THE UNHOLY CROSS — A SHORT STORY, PART ONE

HIDDEN

Katriel kneels where the blood pools from his brother’s ribs. The knife, now stained crimson with his crime, seems to gather the moonlight and reflect it out, exposing him. He slips it beneath the fold of his cloak and with one last dismissive glance toward the pale face, turns away.
Must leave now. Danger. Must leave now.
Crisp and cool on his cheeks, the air itself seems to know. Not a footfall, nor a whisper. But they know. He’s sure of it. Turning to the left and to the right, Katriel weaves his way between the cobblestone streets of his childhood, the modest homes of Jerusalem’s labourers and merchants lining its perimeters. Omer’s face lurks in the moonlit shadows cast by Katriel’s own movements, the bloodied figure hunches in open doorways. At every creak and on every corner, Omer points a fleshless finger at his brother’s throat. “You will be found out,” it seems to whisper in the silence. The end of the street. Katriel quickens his pace and his footsteps ring out like bells. In the distance, the murmur of livestock waking is like a warning: Hurry! He turns a corner and before him are the city gates. His heart leaps with relief, but a moment too soon.
The voice speaks out of the darkness. Like when God created the world, Katriel thinks. Is this how it happened? Darkness, light, revealed. “Katriel.”
It’s not a resounding shout nor a frantic scream as he expects. No sword pierces his side as his pierced Omer’s. No threatening hands grip his throat, squeezing the oxygen from his lungs. Instead, it is quiet, almost a whisper.
“Katriel.”
He stops, his joints locked, his skin iced with terror. Only his eyes retain their movement. They flick like a horse’s tail, back and forth, trying to locate the pest, or in his case, his captor.
“Katriel.” The voice is still soft. His name seems to slip from the speaker’s lips like rain, smooth and with the hint of a smile. Katriel’s heartbeat quickens. Is it? No, it couldn’t be”’
“Katriel.” A pause and then, “Why do you not turn to face me or greet me? Why do you stand as you did when we played soldier as little children? Will you not acknowledge me, friend?”
He’s sure of it now. His heartbeat softens to a dull but persistent thud, and the blood in his ears cools. It is only Eshkol. The sky above him is splitting into threads of marigold and crimson. Dawn. There isn’t much time.
His boyhood friend stands silently at his back, awaiting movement. The broad-shouldered man, still clutching the sin-stained knife, calms his breathing to a normal rhythm and turns around. “Ah,” says Eshkol. Even in the dim light of imminent morning, Katriel can see his smile, a smile that shows neither emotion nor motivation. Reserved. Masked. The identical smile he has donned since adolescence. But it seemed different now. Is it the dim light, or something else? “At last you show courage.”
“Why do I need courage? You are a friend, are you not? Unless perhaps, you were following me?” His voice sounds scratched and worn, as though a mere whisper might tear his vocal chords from his throat. He steps closer to Eshkol. The other man does not move.
“Following you? I am hurt, Katriel. Will you accuse your closest confidante of such a thing?” That smile. Spears pierce Katriel’s heart, suspicion growing ever present like the coming of day. “Would a friend follow a friend? Isn’t he more trustworthy than that? Even in the dead of night, Jerusalem asleep in peace… what would I gain?”
Katriel’s fists clench by his side. Fingers tighten, nails dig into tender flesh. What is this game?
“Well? Will you not answer me?” Expectant silence.
Katriel realizes with a sudden wave that he is exhausted. The darkness of night seems to pull at him from every direction, beckoning him to an unknown place where he might rest and find relief. His sandaled feet feel weary from holding up his dense figure, his eyes falter in their steadfast stare. No, he mustn’t. Be strong, be cunning. Awake! Katriel brings himself upright, squares his shoulders and musters up what resolve he has left.
“What manner of game is this, Eshkol? What do you mean by this, this, interrogation? Did you not say a moment ago that we are friends? What do you think I have done?” Even as the words leave his lips, Katriel knows they are fruitless. His captor smiles and raises his right hand.

