by Toriann Molis
Longinus spoke to him only once.
He came across the prisoner slumped against the wall in meditative silence. Bruises blossomed over his dark face and seemed to shift and dance under the light of Longinus’s torch. His eyes were half shrouded by flickering shadow and blood-matted hair. It was late, and Longinus shivered in the dungeon room.
“Tell me what to do,” Longinus said. “You have to tell me how to help.”
Longinus’s voice came out meek and hoarse, echoing off the rock. He cringed at the cowardice in that ghost speech. His arm ached under the weight of his soldier’s armor and torch. Somehow, the rattling of the prisoner’s breath weighed even heavier on his chest.
The prisoner, this man who claimed to be a god, was silent in the wake of Longinus’s plea. He was serene in his suffering, or perhaps too pained to even grimace. Longinus hoped it was the former.
As Longinus crouched, the light from his torch lit up the prisoner’s feet. Dirt and dried blood caked the man’s toes and hardened heels. His toenails were jagged and stuffed with dark lines of mud and moss, likely having been scraped along the rock floor as the guards dragged him in. Longinus would have washed the man’s feet if he could avoid being seen with the water and cloth, but that was too great a risk.
Looking up at his face and assuming he would find the man asleep, Longinus was unnerved to see deep brown eyes peering back at him between licks of flame.
“Pilate will have his due,” the man said. “We must all play our part.”
Something fierce and urgent churned in Longinus’s gut. Whether it was anxiety, anger, or something else, he did not know. He leaned in closer, hoping his intensity wouldn’t offend the man before him, but he struggled to control his plea.
“I need more than that. Tell me how to help you escape.”
The man took a deep, wincing breath but maintained his gaze. Longinus felt stripped bare in the dark. Those strange eyes pried their way into every corner of his mind, dragging up every piece of shame, every morsel of victory and worth that Longinus had stored away. He was eleven again, tearfully hunkered in the fields after his father’s death. He was fourteen, standing up for the servant girl in the market. He was himself the year prior, having just given his sister’s hand to a man whose wretched reputation preceded him. None of those moments brought him any more pain or satisfaction as the man’s stare bore into him.
It was not difficult to understand why this prisoner had garnered such a following. It was also not difficult to see how he had inspired such hatred. Longinus may as well have been naked, his soul on plain display—and yet, he felt such security.
He remembered the stories. They had been whispered among his fellow soldiers, who were always careful to show nothing more than contempt in the presence of superiors. Yet their awe and begrudging respect had always snuck through in hushed voices between confidants. This man before him, for all his piety, had made friends of whores and lepers. He spent his time in the desert, traveling through towns of drunkards and idol-worshipers, preaching of love and forgiveness despite sin. Time and again, Longinus heard it in his brothers’ tales: hidden hope that they might be worthy, that they might have some chance for redemption. Even so, Longinus was undeserving, and that brought back the churning feeling from before.
The man continued his steady stare into Longinus’s psyche, and the soldier feared he would not speak again. The thought brought on a fresh jolt of fretful frustration. Any other prisoner refusing to speak to him would have been subjected to a severe beating, but Longinus wouldn’t dare raise a hand against this man. Even if he wanted to, something in that unwavering gaze told him it would mean nothing.
Finally, the man gave a soft shake of his head, seeming to slump further into the rough stone behind him. “You will do what you must.”
From the end of the hall, the clanking of metal and echo of footsteps bounced off the stone surfaces. Longinus rose, nearly slipping in the process. The man’s eyes followed him, dark, all-knowing pools reflecting from the black. As the glow of the approaching lights grew, Longinus spared the man one last pleading look before stiffening his back and squaring his shoulders.
“You are weak and a fraud,” he said, the other guards finally in view. Heart pounding, Longinus spat on the prisoner’s dark, matted curls. The man didn’t so much as flinch, keeping Longinus locked in his steady gaze. “You will die for your crimes.”
