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Honor in Removal

The Prefect granted Joseph’s request and with a wave of his hand said, “be done with it.” Nicodemus stood among his fellow Pharisees, listening as they whispered dissent, and he understood the implications. Not until Joseph departed and the Prefect began other business did Nicodemus slink through the shadows to meet his friend in the street.

“Come back inside with me, Joseph,” Nicodemus said, glancing back to monitor his departure. “They may not punish you yet. You may only receive a condemnation, a slap on the hand. If you insist on this, they will kill you.”

“I do not need saving, Nicodemus.”

“Just last week, when I was impassioned about Barabbas, you brought me to understand. Please listen to me now as I listened to you then. Come back. The courts…”

Joseph waved a hand as if swatting away a fly. “They are little concern to me.” He spoke without slowing his walk.

“Joseph, the man is dead. You must return with me, and we must go about our lives or we will lose them.”

“You will do what you must, my friend. As will I.”

Nicodemus stopped and turned to re-enter the court. The gate stood empty and the few surrounding pedestrians paid him no attention. He felt certain no one had seen him leave. His presence would not be missed for some time. He watched the court gate for a moment, then turned to watch his departing friend. As Joseph neared the market, almost lost in the crowd, Nicodemus sighed and ran after him; a reluctant soldier disallowing another to fight in his stead.

Joseph bought fresh white linens and aloes and spices, while Nicodemus argued the cause was already lost. He borrowed a ladder from a charitable merchant, while Nicodemus listed reasons to return.

As the two men let the market and made their way down the main road, Joseph held his shoulders high and stamped each step, small plumes of dust curling out from under his feet. He looked straight ahead, ignoring the squinted angry eyes and hand-covered comments of the road’s inhabitants. Three paces behind, Nicodemus shuffled his feet; a worm’s trail in the dirt. Nicodemus looked to the bystanders, meeting their eyes and casting his glance down again. A strong word against him might have swayed him to halt, but none came. The bystanders kept their distance.

Nearing the garden, Nicodemus said, “Joseph, there are other ways. You don’t have to do this. Giving your life will prove nothing. Think of all you stand to lose.”

“It is lost only if I do nothing, my friend. I have not asked you to follow. You may depart as you wish.”

“But why, Joseph? Why? They will kill you despite your honorable name. You will have no case for their mercy. And all for one who is already dead?”

Joseph stopped. He turned. “Do you still believe as I do?”

Nicodemus looked to the ground and said, “I don’t know anymore.”

“I have never been more certain. I will not look into the faces of my peers and deny it anymore. I will no longer continue in secret and let others take the flogging that I too deserve.”

“But he is already dead, Joseph. Dead. He has lost.”

“And it took his death to make me understand.” There was a silence between them for a moment but neither looked away.

Joseph continued down the road. Nicodemus followed, pleading a logic that Joseph brushed away like dust off his hands. When they could see beyond the garden to the shadowy figures seeming to float in the air, Joseph said, “And he is not dead. Not in the way death comes to men like you and me.”

“Dead is dead,” Nicodemus said.

They passed through the garden. New flowers bloomed and insects rejoiced in the outreaching stamina. The lush grasses spread like a pool of honey, dense in the middle and fading as it stretched. Each plant blossomed; a healthy newborn child with curious eyes. The fragrance came to the men in the wind and they flared their nostrils. Nicodemus turned a melancholy smile at the garden while he walked past. A soft breeze blew through his hair and beard, and he did not want to go farther.

“It is right to lay him in this place,” Joseph said.

“There are many like it. Why give him your burial place?”

“Because it is right.”

Nicodemus knew that response, had conceded to it on many occasions. For the first time he rebutted. “Am I also to die for your righteousness?” The words gave Joseph pause. Nicodemus continued, “The judges will think me your accomplice. Not a man speaking reason to his reasonless friend.”

“Whatever debt you feel I am owed, my friend, consider it paid.” Joseph continued walking.

Far beyond the garden, the fragrance and color were gone, exchanged for the metallic foul smell of rotting flesh. Men’s coughs and cries replaced the sound of rustling leaves. Windswept sand impacted their faces; a thousand innocuous needles. No plant life accompanied the dying men, save the treated wood upon which rope and iron cast their victims. Among many broken corpses the men found the body. A small parchment had been tacked above its head, a cruel joke in which many took pride.

