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.
From The Choreographer, Sixteen Rivers Press (San Francisco), 2013.
Gerald Fleming is the author of The Choreographer (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2013), Night of Pure Breathing (Hanging Loose Press, 2011), and Swimmer Climbing onto Shore (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2005). He lives in California.