They strapped the cross to his arms with two pieces of roughly woven rope, and cut off the extra with their knives. The shorter piece of wood rested across his thin shoulders, and was pegged into a deep groove in the longer piece, which would have rested along his back if it had been a couple of feet shorter. As it was, the wood left a gouge in the dirt behind him as he walked. It was heavy, Dismas thought. Perhaps half a man’s weight, maybe a little less.
The Romans used good wood, he thought darkly. A man he didn’t know received the same treatment just in front of him, and his former “partner,” Gesmas, directly behind.
The thought that it was Friday occurred to him. There would be many travelers on the roads to and from Jerusalem; much opportunity to procure coin, and then wine.
He glanced at the jeering crowd gathered around the three of them and after a moment realized their taunts and cries were not directed at either him or Gesmas; they were focused on the third man. There were so many of them, and as they began their final walk, the crowd followed along.
Dismas tried not to think about the hill that waited at the end of their walk. He tried not to think that soon enough he would be hanging from the rough wood now bouncing against his shoulders, and crows would be pecking at his eyes.
He walked, and his feet kicked up little clouds of dust. The straight portion of the cross dragged heavily behind him.
The soldiers mostly left he and Gesmas alone as they walked, but seemed very intent on making the walk of the third man especially brutal. They began striking him with short leather whips right outside the gate and continued every ten or fifteen steps. The man’s dingy robe was bloody from it.
Gesmas swore at the soldiers, swore at the third man, swore at the crowd. Sweat dripped from his brow and made dark spots in the dirt at his feet as he walked. Only one soldier even spared him a glance—more of a glare, really. He pointed his sword at Gesmas and said “Silence…”
Dismas thought about joining in the swearing. The thought of a quick death from a Roman sword did have its allure. He’d seen people hanging from crosses, of course. They died hard, unless the Romans broke their legs to speed things up. You couldn’t breathe as well if you couldn’t push yourself up on the nails. He’d heard it was like drowning.
He hoped they’d break his legs.
Gesmas just hung his head and kept walking, and Dismas did the same. You never cut off any part of your life—not even a second—if you had the choice.
The Romans continued to taunt the third man, and the sound of their whips striking his bloody back strangely took Dismas’s mind from his coming fate. The crowd walked with them, jeering—though he would sometimes hear a few cries of “Let him go” interspersed with the cries for the man’s death. And there was a large group of women amongst the crowd, who wept openly and reached out their hands toward the third man.
He wondered what the man had done to bring such violence on himself. It was like many of the people hated him. Dismas had heard of a man teaching throughout the region and beyond, a man called Jesus, but that man seemed revered—loved, even. Could this be the same person? He’d never heard one of the man’s talks, and had not set foot in the temple in quite some time. But there was something about this man. He didn’t carry himself like other people. Dismas had yet to hear him speak so much as a word, but here he was. His robe was torn in the back from the whips, and something was twisted around his head and blood was running down his face.
The third man turned and looked toward the weeping women, and Dismas heard him speak at last.
“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children—“ His next words were drowned out by a chorus of cries from the part of the crowd that seemed glad to see him there, but Dismas suddenly wanted to hear more of what this man had to say.
He didn’t have the chance. Dismas saw the man slowly fall forward onto his face, and his cross slid forward onto the ground.
Do not weep for me, Dismas thought. It had to be Jesus, this man wounded, and hurt, and covered with blood, and mud, and the spit of his guards.
He and Gesmas stopped and watched. The third man just lay there, and Dismas could see him spit blood onto the ground. Two of the soldiers sliced off the ropes binding the man to the cross and flopped it over onto the ground next to the man. They grabbed a man that looked like a merchant out of the crowd, and lifted the third man’s cross from the ground and onto the merchant’s shoulders.
Two of the soldiers grabbed the man on the ground by the back of his robe and lifted him from the dirt. Dismas could hear the garment begin to tear, but the man still stood, wavering for a minute. The two soldiers mocked him, and joked among themselves and with the crowd about the third man’s seeming inability to stand without weaving. They pushed him back and forth between them, spitting vile profanities at him, stopping every now and then to slap him across the face or hit him with their fists.
Still he stood there, saying nothing, just absorbing their blows.
After a few more moments of their fun, the two soldiers with the third man and the rest of the squad got the procession moving again, onward toward the Skull.
Dismas followed at the rear, and watched the third man lead the column, with the merchant next, then the two soldiers with the whips, Gesmas, more soldiers, and then himself. They never touched Gesmas or him, but they continually harassed the third man, continued to beat and whip him, and when he would fall, they would kick him as well. Dismas wondered for the first time what the man’s name was. Who was this man that took every blow with little more than a groan? Who was he that he could do that? He never begged them to stop, never pleaded for his life. He just walked calmly forward. Dismas had seen a line of lambs walking to the slaughter once, and this reminded him oddly of that.
At last, just as the sun was reaching its zenith, they reached the top of the hill. Dismas stood panting, his legs on fire from the climb, with the bottom of his cross resting on the ground. Gesmas stood there glaring at the soldiers and the crowd, looking like a trapped animal.