* * *
Sweat trickled down the back of Longinus’s neck, carrying with it the acrid scent of fear. The wood of his spear gnawed into his palms. Cries erupted around him. Wails, jeers, and screams all blended into one bizarre roar of terror and zeal. At the edge of the crowd, a woman wept on her knees, face contorted in an agony Longinus was all too familiar with. Her screams did not join the cacophonous slurry of the crowd, but rather stood out as a piercing wail above its discordant rhythm. He felt sick from the heat.
Longinus’s vision tunneled. Before him, the prisoner hung with his arms outstretched, covered in blood and sweat. His head lolled, and his chest rose only marginally, but his lips moved slightly, near-constantly. Longinus’s grip around the spear tightened, and his legs shook.
As he pulled the spear behind his head, Longinus’s thoughts drifted to the woman who had whispered into his ear three nights prior. Tangled beneath his bed linens, she rubbed her thumb in lazy circles against his stubbled cheek before trailing her soft hand down his neck to his chest.
“You want to save the savior.” Her lips were plump and glistening, her fingers long and deft in their movements. She batted her eyes at him, and he marveled at their exotic emerald color, drunk on the way her hands traced the muscles of his abdomen.
“You are one expensive confidant,” he murmured.
She laughed a breathy, hissing sound. “Don’t worry; your silver buys my silence.”
He had been considering it since the ruling: the possibility of freeing the man who had traveled through Jerusalem healing the blind. The man had to be important if so many were willing to follow him, to die for him. Until this whore wandered into his bed, Longinus hadn’t dared breathe a word of his idea to anyone. He chalked the confession up to a guilty conscience and womanly wiles.
“I worry he’s too proud to take a chance at escape,” Longinus continued, not really expecting her to do more than lie beside him. “I need to convince him somehow. Once he’s up there, there’s no other way down—even for a son of God.”
To his surprise, she slithered herself on top of him, straddled his hips and sat upright. She grabbed him by the wrist and sank down to pin his hand over his head, hovering her face just above his. With her free hand, she snaked her fingers down to a spot on his chest. “If he won’t escape with you, strike here.” She pressed a fingertip in firmly enough that he winced.
For a second, he was taken aback as her nail cut into his bare skin. And then he laughed. “What do you know, woman?” He rolled her off of him and sat up. “Have you seen a man with a spear in his chest? More often than not, they are dead.”
Something in her cold silence dried up his humor.
“Trust me, Longinus. Men may know how to kill, but it is women who learn to heal.”
The bed shifted as she stood up.
“His disciples will take him back to the tomb while he is unconscious. I expect it is they who will discover he is alive. You needn’t concern yourself with what happens next.”
Mesmerized, Longinus watched her dress. She was ridiculous, he thought. He wanted to be repulsed by her. Instead, he found himself wanting to beg her to stay. The spot on his chest where her finger had touched burned long after she took her leave of him.
Longinus stood now with that same spot in his sights. He lined the tip of his spear up, tightened his grip until his knuckles turned white. He recalled her explanation, given in quick, confident words as she dressed: men on the crucifix often died because the blood weighing in their chest drowned them, like those who swallow water in the sea. All he needed to do was be exact, and the spear would release that liquid, leaving a wound that might be healed. Longinus couldn’t claim to know what any of it meant, but she spoke with such certainty that he found doubt impossible.
“Please, no!” The woman on the ground continued to wail against the crowd. His mother, Longinus realized. His chest swelled with pride at the thought that he would be sparing this woman her grief. If he succeeded, he would be hailed as a hero of the Jews: the man who saved the Savior. The whore had given it such a nice ring.
He realigned his sights on the man, hoping to catch his eye. Staring at him over the long line of the spear steadied Longinus. He could do this. Hopefully the prisoner would know he was playing the right part even when the wood embedded itself between his bones. Surely, the man must understand. What else could he have meant in that dark dungeon?
Longinus prayed for the guidance of his weapon. A breath of doubt crept down the back of his mind, but faith tightened his resolve. He had to act now, before the other soldiers slung their own spears and arrows.
Longinus flung the spear.
