Easter Fiction: THE REPENTANT SICARII (Part Two)
You can read Part One of The Repentant Sicarii here.
* * *
And so they came with me to their end.
I walked ahead of the tax collector and his family, his son trotting at my heels down the long covered tunnel. ‘Keep walking,’ I told him, smiling, as I doubled back, past the tutor, past the wife and her sensitive smell. There was the first glimmer of surprise in his eyes as I slipped the sicae from my sleeves and punctured the throat of the tax collector. He fell to his knees, his hands reddening at his neck. I turned again, came behind the woman, my hand across her eyes, neck turned to the right, and I drew my blade across her throat. I heard her fall solidly behind me, a faint ringing of jewellery, as I ran quietly towards the tutor and the boy, who had not yet turned. I plunged the dagger into the back of the tutor’s neck and he cried out. The boy turned as I ran at him, and drew my blade across the matter for a fourth and final time.
I walked out into the sunshine, as the soldiers passed by the alley, ignorant of the event. I left swift and unnoticed. I walked past the stairway to the Temple platform, thronged as usual with beggars, scholars and would-be prophets all clamouring to be heard. I never went up there, but when Jesus was in Jerusalem, he spent a great deal of time there, and when he was in session, the place was clear of all others.
* * *
I saw him that evening. We had travelled together from Nazareth and set camp in the hills outside the city, away from the clamour. It suited both of us to be concealed.
I walked up towards the pine forest. Its fresh scent, straight, sparsely distributed trees and soft needle floor made it as sweet and comfortable a home as any. The sun set on the city behind me as I climbed the steep hillside. When he saw me, he sat on the floor, his legs crossed, and his chin cupped in his hands.
‘You look clean,’ he said.
‘I bathed,’ I replied. ‘Why do you sit like that, as soon as you saw me approaching?’
He smiled. ‘No reason. I am thinking.’
I squatted down next to him, and removed his hands from his chin. I threw my head back and laughed. I laughed as I stood up, my hands on my hips. I think it rang out across the city. Each time I looked back at him, I was helpless again. He jumped to his feet and held out his hands, like when he preached, but now he simply laughed with me.
‘Well?’ he asked.
There was some small degree of soft hair on his chin and perhaps a little under his jaw, but this messiah could not muster the growth of a man. His cheeks were golden and smooth. He had bet me that within our fourth day of being here he could grow a beard befitting his ministry. Before me was his boyish effort. And he a man of thirty.
‘You call that a beard?’ I said. ‘My lord, you call that a beard?’
‘I do not,’ he resigned. ‘It is wretched. You win.’
He began stroking it comically as if it had some substance to it, and we both laughed again. I clapped my hand on his shoulder.
‘Please,’ I said, ‘don’t carry the burden any longer, and don’t tell me that you hope to address the hairy Salem masses with any commandment tomorrow. They will stone you.’
‘I don’t think I have a choice,’ he said. ‘As soon as I reach the city I will be carried to the Temple stairway. I would hardly think that 5,000 people would wait for me as I indulged myself in a trip to the barber.’
‘I’ll do it for you,’ I said. ‘Come. Sit down.’
I fetched water and oil, and using my knife I shaved his face. The day cooled and the disappearing sun bathed us in its ochre glow. As I worked we spoke at length about the occupation. As ever, he raised the subject of forgiveness for our enemies. As ever, I found it a little tiresome. I paused, my knife held gently against his neck, and I said: ‘Don’t waste your breath my friend. I have little measure of amnesty in my heart, and none for those I fight. Tell it to the crowd.’
I returned to carefully scraping oil and soft bristle from his neck and face, but my hand, though firm to any eye, I knew to be a little unsteady. I continued in silence.
‘If you repent, Judas, my father in heaven will forgive you for what you have done today, and for all the other times.’
‘It’s not your father’s to give, unless he is Nethanel the Tax Collector,’ I said, continuing to concentrate on the shave. ‘Besides, if I repent and give up my murderous ways, how will you fulfil your own father’s prophesy of his son being numbered with the transgressors?’
‘This is Jerusalem,’ he said. ‘I have tens of thousands of sinners to choose from.’
‘You have the best of them in me,’ I said.
I removed my fresh tunic and used it to clean the soap and water from his face. ‘On this occasion I won’t take your money,’ I said, ‘but don’t attempt such a grown-up pursuit again.’
He leaned back on his elbows and looked at me. ‘You do not believe I am the Son of God, do you Judas?’ he asked.
‘First and most,’ I said, ‘you are my closest friend. Whether you are or whether you aren’t, it changes nothing for me.’
‘It changes everything for most people. They either want to hold me aloft or hang me from a tree.’
‘Well, you’ll get neither from me. I remain your fatally flawed criminal friend, nothing more. It will have to do.’
He smiled. ‘It will do,’ he said.
