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.

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