Before Dawn

By Ian Watson

 

 

     The young woman approached the checkpoint cautiously. After the demonstrations and the riots the soldiers were in a bad mood. She watched as the new guard arrived to relieve the night watch. The officer peered into the grey pre-dawn light, decided it was good enough to see any ambush beyond the wall, and ordered the gate open for the day. The girl hurried past with her head down.

     She was ready to be stopped, questioned, maybe even searched. She was ready to charm her way past the soldiers. She had a way with soldiers.

     She was glad when they waved her through the gate and otherwise ignored her. After what the invaders had done the day before yesterday she wasn’t sure she could pretend well enough to string them along.

     Dawn was still only a pale strip across the wasteland. The girl shivered as she moved beyond the gate, along the paved road that descended from the city’s high rock down towards the desert. There was nobody else on the path so early. It felt eerie and dangerous.

     She padded down the track, knowing she should take more care in case of predators – animal or human – but she couldn’t bring herself to be bothered. Even the little knot of fear of the dark and the wilderness was really because she might be stopped from doing what she planned; what she needed to do.

     “It’s all you can do,” she whispered. She didn’t remember when she’d started talking to herself. It was more like scolding herself, really. “He’s gone and that’s it. That’s what happens when you let yourself trust someone. That’s what happens when you let yourself care.”

     “Why are you hurrying?” she berated herself. “What’s the rush? He’s dead. He’s not going anywhere.”

     At the junction she forked left, walking downhill with the shadow of the city wall above her. The farming terraces were still dark and shrouded down the slope to her right. She could hardly see the execution ground from here because of the darkness but it lurked in her mind, bloody and terrible, just the way the invaders wanted it to.

     “You promised you wouldn’t leave me,” she growled out loud. She sounded to her own ears like a foolish little girl. How many men had she said that to now? At least this one hadn’t run away when he got tired of her. He hadn’t thrown her out when he’d finished. The soldiers had taken this one.

     A narrower, unsurfaced track cut off from the main route. It veered away through a scrubby stand of trees then descended steeply into one of the valleys. The young woman took the narrow path and scrambled down. She hefted her sack on her shoulder, shifting its weight so that the contents wouldn’t get smashed.

     She’d brought all the things she need for the rest of her life: linen bandages and a clean white robe and washing water and expensive perfume; all the things to lay out a body. After that there wasn’t anything else.

     Mary Magdalen went down to the grave.

 

***

 

     It was darker in the valley. The city’s bulk obscured the ribbon of dawnlight over the desert over the Eastern desert. The thick trees screened what little light there was. Mary had to tread carefully to avoid falling down the steep embankment. Protruding branches of acacia scratched her face.

     It was eerily silent. Only her own scrabbling feet made any sound. If there were ghosts or ghouls lurking in the shadows they kept their secrets.

     “This is folly,” the girl chided. “The others will come when its light. His mother and his aunt can do this better than you can. The other women, they all know how to be wives, they know what to do. Why is a nothing like you even here?”

     Her self-contempt was never far away. She’d thought it tamed, these last few months. When she’d travelled with the others, when she’d followed from village to town handing out bread and helping the sick, she’d been able to pretend she was worth something. She could forget who she was, what she was, how little she was. Now she was Mary from Magdala again.

     “He,” she thought (and of all the men in her short, exciting life there was only one He in her head), “He made me something better. When he looked at me he saw something better.”

     “Of course he did,” she scolded herself. “He did that with everyone. We all tried to be more than we are for him. We didn’t want to disappoint him. But they killed him. We let them.”

     Jesus’ mother had made her wash his blood off her hands for yesterday’s Sabbath. Mary Magdalen had been there when the soldiers had finally cut him down, when the rich man had used his influence with the governor to get the body released. She’d watched as his mother had held his broken corpse – such dignity that other Mary had, her oldest son mangled there in her arms, her wonderful boy betrayed and destroyed by a world he was too good for; such grace in sorrow. She’d watched as the soldiers shuffled aside, hard-bitten men suddenly frightened of what they’d done. She’d waited while the women organised to have his body lifted up and hastily transported to the rich man’s tomb.

