The Denial of St. Peter

“Are they going to have an execution?” The girl asks while the fire spits about her and the Ethiopian. He shushes her and shakes his head.

“He’s too popular. People wouldn’t stand for it.”

“Does Rome care what people think then?”

“Rome doesn’t, but Pilate cares very much what people think.”

“Because he is kind?”

“No, girl. Not because he is kind.”

“Why then?”

“You will understand one day.”

Shadows flit about their faces while men’s voices blast in larger circles off in the darkness. When the fire leaps up, it reveals – some ways off – Jesus of Nazareth, bound, surrounded, and looking anything but popular. Escape seems to be the last thing on his mind, and so his gold-plated guards mutter curses about the cold and fiddle with their spear butts. The girl glances at Jesus, but looks away quickly when she sees that he is looking at her. She had seen him only once before, and then on a donkey. The wind picks up, and the fire burns small and blue – the face of Jesus darts back into blackness and the girl sighs a little, with relief.

A mountain of a man shuffles up to the fire and stands next to the girl, his great hands outstretched. She observes him honestly, for he seems uninterested in her, the Ethiopian or anybody. There is a simplicity to his face, and this simplicity seems familiar to her, but from where she does not remember.

“What will they do to him?” she asks.

“They will punish him,” the Ethiopian answers. “They will beat him and whip him and possibly lock him up.”

“Why?”

“Because of things he said, girl.”

“What did he say?”

“You know the things he said.”

“Which one of them will they beat him for?”

The Ethiopian says nothing, but the simple man next to her speaks in a thick and tired voice. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he says.

The girl looks at him, but he is looking at the fire, thinking things. The smoke blows in the girls face and she crouches down on her haunches, white little hands rubbing her bare toes. She wishes she had boots.

“What time is it?” she asks.

“Morning, or nearly morning,” the Ethiopian says.

“Will they make him a slave?”

“I don’t know.”

The big man speaks again. “They cannot make him a slave. He is already the servant of all. Why you people can’t understand that, I don’t know, but he was the servant of you all for his whole life.”

The girl frowns. “Did you know him well?”

The man looks into the fire and says, “No.”

It’s a cold enough world, she thinks, where the wind can be so bitter so early. She does not remember a Passover so cold, orJerusalem so crowded. Every corner was a new haven for travelers fussing over maps or children or money. They had come for Passover, she knew, but Jesus’ own entrance seemed to have made the feast all but a footnote. She had been there, watched his entrance and snatched her own palm branch to wave with the rest. He had been just barely visible through the din, but she had seen some of his disciples and it is this thought that jogs her own memory.

“Yes, you do,” she says suddenly and loudly to the big man. “You were with Jesus when he came into Jerusalem.” Some of the guards turn their heads in the firelight, spears in hand, and a few slaves look up. The girl feels fairly pleased to have caused a commotion.

The man looks around at all the faces, trained now on him. He looks like a child who has been asked to recite a lesson he has not learned. When the flames dart high enough she sees that despite the cold there is a slick patch of sweat above his eyes.

“See here,” he says loudly. “I don’t even know the man.” He quickly looks around to see if anyone will challenge him. There are some dissatisfied mumbles. He backs away from the fire and the girl has never seen a man afraid, but she sees it now and realizes that she has killed him.

“I think he was with him,” says a man in a gray coat.

“He sounds Galilean to me,” shouts another. The fire shoots up and a dozen angry faces appear. So, thinks the girl, perhaps Jesus is not so popular.

“You were with him,” shouts a man, “I remember!”

“Shut up, everybody, just shut up,” bellows Peter. “I don’t know what this crazed little bitch is raving about, but by God himself and anyone else you like, I don’t know anything at all about the Man and I’ve never met him and I don’t know him. I don’t!”

A rooster crows with the morning and the fire shoots high enough to reveal Jesus of Nazareth, staring at the man with a strange look. He had looked unhappy before, thought the girl, but this is something new and the whole crowd falls silent and solemn when they see it. The man looks at Jesus; he just looks at him. The man makes a sound like laughing, but no one would mistake it for that. He turns and runs away from the fire out towards the outer gates, and Jesus watches him all the way, his expression indiscernible.

The crowd has little else to talk about and goes back to their business. Jesus is bustled away to some new torture, but the girl does not imagine that anything could happen to him this day that would be worse than what she just witnessed. And as she sees his frame carried off into the darkness of early morning she realizes that she has been crying for some time.

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