The sun was too bright that day and it was upsetting my goats. Some of them took to charging the children playing in the outskirts of the crowd. Kids just rolling in the dirt, not really seeing the parade or knowing what it was. I don’t know if they called it a parade. Anyway, my goats were knocking kids over, making them cry. I had to whistle a certain note and they rammed each other’s heads instead. Sometimes you have to do that with goats. We had traveled many miles and we had many more to go, to a new home, perhaps, with more water. One of them, I called him Blek, he wandered away and walked right up to the man carrying the cross. Before I could do anything, little black Blek, who I liked particularly for his joyful bleating, he licked the dirty and bloody knees of the man walking up the hill. The man yelled at Blek to beat it but Blek doesn’t listen all the time. The man then took his hand away from the cross to swat at Blek but the weight of all that wood was too much and the man collapsed, cross shoving his face into the dirt. I laughed. I don’t care for any man who raises his hand against my goats. I thought it was justice, like a universal justice that just takes care of things. I don’t know. Some people heard my laughing and glared at me like I’d pushed him down. I shrugged. A Roman soldier approached the man and my goat. He kicked the man’s ribs, told him to get up. Then he kicked my goat, who had moved on to licking the man’s feet. I had a dagger on my hip and I gripped it. Of course, I didn’t use it. I know what happened to men who raise goats when they try to take on the Romans. I’m not stupid. And as the river of my thoughts has grown longer and wider as I’ve grow more tired, I believe that life, all life, is sacred, no matter my opinions. I knew Blek would understand. He ran through the crowd and joined his goat brothers and sisters.
I saw her eyes first, on the other side of the path, full moon open on a little, scared face. She looked like my sister. She died three years ago. Nobody knew why and that’s just the way it is sometimes. This woman, covered in black and following the man with her eyes as if he was carrying our world made of glass on his shoulders, she held something close to her chest, some rolled-up cloth that twisted in her bony fists. The lumpy muscles of her jaw pulsed. I understand the terror of death, but some people wear out their life thinking of death. But what could I do? I wanted to give her a hug, but people don’t always like that, thinking it means something else. Blek wandered to me and nibbled a weed, and I scratched his back. The man came up the hill with a shadow behind him. I could read the curses on his lips. Sweat and blood flowed down his face and he squinted through it all. As he neared the woman, she unraveled her cloth with shaky hands and blurted out, we will miss you. On the piece of cloth was a picture of the face of the man who carried the cross, painted crudely as if by a child. It could have been any man with a beard, but I knew she intended it for him. The man looked toward the woman and dropped the cross. Without a word, he snatched the picture from the woman’s hand, wiped his face with it, and flung it back into her arms. He picked up the cross and marched on. This poor woman, she wept into the painting, showed it like a proud mother to the people around her, and they tore it to pieces as they tried to take it away. Get away from her, I yelled to those maniacs. A guard walking behind the man turned to me and said, no yelling. The people dispersed, some with a keepsake, and the woman stared at her empty hands.
The man was really dragging along, inching up that hill. I felt hungry; I hadn’t eaten since morning. And the road ahead stretched out of sight. But I couldn’t leave. You must not turn your back to Death, even if he is not coming after you. Our road would wait for us. The soldiers were getting bored. Started kicking stones back and forth between each other. Some even chatted up people in the crowd. One came up to me, a man not much older than my son, asked if the goats were mine, then told me I had fine goats. Just when I was about to whistle my goats together to leave, a soldier dragged a man out of the crowd and told him to carry the back end of the cross. I knew him. Name was Sam or Simon and he once bought a goat from me. He left it in the care of his oldest son who let my goat starve and become covered in sores. I did not care for this man who now argued with the soldiers saying he didn’t know the man with the cross, didn’t want anything to do with any of it, just passing by. A soldier drew his sword and pointed it in Sam’s face. Then the man with the cross dropped his burden and turned to the argument. A woman beside me gasped and covered her mouth with her hands. The sun was falling toward the hill slowly and my goats were still anxious. Big dark clouds in the east. The man straightened his back, stepped closer to the soldier with the sword and said he needed no help, especially from this bastard. He pointed at Sam and spat at his feet.
Have you ever lived with a cat that is nearing its end? It likely will hide somewhere quiet, and if you should try to drag it out to help it in some way, it will lash out with claws. It seemed to me that this man reacted to his death march in a similar way. But he wasn’t a cat. He was a human just like me. I don’t know what to do with that fact.
A soldier came up behind the cross man and slapped the back of his knees with a folded up whip, told him to pick up the cross and get going. The man, once again, fell to the ground. Such pitiful noises erupted from the crowd. A man up the hill from me said, don’t you touch him! A woman beside him wept into her hands. I wondered at these people’s dedication to this man. What had he done? Was I not seeing the same man? The man, he got up and cursed the soldier, picked up the cross where the wood intersected while Sam picked up the back. Up the hill a little faster now, so I got my goats and climbed on. People had already gathered at the top. I heard hammering and screaming. Birds, big and black, circled over the top.
