Friday, June 09, 2006

Death at Golgotha (I part)

Novel published in Serbian as "Smrt na Golgoti", u Vreme čuda, Beograd, Prosveta, 1965, © Borislav Pekić; English translation by Lovett F. Edwards; published as "Death at Golgotha" in The Time of Miracles, New York and London, © Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc, 1976, pp. 307-320.

And as they led him away, they laid hold upon one
Simon, a Cyrenian, coming out of the country, and
on him they laid the cross, that he might bear it after Jesus
(Luke 23:26)
for 2nd part HERE
WHAT HE EXPERIENCED that day was surely death.

Death in the shape of four pains, sharp as thorns, driven through his tendons into the wood, and he was crucified on the four-branched pain as if he was on hot beach looking at the sun which, like the fiery tow hurled from a Balearic sling, fell from the heavens above Golgotha. A thin chill like the palm of a hand dipped in water passed across his eyes and was then dispersed in the heat. On the bushes and stubble the shadows dried like black laundry. To the southeast, from the cliffs on the hill of Zion, Jerusalem rose against the new God, to whom after so many offenses black Friday had come at last.

To his left, a knotty voice was cursing in Philistine; to his right, the breathing of the crucified man sounded like the undertow of the tide on a sandy shoal. Below the soles of his feet, in the cleft of shadow the dice rattled in the helmet of the procurator's guards, and distant, almost hopelessly remote silhouettes crouched and wailed in the aloe thickets. Only above the crosses all was quiet; above the three crosses the heavens were empty without the birds which the summer pestilence had long ago destroyed.

The place of execution sizzled in the sunlight. Death was well illuminated, quite clear through the haze in which the three crosses quivered like three spits.

Death didn't hurt just his hands and feet crushed by the iron nails; death pinched him between the thighs because there, wrapped in cheap cloth, was the wooden wedge supporting his body. This fifth emissary of death was also the most unbearable; comic and insulting, it didn't belong seriously to dying, except that it humiliated him and transformed the torso of the condemned man into a huge, stabbing blister.

Would his God come, he thought as he listened to those crude men from the west quarreling over his clothes. He knew they weren't grabbing them because of the value of those stained and bloody rags, but because, like the lock of a dead man's hair or piece of tooth, they brought luck, especially if the executed man was important. It really gave him pleasure that they thought him important and that his relics, hung about the neck as amulets, could ward off illnesses, the evil eye and the whims of destiny. He snickered maliciously.

"O God, forgive them for they know what they do!"

Those Roman fools didn't really know what they were doing and would only grasp it when it was too late and the crosses were set out for them also, an endless row of spits for the orgy of heaven. He felt a flash of rapture that he wasn't the only one deluded, but it passed quickly; it was a stupid exploit to deceive others by his own death.

From the cross, as if from an observation post, he could see the roof of the Cyrenian's house, a tiny fist with node-like red tiles. What was Temna doing now? Lying on the sheets sprinkled with scented waters, before calling on a friend from Acra to sort out over supper recent Jerusalem scandals? Asking herself why her Simon was late for lunch? Or was she supervising the servants cleaning the silver with ash from copper vessels? But what's the use of thinking in such stifling heat?

Would God come as he had promised? Or, rather, would his God come? He hadn't promised anything, of course, but he had to turn up sooner or later.

But God didn't come and it was late in the afternoon and the guards were snoring in the meager shade of his still body. God hadn't come and yet he'd believed him, Rufus had sworn in his name and Israel had amused itself greatly with his miracles, for whatever the Pharisees babbled in the synagogues and old men in the market place, they were more miraculous than the neck-breaking feats of the Babylonian magicians, more miraculous than the tricks of the Temple charlatans in the land of Khem, more than the titillating miracles of Astarte's maidens, more miraculous even than the miracles of Moses.

As for the wonder-worker himself, he was self-taught. His miracles were new and original. Whether they were of any value wasn't decisive, because one doesn't really expect miracles to help, only to change. One doesn't expect the greatest of miracles to distort the present, but rather to clear the way for the future. They'd finally convinced him. Totally. The water from Cana of Galilee had gone to his head. He knew that the stone vessels for the ritual ablutions contained nothing but rainwater, nothing but slush. Even that knowledge though hadn't been enough to keep him sober. He and the rest of the wedding guests had sung psalms and popular songs, whereas Rufus, devout and toadying even when drunk, had drawn crosses with his fingernail on the thigh of a girl from Cana. Only a powerful God could have performed something so incredible. Or perhaps some dextrous innkeeper.

And God had left him to perish in his name.

Who were you, you stupid ass, to deserve his attention? Worm among worms, son among sons, the chosen among the chosen and, by Hashem, a fool among fools. You've trotted through places of worship, run messages to all the crossroads of Judea from Ziklag to Dan and from Jericho to Joppa, pursuing the swift, false shadow of God, which fled away like a mirage before the thirsty wanderer.

Into Judas' goatskin bag you've dropped the silver pieces earned by your sweat – that bag which finally held the thirty pieces of silver, drops of the most precious sweat of death which the world has ever smelled – all this, instead of getting good and drunk and – leaving Rufus to go on chasing that elusive divine shadow – you yourself, simply and painlessly achieve your place in heaven: the best possible, since it would be yours alone, and if you got bored with it for any reason you could wash it away with a single jar of rainwater.

Clothed in rags, you knocked on every door; kept company with lepers and whores; and lived with the dead and the possessed, alongside herds of swine that were ready to accept their demons form anyone willing to send them there. They stoned you, spat on you, and chased you with sticks like a mongrel bitch with a can tied about its neck sniffing the trail of some canine divinity.

