continued from The Medallion – I…
It would be a fast stab-and-scram, no hassles.
“Where are you, son? Hey…make way…excuse me, have you seen my boy? Rufus?!”
Son? Boy? Rufus froze, confused. A thin man wearing a traveler’s cloak and a frightful look on his face burst through the crowd. One look at this stranger’s head of ginger-colored hair and Rufus remembered the tot with the gap-toothed grin who had earlier bumped into him and – he just realized – had stayed stuck to the skirt of his garments. As if on cue, the stranger looked downwards and looked like he would collapse.
“There you are, boy. Rufus!” The man grabbed the little boy up into one ferocious hug while thanking Rufus – apparently, big Rufus – over and over again.
Releasing a pent up breath, Rufus stealthily slid his knife back in his belt. When the stranger wouldn’t accept his modest claims of having had nothing to do with the boy being found, he accepted the offered gratitude and turned back to the Gabbatha, his body language asking to be left alone.
The stranger must have missed the subtle message because he moved even closer.
“I’m Simon” he said, “Simon of Cyrene. And these are my sons, Rufus – well you already met him – and” – he nudged forward the elder son who had a build that mirrored his father’s and hair shades lighter – “Alexander. We live here in Galilee but we took a short trip out to the country. We hoped to make it back in time for the Passover but well, better late than never”
Rufus gaped at the stranger for a while; never had he been freely offered so much unsought information at a first meeting. “I’m Rufus” he eventually said, as nonchalantly as he could, “my son, Eleazer”
“What a shock it must have been for you, me yelling Rufus’ name like that!”
You have no idea, Rufus thought, you were this close to a mortal shock yourself. In response though, he only grunted focusing intently on the Gabbatha hoping that the stranger would take the cue.
Things were taking an interesting shape on the Gabbatha too. The guards had brought up another prisoner. In contrast, both prisoners were nothing alike. The former was a tall and fair-skinned man with a calm, full-bearded face. A nasty bruise burned red around his right eye and his general appearance was hassled. But roughed up as he was and in chains, this prisoner’s carriage was regal. His face was a pale sheet of calmness, his gaze settled momentarily on Rufus while sweeping across the crowd and in it, Rufus read sadness and – puzzling as it was – empathy. An impassioned empathy.
The other prisoner, in contrast, was a squat bull of a man who repeatedly smacked his lips and grinned, revealing a couple of gold teeth; he made faces and directed obscene gestures at the crowd looking more like a jester in the king’s court than a prisoner.
Both men stood on either side of the seated governor, a fat sallow-skinned man with a prominent bald-head. His voice was surprisingly thunderous when he spoke.
“Which one do you want me to release to you: -“, he pointed to his right at the squat, restive one, “- Barabbas or –“, he gestured towards the tall, regal prisoner, “- Jesus who is called Christ?”
“Barabbas!!!” the entire crowd yelled in unison.
Huh? Rufus was astonished. Barabbas, clearly more of a criminal among the two, in looks at least, pranced across the breath of the Gabbatha, his shackled hands raised in salute to the yelling crowd. The other man stood calm, mute, like a lamb being taken to the slaughter. This Jesus, Rufus thought, was either a devil in angel’s garb or was really terrible at making friends.
“Every year during the feast, this governor releases a convicted criminal to the people”. Rufus whirled around; he didn’t realize that the stranger – Simon – was still standing by him. The man, if he detected the irritated surprise on Rufus’ face, did nothing to show it. He only smiled as if to say ‘yes, still here’.
Rufus said nothing to him. Just grunted and turned back towards the unfolding drama.
“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” the governor was asking the crowd.
They all answered, “Crucify him!” Whewww, Rufus whistled, this was one bloodthirsty bunch!
The governor however, was of a contrary opinion. “Why?” he asked. “He has done nothing wrong and it is my wish to have him flogged and set…”
“Pontius Pilate,” one of the ‘pricks’ spoke out from the front, his seemingly disrespectful use of the governor’s name causing a few stirs around Rufus. “Your honor, sir” the prick amended – they knew manners after all. “This man has blasphemed against the laws of Moses which our fathers handed down to us. We have a law and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God. If you let him go, you are no friend of Caesar’s. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar”.
