He is alone in the dream. The stink of the jail cell dissipates and the smell of the seashore plucks at the man’s memory. He stands alone on the seashore. Small waves kiss the shore, like some nervous school girl who knows she shouldn’t but kisses a boy anyway. He thinks of the waves, then thinks of a kiss given by someone else who knew better but kissed anyway.
He is alone.
He slowly wakes, not with a start but with conscious intent. It is dark in the cell. Light sneaks in through a crack in the wall. He looks at the hole. He knows the story. He knows every story. The man here before, released on a whim and with an empty promise, made the hole with a rock he found in his cell. That man left this cell to run in freedom, to rebel again, to fight again, to kill and maim until his body fell, stabbed by a soldier’s sword.
The cell’s current resident will do no such thing. The man in this cell will die, but not in the heat of battle. He knows it. He’s expected it. He’s prayed about it. He’s accepted it.
He’s been reluctant to embrace death, but three hours in prayer changed everything. This is no ordinary death. This is the death to end all deaths. This man’s death will bring about salvation for those who want it.
But now is a time of waiting, not dying. Death comes after a passion, after suffering and debasement. Death brings out the greatness in some and the darkness in others.
His eyes close, and the dream returns. He is not alone, just lonely. He sees all who live in lies. He sees all who would do better if they only listened. His mind races through the dream. Images flash, yet they are too familiar. A gardener, who should be tending, allowing vermin to attack his charge. Men too numerous to count singing the praises of molten lies. Men and women using others, using themselves, for some selfish desire. Innocent killed, some before taking their first breaths. Each vision stabs, cuts, bleeds the man. His heart opens for them. He knows why a mother weeps when she holds a child dead before his time. He knows the pain of a betrayed spouse, a man married to an unfaithful wife, a wife married to an abusive husband.
The dream races onward, and evils so great assault innocent eyes.
He wakes this time with tears. How long? His mind obsesses over the question. His beard dampens in the salty eye-made stream. His cry is silent, however. He will not cry out.
Footsteps signal an approaching guard, heavy with a angry step. He does not want to be here, the man knows. Soon he stands there, a mountain of muscle with irritation in his eyes. The guard pauses, his chest rising and falling with labored breath. A crumb clings to his face, evidence of earlier revelry. The guard senses it and wipes it away absently, a burp stifled in his mouth.
The prisoner looks at the guard and knows him, though the two have never met. The guard looks at the prisoner and shifts his weight uneasily. Torchlight dances on his clean-shaven face.
“Get up.” The guard’s voice cracks, his bravado disarmed by this pitiful prisoner. A rough hand rubs the guard’s eyes. He cannot see as well as the others. Enough to work, enough to fight, but his vision is like viewing the world through tinted glass. Rubbing doesn’t help, but he does it anyway. Nothing he can do helps.
The prisoner rises, chains clinking against the stone floor. The guard grabs hold of the chains, leading the man like an awkward pet. He cannot meet the man’s gentle eyes.
There is a growing light at the end of the corridor. The prisoner’s eyes close. He inhales smells and hears new sounds. His nostrils drink in sweet olive oil and wine. His ears suffer under the abuse of impure words and crass laughter. There is a group of men sitting in the open room. A party for soldiers and guards. They stop and look at the guard and the man. One shouts out a foul name, and the others laugh. They all laugh at the prisoner.
He says nothing.
They beat the man, taking turns practicing their kicks and punches. The human punching bag sinks to the ground. A ring of brambles pierces the man’s scalp, and blood seeps from the man’s skin. Bruises form, but no bones are broken. They mock. They laugh. They beat the prisoner. He lets them. This is not the end.
The guard, still holding the chain, lets the prisoner suffer, but he refuses to join their game, refuses to enjoy himself in the abuse of this man. More blood splatters and flows; the prisoner oozes like a worm.
“Enough,” breaks the pattern, a rough voice slicing through the laughter. All snap to attention. The guards’ captain has arrived. In awkward silence, the group disperses, leaving the guard and the prisoner to face the captain. The three men move to the platform where a worried man rubs his head.
