The following is an excerpt of Colm Tóibín’s book, “The Testament of Mary,” an imagining from the point of view of Jesus’ mother Mary. Below is an excerpt from his section on the crucifixion. Heading to Broadway as a one-woman show in April 2013, The Testament of Mary stars Fiona Shaw, is directed by Deborah Warner and is produced by Scott Rudin.
I gasped when I saw the cross. They had it ready, waiting for him. It was too heavy to be carried and so they made him drag it through the crowd. I noticed how he tried to remove the thorns from around his head a number of times, but the efforts did not succeed and seemed instead to make them further push themselves into the skin and into the bone of his skull and his forehead. Each time he lifted his hands to see if he could ease the pain of this, some men behind him grew impatient and they came with clubs and whips to press him forward. For a time he seemed to forget all pain and he pushed the cross forward or pulled it. We moved quickly ahead of him. I still wondered if his followers had a plan, if they were waiting, or were disguised among the crowd as we were. I did not want to ask and it would have been impossible now anyway, and I was alert that any word we said or look we gave in the frenzy of things could have made us, any one of us, a victim too, to be kicked, or stoned, or taken away.
It was when I caught his eye that things changed. We had moved ahead and suddenly I turned and I saw that once again he was trying to remove the thorns that were cutting into his forehead and the back of his head and, failing to do anything to help himself, he lifted his head for a moment and his eyes caught mine. All of the worry, all of the shock, seemed to focus on a point in my chest. I cried out and made to run towards him but was held back by my companions, Mary whispering to me that I would have to be quiet and controlled or I would be recognized and taken away.
He was the boy I had given birth to and he was more defenseless now than he had been then. And in those days after he was born, when I held him and watched him, my thoughts included the thought that I would have someone now to watch over me when I was dying, to look after my body when I had died. In those days if I had even dreamed that I would see him bloody, and the crowd around filled with zeal that he should be bloodied more, I would have cried out as I cried out that day and the cry would have come from a part of me that is the core of me. The rest of me is merely flesh and blood and bone.
With Mary and our guide constantly telling me that I must not attempt to speak to him, that I must not cry out again, I followed them towards the hill. It was easy to fit in with those who were there, everyone talking or laughing, some leading horses or donkeys, others eating and drinking, the soldiers shouting in a language we did not understand, some of them with red hair and broken teeth and coarse faces. It was like a marketplace, but more intense somehow, as the act that was about to take place was going to make a profit for both seller and buyer.
All the time I felt it would still be easy for someone to slip away unnoticed and I had a hope that his supporters might have planned a way for him to escape through this throng and out of the city to somewhere safe. But then, at the top of the hill, I saw some of them digging a hole and I realized that the people here meant business, they were here for one reason only, even though it might look like a gathering of motley groups.
We waited and it took an hour or maybe more for procession to arrive. It became easy somehow to tell the difference between those who were there for a reason, who were in the pay of somebody, acting on instructions, and those who were merely there as spectators. What was strange was how little attention some of them paid as others set about nailing him to the cross and, then, using ropes, trying to pull the cross towards the hole they had dug and balance it there.
For the nailing part, we stood back. Each of the nails was longer than my hand. Five or six of the men had to hold him and stretch out his arm along the cross and then, as they started to drive the first nail into him, at the point where the wrist meets the hand, he howled with pain and resisted them as jets of blood spurted out and the hammering began as they sought to get the long spike of the nail into the wood, crushing his hand and his arm against the cross as he writhed and roared out. When it was done, he did everything to stop them stretching out his other arm. One of them held his shoulder and one the upper arm, but still he managed to hold his arm in against his chest so they had to call for help. And then they held him and drove in a second nail so that his two arms were outstretched on the wood.
I tried to see his face as he screamed in pain, but it was so contorted in agony and covered in blood that I saw no one I recognized. It was the voice I recognized, the sounds he made that belonged only to him. I stood and looked around. There were other things going on-horses being shoed and fed, games being played, insults and jokes being hurled, and fires lit to cook food, with the smoke rising and blowing all around the hill. It seems hard to fathom now that I stayed there and watched this, that I did not run towards him, or call out to him. But I did not. I watched in horror, but I did not move or make a sound. Nothing would have worked against the quality of their determination. Nothing would have worked against how prepared they were, and fast-moving. But it seems odd, nonetheless, that we could have watched, that I could have made a decision not to put myself in danger. We watched because we had no choice. I did not cry out or run to rescue him because it would have made no difference. I would have been cast aside like something blown in on the wind. But what is also strange, what seems strange after all these years, is that I had the capacity then to control myself, to weigh things up, to watch and do nothing and know that that was right. We held each other and stood back. That is what we did. We held each other and stood back as he howled out words that I could not catch. And maybe I should have moved towards him then, no matter what the consequences would have been. It would not have mattered, but at least I would not have to go over and over it now, wondering how I could not have run towards them and pulled them back and shouted out words, how I could have watched and remained still and silent. But that is what I did.