His head bowed low, the man hurried through the door, desperate to avoid the notice of his wife and children.
He didn’t want them to see his face.
His wife, a strong woman and not easily deceived, followed him into their sleeping quarters.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, her eyes alert. She gently rubbed her calloused palm against his cheek, and drew a surprised breath at the moisture she felt there.
“Tell me!” she said.
His eyes met hers reluctantly. “They’ve taken him.”
She struggled for a moment, unsure what to say. Even she had not expected this. “When?”
“A few hours ago,” he said, running a hand roughly through his hair. “The guards took him away. Charges of sedition, crimes against the state. They’re sure to execute him, make an example…”
He sat down on the bed and hung his head. “Deborah… how did it come to this? All our hopes, the bright new world. And now? It’s finished. I’m finished…”
She drew close and pulled his head against her breast, stroking the unruly hair beneath her hand. At her touch, he began to cry in earnest.
“Hush, now… Perhaps it won’t come to that. He’s a good man. A leader! You saw how he handled the crowds. The people will rise in his defense.”
The man pulled away, his eyes haunted. “There’s no one! No one. They’ve all deserted him.”
“Listen to me, the people love him. Remember last week, his ride through the city? They came out in great numbers, wanting to give him power. I tell you, the people won’t stand for it! No one will dare hurt him!”
He shook his head. “Foolish woman! You look at things through the lens of sentiment! He’s a threat to the establishment. That’s exactly why they’ll kill him. They’ll say it’s to protect the people!”
“But the people – ”
“‘The people, the people,'” he mocked, anger coursing through him. “Tell me, Deborah, when the guards come to their houses in the dead of night, do you think the people will care about a dreamer? A man who used to tell pretty tales of a new kingdom? Use your head, woman! It’s over!”
She bit her lip, unsure what to say. She’d never seen him so distaught. Trying to soothe him, she whispered, “You’re wrong. They won’t forget him. They won’t deny him.”
For a moment, time seemed to stop and he stared at her, his face twisted with pain.
“You know nothing,” he said finally, his voice weary. “They’ll all turn away… just as I did.”
The truth out, he looked at her, daring her to speak. Instead, she sadly shook her head.
Her silence broke him, and a torrent of words escaped before he could contain them. “He told me… he said it would be like this! Did I believe him? No! I was so sure of myself. Of my commitment to the cause – my commitment to him!”
He shuddered, feeling a sudden coldness in spite of the room’s warmth. “I was so sure of myself. Me, the tough guy, afraid of no one.
“But, Deborah, when they took him away, the crowd grew hostile, taking the guards’ part. They spat at his name, ridiculed him, laughed at him. I stayed nearby, trying to learn where they might take him, but a few people recognized me. Three times I was asked by the guards and people in the crowd if I was one of his comrades. One girl, a loud, brazen wench, swore she’d seen me with him several times.
“I didn’t know what to do, what to say…”
Deborah sat down on the bed next to him. “And what did you say?”
He laughed harshly. “I cursed her. I was so afraid, afraid they’d come for you, for the children, for me… And so I cursed her and said I didn’t know him. Three times, Deborah… three times…”
Tears came to Deborah’s eyes.
He looked at her sharply. “He knew this would happen. He had told me so just hours earlier… and what did I say? ‘Not me! Others, maybe, but never me!'”
His hands began to shake and he gripped them tightly together. “Just as I finished telling that girl I didn’t know him, I saw him, bound by ropes, being pulled by the guards. He paused for just a moment before a guard yanked him forward, and his eyes met mine. He knew what had happened. I’m sure of it! And, Deborah… the look in his eyes!”
“Tell me,” she said softly.
“Kindness!” He shook his head, baffled. “They were filled with kindness and understanding. Why, Deborah? Why? He should have despised me!
“Dear God!” Bitter tears coursed down his face as he fell to his knees onto the hard floor. “His eyes were forgiving. I’d rather he hated me, the way I hate myself! Instead… he forgave…”
Frightened, Deborah watched her husband kneeling and weeping on the floor. In all the years they’d been married, he’d always been her rock.
“He forgave me,” wept the broken man. “But can I ever forgive myself?”
