The  Execution
(The Master and Margarita, Chapter 16)

Mikhail Bulgakov

The sun had already set over Mount Golgotha and the hill was ringed by a double cordon.

The cavalry ala that had held up the Procurator that morning had left the city at a trot by the Hebron Gate, its route cleared ahead of it.  Infantrymen of the Cappadocian cohort pressed back a crowd of people, mules and camels, and the ala, throwing up pillars of white dust, trotted towards the crossroads where two ways met one southward to Bethlehem, the other northwestward to Jaffa.  The ala took the north-westward route.  More of the Cappadocians had been posted along the edge of the road in time to clear the route of all the caravans moving into Jerusalem for Passover.  Crowds of pilgrims stood behind the line of troops, leaving the temporary shelter of their tents pitched on the grass.  After about a kilometer the ala overtook the second cohort of the Lightning legion and having gone a further kilometer arrived first at the foot of Mount Golgotha.  There the commander hastily divided the ala into troops and cordoned off the base of the low hill, leaving only a small gap where a path led from the Jaffa road to the hilltop.

After a while the second cohort arrived, climbed up and formed another cordon round the hill.

Last on the scene was the century under the command of Mark Muribellum.  It marched in two single files, one along each edge of the road, and between them, escorted by a secret service detachment, drove the cart carrying the three prisoners.  Each wore a white board hung round his neck on which were written the words "Robber & Rebel" in Aramaic and Greek.  Behind the prisoners' cart came others, loaded with freshly sawn posts and cross-pieces, ropes, spades, buckets and axes.  They also carried six executioners.  Last in the convoy rode Mark the centurion, the captain of the temple guard and the same hooded man with whom Pilate had briefly conferred in a darkened room of the palace.

Although the procession was completely enclosed by troops, it was followed by about two thousand curious sightseers determined to watch this interesting spectacle despite the infernal heat.  These spectators from the city were now being joined by crowds of pilgrims, who were allowed to follow the tail of the procession unhindered, as it made its way towards Mount Golgotha to the bark of the heralds' voices as they repeated Pilate's announcement.

The ala allowed them through as far as the second cordon, where the century admitted only those concerned with the execution and then, with a brisk maneuver, spread the crowd round the hill between the mounted cordon below and the upper ring formed by the infantry, allowing the spectators to watch the execution through a thin line of soldiery.

More than three hours had gone by since the procession had reached the hill and although the sun over Mount Golgotha had already begun its descent, the heat was still unbearable.  The troops in both cordons were suffering from it; stupefied with boredom, they cursed the three robbers and sincerely wished them a quick death.

At the gap in the lower cordon the diminutive commander of the ala, his forehead damp and his white tunic soaked with the sweat of his back, occasionally walked over to the leather bucket in No. I Troop's lines, scooped up the water in handfuls, drank and moistened his turban.  With this slight relief from the heat he would return and recommence pacing up and down the dusty path leading to the top.  His long sword bumped against his laced leather boot.  As commander he had to set an example of endurance to his men, but he considerately allowed them to stick their lances into the ground and drape their white cloaks over the tops of the shafts.  The Syrians then sheltered from the pitiless sun under these makeshift tents.  The buckets emptied quickly and a rota of troopers was kept busy fetching water from a ravine at the foot of the hill, where a muddy stream flowed in the shade of a clump of gaunt mulberry trees.  There, making the most of the inadequate shade, the bored grooms lounged beside the horse-lines.

The troops were exhausted and their resentment of the victims was understandable.  Fortunately, however, Pilate's fears that disorders might occur in Jerusalem during the execution were unjustified.  When the fourth hour of the execution had passed, against all expectation not a man remained between the two cordons.  The sun had scorched the crowd and driven it back to Jerusalem.  Beyond the ring formed by the two Roman centuries there were only a couple of stray dogs.  The heat had exhausted them too and they lay panting with their tongues out, too weary even to chase the green-backed lizards, the only creatures unafraid of the sun, which darted between the broken stones and the spiny, ground-creeping cactus plants.

No one had tried to attack the prisoners, neither in Jerusalem, which was packed with troops, nor on the cordoned hill.  The crowd had drifted back into town, bored by this dull execution and eager to join in the preparations for the feast which were already under way in the city.

