THEY dragged the woman in by her hair. It was early in the afternoon. The sun was just crawling over the marble colonnades and beginning to peek into the temple courtyard. There was a small crowd gathered inside, listening to a traveling preacher. The dirt returned the last traces of the cool night to the air, and the breeze twisted lightly around ankles and eyebrows. It was a tranquil scene.
The woman’s desperate, choked shrieking cut through the calm. Those inside first heard her cries faintly–if at all–but they soon reverberated around the columns of the temple as she was brought through the gate. Everybody stopped to stare. A firm man, whose hard face was hidden behind a thick beard, had the woman by her hair and walked along purposefully, his priestly garments trailing behind him. The woman half-fell, half-dragged behind him, both hands to her head, clutching desperately at the strong fingers that held her fast. Her feet struggled to get footing, slipped in the dust, and fell away. And in this way, she came to the temple of God.
Surrounding the man was a whole crowd of people; curious onlookers, temple guards, the religious devout–and priests. There was a host of priests. They fanned out behind the woman and her captor in a huge semi-circle. They marched directly over to the traveling preacher, who regarded the mob with contemplative indifference. If the woman could have met his eyes at that moment, she might have found a glint of compassion, but as she was being pulled forcibly, the only thing she could see was glimpses of the sky and the temple between pressing faces–sneering or curious.
With a sweeping motion of his arm, the man with the hard face swung the woman in front of him and let go of her hair. Her momentum carried her into the circle that was quickly forming around the priest and the preacher. She fell into the dust and lay there, half supported on her elbows, gasping for breath between choked sobs. If she could have the summoned the courage to raise her head, it would have shown a face streaked with tears and dirt. But as it was, her hair was a tangled veil for her head as her body heaved from terror.
The preacher, who had been sitting on the edge of a stone, kept his seat. The hard-faced priest glared at him with the haughty gaze of one who knows he is about to exert himself over a weaker person–the same expression a lion has before striking at a lamb.
The preacher, to his credit, he didn’t flinch under this piercing stare. Instead, he picked up a stick that was lying at his feet and began breaking it into little pieces, tossing the remains to the side. The priest stepped forward into the circle of faces and reached down to the heaving woman. He grabbed her by the arm roughly and jerked her to her feet as she gave a small, terrified yelp. The preacher’s eyes flashed with anger, but he remained seated.
The woman stood in the crowd, looking small and defeated. Her dress was dirty and disheveled–the result of being hastily thrown on the moment before her door was kicked open. Her eyes twitched nervously from the faces around her to the ground in front of her, and back again. Her body trembled with the fear that lay in her heart. Her sentence had already been passed by the mob, and she knew it. Those in the crowd who were not so harsh did not have the power–or desire–to stop it. They were there for the show, or out of morbid curiosity. If the woman had been taller, she could have seen the men in the back of the mob tossing stones up in the air. Toss, catch. Toss, catch. Toss, catch.
“So, preacher,” the priest spat into the anxious air between them, “we caught this whore in the very act of adultery.” He paused, waiting for a reaction. The crowd murmured in agreement–they had heard. Some had even helped drag her out of bed. Now, all eyes were rooted on the woman and the preacher. The woman stood, shame almost overpowering her terror. The preacher kept breaking his stick into little pieces; his gaze met the priest’s eyes and held. He snapped another piece in two.
“Moses said that we should stone a whore like this,” the priest continued, putting emphasis on his title for the woman. “The word of our Lord says that she deserves death.” He paused again. The snap of wood could be heard in the silence.
“What do you think?”
The crowd tensed; this was the question they had been expecting. All eyes were fixed on the preacher, sitting on his stone, the last of his twig in his hands.
The preacher looked around at the faces surrounding him. His hands flexed on the thin wood, tensed it into a tight curve, and then relaxed. He dropped it beside him. His eyes never left the crowd. He leaned over to the cool dust, and reached down with a calloused finger. In this position, he almost seemed to be bowing to the woman, who shook like a twig in the middle of a storm–feet rooted with fear, eyes darting about frantically. His finger pressed a crater in the dirt, and he began to write. People craned their eyes to see. Some shoved their way forward, trying to get a glimpse of what was being written on this earthen floor of the temple courtyard.
