by Kelly Kraus
The desert had nearly consumed him last night. He’d fled almost three days ago. With him he’d only brought a half jug of water and a stale loaf of bread. Both were gone within a day. His mouth was arid and he was becoming increasingly weary. If he didn’t get food and water soon, he could die out here. And no one would know. Or care.
Regardless of his predicament, returning to the city was necessary. Hunger pangs cramped his stomach. As a group of hares darted across his path, he pondered chasing them. They’d make a modest meal. He lacked the strength for a pursuit of the animals. Famished, he trudged on.
The trek back to the city was punishing. Mountainous terrain provided refuge from potential prying eyes. While there were many valleys that made walking easier, the cliffs were steeper than the valleys were shallow. Sharp declines scattered the area. All the ravines he came upon were dry from the scorching heat. Water was a scarcity in this area.
As he trudged to the top of the next cliff, the edge of the city was within sight. While magnificent, its walls were ominous, looming over the vast desert. They were as familiar to him as those of his childhood home. He knew where to sneak in and what areas were most watched. Loose stones scattered the partitions, allowing sly access to unattended parts of the city. The guards were likely on high alert since his disappearance. He couldn’t afford a misstep. He kept fully aware of everything around him.
While creeping towards the city, he could sense a presence near him. Over his left shoulder there was a rustle. Something approached him. A buzzard cackled tauntingly. Its voice laughed at him. Nerves, he told himself. It’s just nerves. He kept a watchful eye as he neared the main entrance to the city. A side entrance was also located near his home. That gate would surely be secured. If he wanted to enter through the main entrance, he would have to conceal himself. Fortunately, there were vendors outside the city walls and few patrons to witness his heist. He noticed a man and woman selling wool robes. They moved slowly through their goods, making themselves easy targets. Tapping into his talent, he approached their booth shrewdly from the side. He kept his footsteps quiet, knowing precisely how to maneuver without detection. The couple was busy bartering with an old man on a donkey. They were preoccupied and had their hands filled with goods. Now was his chance to grab a robe and dash. He subtly snatched a hooded robe and a battered canteen of water and made off with them. The couple was none the wiser.
With his disguise in place and his thirst quenched, the man ventured nearer the main entrance. A large iron gate sat open, welcoming outsiders. It was near mid-morning, which meant there would be minimal surveillance at the gate. A throng of people were entering and he discretely blended in with the crowd. Keeping his head down and his eyes peeled, the man kept fully aware of his surroundings. From their conversation, the man gathered he was in a group of tourists. Excitement and joy filled their voices. Conversation was cheerful and the people were preoccupied with each other. A dark eyed woman next to him cradled her young child, marveling at the beauty of the city. Here, the man could remain anonymous. No one in the group would recognize him. If he wanted to remain safe, he needed to stay with the group as long as possible. The city was always gracious with tourists. He needn’t worry about being hassled by guards for the time being.
In the midst of their tour of the city, the group passed by a quaint stand that was familiar to the man. A busy booth full of hand woven rugs, polished jewelry, and shiny trinkets, this was run by his childhood friend. The friend would certainly recognize him, for they hadn’t seen each other in months. Peering through the throng of people, the man found his friend. Fortunately, he was absorbed in conversation with a local woman. His friend surely wouldn’t peel his attention away from her. With an aching heart, the man quickly turned his face in the opposite direction. He longed to confide in his friend, ask for forgiveness, but he couldn’t risk getting noticed.
As the group meandered through the streets, they moved towards the main attraction: the Temple. This was the most heavily guarded area in the city. The man’s tired eyes darted from one place to the next. He was well acquainted with the area. Hulking guards had last detained him just a few blocks from here, near the local jeweler. Security would undoubtedly be tighter now.
