The Condemnation

Drip. Drip. Drip.

I awoke to my ceaseless timekeeper in the early hours of the morning.  Everything was still dark.  Opening my eyes as wide as I could, I could only make out a very faint glow coming from down the corridor, its flicker indicating that it was not dawn, but a torch.

Still, I could not make out any distinguishable features.  The stone walls, reflecting the low light that shone through tiny cracks around the door, seemed to have a deep blue-gray hue.  Dirt beneath me crunched as I sat up, trying to rouse myself from the deep and welcome sleep.  Already I was angry for having been awoken so prematurely.  But whatever it was—a dream, perhaps, or indigestion—was gone, and once again I was here.  It was a morning just like hundreds of others…or was it so long as that?  It didn’t matter.  The days passed one into the next with nothing to set them apart from each other.  It may have been only weeks, but it seemed as forever.  The life I once lived, perhaps that was the dream that had awakened me, and here I was in this miserable reality.

No, there it was again!  I knew it—it wasn’t my imagination.  And then, gone again.  What was it?  Pushing myself up on my knees as quietly as I could, I tried to ascertain what it was that was haunting me.  No, perhaps it was only my imagination.

Imagination.  It seemed to be my only solace; and yet, what good is an imagination that knows nothing but pain and misery?  Could I imagine away my past?  Perhaps, but I knew it to only be wishful thinking.  Whatever freedom I had glimpsed, it was not the reality I knew.  Forced into this miserable place, all I’d wanted was my freedom to begin with.  That’s why I was here.

Still, I’d justified my actions a thousand times over.  To do it once more this morning was not going to change anything.  I was here, and no dream or phantom of the imagination would change it.  Sleep was my only consolation—sleep on a dirt floor, if nothing else hoping at least that the great stones around me would collapse into themselves and onto me.  Any crushing of my body had to be better than this crushing of my spirit.  Until death came, sleep was the closest I could come.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Thirst came over me.  Trying my best not to rattle, I felt along the wall in the darkness and crawled over to the dripping water.  A constant trickle of moisture flowed from the upper levels of the building, down over the stones and to a crack in the wall where the bricks had separated just ever so much.  There, it dripped from the edge of the stone and down to the lower portion of the wall, where the bricks once again jutted out just far enough to catch the drops.  Reaching up, I caught a few beads on my dusty hand and tasted it.  Some days I could detect traces of urine, a sure sign that I would have no relief from my thirst save what I was given at the one mealtime.  This morning it was clean.  I opened my mouth wide to catch a few drops in mouth and taunted my parched throat with its minor relief.

Death would come.  It was only a matter of time before it would be decided when.  They don’t keep people like myself around here for very long.  I’m the urine-traced water in the mouths of these occupying dogs.

Suddenly I felt the rage come back—let them take me, and end this miserable existence!  I’ll have no more of this life!

But fear gripped me as I suddenly realized what had been haunting me just moments before.  It was a sound—faint.  So faint that had it been any less I would have continued believing it to be nothing more than a thought.  But it was there, and it was getting a bit louder.  Trying to stay as quiet as I could, I quickly moved myself toward the iron door.  I grabbed my special rock and worked it under the slot for my food tray, to crack it open ever so slightly.

The faint light now shone at the foot of the door, just where the space between the little gate and the dirt floor now parted.  Laying my head to the side in the dirt, I placed my ear to the space and tried to listen for the sound I knew and feared.

I began to worry as several minutes passed and I heard nothing but the distant echoes of guards’ feet.  Perhaps I was mistaken.  Perhaps it was only the echoes speaking saying the word I longed to hear but feared for its meaning.

No!  I did hear it!  I strained even further to hear.  Even the moving of the guards had ceased, no doubt trying to hear as I was.  Whatever it was, I knew it must be coming from outside the building, somewhere nearby—the court!  It had to be, and yet it seemed almost incomprehensible that I could hear anything from there in here.  But there it was again—someone was shouting, or many.  At this time of the morning?  In the courts?

But I strained again to hear, to hear if they spoke what had haunted me earlier.

Fear and terror, emotions that no one would have dared to accuse a hardened criminal like myself of, cut through my heart, and I knew it.  What I heard and yet feared to hear was the sound of an angry crowd, screaming my name.

So this was it—my enemies had finally come through.  Although it seemed to be completely asinine for them to demand my death at this hour, there could be no other explanation.  No doubt some riot or such, common among my people, had spurred them on to demand the death of their most notorious criminal.

My name.  Drip.  My name.  Drip.  My name.  Drip.

I pulled away from the gate, dislodging my rock, disgusted and afraid of what it meant.  I would not have to wait much longer for this miserable existence to be over.  They were coming for me, and this time, only death would satisfy them.

I don’t know how long I waited, but the echoes soon faded away, like the dreams, and the guards resumed their movement.  Everything seemed to go on much as it had in this miserable place, except for one thing.

I now knew my destiny.

