This happened when I was twelve. I was there and I saw it with my own eyes. I know what happened. There’s no talking or threatening me out of this.
I have kept my silence since, all the way to this day. I have kept my silence all these years in order not to shame my parents, for I ask you: who on earth would have believed me? And for that matter, who will believe me now? My parents would surely have thought me deranged beyond repair and I would have shamed them greatly had I spoken before now. Imagine: to have a delusional son, how shameful. Seeing things.
You too will think me delusional and deranged, I am sure. Nevertheless, what I say is true.
I was there.
I saw it happen.
With my own eyes.
I disobeyed my father three times that day. That is what silenced me at first.
He told me to stay at home that day. Stay in the house, do not to go anywhere, he said, not even for bread or milk or to the well for water. He said trouble was coming. For my own safety, he said, you must stay inside.
He was a stern man, my father. He did not take kindly to disobedience of any kind, no matter what the reason. He would never have forgiven my defiance that day.
Yes, I remember it clearly, him telling me that trouble was coming and to stay inside and not to go out. It was not a suggestion; it was a decree. That is what commanded my initial silence, for how could I have told him that I was there and that I saw it with my own eyes when he had told me, specifically, and more than once, to stay inside that day, and to not leave the house, not even for water?
But now they are gone, both mother and, now, father. Aaron, too. A few years back. Now there is no one left to shame. Father left us this Friday last and I am recently back from laying him to rest. Mother died almost seven years ago now, in spring. I have no brothers or sisters. That’s why there is no one left to shame.
Now that there is only me left to shame, but shame means nothing to me. I need to tell for any shame, no matter how great, is dwarfed by the burden of seeing and not telling.
He was a short man. I remember thinking he must not be fully grown for he was not much taller than I was, and I was of a height normal for my age; well, perhaps I was just a little taller than normal but not that tall. But he wore a full beard and I remember wondering how could a boy have such a beard before I realized that he was a man. A boy with a beard, that’s what I thought at first. A bearded boy. How strange! Then I saw that he was a short man and not a boy at all.
Mother had left for the country that very morning. The early sky had promised heat and she did not take well to our dusty sun. She and Naomi, her cousin, they both left shortly after breakfast, mother saying it would be a very hot day. Even though I did not hear him do so, I now think it likely that Father had commanded her to go.
Father left shortly thereafter for the guards. But not before he told me to stay inside (three times, proving with his hands how serious he was) and he told Aaron, my uncle who lived with us then, to make sure I stayed inside the house and that he would be wise to do so, too (told him at least twice, that I heard). There could be trouble, he said. I remember it clearly, him telling Aaron there could be trouble that day. Father knew these things for he was an officer of the guards and I remember very clearly him telling Aaron that day that he thought there would be trouble.
They had talked about him at table the night before, Father, Mother and Uncle Aaron; Father doing most of the talking, while chewing his food like he always did, words hard to make out as his tongue was laboring at two tasks. His lips and teeth, the same. He told us there had been disturbances, only small ones, he added. Father never had big disturbances. The first had been a few days ago, in the afternoon, when the man had entered the city on a donkey and many people had gathered to cheer and greet him. Since his arrival he had preached some and agitated some and drawn the ire of the law. Now he had been tried and sentenced, and Father expected some trouble.
“Rabble,” said Mother. “They are nothing but rabble.”
She spoke clearly, for she never spoke while chewing. She was a one-task-at-a-time woman. I remember her saying he was nothing but some rabble from the north country.
Aaron said so, too. “North country rabble,” he said without looking up, his big watery eyes intent on his food. But then he always agreed with mother, being mother’s brother and having absolutely no money of his own, nor a job.
“The man is a trouble maker,” said Father. “We’ve had our eyes on him for some time now. He’s been careful not to break any law until now, but now he has and he’s angered Pilate and we will nail him to wood tomorrow.”
“Good,” said Mother.
“Good,” said Aaron.
Father’s glance at her—the long one he cast after Mother said it was good that we would nail him to wood, this rabble—may have told her to go to the country, but he never told her such things so I could hear. Father’s glance at Aaron told him to find work, but Aaron didn’t notice, he only had eyes for his food.
