Penance

I

 

The important thing to grasp about being a judge

is it doesn’t matter who’s innocent or guilty –

what counts is fear, and the politics of being

seen to be in charge, particularly here

 

when if you hint at a willingness to fudge

they’re onto it at once, and say your loyalty

to the Emperor’s in question. While what they mean

by ‘law’ is something else . . .  And yet I care

 

more for their stiff-necked ways than I like to admit,

and they spin a good yarn about their Great Escape

from Egypt. So no doubt they hope our stay

 

is another short blip they’ll survive, but Romans don’t quit

either. Anyway, for now they’ve gone to gape

at the fool it made no sense to save today.



II

 

He frowned as though he’d made the thing himself –

well, I’ve heard he was a carpenter before

he went on his career break walkabout.

A Friday afternoon job . . . . though I suppose

 

it wasn’t meant to last. There was an intake of breath

as he picked it up, and then a sudden roar

when he took his first step. There’d been a news blackout

during the trial – the gossip was that those

 

who’d come with him to Jerusalem had fled

the moment he was in trouble, that he hadn’t tried

to defend himself when the Prefect asked him why

 

he should waste time trying to spare him. What was in his head?

Disappointment there was nobody on his side

when it mattered? When we all cried, ‘crucify!’?



III

 

I think he stumbled on a cobblestone.

The sweat was pouring from his face by then,

and with the blood he wasn’t a pretty sight.

But then, he’d only got himself to blame –

 

insisting he’d sit on some supernatural throne

when we’d be the ones in the dock . . .  Well, amen

to all that, and to those who fake the right

to preach fire and brimstone at this world’s endgame.

 

As far as I can see, this life’s all there is:

nothing before, and nothing afterwards,

and only luck dictating if you’re born

 

in a hovel, to shepherds, or to some ghastly showbiz

celebs clambering socially upwards;

or to a king, wearing his crown with scorn.



IV

 

This is what we’re always expected to do –

watch, and support them while they make their way

on the path they choose, and when it all goes wrong.

I’m tired of the role. But here I am, while he

 

struggles to cling to what he thought he knew

about his mission. And we both know I’ll play

the part I must, pretending to be strong,

before going back, alone, to Galilee.

 

It makes me angry when I think how men

decide on the rules, while we cook and sew, and wait.

Who is my mother? he asked. But oh my son

 

I’d live it all over and over again,

and I’d take your place to bear that cross’ weight,

and to be nailed to it, if I could be the one.



V

 

It wasn’t what I’d trudged from Cyrene to do.

Did my accent mean I stood out from the crowd?

His escort pushed. Before I twigged it I’d

made a clown of myself by offering to carry

 

the heavy wood to the hillside where, on cue,

he had even worse in store. And I’m not proud

about what I did. His hangers-on are wide

of the mark when they talk it up. Though of course I worry –

 

they should drop the subject, before anyone thinks

I’m one of them, given the ugly mood

on the street at the moment. In spite of that, I guess

 

there was a plus of sorts. When I’d had a few drinks

there was still this weirdo, deep-down gratitude:

that when I asked if he needed me, the man said yes.



VI

 

I couldn’t say whether there was a likeness –

they snatched it from me as soon as he gave it back

announcing – days later – there’d been a miracle.

Maybe. But they would say that, wouldn’t they?

 

Someone knows someone who works in the Governor’s Palace

who’s putting it round Pilate’s now an insomniac.

It’s amazing how quickly rumour becomes gospel

till you don’t know what to believe. They even say

 

they saw him, or his ghost, out walking both

at Emmaus and by the Kinneret

when they’d gone fishing. But I’d like to hope

 

that when he wiped his face on my white cloth

with a weariness I doubt I shall forget

it helped him – if only then and there – to cope.



VII

 

What if the mob are starting to feel sorry for him?

It might have been better to hang him in the night

then say it was suicide. I know the idea

was to make an example of him, but it takes so long –

 

there’s always a risk they’ll see him as a victim.

They might turn this roadshow into a grisly rite!

There he goes falling again. Is it mad to fear

we’ll have a price to pay, though we’ve done nothing wrong?

 

What people can accept a rebel who

breaks all the rules which mean they have survived

exile and persecution? Which give their history

 

its shape and meaning? Who represents a coup

against what’s kept our hearts and souls alive?