The crowd roared their support.
Rufus knew a veiled threat when he heard one. Apparently Pilate did too because he slouched in his throne, head down, flushed and deep in thought. After a while, during which the crowd just worked itself into even more frenzied yells of ‘Crucify him!’, the governor signaled to an attendant who left the Gabbatha and returned with a basin containing what looked to Rufus to be water. Pilate washed his hands with the water in front of the crowd.
“I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said, “I will have him flogged and handed over to you. Whatever you do with him is your responsibility”
The ‘prick’ in front – clearly a spokesman of sorts – replied in a loud voice, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” And the crowd yelled their support.
Pontius Pilate signaled for Jesus to be taken away by the guards who did not even attempt to hide the smiles on their faces. Barabbas meanwhile was freed of his shackles and he jumped down into the crowd from the elevated stone pavement. The crowd, as one, made a wide berth giving way for him to prance through like some peacock with the dreaded virus.
In that crowd movement, Rufus felt a tug on his cloak. He turned to meet the bowed hood of a monk’s habit. A rolled-up parchment was held out to him by a severely gnarled hand – his task. Rufus put Eleazer down and grabbed the scroll; without another word, the man in the habit turned and disappeared into the crowd. Rufus unrolled the scroll and studied it.
‘The Medallion’ was boldly scrawled at the top but what first drew one’s attention was the painting just beneath the inscription. It was a fine piece of jewelry – a golden pendant which was shaped like the sun, a man’s head was inscribed in the centre in gold as well, his long hair and full beards spread out around the stony face like rays of the sun. With a start, Rufus realized he was looking at Ra, the Egyptian sun god. The medallion was the office signature of the priest of Ra and it had been last seen on the night before the mass exodus of the Israelites from Egypt centuries ago. The myth was that it was Ichalus, then priest of Ra who upon discovering the disappearance of the medallion, had prevailed on Pharaoh to embark on the doomed chase of the Israelites. It was a wonder to Rufus how that medallion had resurfaced in Galilee all of a sudden, and the key to its location was in his hands. A thrill ran down his spine as he turned the scroll around to read the ‘key’. It said:
“The golden sun
Lies beneath the king of rocks
In the Place of Skulls”
The King of rocks? Place of skulls? Rufus was stumped. Why did these hot-necks have to make everything a puzzle? He was just a thief, not a doctor of the Sanhedrin! He fumed.
By then, the crowd had dispersed most of them thronging after the guards who led the condemned Jesus out. Simon noticed Rufus scowling at a scroll of parchment and moved closer for a better look. Sensing his approach, Rufus snapped it shut a warning look in his eyes.
“It’s alright my friend,” Simon pacified him with a nervous laugh, “I just wanted to see”
Rufus relaxed, the man was just being friendly. He looked around. “Where is everybody going?” he asked.
“To the Praetorium,” the boy – maybe seven or eight years old – who had been introduced as Alexander spoke, “that’s where they are going to whip Jesus before leading him away to be crucified” Rufus barely noticed the crestfallen expression on the boy’s face nor did he hear the reverent tone with which Alexander had said the name of the condemned prisoner; he only noted that the boy was quickly taking after his father in the business of doling out information. Rufus grunted.
“Well then, Rufus, Eleazer, we will take our leave now” Simon proffered, his ‘friend’s unfriendly demeanor finally having gotten through. “It was somewhat nice making your acquaintance”. And he beat a quick retreat, dragging his boys along.
Rufus thought quickly and called after him. “Oy!” He mustered his most charming smile when he reached them, “Pardon me, it’s just that my destination is tied to this little puzzle I have here which I have no idea how to decipher. Perhaps you could help me figure it out?”
Like Rufus had expected, Simon’s face lit up in a smile and he quickly let go of his boys to take a closer look at the painting. Rufus was well aware of the risk he was taking but his criminal mind was already brewing some contingency plans. The man lived in the area and if his knowledge of information was anything to go by, could very well know the location of The Medallion.
After they found it, one of his contingency plans would roll into action; none of them held a good ending for good ol’ Simon of Cyrene.
…to be continued