THE UNHOLY CROSS — A SHORT STORY, PART TWO

Read The Unholy Cross, Part One here.

TRIAL

Pilate sits on an adorned chair, the pride of a Roman etched in his every feature. But in his eyes, there is a veiled glint of kindness, the glitter of hope that perhaps he will judge not as a Roman, but as a man. Attendants surround him, awaiting his command. With a sweeping gesture, he dismisses their attention and they scatter to their places about the room.
“State the case,” Pilate commands, his voice loud and abrupt.
The centurion who had gone in ahead of Katriel steps forward and speaks. “This man is convicted of murdering a Roman spy at just before dawn this very morning. There are witnesses who are willing to testify.” Katriel blinks with surprise. A witness? Was he not alone? Did he not examine his surroundings before he stabbed his brother dead? He glances about himself, scanning the Praetorium for the witness to come forward. He hopes with fading optimism that it is not who he suspects.
But it is. Eshkol emerges from the back of the company of soldiers and with confident strides, approaches the governor. As he opens his mouth to begin, he shoots one final glance toward Katriel, the smile of betrayal displayed unashamedly on his face.
“Governor Pilate, this man is indeed guilty of murder. I witnessed it with my own eyes, only an hour or two ago.” He clears his throat and continues. “I was on my way to my father’s house, having just returned from a long journey when I heard the blood-curdling shrieks of a man. I didn’t think anything of it at first I admit, but when it persisted and became ever more despairing, I made up my mind to investigate. I followed the sound to the edge of the city, just on the border of where I happen to know the victim’s home lies—”
“How do you know this?”
“I was brought up in the same neighbourhood, governor. The victim, his murderer and I were friends as children.”
“I see. Go on.”
“Here, I witnessed this man deliver the fatal blow.”
“How did he perform the murder?” Pilate’s voice is stable as he makes his inquiries, but Katriel is not so fortunate. His knees tremble, his vision blurs, and it is only the sharp grasp of a soldier that keeps him from collapsing.
“It was a knife. He stabbed the man numerous times in the heart and the side. Once he made certain his work was completed, he drew the knife up into his cloak and left, leaving the body behind a wall to decay.”
“What happened then?”
Eshkol’s eyes are fixed on the Prefect, his zeal evident in his gaze. His tale continues. “As quietly as I could, I followed him. When I realized he was heading toward the gates that lead out of the city, I left and went directly and gathered this company of men. They joined me in my pursuit and we did manage to overtake him. We captured him and brought him here to you for his just punishment.”
The room is quiet, not an exhalation to be heard. Even the murmur of the crowd in the courtyard dissipates against the explosive silence within. Within the room yes, but in Katriel’s heart, it is deeper, more despairing.
Was this the friend who had suffered imprisonment at his side? The man who aided him in his escape? Who time and time again, tried to turn him back to the god of his childhood? The one he professed to believe in, but stands and sentences his friend to death? Katriel’s mind begins to spin, a whirlwind that captures his thoughts and ruffles them beyond recognition. He is betrayed.
“If you have further need of evidence, governor Pilate, you may merely ask this man for the knife.” Katriel’s whole being goes still. He can feel the knife’s cool blade against his forearm. If Eshkol’s account is not enough to secure the him, this would be.
“Prisoner, remove your cloak. Let me see what is beneath.” Impatient for the trial to end, a soldier rips Katriel’s cloak from his shoulders and it lands on the floor in a heap. The knife clatters to the floor, loud and condemning. The entire room gravitates to it as a collective gasp is inhaled.
“It is final.” Pilate now stands and his attendants draw near. “Katriel Ben Rachamin, you are sentenced to death by crucifixion for the murder of your brother, Omer Ben Rachamin. Within the hour! You are dismissed.”