But we’ve never been good at putting our side of the story.



VIII

 

When we talked about it, we were all confused –

why was he so hard on us? We’d hoped he’d feel

less lonely as he stumbled to his end,

instead of which, he just dismissed our tears,

 

rebuffing us as though we were the ones accused

and sooner or later would face our own ordeal.

You’d have thought that he’d be desperate for a friend

while others spat, and kicked at him, and jeered.

 

And yet, years later, I think I understand

the sorrow at the heart of things his death

now seems to represent, and why he spoke

 

as harshly as he did to those whose bland

piety was just a waste of breath,

a sentimental interlude, a joke.

 

IX

 

I didn’t betray him – he betrayed us all,

pumping our hopes up, letting us down with a bang.

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer

and the Romans will rule the roost till kingdom come.

 

It’s another case of pride before a fall –

and down he goes again, he can’t get the hang

of wedging the crossbar between his neck and shoulder.

Why should I care? He hasn’t removed one slum,

 

or cut the cost of living, or freed one slave,

or booted out the occupiers – no,

we’ll be well rid of him. But you know what irks? –

 

the self-righteous way he said that he forgave

me, when I slipped away from the meal to go

to meet those who recognise how this world works.



X

 

If we hadn’t already rumbled he’s merely human

we sure do now he’s down to just his skin.

If that’s what Gods look like, God help us . . . Still,

I wish they’d get a move on. Isn’t it shameful –

 

the thrill we get watching a fellow man

undergo such appalling suffering?

We’re in the zone, impatient for the kill,

persuading ourselves it’s ok, since it’s lawful . . .

 

But the moment you start to imagine it was you

they’re stretching out to hammer in a nail

it’s something else, although we cannot share

 

the despair he must be – surely – going through

as they raise the cross and the mocking soldiers hail

his body slumping in the evening air.



XI

 

It was just my job: I’d done it a hundred times.

There was nothing special about him, except perhaps

the fuss they made soon afterwards, claiming

the stiff had upped and strolled out of the tomb.

 

It’s not for me to bother what kind of crime

meant the bored troops dawdled over a game of craps

for the little he had, or why the sign said ‘King’.

I packed my kit and went back to the room

 

on the other side of town which I’ve rented from

a fat cat from the north who in his youth

thought he must have met the guy. He shrugged and said

 

it was easier to deal with terrorists trying to storm

the City than with nutters pushing ‘Truth’ –

that things would calm down now that he was dead.



XII

 

You could feel the disappointment when it was over.

Not that anyone believed he’d jump back down

and prove he’d been all his fan club said he was,

but you couldn’t help wishing for something more dramatic

 

whether or not you were one of his followers.

The two crooks lasted longer, their cries drowned

by a burst of idle chatter, the slain man’s cause

already forgotten – another country hick

 

with a vision too big for his head. So what makes me

stand here as the throng thins out, and watch the sun

go down on just another day? And yearn

 

for a change I can’t define, however slowly

it might unfold? And to sense that I’ve begun

a prayer it will take the rest of my life to learn?



XIII

 

Pilate seemed amazed that anyone cared

but when his troops had checked he gave a nod

and went back to his wife. That’s all I needed.

It was hard work all the same. Dead bodies weigh

 

more than you reckon, and our small group was scared –

expecting trouble from the awkward squad.

But there was no one around. We wrapped his naked

corpse in a crisp, clean shroud, and took it away

 

to the silence I’d intended as my own.

One image comes back, from that sleepless night –

how his mother held him lying across her knee

 

and rocked him as though they were safely back at home

and he was still a child, and the future might

be other than it could only ever be.



XIV

 

So is this where his CV will be sealed?

I can’t connect what’s happening to the past

and the happy tumult of those early days

when the masses would trek for miles to hear him speak

 

at first just hoping he had the power to heal

their damaged minds and bodies, but at last

acknowledging the hundred subtle ways

he knew what else we’d come to him to seek.

 

Leaders are all very well till it comes the grave.

Then what’s the message? But I’m not here to complain

that maybe he pulled the wool over our eyes,

 

or to honour him as generous or brave,

or to dream of another world where he might yet reign:

but to share this hour with him, as all hopes dies.

 

 

First published in Snakeskin 240, May 2017