Joel was asleep. He lay on the hard ground on his back, arms spread wide with palms extended, feet crossed at the ankles. His bare, dirty chest quivered. Each breath rasped.
Joel dreamed and talked in his sleep.
“Wait,” he murmured. “Don’t go…” Images flashed under his eyelids as the words tumbled from his mouth.
He coughed and sucked in a cloud of dusty air. His eyes squinted open. All was dark and unmoving. A moment of peace.
It was so real. He wanted to cry, but hadn’t the energy. The ground was already salty with the tears of the previous day.
He was isolated in the prison cell. But he was not beyond the reach of his master.
* * *
Joel closed his eyes, and a new dream awoke in his mind.
The scene opened on a marketplace in the outskirts of a rugged Israelite village. Thin, winding paths cut through thatched and mud-caked roofs. The paths jostled with people, all climbing over each other, all shouting and guffawing as they bartered for the items they desired.
On the very edge of the marketplace crouched Joel, stooping on a large rock placed in the middle of the main path. He narrowed his eyes, rubbed his hands together, and smacked his lips.
“Who will it be today?” he said to himself.
He looked into the crowd and magnified the faces of various sellers at stalls all across the marketplace. There were older men with graying beards, younger men with black beards, and younger men still whose naked chins bespoke the vulnerability of their youth.
“Him,” whispered Joel. As he focused on his target at the far end of the marketplace, the actual word “him” trickled off his tongue and settled in the dust on the ground.
With a short hop, Joel landed on the word, which burst into smoke and dissipated. He crouched lower than the rock, low enough that his fingertips touched the dirt. Then he crept forward on all fours, feeling his way toward an opening in the crowd until it enveloped him and his slinking body.
Now within the crowd, he stayed as low as possible. He slipped under legs and around knees, using ankles and sandal straps to propel himself forward. Slithering, weaving, grasping, and stretching, he moved, foot by foot, yard by yard, like a vine spreading and finding the route of least resistance. It was a slow and deliberate process. There was plenty of time. The only obstacles were the roving eyes of the sentinels.
The sentinels were the guardians of the marketplace. They were twice as large as grown men, plated head-to-toe in armor of silver and bronze, with eyes that glowed like fiery furnaces. They marched in place on the top of the roof of every other house, sending beams of light from their eyes that ran up and down the lengths of the paths from their perch. Above the noise of the crowd droned the steady beat of their marching.
THUMP-THUMP THUMP-THUMP THUMP-THUMP THUMP-THUMP
Joel’s methodical movements went unnoticed by the sentinels. He kept so low to the ground under the canopy of the crowd that the light from the sentinels’ eyes rarely reached him. He could sense he was getting closer to his victim. Hunger sent shock waves from the pit of his stomach. His arms wriggled with the waves even as his hands remained steady.
“Soon,” growled Joel. “Yes…there it is.”
The final few lengths of the forest of legs flashed by. A reddish brown hut rose up from the ground. The air around the hut shimmered with the heat of a kiln that made the hut seem to pulse and glow with energy. Along with the heat wafted the aroma of a bakery.
Before Joel reached the end of the crowd, he collected himself and halted. He pulled his arms inward to his knees and fixed his hands onto his thighs. Then, like a stalk of grass creeping up from the earth, he rose inch by inch until he was fully erect and at last one of the crowd. Without hunching over, he was tall—a good head above most people—and now, with no cover, he forced his way into the mob that surrounded the baker’s stall.
Sweat fell down Joel’s brow and mixed with the drool that seeped from his lower lip. He was now within the full gaze of the sentinels. His heart made itself known and began to beat in double rhythm to the sentinels’ marching, as the flashing light from their eyes accentuated the heat pulsing from the kiln.
Joel pried his hands between two people and wrenched them apart. Forcing his way through, he found another pair, and ripped through them, as well. The mob of people never seemed to end, and he kept ripping and clawing, the heat growing ever hotter, until finally, overcome with exhaustion and frustration, he reached the front of the stall. There the item of his desire lay, shimmering and golden, on the counter.