     When they were all busy with the practical things, Mary Magdalan had touched the body. That’s how she’d got bloody. She’d touched him but it wasn’t a proper goodbye.

     Mary retraced the steps they’d taken two days before in that hurried journey to entomb Jesus before night fell. The Sabbath began at sunset, and no work could be done then, not even the preparation of a corpse. They’d hastily bundled the body into the rich man’s tomb, one of thousands of little natural caves in the steep slope of the city rock. They’d patted on preservative myrrh and aloes without time to properly apply it. They’d wrapped him in a winding cloth. Mary had given her best ribbon to tie his mouth closed so that rigor mortis wouldn’t freeze him in slack-jawed idiocy. They’d dragged the shaped stone into its groove over the entrance to keep out scavenging animals.

     Then it had been night. No better preparation could be done. No washing of the body. No anointing it. No funeral rites. No prayers. Such were forbidden on the Sabbath.

     The guards closed the gates early last night. The invaders were taking no chances after the riots a week or so back when Bar-Abbas had killed a man, and then the demonstrations that the clergy had co-ordinated outside the governor’s palace when Jesus was before him. When the sun had fallen and the women were legally able to go and lay out the corpse they were not allowed to leave the city.

     So here was Mary, scrambling in the gloom, first through the gates, sliding down the steep slope to find the place where Jesus was laid. The others would come later. His mother had some very fine ointment to preserve the flesh and mask the odour of decay that had been gifted at the time of Jesus’ birth. But first Mary of Magdala would do what she could.

     “Why?” she challenged herself. Why make this dangerous, terrifying journey through a graveyard at night? Why risk robbers or wild animals or ghosts to do a job that other people could do a hundred times better than you can? “Why are you so stupid?”

     “Because he didn’t think I was,” she answered herself. “Because when he talked to me he looked at me, not my chest. Because he knew what I was like and he still talked to me. Because he knew what I’d done and he thought I could do better. Because it’s not fair what happened. He didn’t deserve it. He didn’t do anything wrong.”

     She paused to try and find the path. She knuckled away a tear.

     “Because this is the only thing I can do for him. It’s the only thing left.”

     She wasn’t far off now. Mary was a little surprised that the watchmen the authorities had set on the tomb hadn’t set up a campfire to keep the chill at bay. She was counting on those burly guards to shift aside the rock covering the cave. She’d brought wine to bribe them.

     She hoped the wine would be enough. She’d considered giving them whatever else they asked – hardly the first time she’d bartered herself to get what she wanted – but she knew that now she couldn’t ever do that again. Not when he’d looked at her. He wouldn’t want her to do that for him.

     She spotted a familiar thicket and slipped down to the tiny garden by the tomb. The place smelled of tamarisk and eucalyptus. There were no watchmen. Maybe they’d given up and gone home when the night got so cold without a fire?

     “You came here for nothing,” Mary mocked herself. “You might as well have waited for the others. You can’t get in to him.”

     Then she halted. Her heart lurched. She felt sick. The stone wasn’t across the tomb. It was right across the clearing, broken into two heavy pieces. The burial cave was open and exposed, undefended.

     Mary dropped her sack to the ground and scrambled forward. Had the guards broken into the tomb and desecrated the body? Was the High Priest that vindictive, that eager to wreak his revenge on someone who’d scared him? She’d heard him yesterday, screaming insults at the man dying on the cross. She feared he was.

     She peered into the tiny interior of the tomb. The discarded winding sheet was laid aside. Mary’s best ribbon was folded up beside it.

     The body had gone.

     The injustice of it all clamped down on Mary like a giant’s fist. She felt as if her head would explode with all the thoughts, that her chest would burst with her raging emotions. The last week’s events tumbled through her memory, sweet and bitter: the great march into the city where the children had waved branches; the confrontations in the temple where the mighty had cowered at the Teacher’s wrath; the Passover supper where one of their own had run off to sell them out; the terrifying raid on the prayer meeting in the garden; Jesus at that illegal midnight trial at the High Priest’s house; Jesus before the collaborator-king Herod; Jesus lashed and beaten by the soldiers, so hurt he could hardly stand; Jesus paraded, bloodily staggering through the holiday crowd that shouted for his death; the nails, so expertly hammered through thick nerve clusters to avoid the major arteries that would cause instant death.