The man trudged along up the worn path, up the hill, through the divided sea of people, the filthy laughing children and the women. Many women. Eyes with tears but also eyes with hunger. Even with all the dirt and blood on his face, the scars on his back, this man was handsome. Beautiful, some would say. Hunched over by the wood, he was still as tall as the soldiers whipping his back and shouting at the crowd crawling closer. The bones in his face cast pleasant shadows. His powerful arms and legs gleamed with sweat and blood. He wore a loin cloth but it was insufficient. The women cooed and took their hands from their breasts to reach out to him. He would sometimes take his eyes from the path and look at a woman as he walked by, show her his fleshy lips and shimmering eyes and he would mouth a word or two just for her. I know his type, but I wanted to see it till the end. I counted my goats and climbed farther up the hill.
The children were too loud, scaring my goats. I don’t know why parents bring kids to things like this. They hardly watch them, just the show. Kids aren’t like goats. Goats learn quicker. After Blek got that kick, he concentrated on eating and keeping within the flock of his fellow goats. These kids, of course they found rocks and they must throw them. They threw them at each other, at the people watching. One boy, with mud in his hair, he heaved a stone at Blek. Then he laughed as my goat bleated in pain and ran to me. I grabbed his filthy collar and told him I’d skin his back if he did it again. He ran crying to his mother and clutched the cloth around her thighs, but that man was just then walking by and she pushed the boy away without looking. He stood there, tears cleaning his face. Then he picked up a rock and hurled it at the man with the cross. Got him in the eye. The man growled, falling again into the dirt. He looked up with dirt in his eyes and said he’d bury whichever bastard did it. The woman began beating the boy on the head, crying all the while. I don’t know if the boy learned anything from that flogging, or if any boy learned anything good from any flogging. Cause and effect, is that good enough? I don’t know. I walked to the mother and grabbed her wrist before it could strike her son again. Enough, I said. She looked at me like I had risen out of the dirt. She wrenched her hand away, took her boy and walked farther up the hill.
Of course, I have seen a few men get the nails. I don’t seek it out, as some do—those morbid watchers—but if I happen upon it I feel bound to see it all the way. When I was a boy, my mother sent me into town to pick up some figs from the market. I did this and was coming to the road that would take me home when I saw a man, maybe twenty-years-old, naked and sobbing by a cross lying on the ground with a few soldiers standing about. I approached him and asked why he was so sad. I am going to die today, he told me. I didn’t really understand and I didn’t know what to say so I gave him one of the figs. He ate it with his tears and thanked me. I went to the cross and stepped onto the wood beam and tried to walk to the other end. The figs I held threw my balance and I couldn’t do it. A soldier laughed and told me to scram. I asked him what they were doing. He took a big step toward me and smacked my head, said it was nothing for me. I ran home crying. It wasn’t until years later that I saw what happens to the weeping standing naked by the cross. I should not have left that man alone. I think about that.
He was getting there. To the top. The people got quiet. Even my goats stopped their chomping of weeds and bleating and they seemed to keep one eye on the man trudging up the hill with the blood drop trail and long shadow behind him. The man didn’t look so angry anymore and he didn’t speak to the women. He looked a little scared. He carried the same look as every man I ever seen approaching that end. We all crowded around the rim of the hill—men, women, children, and goats—like a crown on a king in his grave. Two crosses with two men awaited the third with nails driven through and quiet. They set their eyes to some faraway place. Their chests heaved slowly, trembling. Blek, he didn’t know better, he started bellowing like he was in pain, and much of the crowd turned to him and glared, then to me, the man who came with goats. I whistled, told him to stop, but he only got louder. Blek, I said, enough. He kept going with popping eyes and his legs shaking like a snake was crawling in his belly. I grabbed him and wrapped my arms around his body but nothing I said brought him peace. Two soldiers approached. One said I needed to shut up my goat. He was the one who had said I had fine goats. I told him I was trying. Even the men on the crosses looked at us. The soldier said, stop that damn thing now. I tried. I covered Blek’s mouth but he bit me. I don’t blame him for that. I decided I had to leave, but before I could take one step away, one of the soldiers grabbed Blek’s hind legs and yanked him. I didn’t let go. Don’t touch my goat, I said. The other soldier bashed the back of my head with the some hard metal thing, maybe the handle of his sword. Things went black for a moment. I was on the ground, dizzy with dirt on my face. The soldiers walked away. I pushed myself up, nearly fell over. Blek lied on the earth, curled up and quiet. Blood ran from his neck down the hill. His eyes still bulged and the flies found him already. I couldn’t breathe so well. The sun going down was in my eyes. I touched his belly as I had when he ate figs from my hand, and it felt warm. The other goats, quiet as all the people, they came and looked at Blek, murmured in their throats something I’ve never heard.
The third cross was erect when I finally looked up. The women cried to heaven and the men looked down with secret tears wetting their faces. The children threw no rocks but kicked them away. I picked up Blek like a sleeping child; his blood ran down my arm. I walked toward the crosses and my goats followed. The sun glowed from behind the western mountains and all things were becoming shadows among shadows, blending into one cold, weeping form. The soldiers pushed the people away and they turned for home. I came to the foot of the middle cross and looked up at the man who I had followed up the hill. He breathed through his mouth with his eyes closed. I knocked against the cross like I was knocking on his door. Blood on my knuckles. He opened his eyes and looked down at me. Hello, he said. When I didn’t reply, he said, I’m sorry about your goat. I said, I’m sorry you’re up there. I had a good run, he said, but I guess this is how things end. Sometimes, I said. I said, why did my goat die? He shrugged his shoulders and said, I don’t know.
Wayland Tracy works with flowers in Wichita, Kansas. @WaylandTracy