He watched it fly towards the prisoner and, for a second, swore he saw the man shake his head. Even from this distance, he could see those steady brown eyes between lines of glistening blood. They were wide and accusatory; his lips no longer moved but formed a hard, solemn line. Longinus felt his stomach drop. The spear sunk into the man’s chest with sickening accuracy, and the wails of the woman on the ground grew piercingly loud. The man’s eyes widened even more to reveal bloodshot whites before his head lolled again.
Longinus stood in frozen horror as the man’s whole body sagged under its own weight. More blood spurted from the new wound. For a moment, nothing else seemed to happen. The air felt dead as all looked on with bated breath. Longinus feared, however unreasonably, that his own heart might stop.
Then the crowd surged.
Longinus looked around wildly at the upheaval of people and found himself lost in a flurry of barked commands from his fellow soldiers. Hand on the hilt of his sword, he fumbled for something to do, but the world spun around him. He thought he might be sick. Someone bumped against his shoulder, nearly knocking him off balance.
Faces and bodies blurred together as Longinus found himself pushed back with the masses. The soldiers pressed into the crowd with their shields linked in an impenetrable wall. He tried to work his way to the front. But as he moved forward, something caught his eye.
Away from the people, the whore stood upon a hill, watching him.
Longinus swayed with a fresh wave of nausea.
“Patience.” He somehow heard her voice over the panic and commotion. “Trust me.”
He pushed towards her, sword drawn. She waited for him, and he grabbed her by the arm, pressed his blade against her perfect throat. “You lying—”
“Wait,” she hissed. “He lives. Go to the tomb tonight. See for yourself.”
The next hours passed in a muddled blur.
Then, Longinus found himself crouching behind a shrub in the dark. He had been waiting outside the tomb for the disciples and women to part ways, hidden and cautious. The woman who had wailed so loudly seemed as though she would never leave, but just as Longinus thought he’d have to move despite her, she wandered away into the night. Finally alone, he snuck from the branches and crept towards the stone covering. With all his might, he pushed at the side of the rock.
From within the tomb poured flickering torch light. Longinus took a steadying breath, preparing himself to witness the corpse of the man he’d set out to save. Over the years, he had seen countless bodies of men. Of women and children, too. He hadn’t shied away from it before, but this one gave him pause. His hand rested on the rough stone as he gathered what little courage he could before stepping over the threshold of the tomb.
Inside, the man sat with bandaged wounds, surrounded by myrrh and other herbs that the whore had described in her talks of healing. He didn’t look up when Longinus entered, but his chest rose and fell plain as day. He breathed. He lived. Longinus swelled with pride, and a smile began to break out across his face.
“I can’t belie—”
“You do not know what you have done.”
The words were hollow. Gone was the solid conviction and pointed assurance the man had held in his dungeon cell.
“I don’t understand.” Longinus took a step forward, a half-smile still on his lips. Did the man not realize what Longinus had done for him? What he had risked? “You can continue spreading the word. I saved you!”
“You have damned them all,” the man snapped. He looked up at Longinus. “Your hubris and free will have destroyed everything. Get out.”
Longinus stumbled back. The force in the man’s words cut to his core. That same feeling from the dungeon burned like a spear stuck in his own chest, and now he found he could name it as shame. Longinus could not understand. How could saving a life be wrong? He’d violated something despite his good intentions. He stammered, then withered in the oppressive silence. The man returned to staring at the stone floor.
With slumped shoulders, Longinus turned to leave.
Three days later, he heard rumors that the man’s tomb had been found empty. His brothers spoke of it in hushed voices, now tasked with finding those who went on to preach what no one really knew were lies.
Longinus listened to the murmurings. Murmurings that the son of God had died only to rise again. Murmurings that the Messiah had come and gone, that the word of God had been fulfilled.
Longinus had never felt more guilty than when he let those murmurs pass him by without speaking a word against them.
He wished them to be true.
But what good is a sacrifice that never gets made?
Toriann Molis is a creative writing major at Texas State University.