The soldiers hoisted a wooden beam onto my bloody shoulders. My body swayed slightly as it adjusted to the weight. It wasn’t enough for these pigs to simply kill us. They had to humiliate and torture us as well. Perhaps so that when death came, we would welcome it.
Earlier this morning, Jesse and I were flogged with a nine-tailed whip riddled with bone and glass. The claws of the whip didn’t stop digging into my naked flesh until I sagged unconscious, dangling from the rope that tied my hands above me. Now that half the life was beaten out of us, we would have the privilege of carrying our own instrument of death.
Beside me, the soldiers placed a beam on Jesse’s shoulders. He spat at their feet and was rewarded with a fist in his jaw. Jesse laughed wildly as if he thought it was funny that a punch could scare him when the worst death imaginable awaited us. It was a slave’s death we were sentenced to. A death only given to the worst and lowest of society. It wouldn’t be a quick one.
Another prisoner was lead out. He looked dead already. His own blood covered every inch of him, including his bruised and swollen face. Maybe he’d spit at the Romans too. He must have done it more than once by the look of his face.
The people in the crowd began to boo as soon as they saw him. He must have murdered many people, or maybe of a very loved and important person judging by the crowd’s reaction. Whatever he’d done, I was glad he was being executed with us. The crowd saved all their insults for him, and Jesse and I were left alone.
After the murderer’s beam was secured across his back, the centurion ordered the procession to begin. The centurion lead the way with the badly beaten murderer next, then me, then Jesse behind me. Soldiers walked beside us, as if ready for us to try to escape. Like that were possible with a hundred pound piece of wood on my back.
The Romans lead us down a highway, so as many people could see us as possible. On either side of the street, people stopped what they were doing to gawk. Some ran to join the crowd that was forming behind us. Others stood to the side shaking their fist and yelling.
“Die! Die! Kill them.”
The murderer in front of me stumbled and fell. Jesse cursed under his breath. The solder beside the fallen man kicked him.
“Yeah, get up,” Jesse said. “We have an important appointment to keep.”
“Come on,” I grunted under my breath. Every moment this man sat there was a moment longer I had to stand with the weight of the beam cutting into my shoulders.
“Can’t you lift yourself from the ground oh great Messiah?” taunted someone from the crowd.
Messiah? So this man wasn’t a murderer. He was one of those mad zealots that told everyone they were the Messiah as a ruse to get followers. No wonder the soldiers beat him so much. He was encouraging people to rebel against Rome.
The soldiers must have realized the zealot didn’t have the strength to get up because they pulled a man out of the crowd and had him carry the beam. I was surprised he complied. It seemed everyone in this crowd hated the zealot. He didn’t really have a choice though. Argue with a Roman solder and he might be joining us for more than just the walk.
Freed from his burden, the zealot shakily stood and began walking again. I stepped forward, my bare feet treading on the street’s worn stones, wet with his blood.
I don’t know how long we walked before we left the road and were led over a rocky path. The ground inclined and I had to stoop even farther forward to keep the weight on my back from toppling me backward. I cursed the Romans for putting their killing ground on the top of a steep mound. Jesse grunted behind me as if agreeing with my thoughts. The beam across my shoulders rubbed at my open flesh making fresh blood pour out. My leg muscles burned, then began to shake.
Finally, we reached the top and the centurion gave the order to halt.
My body sagged in relief as the beam was lifted from my shoulders. My eyes wandered to the eight-foot stakes rising out of the ground like naked trees. I would hang on one of them in just a few minutes. I wondered if the Romans knew what Moses wrote, “Cursed is the man who hangs on a tree,” and picked this tortured death just for us Jews.
A soldier offered me a drink of wine and myrrh, as was custom. I knew it would do little to numb the pain, but it was better than nothing, so I drank. The myrrh left a bitter taste.
The soldier moved to the zealot, but when the ladle was put to his lips, he shook his head. He was refusing?
“Stupid,” said Jesse beside me, “Does he think that refusing the drug makes him tough? Or does he think his little act of defiance insults the Romans?”