This balding man is not concerned with justice or the right thing for anyone, the prisoner knows. The prisoner met this man earlier, but he remained worried. Even sips of wine could not calm his nerves. He snaps his fingers now, and the guard brings over the prisoner. Fear confronts the unafraid one. Questions no one can answer burst from the worried man’s mouth.
The prisoner can answer them, but worried men don’t listen to reason.
Fingers bathe and sprinkle water, as if mere water could wash away the nervous man’s guilt.
It does, the man condemned thinks, if I say so.
Then begins the walk from the city, the guard leading the dead man walking. Aching pain crosses the man’s back. No man could bear the sins of the world. No mere man. He knows that. He accepts it.
Out of the depths comes this man’s prayer. He walks a few steps, then a few steps more. Falling and rising, falling and rising. The whole day, the long march, is one long perverse ballet. Spit and blood stick like paste. Cries of hatred become whispers of awe. The man glances, meeting their eyes, piercing their souls. One man helps him, forced by the guard.
He doesn’t need to look at one woman for her soul to be pierced in heartbroken woe. Hers is a pain prophesied thirty years earlier. She rushes out to meet the man. He looks at her at last. A mother’s love pours into her son. He can’t cry anymore. She cries for them both.
At the top of the hill, the man lies down. Not to sleep. His exhaustion is of a different sort. His eyes close, but open rapidly. Two hands scream out in pain as iron shafts transfix them, life oozing out of them. He speaks words a few standing near hear. Words of love, though hate seems more appropriate. They would tell others later, when hope had left them hopeless.
Now stands the man atop a tree, a dove trapped, pinned by love. He speaks little, despite what echoes in the air. To the right and left hang worms, also pierced and bleeding. Crowds gather. The man looks down on them, then into their hearts. He knows all and sees all. The crowd of religious fanatics who sought death rather than life. The man who killed and ran away glad. The friend whose pure heart breaks too. A woman who, once cleansed of filth, became a font of spiritual joy. This agony progresses for three hours. Some stay by the tree; others leave, unable to stand the smell of death creeping among them. Guilt grabs at some men’s hearts, and they beat their breasts, as if their words and pounding can transform their hearts. He knows all and sees all through swelling eyes that close out the world.
The dying man prays, and that prayer, like all prayers prayed, is heard. Those nearby either mock or weep. What else could we do, they would later reflect. He was a man, they might say, but more than a man. The man’s pure-hearted friend stands by the mother. The friend’s prayers mix with the dying, for a friend made brother knows that the Lord stays near to those who suffer, those close to the divine Heart.
After three hours of pain and bleeding, of breathing through pressed lungs, the dying man knows it is the hour ordained long, long ago. His spirit rises, for it is finished. Ancient words drift down from the treetop. He dies then, and with that death dies God, for the man and the Father are one. He said it often enough.
He is dead. They killed God. The heavens cry, the earth mourns. Men walk away satisfied.
A strange request to take the body filters through the chain of command. The dim-sighted guard, now shaken by this death (though he’s seen much more gore), takes his spear and stalks forward. Not enough men, he onetime joked, died at the end of this headed shaft. Now it must test the vitality of a bloody fruit hanging from a dead man’s tree. The spear approaches, and pierces pure flesh. Blood and water shoot out, hitting the guard’s open eyes. A burning sensation, hot and stinging. Then a revelation. The revelation. Light pierces where darkness reigned. The guard blinks, and then tears mix with blood and water. He, unlike many, goes home happy.
The dead man’s friends bury the body, unsure if they should pray, weep, or stay silent. They do all three, a strange, manic meditation.
Evening comes, and morning follows. Evening returns, but morning rises lacking death. New life rises where death once roamed. The man, though dead, rises to life again. He greets His friends, and stands among them again, blessing and feeding them with bread from Heaven.
Such was the story of a man. Such is the story of salvation.