Of course, I made a great effort not to be overwhelmed by this most enchanting of men. I did not believe him to be the Son of God, but his greatness was undeniable. For many he was the promise of a life beyond all this and he spoke continuously on how those who were poor in spirit would enter his father’s kingdom. He was what oppressed people needed. Hope and faith. And when he gave heart to the vanquished, he also condemned Rome and its sycophants. He mocked the power of Herod and Caiaphas, telling them their status was trivial and earthbound, destined to be forgotten with no legacy. They were dangerously offended.
I was the most successful Sicarii in the province, with murders to my name now beyond my counting. But his words alone drew more hatred and fear from Rome and the Jewish high priests than if I had murdered the whole Upper City. On his word, thousands of supporters would have risen up to smother and extinguish the imperialism that bloodied our golden sand and blocked out our sun. And yet, he would not. He spoke only of love and told me that his ordination was bigger than empires; that these times were part of all time, before and beyond. I did not understand, and I told him so. I could not see further than having the wealth of my homeland, rich in minerals, food and stock, returned to my people.
His calling was freedom for the whole of humankind.
Mine was freedom for Judaea. We should have walked separate paths, him with his high glory while I killed my way to crucifixion. But there is no simpler way of putting it than we got along. He confided many of his thoughts and fears in me, and I gave him straight answers. I was utterly devoted to him.
As the last traces of sun disappeared behind the horizon, we sat together in silence, looking across the city to the Kidron Valley and Mount of Olives. He pulled a thin blanket around his shoulders and said to me, ‘Judas. I must ask you to betray me.’
He continued to look out across the city.
‘Take a bribe from Caiaphas and lead him to me at Gethsemane tomorrow evening, after the group has eaten together.’
‘To what end?’ I asked.
He turned and faced me, his legs crossed and his brown hands resting in his lap. He wore the thin silver bracelet given to him by Magdalene.
‘My death is preordained, and I suffer intolerably until it is over, because I am frightened. That time has come. I came here not to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many. I want it done with, Judas.’
I stood up.
‘Your life?’ I said. ‘I mean, first off, the most they’ll do is imprison you. You’re not a criminal. Blasphemy is what they’re saying. They’ll imprison you.’
‘They will kill me,’ he said, plainly. ‘They will crucify me.’
‘They will not. And you’re a fool,’ I said. ‘We have the fight in our hands, us two.’
‘Judas, it must be,’ he said firmly. ‘Please help me. Others will want to dissuade me. When I remain steady in my requests, as you know I will, they will refuse.’
I did not know his mind, but I trusted his heart.
‘My part is over, and victory will be yours,’ he said. ‘Have faith in me.’
‘I do,’ I said.
‘I will help you, without knowing your greater game.’
‘I must warn you, my dearest friend,’ he said, ‘your sacrifice is greater than you realise. When my prophecy comes to pass, you will be known here forward as the Son of Perdition, and none will love you.’
I shrugged. Who has ever loved me?
* * *
The following evening I led them to him in the garden at Gethsemane. I came with temple soldiers and priests. And I kissed him and said, quietly: ‘I have served you, my friend.’
When the next day dawned, it was the beginning of a consequence I had not bargained for; one that would see me damned.
As he was led along the high road above the Temple that separates it from the Upper City (a path well chosen for its observers), I could not get near him for the crowds of onlookers. A crown of thick thorns had been pushed onto his head, and his body was rent open and bleeding from a savage flogging. He looked half dead already. I felt sick. This was no warning rap. There was going to be no clemency here for this gentle, charismatic man. He had been right about everything.
They forced him to carry his own cross to Golgotha, outside the city, and there they would crucify him!
What had I done?
I fell to my knees, and dragged myself into a corner beneath the Temple wall. I covered my head with my arms. Where I tried to put thought there was only panic, and where I tried to reason it out into something bigger and rightful for our cause, my mind could only circle around the consuming vision of his pain and suffering.
I sat for a long time, and the stillness meditated me to a slow and steady but fragile awareness. To think like him, and believe what he believed stretched my mind well beyond my murderous instincts: that he was the Son of God made man; that if such a man ever really existed and walked in my time…
…it could have been him.
In this line of thought, I reasoned that he could not go willingly, and yet, in his mind, go he must. He could not be openly party to his own demise or this pre-ordination would not be understood or tolerated, certainly not believed. His so called Holy Father in Heaven had decreed his ending for the salvation of all sinners, sacrificing his only son for our salvation. But without his son’s death brought about by betrayal and denial, where in the hearts of generations would Jesus live other than as an actor, who worked his closest friends like a market trader selling goods that no-one wants or needs until convinced? To his mind, it was prophecy, fulfilled in submissive devotion to God, whom he believed to be his father. To my mind it was a plot, and my most demanding promise was to uphold the secret, lest I expose him as well as betray him.
How could I? In a matter of hours, my most dear, most beautiful friend would die a slow and cruel death.
It was then that the enormity of what I had done hit me, and took me down. I wept as my mind broke. I could not be responsible. I was not responsible. But I knew who was.
