فصل 16

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فصل 16

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CHAPTER 16

The Execution

The sun was already going down over Bald Mountain, and the mountain was cordoned off by a double cordon.

The cavalry ala that had cut across the procurator’s path around noon came trotting up to the Hebron gate of the city. Its way had already been prepared. The infantry of the Cappadocian cohort had pushed the conglomeration of people, mules and camels to the sides, and the ala, trotting and raising white columns of dust in the sky, came to an intersection where two roads met: the south road leading to Bethlehem, and the north-west road to Jaffa. The ala raced down the north-west road. The same Cappadocians were strung out along the sides of the road, and in good time had driven to the sides of it all the caravans hastening to the feast in Yershalaim. Crowds of pilgrims stood behind the Cappadocians, having abandoned their temporary striped tents, pitched right on the grass. Going on for about a half-mile, the ala caught up with the second cohort of the Lightning legion and, having covered another half-mile, was the first to reach the foot of Bald Mountain. Here they dismounted. The commander broke the ala up into squads, and they cordoned off the whole foot of the small hill, leaving open only the way up from the Jaffa road.

After some time, the ala was joined at the hill by the second cohort, which climbed one level higher and also encircled the hill in a wreath.

Finally the century under the command of Mark Ratslayer arrived. It went stretched out in files along the sides of the road, and between these files, convoyed by the secret guard, the three condemned men rode in a cart, white boards hanging around their necks with ‘robber and rebel’ written on each of them in two languages — Aramaic and Greek.

The cart with the condemned men was followed by others laden with freshly hewn posts with crosspieces, ropes, shovels, buckets and axes. Six executioners rode in these carts. They were followed on horseback by the centurion Mark, the chief of the temple guard of Yershalaim, and that same hooded man with whom Pilate had had a momentary meeting in a darkened room of the palace.

A file of soldiers brought up the rear of the procession, and behind it walked about two thousand of the curious, undaunted by the infernal heat and wishing to be present at the interesting spectacle. The curious from the city were now joined by the curious from among the pilgrims, who were admitted without hindrance to the tail of the procession. Under the shrill cries of the heralds who accompanied the column and cried aloud what Pilate had cried out at around noon, the procession drew itself up Bald Mountain.

The ala admitted everyone to the second level, but the second century let only those connected with the execution go further up, and then, manoeuvring quickly, spread the crowd around the entire hill, so that people found themselves between the cordons of infantry above and cavalry below. Now they could watch the execution through the sparse line of the infantry.

And so, more than three hours had gone by since the procession climbed the mountain, and the sun was already going down over Bald Mountain, but the heat was still unbearable, and the soldiers in both cordons suffered from it, grew weary with boredom, and cursed the three robbers in their hearts, sincerely wishing them the speediest death.

The little commander of the ala, his brow moist and the back of his white shirt dark with sweat, having placed himself at the foot of the hill by the open passage, went over to the leather bucket of the first squad every now and then, scooped handfuls of water from it, drank and wetted his turban. Somewhat relieved by that, he would step away and again begin pacing back and forth on the dusty road leading to the top. His long sword slapped against his laced leather boot. The commander wished to give his cavalrymen an example of endurance, but, pitying his soldiers, he allowed them to stick their spears pyramid-like in the ground and throw their white cloaks over them. Under these tents, the Syrians hid from the merciless sun. The buckets were quickly emptied, and cavalrymen from different squads took turns going to fetch water in the gully below the hill, where in the thin shade of spindly mulberries a muddy brook was living out its last days in the devilish heat. There, too, catching the unsteady shade, stood the bored horse-handlers, holding the quieted horses.

The weariness of the soldiers and the abuse they aimed at the robbers were understandable. The procurator’s apprehensions concerning the disorders that might occur at the time of the execution in the city of Yershalaim, so hated by him, fortunately were not borne out. And when the fourth hour of the execution came, there was, contrary to all expectations, not a single person left between the two files, the infantry above and the cavalry below. The sun had scorched the crowd and driven it back to Yershalaim. Beyond the file of two Roman centuries there were only two dogs that belonged to no one knew whom and had for some reason ended up on the hill. But the heat got to them, too, and they lay down with their tongues hanging out, panting and paying no attention to the green-backed lizards, the only beings not afraid of the sun, darting among the scorching stones and some sort of big-thorned plants that crept on the ground.

No one attempted to rescue the condemned men either in Yershalaim itself, flooded with troops, or here on the cordoned-off hill, and the crowd went back to the city, for indeed there was absolutely nothing interesting in this execution, while there in the city preparations were under way for the great feast of Passover, which was to begin that evening.