REVEALED

Surrounded. Six men, dressed in Roman armour, swords at their sides and ready to strike, press closer to their victim. In Katriel’s mind, he sees again the Roman from Seleucia who imprisoned him. His tall, overshadowing figure suffocating Katriel’s chances for escape, his smile of gleeful malice painted with broad strokes on his lips, and when rage had filled his heart to the brim and then overflowed, Katriel’s fists landing on the Roman’s jaw, sending him sprawling. He had made his escape then, but what about now?
Katriel looks about him, from left to right, then back to left. He is surrounded. Not just one this time, but six, maybe seven. He can’t see clearly enough to know precise numbers. But what he does see is Eshkol. Standing on the outskirts of the soldiers’ enclosure, his fingers intertwine casually, almost contentedly, as though this capture was merely another trip to the market for fish. His shoulders are back, but not in a manner with which to intimidate, rather one of pure satisfaction at watching the scene before him unfold. The smile upon his lips, which had moments ago seemed achingly familiar to Katriel, now stabs his heart. It is the smile of the Seleucian. He knows now, without a doubt, that he will not escape this time.
A centurion grips Katriel’s wrist, the mere force nearly disjointing it. “You are under arrest by the authority of Rome. Come.” Katriel comes. A second man grabs hold of his free wrist and they march him forward, the remaining soldiers following with these swords drawn in preparation of an escape attempt.
“What crime have I committed that you arrest me?” Katriel’s lips are dry and his throat aches to release the words. His question does not sound as steadfast as he hopes.
“Murder of a Roman spy. I believe you know him well. A certain Omer Ben Rachamin.”
His capture becomes real in this moment. In his heart, he had hoped beyond hope that it was a mistake, an error, or at best, even a framing, wherein he would declare himself innocent and go free. But now, as the words echo against the backdrop of the rising dawn—perhaps his last—he cannot escape the truth. He is found out.
Omer is right.
“Keep moving!” a soldier barks at Katriel. A yank on his wrist and Katriel quickens his steps. Looking about him, he sees the sleepy houses of his home city, where mothers sing their newborns to sleep and fathers teach their sons of the Law and the Scriptures. In one of them, he knows, sleeps his father, Rachamin, fragile with age, his bones brittle from the battles between his two sons. In another, he envisions Rhoda, her black curls sprawled across the pillow as her delicate chest rises and falls with every breath, unknowing as to her lover’s fate. And in a ditch behind a red brick wall, is Omer, the blood now run dry and congealed at the seams of his skin, his eyes open and blank with death, his soul, Katriel hopes in his anger, rotting in hell. His heart aches at the memories and he pushes them from his mind. He will not remember… he will not… remember.
They walk for many minutes in utter silence, the only sound the boot-clad footfalls of the soldiers and Katriel’s sandals shuffling along the cobblestones. His breath comes in laboured inhalations as he struggles to keep pace with the marching Romans.
Before them in the distance, framed in the transfiguration of moonlight to daylight, is the official residence of Herod Antipas, the Fortress Antonia. Government officials roam the grounds, crowds of people mill about impatiently for their hearings. Katriel knows this is where he is being taken, to appear before Governor Pilate, the dictator of his fate. As they approach, Katriel’s ears catch drifts of frantic voices, rising in waves from near the palace.
“Blasphemy! Blasphemy! Crucify him!” He cocks his head toward the noise, a desperate curiosity rising in his belly. What could be so urgent as to disrupt the Preparation Day of the Passover with such antics?
The soldiers march Katriel on, the voices of the crowd growing louder with every step. His body aches, his joints screech with fatigue as they attempt to match the vigor with which he is being made to walk. His eyelids slip over the vacant blue and gray that had once been so full of life—not this vile and malicious intent they possess now. Dragging his feet, he fears for the events of the next few hours.
“Wait here,” a guard grunts at the prisoner and marches off toward the raging storm of spectators. Katriel can now see the man for whom they are gathered to condemn.
The man is filmed with blood, no doubt from the soldier’s whippings. His tunic and cloak are torn and his sandals broken, only held together by a few withered straps of leather. A makeshift crown sits on the man’s head. Amidst his own premature suffering, Katriel cannot help but gaze at it, astounded. Thistles woven together, thick as Katriel’s leathery fingers, each spike pushed deep into the man’s skull. Blood drips from it, as rain from the heavens. His hair is matted from the excretion, blood streaming down his arms and torso to join what flows from the gashes of the flagrum.
He can now hear what the crowd is shouting. “Crucify him! Crucify him! King of the Jews! Messiah! He must die for his blasphemy!” The man with the crown of thorns is convicted of blasphemy? What are his claims that they accuse him with such severity? To the imprisoned onlooker, the wretch in the rags appears feeble and weak, not a man that would pose a threat.
His eyes are still fixed to the man with the crown of thistles when the centurion returns. Gesturing to his comrades, they lead Katriel forward into the Praetorium. Here, Pilate’s judgment falls on the unfortunate souls to enter its confines.

ANNIE — A SHORT STORY

It’s a quirky thing about people that when they know your name, they think they know you. Mrs. Biggs, for example. Every church has a Mrs. Biggs, middle-aged, nosy as all get out and entirely without shame. You know her; we all do. But when you belong to a family like mine, notorious throughout the churchgoing populace of a small town, there’s no keeping her nose out of the latest dirt.

She cornered me on the Sunday after it made the Saturday morning headlines. “You’re the Montgomery’s girl,” she said, her eyes zeroing in on me like a pair of headlights. All I could see was how much sharper her nose appeared when she stared like that. “I know all about your sister, dear. You poor thing. You must be traumatized. I must give you the name of my therapist. She’s wonderful and has the cheapest rates of anyone in town. It would be good for you, dear. Being the sister of someone who was murdered, well, it’ll leave you scarred for life, I just know it. Oh my, how tragic.” She dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief and I truly couldn’t distinguish if she was a brilliant actress or just oblivious. I stared at her with one of my expressions of unfiltered disdain that always earned me an elbow to the ribs from my mother. But I couldn’t respond even if I wanted to—which I didn’t. She knew nothing, not even my name. I walked away, comforting myself with thinking about how unattractive she looked in her too tight dress that revealed every lump and roll (of which there were plenty, I must add).

