[This post was first published in April 2014.]
Death hangs heavy in the air. I can smell it, I can feel its oppressive weight, I can taste its cloying, bitter taste in my throat. At this moment, I can see and feel little else; death is everything and everywhere.
The night has seemed to last forever, the agony of regret my only companion. Now, from the shadowy corner where I sit, my knees drawn up to my chest and my head down, I hear stirrings of life as people begin to wake and prepare to go about a new day. The city cares nothing for yesterday or for my sorrow; it presses ahead, resolute and impassive. Life goes on, but not for me. Death is the place I now inhabit.
No. I try to keep my mind wrapped in the relative safety of today, where all is dark and numb. Yet at the same time some awful compulsion drives me to relive those terrible hours, the way that a high, exposed cliff dares you to peer over the edge, knowing you could plunge to your doom but unable to resist the magnetic draw of the yawning chasm beneath.
How could so much come to pass in one day? And how could so much – so many hopes, dreams and expectations – be undone in a few short hours? My mind screams that it can’t be true, there must be some mistake, you need to wake up and maybe then this nightmare will end. And yet, in some dark corner of my consciousness, another voice taunts, You should have known this was coming. It was clear enough for those who had eyes to see and ears to hear. But I only saw and heard what I wanted to; even when the inevitable truth was staring me in the face, I would not, could not let myself see it. And now… now everything lies in ruins, every flicker of hope and light snuffed out by the cold hand of Death. I can almost hear him cackling faintly, somewhere off in the gloom beyond the edge of sight, amused that anyone could think this might end any other way, that anyone could forget that he always has the final say.
I try to recall the exact sequence of events, to work out precisely at what point it all began to unravel and come apart. But I cannot let myself get too close to yesterday, not yet. Yesterday is a raw, red mass of emotion whose heat, like an angry fire, keeps me from getting too close. From time to time, splinters of memory flash unbidden across my consciousness: the clang of steel and the clink of chains in the garden; panic rising in my chest as the baying mob demands blood; disbelief and confusion as someone tells me the final sentence has been passed. Even though some part of me knows these must be myrecollections, that I can only be seeing this because I was there, I do not want to believe what my mind is telling me. I want to believe that this is all a dream or something that someone else experienced, somewhere far away from here.
And beneath it all – beneath the anger, the fear, the gut-wrenching disbelief – lies something darker still, something I would prefer to bury and ignore but which gnaws insistently at the darkest corner of my soul: shame. I can feel the sick weight of it in my stomach. Shame that I, who had proudly considered myself one of his “inner circle”, could only cower at the edge of the crowd as his fate was sealed. Shame that, after all my grandiose words and promises, I failed him at the last. I am ashamed not just of what I have done; I am ashamed to the very core of my being, ashamed of what I am, of what I have shown myself to be.
I grit my teeth and fight off a wave of nausea as my misery threatens to engulf me. And, here in my aloneness, I am confronted with the dreadful truth. When all is said and done and the test of circumstance has revealed my true colours, this is what I am, the one thing I was convinced I would never be: a coward. Even when he told me two sunsets ago that before the dawn I would claim never to have known him, I looked him in the eye and swore I’d sooner die than deny him. I feel bile rise in my throat at the memory; it seems an eternity ago, yet the moment lives with me and torments me, relentlessly reminding me of the verdict of my own actions. Liar, coward, deserter: these words are too good for me.
It should have been me on trial, guilty as charged, with no possible line of defence. I should have been strung up in his place, exposed for what I really am. But instead they put an innocent man to death and now I have to live with my shame – the shame of knowing that through my inaction and my cowardice, I murdered him. It might as well have been me pounding the nails into his wrists.
I screw my eyes tight shut and try to picture myself hanging on that cross, to imagine the searing pain of the nails and the scorn of the crowd. But instead all I can see is his face, broken and streaked with blood, as he looks across that desolate hillside and somehow his eyes find mine. I want to look away, to run from my own wretchedness, but the clarity of his gaze, even in death, holds me. Suddenly, he heaves himself forwards and upwards, his eyes wide as he strains against the ropes and the nails as though trying to reach me, to close the gap that separates us; I wince at the exertion, but still I cannot look away. And then, in a final, superhuman effort, he gathers his breath, and with his eyes still locked onto mine, he half whispers and half shouts three words that will haunt me forever: “It is finished!”
I cannot bring myself to think of tomorrow. All hope, faith and possibility is gone, as though when he died yesterday, everything died with him. And I am gone too. The person I thought I was, who laughed and prayed and made promises and dared to believe in a better future – that person is dead, might as well be in the tomb, sealed away behind a stone which, once in place, will never again be moved.
[ Image: Daniela Munoz-Santos ]