“Five drachmas!” said the man behind the counter, demanding the ridiculous amount of five days’ wages.
Joel moved his eyes from the loaf of bread to the man. As he stared at him, the man transformed into the likeness of a cowering adolescent.
“That one,” said Joel, pointing inside the hut.
Through the door a fresh loaf sat cooling on a table.
“That one’s not ready,” said the youth. “You can buy this one.”
“That one,” pointed Joel. “It’s bigger.”
“They’re—they’re the same size,” stuttered the boy. “I assure you, this one’s just as fresh, and—”
“Ten drachmas! NOW!”
The boy shuddered, nodded, and turned to retrieve the bread.
As soon as the boy was inside, Joel snatched the loaf sitting on the counter and turned to bolt away. There were only a few people to his left between him and freedom. Tucking the scalding bread under his right arm, he plowed forward straight over them and down the open path toward a small archway that marked the edge of the village.
Two pairs of feet landed on the ground behind Joel. Their impact shook the ground and sent two fissures that raced past Joel’s feet on his left and right, tearing the very foundation of the earth apart. Right in front of the archway the fissures united and blocked Joel’s path. The chasm created by the two fissures grew wider and wider.
Without hesitation, Joel sprinted onward and leapt over the chasm, ducking his head and tumbling under the falling archway of the village, which grazed his ankles and collapsed backward into the abyss.
Joel scrambled forward on his knees, the bread still burning under his arm, and turned to look back at the village.
The two sentinels who had caused the earthquake were now galloping toward Joel on the other side of the chasm. They both brandished spears in their right hands which were raised high above their shoulders. With each step, the spears elongated in their hands until they grew to be seven times their initial length.
Joel frantically backed away, eyes locked onto the spears, ready to dodge and prevent being impaled in the dust.
Right before the sentinels reached the chasm, they grabbed hold of their spears with both hands and drove them into the ground. Bending the spears backward as leverage, they jumped and flung themselves somersaulting through the air, sailing over Joel’s head, and landing behind him. The force of their impact sent Joel sprawling forward onto his stomach.
The dust settled. The earth grew still.
Joel felt the burning of the bread held firmly in his gut, as well as the burning of the glare of the sentinels’ eyes on his back. He had nowhere to run.
“Rise to your feet, thief,” said one of the sentinels.
Joel lay still. His mind was racing faster than he was running previously.
“Your penalty will be greater if you do not obey,” said the other sentinel.
The thief did not move.
“That bread does not last,” said the first sentinel. “It is not worth dying for. Now rise, and be punished for your sin.”
After this word, the sentinels marched toward Joel to arrest him.
In a flash, Joel spun and jumped to his feet. With a rage fueled by hunger and despair, he grasped the loaf of bread like a large rock and charged at the sentinels.
The fight that followed was an indistinguishable frenzy of flailing arms, elbows, and legs. Any time Joel was grappled, he screamed and wrenched himself free, only to spin and scratch for a few moments before feeling a pair of iron hands grasp him once again.
After the fight wore on for an eternity, a fist pounded Joel in the chest and sent him hurtling onto his back and sliding toward the edge of the chasm. In the impact, the bread slipped from Joel’s fingers, hovered in the air, and fell down and away over the cliff.
Joel’s mouth opened but he couldn’t speak. He arched his neck and saw one of the sentinels step towards him.
The sentinel straddled Joel’s waist with his feet and reached out his hand to grasp Joel’s neck.
In an impulse, Joel ducked forward under the sentinel’s legs, pressed his shoulders to the sentinel’s thighs, and wrenched himself upward and back.
Joel twisted his head and saw the sentinel fly out over the chasm. It fell and hit the side wall of the cliff, its armor and body shattering like glass.
As Joel turned his head back to face the other sentinel, a fist flashed in front of his eyes.
In his prison cell, Joel’s head jolted forward then smacked back against the hard floor. He felt a real tingling of pain course down his neck.
After a second, he lifted his hand and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He twinged and felt another course of pain spread across his face. Yes, it was actually broken. From the punch of a Roman soldier two days before.