“For real,” my mother huffed on the drive home, “why can’t you believe in people more? They have good intentions. Why not let them get to know you?”

But that’s just it, I wanted to scream. They aren’t trying to know me. They’re like the Eeyore cross-stitch I did when I was five; the front, a perfect facade of grays and good intentions but on the back, the mess of knots and threads reveal the true motives that create it. I always felt like I saw life inside out with the tangles facing outward, obscuring my view.

Mrs. Biggs died of an aneurysm on Christmas Eve. At the service that night, she had put a hand on my shoulder, going on and on about what a difficult Christmas this must be and that she’d pray for the peace of God to be on me and my family as we grieve our loss. I didn’t look at her, just shimmied out from beneath her grasp and grabbed a slice of coffee cake off the dessert table. I got an elbow in the ribs but I didn’t care. It wouldn’t change my mind or put Mrs. Biggs’ nose back on her face and out of my life.

During the eulogy, I was on my phone, changing my name on all my social media accounts. Girl with the Murdered Sister, Just Another Traumatized Teenager, Blank. If my name didn’t matter, then I’d go without. By the time the punch was served, I was a nameless blob with a story that everyone knew about but no one cared to know.

My parents soon gave up calling me by my name. In fact, everyone seemed to talk to me less and less as time passed, I suppose, because they didn’t know how to relate to me anymore. I was like a book with a missing title page; it confused people who picked me up off the shelf and rendered me beyond comprehension. They didn’t realize though, that my story was still intact, with characters, plot and a good twist that readers never see coming.

Without a name, I was like the label on my bottle of antidepressants. I was only what happened to me, not who I was on the inside. To Mrs. Biggs, I was the sister of the murdered girl. To my parents, I was the headstrong teenager. And when I went searching for love and found a night with the high school quarterback, I became the teen mom.

The only thing I was asked more than if I was going to marry the father—which was an emphatic no since he blocked my number after I texted him a photo of the positive pregnancy test—was what I was going to name the baby. I got everything from Allison to Abcde. I just rolled my eyes and spouted my automatic reply: “I won’t know until she’s born.”

“You have to think about it before she arrives,” my mother said, flipping through a name book as fat as my expanding belly. “It won’t just come to you, not when you’re sweating and exhausted from a 24-hour labour.” She handed me the book, waving her hand across the highlighted page. “I think these would be just gorgeous.” I snapped it shut without even glancing at my mother and got up to waddle off toward the kitchen.

Talk about being exhausted. Was no one else thinking about how a sixteen-year-old was planning to pay for diapers and childcare while she tried to finish high school? Whether my daughter had a three or a ten-digit identity tag meant nothing if I couldn’t provide for her. Yet, it was the name that mattered most. I groaned. I would never be known as anything other than a name, and neither would my baby.

I was due on the first anniversary of my sister’s murder. My contractions were coming twenty minutes apart but I figured I still had time to visit her grave before getting dragged to the hospital. I walked down the path, reading the names and dates on the headstones I passed. I paused by the headstone of Aldis McCain, born 1941, died 1959. He was the same age as my sister. And all that was left of him was a name. I knelt down and felt the cool stone beneath my palm.

“You’re more than a name,” I said. “You have a story, and I hope you had someone who cared to read it.”

Next to Aldis was a grave with a blank headstone. There was just a date of death written: November 27, 1919. I wondered who lay interred there; maybe a World War I veteran, or maybe it was a boy who died of pneumonia in his mother’s arms. Whoever it was, they had a story, even if we didn’t know it.

Why was I the only one who understood that? I touched the nameless headstone, and let the first tear slide down my cheek since she died. I prayed—maybe to God, maybe to something else, I didn’t know—that no matter if everyone else only remembered her name, I would remember her story and be brave enough to tell it as long as I lived. She would never be forgotten.

I almost delivered my baby in the cemetery that day. That sure would have made the headlines, I thought, and I smiled thinking of how Mrs. Biggs would have been all over that. But I managed to waddle back to the parking lot where my frantic mother drove way too fast toward the emergency entrance of the general hospital. And there I was, sprawled out on a bed, pushing and panting. But as she came out, I came into something, something that I hadn’t expected. This new world of being a mother was a bewildering mess and it would only get messier. But I promised myself that my baby would not be only a name, but a tapestry of everything she loved—everything she hated, dreamed about, failed at, and all that comes with living a beautiful, messed up life. Her name was only a small piece. She would grow to be much more than just a name. And I knew exactly what it would be.

When the nurse asked me for a name for the birth certificate, I said, “Annie.” She smiled and I felt my mother sigh with relief from across the room. Life was normal again.

But joke’s on them. Annie is short for Anonymous.