The tourists pushed closer to the Temple, eager to get a glimpse of the famous site. The magnificent building towered above them. White stone with gold embellishments glimmered in the sunlight. Eavesdropping was unnecessary. Collective amazement was felt throughout the group. People chattered, moved by the beauty of the structure. Two wrinkled elderly women had tears in their eyes, marveling at something they’d waited their entire lives to see. The man, however, had seen the building countless times. He was disenchanted with it.
The man’s attention remained focused on slipping away. As the group pressed on, he grew more anxious to find a way out. There were a number of darkened back alleys and underground tunnels in this area he could slink into. He grew more uneasy as they moved forward. Stoic guards were within feet of him. He kept his well known face as veiled as he could with his hood and robe. Moving laterally was his only choice. The group was flanked by guards in the front and back. The area to his left looked clear as far as he could tell. He began nudging his way through the crowd, making sure he didn’t use too much force. A single agitated person bellowing at him would cause alarm with the guards. Any sort of disturbance would put him in a dire situation.
The man was nearly to the edge of the group. Roughly two rows of people separated him from an open space in the city square. For a moment, he was unsure of whether he should venture out. But the water he snatched in front of the gates only put a dent in his thirst. He needed sustenance. He knew just the place to find it. Three blocks for the town square was a small bakery. It was owned by an acquaintance of the man’s father. He knew they’d have fresh bread. The man was well aware of the risk he was taking by going to the bakery. Many people there could recognize him. He had no other option. It was the closest shop and he could quickly grab what he needed.
He was now standing at the edge of the group. An alley was fifty steps from where he was standing. He had to chance it. He would surely collapse without a meal. Venturing out, a sense of confidence took over. He’d eluded capture many times. This time would be no different. He maintained a brisk pace as he left the crowd. The distance to the alley seemed greater than it had when he was in the crowd. Keep your head down and your speed up, he reminded himself. He had nearly made it when a surly voice yelled his name. He initially froze. Sweat drenched his forehead. He had to remind himself to keep walking. The voice yelled his name again. This time it was closer. And angrier.
He picked up his pace and made it to the alley. Heavy footsteps were gaining on him. He sped up. They sped up. Panic washed over him. He dashed further into the alley. There was an open door on a building half a block away. If he moved fast enough, he could dart in there then around the next corner and possibly lose his assailant. The man wasn’t thinking fast enough. Focus, he told himself. You’ve done this before. Use your instincts. He slowed his breathing. His actions were deliberate. Each of his steps was calculated, purposeful, intuitive. He knew where he needed to go and how to get there. But would he have time?
As quickly as the thought entered his head, a muscled arm tightened around his throat.
“You’re mine now thief”, a gruff voice growled into his ear.
The man could feel the heat of the guard’s breath against his cheek. He could smell the garlic and onion the guard had with his last meal.
“You don’t have any idea what you’re in for do you fool? We knew you’d be back. That desert isn’t any place for guys like you.”
The man struggled vigorously for a good time, trying to pry the heavy arm from his neck. The guard easily overpowered him. His head hit the stone street as they wrestled to the ground. With his arm in an unnatural position, the man was no longer able to move. His arm would be broken by the guard if he moved any further.
The man was crudely jerked off the ground. Restraints were tightened on his wrists. They careened through the bumpy roads of the city with the guard boasting of his catch. “I’ve got him! The thief is back! He’s made his triumphant return!”
People began to turn their attention toward the man and the burly guard, now parading loudly through the town square. Audible gasps were heard throughout the crowd, murmurs of shock and disbelief. The man knew there was no way he could free himself. Other guards were surrounding them now. Once the mob realized who the guards had seized, the shouting began at a fever pitch. Their cries and demands were unintelligible, all blending together into one loud voice, each of them demanding execution.
Within what seemed like mere moments, the man was heaved into a cramped cell with two other men. Both of them immediately recognized him.
“Hey you’re the guy everyone’s been blabbering about! We heard about your work. I’m impressed”, one of the men stated with a dirty toothless grin.
