Arimathea's Box

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Thrillers  |  House: Booksie Classic
Two thousand years ago on Calvary, a different story began...

Submitted: January 14, 2013

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Submitted: January 14, 2013

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The storm was gathering strength. Biding its time. Waiting for the moment to strike. And with each beat of his heart, Joseph knew that time drew nearer.

It was only mid-afternoon, but all morning the grim storm clouds had writhed above the city, jostling for position. Silent flashes lit the belly of the towering, grey behemoth and eerie shapes flickered across the granite sky. Gusts of wind tugged at his cloak and filled his eyes with sand as he waited. It would not be long now.

He listened, thinking he could hear the crowd on the wind. Their cries reminded him of the distant baying of wolves. Perhaps it was just his imagination. Perhaps not; he knew how they could be. How they had been, crying for blood, rabid, tearing their garments in anger when their victim refused to defend himself.

The scent of ozone was strong, and the hairs rose on his forearms, tingling with static. He gazed upwards, marvelling at lightning that tore the sky as though it were canvas. Thunder rumbled around the limestone hills, crimson in the sombre light.

***

He saw the boy in the distance. A sudden, overwhelming sense of loss constricted his throat. Though the boy was going to tell him what he already knew, his appearance still struck him like a knife in the gut.

Not long ago, on the ninth hour, the clouds had flowed together like drops of mercury swirled in a bowl. A monstrous thunderhead had reared into the heavens, its leaden base spreading to the four horizons like a blanket. There was a moment of calm, of darkness and stillness and absolute quiet. The air thickened, lying like warm molasses over the city. Nothing moved. The wind stilled. Even the dogs were cowed to silence.

He remembered the blinding flash and the thunderclap that left him cringing in fear, its fury echoing around the hills like a blow from the hammer of the gods. Then came the sound, a sound that had chilled him to his core and which he would remember for the rest of his life. A groan. No, a cry. The very earth crying out in anguish with a rumble that shook the ground beneath his feet. It was over. He was gone. Like him, there would never be another.

He listened to the boy, then took a coin from his pocket and handed it to him. The boy took it, smiling, and skipped away. Joseph did not smile back. He had planned for this moment and did not relish what he had to do. All this time he had kept his admiration secret, afraid of the reactions of his friends and peers. Now the time had come to step into the light. He could no longer remain in the shadows and hold his head up high. His heart compelled him to act. He raised his hand, turning it this way and that before his eyes. It trembled. His life was about to change.

***

It was almost dark when they arrived, Joseph leading the way, Nicodemus following behind, struggling under the weight of his load. There was still a crowd. A man caught Joseph's sleeve as he pushed his way through.

"The king is dead," he said, grinning.

Joseph ignored him and shrugged himself free. All around he recognized faces, seeing them for what they were now, gloating, small-minded hypocrites, present only to see that the body was dumped in the criminal burial pits. He stepped forward and presented the centurion with the governor's order.

“I am to take possession of the body.”

"Let me see!" demanded one, outraged, trying to snatch the scroll. The centurion brushed him aside and stepped backwards. Joseph watched the man's scarred face as he read. There was dry blood on his cheek and shoulders. After a moment, he looked up and nodded to Joseph.

"He is yours."

The crowd surged forward.

"He's come to take the body!" yelled one. "He must not take the body!"

Hands grasped Joseph's cloak, pulling him backwards. Nicodemus struck the offending arm. Then he too was buried in the mob.

"Hold them back!" The centurion's voice boomed out. Four soldiers, casting lots at the base of the upright, leapt to their feet, grabbing shields and hastae and taking positions either side of their centurion. Together, they formed a line and beat at the mob with shields and the shafts of their lances.

The crowd was large and when stones began to rain down on their shields, and the infuriated mob surged forwards yet again calling for the body, the centurion summoned the rest of his men. Eight soldiers, busy lowering two other bodies, grabbed their weapons and rushed towards the crowd. One body, lowered half way down from the upright, was abandoned where it hung. It slid to the ground and crumpled face down in the dust, arms outstretched, still nailed to the wood, broken legs buckled and snapped under the weight of the transverse beam.