GOLGOTHA

With his hands tied, Katriel weaves between the remnants of the crowd that had called so fervently for the execution of the blasphemer. The man himself is nowhere to be seen—Katriel assumes now that the sentence was passed and he is on his way to the cross. Amidst the reality of his own peril, Katriel cannot help but marvel at the other prisoner’s integrity, silent in the face of his crimes and such willingness to take the beating his guards deemed necessary. What kind of a man is this?
Rising beneath the golden sun of blooming day, Katriel’s eyes find his destiny—Golgotha. At the top of this hill he knows, he will die.
The patibulum he carries on his shoulders teeters, the effect wobbling Katriel’s legs. Blood from his scourging runs from his shoulders, down his thighs and calves and leaves soggy imprints in the dirt beneath him. Lightheaded and dizzy, he is nearly completely unaware of life beyond his pain.
They reach the peak of the hill and the cross bar on Katriel’s shoulders is lifted and tacked to the stipe. In his delirium, Katriel does not notice a third cross being mounted in line with his and the blasphemer’s. At each, a company of Roman soldiers meticulously perform their duty.
“Murder a Roman, will you? Then feel the wrath of Rome! May it follow you to hell and torment you there for all eternity!” The centurion draws out two nails and with not a care nor concern, pounds them through Katriel’s wrists. He cries out in anguish. “That is just the beginning of what you will suffer for your crime.” The centurion spits in his face and laughs mockingly.
Nails are driven into his feet, pinning him to the upright beam of the cross. He is overcome with pain; he can no longer discern where it stems from, only that it is consuming him like a raging fire. His weight hangs solely from his wrists, his breaths shallow and quick. How long will it take?
The other prisoners are hung on their crosses, their shrieks and screams melding with Katriel’s. The criminal on the third cross is muttering between gasps. Katriel tries to focus on it, on anything to distract him from the excruciating pain.
“Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us! Where’s your power now, oh mighty King?” The criminal’s taunts are hardly audible above the blood in Katriel’s ears, the pain screaming up at him from every fibre of his being. But as he hangs there, the fingertips of Death grazing his skin, his mind flashes to a memory.
A father bends over his son, the six year old’s fingers cold and fragile in his. Looking straight into his son’s eyes—the same gentle, earnest eyes of his mother—Rachamin begins to speak. “Katriel, listen to me. I do not take pleasure in punishing you, but it needed to be done. You were wrong to say those things to Omer. Your words hurt him very deeply. You know I still love you, don’t you?” The tiny head nodded. “But do you know who will love you even when it’s hard for me to love you well?”
“Who?”
“God. He will always love you. Even if you have nobody left to turn to, even when you’re scared he doesn’t want you anymore. He will love you. I want you to remember that. Will you do that for me?”
“Yes, Father. I’ll remember.” The man leans down and ruffles the child’s hair, a smile spreading across his face.
The memory fades and Katriel’s focus is drawn once more to the victim on the third cross. Still hurling insults, but the silent sufferer on the center cross does not reply.
Defend him. It overwhelms Katriel, even stronger than the pain emanating from his wrists and feet. He shouts with all his strength: “Quiet! That man has done nothing wrong, unlike you and I. Don’t you fear God? We’re all suffering the same sentence, but ours is fair. Now quiet. Leave him to die in peace.” Lowering his voice so only the man next to him can hear, Katriel whispers, “If you are the son of God, if you are the Christ, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
When he speaks, it is like Katriel’s heart is both broken and restored in one breath. “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
Katriel stops fighting. He breathes his last and the pain ends.

FOREVER

“Come in, my son. Be welcomed in my name.” The voice envelops the new arrival. Comfort, joy and awe fill his being, the reality of his new life abounding in his soul.
He gazes down at his hands in disbelief. No nails, no wounds. No remnant of the pain that was the passageway to paradise. He strokes his palm with a gentle finger—soft, like silk, tender.
New. Everything is new. He is new.
He looks up to the sky, yet somehow, he cannot define the border between earth and sky. Does it go on forever?
As though reading his thoughts, the voice wraps itself around him and whispers, “It does, my son. As do you. And I. Here, together, we shall go on forever.”

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