THE ECLIPSE NEAR GOLGOTHA
After a scud missile from Iran missed habitations and hit a sandy rock near the Tomb of Joseph in Palestine, an emaciated Bedouin found old parched paper in the sand. While herding goats, he used the scroll, not suspecting it was a Dead Sea scroll, to roll cigarettes. Only a few triangular scraps of crumbly paper remained after his smoking bouts, and we have very little to go by, but this conjectured story is the best that after serious scholarship at Princeton and Oxford could be pieced together. The poor Bedouin smoked away a lot of alternative wisdom about the past and the future as it wafted off into the desert air. We can never rely on a singular interpretation in our world of parallel and perpendicular and elliptical views and visions. And on the cross, we had parallel visions, of a believer and a skeptic, and of the man in the middle, Jesus, who was both a believer and a skeptic, but his story has been covered enough. Let’s first see what we find in Luke’s gospel.
Chapter 23: 39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." 42 And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom!" 43 And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
The non-believer thief wanted to be saved from the cross, and didn’t mean to insult Jesus, but in the meager hope that Jesus was telling the truth, he appealed to Jesus to save him. And when it became clear that Jesus had no intention of surviving, let alone saving others, he shouted, Oh, the hell with it all! Jesus and the ingratiating thief had resigned themselves to death and for a while the three of them kept groaning in pain. But the two believers died about the same time, and the remaining, the nonbeliever, by the name of Gestas, felt lonely and forsaken. It had been easier to suffer in the community of groaning which the three of them had made. Groaning alone and grinding his teeth, for he still had hale teeth, exasperated him so much that he shouted, Oh God, why have you forsaken me? Aren’t we all your children?
Two Roman foot soldiers, who had buried the other two convicts, came back and said, Look, this one is still shouting. What endurance! Yes, some thieves are really tough, said the other. Nearly indestructible. This one was caught once after hiding in the desert for 40 days without any food and water, and he escaped, but now we got him. There’s no way he’ll escape. Yes, he looks tough and indestructible. We’ll see about that, said a soldier, and threw his heavy lance into Gestas’s side, nailing his body to the wood. Gestas shrieked and gasped and blood poured out of his wound and soon also out of his nostrils, foamy and light red, translucent in the light of dawn. As soon as he was taken down the sunshine dimmed for there was an eclipse in progress, and in the strange metallic gloom, the soldiers buried this bleeding man in a cave in the tomb garden outside the city walls near the Skull hill.
He was alone indeed, and moreover, clinically dead. There were no clinics around, and perhaps thus there were no clinical deaths in that era, but let’s say, he was clinically dead. Jesus and Dismas had already been ascended to heaven, fulfilling Jesus’s words, For you shall be with me in paradise today already. Gestas suddenly believed all this, and he felt jealous, and prayed to God. Why has thou forsaken me? Dismas was a better thief than I, he stole gold, while I stole only sheep and goats, and I don’t know anything about Jesus, except I heard that he was a wine thief and he wanted to lead a revolution against the Romans and be the King of Israel, but let’s say I am the worst. Is salvation merely a matter of being good? And of believing? So what if I don’t believe in you God. Why should I? You have been better to everyone than to me. Did I have to die so the other two could live? Did I die for them? Someone has to be dead and in the ground after the crucifixion, and so it’s me. Oh, God, can I get some credit for this? I haven’t lived enough. I haven’t had any wine from the Golan yet. I haven’t made any children. I haven’t made love yet. Could I at least get to live three more days? And praying thusly, Gestas sank further into death. Meanwhile, outside, the eclipse passed and the sun warmed the rocks. It became extremely hot, and at night, a hailstorm chilled the rocks, and thunder and lightening and an earthquake shook heavens and earth.
The rumbling of the earth cracked the rocks further and the stone blocking the entrance to Gestas’s tomb rolled off. Moreover, all this rumbling and fresh cold air stirred Gestas. The cold air was God’s breath blowing life into the pierced corpse. Gestas crawled out, and the sun blinded him and he didn’t see anything for a while. He breathed deep, and crawled to a murmuring sound nearby and washed his face and drank the tears of God, which flowed in a stream for the ways of our world had saddened the Lord God so that he formed a stream of tears. And after drinking from this stream of sorrow, Gestas shook himself alive with the bitter and salty taste of universal sadness. And he awoke from his horrifying dreams and nightmares of being in hell and consorting with Satan and smoking a variety of leaves with his hair on fire. Gestas now didn’t know where to go and sat back in the cave, where the cool darkness cured his vision from too much light. He sat on a rock, which cut into his buttocks, looked back at the two little graves and an antechamber. He wondered whether the other two had been there before being whiffed up in a holy cloud straight into heavens.
In the meantime, a young man saw him, and said, Jesus? Is that you?
Gestas didn’t know how to reply. He was dazed, and didn’t know whether he was alive, whether he was himself. And he said, Yes, maybe it’s me.
Soon, the disciples came, and Peter kissed the son of man, and said, You are the son of God indeed!
And Thomas said, He looks a little different, his beard is much longer than Jesus’s and he’s taller.
You can feel the hole where the lance went in, said Gestas, and you can also feel the hole in my back, where the lance tip exited me. And Thomas did so, and said, Yes, this is Jesus.
And Simon said, Beards grow faster in death, and when you are thinner you look longer. This indeed is Jesus.
And Gestas found all this amusing and smiled and asked, Where are my sisters? And where is wine? For we shall celebrate life and thank the Lord for his kindness.
And there ensued a big festivity in which Gestas experienced the things he had missed in a busy life of stealing and grilling sheep and hiding in the desert and eating grasshoppers when there were no sheep around. And Mary Magdalene oiled his feet, and Gestas was happy, and said, It’s good to be Jesus.
One could say that this was identity theft, and if so, who should be better at it than a stealer of sheep? And it would not be the first identity theft, for hadn’t Jacob stolen Esau’s hairy identity by putting goatskin over his arm to obtain the blessing of blind Isaac? So if Gestas had pulled the wool over the disciples’ eyes, and passed himself off for Jesus, he carried on the tradition, to obtain the blessings of his followers. Three women armed with aromatic oils rubbed him down and anointed him the way David had been anointed.
Unfortunately, the Bedouin, who died during an Israeli raid of the Gaza strip, had smoked too much of the Dead Sea scroll for us to know more about the disciples and a variety of Marys and Marthas and Leahs, whether Gestas had created a son of his own or whether he died childless, and whether he had evaporated from Mt. Moriah like Mohammed 599 years later, or whether he whiffed into stardust from the Ascension hill or the future Ammunition hill, as the grateful and ingratiating thief had done with Jesus. We know very little thanks to the infernal fires of tobacco, but with a few sips of red wine from the Golan Heights, we might be able yet, with a great deal of faith and imagination, to piece the story together.
© Josip Novakovich,
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Josip Novakovich, originally from Croatia, has published a novel, April Fool's Day (in ten languages), a novella in three forms, Three Deaths, and four story collections (Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust, Yolk, Salvation and Other Disasters, and Ex-YU) and three collections of narrative essays as well as two books of practical criticism, including Fiction Writers Workshop. His work was anthologized in Best American Poetry, the Pushcart Prize and O. Henry Prize Stories. He has received the Whiting Writer's Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Ingram Merrill Award, an American Book Award, and in 2013 he was a Man Booker International Award finalist. He teaches creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal. He has just revised a novel, Rubble of Rubles and another story collection, Heritage of Smoke, to be published by Dzanc in January. This story is a part of the collection.