there is sharpens your perspective a little. Makes you remember that the only thing that lives after you is the memory of what you did and how well you did it." He shrugs. "And whether you did the right thing. But fuck it. Say. Did you let that all-boy chorus line of his make off with the body?"
Decius thinks about lying but won't. "Yes. I threw the body in the ditch but made it clear they'd have to wait until night to get it. I'm sorry, Proconsul."
"Well. I'd call you an asshole except I'm a bigger one. I actually told them that they could put him in a tomb. And when the Talmud-thumpers came over to whine I told them to stuff it."
"Change of heart, Proconsul?"
Pilate snorts. "Fuck, no. I gave the bastards what they wanted. One dead carpenter. I wouldn't have given them that— bad mistake to let the subjects think they can push you around— but when they started shrieking about having no king but Caesar it was a no-choicer. I mean, if it got back to Tiberius that I didn't ice him after that well, I'd be lucky to go the same way." He jerks his head at his lictors. They leave. "Assuming, of course, that His Divinity can take his mind off the gallery of girls, boys, and in-between freaks he's got over there in Capri. Man knows how to retire."
He shakes his head. "Decius. Good work today. The job sucked. You did it like a soldier. I want you to do something more and I know you'll do that like a soldier too. I want you to take the guard for the next few days. Remind our stiff-necked monotheist friends that they scored one with their big guy today and that they should just shut up and go figure out how to circumcise women or something. Wait." He laughs abruptly. "Don't, or they will. Just make sure they know their Governor respects their religion and expects them to respect his authority. Or I'll do to them what Yahweh did to Pharaoh."
Decius is startled. "Proconsul? Proconsul, you've been reading."
Pilate grins. "Hey. They don't make just anybody Governor of East Buttfuck."
My vision used to encompass everything. Now it's shrunk down to a little circle of light in a sea of dark red. My ears roar with the sound of the blood coursing through my veins. Soon to stop.
In that little window into life I see my best friend, John. He was always closest to God. He was also closest to the edge. I can see from the way his eyes are rolling that this is going to put him over it completely. Too bad. Too bad I trusted my mother with him.
Why did she have to watch this, anyway? I would look at her but stubbornly my head refuses to move. All I see now is my toes, about a mile away. Better that way. Keep my head down. She'll think I'm unconscious. She would trade places with me in an instant.
Despite everything my head snaps up. She would trade places. That I knew. Not surprising. She was, after all, picked for this job. What surprises is the sudden realization that any crone down there would trade places with her son up here. Any old geezer the same. Complaining, certainly. Hesitating not at all.
I look at the boys again. They are the same. Actually, more so. So few will come to a peaceful end. And they'll die not for their children or their wives but for me, and for an idea they will get completely wrong.
I look at John again. His eyes really are sticking out quite a lot. He's shaking. He won't look at me. He won't see things that are here, and soon he'll see so many things that aren't. Fantastic beasts with more crowns than heads to wear them; whores tattooed 666; the end of time; me with a list of grievances against the seven churches of Asia.
Breath comes quite hard now. There is a lot I can't feel. Parts of my body, I mean. This is not a mercy; all ordinary sensation is submerged and imperceptible under a rising tide of pain.
I keep thinking now it's crested, now it can't get any worse. Yet still it does. Someone has raised a sponge on a reed. My head turns without my willing it. Sour wine. I suckle it, hoping it will become what it's not through the simple exercise of my will. It's worked before, after all.
It doesn't this time. This is no wedding feast. Vinegar remains vinegar. The clown with the sponge is laughing. Very funny. Why can't the boys ignore everything I've said and take care of him?
The anger rises and changes direction. Blame where blame is due. I roll my head upwards. The power of my voice is surprising. Mere audibility my last miracle. "Why me?"
The boys look startled. Then satisfied. This after all is part of their script, the part I couldn't quite rewrite for them. In this incomprehensible world all gods, their One as well as the others' Many, are capricious and cruel, spoken to only through the medium of spilled blood and the greasy smoke of sacrifice. The death of the innocent gives suppliant men some illusion of control. A ram buys a good harvest; a thousand doves averts a plague; a few hapless gladiators assure Rome's continuing Imperium. And the best bargain of all: God's son dies and by this sacrifice saves all mankind.
Good deal. Great deal. Especially if you're not God's son.
Just minutes now. Clotted filth runs down the backs of my legs and recognizing it for what it is I burn with shame. I am prepared to die but I don't want my mother to see me fouling myself. I start to cry. At this instant I am stripped even of my belief in who and what I am and have been, and I am left with only hope. This is why I am here. This is why I have to die this way. Not as a sacrifice, but as a participant. Each one of them as they endure their trials will remember that God suffered as bad a death as their world had to offer. It buys them nothing but meaning. And that is enough. More than enough.
Or so I think. So I try to remember. I was God. Now I am just a man. And I am afraid.
The light was failing. An hour before Decius' men had pried the corpses off their lumber and thrown them in the ditch as he had instructed. Still up on the hill, alone, Decius studied its north end through the growing dark.
Only moments after the teacher was pitched into the muck the dogs were on him. Within minutes the largest of the pack had claimed him as a prize. But once he had the body out of the ditch, onto firm ground where he could start working at the tender parts, the smaller dogs broke out of their circle and lunged in for a quick bite at the toes or fingers. So the big dog stood on the teacher's chest, teeth bared, daring his packmates to try for his meat.
Finally one of the students could stand it no more. Their leader, the one who had cost a soldier his ear the night before, picked up a stone. Though it did the big dog no harm as it bounced off his head, it got his attention. Emboldened the leader threw another, and the dog crouched to face this new threat, his body splayed over his week's dinner.
The other students began an uneven stoney rain. Their leader ran up the hill and in his barely literate Greek begged the use of the centurion's staff. Thus armed he ran back down the hill and as the centurion laughed he swung the ivy rod like a war club, weeping with every stroke as his friends' stones pelted his back.
Though the dog was soon dead the wooden staff did not stop. Nor did the leader's sobbing, nor from its safe distance his fellows' rain of stones. At last, the staff was thrown aside, and the other disciples' hands were empty. The leader hunched forward, crawling into himself, shuddering as he wept, his head resting on the ribs of the dead dog covering his teacher.
After a very long time he was still. The other students approached, cautious, but far bolder than the dogs who yelped and howled at the ditch's margin. The body was not too much the worse for wear. Decius watched as the students wrapped it in a shroud they had brought and bore it off. Just as they were about to leave the place of execution their leader thought to return the staff to the centurion.
Who now stood next to Decius. "Extra wine for the men tonight, tribune."
"You think so, centurion?"
"Absolutely, sir. They're soldiers. This wasn't work for them."
"No. No, it wasn't. Yes. More wine, then."
Decius turned away. Sometimes he thought about Rome. Sometimes he wanted hot baths and the touch of silk against his skin. Sometimes he wanted to feel as though he was at the center of everything there was, of the only things there were. But today he thought that perhaps everything he saw was somehow less than everything there was.
Pilate owed him now. Perhaps he would arrange for a transfer. Perhaps early retirement. He had, after all, been East for too long.
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