The Roman infantry forming the second tier was suffering even more acutely than the cavalrymen.  Centurion Muribellum's only concession to his men was to allow them to take off their helmets and put on white headbands soaked in water, but he kept them standing, lance in hand.  The centurion himself, also wearing a headband though a dry one, walked up and down a short distance from a group of executioners without even removing his heavy silver badges of rank, his sword or his dagger.  The sun beat straight down on the centurion without causing him the least distress and such was the glitter from the silver of his lions" muzzles that a glance at them was almost blinding.

Muribellum's disfigured face showed neither exhaustion nor displeasure and the giant centurion seemed strong enough to keep pacing all day, all night and all the next day.  For as long as might be necessary he would go on walking with his hands on his heavy bronze-studded belt, he would keep his stern gaze either on the crucified victims or on the line of troops, or just kick at the rubble on the ground with the toe of his rough hide boot, indifferent to whether it was a whitened human bone or a small flint.

The hooded man had placed himself a short way from the gibbets on a three-legged stool and sat in calm immobility, occasionally poking the sand with a stick out of boredom.

It was not quite true that no one was left of the crowd between the cordons.  There was one man, but he was partly hidden.  He was not near the path, which was the best place from which to see the execution, but on the northern side, where the hill was not smooth and passable but rough and jagged with gulleys and fissures, at a spot where a sickly fig tree struggled to keep alive on that arid soil by rooting itself in a crevice.

Although the fig tree gave no shade, this sole remaining spectator had been sitting beneath it on a stone since the very start of the execution four hours before.  He had chosen the worst place to watch the execution, although he had a direct view of the gibbets and could even see the two glittering badges on the centurion's chest.  His vantage point seemed adequate, however, for a man who seemed anxious to remain out of sight.

Yet four hours ago this man had behaved quite differently and had made himself all too conspicuous, which was probably the reason why he had now changed his tactics and withdrawn to solitude.  When the procession had reached the top of the hill he had been the first of the crowd to appear and he had shown all the signs of a man arriving late.  He had run panting up the hill, pushing people aside, and when halted by the cordon he had made a naive attempt, by pretending not to understand their angry shouts, to break through the line of soldiers and reach the place of execution where the prisoners were already being led off the cart.  For this he had earned a savage blow on the chest with the blunt end of a lance and had staggered back with a cry, not of pain but of despair.  He had stared at the legionary who had hit him with the bleary, indifferent look of a man past feeling physical pain.

Gasping and clutching his chest he had run round to the northern side of the hill, trying to find a gap in the cordon where he might slip through.  But it was too late, the chain had been closed.  And the man, his face contorted with grief, had to give up trying to break through to the carts, from which men were unloading the gibbet-posts.  Any such attempt would have led to his arrest and as his plans for that day did not include being arrested, he had hidden himself in the crevice where he could watch unmolested.

Now as he sat on his stone, his eyes festering from heat, dust and lack of sleep, the black-bearded man felt miserable.  First he would sigh, opening his travel-worn tallith, once blue but now turned dirty grey, and bare his sweating, bruised chest, then he would raise his eyes to the sky in inexpressible agony, following the three vultures who had long been circling the hilltop in expectation of a feast, then gaze hopelessly at the yellow soil where he stared at the half-crushed skull of a dog and the lizards that scurried around it.

The man was in such distress that now and again he would talk to himself.

"Oh, I am a fool," he mumbled, rocking back and forth in agony of soul and scratching his swarthy chest.  "I'm a fool, as stupid as a woman and I'm a coward!  I'm a lump of carrion, not a man I."

He hung his head in silence, then revived by a drink of tepid water from his wooden flask he gripped the knife hidden under his tallith or fingered the piece of parchment lying on a stone in front of him with a stylus and a bladder of ink.

On the parchment were some scribbled notes:

"Minutes pass while I, Matthew the Levite, sit here on Mount Golgotha and still he is not dead!"

Later:

"The sun is setting and death not yet come."  Hopelessly, Matthew now wrote with his sharp stylus:

"God!  Why are you angry with him?  Send him death."

Having written this, he gave a tearless sob and again scratched his chest.

