A Crucifixion

Poem By Day Williams

Captain said I was strong and sure, and handed
The hammer and the spike to me, so while
Two other soldiers held the thief in place
I slammed the spike through heel to olive wood,
A wild man now constrained so no more would
He take what was not his and run away
From marketplaces while the merchants yelled.

The thief squirmed, groaned and muttered, "Mercy, man, "
For which I tapped the hammer on his nose
And told him, "Shut it, or I'll knock your teeth
Into your throat so far that they'll come out
Your rear": They lifted him, the first of three,
He glared down as I took on the second one,
Another thief, slimy as a swamp frog,
Who grimaced when the spike broke skin
And jeered at me, "You went to soldier school
And they make you a carpenter, my boy?
Your father would be proud of you."
I pounded in the spike with all my might.
"Some soldier, " he said, "you do not defend
The Roman Empire, you're a carpenter
For criminals, " to which I answered by
Striking his shins so hard he screamed and wept-
And Captain ordered, "Soldier, get to work,
Another criminal to crucify,
A Galilean, Jesus they call Him."
"Is that man Him who bears the beam? He looks
More like a merchant than a criminal."
"That's a Cyrenian named Simon, who
Carries it, unwhipped, unbloodied, for when
Jesus collapsed from weakness, I commanded
This man to bear the beam up Calvary."

"Behind him staggers Jesus, King of Jews,
Whom Pilate ordered crucified because
He claimed to be a king, and Caesar won't
Have rivals to his throne." I said, "He does
Not seem a king, more like a broken man,
A country boy who could not keep his tongue
Under control around the synagogues."
"Never mind, " said the captain, "we do not
Decide these matters: Take your hammer, pound
Him to the beam as you have done the two
Before him; thieves and renegades alike,
So Caesar's justice reigns supreme from here
To Rome, come, work a sweat up, earn your salt."

I placed his foot upon the beam and set
A nail against his heel, and raised the hammer...
And set it down again: That broken man,
That bloodied man, with flesh torn from his back,
With a crown of thorns, looked in my eyes and pierced
My soul and saw the child who grew to manhood:

The soldier who had charged the enemy
And broken through the line, and the same man
Who fell asleep while guarding gates, though he
Was never caught; the husband who cared for
His wife through sickness lasting weeks; the man
Who'd sneaked into a village while on leave
And shared a peasant woman's bed with her;

And as that man's eyes bored inside my soul,
I felt like I had been weighed upon the scales
And fallen short, as though a sacrifice
Was needed to re-balance scales and make
Me right again... "Take Him and crucify! "
A Jew demanded, and the crowd took up
The chant thus: "Crucify Him! Crucify! "

Again I picked the hammer up, aligned
The spike, and pounded it through flesh and bone,
Crunched into wood. The man said not a word
As I aligned the second spike and smashed
It through his heel; they shouted, "Crucify! "

Far from the maelstrom crowd stood Joseph of
Arimathea, member of the Council,
Who watched and muttered, "He is innocent, "
Which stirred the crowd to greater rage: They roared,
"Crucify! Crucify the King of Jews! "
The thieves did join the chorus, cursing him.

"Get it done! " yelled the Captain, and I glanced
At him and said, "This man is different."
"On with it! " yelled he, and raised the vine-stick
Above his head, which prompted me to pound
Again, again, and raise His body on the cross,
And in a hole, deep down inside red earth,
I set and firmed the bottom of the cross,
Which had a sign across the top that read,
"King of the Jews, " as Pontius Pilate had
Commanded:
So did I fulfill my duty,
First time of many crucifixions I
Regretted that I'd left the farm and signed
The paper that the legionnaire had pushed
In front of me, and took the three gold coins
He handed me, enlistment bonus, then I
Received my armor, tunic, gladius,
Scutum, two pila, caligae, and my
Sarcena with some food and tools, a spade,
A pickaxe and a saw, yet for today's
Death-duty tasks, a soldier only needs
Strong muscles and a hammer big enough
To drive a spike through flesh and bone and wood,
And ears that will ignore the groans and screams
Of those condemned to die a gruesome death.

A war is sweet to them that know it well:
Give me a battle where I smell the sweat
From warriors, where the blood streaks down their brows,
Where adversaries weep and choke as we
Run swords inside their bellies and we twist
The tips and jab again; their faces pale,
We pull the blade; they totter, fall and sprawl
Upon the battlefield, an enemy
Of Rome no longer. Let his widow weep:
Her warrior's strength will mingle with the dust:
Her tears will flow with his barbaric blood.

Yes, I have killed barbarians and rebels,
And I have crucified more criminals
Than I can count, and not until this day
Had I held doubts and qualms about their guilt.
This man, condemned to death, gave me new light.

The man called Jesus hung upon his cross
With thieves on either side of him. He said,
"Father, forgive them, for they do not know
What they are doing." Though I harbored doubts,
I was a soldier, not a judge, and time
Had come for soldiers to divide his clothes,
Which was our right as executioners:
We took his clothes, divided them four ways,
Which left the undergarment, seamless cloth
Woven a single piece from top to bottom.
We gathered ‘round this seamless robe, cast lots,
And I prevailed: I picked it up and stuck
It in my loculus, my satchel, for
Safekeeping while I kept the crowd controlled:
I glared and lifted sword and dared a fight,
As people shouted and the Council rulers
Sneered at him, saying, "He saved others; let
Him save himself! " And others taunted him,
Saying, "If you're the Son of God, get down
From there, so that we'll see this and believe."

