The Nail

Saturday, April 23, 2011 2:19 AM By crosswaysnet , In , ,

The man pushed up against the nail as long as he could stand the pain, pressing the palm of his foot more firmly into the splinters of rough wood behind it. His calves burned. God how they burned. His chest leapt to force in the air one last time before collapsing along with his knees. The burning began anew in his wrists.



“Where’s Joshua?” His mother asked, handing the sack filled with lunch to her husband.

“Down at the shop. Why?”

Joseph stooped to grab the sack and sneak a peck on Mary’s cheek.

“You left him there with your tools out? He’s seven years old!” There was a little alarm and scolding in her voice.

“Really? You’re worried? Has he ever climbed up and grabbed a tool without permission? Come, woman.  Your son’s practically Noah in his obedience. He’s in one of those trances of his, anyway, studying something new on the bench.”

“What is it this time?” She asked.

“A nail,” he replied. “The Legate wants that Roman-style table done by Shabbat.” Most of his work was done the traditional way, but this official wanted his table built in the Roman way, slammed together with iron pins. They had fascinated Joshua. Perhaps he’d never seen them before.
Mary understood. Joshua was not easily distracted. In fact, she sometimes had to shake him to get his attention. He’d stare for hours studying something until some simple truth would emerge from it.. There was always a “did you know that…” report afterwards, usually at the close of the meal, once the men were through talking. She remembered a meal a month earlier after her son had spent the day sitting on the wall of one particular grazing pasture in the village, just studying the animals. Like usual, she’d stood just behind the door jamb eavesdropping on the questioning session in the next room.


“Yes, son.”

“Why are goats and sheep so different?”

“How do you mean?”

“The sheep – they always wear out the same path and follow the shepherd to the same grass, day after day, until there’s no grass left. And they’ll still go back to the same spot and starve there unless the shepherd leads them somewhere else.”

Joseph smiled a little. “Yes, I suppose they would.”


“Because they’re du…” Joseph realized he shouldn’t say what he was really thinking so he chose a different tack. Mary didn’t like him using any cutting language around the boy. “Well, I guess they’re obedient is all. Waiting for the shepherd to show them the way.”

“Oh… What if they didn’t have a shepherd? How would they live? Who would give them something to eat?”

“That’s a good question. I guess the shepherd would have to make sure he trained someone reliable to take his place if something happened.”

“Oh. That makes sense… Dad?”

“Yes, son.”

“Goats aren’t like that.”

Joseph had learned a thing or two about this studious son of his. He was going to share the obvious, for one. Second, he would somehow surprise you with it.

“Oh? What are goats like?”

“They’ll eat anything.”

Joseph smiled again. “Pretty much. They’d probably nibble you to death if you were tied down.” Joseph reached over and tweaked the boy’s ear like a hungry goat. Joshua started to giggle a little but snapped back to serious in a flash. He could be like that. Joseph withdrew his hand and leaned back to look at his son, a child so intense and so intent on sharing his discoveries at the same time. He wasn’t morose or negative, but he was so… focused. “Well, is that so bad? That goats will eat anything? They’re survivors. And pretty tasty, too, once you catch them.” Joseph couldn’t help teasing a little. The stew had been fine today, and the goat tender – as goat went.

Joshua waived off the little joke as if it was beside the point. “Some of the things they eat are disgusting. I’ve seen them in garbage piles, even eating the scraps from the Romans. I’ve seen what those centurions eat. Wouldn’t that make the goats unclean? On the inside, at least?”

Joseph opened his mouth expecting something to come out. Nothing did. Dang if the boy didn’t ask some novel questions. He began to second guess today’s menu. After some thought he slowly put together an answer. “Well, if the law says something is clean, it’s clean. And you’re not eating the insides anyway. Sheep or Goat, most of that is unclean.”

“Hmmm…” Joshua went back into that thinking trance.

“I should go.” Joseph leaned down again to peck his wife on the forehead. They were under their own roof. It was allowed. If the priggish neighbors happened to be passing the door and look inside, then they could just gossip all they wanted. Joseph didn’t care.

He found Joshua about where he’d left him – elbows on the bench, the nail inches from his nose. His head lay on his right arm. He was just… staring. Somewhere beyond the nail into the shadow beyond.

