The Man with the Crown
“He says he’s their king,” a soldier said. Claude went on with his work, fingers moving over the woven leather vest until the hole closed up. He nodded in satisfaction. It was finished. The armor was repaired now.
Laughter burst from outside the courtyard. Claude tried to ignore it. As long as it wasn’t at him, he didn’t mind. Today they had found someone else to torment. Yesterday had been different when one of the big soldiers had taunted Claude about being too weak to lift a spear. Claude had wished he had the strength to stand up to the man. Instead, he had tried to make himself small enough not to be seen. Then the big soldier had stumbled forward as their captain slapped the back of his head. The captain had then reminded the company that Claude was touched from the gods with his talent for repairing the things that they all broke. Those soldiers had the best armor in Jerusalem thanks to Claude so they should show respect, lest their leather weave become weak with holes.
Claude focused on inspecting his work and heard another eruption of laughter. There was a prisoner on trial who claimed to be the King of the Jews. Another revolutionary, Claude supposed. Just another man trying to lead others against Rome. Just another man who would die on a cross and be forgotten.
“You,” a voice said. Claude looked up to see his captain grinning at him. “I have a task for you, boy,” he said. “Come.”
The captain led Claude behind the barracks where the scrub brush grew thick on the slope. He pointed to the dry plants that formed the barb-like thorns that could pierce leather armor.
“Take some of those thorns there,” the captain directed. “Use your skills to weave them into a crown.”
“Yes, a crown like what a king would wear on his head. Make a crown from these thorns. Do it right away. I want it as soon as our king arrives.”
Claude put on his gloves and was careful taking cuttings from the thorny plants. He heard more shouts as he carried the items back to his work bench, this time from the crowds. They seemed to be furious about something. Perhaps they didn’t like this man who called himself king. Well, they would be pleased when they saw him suffer and die. Claude didn’t care for executions. He hoped he would be allowed to return to his normal work once his task was completed.
Claude wouldn’t rush this work. He went slow, bending the sticks and twigs around each other. The thorns pointed in all directions, including inward. This King of the Jews would feel the thorns going into him, but Claude dismissed that thought. The man was a criminal. He deserved what Rome handed down. What’s more, he would welcome death as a release from the suffering.
A thorn penetrated his glove and Claude winced in pain. He pulled off the glove and sucked at his finger for a moment. There was a drop of blood on the thorn and he cursed at it. Then he sighed and put the glove back on. The thorn was only a dry bit of wood. It had no malice and didn’t know what it was doing. It was one of many thorns being shaped into a crown. He worked at it until it was done.
Claude smiled at his finished product. His captain was right to charge him to this. This crown was large and sturdy. His efforts had made something good. He stared at the thorns. Once he wiped the blood from the single one that got him, he couldn’t tell one from any other. They were all alike.
Finally the doors burst open and a group of soldiers marched into the courtyard. They were pulling along a man who held his head up. The man seemed to want to come along. He wasn’t resisting, but they hurried him anyway.
Claude stared at the face of the man. He didn’t look like a king or even a criminal. He looked like any other Jew in the land. But his face, the more Claude looked at the man’s face, the more the man perhaps did look like a king. What was this? Then Claude realized it. This criminal looked like he knew each of these men’s names. When the criminal’s eyes fell on him, Claude shuddered. This man looked at him as if he knew his name and everything about him. Claude dropped his gaze to his work table. The crown was gone.
The captain had hooked the crown with the end of his whip and was carrying it to the man. He lifted the end of his whip and dropped the crown on the man’s head where it sat lightly.
“Hail, King of the Jews,” the captain said, the last words coming out in a laugh.
Then Claude watched as his captain put his whip on both hands and pressed the crown of thorns down hard on the man’s head. Through the guards cheering, Claude heard the man cry out in pain. But when the captain pushed the criminal to the ground, Claude was astounded. The man looked up at the captain into the captain’s eyes with a look of pity. The cheers died down, replaced by angry shouts.
Claude was ordered from his workbench to stand in formation. The man was beaten. Claude tried to watch as little as possible. But all the while, he could never shake the feeling that this condemned man was the one in charge. The captain called orders and the strong men worked the whip. But this man who could barely stand after a while never lost the look that he knew everyone’s name and if he wanted to, he could just walk away.
At last they had enough of the beating. The captain called for assembly to march. Claude looked at the man, torn and hurt, struggling to his feet. The crown was still secure on his head. He had indeed made it well for it to remain on the man’s head. Now the man was beaten and suffering for his crime. It was a harsh punishment indeed. Did this man deserve such torture?
The captain stepped in front of Claude, blocking his view. “Your work was superior, he said. “The crown is well made. You have earned the right to carry this.” The captain handed Claude a sign written in three languages. All Claude knew was his own, which read King of the Jews.
Claude was put out in front and told to hold the sign high. This was the man’s crime. Everyone would see the offence this man had committed and see the condemned man punished severely for it. The population would be taught the consequences of crimes against who ruled.