Three days went by, and still the man wouldn’t leave his room. He remained curled up in his bed, his face turned to the wall, refusing to talk to anyone. The older children, huddled outside, murmured amongst themselves, and he heard Deborah shush them and try to calm their fears.
They think I’ve lost my mind, he thought. Maybe they’re right. Can there be sanity where there is no heart?
Tears gathered in the corners of his eyes. Like his friend, his heart had died on a windswept, desolate hill.
There was a knock on the door, and then excited conversation. It barely registered with him; he had no interest in the life around him.
Deborah suddenly rushed into the room, her face bright with excitement. “Get up, man! Wash your face!” She tossed a rag at him. “Your friends are here! They’ve news for you! Sit up and prepare for company.”
He continued to stare at the wall. “Go away,” he growled. “Leave me in peace. Friends! What friends? I have no friends… not any longer.”
The door hanging was swept aside as Mary entered the room. “Dear friend! Get up! Why do you remain in bed? I’ve good news for you!”
He pulled the cover over his head. “Let me be, woman! Good news… there is no good news.”
“But there is,” said Mary excitedly. “He’s come back to us! It’s true! He’s alive!”
Under the covers, the man stiffened, knowing of whom Mary spoke. “Have you lost your senses,” he muttered. “Foolish woman – have you become unhinged? The man is dead… you saw him die!”
“I did, oh, yes, I did! But I went to the grave – and our friend wasn’t there!”
Anger, fierce and swift, seized the man. In one quick, savage movement, he sat up and faced her. “Has someone stolen his body? Even in death they disrespect him! How dare they? I’ll kill them!”
The desire to break things came over him, and a small muscle above his left eye began to twitch, a warning that Deborah was all too familiar with. Recognizing the signs, she placed her cool hand upon his wrist.
“Listen,” she said quietly, “Listen to what Mary has to say.”
He looked at his wife and with visible effort he swallowed back his rage. Finally, he nodded.
“I went to the grave to pay my respects, but our friend’s body wasn’t there! Instead, there was a being guarding his grave,” Mary continued, her eyes filled with awe and laughter. “Never before have I seen such a one as he! He radiated blinding light and beauty! At first, I was afraid to look on him and wanted to run away, but he told me not to fear. He said he had good news, that our beloved is alive and we should grieve no more! Then he said, ‘Go and tell Jesus’ followers that he’s risen and that soon you shall see him.’ Can you believe it, my friend? It’s too wonderful, too amazing to comprehend. Had I not seen the… well, he had to be an angel – what else could he have been? Had I not seen the angel, I scarcely would have believed, myself!”
Mary began to dance around the room. “Oh, too wonderful! Too wonderful!”
The man stared at her, dumbfounded by her story. He wondered at her words. They made no sense – a dead man brought back to life? Crazy woman. He watched her closely, remembering her once loose ways. Was it possible she’d been drinking and this talk of angels and resurrection was the result of a binge?
But, no… her eyes were clear, her expression sane and happy.
Could this be true?
He remembered then the many strange things he’d witnessed in his friend’s company, things that defied explanation. Once, when he’d remarked on them, his friend had hushed him. “The problem with miracles is that people always want more in order to believe; better to trust in the living word.”
Odd how he’d forgotten all that when they’d taken his friend away.
The memory of telling the crowd that he didn’t know him resurfaced, hitting the man with force and he began to gag. Listening to Mary’s tale, he’d forgotten for a moment that he’d betrayed his friend just when his friend needed him most. If Jesus were alive, what would it mean for him, the one who’d denied him?
Nothing, surely. For Jesus would have no need for him now. Not after his cowardice…
He hung his head in his hands, despair once again settling in.
Seeing this, Mary walked over and sat down next to him. Tenderly placing her hand upon his shoulder, she whispered, “The angel… he said something more. He said, ‘Go and tell Jesus’ followers – especially Peter.'”
The man quickly looked up and stared into Mary’s eyes. She smiled and nodded.
Go and tell Jesus’ followers – especially Peter.
Peter, the one who had turned away in fear and denied his Lord. Peter, who lived with stinging regret. Peter, who was loved and forgiven.
Again the man began to cry, but this time the tears were not bitter.