The Roman infantry on the second level suffered still more than the cavalry. The only thing the centurion Ratslayer allowed his soldiers was to take off their helmets and cover their heads with white headbands dipped in water, but he kept them standing, and with their spears in their hands. He himself, in the same kind of headband, but dry, not wet, walked about not far from the group of executioners, without even taking the silver plaques with lions’ muzzles off his shirt, or removing his greaves, sword and knife. The sun beat straight down on the centurion without doing him any harm, and the lions’ muzzles were impossible to look at — the eyes were devoured by the dazzling gleam of the silver which was as if boiling in the sun.

Ratslayer’s mutilated face expressed neither weariness nor displeasure, and it seemed that the giant centurion was capable of pacing like that all day, all night and the next day - in short, for as long as necessary. Of pacing in the same way, holding his hands to the heavy belt with its bronze plaques, glancing in the same stem way now at the posts with the executed men, now at the file of soldiers, kicking aside with the toe of a shaggy boot in the same indifferent way human bones whitened by time or small flints that happened under his feet.

That man in the hood placed himself not far from the posts on a three-legged stool and sat there in complacent motionlessness, though poking the sand with a twig from time to time out of boredom.

What has been said about there not being a single person beyond the file of legionaries is not quite true. There was one person, but he simply could not be seen by everyone. He had placed himself, not on the side where the way up the mountain was open and from where it would have been most convenient to watch the execution, but on the north side, where the slope was not gentle and accessible, but uneven, with gaps and clefts, where in a crevice, clutching at the heaven-cursed waterless soil, a sickly fig tree was trying to live.

Precisely under it, though it gave no shade, this sole spectator who was not a participant in the execution had established himself, and had sat on a stone from the very beginning, that is, for over three hours now. Yes, he had chosen not the best but the worst position for watching the execution. But still, even from there the posts could be seen, and there could also be seen, beyond the file of soldiers, the two dazzling spots on the centurion’s chest, and that was apparently quite enough for a man who obviously wished to remain little noticed and not be bothered by anyone.

But some four hours ago, at the start of the execution, this man had behaved quite differently, and might have been noticed very well, which was probably why he had now changed his behaviour and secluded himself.

It was only when the procession came to the very top, beyond the file, that he had first appeared, and as an obvious latecomer at that. He was breathing hard, and did not walk but ran up the hill, pushing his way, and, seeing the file close together before him as before everyone else, made a naive attempt, pretending he did not understand the angry shouts, to break through the soldiers to the very place of execution, where the condemned men were already being taken from the cart. For that he received a heavy blow in the chest with the butt end of a spear, and he leaped back from the soldiers, crying out not in pain but in despair. At the legionary who had dealt the blow he cast a dull glance, utterly indifferent to everything, like a man insensible to physical pain.

Coughing and breathless, clutching his chest, he ran around the hill, trying to find some gap in the file on the north side where he could slip through. But it was too late, the ring was closed. And the man, his face distorted with grief, was forced to renounce his attempts to break through to the carts, from which the posts had already been unloaded. These attempts would have led nowhere, except that he would have been seized, and to be arrested on that day by no means entered his plans.

And so he went to the side, towards the crevice, where it was quieter and nobody bothered him.

Now, sitting on the stone, this black-bearded man, his eyes festering from the sun and lack of sleep, was in anguish. First he sighed, opening his tallith, worn out in his wanderings, gone from light-blue to dirty grey, and bared his chest, which had been hurt by the spear and down which ran dirty sweat; then, in unendurable pain, he raised his eyes to the sky, following the three vultures that had long been floating in great circles on high, anticipating an imminent feast; then he peered with hopeless eyes into the yellow earth, and saw on it the half-destroyed skull of a dog and lizards scurrying around it.

The man’s sufferings were so great that at times he began talking to himself.

‘Oh, fool that I am …’ he muttered, swaying on the stone in the pain of his heart and clawing his swarthy chest with his nails. ‘Fool, senseless woman, coward! I’m not a man, I’m carrion!’

He would fall silent, hang his head, then, after drinking some warm water from a wooden flask, he would revive again and clutch now at the knife hidden on his chest under the tallith, now at the piece of parchment lying before him on the stone next to a stylus and a pot of ink.

On this parchment some notes had already been scribbled:

‘The minutes run on, and I, Matthew Levi, am here on Bald Mountain, and still no death!’

Further:

‘The sun is sinking, but no death.’