* * *
Joel fell asleep and opened up another dream landscape.
It was bright. The sun hung large as it lit up the rolling brown hills, all grass withered with lack of rain. The hills ran to the edge of a large lake as big as a sea. The shore had receded to reveal rocks and boulders and dried up fish skeletons.
Coming up to the shore was a small boat with a group of men sweating at the oars. They navigated the boat until the water was shallow, then everyone got out and dragged the boat toward the least rocky spot that they could find.
Down the shoreline, cresting over the farthest hill, came a sudden swarm of people. They walked unnaturally fast. Their clothes were rags, and their faces were a mix of wonder, depression, hope, curiosity, and greed.
As Joel watched the scene unfold from above, he also became one of the crowd. He pushed and jostled against the moving mass. Like everyone else, he wanted to get there first.
Before the boat was ashore, the people had converged and completely covered the shore and the hills. There was nowhere for the boat or the group of men to go.
One of the men motioned to the others to retreat and anchor the boat a stone’s throw from the crowd. Then all of the men but the leader sat down in the boat as the leader stood to address the crowd.
Every person in the crowd, Joel included, saw the leader look directly at them. Time froze under his gaze. He was kind and stern and demanded attention.
The leader’s name was Teacher. He knew all there was to know about humanity and the world and everything in it. His word was truth and his voice was the mystery and power of the wind, penetrating heart, mind, and soul. His breath swirled and flowed and rested in each hearer’s lungs. A permanent imprint of life formed on the inside of every hearer’s body.
Joel felt no heat, no hunger, no thirst during Teacher’s lecture. Everyone around him would say the same. Truly there was no need for these minor necessities when under the grasp of Teacher’s word.
Time, times, and half a time passed, or perhaps stayed the same. It was then, at some point that could be called the future, that Teacher closed his mouth and became silent.
It was as if gravity reversed and all of the air flew away into the sky, sucking the life away that was just given to each person.
A woman screamed in the crowd right next to Joel. He turned and saw an emaciated face, with skin so dry that it was peeling and falling off like scales. The woman raised her arms as her eyes rolled back into her head.
“WATER!” she wailed. “BREAD! I’m dying, Teacher, can’t you see I’m DYING!”
Her scream cascaded over the crowd, with waves upon waves of people picking up the tune and belting out their screeching voices as their bodies withered to the bone.
The dream turned into a nightmare. Joel tried to scream, but his throat was too dry to make any sound. His arms squeaked in their sockets as he raised his hands toward the heavens.
A thick, dark, maroon liquid spread low over the crowd and blocked out the sun. It seemed to be full of specks of black matter that drifted inside and all around the surface. The tendrils of the liquid flowed and joined each other on the edges, reaching to the horizon, fully masking the area in a quivering tent of darkness.
“WE’RE DEAD!” wailed the woman and so many others. “FOREVER THIRSTY! FOREVER HUNGRY! FOREVER—”
A burst of light flashed into being and silenced the noise. It came from the shore. It was Teacher.
His body shone like white-hot iron. Above his head rose five swirling bands of liquid. Two of the bands were coming from his ankles; two were coming from his wrists; the last was coming from his left side. The liquid was his blood.
Joel looked up, and as his eyes adjusted, the tent of blood transformed into the likeness of the night sky. The specks of matter that were floating about became still and flickered aglow into twinkling stars. A familiar trio of stars shimmering brightly and formed a large triangle above the horizon. From one of these stars was drawn a thin cross that shimmered in blue.
As Joel focused on the cross, the whole sky began to shake, and in a moment began to boil, all of the stars breaking from their places and rattling together in a constant frenzy of lights. Then, the sky fell. It all came at once, not like rain, but like a gigantic drop of cosmic oil. The universe hit the ground and shook the earth, all stars jumping like sparks as the weight settled in every open crack of space that wasn’t taken up by a human body.
Joel felt his heart beating in his chest. Like everyone else, he was holding his breath. Soon the cleansing would be over and he could breath again.