I ran and stumbled to the Temple stairway, climbed up and pushed my way through the would-be prophets and the priests. I was taller than any of them, and I commanded a presence even in my ravaged state. My voice rang out, cracked by my weeping, but clear and loud.
‘God is not the benevolent protector of the poor and saviour of sinners. There is no seat at his right hand for the unjust, even those who repent. His work lies in slaughter! He is full of hatred and revenge, so much so that he would break the greatest friendships to see his will served. The God of Moses, for it is written, is capricious and malevolent, jealous and hateful. He demands loyalty – not earned – by asking fathers to kill their children or to leave their families without a look back, and now he has little love even for his own son! I bear witness to this!’
A watch of red cloaks had appeared and were keeping a disrespectful distance not twenty feet from me, leaning on their spears and listening. A broad-set sergeant stood stone like, legs apart, one thumb tucked into belt, the other hand resting on the pommel of his gladius.
‘Good morning gentlemen,’ I called. ‘How goes the brutal nailing of good men to trees that don’t belong to you?’
They remained still.
‘This is a God who seeks love and devotion through artifice and manipulation, and he extorts it from those with more capacity for loyalty than he can muster. He is a failed god, a flawed god. Like the red cloaks he is humankind’s oppressor! In truth, he is a common murderer like me.’
I wiped my eyes with the palm of my hand as they filled again with tears.
‘God and me, we’re not so different,’ I laughed. ‘Except in our power to forgive perhaps, something I learned from his son, who despite failing to grow a beard of celestial proportions, was a far better man than his father. For until today I was a Sicarii, and I have slit scores of throats. My last was a family of three and their servant.’
The sergeant’s hand tightened on his sword.
I looked across the city towards Golgotha. ‘And for this, Jesus, you have taught me to repent, and yes, indeed I am sorry. If you could only hear me.’
I stabbed my finger at the blue heavens. ‘But as for you God, I would rather be your judge in hell than your bought witness in heaven!’
And God heard me. And believed me. And felt wronged.
The sergeant had heard enough too. ‘Take him!’
As the first soldier reached me, I kept my daggers sheathed and crashed my elbow into the side of his head, denting his steel cheek guard. He went straight down, face to the flagstone. I jumped over him and down the stairway into the city streets below. A spear narrowly missed my right shoulder as I doubled down the steps into the labyrinth. By the time the watch had charged into the streets behind me, I was gone.
* * *
I ran to Golgotha and once there I merged with the crowd, and watched.
There he was, curled up on the ground, kept distant from the onlookers. There were to be no interruptions to this quick and nasty reckoning. He was diminished beyond even his slight stature. He already looked dead.
They stripped him bare of cloth and dignity, laid him on the cross and hammered nails through his wrists. He screamed. Without ceremony they raised him up to die under the fierce Judaean sun, and again he cried out in pain as the heavy crucifix dropped into its hole. The temple soldiers lined up in front of the cross, their backs to him. No one was allowed near. I saw Mary Magdalene try to break the line but she was pushed back into the crowd and I lost sight of her. Her ‘Rabboni’ was being put to death, and her own madness would follow. After what happened at the Temple, I should have gone to hiding, but I chose to stay with him in sight until it was over, along with the ritual observers who made a day of such things. He spoke three times; clear enough for me to hear him.
After two hours, he opened his eyes a little and called, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.’
After five hours, he cried ‘I thirst.’
And after nine hours he wept. I could hear him crying. And he called, ‘My Lord, my Lord, why have you forsaken me?’ His head fell forward, and he died.
* * *
I went home, back to Nazareth, and walked out to my field, where I had a large clay water vase that hung from a heavy gantry, collecting rain. I sat with my bare back to the wood and cast away the silver given me by Caiaphas. It lay in furrows of red earth.
Once I would have crucified a thousand Romans and bloated Jews until the Judaean skyline was devoid of every cypress, pine and dogwood tree. But on that day I had watched a man tortured, humiliated, and murdered, who then
forgave those responsible. If I was to be equal as his friend, then my final gift to him must be my own repentance, as he had asked.
I could not live on without my friend, and I could not reconcile my sins with this new learned love that I possessed set against a conflict where I only knew one way to fight. So I set a rope on the rafter of the gantry, climbed up, put it around my neck, and jumped.
* * *
I have hanged myself for my many crimes, not the one that will be remembered.
Absolute darkness is below me as I descend into some cold place. No forgiveness comes from God at my time of need. Whether Jesus sits with Him now, I do not know. He may well have been the Son of God, but first and most we were brothers.
The darkness invades me, and I struggle to recall any more of anything, except that I have been betrayed by God and now punished by Him. He is banishing me to hell for my words and my hatred of Him for what he did, perhaps even for the love between His son and me — this avaricious, spiteful God.
I am Judas, a beautiful name that stands for loyalty and friendship.
My last thought is that one day, perhaps, God will come for me.
And I will forgive Him.
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