“We must release his feet first.” Joseph dropped the ladder and wrenched the formidable nail.

“It is no good, Joseph. The nail is too deep and the wood is too strong.” Nicodemus looked behind him. “And others have seen us and know we are here. There is still a chance.”

Joseph tilted his head, examining the corpse. He grabbed the feet and pulled upward. Bones cracked and the congealed blood oozed as the feet began to slide up the nail. He called Nicodemus to him, but Nicodemus refused to help. Joseph repositioned himself under the nail, pushing until the flesh released. The body slumped; a threadbare flag pulled flaccid by gravity. Nicodemus stared at Joseph’s calm and strong blood-covered hands.

Joseph mounted the ladder. With similar cracking bone, the body’s arm came free. “Come,” he said, grunting with exertion, “hold him here while I release the other.”

“I will not touch him and implicate myself,” Nicodemus said.

“We are alone, Nicodemus. I ask only that you hold a man’s arm.”

Nicodemus examined the empty road. Assuring its vacancy, he held the body’s shoulder and arm high over his head, looking down and away, coughing. “Hurry,” he said, “he is getting heavy.”

“You are strong and he is little more than a skeleton.”

“His blood is dripping on me.” Nicodemus clenched his teeth at the sound of each metacarpal breaking around the iron nail.

“Prepare,” Joseph said, pulling the limp hand free of the nail and releasing the body. Nicodemus caught the nearly weightless corpse and carried it like a sleeping child. He examined the broken and beaten body in his arms, peaceful despite its violent end. He knelt to place it on the ground.

Nicodemus washed himself and Joseph washed the body. Nicodemus watched as his friend smeared the body with aloe and sprinkled spices on its skin. Joseph struggled with the wrapping and looked to Nicodemus. With tacit compliance, Nicodemus assisted. When he looked up, a small crowd stood down the road, too afraid to come closer than visibility necessitated. Nicodemus felt the weight of their eyes on him. And as Joseph finished tying the linens, Nicodemus said, “They have identified me for certain. You have condemned your friend to death too. Now three must die where before there was only one.”

“It is an honor to have this opportunity, Nicodemus.”

“There is no honor in this,” Nicodemus said in a harsh whisper. “I see nothing but your senseless pride. A pride that has gotten me killed.” Joseph put a hand on his friend’s shoulder as Nicodemus wiped away the tear welling in his eye. Joseph scooped the body in his arms and stood. He watched Nicodemus in silence. Nicodemus waited. He looked to the gathering crowd, then to his friend. He reached for the body, and the two men hoisted it high above them, not letting it fall as low as their shoulders. Their bobbing torsos and the cadence of their feet fell into synchronization; the marching rhythm of a proud army.

They turned into the garden. Nicodemus felt the soft grass poking between the straps of his sandals and he basked again in the fragrances. The sun formed a semi-circle over the horizon, its fingers reaching to dance on the white linen. The men squinted and continued through the garden to its farthest corner point. There, they laid the body aside for a brief moment to roll away the stone. They placed the body in the tomb.

Both men stood silent with heads bowed, each for a different reason.

“Is there anything else?” Nicodemus said.

“Nothing more is asked of us.”

“Except to face our death,” Nicodemus said.

“To face whatever comes next.”

After replacing the rock, they returned to the road and proceeded to town.

“They will be waiting for us.” Nicodemus said, a small rattle in his voice. “It won’t be much farther than around this bend.”

“They will. But there is little to do now.”

“We can go home a different way. We can gather our things and flee. There is still time.”

“You are free to do as you wish. You have been a good friend and I thank you for it.”

Nicodemus lifted his chin. They walked the road. With backs to the setting sun, their shadows reached far in front of them like giants walking into the sky.


Christopher Cervelloni graduated from Butler University in ’06 with a bachelors in creative writing. In the past year he has published; “Leaving Home” in Foliate Oak, “The First Stone” in CC&D, and “Laughing at Jane Ellen’s Pillows” and “Derek Kelsie Receives Bad News” in Cynic Magazine. He teaches writing in Ft. Collins, CO.

Read more stories by Christopher Cervelloni


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