I listened to their conversation and thought that Father does have an important job, one to be proud of (and I was proud of him) but I thought no more about the man that evening. There were so many trouble makers in those days. Same as now. There was always some trouble maker that Father had to see to and mother always said they came from the country and were rabble and should not be allowed into the city or that they should be nailed to wood.
“For their own good,” Aaron sometimes added, which was his idea of a joke.
Yes, after breakfast the following morning, that morning, Mother and Naomi left for the country. After lecturing me, Father then told Aaron to make sure I stayed inside. Quite loudly and twice. To make sure I too heard, I think. Then he left as well.
Then, as I usually did when Father left, I went up onto the roof. I looked up at the sky. It was going to be a very hot day. There was not a cloud about and the sun baked our roof ledge at first blooming, barely looking over the neighboring roof tops.
Yes, I thought, mother is right. This will be a very hot day.
I stepped up to the ledge and looked down on the street. There were no signs of Mother and Naomi, of course, but I could see Father leave our house and walk out into the street. I saw him and followed him with my eyes as he was greeted by two of his men and soon disappeared with them for the city. I remember thinking it was going to be a very hot day that day as I saw them hurry for the city. Father first, taller and darker than his two officers. I also thought again that he has an important job. I’m proud to be his son, I thought.
Then they rounded a corner and were gone.
The sun, a little higher now, was hot on my face and shoulders and I went back down into the house which was still cool. Then I did not think about Father or Mother or rabble or trouble or heat for a while. Instead I read some. Then I worked oil into my new sandals. This was the fourth time I had worked oil into them, and the leather was now growing soft and smooth.
Then I played with our secret cat. She was no longer a secret, but I still thought of her as our secret cat. When Father brought her home he said she was a gift but that we had to keep her a secret from our neighbors. Aaron said Father had bought her from a Greek smuggler that is why she had to be kept secret. Aaron sometimes tells lies.
But the secret cat did not keep itself a secret very long for no matter how hard Father told us never to let it out into the street, it let itself out into the street whenever it pleased and so stopped being a secret pretty soon. If our neighbors minded the cat I never heard about it. Father’s job might have had something to do with that.
She liked to chase things. So I tied a small, downy feather to the end of a string and for a while I ran around and around our now dry garden fountain with this string trailing from my hand as she ran after it to catch the feather. She’d chase it for a while then stop and take a few steps back. I remember thinking she must think it’s a mouse or a rat or something. Doesn’t she know it’s me pulling the string? Can’t she see that it’s just a feather?
Apparently not. Her tail would beat up a small cloud of dust as she backed off with eyes fixed without a blink (unless she blinked when I blinked) on the small feather. I’d stop too and she’d crouch motionless but for a ripple or two in her front legs, just about to charge. Any second now. I could tell because her tail would beat just a little harder, the dust just a little dustier, then her rear legs would ripple too and then she’d charge. Sometimes I let her catch the feather with her claws and she would hold on as I pulled. She’d feel heavy at the end of the string dragging on the ground before she let go. She would then lie there in the dust for a while, then stand up, looking for all the world as if nothing at all had just happened and that she wasn’t in the least interested in the strings or feathers. As if it had, in fact, been some other cat looking just like her that had been stupid enough to charge a feather at the end of a stupid string. Then she’d charge again and we played like this for a while.
Aaron came out and offered me a cool drink, which he always did when he wanted one himself. Then he offered me another.
The day was growing very hot now and Aaron asked why I was still sitting outside in the garden, why didn’t I get out of the sun? Yes, it was getting very hot, but the clay cup felt cool in my hand and the cool juice smelled fresh and I remember saying this is not so hot. I remember trying to ignore the heat. It is not good to let others know how you feel or that you cannot suffer the sun. Father would never admit to being hot, especially not to Aaron, that’s what I remember thinking that morning.
Around noon I no longer cared what Aaron might think, I could no longer take the heat. The day had turned blistering. Our secret cat was nowhere to be seen. She was not as stupid as I was and didn’t care one bit what Aaron, or anyone else for that matter, might think about her not liking the sun and had left me for shadier parts a long time ago.