Now Matthew Levi wrote hopelessly with the sharp stylus:

‘God! Why are you angry with him? Send him death.’

Having written this, he sobbed tearlessly and again wounded his chest with his nails.

The reason for Levi’s despair lay in the terrible misfortune that had befallen Yeshua and him and, besides that, in the grave error that he, Levi, in his own opinion, had committed. Two days earlier, Yeshua and Levi had been in Bethphage near Yershalaim, where they had visited a certain gardener who liked Yeshua’s preaching very much. The two visitors had spent the whole morning working in the garden, helping their host, and planned to go to Yershalaim towards evening when it cooled off. But Yeshua began to hurry for some reason, said he had urgent business in the city, and left alone around noontime. Here lay Matthew Levi’s first error. Why, why had he let him go alone!

Nor was Matthew Levi to go to Yershalaim that evening. He was struck by some unexpected and terrible ailment. He began to shake, his whole body was filled with fire, his teeth chattered, and he kept asking to drink all the time.

He could not go anywhere. He collapsed on a horse blanket in the gardener’s shed and lay there till dawn on Friday, when the illness released Levi as unexpectedly as it had fallen upon him. Though he was still weak and his legs trembled, he took leave of his host and, oppressed by some foreboding of disaster, went to Yershalaim. There he learned that his foreboding had not deceived him — the disaster occurred. Levi was in the crowd and heard the procurator announce the sentence.

When the condemned men were led off to the mountain, Matthew Levi ran alongside the file in the crowd of the curious, trying to let Yeshua know in some inconspicuous way that at least he, Levi, was there with him, that he had not abandoned him on his last journey, and that he was praying that death would overtake Yeshua as soon as possible. But Yeshua, who was looking into the distance towards where he was being taken, of course did not see Levi.

And then, when the procession had gone about a half-mile along the road, a simple and ingenious thought dawned on Matthew, who was being jostled by the crowd just next to the file, and in his excitement he at once showered himself with curses for not having thought of it earlier. The file of soldiers was not solid, there were spaces between them. Given great dexterity and a precise calculation, one could bend down, slip between two legionaries, make it to the cart and jump into it. Then Yeshua would be saved from suffering.

One instant would be enough to stab Yeshua in the back with a knife, crying to him: ‘Yeshua! I save you and go with you! I, Matthew, your faithful and only disciple!’

And if God granted him one more free instant, he would also have time to stab himself and avoid death on a post. This last, however, was of little interest to Levi, the former tax collector. He was indifferent to how he died. He wanted one thing, that Yeshua, who had never in his life done the least evil to anyone, should escape torture.

The plan was a very good one, but the fact of the matter was that Levi had no knife with him. Nor did he have a single piece of money.

Furious with himself, Levi got out of the crowd and ran back to the city. A single feverish thought was leaping in his burning head: how to procure a knife there in the city, in any way possible, and have time to overtake the procession.

He ran up to the city gate, manoeuvring amid the throng of caravans being sucked into the city, and saw to his left the open door of a little shop where bread was sold. Breathing hard after running down the scorched road, Levi got control of himself, entered the shop very sedately, greeted the woman behind the counter, asked her to take the top loaf from the shelf, which for some reason he liked better than the others, and when she turned around, silently and quickly took from the counter that than which there could be nothing better - a long, razor-sharp bread knife — and at once dashed out of the shop.

A few moments later he was again on the Jaffa road. But the procession was no longer in sight. He ran. At times he had to drop down right in the dust and lie motionless to recover his breath. And so he would lie there, to the astonishment of people riding on mules or walking on foot to Yershalaim. He would lie listening to his heart pounding not only in his chest but in his head and ears. Having recovered his breath a little, he would jump up and continue running, but ever slower and slower. When he finally caught sight of the long procession raising dust in the distance, it was already at the foot of the hill.

‘Oh, God !…’ Levi moaned, realizing that he was going to be too late. And he was too late.

When the fourth hour of the execution had gone by, Levi’s torments reached their highest degree and he fell into a rage. Getting up from the stone, he flung to the ground the stolen knife — stolen in vain, as he now thought — crushed the flask with his foot, depriving himself of water, threw off his kefia, seized his thin hair, and began cursing himself.

He cursed himself, calling out meaningless words, growled and spat, abused his father and mother for bringing a fool into the world.

Seeing that curses and abuse had no effect and nothing in the sun-scorched place was changed by them, he clenched his dry fists, raised them, squinting, to the sky, to the sun that was sliding ever lower, lengthening the shadows and going to fall into the Mediterranean, and demanded an immediate miracle from God. He demanded that God at once send Yeshua death.

