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Count down to Easter

Colin Gibson


It’s six o’clock in the morning.   There’s a glow in the sky already:  a clear,  cloudless sky.   It will be another fine day — but the term is meaningless here.   Almost every day is the same:  a clear sky,  the red disk of the sun,  sharp-edged shadows from buildings and trees,  an eye–dazzling glare from stone or clay walls,  heat — only relieved when evening brings its welcome coolness.

A rooster crows:  the first of many.   The bird’s strident,  aggressive challenge to any rival rings out into the silence.   No need for clocks  (there aren’t any here,  any way).   You’d have to be dog-tired to sleep through that din.   The call sounds again for a second time;  then — after a nerve-racking interval — for a third time.

Mary is already dressed and on her way to the local well,   carrying an empty water pot.   She will wait her turn to draw water,  fill the jar,  then hoist it onto her shoulder and carry it back home.   It will serve the household until the evening;  then she will return to the well.   Each time there is a chance to talk to her neighbours,  to catch up on the news and the latest gossip.

But there is no news about the person she worries about more than the rest of her sons and daughters.   No news has reached Galilee for days about Jesus.   Some one said they’d heard he was on his way to Jerusalem,  that big dangerous city.   She will just have to get through this day,  like any other day,  carrying this secret burden of anxiety.  At least it’s a comfort to hear that old bird going on as usual,  no matter what the day holds in store.   She remembers grandmother once told her it was the Lord God who appointed the rooster to announce the new day because no-one would pay the slightest attention to real singing at that time in the morning,  so all the other birds just chatter away and leave it to that old screecher to get lazy humans out of their beds.

The rooster crows in the clear dawn light.   Once,  twice,  three times.

In the barracks,  on his rough truckle bed,  Marcus Onesimus of the Third Legion,  eastern division,  stirs and yawns — loudly.   Out of the corner of his eye he can see his old uniform waiting for him on its familiar stand:  the corselet,  leg plates,  helmet,  the shield,  the long spear.   All the gear he’s put on every morning for years now.

Imperial bloody Rome,  that’s why he’s here in this God-forsaken country,  thousands of miles away from Faustina and the family.   Another day of patrolling the streets,  of feeling,  really physically feeling the thinly disguised hatred of these strange Jewish people as they watch from their stalls or draw back to let the patrol pass.   Another month on duty in Jerusalem.   Marching through the narrow streets,  stopping the occasional brawl,  once every week ceremonial parade before the governor’s palace,  may be a girl or two off-duty,  sometimes escort detail for some wretch due for execution.   Never did like the crucifixion parade through the streets,  though.   You could almost feel some sympathy for them,  dying like that.

The rooster crows in the clear dawn light.   Once,  twice,  three times.

The bird’s cry reaches through Jessica’ s sleep-fuddled brain.   There’s the familiar ache behind her eyes.   When she opens them she knows it will hurt.   What a night!   She’d never have guessed the old man had so much go in him.   But he paid well before he finally rolled out into the night.  The money.   Where is it?   She scrabbles around in the straw mattress underneath her.  Yes,  there it is,  all four coins,  safe.   She opens her eyes and sees the sleeping woman in the other bed.   The one from Magdala,   on the shores of Galilee.

Funny one,  that one:  not quite right in the head.   Some of the customers like her;  some won’t go near her.   Said she had devils,   though according to Rebeccah who always knew everything,  something had happened to her when she was much worse than now.   Some rabbi or other,  some village teacher had come along and done a healing job on her.   So Rebeccah had said — whispering so Mary couldn’t hear her— this man had cast out seven devils.   Well,  there were still plenty of devils around,  and they weren’t all inside a simple-minded girl like Mary.

The rooster crows in the clear dawn light.   Once,  twice,  three times.

Barak prods his sleeping wife Hannah.   Hey,  didn’t you hear the rooster?   Time to get up and start breakfast.   You can be sure that that lot next door have got the fire going and are cooking something tasty already.   Bloody foreigners,  but they know how to look after a man.   I guess it’ll be another good day:  trade always picks up when they start arriving for the Passover — the foreigners and the tourists.   Let’s hope it’s a nice quiet time for business.   They say the priests are expecting more than usual this year.   What we don’t want is religious nutters stirring up trouble,  or political revolutionaries dreaming of a country free of Romans.   There’s nothing wrong with Romans so long as they keep the peace and leave us to our devices.

Wonder what they’ll do now they’ve caught Barabbas:  took long enough to nab him.   Maybe there’ll be some news in the square.   That kind of thief I’ve nothing to say for;  he’s the type who’d murder you in your bed for your cashbox.   They’ll probably end up crucifying him,  if I know old Pilate.   He’s very tough on crime:  and a good thing too.   Crucifixions are nasty things — something I’d never want you to see,  dear — but when it comes to crime you’ve got to be ruthless.   If the Lord God on the last day is going to take all the good people  (that’s you and me,  Hannah)  and put us into his blessed kingdom,  and send all the evil ones to Hell  (that’s Barabbas,  and thieves and murderers and unbelievers and political terrorists just like him),  we need to be just as strict here on earth.   Now get up and start on my breakfast!