They started off through the streets of Jerusalem. It would not take long to reach the hills outside the city, but the condemned man moved very slowly. Claude was astounded at how crowded the streets were. It seemed the whole city and more turned out to see this man. Soldiers were positioned in front of Claude to keep the way clear and he held the sign high for all to see. So many people, and so many who did not seem to hate this man. Women and children were crying for him. Several men too, cried for this criminal.
The procession halted. The man had fallen. Claude glanced back and saw the crown still on his head. Then his heart pounded in sorrow. The man would die with the crown still on. Claude had only made it thinking about his craftsmanship and how skilled he was. He had never thought about it being the last and only thing a man wears while he bleeds and dies.
The man spoke to the crowd. Claude could not understand the local dialect. Whatever he said, it seemed to make the women even more sad. Finally another man was pulled from the crowd to help carry the cross through the streets. The walk to the hill outside the city still took a long time.
Once at the hill the soldiers assembled in formation at the base. Some of the crowd pressed against the line of men. Claude was called to the top of the hill with the sign. He stood and held it, not so high anymore, while the man was laid on the cross and nailed down. Claude handed over the sign and it too was nailed to the cross above the man’s bloody head. Then the cross was lifted. Claude was gestured in and he stepped up to assist his fellow soldiers. The cross rose up and then dropped into place.
Claude could not stop himself from looking up at the man with the crown. The man was looking upward at the darkening sky. Then in short gasps, he spoke. Claude wondered what the man said. The words were spoken with the same pity the man had carried throughout the beating and procession. What words could this dying man say? Claude felt he had to know.
Two other condemned criminals hung on crosses and shouted back and forth. At one point, the man with the crown spoke to one of them. When he did that, the criminal, a thief according to his sign, had such a look of peace that Claude wished even harder that he understood the local language.
Who was this man who could give peace to a dying criminal? Who looked on his tormenters with no hate, but pity?
Claude glanced around. Most of the soldiers had been dismissed. There was still the small formation at the top of the hill and now several of the locals had made it up with them. Most of them paid no mind to the Roman Soldiers, only a few looked warily at Claude and the rest. Claude recognized one of the men as a merchant from Arimathea who had traded with them. He would know both the language of the locals and of Rome. Claude considered stepping over to speak to him.
Several of the soldiers shouted up to the man. They told him he may come down now. One of them was wearing the man’s robe. Despite being midday, the sky was growing even darker.
All at once, the man with the crown cried out. At the foot of the cross an old woman began wailing in earnest. Another man put his hand on her shoulder and spoke to her. She shook her head. The man with the crown spoke once again. His words were pained, but still carried strength.
Claude slowly stepped over to the group at the foot of the cross. The sky rumbled. He glanced at the merchant who backed away from him. The captain walked up carrying his spear and looked up at the sky and frowned.
The next time the sky rumbled, the man with the crown cried out. People all around looked up to him and spoke among themselves. Claude looked to his captain who looked concerned. Then the man with the crown shouted and everyone jumped in surprise, even the captain.
“I have heard cries on the battlefield before,” the captain said softly. “That was not a cry for mercy. That,” he pointed up with his spear. “That was a victory cry.”
Claude looked from his captain to the man. Before he could speak he was knocked to the ground. People everywhere cried out as the ground underneath shook. Claude heard the city behind him rumble under the earthquake. He got to his hands and knees and looked up, right into the eyes of the merchant from Arimathea.
The captain offered Claude a hand and pulled him to his feet. The captain’s face was still troubled. Claude reached down and offered the merchant a hand up. Then the three stood together and the captain drew a deep breath.
“Surely,” he said. “This was the Son of God.”
Claude turned to the merchant. “Do you know what he spoke?” he asked.
The merchant looked to Claude and his face softened. “He was calling out to God,” he said.
A wind was picking up and Claude felt drops of rain, or perhaps hail. “I made that crown,” he murmured. “I made that crown of thorns he wore when he died.” Claude felt his voice break.
The merchant frowned and said nothing. It seemed the connection between them was done. The man bowed his head. Claude saw his captain raising his spear to the man with the crown. Claude and the merchant both turned their backs. There was a cry of shock from the men and women at the cross.
Claude began to feel tears in his eyes. He did not feel like a soldier of the Roman Empire then. He felt like someone who had made sure this man died in pain.
“He said something else,” Claude heard. He looked over to the merchant whose face looked just as pained. They looked to where the cross was being lowered. Rain was falling hard and most of the soldiers were busy. Once the cross was low enough, a young man started to work the crown loose. It took some effort to get it off and the man’s fingers were bleeding when he finally got it off and flung the crown away.
The merchant looked at Claude as he watched. “He said this,” he told him. “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.”
The man had spoken words of forgiveness? Could it be that the horrible thing Claude had done was forgiven? He would have to think about this.
As he left the hill, Claude looked in the direction that the crown had been flung. He couldn’t see it anymore.