The cause of the Levite's despair was his own and Yeshua's terrible failure.  He was also tortured by the fatal mistake which he, Matthew, had committed.  Two days before, Yeshua and Matthew had been in Bethphagy near Jerusalem, where they had been staying with a market gardener who had taken pleasure in Yeshua's preaching.  All that morning the two men had helped their host at work in his garden, intending to walk on to Jerusalem in the cool of the evening.  But for some reason Yeshua had been in a hurry, saying that he had something urgent to do in the city, and had set off alone at noon.  That was Matthew the Levite's first mistake.  Why, why had he let him go alone?

That evening Matthew had been unable to go to Jerusalem, as he had suffered a sudden and unexpected attack of sickness.  He shivered, his body felt as if it were on fire and he constantly begged for water.

To go anywhere was out of the question.  He had collapsed on to a rug in the gardener's courtyard and had lain there until dawn on Friday, when the sickness left Matthew as suddenly as it had struck him.  Although still weak, he had felt oppressed by a foreboding of disaster and bidding his host farewell had set out for Jerusalem.  There he had learned that his foreboding had not deceived him and that the disaster had occurred.  The Levite had been in the crowd that had heard the Procurator pronounce sentence.

When the prisoners were taken away to Mount Golgotha, Matthew the Levite ran alongside the escort amid the crowd of sightseers, trying to give Yeshua an inconspicuous signal that at least he, the Levite, was here with him, that he had not abandoned him on his last journey and that he was praying for Yeshua to be granted a quick death.  But Yeshua, staring far ahead to where they were taking him, could not see Matthew.

Then, when the procession had covered half a mile or so of the way, Matthew, who was being pushed along by the crowd level with the prisoners' cart, was struck by a brilliant and simple idea.  In his fervor he cursed himself for not having thought of it before.  The soldiers were not marching in close order, but with a gap between each man.  With great dexterity and very careful timing it would be possible to bend down and jump between two legionaries, reach the cart and jump on it.  Then Yeshua would be saved from an agonizing death.  A moment would be enough to stab Yeshua in the back with a knife, having shouted to him: "Yeshua!  I shall save you and depart with you!  I, Matthew, your faithful and only disciple!"

And if God were to bless him with one more moment of freedom he could stab himself as well and avoid a death on the gallows.  Not that Matthew, the erstwhile tax-collector, cared much how he died: he wanted only one thing that Yeshua, who had never done anyone the least harm in his life, should be spared the torture of crucifixion.

The plan was a very good one, but it had a great flaw the Levite had no knife and no money.

Furious with himself, Matthew pushed his way out of the crowd and ran back to the city.  His head burned with the single thought of how he might at once, by whatever means, find a knife somewhere in town and then catch up with the procession again.

He ran as far as the city gate, slipping through the crowd of pilgrims' caravans pouring into town, and saw on his left the open door of a baker's shop.  Breathless from running on the hot road, the Levite pulled himself together, entered the shop very sedately, greeted the baker's wife standing behind the counter, asked her for a loaf from the top shelf which he affected to prefer to all the rest and as she turned round, he silently and quickly snatched off the counter the very thing he had been looking for a long, razor-sharp bread knife and fled from the shop.

A few minutes later he was back on the Jaffa road, but the procession was out of sight.  He ran.  Once or twice he had to drop and lie motionless to regain his breath, to the astonishment of all the passers-by making for Jerusalem on mule-back or on foot.  As he lay he could hear the beat of his heart in his chest, in his head and his ears.  Rested, he stood up and began running again, although his pace grew slower and slower.  When he finally caught sight again of the long, dusty procession, it had already reached the foot of the hill.

"Oh, God!"  groaned the Levite.  He knew he was too late.

With the passing of the fourth hour of the execution Matthew's torments reached their climax and drove him to a frenzy.  Rising from his stone, he hurled the stolen knife to the ground, crushed his flask with his foot, thus depriving himself of water, snatched the kefiyeh from his head, tore his flowing hair and cursed himself.  As he cursed in streams of gibberish, bellowed and spat, Matthew slandered his father and mother for begetting such a fool.

Since cursing and swearing had no apparent effect at all and changed nothing in that sun-scorched inferno, he clenched his dry fists and raised them heavenwards to the sun as it slowly descended, lengthening the shadows before setting into the Mediterranean.  The Levite begged God to perform a miracle and allow Yeshua to die.

