It was Good Friday morning and Humble Singh was watching the clock.
He had done this every Good Friday for as long as he could remember, even while his wife, Millie, was still alive and before he had sold his business and moved to live with his son and his family.
It was a quarter to nine. Soon Jesus would arrive, cross-laden, at Golgotha. His face is beaten to a pulp, Jewish and Gentile spit mingles with his blood, and he is struggling with exhaustion and pain as long strips of deeply scored flesh lie open on his back from the scourging, and every nerve in his body screams in anticipation of the crucifixion. The soldiers hurry him along. They conscript a bystander to carry the horizontal beam on his back.
Ten till. Humble sat in his sitting room at the back of the house. Suddenly he leapt up and went into the back garden. Red tulips. Purple hyacinths. Large burgundy magnolia buds like the bruises that covered Christ’s body. The Roman soldiers had mocked him with a purple robe and a crown of thorns while beating him repeatedly. The Jewish priests and their hitting, spitting and slapping needed their scorn driven home. But it was their hour of shame. “His blood be on us and on our children!” the crowd had cried. The mob must have its victim. Even if that victim was pure, blameless. The Lamb of God.
A minute till nine. They lie him down, stripped, arms held down on the cross beam. Humble looks up at a movement in the shrubbery. A bunny had scurried through the open garden gate. Humble hurries to close it. Piercing nails. Blood running free. Writhing agony. Joints stretching in excruciating torture. The crowd gathers round. Women sob. Many watch in satisfaction.
“Humble! Yoo hoo, Humble!” a woman’s voice sings out. It was Prithi, known in the predominantly Asian neighborhood as the “Giddy Widow.” She approaches him with a broad smile and with nowhere to run, unlike the bunny, Humble returns her greeting. She comes into the garden, her heels clicking on the pavement, bangles bouncing on attractively plump arms and her rouged face a pantomime of coquetry.
They wander around the garden, Prithi chatty, Humble surreptitiously checking his watch. It was a large garden, professionally tended, an arbor here, a fish pond there, a large oak in the middle of the grounds, shady trees of cherry, plum, and maple. No olive trees. Unlike that garden where Christ sweated huge drops of blood at what he would be enduring today. “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”
It was almost ten. Prithi had been rattling on about the party at her neighbor’s house for their friend, a recently appointed ambassador. “You haven’t been listening,” she accused, then sat down abruptly on a nearby bench. He sat too. She was right. He hadn’t been listening. She was an embarrassment. At her age, acting as if she were a schoolgirl who had gone to her first “real” party, always on the prowl for a bachelor. What would her late husband think? Wouldn’t he be ashamed?
As if she had read his thoughts, Prithi says quietly, “I miss him.” Humble nods his head. They talk. Didn’t he know how that felt? Pain. Loneliness. Abandonment. Every night a dark night of the soul. Every morning a struggle to endure. And then a quiet acceptance of a wound that never quiet heals. Darkness at noonday.
“Why do you keep looking at your watch?” Prithi asks, and he replies, “It’s Good Friday. I’m thinking of Christ hanging on the cross.” “Of course,” she says. She arranges her bangles, but not before he sees the small burn marks on her wrist. He grabs her arm. “What’s this?” he asks sharply. She doesn’t resist. “A bit of self-harm, like your Christ,” she says sardonically. He lets go of her arm. “One pain to drive out another,” she continues softly, fingering the burns.
He hangs on the cross for six hours, naked in his suffering before jeering faces, joints slowly becoming displaced, blood flowing freely, asphyxiating, and with the cruel irony of overwhelming thirst. What time is it now? How much longer? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Humble takes off his watch and gives it to Prithi. “What’s this?!” she asks, smiling crookedly. “I’m not keeping watch at the cross with you. Find someone else.” He says, “No, no. I don’t want you to. This watch is a reminder. A reminder for you.” He slips it on her wrist carefully, over the burn marks. “A reminder that here, in this garden, I always have time for you.”
Prithi smiles. “Very sentimental. I don’t need your watch.” But he says, “Not my watch, my time. When my Millie died, everyone avoided me, like a curse, like bad news, they were afraid of what to say, what not to say.” Pain. Loneliness. Abandonment. “One pain doesn’t drive out another. It’s just more pain.”
“I don’t know,” Prithi mumbles. But she fingers the watch, not the burns. Humble stands up. “You will,” he says. ‘Let’s walk into town for some tea.” She raises her eyebrows and says, “But it’s Good Friday!” He shook his head, saying, “What did Christ cry out at the end of the six hours on that day? ‘Tetelestai! It is finished!’ Once and for all. Christ’s work is finished! He is risen. And we have the hope of glory and a life to live. In him.”
Prithi walks beside him. After a moment she says, “It will be odd.” He frowns, and she continues, “Being a Good Friday widow instead of the Giddy Widow, I mean.” It was his turn to mumble: “I don’t think anyone meant it in a bad way, just . . . .” She interrupts and says, “Tetelestai!”