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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Potter's Field, A Short Story


Here is a short story that I wrote based on the Gospel narratives about the night of the Last Supper.

The Potter’s Field

The twelve reclined on the cushions around the small stilted table in the upstairs room on that balmy night. The cloth covering the open window let in a faint breeze. It drifted through the still air, collapsing on and cooling their tepid skin. The sun was just falling behind the horizon line, casting a strawberry glow on the world that panned out below it. Hymns could be heard ringing out in the thin alleyways that made up the city streets; they bounced back and forth off the stone walls, intermixing and sporadically harmonizing, fading in and out of existence.
It was Passover and they had gathered as a whole group to eat together. The entire city was packed for the celebration. There was not an open room in the city and latecomers had to find lodging in the surrounding villages. The room they sat in was nearly silent. The outside noise knitted a quiet milieu to the uncertainty about the future that was on all their minds. There was a small water basin and a soaking cloth sitting just a few feet from the table that had been used to wash the feet of the twelve, even the one who would betray. They briefly talked here and there among themselves of the past few weeks. The room smelt thick of perfume and oil.
The occasional cup being set on the table or the sound of someone sipping a drink were all that was heard. Intermittently a cough or a few words spoken in hushed tones to one another would chime out. Some ate more than others. Peter and John both quietly teased their food. They had no appetite that night. They knew something was wrong. They felt the apprehension that boiled in the room. They all did. John crumbled the unleavened bread between his fingers while Peter swished the wine around in his cup. Judas sat at the seat of honor. His feet, although washed, still felt grimy. He scratched at them. Judas looked around at the others. His shoulders slouched from the weight of the day and the stress of the impending decision. He wondered what made the rest so obedient. He wondered how they could love the teacher so much. He felt exiled. Alienated.
Finally their teacher spoke. He started quietly as he rose to his feet.
                “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” His voice broke a little toward the end.
Judas noticed the hesitation. It was the “suffer” that stuck with him. It stung. How could one single word foretell so much? He forced himself to deposit it away in memory, to ignore it for now. Nothing could be changed. It was already done. Everything was already neatly arranged. His thirty silver coins lay buried under a small shrub just outside of town. He only needed Jesus to slip up; to make one mistake, to tell one lie, to commit even the smallest sin. Then he would have him. Judas had begun to lose hope that it would ever happen. He felt the heavy burden of betraying an innocent man.
Judas thought back to the three years he had spent with Jesus. The things he had seen. The words Jesus spoke that he could never understand. “Why was this man such a fool? If he is the messiah why doesn’t he take over like he is destined to?” Judas was expecting his messiah to be something other than what Jesus was willing to be. “Is this man really the savior of Israel?”
“For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” Jesus’ palms were sweaty from the heat. He spoke slowly, the strong tone returning once again to his words. “You do not realize what I am doing but later you will understand. Unless I wash you, you have no part with me. A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean.” Jesus gazed around the room. His eyes skipped over Judas. He did not bring himself to look into those eyes just yet. “And you are clean, though not every one of you. You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘Lord’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” He walked around them. Gently touching their shoulders. Showing his adoration and love. His eyes gleamed. Judas felt the weight of Jesus’ hand on his shoulder when it was his turn in the circle. It seemed as if it stayed on his longer than any of the other eleven. Jesus paused behind him and placed one hand on each of Judas’ shoulders. They were warm. Even on this hot night, they still felt warmer than all else in the room.
The cloth in the window veiled the small tinge of light left from the setting sun. They ate by the glow of the few lanterns hanging from the rafters of the room. A handful of small candles littered the table. Incense smoke spiraled up to the ceiling in thick swirls of gray odor.
Jesus seemed unsettled. “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.” His words sliced the air, pulsating in their ears. Each syllable resonated with shrill displeasure but were free of hate. They almost seem to pity and grieve. They pressed on the hearts of all who heard. The breeze that had bathed them was now of no importance. They felt no heat, nor any cold. Their toes were numb while their chests burned. In their hearts they wondered whom Jesus was speaking of. No one noticed the final beam of light peeking out from the skyline vanish and submit to the darkness, concluding the sun’s time in the heavens. It was in its resting place for the night. 
                One by one they asked the Rabbi, “Surely not I?”
                Jesus swallowed a sip of wine to moisten his lips and appease his scratchy throat. He tightened his hands slightly then released them. “I am not referring to all of you. I know those I have chosen.” His eyes surveyed the room of expectant eyes.
                Judas gazed down at the table, his fingers tapping quietly. He didn’t blink. He knew it was coming. He tried not to think about it but he knew it would soon be known. He only wondered if Jesus would announce it to the other eleven. Surely he would be ostracized. He doubted they would still receive him in love. He wondered if they would believe him. He knew he wouldn’t if he were them. “But Jesus can not be the one!” He breathed erratically.
