They went to the tomb in the dead of night, their hearts still heavy with grief. The light had gone from the world.
A pale red film smothered the moon’s cold glow, its dark craters like fresh bruises inflicted by the brutal hands of the cosmos. Thick masses of clouds obscured the stars, forming an impenetrable barricade between heaven and earth. The air was tinged red, the planet soaked in the blood of the dead, gulping down their suffering like a dehydrated animal in the desert stumbling across an oasis.
Mary kept the light radiating from her oil lamp directed onto the path. The scorched landscape was home to an abundance of deadly creatures. Snakes slithered through the sand, and scorpions scuttled through the dust. Black adders and Israeli mole vipers watched them pass with luminous red eyes, their bodies wound into tight coils as they prepared to strike, tongues flicking out to taste the air. Venom flooded their fangs.
“Watch out,” Maria whispered, pointing to a particular serpent that lifted its head and hissed.
The two women hurried along as the wind picked up. Particles of sand were tossed about, grazing their skin and scratching their corneas.
They secured their black headscarves and pulled their cloaks tightly around them.
“We shouldn’t have come,” Maria said. Her eyes were creased with worry. She kept glancing behind them as the city faded into the distance.
“You didn’t have to come.” Mary grabbed her friend’s arm, pulling her out of the way of a stray snake, its scales shimmering as though it was soaked in tar. “I would’ve come alone.”
“You know it’s not safe. Not for us.” Maria sighed. “Why didn’t you ask one of the others to come with us? John would’ve agreed. He was always the favourite.”
Mary shook her head. “I don’t want them here. This is our duty, not theirs. This is all we have. They won’t take it from us. Besides, I haven’t seen him for a few days. I haven’t seen any of them.” She assumed they’d gone into hiding, fearing that they’d be condemned to the same fate, or that they were mourning far away from prying or condemning eyes.
Maria grumbled to herself.
The whole world had fallen silent. It’d been holding its breath since his soul departed from the cross, the light and the life leaking out of the earth’s atmosphere. They were surrounded by death and decay, the barren valleys of the desert stretching off to where the sky met the sand. The lights behind the walls of Jerusalem were muted, the city shrouded in a veil of despair. Hope had faded.
Debris littered the path. Blood had dried onto splinters of wood, rusting nails jutting out from where they’d been hammered in. Chunks of flesh were still skewered by the metal.
Mary could still hear their screams.
Days had passed, yet whenever she closed her eyes, she was back on Golgotha. The hill was forged from the bones of the deceased, their bodies mounting higher and higher until they formed a stairway to heaven. The silhouettes of the giant crosses blocked out the sun, those condemned sentenced to hang from them like carcasses about to be butchered. They were nothing more than meat, and flesh, and bone.
Thorns pierced her dreams just as they pierced his side, blood and water mingling with her tears. The sky roared and the earth split in two as the light left his eyes.
She couldn’t save him. Nobody had been able to save him; he couldn’t even save himself. But she could anoint his body and give him the proper rituals to send him on his way, to honour him in death as in life.
The tomb awaited them at the end of the path.
“Come on,” Mary said. Her pace quickened.
She didn’t care that they might be caught, or that they might be dragged from the tomb and stoned to death in its shadow. She didn’t care that the snakes might get her first. She was willing to pay the price, any price, to see him one last time. If that meant giving her life, then she would.
“What if we can’t move the stone?” Maria asked. “It took four Romans to roll it into place.”
“Then I’ll use my hands to dig my way in.” There could be an entire army stationed outside for all she cared; she would still get inside one way or another.
They arrived at last.
The crumbling walls were bleached of any colour except for where it was touched by the crimson light bleeding from the moon. Not even a single patch of moss grew on the stones. There were no footsteps in the dirt, yet the boulder had been moved. Strips of stained linen were draped over the threshold, accompanied by severed hands and feet.
Maria gasped and dropped her basket. The ceramic jars of oils and herbs shattered. Liquid seeped across the ground and soaked their shoes.
Shadows shifted inside the tomb.
“Is it grave robbers?” Maria whispered.
Mary shook her head. “There’s nothing to take.” Others might’ve been buried with rings or other trinkets of some worth, but he didn’t have any possessions; they were stored far away, although she’d never seen those treasures before.
“We should go and get someone.” Maria edged further away, crossing herself and murmuring a prayer.
Who could they get? Who would care? He was a criminal in the eyes of the law. They hadn’t seen the disciples for days. There was nobody else to turn to.
Mary lifted her light and stepped inside the tomb.
The slab on which his body had been laid was empty, with only a few pieces of cloth indicating that he’d ever been there. The walls were slick with moisture and droplets of fresh blood.
The darkness whispered beyond the faint aura of her oil lamp.
“My Lord?” Mary whispered. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled. “Is that you?”
“Lord? I am no lord.” The cold voice echoed through the tomb.
She turned towards the voice. “Where is he? Jesus!” Mary gestured to the table in dismay. “The Son of God. The Light of the world!”
“Ah… yes. His light has gone out. He’s not here.”
“But where is he?”
The figure shrugged. “He’s gone for now. Yes, for now. But he’ll be back soon. Very soon. Sooner than you think. He’ll be different. Completely different. A different man from the one you knew before. He’ll defeat death.”
“That’s impossible.” Maria had crept into the tomb behind Mary. She placed a hand on her friend’s shoulder, her fingers digging into her warm flesh. “He’s already dead. Death cannot be defeated.”
“We can all defeat death, my dear Maria.”
“How?” they asked together.
He stepped into the light. For a moment, Mary thought it was her Lord before her, that he’d risen and thrown off his linen bindings, that he’d fooled them all. It looked like him, but it wasn’t him. It couldn’t be him. She’d seen him hanging from the cross, bloodied and broken, just another tortured soul dying like every other human being.
His skin was as pale as milk, no longer tanned by the desert sun, and his eyes were as black as the dead of night, the moon and the stars entirely consumed by thunderclouds. There was no warmth in his gaze, no warmth in his presence.
“You wish to know?” He chuckled. “Of course you do. They did too.”
“Who?” Maria asked.
“His followers. They followed him in life, and they wanted to follow him in death as well. I showed them the way; I am the way. They, too, will rise again. They will be reborn, baptized in blood, crowned in power.”
His lips peeled back into a smile. His teeth were a blinding white. Two of them were as sharp and deadly as a snake’s fangs. Saliva and venom dripped from their razor-sharp points.
“We should probably go.” Maria tugged Mary’s arm.
Mary didn’t move. “I want to hear what he has to say.”
“A wise choice. A very wise choice.” He went to the entrance and hauled the stone back into place. A deep chill settled inside the tomb. He turned to face them. “There’s much for you to learn.”
Faces loomed before them. Faces Mary knew well. Faces drained of blood. John. James. Peter. Andrew. Bartholomew. James. Judas. Jude. Matthew. Philip. Simon. Thomas. Two small holes were embedded in their necks.
He laughed. Those fangs flashed. “Why don’t we have a drink before we begin?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charlotte Williams is a third-year English and Creative Writing student studying at the University of Plymouth. She is hoping to progress on to the Creative Writing Master’s Degree once she graduates in the summer. Charlotte previously won the Dream of Shadows Halloween Contest in 2019. Some of her other writing achievements include being shortlisted for the Author of Tomorrow Award in 2017, and highly commended for the same award in 2019.
You can find more on Instagram (@books_charlotte_writing).