Opening his eyes, he became convinced that everything on the hill was unchanged, except that the blazing spots on the centurion’s chest had gone out. The sun was sending its rays into the backs of the executed men, who were facing Yershalaim. Then Levi shouted:

‘I curse you, God!’

In a rasping voice he shouted that he was convinced of God’s injustice and did not intend to believe in him any longer.

‘You are deaf!’ growled Levi. ‘If you were not deaf, you would have heard me and killed him straight away!’

Shutting his eyes, Levi waited for the fire that would fall from the sky and strike him instead. This did not happen, and Levi, without opening his eyes, went on shouting offensive and sarcastic things at the sky. He shouted about his total disappointment, about the existence of other gods and religions. Yes, another god would not have allowed it, he would never have allowed a man like Yeshua to be burnt by the sun on a post.

‘I was mistaken!’ Levi cried in a completely hoarse voice. ‘You are a god of evil! Or are your eyes completely clouded by smoke from the temple censers, and have your ears ceased to hear anything but the trumpeting noises of the priests? You are not an almighty god! You are a black god! I curse you, god of robbers, their soul and their protector!’ Here something blew into the face of the former tax collector, and something rustled under his feet. It blew once more, and then, opening his eyes, Levi saw that, either under the influence of his curses, or owing to other reasons, everything in the world was changed. The sun had disappeared before reaching the sea, where it sank every evening. Having swallowed it, a storm cloud was rising menacingly and inexorably against the sky in the west. Its edges were already seething with white foam, its black smoky belly was tinged with yellow. The storm cloud was growling, threads of fire fell from it now and again. Down the Jaffa road, down the meagre Hinnom valley, over the tents of the pilgrims, driven by the suddenly risen wind, pillars of dust went flying.

Levi fell silent, trying to grasp whether the storm that was about to cover Yershalaim would bring any change in the fate of the unfortunate Yeshua. And straight away, looking at the threads of fire cutting up the cloud, he began to ask that lightning strike Yeshua’s post. Repentantly looking into the clear sky that had not yet been devoured by the cloud, and where the vultures were veering on one wing to escape the storm, Levi thought he had been insanely hasty with his curses: now God was not going to listen to him.

Turning his gaze to the foot of the hill, Levi fixed on the place where the strung-out cavalry regiment stood, and saw that considerable changes had taken place there. From above, Levi was able to distinguish very well the soldiers bustling about, pulling spears out of the ground, throwing cloaks on, the horse-handlers trotting towards the road leading black horses by their bridles. The regiment was moving off, that was clear. Spitting and shielding himself with his hand from the dust blowing in his face, Levi tried to grasp what it might mean if the cavalry was about to leave. He shifted his gaze further up and made out a little figure in a crimson military chlamys climbing towards the place of execution. And here a chill came over the heart of the former tax collector in anticipation of the joyful end.

The man climbing the mountain in the fifth hour of the robbers’ sufferings was the commander of the cohort, who had come galloping from Yershalaim accompanied by an aide. At a gesture from Ratslayer, the file of soldiers parted, and the centurion saluted the tribune. The latter, taking Ratslayer aside, whispered something to him. The centurion saluted him a second time and moved towards the group of executioners, who were sitting on stones at the foot of the posts. The tribune meanwhile directed his steps towards the one sitting on the three-legged stool, and the seated man politely rose to meet the tribune. And the tribune said something to him in a low voice, and the two went over to the posts. They were joined by the head of the temple guard.

Ratslayer, casting a squeamish sidelong glance at the dirty rags lying on the ground near the posts, rags that had recently been the criminals’ clothing, and which the executioners had rejected, called two of them and ordered:

‘Follow me!’

From the nearest post came a hoarse, senseless song. Gestas, hanging on it, had lost his mind from the flies and sun towards the end of the third hour, and was now quietly singing something about grapes, but his head, covered with a turban, occasionally swayed all the same, and then the flies rose sluggishly from his face and settled on it again.

Dysmas, on the second post, suffered more than the other two because he did not lose consciousness, and he swung his head constantly and rhythmically, right and left, so that his ears struck his shoulders.

Yeshua was more fortunate than the other two. In the very first hour, he began to have blackouts, and then he fell into oblivion, hanging his head in its unwound turban. The flies and horseflies therefore covered him completely, so that his face disappeared under the black swarming mass. In his groin, and on his belly, and in his armpits, fat horseflies sat sucking at his yellow naked body.

