Come Down From Your Heights – A.L. Lowe
He had been wrestling with the nails all day.
Slowly he would bring the left palm forward a few centimeters. The space between the wood and the head of the nail would only allow for the slight distance, but over the course of the last three days those centimeters seemed mammoth. Palm pressed forward, he would jiggle it, as if the movement would loosen the nail incrementally. It may have been the position of the sun, or the unrelenting brightness in his eyes, but it seemed as though the nails had in fact moved ever so slightly.
“Ah, the saint. Can’t wait any longer, can you?” Remy asked, observing J.’s battle.
Remy, whose execution had been two days before J.’s, had retained a remarkably bitter edge. After their first several hours together, J. had reflected that Remy’s anger did not act corrosively, but rather as a preservative, pickling him against the heat, the shit smell beneath them, the hate and the pity of the passersby below. In his darker moments, he wondered if the Romans weren’t punishing Remy for a crime so much as to be free from his incessant commentary.
“Truly, Remy, you will be with me in paradise this night.”
“Promises, promises. Didn’t you tell me that the first day? And yet we hang.”
“The night takes longer to come than I thought.”
“So we’re talking about some metaphysical night? Is your paradise so ephemeral too? I’d be happy for someone to put a basket over my head so I could sleep.”
Could they sleep, they would. Even when the damp dark lay across them, the forced pose kept them from sleeping. Despite the appearance of hanging, they could not rest their weight, but had instead to keep pressing backwards against wood, using the nail in the foot to push back the heel, which kept the legs and abdomen constantly working.
The first day, J. had dry-heaved vinegar down his bare chest. In a delirium, he imagined that the stomach acid could burn through his skin, eating away at the flesh, mangling the torso so that tension between the upper and lower halves of his body would finally be relieved. Perhaps the nails would be dissolved. How the acid would travel from his chin and chest to his palms was unimportant; what mattered was that the thought sustained him, held his attention against the sun and Remy’s constant chiding.
“Vultures,” said Remy. “Glad someone thinks we are dead.”
J didn’t stir. His mind was bent towards the nails, envisioning them slipping out as if driven from the other side. What would that force be? It wasn’t important. He could see a girl, the one who had been watching the first day, her eyes squinting against the sun. He had gazed back at her, imagining them mystically connected, because although she was free to move, she stood perfectly still. He took her stillness as homage to him. But she had begun laughing when friends joined her. And she had laughed still more when, after a spasm made his arm jerk and the ligaments in his hands tore, he had pissed. Not drizzling down little rivers, but a shooting stream, a streak of hot water, launching several feet out. (“I clap for you, good man…” Remy had said, waving the fingers of his trapped palms.)
Remy was trying to draw him back from his reverie, saying something about vultures and judgment, but J. shut his eyes and focused on the image emerging in his mind. Her pinched face would be the first to detect the movement. The sunlight barely glinting off the nail would catch her attention from where she would be reclining on a blanket with friends. She would sit up casually, reaching forward for a fig, but keeping her eyes on his left hand. Drawn by invisible forces, gaining momentum in the spin, the nail would twirl out into the air, hover for a fraction of a second, and fall. She would rise, the fig forgotten in her hand.
“Come down from your heights, savior. Who will you save from the inside of your head?” Remy always became louder when he expected he was being ignored. “Do you notice the vultures? Perhaps you have pissed someone off.”
J concentrated on his vision of himself.
His own head would rise slowly, and turn to look at the hand now free from the cross. The right hand would now be released as well and he would fall toward the ground. She would cry out and take a few steps forward. Everyone lounging and walking, eating and talking across the great field that spread beneath the hill would pause, watching. He would raise his eyes, looking up from his hands and knees. He would start to stand to a collectively held breath. And then suddenly, a foot would slip in the feces, he would crash back down, and the girl would cry out despite herself, darting forward. She would run up to him and then hesitate. His eyes would rise to meet hers.
J sighed and let go of the vision reluctantly. What next, anyway? He had the absurd thought that she would hand him the fig, or that they would lie down in the shit together, but feeling the inappropriateness of these scenes, and without the means to give himself fully to the dream, he would start again, at the beginning, perhaps focusing on a curl lying along her neck, at the way she would notice a shift in the wind just before the nails came out.
