by E.C. Traganas
The trees seemed to be welcoming him as they undulated with the wind in unison. He smiled in return as if in salute to these old kindred souls who were drawing him under their familiar canopy as only one’s closest relations could, certain that they—and he—were irrevocably connected by a vital, living sap flowing through their intertwined, ancestral veins. He looked on approvingly at the way they shaded the area around them, and hearkened his ears to the sounds of their leaves in the breeze and the creaking from the branches as they swayed. The trees were speaking to him in a language only he could understand.
Asher urged the oxen forward on the dusty road towards the grove looming ahead. Along the weather-beaten fields lay patches of newly budding anemones and golden trefoil. Sycamine trees, he observed, and locust. Solid wood, beautifully swirling, ruddy-colored grain, a joy to work with. He let his thoughts dwell on the magnificent chests he had proudly carved for the temple priests, work that had earned him accolades and a secure reputation as a respected master carpenter in the kingdom. And then he thought with bitterness of this new commission, a menial, thankless job that even a lowly woodcutter or unskilled drudge could have easily undertaken. He stopped his cart under the shade of the towering locusts, pulled out a sheepskin of watered wine to slake his thirst, and ran his fingers across the trunks of lumber piled behind him. Pinewood, they requested, he brooded. And that Roman official was as sour as vinegar. “Keep the wood rough, leave the splinters untouched.” Why, he asked himself. To inflict as much sadistic pain as possible. Excruciating pain. Of course. They wanted a set of newly-hewn patibulums—six feet long and ten inches deep. Each one so heavy, at least one hundred pounds each, he needed to hire a farmhand to help load them onto the cart. Asher pitied the poor wretch, however guilty, who would be forced to carry a crossbar like that on his bloodied, freshly-scourged backto his own execution.
What a ghoulish, barbaric punishment those conquering Greeks introduced centuries ago into our sacred Judea, he reflected. And the Romans especially have taken this diabolical brutality to a grisly new level. “Just a deterrent,” the jaundiced official had said offhandedly. And there would most assuredly be uprisings to quell if anything should happen to that mad Roman-appointed Herod, who was aging rapidly and losing his scattered wits.
Asher had shuddered when he passed by an execution site days earlier, just outside the walls to the city. The image of the unfortunate convict grotesquely twisting up and down and gasping to suck air into his lungs, with straddled legs nailed into either side of the monstrous wooden stile, had sickened him with revulsion and loathing for the cruelty of humanity.
Pinewood, he lamented. I could have created something useful and exquisite instead, something to bring lasting joy to someone’s life. He counted the rings radiating outwards from the center pith of his stack of timber. Hard wood surrounded by a softer membrane, light-colored springwood alternating with darker summerwood, each ring patiently marking the passage of momentous time. Thirty-year-old specimens, prime years for harvesting pine. He would make sure to seed a new grove to replenish what had just been demolished. Thirty years. A new generation. From new seedlings would spring new hope. He was a patient man.
He absently pulled out a cloth bundle filled with barley bread and wild onions and listened to the rustling leaves overhead. “Poor Anna, bless her soul,” he said, praying out loud, and remembered his meeting with his old kinswoman on that afternoon in the temple. He had brought her one of his beautifully turned olivewood bowls filled with dates and figs. Her ancient sticklike hands had trembled when she recognized him, and her cloudy, cataracted eyes had impulsively burst into tears.
“Asher, it is you!” she had cried. “These fruits are of no more use to me,” she had exclaimed with excitement, nearly spilling the bowl and its contents onto the immaculately polished limestone tiles. She was huddled in a corner of the forecourt, a woolen blanket pulled up around her shrunken shoulders. Her brown crepey skin hung about her like withered carob bark and her sunken eyes were raised upwards as if they had already crossed the threshold of death. “Asher, I have lived a long, long life in expectation of this one day and now I can die in peace.” Her voice had taken on a new life, as if an old spurge bush had suddenly burst into flame, and then she quietly lowered herself onto her pallet.
“There was a strange couple that arrived this morning,” one of the old woman’s attendants explained. “They were carrying their infant son to the priests for his presentation. I have witnessed it myself—”
“His eyes!” the old woman had interjected. “They opened from sleep and stared at me as if they knew me from long ago.”
“The mother was just a girl herself, bashful and self-effacing,” the younger woman had added. “They seemed to be very poor.”
With gnarled and spindly fingers, the old woman reached out to Asher to bestow her blessing. “Mark my words,” she had whispered in his ear, “that child will be our redemption.”
Asher consumed the remains of his mid-morning meal, gathered the precious breadcrumbs in his napkin and climbed back onto the oxcart, wondering what that redemption might bring.
Author of the critically applauded debut novel Twelfth House, E.C. Traganas has published in Möbius, Ibbetson Street Press, The Penwood Review, Sacred Journey, and numerous other literary journals. Hailed as ‘an artfully created masterpiece’ and a ‘must-read’, her new work, Shaded Pergola, has recently launched in Amazon’s poetry bestseller list. As a visual artist, her award-winning artwork has appeared in over 40 national exhibitions. A resident of New York City, Ms. Traganas enjoys a varied career as a Juilliard-trained concert pianist & composer, activities that have earned her accolades from the international press.