So much his son had had to accept, so many trials. Hadn’t he borne enough? He thought his heart would crack under the oppressive weight of this black cloud of rage which lay across it as he watched his son be tormented, jeered, spat upon, as he staggered through the narrow streets. He took his eyes off his son and turned them to the faces in the crowd. He wanted to destroy every single one of them, to lay waste to this whole city and leave no trace of these foul creatures behind. He wanted to visit every torment on them that they were so gleefully heaping upon his son, to turn their hateful laughter into screams for mercy.
Such was his rage. It was an anger that he could not express, an impotent fury which had suggested itself to him before but which was now close to consuming him. In his mind’s eye he saw a black tidal wave, of immense size, racing towards him, destroying everything in its path and blocking out all light as it rushed to embrace him. Dreadful as this image was he felt a willingness to allow the wave to wash over him, to obliterate him completely, sparing him the agony of watching his beloved son suffer.
He could feel the wave drawing nearer, looming over him, preparing to crash down on top of him. All he had to do was bow his head, accept this inevitable mass, finally remove his resistance to it. It was as if the wave was talking to him, telling him that it had always been there, telling him that he could never have hoped to hold it back forever, promising relief from the constant struggle of denying his very nature. As if from a distance he could hear the crowd baying. Something had changed in the tone of their jeering.
He saw his son on his knees, head bent, coughing from the cloud of dust coming up from the ground and circling around him. He had fallen. A woman had stepped out from the crowd. She was wearing a black veil over her face and had the look of a harlot. She knelt before his son and began bowing to him in mock homage. With each bow she would thrust her breasts at him, calling out his name as if in the throes of passion. The laughter of the crowd spurred her on. She moved closer to his son and removed her veil. Her beautiful face was twisted and deformed by a cruel sneer.
‘Am I not worthy to be your Queen?’
As she said this she moved her face closer, continuing to call out his name, the look of cruel malice becoming more and more pronounced with each cheer of approval from the crowd. His son raised his head from the ground and looked at her for the first time. On his son’s face he saw no trace of anger nor fear, only a deep sadness. The woman recoiled from him, as if his face was a mirror and something horrific had been reflected back at her. She stumbled backwards, clutching at the ground for the veil she had discarded. His son continued to look directly at her. The sadness on his face was not the pleading look of self-pity so often seen on the faces of people enduring far less than he. His sadness was not for himself but for those who circled him and delighted in his agony.
The woman found her veil and desperately covered her face with it again. Stumbling back into the crowd she called out his name two or three more times in the same manner as before but with none of the same surety. When she had disappeared into the crowd his son bowed his head and pushed himself to his feet. Momentarily distracted by the reaction of the woman, the crowd resumed the baying with renewed zeal.
The father watched all of this, not with rage but with a crushing sense of shame. He saw himself standing on a rock, this giant black wave towering over him, suspended, waiting for his permission to come thundering down on top of him. He had invited this wave, welcomed it, longed for the oblivion it offered and had almost allowed it to engulf him. He looked over his left shoulder. Behind him was a basket. The shadow of the wave seemed to cast everything into darkness, save the basket. Inside was a child, a serene look on its face, gazing up at him with absolute trust. The shame that he had allowed such a weight of evil to come so close to this child was like a knife, piercing deep into his heart, carving out the cancerous rage which had grown so large that it had obliterated all other feelings. He thought he would die from the agony of his shame, and wanted to die but the child would not let him, continued to look up at him, reassuring him almost. He felt this knife carving deeper and deeper. When he thought he would surely die, the agony stopped and he fell weeping to his knees, the top of his head at the foot of the basket.
He felt completely empty, as if the knife had completely hollowed him out. But as he lay sobbing on the rock, he felt something begin to build up in him, as if he was being picked up. He raised his head and looked at the child. Such love, as he had never known before, passed through him like a fork of lightning. If anything this love was even more painful than before, filling him up until he thought he would burst. Fresh tears flowed from his eyes, coursing through the tracks left behind by the tears already shed through rage and shame. He picked up the child and turned to face the wave. Cradling the child to his chest he looked up at the wave, his eyes searching for the highest point. Eventually he caught a glimpse of sky, a blue speck at the top of this unimaginable height. He could see this tiny patch of sky as if he were looking up at it from the bottom of a well, many miles beneath the ground.