“You have competition,” interceded Remy.
Remy laughed at the suddenness of J.’s shift from his own dream world to the construction of a third cross to the right of them.
“Threatened much? Nothing wrong with a little competition amongst martyrs.”
“Perhaps he’s a criminal and not a martyr at all.”
“No — see how he stands? The guilty fidget.”
“You were insecure. Thought no one had come for your grand moment.”
They fell silent, watching. The third man was still, standing beside the guards as other soldiers hammered the wood into place. J. found himself reflecting on the man’s height, wondering who was taller.
“He has no idea,” murmured Remy, and for a moment both men unwillingly thought on the hour they were put up. J. remembered vaguely those seconds before the nails were driven in. It seemed unfair, on reflection, that the memory of standing seemed blurry now. A whole life time on one’s feet obliterated by a few days.
“Maybe they will hang him upside down.” Remy seemed excited at the prospect.
“No, then the perpendicular bar would be lower.”
“Who has been here longer? Who, for that matter, actually attended executions when he was on the ground? They pin the feet apart and then the hands are placed together,” argued Remy, who may or may not have been correct.
J observed as the man looked about him, not at the crowd, but beyond them, as if searching for someone or something along the horizon. J. had not been so disconnected from the sound of the hammer and the machinations of the soldiers preparing. What if he had looked? Who might have been there to see him? Markus, with a shame-faced grin, and toes grinding into the dirt, or Marie, stone-faced, arms as always dropped to the earth, as if the gravity pulling her downward was greater than other people’s. No one could have come who would have given him silent nourishment. But looking at the stranger on the ground, he wondered if he understood the man’s gaze.
The soldiers grabbed the arms and then the man was down along the ground.
J was thinking again about the nails spinning out of his hands and the girl watching. He checked out of the daydream momentarily to watch the progress of the death sentence. At that moment, the shuddering paused, and the body was taut. The soldiers continued on, but the man stared out. Not at the crowd, but at something which had transfixed his attention. What was he looking at? J. couldn’t tell.
When the giant stake was finally mounted erect, the crowd paused, waiting, as did Remy and J. There was a moment just when the cross was raised, and the body suddenly jerked by gravity, that the death sentence would be complete. Neither J. nor Remy had been so lucky, and instead they had stood for days, waiting. But J. saw the crowd grow restless and knew the moment had skipped the stranger as well. The crowd grew bored, expectation thwarted, and began to thin out. Perhaps a political prisoner, as the people who came out for those deaths were never specific, but just a general mass who would gather for any death, mountebank, or show.
The man only marginally closer, but now at the same height, J. could make out the shape of his jaw and the bruises along his left side. His head lay to the side, with a line of foam and spit running between his mouth and shoulder. He seemed unconscious, but when he raised his eyes, J. saw a flash of the inhuman.
The execution had come late in the day, and now the sky was embroiled in clouds. The rain, when it started, seemed a relief, or at least the promise of relief. But the water was slimy, as if blown in from a burnt sacrifice. The drops crawled on the skin.
“Our friends are back.”
J didn’t at first understand his meaning. But his eyes began to discern figures moving along the ground. The last rays of light lay on the men’s faces, but beneath them the land was dark. At first, he thought the figures to be priests so short and fat that they dragged their robes along the ground. But the wobble was freakish: each figure shifted from side to side with an upward, jerking movement. Slowly he grasped that they were the vultures from before, but now they shuffled along the ground as if mimicking a human gait. Once they drew closer to the men, the birds formed a semi-circle. He could count eight in the dim light, but there may have been others sheltered from sight by the dark. They consorted amongst themselves, making clucking noises and bobbing their heads. Two moved closer now, and J. would have lost their forms in the shadows had they not suddenly flown up to the side of the stranger’s arms. Perched on either side of the cross, they surveyed his torso, and then ripped into the flesh.
J reeled, straining against the nails, bucking his body against his own cross. Constricted between the nails and the wood, he could not wrench himself farther away from the massacre of the man to his right, but neither could he stop the grinding of his body against the wood, pushing to be further away. The wood groaned, the cross creaking in the earth. His stomach heaved, but with no substance inside to expel, he could only gag and choke. Even the new pain streaking up his arm could not stop him from trying to escape. Death had been swift, or else the damage shocked the neighboring man into silence, because the body shook and writhed, and then was still. The twilight was too dim for him to survey the destruction, but the sound of tearing and sucking was enough to understand.