When he opened his eyes again nothing on the hill had changed, except that the light no longer flashed from the badges on the centurion's chest.  The sun was shining on the victims" backs, as their faces were turned east towards Jerusalem.  Then the Levite cried out:

"I curse you.  God!"

In a hoarse voice he shouted that God was unjust and that he would believe in him no more.

"You are deaf!"  roared Matthew.  "If you were not deaf you would have heard me and killed him in the instant!"

His eyes tight shut, the Levite waited for the fire to strike him from heaven.  Nothing happened.  Without opening his eyes, he vented his spite in a torrent of insults to heaven.  He shouted that his faith was ruined, that there were other gods and better.  No other god would have allowed a man like Yeshua to be scorched to death on a pole.

"No I was wrong!"  screamed the Levite, now quite hoarse.  "You are a God of evil!  Or have your eyes been blinded by the smoke of sacrifices from the temple and have your ears grown deaf to everything but the trumpet-calls of the priests?  You are not an almighty God you are an evil God!  I curse you.  God of robbers, their patron and protector!"

At that moment there was a puff of air in his face and something rustled under his feet.  Then came another puff and as he opened his eyes the Levite saw that everything, either as a result of his imprecations or from some other cause, had changed.  The sun had been swallowed by a thundercloud looming up, threatening and inexorable, from the west.  Its edges were white and ragged, its rumbling black paunch tinged with sulfur.  White pillars of dust, raised by the sudden wind, flew along the Jaffa road.  The Levite was silent, wondering if the storm which was about to break over Jerusalem might alter the fate of the wretched Yeshua.  Watching the tongues of lightning that flickered round the edges of the cloud, he began to pray for one to strike Yeshua's gibbet.  Glancing penitently up at the remaining patches of blue sky in which the vultures were winging away to avoid the storm, Matthew knew that he had cursed too soon: God would not listen to him now.

Turning round to look at the foot of the hill, the Levite stared at the cavalry lines and saw that they were on the move.  From his height he had a good view of the soldiers" hasty preparations as they pulled their lances out of the ground and threw their cloaks over their shoulders.  The grooms were running towards the path, leading strings of troop horses.  The regiment was moving out.  Shielding his face with his hand and spitting out the sand that blew into his mouth, the Levite tried to think why the cavalry should be preparing to go.  He shifted his glance higher up the hill and made out a figure in a purple military chlamys climbing up towards the place of execution.  Matthew's heart leaped: he sensed a quick end.  The man climbing Mount Golgotha in the victims" fifth hour of suffering was the Tribune of the Cohort, who had galloped from Jerusalem accompanied by an orderly.  At a signal from Muribellum the cordon of soldiers opened and the centurion saluted the Tribune, who took Muribellum aside and whispered something to him.  The centurion saluted again and walked over to the executioners, seated on stones under the gibbets.  The Tribune meanwhile turned towards the man on the three-legged stool.  The seated man rose politely as the Tribune approached him.  The officer said something to him in a low voice and both walked over to the gallows, where they were joined by the captain of the temple guard.

Muribellum, with a fastidious grimace at the filthy rags lying on the ground near the crosses the prisoners' clothes which even the executioners had spurned called to two of them and gave an order:

"Follow me!"

A hoarse, incoherent song could just be heard coming from the nearest gibbet.  Hestas had been driven out of his mind two hours ago by the flies and the heat and was now softly croaking something about a vineyard.  His turbaned head still nodded occasionally, sending up a lazy cloud of flies from his face.

Dismas on the second cross was suffering more than the other two because he was still conscious and shaking his head regularly from side to side.

Yeshua was luckier.  He had begun to faint during the first hour, and had then lapsed into unconsciousness, his head drooping in its ragged turban.  As a result the mosquitoes and horse-flies had settled on him so thickly that his face was entirely hidden by a black, heaving mask.  All over his groin, his stomach and under his armpits sat bloated horseflies, sucking at the yellowing naked body.

At a gesture from the man in the hood one of the executioners picked up a lance and the other carried a bucket and sponge to the gibbet.  The first executioner raised the lance and used it to hit Yeshua first on one extended arm and then on the other.