My fellow soldiers mocked him, and they offered
Wine vinegar to him and said, "If you're
The Jews' king, save yourself." On either side
Of him were thieves, one who taunted him, one
Who said, "Why do you act that way? This man
Has done no wrong, no sin, while we deserve
Our punishments." He looked at Jesus, saying,
"Remember me when you come in your kingdom, "
And Jesus answered, "Truly, I tell you,
Today you'll be with me in Paradise."

The crowd continued with its mockery,
While one of Jesus' men stood with a woman
I took to be his mother, Jesus' mother,
Whose face was red, whose eyes were blurred by tears,
Whose body shook, as though with grief and sorrow.

"This is your son, " said Jesus to his mother;
To the disciple by her side he said,
"This is your mother, " and from the sixth hour
To the ninth, darkness blanketed the land.
About the ninth hour Jesus loudly cried,
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? "
"He calls Elijah, " said some standing there.
"I thirst, " said Jesus. One man ran, picked up
A sponge, suffused it with wine vinegar,
Stuck it upon a stick, and offered it
To Jesus, who received the wine. The rest
Of them said, "Now leave him alone and let's
See if Elijah comes to save him." Jesus
Said, "It is finished, " and in a loud voice
He cried out, "Father, into your hands I
Commend my spirit, " and he bowed his head,
Gave up his spirit, and the crowd was hushed.

I whispered to my captain, "I told you
That he was different." Suddenly the earth
Shook, and a man ran up to tell the captain
That tombs broke open by Jerusalem:
Bodies of many holy people who
Had died were raised to life. My captain looked
At Jesus' body hanging on the cross
And said, "This surely was a righteous man."
His body shook, convulsed with awe and fear.

For one more hour we sweated in the sun.
Captain told me, "They've suffered long enough.
Check if they're dead; if they're not, break their legs."
We break their legs to hasten death, yet I
Have at times broken one and only one
Shinbone that stuck out from their skin, white bone
That dripped with blood and meat, one broken bone
To aggravate their agony, which warmed
My heart to hear their moans and groans. which were
Rome's message to the passersby that they
Must obey Caesar or they'd suffer, too;
And I'd return on the next morn to watch
The wretch who twitched with pall of death across
His face and I'd ask him, "Are you prepared
To feed the birds, my boy? " The second bone
I'd hammer hard and stand back, as he could
Not rise and gulp a breath, life vanished like
The morning mist that passes from a lake.

On any other day I would've said
To him, "Let's linger for another hour,
Sir, and we'll see if they give up the ghost."
This time, though, a strange sense of mercy filled
My spirit; they had suffered thirst and lack of breath
For several hours; I wanted them relieved
Of suffering; for once I sympathized
With them, as when a German spear had pierced
My horse's neck in battle's flash and flair-
Soon I dispatched the offending soldier-axe
To his helmet's side, and when he landed on
The ground, I swung the axe three times more,
Which separated head from trunk, and as
Our battle raged upon a grassy hill,
I kicked his broad-eyed head and it began
To roll down and gathered speed ‘til near
The bottom of the hill, it struck the hooves
Of a German stallion that tripped, stumbled, fell
And threw its rider hard against a tree,
So hard it cracked his skull and brains escaped,
A juicy mass, a vulture's lunch and dinner.

My vengeance done, I turned back to my horse,
Which writhed in agony, in throes of death,
A desperate gleam inside his eyes that struck
My heart with mercy for my faithful beast;
I pulled the spear out of his neck and plunged
And pushed it in between his ribs to crush
His heart, and thus he died, my faithful friend.
If only I had known that morning I
Would have to kill my best friend in the army,
I would have loitered in my tent ‘til dark,
Let Captain punish me as he might please,

And I recalled my feelings that dark day
As Captain ordered me to break their legs,
Which was an act of mercy, for the man
Who hangs upon a cross must use his legs
To push himself up and take proper breaths,
And he could hang there many days unless
We broke his legs, so I stepped up and broke
The legs of the two thieves on either side
Of Jesus, both the mocker (breathless now,
Too powerless to taunt) and him I envied,
The thief who would share Paradise with Jesus.
But when I came to Jesus, I knew he
Was dead-I have some experience in
These matters-Captain said that I was right,
So with a spear I pierced his side, from which
Flowed blood and water onto my spear-fist.

I knelt and gathered up the seamless robe,
Which sprinkled Jesus' blood onto the cloth.
I stood and walked to the disciple I
Had seen before by Jesus' mother; I
Handed the robe to him and almost missed
Seeing the woman huddled by his side,
Her face suffused with tears, so worn from weeping
That she could barely stand, and the disciple
Comforted her while she said prayers before
The unswathed bloody body of her son
Whose side was pierced, who died with broken heart.
She took the seamless robe from the disciple
And raised her head, her eyes alight, and whispered,
"Thank you" to me and then returned to prayer.

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