The throbbing that ran from his palm to shoulder forced J. to stop twisting. But he kept his head turned the other direction. He could not see the vultures, but felt they remained along the ground, judging the men through the darkness.
Even Remy was quiet. J. could see from the silhouette that his head was turned towards the other two crosses. J. assumed Remy could hear the damage, but his angle would not have allowed him to see.
When light streaked across Remy’s face, J. realized that silence had fallen sometime before sunrise. The ache from keeping his head to one side was not greater than the other discomforts, but the newness of it smarted. Neither the pain nor Remy’s penetrating gaze made him remember immediately, and in an effort to ease his neck, he stretched it the other way.
The man seemed two pieces tangentially connected by a line of vertebrae. His head hung at an angle that first suggested death, but as J. watched, it began to move from side to side. J.’s stomach began to heave again and he cried out.
The head of the other man rose and the two gazed at one another.
“Is that his intestines?” asked Remy.
J looked down, and found Remy was correct: a long line of entrails hung from just above the man’s waist cloth down the length of the cross to the ground where they lay like a puddle. J. looked again at the man’s face and now felt ashamed for dropping his gaze. The intelligence in the eyes made J. blush, and then shudder.
“What are you up for?” called out Remy. “Savior, can he hear me? Ask who he pissed off.”
The corners of his mouth began to turn up and J. found he couldn’t bear to see whatever teeth were in that mouth. He turned back towards Remy and began to hiss, “he can’t speak,” when a creaking voice intoned, “Fire.”
Below them, the crowd was gathering. They seemed no less and no more excited about the disemboweled man than by any other new event. A little girl ran up, and shrieking joyfully, tossed the guts above her head. They fell back down with a squelching sound. A few older women surveyed the pile and discussed the price of meat, perhaps with the hovering question of how much the stranger’s innards would fetch. His girl with the now-dull, now-flashing eyes was not yet there, but this made it easier for him to draw a picture of her in his mind. He eliminated the glazed, filmy look from her eyes, painted her skin in softer colors, the lips fuller and rosier. The sneer that played around her lips dropped away to lips parted in wonder.
The coughing of the man hanging to his right made him cling to the figment of her fervently. The sun began to beat down on them. J. hated the rays, hated that there was no allowance for dreams, because the heat commanded his complete attention.
“Was it worth it, Savior? A few words of grace, preaching to pretty faces — did you know? Were you aching to be sacrificed years before?”
J closed his eyes to yet another day with Remy.
“Did you lay beside girls, picking a face from amongst your masses, addressing them on a hill, and then calling a girl for further prayer? Did you promise her your martyrdom, your greatness for hers? Did fathers forgive you and quiet their wives wailing? Or were you too pure? Did girls swoon and you were cold to them, because your body was meant for this?”
J no longer wanted to rise after three days. He wanted to die, he wanted it to happen now, instead all this waiting.
“Hey! Martyr! You can hear me. Where are the followers when the chips are down, eh? We get the same crowd, you and I. They cannot afford meat, so they feast on us. What did you eat when you were on the ground? Were you one of them? Picnics at the execution? No — you were born somewhere else. There was a name to the place and the people there smiled. And so the people that came, they loved you, but they love a smile that wasn’t for them. They see you here and hate you, but don’t know that they are hating the body. They want a name for all their places without names, so they come to see you and see their own skinny bodies birthing in places with names.”
“He had no followers,” said the stranger.
J was glad that the people milling about, going to and from their lives, could not hear the men on the crosses.
“Ah, really! Savior, you lived your life in your head before here as well!? A life and a long death of fantasies! Your hell will be real worlds crowding in on you. No more daydreams. Or is it your singularity that you think makes you the one?”
But J. couldn’t bear to think that he was the one. He scooted around the thought, thought about girls or the time when people had gazed at him with their tragic eyes, sitting by his feet, laying weary heads on his knees. The promise that hung in people’s eyes and quivering voices had trained his face to break into a warm smile, and his mind to flee.
“I follow you!” Remy had begun thrashing. Being ignored always made him more animated. The little space between the suspended arms and bound ankles prohibited large movement, yet Remy, with his bushy hair, wide, frothing mouth and bony, barrel ribcage, made even little gestures seem violent.