He could see the crest of the wave churning far above him, eager to lead the charge, to land the first crushing blow upon him. He ignored the wave and focused all of his attention on the blue sky. He could feel the child in his arms, its head resting against his chest, breathing in perfect syncopation with his heartbeat. Like a drunken giant the wave staggered forward slightly, threatening him, trying to regain his attention. He felt an urge to turn and run, to try and get as far away as possible from this massive black mass that could fall on him at any second. But what would be the point. He could spend his whole life running without ever escaping its shadow. Teetering above him, the wave had come so close to him now that if he were to take three steps forward he would pass into it.
He cradled the child closer to him and fixed his gaze on the tiny speck of sky. The wave staggered again, so close now that he could almost reach out and touch it, desperately trying to convince him that there was nothing else, that it, oblivion, was all there was. He could hear the screams and mocking laughter of the crowd as if they were coming from inside the wave. He could hear them taunting his son, calling out for a miracle, inviting his God to strike them down. He could feel cold wet hands, reaching out from the wave, clawing at him, trying to wrench the child from his arms, pulling at his hair and face, trying to drag both him and the child into the wave.
Yet the child didn’t make a sound, its breathing seemed to control the rate of his own heart beat, keeping it from bursting out of his chest with sheer terror. He held fast to the child and continued to look up at the sky. For what seemed like a lifetime he remained fixed, refusing to either release his hold on the child or to look at anything other than the speck of sky which promised hope of something other than this wave of despair.
He could hear everything that was happening to his son. He could hear the children encouraging each other to fire stones at him, hear them squealing with delight when a stone drew blood. He could hear and feel every agony inflicted on his son, every taunt, every curse, every wound. He felt his son’s weariness, the weight that was on each foot, the effort needed to take each step. From inside the wave he could hear harsh, cruel voices, stabbing him with questions: how could he stand for this, how could he let this happen to his son, was he going to allow these people to get away with this, did he not love his son, why was he unwilling to protect him? Each question shot deep within him, finding a doubt, a fear, a desire, and then igniting it, causing it to burn inside of him. Yet he did nothing, he did not explode in anger, he did not fight the cold hands that were tearing at his skin, he did not rush into the wave to defend his son. His upward gaze never faltered as sobs racked his body and tears passed gently down his cheeks, anointing the head of the child.
He could hear screams from somewhere far off and he felt the cold, dead hands pulling at him, even more desperately. Their nails clawed into his skin, drawing blood and he felt patches of hair being ripped from his head. He could feel the child pressed against him, still not crying, but murmuring gently. He had no idea how much longer he could withstand this agony. It seemed inevitable with each passing minute that the child would be wrenched from his grasp. It was the thought that he had failed in his duty to protect this child which caused him the most pain and yet it was also this belief that gave him strength when his body screamed for him to let go, to bring an end to its suffering. As his torment intensified he told himself that he could not hold out for one minute more and yet with each passing minute he continued to resist.
Until finally the screams, the noise, the mocking laughter, the clawing hands, everything stopped. He stood in silence, not daring to move, completely unaware of what to do. Finally he tore his gaze away from the patch of sky and looked once again at the wall of black water standing no more than a foot in front of him, yet stretching out for miles above. Although it had lost none of its size the wave seemed to have been stripped of its power. It was as if it had been masquerading as oblivion; inevitable, irresistible, inescapable, but now the mask had dropped. He could see the lie. The wave was swollen and bloated, immense in size but utterly powerless. It had come at his bidding yet had been unable to strike without his consent. He regarded the wave now, not with fear, but with disdain, angry at himself for ever having been so foolish as to be awed by it.
‘God forgive me. Would I have given my life, my soul to this? Would I have been such a fool?’