“You in there, son?”

Joshua looked up and blinked at the light coming down from the crack in the thatch above.  Then he looked his father’s way. Joseph handed him his lunch. They ate silently for a while.

“What are you thinking?” his father asked.

“About what?”

“About that. The nail?”

“Oh,” said Joshua. “I was just wondering what it was used for. It looks kind of like a tent peg. Did they use them to hold down the Tabernacle?”

“No, not these nails. They're Roman. They use them to hold things together their own way. Furniture, carpentry, that sort of thing.”

“What, like the wood pegs you use?”

“Well, sort of. But you’ve got to really pound them in, and you don’t usually make a hole first. That sharp tip digs right into the wood. Here – I’ll show you. Hand that scrap piece over here.”

Joshua handed Joseph a short board with a long split in it. The man held one of the nails firmly in his left hand and drove it down into the board with a metal head hammer. Joshua clamped his hands down on his ears as his father pounded two more times, pushing the metal through the board half way. The third hit glanced off the head a little sending a spark sideways and bending the nail.

Dang, thought Joseph as the little demonstration ended. “Hand me that claw so I can get the nail back out.” Joshua did, and studied his father as he struggled with the nail trying to crank it back and forth. But the head was at a weird angle from the last blow and he couldn’t get a good hold on it. He flipped the board over and saw the nail was bent a little there too with a barb sticking out from a new crack. He tried a couple more times then set it aside. Nails were expensive, but tools cost even more. No sense risking his only claw on one nail. He would just break the board later and get it out.

“Well, Josh, you get the idea. That’s how the Romans get things done.”

Joshua’s ears were still ringing from all the hammering. He didn’t reply.

The man’s lungs burned. His middle and ring fingers spasmed, flicking back against the beam. The tendons were coming apart, ripping away from the bones in his wrists. A froth formed at his lips. The last of his breath fizzled out through the foam. He pushed down again with his legs.

For an hour Joseph showed his son how the Roman construction of a ‘table’ was so different from the other useful pieces they usually built. With the frame done, they prepared the top, precisely lining up the square heads of those nails to form a straight line near the edge of each top board, but not too close.

“You don’t want to place the nail wrong,” the father said. “It can split the wood and ruin the piece. But hammer it firmly. If you don’t it won’t hold together for long.”

Joseph ran out of nails before he’d finished assembling the top. He was holding the last board carefully in place and didn’t want to move it. “Fetch me some more from the pail, would you, Josh?”

“Where are they?” asked the son.

Joseph waved over his shoulder with his head. “Second shelf, where the plumb line usually is.” He held his hands steady on the board in front of him and the hammer, waiting for the last nail.

“Where again?” Joshua asked.

“Son, just go over there and look.” He continued holding the piece steady. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Joshua looking the wrong way. “Other shelf, son. Can you hurry it up a little?”

“Oh, I see.” He turned again to step away from the table and caught his sleeve on the practice board. It went clattering to the floor between them.

“Josh, pick that up then get the nails – please?”

Joshua rushed, slipped a little and brought his foot down on the board. On the nail. A strange wiggling shock went up his leg as the metal pushed further into his skin. His foot stopped going down went it hit the wood, and wobbled as it danced around the head of the nail sticking out the other side.

“Uggghh…” Joshua began.

“Josh? What just happened?” His face was still down over the table, his back to the rest of the shop. “Josh?”

Joshua looked down to see the tip on the nail emerging from the top of his foot, a red ring beginning to spread around it.


“Yes, son,” Joseph said, growing tired of holding the board in place.

“Help me?”

In exasperation he dropped the board and the hammer and spun around. “What is it?!” Joshua was looking down at his foot. Joseph followed the gaze. Joshua’s foot wobbled and he started to blanch. A little trickle of red fell down the side of the boy’s foot.

“Joshua! Don’t move. You’ll tear it!” He dropped to the floor cradling Joshua's ankle. He tried to think fast, quickly coming to a decision. He steadied the board and held onto it. “Joshua. You’ll have to pull up to get off this nail.”

“I… don’t think I can.”