“I follow you, J. of the wandering mind! J.! Who takes me to heaven! Paradise! Tonight! Or when we finally die, God speed the blessed fucking day!” Remy shrieked and hollered, hopping about his suspended place.
“I will save you, anyway,” J. replied, wondering as he spoke if it was true. He imagined himself lovingly drawing Remy from his cross, Remy’s body collapsing into his arms. As in his other dreams, the actual obstruction of the nails would not hinder him. Somehow, when he reached for his comrade, the metal would dissolve: the stiffened hands would relinquish themselves to an embrace. Clumsily, Remy would rap his arms around J., and J. would cling to him. Like children, they would push themselves against one another, unsexed but with that abandon that comes only when pressing against another person. The girl — who as always saw — would be silent. Her friends with their vague and indefinite faces would snicker at the men as if they were lovers. Still she would see that in their desperate gesture was the placing of the chests together, as if the heart beats, in proximity with one another, would grow stronger.
“I would— I will— ” began J.
“Hopefully after you have rubbed that off,” scoffed Remy. J.’s half-erection raised the cloth around his hips enough to make itself known. J. closed his eyes, cursing the body’s strange reaction to daydreams. He heard nothing from the people beneath the hill; presumably at their angle nothing was noticeable. Their ignorant and dirty faces had been lit with joy when Remy’s cloth had been raised a few days prior. Unintentionally obliging, he had remained erect for hours, his comical shadow shifting with the sun from long to the left, then erased beneath his figure, then long to the right. When the crowd had gathered, Remy shrieked obscenities, proclaiming whose orifices would be plundered and how.
To J.’s right, he could hear a low, full laugh. He opened his eyes, but could not bring himself to look at the decimated body. The laugh was not unkind. It mocked him with exhaustion, with delight at absurdity, as one friend chiding another.
The other man, inexplicably, seemed relaxed, even virile. He was scruffy, and the hair along his head and body shown radiantly in the sun. Granted, he had only been put up the day before, yet his body was not the emaciated frame of J. or Remy, but muscular, taut, alive. Even the cuts and bruises from prison roared vitality, as if the proper place of this body was survival.
There was only a ragged scar from the night before.
J stared. The signs of the struggle with the vultures remained: blood dried, and cracking in the sun, streaked his legs. The cloth around the man’s waist was blackened and stiff from the volumes of blood unleashed only hours before. A dark patch remained on the ground directly beneath him where the child had played with intestines or whatever long string of entrails had fallen. But the dark patch was just that, just a shadow of an accident, no matter, no pieces of man remained. Surely the child had not really dragged the organs away. Surely the women, calculating the price of meat, hadn’t taken off with the pieces fallen from the stranger’s body.
And if even they had, or if the children had run off with entrails — and J. could imagine the long, shiny, yellowish organs unraveling in the sun like grotesque streamers — that didn’t explain his torso, which magically showed no trace save an old scar. Was it the heat getting to him? But he knew that it had not been a dream the night before, when the vultures had come and feasted on the man.
And why had the birds only eaten on only one man, when three were suspended?
J felt a wave of nausea as the question fevered into his consciousness. Perhaps he was not anyone, after all. Just foolish, thinking there was a mandate because people had gazed at him and seen a savior. Perhaps his eyes, wide, his figure, tall, and face, open, had impressed innocence and wisdom upon people. And he, having nothing else to believe in, believed in himself along with them. Because here beside him was a thing, a man, chosen out beyond other men, something that nature abhorred, punished.
But if J. was not a martyr, what was it all for?
And perhaps this entire thought was another daydream.
His waist cloth remained raised.
By now people had seen and snickered. Some had stopped to throw rocks and clumps of dung. He had never lost his temper at the people before, but now he felt a rising sense of humiliation, greater than Roman soldiers spitting in his hair, greater than the ugly, dumb faces gazing on him, greater than the passing remarks of someone else’s disciple, who has said that he, J., was the not the real one, because he had no crown of thorns and only a scrape from a spear, and on the wrong side at that — greater than all those angers was the fury at his own body, aroused at nothing, erect like a monkey behind bars.