The wave seemed to swell even higher above him as he said these words, a last attempt to strike fear into his heart. Then, as if it were being sucked back into the earth, the wall of water came hurtling down. Whereas the sight of the wave itself had ceased to inspire dread its collapse filled him with awe. It fell down all around him, like a dying waterfall, without a single drop landing upon him. And as it fell, the patch of sky he had spent so long staring at expanded, filling in the spaces where before there had been only water.
The wave tumbled around him, thousands of tons of water crashing down before him as he stood transfixed on the rock. Almost shrieking, the crest of the wave passed before him before being absorbed into the calm blue sea that now spread out all around him, connecting with the sky many miles off in the distance. Then there was only silence. He fell to his knees, battered and weary, almost completely drained yet at the same time feeling freer than he had ever felt before. A burden which had always been upon him had been lifted. He closed his eyes and gently touched his head against the child, now sleeping in his arms. He stayed like that for several minutes before opening his eyes again. When he did he was no longer on the rock. The child was gone and he found himself once more on the street through which his son had passed, huddled against a wall, his face stiff and unmoving from the tears and dirt caked upon it. The crowd had moved on and he could no longer see nor hear them as they circled and baited his son.
He stood up slowly, using the wall to support himself. The street was completely deserted save for a young boy who was throwing stones into a circle he had marked on the ground. Completely focused on his game, the boy showed no interest in the old man. He walked to the centre of the street where his son had fallen. He could see large splashes of blood on the stones, already starting to congeal under the unrelenting heat of the sun. His son. He would have gladly died rather than see his son shed even one drop of blood at the hands of these people. And yet, he was suffering, was shedding blood. He could not rescue him from it, nor could he die in his place. His sense of pain was still great but it no longer threatened to overwhelm him, to drive him out of his mind. The love he had for his son had eclipsed it.
He realised now that there was nothing he could do to stop the chain of events that had been set in motion. He knew where his son was, knew the horrendous death that awaited him. Like all men of his age he had seen people put to death on the cross. He had seen men screaming in pain, pleading for death as their bodies were broken under their own weight. He also knew what happened to these men when death had finally spared them. More often than not their bodies were taken from the cross and removed to a more remote site where they were left as carrion for whatever scavengers happened to chance upon them. Desperate as he was to be with his son at his moment of death, to share his burden in some way, he knew that in so doing he would lose all hope of claiming his son’s body. Utterly incapable of protecting him in life he would do all in his power to protect him in death.
He faced in the direction of Mount Calvary. He could not make out anything from where he was standing but he knew that his son would have arrived there by now. The agony of the long struggle with the cross when finished would be replaced with a brutal, protracted death.
‘Why aren’t you with the rest of them, old man?’ asked the little boy who had stopped his game and was looking directly at him. He obviously took the old man for a beggar and felt no need to address him with any sort of deference to his seniority. Caught off guard by this interruption into his thoughts the old man could only turn and stare at the young boy, open-mouthed, unsure whether to answer, ignore or rebuke him.
'My father won’t let me go. He says I am too young to see such things, that I will have to wait until I am older.'
‘Your father is right. Some things are not meant for the eyes of a child.’
‘Then why am I the only one left behind? Why have all the other boys been allowed to go, boys even younger than me?’
‘The day will come boy when you will fall down on your knees and thank your father that you had no part in what is happening today. Until then you should learn to show respect for your elders when you meet them in the street.’
Realising that this was no beggar he was talking to the young boy bowed his head quickly and ran into one of the open doors in the house he had been playing outside.
A voice in his head picked up on what the child had said to him. Why was he not with the rest of them? Was he afraid of watching his son die? Was he trying to escape? Had he really done all that he could? He could not give a good answer to these questions, could not escape the heavy feeling that he had failed his eldest son. Yet he was resolute in what he had to do. Regardless of the consequences for himself he would go to Pilate and plead for the body of a condemned criminal, plead for the chance to bury his son.
Feeling like a coward, he turned his back and began walking in the opposite direction, into the heart of the city and the court where hours before his son had been condemned to death.