~by Gerald Fleming
she’d written, certainly at first, and he’d answered—wanted to meet early—so okay, we’ll meet at 8 a.m., she wrote, and at least this is no lazy man, and she came at eight, the café up the hill by, what was it—a memorial to some soldiers, some war?—and he was already there in the blue pullover cap about which he’d written (“pillover,” he’d really written), and he had coffee in front of him and waved and stood, proper gentleman, shook her hand, ordered her coffee like a proper man, and his English was good, and he paid, and she liked the tip he left and the hand that left the tip—tanned, delicate black hairs on the fingers—and she liked his voice, you could be in radio, she told him, and let’s walk, he said, this is your first week in your new city, my city, I love this city, and they walked and walked, he showed her the old cathedral, my church, he said, every Sunday, he said, and the old Justice Palace, and up the hill, hard to keep up (his long, strong legs), up to where the crazy writer lived and died and down an alley then where two famous lovers had their trysts, and it was then he first put his hand on her shoulder, briefly only, but she liked it very much, and he took her to where the artists live, so-and-so lives there, he’s a sculptor, so-and-so lives there, she’s a performance artist, and it was always dare instead of there, like a little boy, then down the hill and up another to the botanical garden, where he must have known the name of every tree —he called them by men’s names first—very funny, she said, then came the Latin, his ease with Latin, genus/family/species, and then it was time for lunch, I know a good place for lunch, he said, it’s just below the garden, it’s a good day, he said, we can sit outside, and lunch was delicious, she had lamb, he had oysters, and the waiters knew him, playful with him, called him Professor—damn, he’s handsome, she thought, and said I’ll pay, and no no no, he said, and yes yes, she said, I insist—then he took her to the famous open market at the base of the hill then to the river, which was clean now, he said, the fish are back, then down the promenade beside the river to the old mill, do you have more energy, he said, it’s your new city, he said, sure, she said, but she was getting tired, and oh, I like this man, she thought, the way he touches my hand and does not hold it, he understands respect, and now they came upon the photo gallery, and they went in and he liked the same ones as she and pointed out others she would not have noticed, then out the door and off to the cross-section of the ancient city wall, then around the corner, the leatherworkers’ alley, over two more to the silversmiths’, then past the House of Chocolates where he bought her something orange and aromatic with what—cardamom? and then through the flower stands, where he bought her a yellow rose—wise, too early for red, she thought—though she was really ready for red, I’d better stop now, she said, I’d better go, and can I see you again, she wanted him to say, but it was then that he asked for money, and it was a large amount of money, an amount that confused her, and she said what and she said why and she said no and she said why again and he said for the city tour, beach, but they had seen no beach, and oh, it’s bitch, he’s calling me bitch and I’ll call the police, she said, and he said call the police, I know the police, and she looked around, and she was not in an alley, she was on a city corner, but it was deserted just now, and he called her beach again, and took out his phone and said he would call the police, and it wasn’t worth it, it just wasn’t worth it, his accent thickening, a drunkenness in it now though he was not drunk, and she reached into her purse and gave him all the money she had, and he took it, and did not stuff it into his pockets and run, but bill by bill, carefully, tenderly, slid each into his wallet and closed it and said thank you, now be careful, this is a dangerous city.
Often, the scene depicted as tranquil—fait accompli, three men in their proper places, on crosses, assorted provokers and grievers below, sky leaden, sense overall not meat but vegetal, varnished, tableau.
Let’s say it did occur.
Then: cross? This planed and surfaced lumber in pictures we knew long ago—in Giotto, Raphael, even Goya?
No. Rough spar. Oak, or cedar. Maybe an adze hacked away the bark, maybe a few draw-knife marks, but it’s still tree, still round, chunks of its skin left on, bleeding sap, lots of knots—strong enough, though, to hold a man.
Each upright so tall no mother at night might take down a son, no brother a brother. And the cross-strut surely not mortised, fit tight/square to its vertical other, but cruder stuff: hemp-rope to lash the X together, coarse fiber, the cross-strut at front, main beam behind, rope laps raising it farther so that a man’s deltoids and pectoralis majors are either racked backwards, spine arched out from the upright, or else his arms straight, pinned at wrists and elbows, thoracic vertebrae torqued inward, rolled; he’s hunchbacked.
The tying’s done on the ground, of course, crowd gathered ’round, a few protesting at first, most goading, quick-tempered, spinning to kick dogs fighting underfoot.
And of the three: do they accede, span themselves over each cross? Not likely.
Struggle, boots to the gut, the men blindsided, bare-knuckled, yanked down, faces struck and kicked, clothes ripped, and their cursing—all three, and all three self-mucused and bloodied and pissed, pinned now at the wrists, ankles crossed and bound, four soldiers to a man, More rope! More rope! Knives tossed to slice the hemp, and they’re stilled now, fixed, the crowd cheering Yes!—one of the men in the crowd with a hard-on.
Some few curse the soldiers, their epithets kept under breath.
Three tall crosses, one by one to be raised.
Who dug these goddamn holes? Not deep enough! One-third the length of each pole! Who trained you fools—your mothers?
And the laborers, new men, bend again, fifteen minutes’ work, their blades shear rock, much complaint, the tied men still supine, new rubble beside the postholes, and now the call to raise: a soldier at each side of the struts, two at the vertical, they count, lift, the wet wood heavy and the bound man heavy, no balance to be had, pitching backward, swaying, Lift higher! says one with a helmet on, and the cross is lifted, lowered into its hole, voice of man on pole dolorous and lost in the crowd, but still it’s not plumb, It’s leaning, and they heave too far left, foolish workmen, compensate now too far right, finally straight, the workmen shamed, angry, There—now fill it in, shovelers packing rubble into the hole, slapping it with the back of their blades, the pole-holding soldiers still shouldering it, heroic poses in opposition to each other, more rubble, more soil. Done. Next one.
The second one plumbed, and now to the third man, still on the ground, bound, the one they were told to nail. The nails flat-shafted, pounded on an anvil, tapered, black. The man’s right wrist bound tight, one nail straight through the capitatum. That’s no pain, they say, you woman. Want nails in the tips of your fingers? Now the left.
The man’s feet, wrong in literature and tableau, here crossed at the ankles, bound in hemp, loosed briefly so that each crossed foot can find a surface for nailing. Two men on their knees—each takes a foot, jerks it downward, works it around the side of the post, nails it in. The cord tightened again.
The man himself now, as if oiled: in blood, in sweat, in piss, and the noises he makes animal noises, inhuman. He is raised, the skies leaden, yes, the birds already circling, the soldiers folding their arms, well pleased.