The rooster crows in the clear dawn light.   Once,  twice,  three times.

No one dares wake king Herod,  though if he did happen to wake you had to be there at once,  just in case he wanted anything.   He wouldn’t want anything this morning for a long time yet.   Not after that feast with the visiting Roman legate.   Trust Herod;  he knew a thing or two about keeping on the right side of Rome.   A born survivor.   But you had to know what mood he was in.   You never could tell:  sometimes he was all jokes and smiles;  the next thing he was screaming at a servant,  ordering him to be flogged for dropping a bunch of grapes or smashing a goblet or coughing in the middle of one of his speeches.   Wonder someone doesn’t have a go at him,  while he sleeping in a drunken stupor,  like he is now.   But,  of course no one would try — unless they’d bribed his guards to let them get at him.   And they were too well paid to betray him.   Big strong fellows they were;  heaven help anyone who fell into their clutches in the guard room.

Petrellus carefully laid out the fresh linen beside the sleeper,  filled the wine jug,  and backed out of the room,  hoping to avoid a casual kick or a blow on the way out,  past the two royal guards.   They looked bored and harmless on the way in,  but you never knew.

The rooster crows in the clear dawn light.   Once,  twice,  three times.

Jonas listened to the familiar sound and waited.   Sure enough,  there was a snuffling and a stamping of hoofs,  then a loud braying near by.   Donkeys always seemed to get nervous when they heard the rooster shriek.   Heavens knows why.   Both creatures made enough racket to wake the dead.   Why would God give such voices to any of His creation?   Other birds whistle and sing;  my Sarah moos in a soft deep voice,  and the cat and the dog don’t set your teeth on edge when they purr or bark.   Oh well,  who am I to question the wisdom of God?  They must have their place in the scheme of things,  just like we do — though I can’t say I know what my place in the scheme of things is,  other than survive and keep out of the way of death and illness,  taxes and Romans and zealots of every persuasion.   I suppose I’d better get up and feed them:  I can hear the hens clucking and the cat’s sure to be about,  and the donkey will start braying again if I don’t feed the dratted creature.   Where’s that bale of straw?

The rooster crows in the clear dawn light.   Once,  twice,  three times.

‘Yes,  master.   The olives are very good this morning.   Will you have the green ones from Cyprus or the black ones from Syria — they’re very fresh,  just arrived last night?’

Pontius Pilatus,  Governor Pontius Pilatus,  Imperial Governor of the Roman province of Judea to you,  contemplated the two silver salvers being offered to him,  with irritation.   Olives?   An old army man,  he’d always liked olives,  and both Cyprus and Syria provided very good quality fruit.   But,  decisions,  decisions.   One always had to make decisions.   If it wasn’t decisions over breakfast and what you were going to eat,  it was decisions over what to wear to impress the Legate,  who would arrive at Jerusalem today,  when he’d managed to recover from the night before at Herod’s palace.

Oh yes,  Herod knows how to butter them up,  he thought grimly.   Not like me:  I’ve never liked playing the politician;  so why in the name of all the gods did Tiberius send me to govern this nest of vipers,  where every decision you make is argued over and tested against their absurdly complicated religious law,  and then probably avoided or resisted.   Decisions in law courts,  decisions over rates of pay for the troops,  decisions over land claims,  decisions when Jews couldn’t even agree among themselves about the right decision.

‘You choose yourself’,  he grunted.   ‘And if you make the wrong choice — I’ll see that your head is on the platter next time.’   He said this with a smile,  but the slave knew he half meant it.

The rooster crows in the clear dawn light.   Once,  twice,  three times.

Peter lies on his back,  listening.   He’s been awake for some time.   Fishermen have to be out there when the time is right for the fish,  not when it suits your need to sleep.   They’re used to pushing out before dawn and coming back in well after sunset.

Around him the other men,  the other disciples,  sleep on.   Yesterday had been a tiring day always moving on in the heat and entering strange villages where you didn’t always find a friendly welcome.   These people of Caesarea Philippi are sea people:  they just seem surprised to find a group of Galileans turning up on some sort of mission.

There’s Jesus’ bed,  but no sign of him of course.   He was a real early bird,  always slipping away out into the pre-dawn darkness to be on his own.   Oh yes,  Peter had learned that he preferred to be on his own,  so he didn’t creep out after him any more.   All the same,  he knew exactly when the master first stirred;  he just shut his eyes and pretended to be asleep when Jesus stepped over him and headed for the door.   Come to think of it,  they’d been lucky to find a friendly farmer who’d offered them this barn.   More often than not it had been wrapping yourself up in your cloak and bedding down with a stone as a pillow.   He didn’t mind that,  really — at least he could put up with it.   But what was Jesus up to now?   Did he know or care that he was getting dangerously close to Jerusalem again?   Just as well he’s not going alone.   At least we’ll be there to back him up if he gets into some kind of trouble.

The rooster crows in the clear dawn light.   Once,  twice,  three times.


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