Obeying the gestures of the man in the hood, one of the executioners took a spear and another brought a bucket and a sponge to the post. The first executioner raised the spear and with it tapped first one, then the other of Yeshua’s arms, stretched out and bound with ropes to the crossbar of the post. The body, with its protruding ribs, gave a start. The executioner passed the tip of the spear over the belly. Then Yeshua raised his head, and the flies moved off with a buzz, revealing the face of the hanged man, swollen with bites, the eyes puffy, an unrecognizable face.

Ungluing his eyelids, Ha-Nozri looked down. His eyes, usually clear, were slightly clouded.

‘Ha-Nozri!’ said the executioner.

Ha-Nozri moved his swollen lips and answered in a hoarse robber’s voice:

‘What do you want? Why have you come to me?’

‘Drink!’ said the executioner, and a water-soaked sponge on the tip of a spear rose to Yeshua’s lips. Joy flashed in his eyes, he clung to the sponge and began greedily imbibing the moisture. From the neighbouring post came the voice of Dysmas:

‘Injustice! I’m a robber just like him!’

Dysmas strained but was unable to move, his arms being bound to the crossbar in three places with loops of rope. He drew in his belly, clawed the ends of the crossbar with his nails, kept his head turned towards Yeshua’s post, malice blazed in the eyes of Dysmas.

A dusty cloud covered the place, it became much darker. When the dust blew away, the centurion shouted:

‘Silence on the second post!’

Dysmas fell silent. Yeshua tore himself away from the sponge, and trying to make his voice sound gentle and persuasive, but not succeeding, he begged the executioner hoarsely:

‘Give him a drink.’

It was growing ever darker. The storm cloud had already poured across half the sky, aiming towards Yershalaim, boiling white clouds raced ahead of the storm cloud suffused with black moisture and fire. There was a flash and a thunderclap right over the hill. The executioner removed the sponge from the spear.

‘Praise the magnanimous hegemon!’ he whispered solemnly, and gently pricked Yeshua in the heart. He twitched and whispered:

‘Hegemon…’

Blood ran down his belly, his lower jaw twitched convulsively and his head dropped.

At the second thunderclap, the executioner was already giving Dysmas a drink, and with the same words:

‘Praise the hegemon!’ — killed him as well.

Gestas, deprived of reason, cried out fearfully as soon as the executioner came near him, but when the sponge touched his lips, he growled something and seized it with his teeth. A few seconds later his body, too, slumped as much as the ropes would allow.

The man in the hood followed the executioner and the centurion, and after him came the head of the temple guard. Stopping at the first post, the man in the hood examined the blood-covered Yeshua attentively, touched his foot with his white hand, and said to his companions: ‘Dead.’

The same was repeated at the other two posts.

After that the tribune motioned to the centurion and, turning, started off the hilltop together with the head of the temple guard and the man in the hood. Semi-darkness set in, and lightning furrowed the black sky. Fire suddenly sprayed out of it, and the centurion’s shout: ‘Raise the cordon!’, was drowned in rumbling. The happy soldiers rushed headlong down the hill, putting on their helmets.

Darkness covered Yershalaim.

Torrents of rain poured down suddenly and caught the centuries halfway down the hill. The deluge fell so terribly that the soldiers were already pursued by raging streams as they ran downhill. Soldiers slipped and fell in the sodden clay, hurrying to get to the level road, along which - now barely visible through the sheet of water — the thoroughly drenched cavalry was heading for Yershalaim. A few minutes later only one man remained in the smoky brew of storm, water and fire on the hill.

Shaking the not uselessly stolen knife, falling from slippery ledges, clutching at whatever was there, sometimes crawling on his knees, he strained towards the posts. He now vanished in total darkness, now was suddenly illumined by a tremulous light.

Having made his way to the posts, already up to his ankles in water, he tore off his heavy water-soaked tallith, remaining just in his shirt, and clung to Yeshua’s feet. He cut the ropes on his shins, stepped up on the lower crossbar, embraced Yeshua and freed his arms from the upper bonds. The naked, wet body of Yeshua collapsed on Levi and brought him to the ground. Levi wanted to heave it on to his shoulders straight away, but some thought stopped him. He left the body with its thrown-back head and outspread arms on the ground in the water, and ran, his feet slithering apart in the clayey mire, to the other posts. He cut the ropes on them as well, and the two bodies collapsed on the ground.

Several minutes passed, and all that remained on the top of the hill was these two bodies and the three empty posts. Water beat on the bodies and rolled them over.

By that time both Levi and the body of Yeshua were gone from the hilltop.

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