                John and Peter, sitting to the left of Jesus, were still in wonder.
                “Ask him which one he means,” Peter mumbled to John.
                John leaned toward Jesus and in hushed anguish he whispered, “Lord, who is it?”
Jesus, still being watched by the others, continued on with his thought. “But this is to fulfill the scripture. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him.” With that Jesus mustered the strength to confront his betrayer with his sharp stare. Christ’s eyes fell on Judas sitting hunched over next to him. His eyes still fixed in a glare on the table but yet looking at nothing in particular. His jaw clenched sending pulsating ripples across his jaw line. His face was nearly desolate of color. Only a soft green veiled his cheeks. He couldn’t blink. His eyes burned. His skin pulled tightly over the skull. Judas’ lower lip trembled and every inch of him was in pain.
“But woe to the man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born...” Judas’ eyes shot up from the table to meet Jesus’ fixed stare. His eyes spoke his thoughts to Judas. “Yes, it is you.” For the first time Judas came to the complete realization of what he was actually about to do. His body stopped moving. For that instant, time stopped progressing and all he knew was fear and self-loathing. His heart minced in his chest, almost interrupting his lungs from breathing. A violent hollowness weighed down his stomach.
                Jesus stood and took the bread. He broke it and handed out small pieces to the twelve. He spoke a prayer of blessing over it then spoke. “This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” He signaled for them to all consume what he had given them and they all ate the bread slowly, unsure of what exactly was meant by his words. Judas choked down his piece with his eyes shut tight. He couldn’t bring himself to look anyone in the face. His mouth was dry and the bread, still rough, scratched at his throat. His skin was crawling. He felt his clothes rubbing on his skin.
Jesus then grasped his cup of wine, blessed it and spoke. “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many. I tell you the truth; I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God. Do this in remembrance of me.” They all drank together.
                Judas felt the wine burn in his chest as it passed through him. His hands quivered as he gently replaced his cup on the wooden tabletop. He gnashed his teeth.
 Jesus said a brief prayer and the others began to resume their dinner, humming about what he had just revealed to them. Jesus let them speak. He was done talking for the night. He reached for a piece of bread and dipped it into the dish. At that same moment Judas dipped his piece in as well. Their eyes connected. Judas was filled with fear and rage. His nostrils flared. His mind reeled and then in a flash, the words of the past prophets came pouring into his mind. A psalm he had read only nights before came barreling through his consciousness. His lips mouthed the words. Only the occasional hint of a syllable could be heard through his vaporous breaths of recollection. “Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.” Judas knew he was that prophecy fulfilled. His body felt cold and stiff as Jesus sat still peering back at him. The breeze brushed a strand of hair across Jesus’ face. Judas’ heart was filled with the purest hate. His spirit felt hot within his mind. He threw his bread down and left his place at the table to go sit on the windowsill. He peered up at the stars that now flickered in the desert sky. The cloth from the window lay upon him like a burial shroud. It separated him from the rest of room and muffled the noise from the others.
 The room was filled with prayer, some started to sing a Passover hymn. As their voices rose into the still night air, Jesus walked and kneeled beside Judas in the corner window. He pulled back the mantle and took both of Judas’ hands, a tear falling down his cheek. Jesus looked into his eyes for a moment. He felt the evil in Judas saturating in his skin, even out through his fingers tips. Just as Judas was about to mock an apology, Jesus spoke.
“What you are about to do,” he moved his eyes from floor up to Judas’ eyes with only a blink to fill the time, “do it quickly.” Christ’s heart welled up with sorrow. It weighed heavy inside of him. For a moment their glares locked. Jesus flashed his glace back and forth from eye to eye.
Judas’ mouth gaped. His eyes switched back and forth over Jesus’. His toes curled and he tore his hands away from Jesus and stormed out of the room, wiping the unbearable tears from his eyes. His sandals scuffled down the wooden steps and through the empty, moonlit street.
Judas wandered along the paths of Jerusalem that night. He walked the same streets over and over. No direction, no ambition, just aimless wandering. He stopped to pray occasionally in a peaceful, secluded corner, or even as he walked, shouting angry words to the heavens. He tore at his clothes in confusion. Finally he found himself in front of the temple. He stood in turmoil for what must have been ten minutes. Just staring at the entrance to the outer courts. He sighed and placed one foot on the bottom step then, as though being pulled inside, he drug his feet through the entryway. Judas found his way to the chief priests who were once again delighted to see him. They had been waiting for his final report.
Judas did not sleep all night. He paced the temple and the alleyways in deep concentration. His feet were bleeding and sore. His scalp was sensitive from pulling at his hair. Finally his soul submitted. He would do what he had started long ago. He would hand over his own friend.  He arranged with the soldiers that whomever he would kiss first that morning would be the man they must arrest.