“Yes, you can, son. But you have to pull yourself off. I’ll hold the board. Just try.”

Joshua tried to obey. He pulled up and screamed. He collapsed down on Joseph’s shoulder.

Fool,” Joseph yelled silently at himself. “The barb.” He swept the boy up into his arms, trying to hold the board and nail still with his left hand. He bashed through the shop door and ran up the street to the house. Mary heard him holler urgently for her as he burst through the front door.

“Water and gauze – NOW!”

Mary was too stunned to argue. She ran to the kitchen and fetched them. She returned to the living room. And then she saw her son. He was silent and shaking and white. In shock. Her heart about burst.

“What happened??”

“He stepped on a nail. I couldn’t stop him.” He sounded ashamed. He was. “We’ve got to get it out.”

“Then pull it out!” Mary almost yelled.

“It’s not going to be that easy. It's got a barb, like a fish hook.” Lord, this is such a mess, Joseph thought.

“Well do something!” Mary pleaded.

“Mary, you’re going to have to hold him down. It’s going to really hurt.”

She looked down at Joshua with confusion and desperation. She grabbed his arms tight. He was starting to come to.

“Ready?” asked her husband.

“I…” she loosened her grip a little. She wasn’t ready for this. Neither was Joseph. But it had to be done.

“Mary, we have to get the nail out.”

Joshua realized he was awake and flinched his leg, pulling on the nail. He screamed. “Daddy – Help me!!”

Joseph swallowed hard. He had to do this. “Son, this is going to hurt a lot – I won’t lie. But there’s no other way. Can you be brave for me?”

“I’ll… Try…” he sobbed.

Mary was breaking down. For a moment, Joseph wasn’t sure she was up to it. Maybe he would need to find someone stronger to hold him down. “No,” he thought. “There’s no one stronger than her. NO one can break that grip.

Right then she suddenly stood up and rushed to the kitchen, crashing around in the pantry. She returned with a small bundle of leaves.

Bitter herbs. One of her mother’s folk remedies, thought Joseph. What is that supposed to do?

Mary stuffed the leaves into last night’s wine and held it to Joshua’s mouth. “Son – open your mouth.” Joshua did, slowly. She forced in the wad and clamped down on his jaw. “Suck on this hard for a minute, Josh.”

He coughed and pushed on the leaves with his tongue. They tasted horrible. “NO, son. Keep it in there. Bite down.” Mary didn’t loosen her grip.  Joshua’s tongue started to grow a little numb. He swallowed some of the bitter juice. He coughed again. He swallowed again. After a few minutes he was in a daze, wondering at the numbness that flowed down through his body.

Mary looked up at her husband. “Now,” she said. Tears were flowing down her face.

Joseph swallowed hard. “On three, then…”

Joshua woke from his stupor as the nail started to move again. “Daddy!!! Don’t do this to me!!”

“It’s the only way, son.” He kept pulling as his son screamed.

“Finish it, Daddy!!”

Mary did her part and held tight. Joshua gasped as the nail came free. His mouth was full of saliva and he swallowed it all as he fell back in his mother’s arms, spent. She held his head in her elbow, her left hand entwined in his fingers. She stroked his face with wet gauze urgently but gently. Joseph quickly went to work to stop the bleeding and pack the wound.  When it was done, they just sat and wept. It had to be the hardest thing they’d ever have to do. But they had done what parents must do. They watched the boy in his drug-induced slumber. He twitched from time to time. Joseph moved them to the couch and covered them with their softest blanket. It was nightfall. The Shabbat was upon them. Too late for a meal. They were too exhausted to make one anyway. They’d just have to wait till the day of rest was over. The boy slept fitfully through it all.

The air came rushing in like fire, burning every cell in his lungs. “Aaaaahhh!!!” He screamed. “Father!! Daddy!! Why don’t you come?? Why have you given up on me??” He ran out of air. He wheezed blood.

A pole was poking at his face, smearing it with a stinging wash. Someone below was trying to force something into his mouth. He tasted a bitter brew. He spat it back out. No relief. Not this time. He sagged back down on tendons of flame.

One last push on the spasming calves. A gasp. A scream.

“Finish it!!!”

The man collapsed, bringing down the light with him like a shutter.


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