You didn't wear bells around your neck, but rattled your rebellious truths as if you did. You were disloyal to your own flesh and blood so that the new kingdom should come. You scorned the testament of the fathers so that the kingdom should come. You even slandered your neighbors – you who could have had anything on earth. The new kingdom hasn't come and even if it had, you'd never noticed it in your frenzied rush.

What new kingdom? Instead of the new kingdom, the old crucifixes are erected. As for equality before God, that amounts to dying with criminals; between an incestuous thug and a murderer to be exact, and there's no difference between them in the manner of dying.

God slipped away into his heavenly cellar and you, old fool, are stretched on the cross like a wild boar being skinned in a dirty Byblos butcher shop, while Peter is being chased by the godless all over Jerusalem, and the sons of Zebedee are being beaten under the walls of Zion with wet canes, belts and reeds!

And there's no God among us as he'd promised. He's weaseled out and skipped, hasn't he?

Where's the truth announced to us on the Moon? Where's the kingdom conquered for us? Where's the open Book of Life we were called upon to peep in? Where's "to the right" and "to the left" of the Father, when there's no Father and my bloody glance crawls across the desolate Judaean plan over which the ravens fall like black bolts of lightning.

What is truth when I'm dying?
Where is truth when I'm dying?
What truth can survive, untouched, and outlive my death?

Is my cross at least within the reach of heaven, which according to the prophecies awaits us with open arms? Ah, divine whore, why was I chosen to die? Ah, prophetic whore, ah, manger-born whore, is this your heavenly bliss?

And that merciless sun which scales off as if to devour his dried slough as soon as he's dead in order to scorch the survivors with its fresh, cold brilliance, those red-hot scales which cling to his wounds, that dead air which sticks in his throat like a bone, that thorn's blossom in the eyeballs, those boiling geysers in his ears, those winged nails which tear at his testicles. God, is this possible?

Everything had for him the fresh face of a shadow. Three kneeling dromedaries on the Silchem road were three dirty spots in the sand, three insignificant humped shadows in the flood of heat. The winged, living shadows of the vultures cruising over Golgotha, always in one place like a wheel stuck in the mud. The brittle, fragile, dusty shadow of the thorns; the slender shadow of the javelin leaning against the cross; the pointed shadow of the cross itself stretched along the earth; the earthen hot shadow of an odd rock; the rounded shadow of the helmets; the flat, level shadow of the jugs of vinegar which shone below his nailed feet; the transparent, holy shadow of his garments as they are passed from hand to hand, the shadow of a sigh, the bodiless, windswept shadow of dying which lay silent between the arrowlike crucifixes.

What day is it?
Is it Friday? The last day of suffering before the Sabbath rest, the last day of life before the eternal Sabbath? Black Friday before White Saturday?

He was thin, emaciated, ill. He hoped slyly that he wouldn't hang long like some of those bumpkins who took their time dying, three days and nights, bleating like billy goats on the skinner's hooks. They won't break my ankles, he thought, glancing sarcastically at that bear of a Philistine stretched out on his cross, wrapped in a sheepskin, strong, tough as Moses' rock.

The rod would strike a long time on his chest before the water of his dog's life poured out. That one, I swear, will have time to get used to his death, while you, wretch, will fulfill the prophecy, not to prove this or that prophet right, but because you'll give up the ghost before there's need to break your shinbones.

There were three of them on the cross that Friday. Each on his own cross as if in his own cradle. Perhaps there is only one death, Father of my fathers, but when it attacks me, then it's mine alone, it's not Zachary's who hangs on my right, nor the Bear's who hangs on my left. Finally, you ass, you've got something which is yours alone and which you mustn't share with the most gracious Caesar.

Anyway, what would a tithe of your death look like tossed into the sacrificial bowl of Jehovah's Temple, the first fruits of your dying given as an offering? What would a tithe of your death look like in the imperial treasury, and how would the imperial treasurer test its purity and weight? How would the customs officer bite your death, test with his teeth the tithe of your death when you pay him your toll? How would it be if you supported your family by your death? And Temna, could she dress herself in your expensive dying?

That idea cheered him a little. He'd have liked to share it with his neighbors, but decided not to.
And God is nowhere!
Your God has run away!
It sounded like a Galilean marriage joke, he thought.
"I thirst," he said.

The centurion with the reddish fuzz on his chin stuck a sponge on the tip of his spear, dipped it in vinegar and offered it to the man on the cross. He sucked at it avidly, then spat in disgust a yellow fluid on the Roman's rusty snout. He enjoyed the curses of the soldier, who didn't dare touch him (it was strictly forbidden to interfere with a death sentence) and withdrew angrily into the shade of Zachary's cross.

To hell with that whining Zachary, who was constantly pestering him with prayers:
"Remember me, O Lord, when thou comest into thy kingdom!"
What could that mean?
"Idiot!" he screamed.
"He's calling Elias," a woman in the crowd explained confidently.

He didn't call anyone except his God who'd deserted him at the crucial moment, he'd called him softly, with sweet words, as if luring a bird into a trap suspended under the burning sky. Who needs that obnoxious Elias? He was in no mood for company anyway.

It's four o'clock, and God isn't here. No sign of him. And very likely he won't be. God
's in no hurry, nothing's hurting him, no iron nails poking through his hands and feet, no wooden wedge under his balls, no crown of thorns digging into his temples, no live coals of flaming sun burning his eyes, no bloody spit boiling under his tongue.
for 2nd part HERE


Nikola said...

Poštovana Ljiljana,
da li je "Vreme čuda" prevedeno na engleski ?

pozdrav iz Sijetla

Anonymous said...

yes: do a google search
"time of miracles pekic" and you'll find a number of options