“What do you want?” jeered a group from the ground. Their gross bodies clumped together like mushrooms blossoming from cow piles, seething, swaying in their intoxication. He couldn’t tell how many stood together there, but they grabbed one amongst them and thrust her forward.
“You need a bride? Come down and take her!” they shrieked.
“I will! I will grind her into the mud! And when I rise I will still be more, more than your stupid lives combined! I will climb back up here and I will die and I will save you!” J. shrieked, spit and foam flying from his mouth. The crowd cringed back for a moment. Then someone angry at his own fear, threw a rock, striking J.’s head. His brow burst, and blood squirted across his face.
“I am the one!” he roared.
Mud struck his eye, burned. He glared with one good eye. He gnashed his teeth, screaming at them. Laughing still, they drew closer. Some lunged, grabbed, wrenching his feet. He howled at the pain, snapping his jaw as if he was rabid. Their weight against the wood made the cross creak, tilting. He mind reeled at the thought of the people pulling him down, their dirty hands on his body, stealing his martyrdom. He could still die up here, just a few more days, hours even, just don’t let them take him down now. He would have liked to kick their dull faces, and the immobility infuriated him, when suddenly a cry from the left made the crowd turn. A few of the people had tried to attack Remy. And in a sudden miracle of biology, Remy pissed on them.
How there could have been any fluid remaining in his body was a wonder. But the water shot out of him, hitting the stunned faces. The crowd shouted, pulling back. From the right, the stranger laughed deeply. Half the crowd turned and screeched at the third man, but the stranger, with a body still new to the hanging life, flushed out its own stream of piss at the people. Remy, who could barely see the man, but saw the surge hitting the cluster, shrieked with joy, and began thrashing around.
J found himself grinning as well, panting. He looked to Remy, and for the first time saw the haggardness of his face. The skin stretched tight across the chest, and hung from the arms and the jaws. Remy turned his face toward J., and J saw the flash in the eyes as a last, furious curse back against his body’s dawdling decay.
“Hey! Next the vultures! Let them come at our stranger now!”
“Eagles,” rasped the stranger. “And they will not stop.”
The crowd dispersed. The heat of the day gave way again to rain. This time the drops came down hard, pelting the skin. But the water cleared the air, cleaned it, and J. breathed, feeling like it was his first breath in days. He could see the vultures — eagles, he corrected himself — and somehow the return didn’t frighten him this time. He looked to the stranger, whose face was tilted up to the sky, rain streaming across his forehead and cheeks. The light was not yet gone, but already the birds had flanked him on either side. There was a pause, and J. watched. Everything seemed suspended, hovering, the birds waiting, the man, looking upward, ignoring their presence.
The stranger roared.
Inarticulate, throbbing, not a cry, but a shout, mocking, arrogant, triumphant. The stranger roared at the clouds, and sky crackled with thunder.
J did not watch as the eagles began, but turned, breathing deeply, to look in the other direction. Remy gazed back. The two men looked at each other for a long time, the sound of the birds crunching and sucking in the background. J. finally broke into a smile, grinning at Remy. Overhead, the sky continued to shriek and rumble. And Remy, slight smile on his lips, nodded back.
“What do you say? How about that paradise of yours tonight?” Remy asked.
“I will save you, Remy.”
“Bwah. Who are you? What would— no, what could you do?” Remy’s cynicism seemed almost sunny as he spoke.
“No one else. Just you,” J. replied.
“Thanks,” Remy said.
J grinned wider and strained to see Remy in the twilight. For a moment, he could see him, and his face just then was soft, even gentle. Looking back at J., Remy began to laugh, genially, joyfully, simply. Remy twisted his back, looking up and laughing, and just then the lightning struck him.
From the sudden illumination it seemed the bolt went into his open mouth. Remy’s body shook, not with frustrated antics, but with the energy streaking into him. J. reeled, this time in the opposite direction, crying and choking, kicking and lurching.
And the sudden motion of his body brought the entire structure down. He choked against the mud, thunderstruck by the soft slime around him, filling in crevices, cooling skin baked by the sun, absorbing him into the earth. But the shock of the long desired ground now surrounding him was less than the freedom of the arms. Finding that his arms had new degrees of movement, he sobbed, convulsing along the ground.
“I am not, I am not, I am not,” he wept.