The closing words of a prayer lingered on Jesus’ lips that morning when Judas entered the garden of Gethsemane. The other eleven watched in curiosity. They wondered why Judas was being escorted by a small handful of armed temple guards. Judas walked slowly to Jesus and paused just inches in front of him. He leaned toward Jesus, kissed him on the cheek and gathered enough strength to mutter a few words. His lips barely moved. With a hushed tone he spoke. “Greetings Rabbi.” Judas could not look him in the face.
Jesus pulled his cheek away from Judas’ lips. “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”
Just then the disciples understood and drew their swords. “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” Before Jesus could answer, one did, amputating one of the ears of the servant of the high priest. Before any more blows could be thrown Jesus stepped in and shouted, “No more of this!” All obeyed without hesitation, even the Roman guards. Their hands sat stagnant by their sides as Jesus walked over to the servant lying screaming on the ground. The grass tickled his feet. He knelt down by the weeping man and laid his hand on his shoulder. Jesus touched the man’s ear and it was healed instantly. The man turned his face to toward the sky, up toward Jesus. He noticed a small, loving smile gleaming on Jesus’ lips; His eyes full of piercing beauty. Then the expression fell away to be replaced by that of dismay as Jesus slowly rose to turn and face the soldiers.
“Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? Everyday I was with you in the temple courts and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour – when darkness reigns – but the scriptures must be fulfilled.” He walked to the guards to be arrested. But he saw them beginning to arrest the others with him in the garden and spoke out once more. “Who is it that you want? I told you that I am he. If you are looking for me then let these men go.”
Judas knew that at one point that Jesus had protected him as he did now with the others. He had always been safe. His heart was once again burdened. He had left the stronghold that once covered his head. “Of whom shall I be afraid?”
As Jesus was leaving the garden he looked to Peter, who still had his sword drawn. “Put your sword away. Shall I not drink the cup my Father has given me?” And with that he was escorted away.
The twelve stood reunited again in the garden. Judus’ head hung to his shoulder, looking down at his feet. His stomach anguished inside of him as though splitting apart, dashed on a sheer cliff. His toes looked dingy and cracked. He suffered the glares of the others. He felt their rage illuminating the entire garden. His heart beat in syncopated rhythm. Judas turned and followed the procession down the hill and back into the city.
Early the next morning there was a meeting of the priests and the elders of the people. They discussed the fate of the one they had arrested, the one who called himself Jesus. They found him guilty of claiming to be king. Only Caesar could be called king, so they knew this would bring Jesus the death penalty. The counsel had Jesus bound and led away to appear before Governor Pilate. Judas watched from the temple courts. He heard the plans. He knew Jesus would be flogged and crucified.
Judas knelt and let his tears fall slowly to the floor. His spirit of hate left him. “What have I done? Even if he is not the messiah, what crime did he commit?” He ran to the chief priest and held out the thirty pieces of silver.
Softly, with remorse in his voice he spoke. “I have sinned. For I have betrayed innocent blood.”
“What is that to us?” They replied. “That is your responsibility.”
Judas looked at them horrified. He wondered how men who were considered to be so pure could commit such a horrible atrocity. His hand, in an instantaneous impulse, threw the silver at the nearest elder. The coins sprinkled across the room, clanging against the polished tile floors. Judas rushed out of the room. He drifted the streets and alleys of the city in a haze of turmoil. He walked with a drunken stagger. He was disoriented and lost.
Just outside the city he found a small potter’s field with a decrepit, twisted tree in an isolated corner. The dust from the field, once wet on his face from his tears, now felt hard and snapped when any wrinkle would emerge on his cheek. The sun blistered overhead. He had found a short rope by the small hut of the man who must have owned the field.
The tree sat over a small bank in the hill. All around the base were small ginger colored flowers. A single branch jetted out over the gully. Judas crawled out on the limb and tied one end of the rope a few feet out from the trunk. His hands trembled as he fastened the other end around his neck. His feet dangled as he sat on the limb. This would be his last few minutes. He sat in awe of the creation that panned out before him. One flower had made its way up the tree and sat beside him. It was almost red. It hinted that a soft breeze was blowing in. Its petals, too small to sway, merely twitched in the wind. The vast dusty plain crept up to the city walls off in the distance. The low hills rolled across the horizon and enclosed all that he could see.
Then his eyes fell upon them; faintly at first. He could barely distinguish them but there they were. Just detached from the furthest point of the city walls he could see them. A row of faint black crosses standing out in contrast against the russet hills. There were three that Judas could see. Two of them were already filled. The other was only the vertical trunk. It was missing its cross bar that would hold the victim up while he suffered.
Judas closed his eyes for the last time then looked up toward the gray open sky. Tasting the bitterness in his mouth, he let out a deep wheeze then let himself drop from the limb.
The sun rose with scorching heat and withered the plant. Its blossom fell and its beauty was destroyed. But Judas’ eyes never closed. They just peered aimlessly in the sun toward that single empty cross in the distance.

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