The man remained silent. He knew the process here. Keep your mouth shut or they’ll twist your words into something that can be used against you. It happened to him too many times. He stared at the stony floor, vacancy in his eyes. He gave away nothing in his face, almost as if he were incapable of emotion. Show no weakness, he thought to himself. Weakness was a person’s biggest enemy in this place. The guards, the prisoners, they all fed on weakness. It’s what gave them power over the others.
An old guard came in and shackled his wrists and ankles to the wall. “There,” he snorted. “Since you managed to wiggle yourself free last time, I made them nice and tight. Enjoy.”
For an instant, the man felt a flash of relief. No more scorching sun. The stone surrounding him was cool against his skin. The sweat on his face began to dry and he removed the heavy hooded robe from around his neck. A large pan of water sat just out of reach.
“Here,” a man on the other side of the floor croaked, and pushed the pan towards him. “I’ve given the guards the slip before too. I know what that desert can do to a person. Take advantage of the water. I can tell you need it.”
The man reached for the water and sloshed it on his face and hands. It had been weeks since his skin had been this clean. His fingernails were caked with sand and silt. Clawing a path through the desert will do that to a man. While the moderate cleanliness was satisfying for a moment, the man could not afford to forget his plight. He had no indication of what was to come. Judgment could take hours or it could take weeks. The magistrates in the city were quite familiar with the man. While he knew they were in no rush to release him, they were in no hurry to give him a fair trial either. His contact with the city guard was frequent in recent months. He wouldn’t be receiving a break after this fiasco.
Outside, the man could hear a growing commotion. A large crowd had gathered. The prison was near the temple, which always drew many people, especially at this time of year. This crowd seemed larger than normal though. A near riot was taking place. In front of the crowd, the man could make out a small platform. There looked to be two men standing on it, both flanked by guards. An authoritative looking man was asking questions of the crowd. He stood tall and was clearly in charge.
“Why?” the authoritative man boomed. He began to speak again but the voice of the crowd overpowered him.
The man could not make sense of what the commotion was about. He was aware of some sort of uprising in recent weeks, of someone referring to himself as “king,” but details were scarce. Maybe this protest had something to do with that. Regardless, the man was indifferent. He had his own trouble to occupy his time. Thoughts raced through his head. Every possibility crossed his mind. Would he be executed? Would they merely sentence him to prison? Or possibly a life of servitude? Whatever his punishment, he was certain it would not be pleasant.
Suddenly, the door of the cell was flung open. A small group of guards barged in. Chains filled their hands. Their sights were set on the man. The other two prisoners cowered in the corners, paralyzed. Guards here were capable of barbaric acts. The shackles were removed from the man’s wrists and ankles. A new pair of restraints was fastened in order to transport him and he was forced into a standing position.
“Get off the floor you slimy thief,” the smaller craggy faced guard barked as two of the others yanked the man up. They drug him into the corridor, his feet hardly touching the ground. These guards were menacing and brutish. There was no point in trying to escape.
They made their way down the corridor to a small room. The man could see a portly magistrate inside. His fate was about to be decided.
“Aahh yes, the most wanted crook in the city has decided to show his face again. How did the desert treat you?” the magistrate asked snidely. He had a twisted sneer on his face, a crooked smile crept across his lips. The man did not reply. “Well then, let’s get on with this if you have nothing to say.”
The magistrate began reading the charges against the man: multiple thefts, resisting arrest, assault on an officer, assault on a civilian. In all, there were nearly forty charges.
“What do you propose we do with this man?” the magistrate asked the short guard.
“Oh you know what I think, sir. We’ve been dealing with him for too long. He’s robbed our neighbors, accosted the men of the city, even our guards! He’s received enough lenience. String him up,” the short guard stated matter-of-factly.
Execution. The idea petrified the man, he was aware of the possibility. Could it be a reality? The magistrate stroked his rugged chin. “Yes, I do believe you’re right. This man has terrorized our city for months. People have feared for their safety. Let us end this charade. Sir, I wash my hands of you. For your crimes, I sentence you to death.” And with that, the magistrate signed the order of execution and exited the room.