With order restored, the crowd beaten and bruised into compliance, the soldiers cast ropes and lowered the cross. The centurion called Joseph forward and handed him the scroll.
"He is yours to do with as you see fit. We will see that no man interferes."

Joseph nodded his thanks and knelt down next to the body. He removed first the humiliating sign, throwing it to the side, then the woven crown of spiny Jujube. People around him cursed and spat, but Joseph ignored them. He too had once thought like them. Beside him, Nicodemus unshouldered his load and arranged the contents on the ground. A wooden box, a roll of fine linen, two pots, one of aloe, the other myrrh. He opened the box and set out a bundle of white linen towels, a knife, a razor, clippers and several small vials. He wrapped the bloodied crown in one of the towels and placed it in the box.

A soldier cut through the ropes holding the man's arms to the beam.

“Please, hasn't he been humiliated enough?" said Joseph, as the soldier braced a foot on the beam and took hold of a hand, preparing to tear the wrist free of the nail. "Let me do it." The soldier ignored him, continuing as if Joseph had not spoken. The centurion, watching, picked up a hammer and tapped the soldier's arm.

The soldier cursed under his breath and dropped the hand. He raised the heavy beam onto his knee and beat the nail from behind until the point was flush with the wood, then worked it from above, backwards and forwards until the arm came free.

When the soldier had hammered out the second nail, Joseph gently removed the iron spikes from the shattered wrists and folded the arms across the man's chest. He wiped the dead man's face, cleaning away the blood, tears and dirt. He tidied his hair and beard, combing and trimming to restore an air of dignity, then wrapped the trimmings in the bloodied towel and placed them in the box.

A wound below the ribcage, puncturing deep into the man's chest, seeped with what seemed to be a mixture of both blood and water. He cleaned it as best he could, applying aloe and myrrh, and repeated the process with the broken wrists and feet. Then he bound them with strips of cloth.

Nicodemus had prepared a long strip of linen, twice as long and wide as a man, laying it out on the ground. Together, they lifted the body, Nicodemus taking the hands, Joseph the feet. Nicodemus retched as the man's shoulder came away from the wood leaving strips of flesh and congealed blood stuck to the rough grain. Joseph too closed his eyes, looking away until his own nausea passed.

While the women watched from a distance, they laid him face down on the cloth, his feet at one end, his head in the middle. Nicodemus returned to remove the torn pieces of flesh from the wood and place them in one of the vials. When they were gone, the scavengers would find nothing. He wrapped the vial, together with the four bloodied nails, and dropped them in the box.

As Nicodemus cleaned the wood, Joseph spread the ointments onto the wounds on the man's back and shoulders. He could hardly believe he had survived the scourging, let alone carried the cross up the hill. White bone, chipped vertebrae and ribs, shone through muscle and flesh shredded, by leather and lead. Sickened, he did what he could, then folded down the excess of cloth, covering once and for all his body, and rolled him over onto his back. He stood, dropping Pilate's order into the box, and stepped back to bid farewell to the man he so admired. He would lie in Joseph's own tomb, hewn out of solid rock and located a short distance north across the road to Samaria. No one had yet lain there. It seemed an appropriate resting place.

"Centurion," he said. "We are ready. We will take him now. Thank you."

The centurion nodded. He seemed embarrassed.

"This man was innocent,” he muttered. “I will help you carry him."

The centurion fashioned a litter from hastae and rope and, together with Nicodemus, lifted him. They headed for the path and began to thread their way down with the faithful women of Galilee trailing behind. Joseph followed, bringing up the rear, lingering slightly as his attention fell upon a cloaked figure squatting on a rock beside the track. Man or woman, young or old, in the darkness Joseph could not tell, its face hidden as it was within the shadows of its cloak. As he neared, he saw it toying with something on its palm. An agonising locust, stripped of legs and wings. The figure looked up from its macabre diversion, fixing him with expressionless eyes of no colour he could discern, and smiled.

Though it was not cold, Joseph shivered. He nodded to the figure and hurried on down the slope. He did not look back.

***

A thousand years later the story begins...

in Sins of the Father, by Andy Smith


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