"Whom seek ye?"
I AM an old man, now, but still they pester me for the tale. Every Passover it is the same. “Malchus”, they cry, “tell us the story again. Tell us what happened in Gethsemane.”
It’s thirty years and more since that night. And the truth of the matter is, I’ve told and re-told the story so often, I’m not entirely sure which parts of it actually happened, and which are the sort of embellishments contrived by all storytellers to satisfy the clamouring of children and, more lately, grandchildren.
But the bones of the experience are strong enough – even now. Though mine are bent and brittle, the story’s limbs stand straight and true. How could they not? It was a night to remember.
It began with the unceasing chatter of Judas, my informant. Honestly, the man never stopped talking – though whether it was to me, to himself, to his master, or to God, I was never quite sure. An impassioned monologue nonetheless; as if he was summing up a case in the courts of law: marshalling his facts; setting forth his arguments; drawing his conclusions. And every few moments he would turn to me, his eyes wide and wild, and clutching at my cloak he’d say: “You understand, Malchus, don’t you? You must understand. He left me with no other choice!”
Oh yes, I understood alright. I recognised an uneasy conscience when I heard one. And I wanted to tell him: “Judas, we always have a choice.” But he was in such obvious pain that I bit my tongue.
Our destination was Gethsemane, the garden of a wealthy merchant. By the light of the waning moon I identified olives and cypresses, myrtles and bay trees. The air was rich with the scent of herbs. A path of flagstones took us into the shadows. All around me I could hear men adjusting their harness, loosening swords in scabbards; tightening their grip on the truncheons of spears.
The path ended in a circular clearing ringed by tall cypresses. Mute beneath the stars, they seemed to be standing guard over a tangle of cloak-swathed sleepers. Even the tongue of my loquacious companion was stilled. The silence welled up out of that clearing like a mist. I hardly dared to breathe.
“Whom seek ye?”
The speaker had emerged from the shadows directly opposite us on the other side of the clearing. His white robes glowed in the moonlight like dull fire.
“Jesus of Nazareth”, I replied, though my voice seemed strangely altered – hoarse and harsh like the rattle of gravel.
“I am he.”
At this point everything becomes confused. I remember Judas striding across the clearing followed by the Sanhedrin’s soldiers. The Nazarene met him halfway and the two men kissed. But, before the arrest could be made, a big burly fellow, one of the sleepers, had leapt up brandishing a lethal-looking sword. I rushed forward and the whole right side of my face was suddenly engulfed in pain. A hot flood of blood gushed down my cheek.
Then the man, Jesus, was speaking: “Put it away, Peter. Have I not said that all who live by the sword shall die by the sword? Sheath it now. My Father has filled this cup and I must empty it.”
Then his eyes fell upon my wound and he lifted his hand.
I felt as though I had fallen into a swollen river and was being carried fast by currents I could not resist. I thought I saw a great curtain rent in two and the Temple shaken to its foundations. The river itself seemed to be made of blood and fire, and with a roar to wake the myriad dead it crashed against the gates of Hell itself and they burst asunder.
When I opened my eyes the pain and the blood were gone. The Nazarene’s face was close to mine and he was smiling. With a surgeon’s eye he surveyed my ear and nodded in satisfaction.
“Guard me well, Malchus” he said, throwing a strong carpenter’s arm around my shoulders. “My Father’s cup must not be allowed to fall.”
Who led whom out of the Valley of Kidron, I cannot rightly say. All the way back to Jerusalem, though, his eyes were fixed upon the Eastern sky where, fast and bright, the sun was rising.
This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Thursday, 21 April 2011.