The priest’s eyes grew hard with anger. “I asked you a question, preacher. What do you say that we should do with her?” The preacher didn’t move, but continued to write on the ground. Every time he would finish a word, (and they were clearly that–words) he would glance at a different person. Those close enough to read the words began to grow uneasy and edge away from the man sitting on the rock.
The voice of the priest began to quiver–the lack of control that comes with fury–and he almost screamed. “Preacher…” and took a step towards his prey, the frightened woman.
The preacher’s eyes flashed up from his bent position and again met the gaze of the priest, and rooted him midstride. A hush fell over the human circle. The preacher straightened up to a sitting position, his elbows on his knees, his hands hanging loose, the air around him thick. Those in the back stopped tossing their stones. All leaned forward to watch and witness.
The preacher’s eyes swept away from the priest and around the faces leaning forward anxiously, finally coming to rest on the woman in the middle of the circle. His eyes met hers, and she could see the spirit in them–the eye of a hurricane–peacefully raging. As he held her gaze, he said firmly “Anybody here who has no sin–they can stone her.” He glanced briefly back at the frozen priest. Then he went back down to writing in the dirt.
The reaction wasn’t immediate. Those closest to the preacher, in the innermost part of the human circle–the ones who could read his words in the dirt–began to push their way out of the crowd. Upon seeing this, others began to trickle out. Many members in the back had already begun to slip away, hoping they hadn’t been noticed by their neighbors and family. Some merely came as they had went–following the crowd. The priest looked around in silent fury.
The crowd had thinned considerably; the surrounding air had grown less oppressive and stifled. The tinge of dread in the woman’s eyes drained and gave way to gaping astonishment. A few persistent, curious souls ventured forward through the retreating crowd–just far enough to catch a glimpse of the words on the ground and to make brief eye contact with the preacher writing in the dirt. Then, they too left.
The priest was left alone with the woman and the preacher. He glared at the two with vicious eyes gleaming. The preacher looked up from his stone, squinting at the priest through the golden fingers of the newly-risen sun. Their gaze lingered for a moment before the priest turned away and stormed out of the courtyard, his robe sweeping behind him. The woman and the preacher alone remained.
With a finger caulked with a second skin of dirt, the preacher reached down and drew a final word on the ground. As he did, he spoke to the woman without looking up, “Where did everyone go?” The woman stood fixed in place, unable or unwilling to risk a word. The man looked up softly. On the ground, shallow furrows snaked together to form the simple messages the preacher had transcribed to the dirt: murderer, devil, thief, bigot, blasphemer, liar, traitor. In the middle of them, the woman could make out a single word clearly.
The preacher stood up. The woman clasped her trembling hands and looked down again at her feet. The preacher’s voice reached the woman’s ears as if from the other side of a canyon, “So, none of them now condemn you?”
In a mouse-like voice she responded, “No one, sir.”
The preacher bent down and scooped up the dirt upon which the word ‘whore’ had been written. He gathered it into his hands and held it next to his heart. He swept his foot over the rest of the ugly words, obliterating them. He stood there, cradling the dirt in his hands. The woman watched anxiously, unable to move.
In a washing motion, he rubbed the dirt between his hands and watched as the breeze plucked at the falling stream, spreading it back across the expanse of the courtyard. He continued until it had all been cast to the wind, and only his palms showed any traces of the dust upon which the word had been written. He moved toward the woman, who seemed to shrink from his presence.
“My daughter, be not afraid,” the preacher spoke gently, “If none are left to damn you, then neither do I. Go and live in the mercy you have been shown.”
With that, he placed his left hand on the woman’s shoulders; with his free hand, brushed her tangled hair away from her brow, and kissed her on the forehead. The woman looked into his eyes for a moment–for an eternity–then departed with a slight bow and cheeks flush and glistening.
The preacher remained until she had disappeared amidst the pillars of the temple. Then he too left.
The sun beat down overhead. The wind carried over the surface of the courtyard, twisting and whipping the cool, brown dirt up into the air joyfully, until it was as smooth as glass, and all that was written was entirely unintelligible.