“Do you still not understand?”
Teacher’s voice echoed in his blood. There was no response.
“I ask again. Do you still not understand?”
Joel shook his head.
“You shall see soon enough.”
Joel’s mouth was opened.
The entire expanse swirled like a whirlpool into Joel’s throat. His arms and legs stretched rigid as his body floated up and hung above the ground. He grew larger and larger, brighter and brighter, swelling up until nothing could be seen but his brilliant white form. And then—
The door to Joel’s prison cell flew open and ricocheted off of the wall.
Joel coughed and blinked his eyes repeatedly, raising his hand to shield his eyes from the light of a lantern.
“It’s time,” said a Roman soldier, who reached down and grabbed Joel by the forearm and forced him to his feet.
Groggy and weak, Joel stumbled and was caught by the free arm of the other soldier with the lantern. “I’m…ready,” he mumbled.
“Right,” said the soldiers in unison. Then, taking one of Joel’s arms in each hand, they exited the cell and down a dark hallway.
* * *
There he was.
In the middle of the courtyard, bound and covered with lacerations, was Teacher. According to the noise of the crowd, he had just been sentenced to crucifixion.
Joel and another criminal named Boaz were led out of the prison and into the courtyard behind Teacher. They went nearly unnoticed, as the whole crowd was jeering and spitting at the one they had condemned.
Three wooden crosses appeared. Two Roman soldiers apiece took each cross and lifted them onto the backs of Joel, Boaz, and Teacher.
Joel staggered under the weight and fell to his knees.
“Rise, murderer!” shouted a soldier to Joel’s left who lashed him with a whip.
Joel coughed and grimaced in pain, recognizing the soldier’s voice. He tried to rise and balance the interlacing beams of wood on his back, but fell to his knees again.
“You killed my friend!” shouted the soldier, whipping Joel again. “Over a stupid piece of bread! Now rise, you scum!”
Joel groaned and managed to get to his feet. Two soldiers tied the cross with ropes to his arms and chest.
After a few moments, Joel trudged out of the courtyard behind the others toward Golgotha, the ominous hill resembling a skull, where they were to be executed.
Teacher led the procession amid a rain of ridicule and spite that poured out of the callous heart of the crowd. Before he reached the bottom of the hill, Teacher fell, too weak to be able to carry the cross any more. One of the leading soldiers, in an act of pity and haste, grabbed a young man who was on the path and forced him to carry Teacher’s cross. In this way the procession continued to the middle of the hill and halted within a circle of rocks which looked like teeth poised to consume the criminals.
With grotesque efficiency and speed, a group of soldiers untied the cross from Joel, planted it in the ground, and crucified him. Then they did the same with Boaz on Joel’s left, and lastly with Teacher in the middle.
After Teacher was crucified, he looked down at all of the people assembled, then closed his eyes.
His mind foggy with pain and exhaustion, Joel arched his neck to look at his master. He opened his mouth and choked, air coming in and out of his lungs in spurts. After a few attempts, he contorted his back and chest to try to speak.
“Jesus,” he breathed. “Jesus…”
Teacher, Jesus, turned his head and looked at Joel. Even in the pain of crucifixion, his gaze was still full of love and power.
“Jesus,” Joel gasped. “You are giving all of you. Your teaching—your words—and now—your body and blood. All of you…just like you showed me…all of you…”
Jesus closed his eyes, reopened them, and nodded.
“I understand, Lord,” said Joel. “I understand. Thank you, Lord.”
On the other side, Boaz was feeling death’s grip closing on his body and was struggling with his own understanding of Jesus. He had heard stories about this “Teacher”, this so-called “King of the Jews”, and in his wretched pain he joined the insults of the soldiers and rulers watching.
“Aren’t you the Christ? Haven’t you raised others from the dead and cured every disease imaginable? In comparison these nails are nothing! Destroy these crosses and show us your power! Save yourself and us!”
Before Teacher could reply, Joel summoned the last of his strength and yelled back at Boaz in rebuke.
“’Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘Since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’
Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’” (Luke 23: 40-43).