The soldiers jerked the cross from the shoulders of the merchant, and let it fall backward onto the ground. They pushed him away and he disappeared over the edge of the hill and back toward the city. The third man started to fall forward, but his two guards caught him under his arms, and then ripped his garment down the center, leaving him in his underclothing. They let him go and he fell forward onto his face.
The two guards assigned to Dismas turned his cross onto the ground, and then ripped his robe apart as well. Dismas stood in his undergarment, and then one of the soldiers barked at him “Lie down on the cross. Now!”
Dismas did as they asked, and felt the rough wood dig into his back. Absurdly, he thought of splinters. As they stretched out his arms along the crossbar, he could hear the guards of the third man call out to him mockingly, and Dismas heard a final blow land somewhere on the third man’s body.
“Now, your majesty. Can you not free yourself? Command us to let you go, then…”
That was it, Dismas thought. The third man was certainly no thief, no murderer. He didn’t behave like anyone Dismas had ever met before. He just faced his death with absolute calm. There was just something about him that was different. Dismas had seen Herod one time, from a distance, and he almost walked through people, not just like he didn’t see them, but like they were not worthy of being seen. He just…strode.
The third man was not like that, not arrogant in the least, but was somehow regal all the same. Not like a lamb so much, Dismas thought. And then they laid the third man down on his own cross, and he spoke again. His voice was full of pain, but rang out like a bell in the still air on top of the Skull.
“Abba,” the third man said, “father…forgive them, forgive them…they don’t know what they’re doing…they don’t know…”
His voice trailed off, and Dismas realized the man was praying, praying for the men about to hammer nails through his wrists and feet.
Dismas felt the point of the first nail enter his wrist at an angle right in the center of the bundle of nerves at the heel of his palm. He could feel every strike of the mallet through his entire body. He hardly had time to stop screaming from the first nail before the second was hammered home. He didn’t feel the nail that went through both of his ankles and the cross.
And then it was done.
The soldiers raised Dismas up on the far right, and slid the base of his cross into a hole in the ground. They raised the third man up in the center, and Gesmas on the left. Gesmas was screaming profanities at the soldiers, at the crowd, and from what Dismas could tell, God as well.
The third man hung on his cross, and Dismas could see his chest rising and falling, rising and falling. A crowd began to gather in front of him, a weeping woman at the center, with a handsome young man standing next to her. An older man, one of the temple priests, pushed himself forward through the crowd, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”
The third man’s two guards came forward next. One of them pushed a piece of sponge onto the head of his spear and then sunk the spear into a nearby bucket. He held the dripping weapon up to the third man as he hung there but the man just shook his head. The second soldier lifted a sign on his spear and hung it over a nail protruding from the top of the third man’s cross. He cleared his throat and read aloud “Here is the king of the jews.”
He chuckled and slapped his partner on his armored shoulder. “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself,” said the soldier in a voice dripping with sarcasm.
Gesmas inclined his head over to the right and screamed at the third man, “Aren’t you the messiah? Save yourself, then. Save us!”
Dismas looked at the man on the middle cross. His head hung low, and blood ran down his cheeks into his beard. His chest and ribs were bruised and striped from the whips. One leg was positioned on either side of the cross with a long nail driven through his left ankle, through the wood, and out the other ankle, where one of his guards had bent the end over so the third man’s foot couldn’t slip off. He struggled for breath.
And then truth rushed through Dismas’s mind like a cold river—this man, the third man, was king, and the promised messiah. He knew it with absolutely certainty, and at that moment, awareness of his sin came crashing into him and through him. He saw the first purse he grabbed. He saw all the men he’d killed—saw their faces flash before him, and he knew that he could not go into the darkness of death with the weight of that sin coiled around his heart.
And he knew the third man—he knew Jesus—could take it away. He knew he could carry the weight for him, into His father’s kingdom. He leaned his head forward as far as he could, and turned toward Gesmas.
“Don’t you fear God?” he shouted. “You’re under the same sentence. So am I. And we’re getting the reward our deeds demand.”
Dismas looked toward Jesus. “This man has done nothing!!”
Gesmas fell silent.
Dismas saw Jesus turn his head toward him and turned his head as far as he could to the left so he could look into his eyes. They were filled with kindness, and tears for the people that Dismas knew he longed to save. He lowered his head.
He could feel Jesus looking at him, and he raised his head again. Everything else disappeared—Gesmas, the crowd, his cross. There was only Jesus, his brown eyes filling, and looking at Dismas clearly in spite of his own pain.
“Jesus,” he pleaded, “remember me…remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
“Amen, I tell you,” said Jesus. “Today you will be with me in paradise…”
A feeling of peace ran through him, and he looked up at the sky. The pain was distant, and it occurred to him that the end was very near. Thin clouds blew over the Skull, back toward the city. He looked down at the crowd and two soldiers were coming toward him with mallets.
He didn’t feel it when they broke his legs.