The emaciated body gave a twitch.  The executioner then poked Yeshua in the stomach with the handle of the lance.  At this Yeshua raised his head, the flies rose with a buzz and the victim's face was revealed, swollen with bites, puff-eyed, unrecognizable.

Forcing open his eyelids, Ha-Notsri looked down.  His usually clear eyes were now dim and glazed.

"Ha-Notsri!" said the executioner.

Ha-Notsri moved his swollen lips and answered in a hoarse croak:

"What do you want?  Why have you come?"

"Drink!" said the executioner and a water-soaked sponge was raised to Yeshua's lips on the point of a lance.  Joy lit up his eyes, he put his mouth to the sponge and greedily sucked its moisture.  From the next gibbet came the voice of Dismas:

"It's unjust!  He's as much a crook as me!"

Dismas strained ineffectually, his arms being lashed to the cross-bar in three places.  He arched his stomach, clawed the end of the crossbeam with his nails and tried to turn his eyes, full of envy and hatred, towards Yeshua's cross.

"Silence on the second gibbet!"

Dismas was silent.  Yeshua turned aside from the sponge.  He tried to make his voice sound kind and persuasive, but failed and could only croak huskily:

"Give him a drink too."

It was growing darker.  The cloud now filled half the sky as it surged towards Jerusalem; smaller white clouds fled before the black monster charged with fire and water.  There was a flash and a thunderclap directly over the hill.  The executioner took the sponge from the lance.

"Hail to the merciful hegemon!"  he whispered solemnly and gently pierced Yeshua through the heart.  Yeshua shuddered and whispered:

"Hegemon..."

Blood ran down his stomach, his lower jaw twitched convulsively and his head dropped.  At the second thunderclap the executioner gave the sponge to Dismas with the same words:

"Hail, hegemon..."  and killed him.

Hestas, his reason gone, cried out in fear as the executioner approached him, but when the sponge touched his lips he gave a roar and sank his teeth into it.  A few seconds later his body was hanging as limply as the ropes would allow.

The man in the hood followed the executioner and the centurion; behind him in turn came the captain of the temple guard.  Stopping at the first gibbet the hooded man carefully inspected Yeshua's bloodstained body, touched the pole with his white hand and said to his companions:

"Dead."

The same was repeated at the other two gallows.

After this the Tribune gestured to the centurion and turned to walk down the hill with the captain of the temple guard and the hooded man.

It was now twilight and lightning was furrowing the black sky.  Suddenly there was a brilliant flash and the centurion's shout of "Fall out, the cordon!"  was drowned in thunder.  The delighted soldiers started running down hill, buckling on their helmets as they went.

A mist had covered Jerusalem.

The downpour struck suddenly and caught the centurion halfway down the hill.  The rain fell with such force that turbulent streams began catching them up as they ran.  The troops slithered and fell on the muddy soil as they hurried to reach the main road.  Moving fast, now scarcely visible in a veil of water, the rain-soaked cavalry was already on its way back to Jerusalem.  After a few minutes only one man was left on the hill in the smoking cauldron of wind, water and fire.

Brandishing his stolen knife, for which he now had a use after all, leaping over the slippery rocks, grasping whatever came to hand, at times crawling on his knees, he stumbled towards the gallows in alternate spells of complete darkness and flashes of light.  When he reached the gallows he was already ankle-deep in water and threw off his soaking tallith.  Wearing only his shirt Matthew fell at Yeshua's feet.  He cut the ropes round his knees, climbed on to the lower crossbar, embraced Yeshua and freed his arms from their bonds.  Yeshua's wet, naked body collapsed on to Matthew and dragged him to the ground.  The Levite was just about to hoist him on to his shoulders when another thought stopped him.  He left the body on the watery ground, its head thrown back and arms outstretched, and ran, slithering, to the other gibbet-posts.  He cut their ropes and the two bodies fell to the ground.

A few minutes later only those two water-lashed bodies and three empty gibbets remained on Mount Golgotha.  Matthew the Levite and Yeshua were gone.

Mikhail Bulgakov  (18911940)
"The Master and Margarita", Chapter 16, 19291940
Translated from Russian by Michael Glenny