     Mary felt furious, more angry than when the mob had turned against Jesus, more than when the invaders had beaten him senseless as they called him king, more than when they’d gambled to see who got his clothes. They’d killed an innocent man, the only one Mary had ever known, and they still wouldn’t let him rest in peace!

     Her scream echoed out across the valley and back again but there was no justice left and no hope. They’d killed that too.

 

***

 

     Peter no longer considered himself fit to be called one of Jesus’ men; yet it was to him that Mary ran. Jesus had given the big fisherman his nickname – “the Rock” – maybe because of his size and maybe because he was the person you wanted there to lean on in a crisis. He was the first to open his mouth and the first to regret it, but he was also the first man to name his master Christ, the promised saviour.

     But Simon Peter’s courage had broken when he needed it most. On the night that the soldiers took Jesus all the other followers had fled, but Peter had slipped after them into the High Priest’s courtyard for news. Only there, when he was recognised at the same campfire as the arresting soldiers, had he broken his promise and denied knowing Christ.

     It was his shame and his sorrow, and now that Jesus was dead there was no making amends. The rock had crumbled.

     Still Mary ran for him. She knew where the men were hiding in fear of follow-up arrests. She needed to tell someone about the latest atrocity and who else was there now?

     Peter ran for the tomb, all the long way through the city, through the guarded gate without care of being recognised, down the long road. Young John pelted ahead of him with a desperate urgency. Mary trailed behind, lifting her skirts and trying to keep up.

     The grey Eastern smudge had become a solid pink band now, lighting the path somewhat, but the road was still lonely. It was as if the events of two days since had sapped the city. There had been the great storm, and landslips, and that curious vandalism in the Temple where the altar curtain got torn away to expose the sacred holy of holies that only onr pious priest could enter once a year. Some had seen ghosts and angels. Others had feared the final bloody riot that would bring the wrath of the invaders down in terrible vengeance. No wonder that the morning after Passover Sabbath was quiet.

     Mary struggled on after the men, ignoring the stitch in her side. She concentrated only on keeping close to the puffing Peter as he stomped along the trackway to the sundered tomb.

     John got there first. John always got there first, physically and mentally. The boy had a mind like lightning, always asking why, always digging deeper to mine out the true meaning of what he saw and heard. He’d loved talking with Jesus because it fed that voracious mind of his. John was shattered when Jesus was taken from him for he’d never find the answers now that he’d believed he could get from his teacher.

     John had his regrets about questions never asked. Peter had regrets about failures he could never amend. Mary was too far gone now for specific regrets. She had only an aching wound where her heart had been and a knowledge that her future had been murdered. Nobody loved her now. Why should they?

     John reached the opening where the rock had been torn away. He halted, panting, staring into the darkness, but he didn’t enter. The cavern was still shadowed, still uncanny. Mary saw the boy falter, as if afraid that whatever bandit or mercenary or temple guard had committed the outrage might still be lurking inside. Perhaps he was afraid of ghosts.

     Peter had no such fears. In his fury he’d have fought them all. He stormed into the little cave, shouting his threats at what he’d do to the men who’d done this to Jesus.

     Mary staggered up last and dropped to her knees on the sanded floor outside. She leaned forward in case she was going to vomit.

     Peter and John investigated. There was little left to find. There were no telltale footprints to solve the crime, no obscene mocking graffiti. There was only the winding cloth, stained with sweat and blood and the other bodily fluids of a murdered man, and the little ribbon neatly rolled up and set aside.

     “When I catch the people who did this…” Peter fumed for the dozenth time.

     John ignored him. He squatted down by the abandoned shroud, fingering it, thinking. “Scripture says…” he began.

     “Says what?” Peter snapped. “What does scripture say at a time like this?”

     John shook his head. “Just remembering something the master said. Never mind.”

     “When I catch them…”

     Mary realised that she’d run for help but the men were as helpless as she was. It was even a cold sort of comfort. Brave Peter and Clever John were as lost and alone as the Magdalene.