Death. Cessation of existence. This was the end of his road. The guards slapped the restraints on his wrists. Tighter than before. He was marched out of the office, through the corridor, and into the searing midday sun.
The crowd was frenzied. Something seemed amiss. The man’s senses were heightened. His ears were sharp. A fierce energy filled the streets. People were pointing, whispering. He noticed a commotion on Skull Hill. Why there? No one ever goes there, the man thought. Why the discord?
Unexpectedly, the guards were leading the man towards the hill. What was on the hill? Executions don’t take place there. The city square is used. But the square was empty.
“Come on, speed it up, make a space!” one of his guards demanded. He seemed pressed for time.
He felt their stares, the metal shackles shone in the sun. A path was made, they recognized him.
“He’s going up there too!”
“Go on! There’s space up there for one more!”
“You belong there you savage!”
The man hung his head. He’d accepted his fate but was perplexed about the ruckus. The entire situation was mystifying.
Finally, they’d reached the top of the hill. At the peak, his destiny was unmistakable. Crosses, execution by crucifixion. His eyes drifted to the looming structures. Terror filled his face. His eyes were wide. His palms were trembling. His knees went weak. The guards jerked him to his feet, dragging him to the crosses. He struggled beneath their grip. A scant amount of energy remained in his body. He used it all in a futile effort to flee. His fate was decided. They were pulling him to his death.
At once, they stopped. The sound of something dragging in the gravel approached. Advancing was another cross, this one larger than the other two. A figure was bearing this cross. The man could see the figure was adorned with a mock crown and looked severely beaten. The man recognized this figure. It was Him. The Man from Galilee. Why were they punishing Him this way?
Before he could detect what was going on, he was forced onto a cross. Violent pain shot through his hand. He forgot all about the Man from Galilee. Red, red, all he saw was red. A primal growl escaped his lips. Iron tore through his flesh, into the bone, came out the other side. Blood flowed from the wound, painting the ground below him. For a moment, he lost consciousness. Burning, stabbing, his other hand was pierced. His feet were punctured and joined to the cross. For a moment, a flash of his mother crossed his sight. Her brown skin glowed in the sun, her eyes filled with despair. He raised his head and cried out, aware of the torment he’d caused his family. Her presence flickered and was gone. The cross jolted, magnifying the pain. Guards were pushing it upright, forcing it into a crater in the earth. The weight of the man’s body nearly tore his hands from the wood.
Hardly able to lift his head, the man shifted his eyes. Another criminal was suffering the same fate. The two bore identical wounds, identical destinies. Guards quickly filled the pits of the crosses with dirt, ensuring they remained firmly planted.
The midday sun scorched their skin. The man’s vision became blurred. Pain flooded his body. Buzzards circled above, squawking at the spectacle. People trickled in, aghast at the vision before them. A crowd gathered at the base of the crosses. Silence washed over the once fervent group.
To the man’s left, the Man from Galilee was stationed. Calm washed over the Man’s face. His eyes rose to the sky, then He spoke. Gasps could be heard. Women sobbed. The trio was a spectacle. Townspeople crowded the scene.
In delirium, the criminal on the end shouted to the Man from Galilee, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
Impassioned, the man cried, “Don’t you fear God? You received the same sentence he did. Ours is only right. We are getting what we deserve for what we did. But he has done no wrong!”
Breathless, the man summoned his last fragments of strength and exclaimed, “Remember me, Jesus, when you come as King!”
The Man from Galilee gazed at him, peace filled his eyes. Thorns pierced his flesh and blood trickled down his face. Serenely, the Man breathed, “I promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me.”
With a weak smile, the last breath of life escaped the man’s lips and he closed his eyes for the last time.
This is Kelly's first time submitting a short story! She grew up in a tiny town in Iowa. Kelly has a 9 year old son and a 30 year old boyfriend. She also has a 5 month old cat that she enjoys dressing up in Halloween costumes.