So, I finally followed her example and moved to the much cooler inside. Very quiet, too. Aaron was snoring, taking his pre-lunch nap, as he liked to call it, but never so Father could hear.
I read some more. Then I woke Aaron and we shared some lunch. Then I went back to reading and he went back to snoring (his post-lunch nap).
The sun had begun her sinking but would still shine for a several more hours when I first heard them. I remember thinking it sounded like the ocean.
When I was little, we used to travel to Ashkelon when the summer grew its very hottest. This was before Father became an officer of the guards, for now he has to stay and make sure that the city remains calm in the summer heat. But then, before he became such an important man, we used to travel there and I remember lying awake for a long time the first few nights, before falling asleep, listening to the waves roll ashore and thinking that it sounded like many, many hands clapping. Many, many, many hands clapping me to sleep. But after a few days my ears would grow accustomed to the waves and they’d clap no more, or not so loudly, anyway. I would simply fall asleep with the sea in my nostrils and my muscles tired from swimming. But for a moment that afternoon, Aaron snoring in his little room (not much more than a closet, really), and the sun beginning to sink, I thought I was back at Ashkelon falling asleep before I realized I had fallen asleep in the hot house in Jerusalem and it was some other murmur that I heard, not the waves at Ashkelon clapping. It was coming from outside.
I was curious, of course, especially since Father had said there might be trouble. So, despite the heat, I rushed up onto our roof and looked out over the ledge in the direction of the approaching sound. The murmur grew and I soon knew it to be many people coming this way.
I remember clearly the murmur and the ledge and the sun and the hot clay of the roof burning my soles. The murmur grew even stronger as my soles burned badly on the baking clay. I wanted to see what was coming but now my feet were burning more than I could bear. I thought about my new sandals, then about Father who had told me not to wear them until I had oiled them seven times. That was three times away. But I wanted to see what was coming, and my soles burned so badly that I ran down to get them anyway. Of course, I see now that I could have fetched my old sandals, but that did not occur to me then.
This was my first (and smallest) act of disobedience that day.
When I returned to the roof—my feet sandaled and relieved—the crowd was closer still and I could hear shrill, angry individual voices. Then I saw them. They rounded the hide-maker’s shop and spilled onto our street like a huge worm with three crosses for a head.
Two of these crosses were carried by several soldiers. The third was carried by what I thought at first was a boy with a beard. I remember thinking, how strange, a boy with a beard. Then I realized that it was a short man. He looked angry. He must have been very strong, though, for he carried the cross all by himself. Well, not carried, really. It was too heavy for even a very strong man to carry on his own, but he dragged it along all by himself. He looked tired from this. But mostly, I thought, he looked very annoyed.
Mother had called him rabble from the north country. Aaron too, of course. Father had called him a trouble maker. He’s been called a lot more since. A heretic, a savior, a messiah. Many still call him country scum.
Me, I saw a short man with long hair and a beard which at first I thought was a boy my age, though perhaps a little taller than me.
Then I saw my father. By his gestures, he was telling the guards to keep the people from throwing things and then I knew that this was indeed the promised trouble.
They passed directly below where I stood and the noise grew hard to endure. He was called names. Mostly bad ones. Some good. Lord, by some. Savior, by some. But mostly bad names. He didn’t look around much. The cross must have been very heavy, for he mostly looked down. But he did look up now and then and looking up again, he looked directly at me. It was as if he asked me what I was looking at? He looked very angry now, and especially angry at me for being up on our roof looking down at him.
Of course, that’s me imagining a little looking back at this, but that’s what I thought. I remember thinking I was glad I was up on the roof and that he was down there in the street and that Father was nearby because this rabble man scared me.
Then he looked down again and shifted the cross slightly on his shoulder and kept moving. It looked very heavy and must have hurt him terribly. They have said since, the heretics, that he was the leader of the meek. But he was nothing like meek at all. He was strong and furious, that’s what I think. Short, strong and furious.
I stood back and even crouched a bit to make sure Father couldn’t see me. Then the worm moved on past the water-house and was gone except for a few men who didn’t go farther but stopped to talk and then slipped into the shade of the teahouse. The worm took its murmur with it, loud still, then fainter then fainter then gone.