The soldier came to Jesse and he drank, keeping his eyes locked on the zealot who watched him. He swallowed once, then filled his mouth with more. When the ladle was pulled away he spewed the wine mixture out on the Roman. The soldier backhanded Jesse so hard he stumbled back. When he regained his balance he looked at the zealot.
“That is how you insult.”
The man didn’t have time to answer. A soldier came and pulled his clothes from him. More came and stripped Jesse and me. The blood on my back had hardened so that the cloth was part of the forming scabs. As the garment was pulled over my head, the cloth took my dried blood and pieces of skin with it. I hissed as my back was ripped off with my clothes.
Once I was naked, I was pushed to the ground. The beam I’d carried was beneath my neck. My open wounds were pressed to the rocky ground.
They pulled my arms out so that the back of my hands rested on the beam. My right arm was held down and a metal point pressed into my wrist. I knew what it was, but I turned my head to look anyway. The spike that rested against my skin looked longer than the seven inches it actually was. How many hammer strikes would it take before all of it went through my wrist and into the wood beneath?
Pain. It took my brain a second to realize that the pain that shot through me was related to the slightly shorter spike. It was a moment before I realized that I’d seen the hammer fall and it was already coming back for a second blow. My body jerked, and I yelled as the hammer struck the head of the spike. I heard the metallic zing this time. It was the loudest sound there was.
My hand twitched like a separate entity as the spike burrowed deeper into my flesh. My arm was a betrayer, sending wave after wave of pain. I didn’t want to watch the blood bubble out of my wrist and spill over the wood beam anymore, but I forgot how to move my head.
Finally, the spike was gone. It was nothing but a flat bit of iron resting on my skin. It was over.
But it only started. My other arm was held down. I didn’t look.
Once I was pinned to the beam, soldiers lifted each side and hoisted me to the top of one of the stakes already in the ground. My entire weight was hanging from my staked wrists.
My feet were placed on top of each other and my bottom foot made to lay flat against the wood. My knees were left slightly bent. I tried to brace myself for what would come next, but nothing could prepare me for the pain that coursed through me as a third spike entered my body. Every blow slowly moved the iron through my muscle. First my top foot, then it broke through the skin at my foot’s arch and in the same movement cut open the top of the foot beneath. The hammer struck again, and again. It would never end.
Then, I realized that it had. The hammering was done. The sound of the crowd came in a rush, their angry voices slapping me in a demand to be heard.
This is not how I should die, pinned and mounted, stretched out like an animal hide at the tanners. Hanging naked for all to see while people hurled insults. I should die peacefully with a family gathered around.
But was that the death I gave the man on the highway? Was that the death my father got?
Father. If only he hadn’t died while I was so young. I would have grown up to be respectable like he was. He would have taken me to the temple at my thirteenth birthday for my bar mitzvah. I would have become a man by reading the Torah before the congregation instead of by swiping food in the midst of beggars. I wondered if the man I put a knife through had sons. Did they have a mother? Or would it be the streets that raised them, turning them into criminals instead of sons of the law?
A sign was nailed above my head. It let everyone know what I’d done so they could scream their indignation at me. I waited for their cries to come, but the word murderer didn’t arrive.
“King!” someone shouted, “What kind of king are you?”
I scanned the crowd. They weren’t looking at me. I followed their gaze to my left where the zealot hung. All of their anger was for him. He claimed to be a King? The ring of thorns that crushed into his skull made since now.
“You said you could raise the temple in three days,” cried another, “Well coming down from the cross shouldn’t be so hard then should it?”
“Prove to us your divinity. Are you the Messiah? Or are you the carpenter from Nazareth?”
A carpenter from Nazareth who claimed to be the Messiah? I’d heard of him. Who hadn’t? All of Judea was talking about the man who could make crooked legs straight and blind eyes to see. I’d even heard that he cured the incurable leprosy.
None of it was true. There were always rumors of messiahs. The people were hungry for a deliverer—someone to get them from under Roman rule. Someone who would build a vast kingdom and usher in a great age like that of Solomon. Miracle workers only existed in people’s minds or in the times of old when prophets were in our land. Still, there was that one time…