hagiography

the autogeography of a no/body

Dec 7

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I saw him, went down to the cells, thought I'd take a look for myself, had to make a bribe of two bottles of good wine though. He was a strange man, quiet, calm. He sat quite still, eyes closed, his hands folded in on themselves. I shouted at him and he didn't seem to mind my noise, just opened his eyes. They were so blue. Usually the people here have brown eyes, but his were blue, very bright, dazzling in a womanly way. I haven't seen a woman's blue eyes close up for months. That's a terrible thing for a man, not to be fighting and not to be fucking either. It should be one or the other, if possible both. So he looked me dead in the face and asked my name. “Cassius,” I said. He nodded and told me that he'll remember me in his prayers. I wish he hadn't said that, because it made me look closer at him. His skin was so white, smooth, milky like a woman's breast. He'd been in the cells two days, but still his cheeks were free from stubble. I realised I wanted to touch him. The thought flitted into my head and punched me in the guts at the same time, then I got that sensation, as if I'm taking a shit, and my body shranks away from itself. I had to go outside and look straight into the sun to clear the picture from my mind.

That night I couldn't talk to anyone and I couldn't sleep neither. His pale face haunted me. Every time I shut my eyes he was there, smiling quietly, like he knew me, or knew something about me. I tried to dream of Hedea, but when I called her body to mind – big breasts, soft belly, ripe backside – I'd find his head on her shoulders, staring out at me through those blue eyes. I crept back down to the cells again. He was on his knees this time, but not slavishly. No. His back was straight, his shoulders square, his face upturned. And he reminded me of Claudia when she was a young girl and we were out in the fields back home. Oh, how she looked then, perfectly pure, clean as a marble fountain. She was beautiful, and eager. This man in front of me, he had the same light about him, and urgency. I bent down to kiss her then, thinking maybe we could find some privacy in the olive grove. I had to shake my head to make the trees disappear and see the iron bars again.

They asked for volunteers. It was never going to be a popular job, but I've always enjoyed running the gauntlet. Finally, a chance of some action. The heat was crushing. There were people, lots of people, lining the pathway. Some were abusive, spitting on the prisoner, cursing him in their gutteral language. Others were silent. A few wept openly. As a populace they didn't seem able to make their minds up about him. I've heard a few of his teachings second-hand, while on duty, and I can understand why. It's been a long time since the Jews had a leader. They have all their laws, done and dusted, and then he turns up with a whole new take on things. Some of them are ready for a different way, but most of them want to preserve what they have. History's very important. We know that. The Greeks knew that. You can't have someone coming along and telling you they want to rewrite it from 'this day henceforth' or whatever.

He'd been pretty badly beaten up. As a joke some of the guards had decided to crown him with a wreath of thorns. I could see it must be agony, because some of the thorns had dug right into his head and blood was dripping into his eyes. Before I could stop her, a woman in the crowd stepped forward and wiped his face with a piece of filthy cloth. He asked her name as well and she said “Veronica,” to which he replied “You are blessed”. I wondered if his God, his Father, keeps an account book and, if so, what it says next to my name.

Eventually, after a couple of hours, we arrived at the hill. He was exhausted by then, having carried his own cross on his back for nearly four miles. The thing with crucifixion is that you've got to do it right or else you'll looking like a rank amateur. You don't want to rely on the hands, because they're quite thin and prone to ripping, so you bind the wrists as well, saves a lot of bother later on. It's the ankles that are the tricky bit though, finding that pulpy gap and positioning the feet just right. Sometimes there's a little ledge, sometimes there's not. There are pros and cons for both. I took charge of his hands myself and, as I leant over him to get better purchase, he spoke to me. I could barely hear what he was saying, so loud were the crowd by this point, so I knelt down next to him and put my ear to his lips. “Cassisus,” he said, “my Father will forgive all those who ask”. I didn't know how to respond. The guards were jeering, calling him names, one even kicked him in the ribs. I thought to myself 'this isn't what soldiers do, this isn't how they behave, there's no glory or victory in torturing a man you've already beaten', but I just bowed my head and tightened the knots as best I could.

When we hoisted the crosses upright, three in total, a cheer went up from the crowd. I turned and looked at their faces, all twisted and squinting. In their eyes I could see blood lust, a dim echo of gladiatorial pleasure, but the man in front of them had no weapon, it hadn't been a fair fight, he was just a half-starved boy with words far beyond his years. Where did they come from, those words? He said God his Father. I don't know. Maybe they came from the dessert itself. I had never heard words like them in my life.

Crucifixion is cruel, no two ways about it. Heat exhaustion is the first thing to set in. Energy is slowly drained from the body. The prisoner's ability to support their own weight dissolves. They struggle to keep their head up and their shoulders braced, but after a while they find it impossible and their muscles and tendons tear against the weight of their own body. The pain must be excruciating as the flesh is ripped off their bones, fibre by agonising fibre. The lucky ones pass out, but not so this man in front of me. He hung there for hours, muttering to his God, fighting to keep himself as upright as possible. He only shouted out once, when the sky became overcast as a storm rolled in. Frightening that was, the sudden darkness, his howling pain.

A small gaggle of friends and family stood at the foot of his cross. They were praying too and from time to time I could hear their urgent pleas, for a quick death, a merciful death. I've asked for the same thing myself on the battlefield, for the fatally wounded men. I've asked because I didn't want to do. It's an unfortunate fact of war that sometimes you must kill your own men, your own friends. Let death come quickly is the hope most soldiers carry in their hearts. And as I looked at him I got that same shrivelling feeling, when you know what you've got to do but every fibre of your being tries to hide from the inevitable action. The soft, pale, boy-man, hanging limp, gasping for air, his chest falling forward, his heart being torn in two. That's how they die in the end, their hearts broken, shredded under the stress. Maybe that's how we all die.

I took my spear, my Roman spear, and sunk it into the side of the man who was meant to be my enemy. The crowd went wild, shouting, cheering, clapping. A few muffled sobs from close by cut through the hysterical appreciation. I plunged my spear in again and again, deeper each time, twisting it until his entrails burst and spilled out onto the ground. I couldn't look him in the face. I was deafened by rapturous applause and calls for more, MORE, M.O.R.E. Then I felt a woman's hand on my arm, laid gently. I turned to see her eyes, the same blue as his, deep and fathomless. She said nothing, because there was nothing to say, but her touch stayed any further action on my part.

“Cut him down,” I shouted. The order was complied with, the cross lowered, he was released from his bindings. A few mourners gathered around his prostrate body, crying quietly, the women rocking themselves to and fro, holding their grief in as best they could. Once again I knelt beside him, this time to untie the knots. Blood still trickled out of him, his skin greyed and his lips took on that familiar blue hue of death. I laid my cloak over his corpse, partly to cover his naked frame and partly because I didn't want to see his eyes staring straight up at his heaven, I didn't want to follow his lifeless gaze. Some things you don't want to look at. Some things you can't.

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