I decided to follow.
Well, not right away. I wondered for a moment who he was, that angry boy with the beard, the rabble man. Then, as the many voices returned to pebbles clapping by the shore, I slipped over the side of the house and climbed down the southern wall (which Father had strictly forbidden me ever to do again—after I fell and hurt myself doing just that a few months ago) where the foothold was good and where Aaron could not see me, if he was awake, that is. I could not hear him snoring (or not) from the roof. I burned my hands and knees a little climbing down, the wall was so hot from the sun.
That was my second act of defiance that day, scaling the southern wall.
Leading straight to my third (and most severe) act of disobedience: I left not only our house but also our street as I headed for where I knew the worm was headed: Golgotha.
Here’s the truth, think of me what you will: I did not like him. He scared me, and I wanted to see him nailed to wood.
They said later that there were many people there to see him die but that is not true. They were not many. In fact, I had to hide among the nearby rocks for fear that my father would see me, there were not even enough people for a child like me to slip unnoticed among them.
I remember hiding well, for Father was there and he must not see me. Had he seen me, he would have had me seized by one of his men and brought home, to dread his returning later in the night to deal with me. No, that I could not risk.
I did not count them, but there were not many, twenty or so at the most. Perhaps not even that. I did not count them. Nor did I count Father and his men, but they were perhaps ten or so. I remember thinking how the worm (which had been hundreds strong passing our house) must have gotten bored or too warm or tired and left for dinners in the shade, leaving a very thin worm. Perhaps twenty. Twenty plus Father and his men, perhaps thirty in all. I remember the small crowd clearly, for I had to hide very well among the rocks so Father would not see me.
To hide very well I slipped in among the rocks and crevices near the crosses until I found a place close enough to see the nailing but where Father could not see me, no matter how vigilant a lookout for trouble he might be.
I had never seen a nailing before. I had seen a binding, but not a nailing.
The other two prisoners were bound. Strapped to their crosses with strong, wet leather thongs that would shrink as they dried. I saw their faces wince and grimace. I remember thinking how it must hurt them and then the soldiers were done strapping and raised those crosses and stood them in their holes. Some jeered at the two prisoners who jeered right back.
One of them tried to spit at the soldiers or into the faces below. I cannot tell which as he missed everything but his own chest and the ground and they jeered some more at his drooling.
As Father had promised, they did not bind the short man to his cross. Two of Father’s men held him back down against the wood while two more held his arm and hand while yet another placed a large iron spike against his wrist.
I had thought I had wanted to see this but when I saw the soldier raise his arm and mallet I had to look away. That did not stop me from hearing.
He screamed. It was from the pain of course. It must have hurt terribly. But it was also in anger. He roared. I heard the wood of the mallet hit the metal of the spike and him screaming, roaring. Then I looked up again. They were done with the first wrist and now moved on to the other. More wood on metal and more raging from the furious man. This time I did not turn away. The spike went straight through the wrist and blood squirted onto one of the soldiers who I assume swore though I could not hear precisely what he said over the screaming.
Then they moved onto his feet. They put one foot on top of the other and drove a very long spike through both of them. More wood on metal, more screaming and then they hammered no more but he didn’t stop raging, but then he finally did, safely nailed now to the wooden cross through wrists and feet.
The blood had stopped squirting from the one wrist, but it still pulsed out around that spike and around the two others as well and onto the wood and onto the ground. Red at first, then darker, then nearly black in three small puddles.
The soldiers then brought him upright, too, and stood his cross in its hole and made sure it would not fall over. Two other soldiers shored up the cross to the left which had started to sag and looked like it would soon fall. Father came up to them and pointed at the foot of the cross, telling them, I’m sure, how to fill in the hole properly so the cross would not fall over. Some soldiers are so dumb they wouldn’t even serve as firewood is what Father used to say sometimes, not that this makes much sense. They looked at him like firewood, though, and down at the foot of the sagging cross and then did what Father told them to. After a while the cross stood upright again and no longer showed any signs of tipping over.