A key in the door!  I must have fallen asleep, for the sound jolted me awake, and in sudden fear and rage I jumped up and pressed myself against the wall, waiting to defend myself.  The bolt came undone and I found myself blinded as the door swung open.  A guard rushed in and pressed me against the wall with his spear, but as quickly as my rage came it was gone, and I remembered the early morning’s events.  It was no use trying to escape—three other guards entered the room behind the first and surrounded me.  The guard’s grimacing face in front of me had no intention of easing up, and I gave up any thought of a fight.  I was far too weak to take on more than one.

The second and third guards came and undid the chains on my hands and feet, and I knew that this was it.  I would be marched out of the building, taken to the court before the crowd, and put to death for my thievery and murder.  Justice would claim its victim, and I had no way to escape it.

Finished with my bonds, the second and third guard moved back out of the cell, and the one in front of me pulled away, motioning angrily to the door.  “Out!”

Taking one last look at the place I had called my home for so long, I slowly moved toward the door and ducked under its low overhang.  Still fearing what was to come, I took pleasure in the few steps of freedom without the chains.  Ah yes, this is what it had felt like.  It only seemed ironic that my last free steps would be to my death.

I kept walking down to the first checkpoint while the guards finished closing off my cell.  But it was until after I had gone about 20 paces I realized something odd: I wasn’t being escorted.  I had no desire to turn around and look, but there were no footsteps behind me—or, there were, but the guards were moving away from me, not with me.

Odd as it seemed, with no chance of escape this far inside the prison and its checkpoints, there was no doubt the guards had some other business to attend to.  I continued walking down the corridor until I reached the concrete steps leading to the upper level.  Each step felt like walking in stone shoes, the freedom of my chains now forgotten, overcome by the dread of what was to come.

The first checkpoint was just a few feet beyond the top of the steps.  As I moved toward it, the guard there looked up, and, with a knowing glance, reached for his spear and his keys.  Apparently he was my escort.  As I approached he unlocked the gate and swung it open.  But as I passed through and moved beyond, he did nothing more than close the door, lock it, and resume his position.

Was this some cruel trick, to give a condemned prisoner the appearance of something that was beyond his reach?  I was condemned to die!  Take me and be done with it!

But the second checkpoint was the same, as was the third.  No escort came, and while the guards seemed to know who I was and what I was doing, I had not a clue.  Finally I reached the processing center, where I expected a company—or perhaps a garrison—of soldiers to come, drag me to the crowd and finish me off.  As I entered the room, however, I saw only a guard and a clerk.  The iron door just beyond, leading to the outside, no doubt had soldiers waiting to take me.

The clerk also seemed to know who I was, though he certainly was not the man I had encountered when I first arrived.  I had never seen him before.  He quickly moved some papers around, apparently found what he was looking for, and affixed a seal on it.  Then he motioned to the guard, who moved to the gate, opened it and motioned me out.

I simply stood there.  As I looked outside the door, there was no one—just a final corridor leading to the wooden and unguarded outer doorway.  Certainly no prisoner was allowed beyond this point without an escort, yet there was none for me.  I looked at the clerk, who had by now busied himself with some other matter or paperwork.

“Out!”  The guard at the door startled me and I looked at him, disbelieving.  I sensed the clerk now staring at me, no doubt wondering why I was still there.

It was too much.  In another moment of rage, I ignored the guard, jumped over the table and grabbed the clerk. I shoved him against the wall, our faces close.  Fear and dread suddenly drained his face of all color, obviously believing that the face of this dirty, grimy, and desperate criminal was the last he would ever see.  Meanwhile, the guard at the door moved into a defensive position.  Why he did not jump me immediately I both questioned and dismissed in a split second. I didn’t care. Instead I glared at the clerk in front of me, who trembled beneath my fury.

Suddenly I couldn’t think of a thing to say.  Nothing.  And once again, the rage left as quickly as it came.  I released the clerk, stepped slowly back and circled away from the clerk and the guard.  The door still remained open, and I began to feel weak, to tremble.

“Wha…” I tried.  I could not find my voice.  “What…is happening?” I rasped.

The clerk, still in shock, exchanged a glance with the guard.

Rage began to build, and I suddenly found my voice.  “What is happening?!” I shouted, pounding the table.  The clerk jumped at the explosion.

His voice quaked. “You…you are being released.”

Incomprehensible.  “Why?”

A moment passed, and then the clerk suddenly seemed to rouse himself out of his shock.  He straightened his cloak and moved back behind the table, offered me the paper he had sealed.

I didn’t understand why.  He kept holding it out to me.

“Can’t read,” I told him.

He dropped it back on the desk, and seemed to find his own voice.  “It has been decreed that you are to be released, and your sentence has been repealed.”  He motioned to the door.  “You are free to go.”

It didn’t register.  “Why would they let a man like me go?”  There was no answer.  “Why would they let a murderer go?”  Still nothing.  The clerk seemed to search for a response but offered none.  I turned to the guard.  “What has happened this morning, that should make it different from any other morning?  Why am I to go free now—am I not a condemned criminal?”

The guard looked evenly at me.  “You are no longer condemned.  This morning Jesus of Nazareth has taken your place.”

—Mark Knoles

Maxim of the Moment

Success is getting up one more time than the number of times you fall down. - Julie Bowden