     “We’re all alone now,” Mary whispered to herself. “He brought us together. He made us more than we are, made us what we should have been, what we were meant to be. Without him… we’re just us.” She didn’t want to be Mary of Magdala. She couldn’t be that person any more.

     After a while John calmed Peter. They decided to return to the city and report to the others. Peter liked to do things in a crisis.

     Mary stayed outside the tomb. Where else was there for her to go?

 

***

 

     “Seven kinds of devils,” Mary said to herself. That was what Jesus said he’d cast out of her when she’d first fallen at his feet weeping. She was surprised there’d only been seven.

     She missed them sometimes, those demons that had ridden her, those dark urges that had filled her life. She missed the pride and the jealousy and the rage-at-nothing. She certainly missed the lust. She was like an addict, recovering one day at a time. With her addictions pushed out of her life she’d filled it with her saviour, the only man who’d given to her not taken, the only one who thought she was worth something.

     “You promised me, Jesus,” she said angrily. “You said – you told all of us – we’d be with you. You promised Peter he’d be a rock on which everything would get built. You promised John the answers to all his big questions, all the whys and what fors about the world. You promised me…”

     She choked back another bout of sobbing. The cave mouth loomed before her like the gateway to hell, black and compelling. It was like looking into her own soul.

     “You promised me that you could make me right.”

     She snorted. Foolish Mary. Nobody can put together something that broken. Nobody can wash out stains that disgusting. How could they?

     The light was good enough now to make out the interior of the tomb. Mary’s best ribbon shone back white. Dust danced, sparkling like angels.

     “Woman, why are you crying?”

     Mary looked up. There were more visitors now, two of them in the tomb, strangers. They wore white pilgrim robes. In her misery Mary had no interest in them.

     “Who are you looking for?” they asked her. One sat where Jesus’ head had been laid, the other at his feet.

     Mary shook her head. She didn’t want to talk to passers by. She didn’t want to talk to anybody. She lifted the dust in her fists and rubbed it on her hair.

     The travellers waited patiently for an answer.

     “They’ve taken my lord away,” she told them reluctantly. She wanted them to go. She couldn’t cope just now. “I don’t know where they’ve put him.”

     She heard more movement behind her. Another man was climbing from the lower valley up towards the tomb. Silhouetted against the growing dawn he cast a long shadow towards Mary.

     “The gardener?” she wondered. She scrambled forwards, half on all-fours, blinded by tears and desperation. “Sir, if you’ve taken him then tell me where. I’ll go get him. Just tell me!” She dropped to her knees before the man, humbled, broken.

     There was nothing left for her now. Peter could return to Galilee. He had a fishing business there with his brother. They had their own boat. John had family, good connections, a scholarly future. All of Jesus’ people would go their separate ways now, back to their old lives or on to new ones. They’d carry the grief and they’d never forget, but they’d go.

     Mary had no future. She’d thrown away her past to become a new woman with Jesus. She couldn’t go back. She couldn’t go forward.

     “Tell me!”

     She could wrap a corpse. She could clean that scarred flesh. She could smooth his hair. She could do that much. But they’d taken even that from her.

     “Tell me!”

     “Mary.”

     The voice spiked through her. That voice. Only one person ever said her name like that, like it meant something, like she was the most precious thing in the world.

     “Teacher.” Mary of Magdala said. She heard herself say it, and the part of her that had been mocking herself all morning tried to scorn her for such impossible hope. She’d seen the nails. She’d seen the centurion’s spear. She’d wrapped the corpse.

     The corpse was gone. The shroud was cast aside. The ribbon wasn’t needed any more.

     Peter would preach it later, a burning account that would change history. He’d talk about how one innocent death paid the dues for all the guilty if they wanted a clean slate. Clever John would point out all the bible passages that foretold how God would die to save his people. Mary didn’t care at all. She only knew that one man had somehow, impossibly, amazingly, finally kept his promise to her.

     And if he’d kept his word to her then he’d kept it for everybody.

     She fell forward and folded herself round his ankles and hugged his feet. She wept again, not the ragged tears of desolate bereavement but the rich emotional release of a mended heart.