Father went over to each of the other two crosses and inspected their feet and holes and seemed satisfied that they too would remain standing. Then he looked up at the three crucified men, regarded them each for a while, as if to make sure they would go nowhere. Then he looked around, checking, I thought, that all was in order. It must have been, for now he nodded to his men and then, job done, he turned and left.
His men followed him down the long slope that led away from the crosses, and soon I could only see the top of them, then none of them at all.
Now there were only the three crosses with their unwilling tenants, and the faces below still looking up at, mainly, the short and angry one.
The crucifixion was done.
I studied the short man’s face in the half light. He looked out at the little gathering below. He had screamed himself empty is what I thought as he looked up at the sky. Then over at the setting sun. Then up again, as if looking for something.
I was preparing to sneak back the way I had come and return home before Father would arrive and find me missing. I had seen what I had come to see, as had most of the others, who were now also heading down the slope, leaving only the handful who I’m sure would wait to see him die. I had no interest in seeing him die, I just wanted to see him nailed.
Father called these people who wait to see them die death vultures. Mother called them vultures too. Aaron called them vultures as well, no surprise. Vultures are very patient people, Aaron would point out, and quite rightly so: it could take days for the crucified to die.
“A week once,” Father told us one night at table. “The fat ones last forever. They moan and cuss and beg for water and food before they finally shed the ghost.” Then he looked over at Aaron and smiled and said those crosses are hell to keep upright, at least before they shed some of their excess weight. Father was in a good mood that night; he hardly ever smiled at Aaron.
Yes, I had to get out of there and make straight for home. I took one last look at the angry one, he was still looking up at the sky, still searching for something—that’s the feeling I had, watching his face watching the sky.
This is when it happened.
I have thought about this ever since and to be sure I have thought about little else. And I have wondered over and over why it was that I could see when no one else did and the only thing I can think is that I must have been shielded by the rock I crouched behind, that I was spared the blinding light by the rock I crouched behind.
For I had turned, if just barely, to leave my hiding place. I was crouching to sneak away when everything in the world, above and around and seemingly below, went white. Just for an instant, for less than a breath. For less than a heartbeat, maybe it was just the length of an eye-blink.
I didn’t see the light with my eyes, and perhaps that is what left me awake, but I saw the rock turn to shimmer beneath me and saw with my shoulders and neck and with my back the light that was heat and all upon me. I thought for a crazy instant that the sun must have fallen out of the sky and down on us.
I remember thinking, too, that it could not have been the sun fallen, for if it had, it would not have been upon us but into the sea where it was already headed. But the light was like that of the sun falling down, hot and over everything and I remember thinking first that the sun must have fallen down on us.
Next I thought that I must have died. That God had decided that I had lived long enough, and that I had disobeyed Father enough: three times that day. That now He had thrown open His doors to me. The light was streaming out to fetch me and I remember how I, though only for a moment not much longer than a twitch, felt empty and bad that Mother was not here to say goodbye to.
But the light did not last. A twitch, a heartbeat, a blink of an eye, that is all. If that. The rock turned black first then gray and then brown again as it returned out of that light and back into the unlit evening for my eyes to make out again.
I had meant to creep away but now I was too stunned to move. I stayed where I was, crouched and blinking. After several long breaths I raised my head slowly and peaked over the top of the rock, not expecting to see the sun fallen down.
They were all still there. The two prisoners and the rabble man on their crosses, the handful of people below.
At first, I thought everything had returned to the way things should be, but then I noticed the stillness. It was nearly absolute. No one moved. I remember thinking I must be looking at a painting, it was all so still. No one moved, except for the rabble man who was looking up at the sky, looking up, looking up, and I now looked up with him at something that was falling down on us. At first I thought, well, here comes the sun after all, but it was smaller than that, a small sun, though growing and growing as it fell on us. Then it fell all the way and I crouched again to shield myself from the impact but there was none. Only the sound of strong wind, like a strong exhaling.
I looked up again and saw the little sun, which no longer seemed like a sun but more like a huge round, very well polished metal shield, fall all the way to the ground. Not like a rock falls to the ground but as a feather falls to the floor without a sound and remains all feather after the fall, still and intact. Not like a stone that sometimes splits and makes noises. Like a feather.
But it was not a feather. Nor was it a shield. It was a house. It was a low, thin, shiny house made from metal that had fallen from the sky onto the earth. It was God’s house that had landed like a feather upon the earth although it did rouse dust all around it. Then the dust settled and all was still.
The rabble man—who still was the only one moving, the rest of the people remained frozen like statues—studied the shiny house intently, waiting for something to happen, I think. And something did happen.
A door appeared on the upper, flat side of this house and a man with large, dark eyes which seemed to cover his real eyes stepped out of the house and down on the ground. He walked up to the cross where the rabble man hung and said something to him in a language I did not recognize. Others came out too. They had brought a shiny ladder, which they raised against the rabble man’s cross. They had brought tools, too, and with them they (far too easily, I thought) pulled the spikes out of his wrists and feet and then they lifted him from the cross and passed him down to those below who now reached for him.
The men on the ground had prepared a blanket for the rabble man and they now laid him on it. One of the people from God’s house, dressed all in white, took a small bottle out of a gray bag that he carried over his shoulder. Crouching by the rabble man now on the blanket he then poured a white liquid onto his wrists and feet and then shone a small red light at them.
This made him heal. I saw this with my own eyes. These very two eyes in my own head: his wrists and his feet healed right on the spot and then he massaged his wrists a little, and then his feet and then he stood up and I still thought how short he was to have a beard.
They took the ladder down and folded it like a blanket to make it smaller and one of the men brought it back into God’s house.
The rabble man asked for something. The man with dark eyes covering his eyes like sooted windows brought out a small box and from it gave him a short white straw. The rabble man put one end of it in his mouth and the man with dark eyes covering his eyes brought fire out of his hand and lit the other end of the straw. The rabble man took a deep breath then coughed out a gray cloud, coughed some more and said something, and now it sounded like he was laughing.
I did not mean to move but I must have moved and they noticed. The rabble man spun around and our eyes met. He did not recognize me. Two tall men in black were at my side in a beat of my heart and they held me by both arms as they walked me out.
The rabble man said something to me which I did not understand.
Then he said something to me which I did understand, for he knew our language, too, of course: “What are you doing here?” he said.
By this time, I was so alarmed that I had forgotten the entire Hebrew language and could not find a single word to reply with.
The rabble man asked me again, and again I came up wordless. I felt tears in my eyes, though. And I remember feeling ashamed of them, little boy crying.
Now the man with the dark glass eyes covering his eyes said something, too, but in that strange language that sounded like no language I had ever heard.
They both looked at me, then over at the other people, all still frozen to the ground, still as statues, eyes mostly open but blank and unseeing.
The man to my right increased his grip on my arm and brought out a metal stick which he put to my temple. It felt cool and hard. He said something that sounded like a question.
The rabble man laughed and looked at me and shook his head. Then he smiled but it was not a nice smile. I have wondered about that smile ever since, and I believe I know now what the smile said.
The two men let go of my arms and I almost fell down. They said something to each other, then to the rabble man who answered and laughed again. Then he looked back at me with that same not very nice smile. He didn’t say anything though.
Then they all turned toward the shiny house and entered it. The rabble man last. He did not look back before the door vanished into the polished metal.
The silver house then roused a lot of dust again then rose into the air and grew smaller, then into a small sun, then into a star, then into a smaller star and then away into nothing. I was left with the vivid image of the rabble man’s not very nice smile.
The first to move was the prisoner to the right of the empty cross. He coughed. Then one of the spectators, who really did look like a vulture, shuffled a foot in the dirt. I darted back behind my cover lest someone would see me and perhaps recognize me and tell my father. Even then, after what I had just seen, I seemed more concerned with my disobedience than with the impossible. What I had seen would, of course, obsess me later.
From there I crept away into the night and away from Golgotha, for home to get there before Father did.
I remember wondering what the rabble man had meant by his smile as I hurried through darkening streets, shortcutting my way home through alleys and back yards to get there before Father did. I have thought about little else since, and I have now grown quite certain.
And he was right, the short and angry rabble man was right, for what I think his smile said to me was:
“You’re just a kid. Who on earth would believe you?”