     She wanted to speak, but Mary was never good at vocalising the deep things of her soul. Peter would have wanted a plan for what happened next. John would have theological questions about the nature of creation. Mary just wanted Jesus to know how glad she was that he hadn’t left her.

     If a man dies for you, if he breaks death for you, if he comes back to life for you then you have to be worth something. You have to be worth everything.

     The weeping woman hadn’t wanted to be Mary Magdalen any more. Now she could be Mary Magdalen done right. Even her old wounds and regrets could be part of the beautiful thing she could become. Even her sorrows became blessed.

     Jesus knelt to her. He looked at her. He smiled at her.

     “Stop holding on to me for I’ve not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

     He lifted Mary up to her feet and smoothed her ash-smothered hair and wiped the tears from her cheeks.

     “Thank you,” she said. Thanks for the promise, and the rescue, and the future, she meant; but also because now she was whole and knew she had been given a job. “I’ll tell them. Peter needs to be forgiven because he’s carrying so much shame because… well, you know. And John needs to know. And the others, they were so frightened, like you said they would be when you were gone only we didn’t understand when you said it. And your mother, she’ll be coming here soon and…”

     Mary got a grip. “I’ll tell them. I have seen the Lord.”

     The sun finally burst over the walls of Jerusalem, filling the burial garden with light, bringing the morning. The world was fresh and new. Jesus was washed with light.

     “I have seen the Lord.”

     Mary ran back, scrambling up the narrow trail towards the city. It wasn’t such a hard journey. She felt like she flew.

     She had some good news to tell.

 

 

 

Author’s Notes

 

We make Jesus movies and comic-books and artwork. Preachers retell his story every Sunday in church. So why are we so shy about telling Jesus stories in prose?

 

There’s a reluctance amongst Christian believers to fictionalise the gospel stories in adult literature. Such emphasis is placed on the Biblical accounts that it feels strange, if not wrong, to embellish or interpret. There’s such potential to mislead or to offend.

 

Writers also hesitate to present the extraordinary elements of the gospel accounts, the healings and exorcisms and most of all the resurrection itself. Perhaps they’re reluctant to offend non-believers, or fear they’ll break that credulity which fiction must possess where real life doesn’t.

 

So written fiction about Christ tends to be left to those who’d prefer to depict a non-gospel interpretation of Jesus as a madman, a fool, or someone very different from the man Christians believe was also God poured into human limits; or to those who want to offer a watered-down rationalistic version that “explains” or ignores the supernatural elements of the original accounts.

 

I believe that fiction can explore things – feelings, events, ideas – in ways that nothing else can. New light can be shed by exploring narrative this way. But to do that effectively the writer cannot shy away from the story.

 

A retold myth works best when it roots itself in the original. I’ve little time for tales of King Arthur that try to realistically depict a brutal fifth century warlord. I feel those authors have perhaps missed the point of the old Matter of Britain. A telling of the exploits of Hercules without the gods and monsters would be very dull indeed. So surely the best way to tell a story of Jesus Christ is to accept that it works best if presented with its original assumptions about who Christ was and what he did?

 

Fortunately many events of the Bible have a very modern feel. Military occupation? Brutally suppressed riots? Political execution? Look at today’s headlines. Betrayal? Guilt for things that can’t be amended? Big unanswered questions about the world and our place in it? Loneliness and low self-esteem and desperate bereavement? We know all of those things now as they did two thousand years since. So there’s easy connections for a writer to make when handling gospel events.

 

This afterword is really an apologia. I don’t want to offend believers – I am one. I don’t want to alienate those who don’t have a Christian faith. I want to retell a familiar story, a root legend of a world culture whether it literally happened or not, and tease out some insights. I want to try and make people think and feel.

 

Those who wish to refer to the original account should look at The Gospel of John, Chapter 20. Each of the four gospels offers a different version of the resurrection experience. I’ve drawn upon John’s account since it best fitted the themes I wanted to explore.

 

IW

Easter Day, 2010

 

 

Original concepts, characters, and situations copyright © 2010 reserved by Ian Watson. The right of Ian Watson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved.